2010 Movies

by Tim Van Schmidt

Black Swan *****

Dark. Disturbing. Intense. “Black Swan” is all of these things. It is superb moviemaking despite its base insanity. While it should be said the movie is definitely not for everyone- in fact many will be repulsed and even offended by some content- this production expertly builds its tragic power to a crescendo that is unforgettable. Natalie Portman has created a believably fragile and insecure character as Nina, the obsessive dancer who transcends beyond reality itself to become the perfect performer. Portman’s acting- and the movie itself- is a rare tour de force of the dark side of the imagination, frightening and riveting.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky…2010…108 min…featuring Natalie Portman (as Nina,) Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel (as Thomas,) Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder (as Beth.)

The Kids Are All Right ***

The children of a lesbian couple seek out their biological father and the result is tumult to their alternative family.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko…2010…106 min…featuring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Yaya DaCosta.

Robin Hood ***

Despite the realistic grime and horrific fighting, this movie is more of an exercise than an adventure. A lot of this has to do with the feeling that Russell Crowe’s stoic, man-of-few-words portrayal of Robin Longstride is way too familiar from his role as Maximus in “Gladiator”- and less effective. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Marion is much more spirited. There’s plenty of high-level political intrigue and some few moments of levity are weak attempts at lightening an otherwise gloomy mood in a brutal time.

Directed by Ridley Scott…2010…140 min…featuring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Danny Huston, Eileen Atkins, Mark Addy, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle.

Eat Pray Love ***

A woman seeks fulfillment on a journey to Italy, India and Bali. The three destinations give her a new appreciation for food, spiritual discipline and romance. It’s a very polished and careful production that nonetheless touches on some depth at times. The story is epic in its general sweep of human desires and emotions, visually aided by the exotic locales.

Directed by Ryan Murphy…2010…133 min…Julia Roberts (as Liz,) Hadi Subiyanto (as Ketut,) Billy Crudup, Viola Davis, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Javier Bardem.

Winter’s Bone ****

A hard life for an Ozark Mountain teenage girl gets even harder when her drug-trafficking father puts up the family property as bond to get out of jail, then disappears. Everything about the situation is difficult, even dangerous, and the girl must remain courageous and super-tough to help get her younger siblings and sick mother through it. Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly with clenched-jaw determination that is ultimately inspirational as she somehow overcomes the direness of the events.

“Winter’s Bone” is not a cheerful movie whatsoever, but its slice of life depicting the outlaw mountain lifestyle- full of its own code of behavior, a distrust of outsiders and a general disregard for authority- is riveting and even frightening. The scene where Ree is surrounded by a whole family in a desperate confrontation is as tension-filled as any make-believe horror scene. Less tense, but plenty revealing are the scenes where Ree teaches her young sister and brother to shoot guns and gut squirrels.

Directed by Debra Granik…2010…100 min…featuring Jennifer Lawrence (as Ree Dolly,) John Hawkes (as Teardrop,) Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser.

The Ghost Writer ***

“The Ghost Writer” starts out promisingly enough as a mystery adventure. Ewan McGregor plays a writer hired to fill in for another who has died during the middle of a project detailing the life of a former British Prime Minister. However, the movie starts to drag significantly when Pierce Brosnan finally appears as the embattled former official. He’s not a mysterious figure but a blowhard and then it all comes down to who is manipulating who with a gaggle of characters not worth caring about. The soundtrack also seems out of place- the music is more fitting for an Indiana Jones movie than a murder and intrigue yawner.

Directed by Roman Polanski…2010…128 min…Ewan McGregor, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson.

Temple Grandin *****

A biopic that does more- it tries to illustrate a unique way of thinking. That is, a look inside the mind of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, a brave and brilliant autistic woman whose ideas are revolutionizing the meat processing industry. Claire Danes creates an unforgettable character as Grandin and director Mick Jackson uses an innovative mix of live action- following the progression of Grandin’s career- and quick flashes of the images in her mind that give her the clues she needs to create new and better ways of doing things.

