My Top Films of 2010


1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, UK/Canada/US): A fairly straightforward though condensed version of Bryan O'Malley's six graphic novels, what's great about the film is Wright's energetic use of visual devices, and his refusal to abandon the locality of O'Malley's books (i.e. Toronto). Michael Cera isn't my image of perfect casting, though pulls it off quite well; kudos also go to Alison Pill as Kim Pine, Ellen Wong as Knives Chau, and Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells. Although much of the six volumes of O’Malley’s graphic novels aren’t represented in film, the parts we see are so true to the comic that it was no doubt used as a storyboard for the film. The story is fairly simple: Scott Pilgrim is a shiftless twenty-something Canadian who lives in a basement apartment and plays bass in a local band. He is dating Asian teen Knives Chau, but dumps her for delivery girl Ramona Flowers. As a result, he has to fight video-game style Ramona's seven evil exes. As we see in one of the deleted scenes on the DVD,  Unlike Inception, Scott Pilgrim IS something new, something inventive. Wright has realized some truly spectacular visuals of scenes seen in cruder form in the books, while adding a real comic touch seen in his early work on Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. All without Simon Pegg's involvement. He merges the real-world streets of Toronto with the fantasy worlds that Scott escapes to while playing computer games. 10/10


2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, Sweden): 10/10. See my review at


3. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, France/Germany/UK): Polanski has made an almost perfect political suspense film. Our hero is an unnamed ghost writer played with a certain dry wit by Ewan McGregor. The ghost is hired by a large publisher to edit the bulky biographical manuscript of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the former ghost writer dies in mysterious circumstances, seemingly in a drowning accident. Lang is a loose doppelganger of Tony Blair, like the real PM enthusiastically supporting the Americans during the war on terror. As McGregor stays with the Langs and their tense security guards at an isolated, windswept beach house on an island off Cape Cod, we learn that the former PM has been charged with war crimes by the International Court in the Hague. Brosnan's Lang is alternatively fumingly angry and everyone's laughing chum. Olivia Williams is pitch-perfect as Lang's cynical and world-weary wife Ruth, while Kim Cattrall leaves both sex and the city behind to play Amelia Bly, Lang's security-obsessed aide. James Belushi, Tim Hutton and Tom Wilkinson also show up in small but effective roles. McGregor and Williams really drive this movie. Polanski paces the story at just the right clip, spreading the suspense over two hours, playing up the mystery by setting most of the story in a rainy, dark winter. The film is in a sense a vague retelling of Hitchcock's Rear Window, with McGregor as a much more mobile version of Jimmy Stewart's character who is forced to witness the seemingly random arguments, phone calls, and cleaning up of the Langs and their staff, trying to make some sense of it all. There are secrets to be told, but I won't give them away. 9.5/10


4. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, Argentina): Another epistemological drama in the mold of Dragon Tattoo and The Ghost Writer set in 1999, Campanella's film is about a retired legal investigator named Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) who decides to write a book about the twenty-five-year-old bloody rape and murder of a beautiful young woman named Liliana that was never solved to his liking. He looks through old photos of Liliana, finding a picture of a mysterious man who he thinks harbors a "secret" in his eyes. The Secret also refers to the longing glances between Benjamin and his former boss, a younger woman named Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), an alumnus of Harvard who is seemingly out of Benjamin's league, class-wise. Their obvious attraction was never consummated while they were co-workers, but Benjamin's research for his book has brought them together again. The film mixes feelings of loss and un-trod paths with a sense of mystery about the past that Esposito is determined to triumph above. Yet it's very much a thriller with just enough tense moments, and a commentary on Argentina's quasi-fascist past (the murder may have been covered up by a government security bureau). It includes a brilliant seamless sequence of Benjamin and an ally at a soccer game in Buenos Aires looking for the man they think is the killer which morphs into a complicated chase sequence without any obvious edits for at least five minutes. A la recherche du temps perdu. 9.5/10


5. Kick Ass (Matthew Vaughan, USA): An ultra-violent superhero film that attempts to show with great humour what real-world superheroes would be like, worthy of high marks for two bravura scenes alone where Hit-Girl, the daughter of Nicholas Cage’s character Big Daddy, demolishes a posse of baddies. Like Wright’s Scott Pilgrim, Kick Ass dazzles with its images and editing as much as its story, which centers on the decision by young comic-book fan Dave Lizewski to become the crime fighter Kick-Ass, only to get his ass kicked (though he becomes a hero thanks to cell phone videos from onlookers). The superheroes here are all too human, and Nick Cage actually offers a restrained performance. Bulging with wit and comic-book geekiness. 9/10