Directed by Mick Jackson…2010…120 min…featuring Claire Danes (as Temple Grandin,) Catherine O’Hara, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Melissa Farman, Cherami Leigh, Tamara Jolaine, Charles Baker, Blair Bomar, Barry Tubb.

Please Give ***

Squirrely urbanites have hissy fits, affairs and nervous breakdowns in their claustrophobic, relentlessly self-absorbed everyday life.

Directed by Nicole Holofcener…2010…90 min…featuring Rebecca Hall, Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Josh Pais.

The King’s Speech ****

Triumph over personal troubles is always inspiring and “The King’s Speech” proves that goes for the rich and famous too. The King of England, to be precise, who ascends to the throne at the outbreak of World War II with a debilitating stammer, making his public speaking engagements nightmarish.

What’s the big deal? Well, with the Nazis ramping up to pound away at England, the English people needed to hear from their King. More than that, his words were a necessary piece of the puzzle for bracing the citizenry for what lay ahead. The gravity of each step of the way for King Edward VI is amply reflected in Colin Firth’s portrayal of his torturous fight against his speech disability.

“The King’s Speech” is as much about friendship as about the historical events covered in the movie. That is, the personal relationship that develops- across class boundaries- between the King and his speech therapist, played with an effective exuberance by Geoffrey Rush.

Directed by Tom Hooper…2010…118 min…featuring Colin Firth (as King George VI,) Helena Bonham Carter (as Queen Elizabeth,) Derek Jacobi, Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue,) Jennifer Ehle.

True Grit ***

Down and dirty remake of classic western film, originally featuring John Wayne. Jeff Bridges’ characterization of Rooster Cogburn is as cockeyed and unbalance as young Hailee Steinfeld’s work as Mattie is as formal and neat.

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen…2010…110 min…featuring Jeff Bridges (as Rooster Cogburn,) Hailee Steinfeld (as Mattie Ross,) Matt Damon (as LaBoeuf,) Barry Pepper, Josh Brolin.

Extraordinary Measures ***

For its weighty and heart wrenching subject- a disease that cripples and kills children- this is a lightweight movie. The clichéd dialogue, action and even the music is all delivered with a lack of passion. If the actors can’t get excited about their roles, how can the viewers? The brightest thing on the screen is Meredith Droeger as the spunky stricken daughter. She runs rings around the veteran actors around her- including Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell- and not just with the wheelchair she commands during the production.

Directed by Tom Vaughan…2010…106 min…featuring Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell, Meredith Droeger (as Megan,) Diego Velazquez (as Patrick,) Sam M. Hall.

Alice in Wonderland ****

Alice returns to Wonderland to become the White Queen’s champion against the dreaded Jabberwocky. This is a fanciful and imaginative redrawing of the characters, aided mightily by modern filmmaking technology and Mia Wasikowska’s excellent performance as Alice.

Directed by Tim Burton…2010…108 min…featuring Mia Wasikowska (as Alice,) Johnny Depp (as Mad Hatter,) Helena Bonham Carter (as Red Queen,) Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Christopher Lee.

The Social Network ****

This movie is important because it updates the classic story of rabid ambition into the Internet era. The storyline follows the development of the social networking web site Facebook, mostly due to the exhaustive maneuvering of computer-obsessed Mark Zuckerberg, played as a fanatically focused but socially inept jerk by Jesse Eisenberg. Zuckerberg spearheads the development of Facebook at a time when similar ideas were being implemented- and it comes down to the one who wins the race for fleeting popularity on the Internet is the one left standing.

Directed by David Fincher…2010…120 min…featuring Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg,) Andrew Garfield (as Eduardo Saverin,) Justin Timberlake (as Sean Parker,) Rooney Mara

The Runaways ***

An account of the rise and fall of the all-girl punk band, the Runaways, set in mid-1970s San Fernando Valley. It’s a story of a collision of rough-cut talent- a teenaged Joan Jett with an obsession to rock and roll, a loud-mouthed, slimy record producer, Kim Fowley, with a knack for igniting a scene, and a teenage femme fatalle, Cherie Currie, whose ambitions to be like David Bowie inform her attractions to the stage and the limelight.

“The Runaways” is also a classic story of rock and roll fame- the ambitious and passionate build-up to success diffused by drugs and misdirected selfishness. There is a message to young women who want to rock as hard as the guys here, too, which adds to the production’s value. But some people can take it and some people can’t- and that was the bottom line for the Runaways.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi…2010…106 min…featuring Kristen Stewart (as Joan Jett,) Dakota Fanning (as Cherie Currie,) Michael Shannon (as Kim Fowley,) Scout Taylor-Compton (as Lita Ford,) Stella Maeve, Alia Shawkat, Riley Keough, Tatum O’Neal

Crazy Heart ***

There’s something very familiar about the story in “Crazy Heart”- the self-destructive artist runs across something really good in a life that seems to have no further hope, only to have those negative drives mess it up before real change occurs. Jeff Bridges plays the alcoholic, smoking chimney of a country star in this version of that story. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the love interest.

Despite the big awards this movie won- including best actor- there’s not much new in “Crazy Heart.” Bridges creates a more or less believable character, unless you just can’t believe how much bottle swilling the guy does throughout the movie- it seems if you continually drank that much all the time, as we are lead to believe this guy does, you would be dead a lot sooner than Bridge’s character’s slow decline.

I really didn’t believe the love interest part of the story either. Gyllenhaal’s character seems to be in love with this disgusting slob from the very beginning and it’s not really clear what he does that keeps her interest. But then again, her character does admit making plenty of mistakes, so she’s really kind of stupid, especially when trusting the care of her young son to this cantankerous drunk. When it goes array, she blames him?

The part I did enjoy, however, is the country music element to it all. Bridges does a very decent job of singing and performing- often in an intimate bar setting which provides some inspired musical moments despite the lousy condition of the character. The songs have depth and are well-crafted.

My favorite scene in “Crazy Heart,” is not particularly an important one. It’s when Bridge’s broken down songster meets up with a successful protégé, played by Colin Farrell. As they hang out together in a parking lot for a few minutes, they exchange musician talk- about life on the road, gigs, songwriting, recording. It sounded pretty authentic to me. And it’s a beautiful thing that the younger man still respects and wants to help the older guy- somehow more touching to me than the romantic relationship brewing between Bridges and Gyllenhaal.

Added to this are some sweeping Western landscapes which somehow underscore the untamed quality of a character who roams the West, playing salt-of-the-earth songs and throwing up in the trash can in between.

Directed by Scott Cooper…2010…112 minutes…featuring Jeff Bridges (as Bad Blake,) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jack Nation, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall.

The Illusionist (L’illusionniste) *****

How is it that an animated feature like “The Illusionist” can capture more warmth, more sadness and more wisdom about human foibles than 95 percent of the live action features? It must be the high art of the production and the heart and brains behind the writing and designing. The result here is ultimately delightful, but also flavored with the ache of truth that all things must inevitably change, or fall behind.

The story follows the travails of a French performer- a sleight-of-hand, magician of sorts who works deteriorating theatres, playing to dwindling crowds. In this landscape, limp-wristed rock and roll bands are replacing stage veterans like the illusionist and others like him- clowns, ventriloquists and tumblers- while television cuts mightily into the entertainment market in general. But a chance meeting leads to a performance in Scotland where the illusionist meets a young girl full of yearning.

The girl stows away when the illusionist leaves and their adventures bring them to Edinburgh, where they form a family of sorts between them and the other residents at their hotel. There, both find they must strike out on new paths.

While the story is bittersweet in itself, what really makes “The Illusionist” special is everything in between. I mean how the characters move and how they react to their situation with minimal language but somehow lots of heart. The little sounds they make sometimes communicate way more than a lot of talk. “The Illusionist” is refreshing and artistically savvy- a strong combination.

Directed by Sylvain Chomet…2010…80 min…featuring Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil.