6. The Trotsky (Jacob Tierney, Canada): From the director's play, this is a quirky film full of chuckles likely to become guffaws the more one knows about the history of Marxism and the Russian Revolution. Jay Baruchel plays Leon Bronstein, which happens to be the birth name of one Leon Trotsky, fiery orator and creator of the Red Army. The problem here is that Leon is convinced he's the reincarnation of the real Trotsky, becoming a minor rebel in the streets and schoolyards of Anglo Montreal, even going so far as to lead a strike in his high school with the aim of forming a student union. Everything is spot on in this film, from Baruchel's histrionics to the sulking apathy (at least at first) of his classmates. Saul Rubinek is just right as his well-meaning "fascist" father, while Colm Feore is his usual sparkling best as the mildly authoritarian principal. Even the music and end credits stand out, the former mostly from Malajube, the latter a parody of striking Soviet propaganda art. Two final notes: the film is unapologetically Canadian, and even more weirdly Anglo Quebecois; second, unlike most Hollywood comedies, Tierney actually rewards knowledge, in this case historical, with bonus points of laughter. The ending, when Leon goes into exile, is a classic full of double entendres. 8.5/10


7. The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin, USA): A compelling chronicle of the times we live in. Jesse Eisenberg gives a nice performance as a mildly sociopathic version of the real-world inventor of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. In this version, Zuckerberg is an arrogant Harvard student who makes bundles of money while dispensing with friends and allies when they become inconvenient. Yet most surprising is Justin Timberlake as party animal Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, who seemingly acts as Zuckerberg's corruptor. While not a great film - after all, it's about a bunch of guys typing at computer keyboards - Sorkin's dialogue is razor sharp, making Zuckerberg's rise to fame much more interesting that it probably was in reality. 8.5


8. Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA): Visually inventive, with nice performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page, this mindbender from Christopher Nolan is certainly original, but not as original as some think. DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who steals corporate secrets from the dreams of the rich and powerful. Dom assembles a team with includes Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy for an Oceans 11-type caper to plant in the mind of a Japanese businessman the suggestion that he should sell off his company. We witness our heroes interact with his dream on three distinct levels, with Dom entering a very personal forth level. The film echoes David Cronenberg's 1999 movie eXistenZ, showing us four levels of hyperreality, ending with a very ambiguous scene where we're not sure if we are still in the dream (or in Cronenberg's flic, a video game). Intriguing, but I can't help wonder if Nolan was familiar with eXistenz. 8.5/10 


9. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, England): A British "kitchen sink" drama about a dysfunctional family that centers on a few days in the life of Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis, in her first role), a foul-mouthed wannabee dancer who does her best to avoid school, work and anything like a positive attitude. Arnold's camera follows Mia around in cinema verité style. Nothing spectacular happens as Mia dodges her mother, her mother's new boyfriend (at least at first - she changes her mind), and a social worker to hassle various locals and practice dancing in empty flats. Don't worry: this is a slice of British social realism, not Honey: Mia doesn't dance her way to stardom and wind up rich and famous. The "fish tank" of the title is the crowded council estate Mia and family live in, and more generally the failed hopes of the British lower classes. You don't see this sort of social alienation in American films. 8/10


10. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA): A post-modern film noir set in 1954 featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as (apparently) a police detective named Teddy Daniels investigating a the disappearance a female patient (and murderer) from an isolated asylum for the criminally insane presided over by Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley. There are plenty of pathetic fallacies in Scorsese’s film -- wind-swept shorelines, unbelievably stormy storms, a dark dank dungeon of a hospital – all serving to create a mood of foreboding and doom. Yet all is not as it seems: despite espousing liberal sentiments about treating the insane, the good doctor might be engaged in some sort of diabolical Mengele-style medical experiments with the aid of an ex-Nazi played by Max von Sydow. Indeed, is DiCaprio really a detective at all? Throughout the film we see spectacular flashback dream sequences with Teddy’s dead wife (played by Michelle Williams) that leaves open how exactly she died. A real shell game of directorial deception, but in a good way. 8/10