Rabbit Hole ****

Gripping, immobilizing emotional pain is not my favorite subject for a movie, but somehow “Rabbit Hole” makes it work- it’s intensely riveting thanks to great performances by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckart. Both of these very familiar faces succeed in creating believable characters- a couple grieving the death of their young son. None of it is easy- and they aren’t the only ones having trouble- yet an outcome does occur by the end making the trip through emotional hell somewhat palatable. At least it’s going somewhere- as opposed to something like “Blue Valentine.”

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell…2010…91 min…featuring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Weist, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito.

Conviction ****

A strong tie between a brother and sister is tested when the brother is convicted of murder and sent to prison for life without parole. The sister fully believes in his innocence to the point where she dedicates herself to becoming a lawyer in order to get him released. This is not an easy path for a woman with limited education, a job, family and a past full of neglect. In fact, her life disintegrates as her “conviction” to succeed grows. I have rated this movie with four stars because I feel actors Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell have created very believable characters. It is also hard to resist the grip of excitement as the true story lurches toward its conclusion.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn…2010…107 min…featuring Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver.

Hereafter ****

Taut, yet fully emotional, “Hereafter” is a slow train chugging toward the intersection of three lives- that of a woman who nearly dies in a tsunami, a young twin who has lost his brother and a psychic whose “gift” is driving him crazy. Director Clint Eastwood builds a sustained sense of suspense as the movie follows the threads to their conclusion. As far as the premise goes- a murky conjecture about death, dying and the spiritual world- the characterizations and plot action go a long way toward communicating something that seems hard to pin down in dialogue.

Directed by Clint Eastwood…2010…129 min…featuring Matt Damon, Cecile De France, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jay Mohr.

Kick-Ass ****

After all the recent heaviness in the drama genre, it was a delight to be rocked by “Kick-Ass.” OK- it won’t be for everybody- there’s a lot of juvenile stuff that can make you wince. It’s all kind of a put on, a parody- or, more likely, a tribute to a kind of naive but energetic sense of action. It gets rude and crude, there’s some gore as well as comic book platitudes throughout. But by not taking itself too seriously, this movie sets itself free to mix laughs, heroism, special effects and even some romance together in a wild ride indeed.

The story follows the adventures of Dave, an un-extraordinary teenager who decides to do something extraordinary by becoming a real-life super-hero. He orders a cool wet suit, sets up a web site and begins a chain of events that lead to the downfall of a drug kingpin and the outing of several people like him. It’s all fun but it must be said that the biggest kick in “Kick-Ass” is the performance by Chloe Moetz as Hit-Girl, a super-trained little girl vigilante whose super confidence in the role and riveting presence on the screen is particularly striking. The rock soundtrack works with the action as “Kick-Ass” blows away the real world with a violent, yet oddly charming fantasy.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn…2010…117 min…featuring Aaron Johnson (as Dave/Kick-Ass), Nicolas Cage (as Big Daddy), Chloe Moetz (as Mindy/Hit Girl), Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Lyndsy Fonseca, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Red Mist), Mark Strong.

Let Me In ***

A remake of the chilly Swedish feature “Let the Right One In,” “Let Me In” manages to hold its own in terms of inventing new elements to the story while more or less agreeing on the heart of both movies- the relationship between a misfit boy and the young vampire girl who moves into his apartment building, right next door. It’s a love story above and beyond the bloodbath and ultra violence.

Directed by Matt Reeves…2010…116 min…featuring Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Owen), Chloe Moretz (as Abby), Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas, Dylan Minnette.

Blue Valentine ***

It’s hard to give this movie much of a rating because it is such a drag from start to finish. There is nothing positive or informative about it- it’s just hard feelings and relationship woe in a marriage gone wrong. You want to feel bad? Then this is the movie for you: a couple’s relationship disintegrates into loathing and hatred after a promising initial romance. The brightest spot in the production is the little girl caught in the middle between her feuding parents, but she is more of an accessory to the story while the parents keep emotionally torturing each other at every opportunity.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance…2010…112 min…featuring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman, Faith Wladyka.

Stone ***

A parole officer at the end of his career becomes entangled in the scheming of a shrewd convict and his manipulative wife. It doesn’t seem likely that the officer, as played by Robert De Niro, would fall for such obvious maneuvering, but that may be the point- at some time, even the most dedicated- and mature- workers are tempted and swayed by the strong pull of sexual desire.

Directed by John Curran…2010…105 min…featuring Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy.

127 Hours ****

An impetuous loner gets into mortal danger in the canyon lands of Utah when climbing by himself and his will to survive forces a horrible decision. The filmmaking here is superb- using split screen action while intercutting hallucinatory episodes with the progress of the story, based on real incidents. The music is challenging and even upbeat at times, despite the circumstances, and adds plenty to the production. While there is the impulse to say something like “this guy got what he deserved by ignoring back country safety rules,” the intensity of James Franco’s performance turns him into an inspirational figure, pushing the limits of what a person will do to live.

Directed by Danny Boyle…2010…94 min…featuring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Treat Williams, Kate Burton.

The Fighter ****

There is a lot of fighting going on in this movie. Sure, the true story centers around two boxers and their careers, so there’s a lot of punchiness to begin with. But the main fight here is between family members- and one man’s “fight” to move beyond the influence of his questionable relatives. Very gritty characterizations end up giving way to the usual sports movie stuff in the end- a puffed up sense of triumph- but the meat of this production is more about the rough road to get there.

Directed by David O Russell…2010…115 min…featuring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Sugar Ray Leonard.

Fair Game ***

A retelling of a succession of true events leading to a CIA operative’s identity being revealed publicly, putting her, her family and all of her work at risk. It becomes apparent that the situation is in retaliation for an article the operative’s husband publishes in the New York Times accusing the Bush Administration of lying about details being used to justify the war in Iraq.

Directed by Doug Liman…2010…108 min…featuring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn.

Made in Dagenham ***

Women machinists at a Ford auto plant in England strike for better wages, but end up amplifying their effort and achieving equal pay for women all across the board. What makes this interesting is that most of the women involved in the story are not professional rabble rousers, but working class women fed up with discrimination. Predictably, their cause not only shakes up international corporate business, but also shakes up the attitudes of the men in their lives and the society they live in. Set in 1968, the production is rich with the pop music and fashions of the time.

Directed by Nigel Cole…2010…113 min…featuring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James, Daniel Mays, Rosamund Pike, Miranda Richardson

All Things Good ***

Psychological mystery with few answers, but lots of creepiness. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks thriller running completely on the power of Ryan Gosling’s inscrutable characterization of a man in way deeper trouble than anyone would guess from the outside- even his wife- and Frank Langella’s portrayal of his hard-assed father.

Directed by Andrew Jarecki…2010…101 min…featuring Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Lily Rabe, Phillip Baker Hall.

The Town ***

A bank robbery crew unravels when the brains of the outfit falls for a woman the gang takes hostage during a getaway. Set in the Boston area, it’s a brutish and unsavory life for all- from the hostage who gets romantically duped by the robber to the blustering FBI agent in pursuit of the criminals.

Directed by Ben Affleck…2010…125 min…featuring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper.

The Perfect Host ***

A bank robber on the run crashes a dinner party that turns out to be not so fun. The host reveals a crazy side that unnerves the toughened criminal and puts his big money score into jeopardy.

Directed by Nick Tomnay…2010…93 min…featuring David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Nathaniel Parker, Helen Reddy.

TRON: Legacy ***

The continuation of the TRON story, about what lies inside a digital universe. According to “TRON: Legacy,” it’s a shiny, fast and dangerous place, inexplicably oriented to deadly contests of strength and skill while harboring malicious intent. Despite the tantalizing ideas that swirl around in the movie- a mind-bending bit of electronic mysticism- it all comes back to conflict and power as the heroes fight off antagonists and drill continuously through high speed chase scenes. That begs the question- why do it in the first place? It may be cool “in there” but ultimately is it better? The whole thing is one big, bright special effect, making it entertaining visually, even if the story gets bogged down in presuppositions from the previous movie and awkward attempts at updating them for a new generation.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski…2010…125 min…featuring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde.