The Runners Up


11. The Girl Who Played with Fire (Daniel Alfredson, Sweden): An interesting sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that brings back the main characters from the first film, Lisbeth and Mikael, this time to investigate a sex-trafficking ring tied to a Russian gangster. Doesn't quite have the same edge or shock value of the first film in the series, but worth watching. 8/10


12. White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany): A slow-moving film in black and white set in a small German town just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The nominal "hero" of the piece is the village school teacher (Christian Friedal), who witnesses (with the rest of the village) several pointless acts of cruelty which may or may not be accidental, including a man on a horse which is tripped by a hidden wire, a boy beaten up seemingly just because he's mentally slow, and a woman who dies in a mill mishap. The nominal ruler of the town is the Baron, who is resented by the very workers who he thinks he's benefiting. The film has a vague "village of the damned" feel as it becomes clear that the mysterious tragedies the town experiences are not the work of villainous outsiders but of the town's own heart of darkness. Haneke has said that the film is an allegory for the rise of fascism. If you pay careful attention to the way the local children are subject to the stifling discipline of their petty bourgeois families and the local priest and doctor, then seem to rebel against this discipline, and keep in mind that twenty years later during the Nazis' rise to power they would be young adults, Haneke's claim makes sense. The forces of authority in the town - the Baron, the church, the doctor, the school and the family itself - are all heavy and repressive, while there are hints of unwanted outsiders in the person of a group of seasonal Polish workers who the Baron has imported. When a young farmer takes a scythe to the Baron's neatly organized crop of cabbages, we can imagine the brown shirts of the fascist revolution aren't too far behind. 8/10


13. Splice (Vincenzo Natali, Canada): A hit-and-miss film on a fascinating premise: what if advances in genetics made it possible to mix human and animal DNA to produce hybrids? Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody play the leads, a scientist couple named Elsa and Clive, who are determined to go where no scientists have gone before, onto their own island of Dr. Moreau. They mix a variety of animal DNA with that of a human, then inject it into a fertilized egg, which quickly matures into a child then a woman they name Dren, whose behaviour mixes the understandably human with the bizzare. Though Polley and Brody are game, and the effects fairly strong, some of the latter transmutations of Dren are a bit much. Besides Frankenstein, the obvious influence here is David Cronenberg, whose many chronicles of the follies of science (Shivers, Rabid, The Fly) parallel in theme and tone Natali's film. Certainly not boring, and daring in its own way. 7/10


14. Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, USA): A typically quirky and dark reading of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale from Burton in which most of the major characters (the March Hare, Cheshire Cat and Red Queen) are digitally rendered in the bizarre landscape of Wonderland. Both Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska’s Alice are played as live characters, both fairly effectively, while the Red Queen and White Queens are voiced appropriately by Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway respectively. The story is all there: the tea party, the vanishing Cheshire cat, the blue caterpillar, the army of playing cards. And the computer graphics are occasionally stunning. Though never failing to keep the viewer’s attention, Burton’s trip through the looking glass comes across in the end as a bit flat and forgettable, hinting at the need for a live action remake of Alice. Enough computer graphics and more heart Mr. Burton! 7/10


15. Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, USA): More confused than the origin story in the first film, Iron Man 2 spends less time with Tony Stark and his personal relationships (thus showcasing the quirky acting talents of Robert Downey Jr.) and more with secondary characters and with spectacular battle scenes involving our hero. Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, the son of an ex-Soviet scientist whose ideas Tony Stark’s father Howard apparently stole, is the villain of the piece. He mumbles a few semi-coherent lines here and there in a thick Russian accent as he plots his revenge on Tony. His motivation for building his “whiplash” suit and attacking Stark/Iron Man are somewhat muddled, though they offer an interesting take on post-Cold War politics in Russia. Much livelier in their roles are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (he almost steals the show in his short scenes) and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff AKA the Black Widow (her fight scene is quite good). Sam Rockwell as rival industrialist Justin Hammer is an unbelievable clown, though Don Cheadle as Colonel Rhodes/War Machine is more effective than Terrence Howard in the first film. All in all a mixed bag, with the subplots being more interesting than the main conflict, and the humour a bit too much on the corny side. 7.5/10


A few films from 2011