Iron Man 2 ***

It’s all about attitude here. Sure, there’re lots of special effects featuring high tech science, but what it is mostly is a showcase for Robert Downey Jr. Downey plays Tony Stark, the man leading a double life as uber-wealthy inventor and iron-clad super hero, Iron Man, and he does so with his usual reckless abandon. This turns Iron Man 2 into just another Downey Jr exercise- you don’t forget for a moment that you are seeing another display of that madcap, on the edge attitude he has become famous for. What a waste of resources to make this insincere comic book rip off. What a waste of acting talent. No one except maybe Samuel L Jackson shows any relish for the story or their characters, making this something worse- a waste of time. The first movie in the Iron Man series was a breath of fresh air for the comic book movie genre. This sequel is a hackneyed follow-up, despite the shiny package.

Directed by Jon Favreau…2010…124 min…featuring Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L Jackson.

Inception ***

Technology allows specialists to enter into a person’s dreams to obtain information as well as to plant ideas. Despite the cerebral mind twisting of the plot- and there are surreal moments to be sure- a lot of the movie is about guns, car chases and explosions.

Let’s also mention that money is the motivator for a lot of the action too. So, the ideas in “Inception” may be interesting- and action happening simultaneously in multiple layers of consciousness is challenging- but it’s the same old greed and power that sets it in motion. My favorite scene was the fight conducted in a hotel hallway while gravity is tipped on its side.

Directed by Christopher Nolan…2010…148 min…featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas

Hot Tub Time Machine ***

Three old friends trying to relive their 1980s glory days, actually do thanks to a magic hot tub and an outrageous, raw, goofy, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Potentially a stoner classic along the lines of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Wayne’s World.”

Directed by…Steve Pink…2010…99 min…featuring John Cusack, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Crispin Glover, Chevy Chase.

Book of Eli ***

A sci-fi, post-apocalypse story about the protector of a sacred text and those who want to take it away from him.

Directed by Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes…2010…118 min…featuring Denzel Washington (as Eli), Gary Oldman (as Carnegie), Mila Kunis (as Solara), Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Belas, Tom Waits.

Biutiful ****

The reason to watch “Biutiful” is for the little things. The big things in this movie are a complete mess- I mean in the plot that is. The story follows the misfortunes of a single father in Barcelona, whose ex-wife, deadly serious business deals, growing kids and terminal cancer have him circling the drain.

What keeps him going, however, are the occasional flashes of love that come through the chaos- his daughter’s smile, a moment of clarity and ease with his wife or even just a moment of rest. Otherwise, the main character has nothing but a losing battle to fight.

This movie is beautifully filmed, despite the grittiness of the subject and the soundtrack often adds plenty to the progress of the production- very effective work.

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu…2010…148 min…featuring Javier Bardem (as Uxbal), Maricel Alvarez (as Marambra), Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernandez, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff.

Shutter Island *****

A tension-filled thriller literally filled with psychological twists.

This is one dark movie from beginning to end, reaching far into the corners of the mind, well-crafted and intense. It’s all about a federal marshal called to an island that serves as a treatment center for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of one of the patients/inmates. But from the very start, nothing is as it seems and it gets more and more confused the longer the marshal works on the case.

What confuses the viewer is the constant switching of the action from the real-time activities to flashbacks to vivid hallucinations. This keeps up throughout the entire movie, making this production a real effort to keep up with. That it is a challenge to watch, however, elevates it from more average fare- it keeps you on the edge of your seat, the tension slowly building from the first scene to the last. These are the marks of excellent filmmaking.

The back-story informing this movie is grim- a murder of three children by their mother, the liberation of Dachau, the Nazi death camp. Added to this are the suspicions that arise from the marshal’s investigation that lead to a broad and shocking conspiracy theory. Together these elements form a sense of foreboding that never lets up- even after the twist to the story is revealed. Such is the rich and wide-open field of creativity that dealing with mental instability and its consequences affords.

Directed by Martin Scorsese…2010…138 min…featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Ted Levine, John Carroll Lynch.

Date Night ***

A New Jersey couple stuck in a rut become mistaken for a pair of thieves caught up in a blackmail, corruption scheme. Tina Fey and Steve Carell make an unlikely pair of heroes, but somehow they survive the over-the-top action sequences, wisecracking all the way.

Directed by Shawn Levy…2010…88 min…featuring Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Mark Ruffalo, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Will i Am, Taraji P Henson.

Animal Kingdom ***

Brutal and gritty- the story of a young man who enters into the world of a crime family when his mother dies of an overdose.

Directed by David Michod…2010…113 min…featuring James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver.

Jack Goes Boating ***

Slow-moving and painful, “Jack Goes Boating” features characters struggling with personal insecurities in the ultimately claustrophobic environment of the big city. Nobody has it right, but they carry on anyway in a self-absorbed search for new connections. The brightest spot here is John Ortiz’s portrayal of a devoted friend whose life falls apart even as the person he helps- Jack- achieves new confidence.

Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman…2010…91 min…featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega.

Buried ****

I was truly squirming in my seat as I watched the opening scenes of “Buried.” You see, I have a little claustrophobia and this movie opens with a guy waking up in the darkness only to discover that he is buried alive in a wooden coffin. The panic that is his initial reaction to the situation is just what I felt as a viewer- I didn’t think I could watch an entire movie under these conditions.

However, as the story unfolds- that the guy is a truck driver under contract in Iraq, who got kidnapped and is being held underground for ransom- the suspense builds as to how the hell this guy’s going to get out of it. There’s a cell phone in the coffin with him- and amazingly, he’s able to call everyone from the FBI to his elder mother- as well as some glow sticks, a lighter and a flashlight. Despite these small comforts, the deadly feeling that time is slipping past- like the sand sifting through the cracks in the coffin- underscores everything.

Despite the desperate situation, “Buried” transcends the actual horror of being buried alive by making broad comments about why this type of thing happens. The points are drawn out through the ineffectual phone conversations the protagonist has and the words reveal that this is a political movie more than a suspense thriller.

Directed by Rodrigo Cortes…2010…95 min…featuring Ryan Reynolds

Zenith ***

Gritty, dark, violent and inscrutable- “Zenith” perhaps raises more questions than answers, but then again that is the quagmire the human race is avoiding at some point in the future- no one is asking questions to begin with, certainly no one is volunteering answers, and no one seems to care. That is, except Dumb Jack, a drug dealer who sets out on a journey of personal discovery when he tracks down video tapes made by his conspiracy theorist father. Intense soundtrack music underscores guttural images as a convoluted plot unravels.

Directed by Vladan Nikolic…2010…93 min…Peter Scanavino, Jason Robards III, Ana Asensio , Al Nazemian, Didier Flamand.

The Next Three Days ***

A college literature teacher gets completely out of his comfort zone when his wife is convicted and sent to prison for murder. Despite the desperate situation, the movie remains somewhat understated. Maybe because actor Russell Crowe tones down his usual self-righteousness and arrogance to create a hero who does questionable things in the name of love and family.

Directed by Paul Haggis…2010…122 min…featuring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Aisha Hinds, Daniel Stern.

Howl ****

There aren’t very many movies out there about poetry, but “Howl” is an excellent place to start. There’s plenty going on here- an account of the writing of Allen Ginsberg’s famous Beat poem, “Howl,” mixing with a dramatization of the obscenity trial that occurred after it was published. Actor James Franco appears both in the dramatizations and in the interviews that help inform the movie with the facts according to Ginsberg. In the process, Franco has created a unique character complete with distinctive vocal tics. This is all wrapped around a passionate reading of the poem- by Franco- on a Beatnik stage as well as in the soundtrack as the movie veers into the fantastic with animated sequences illustrating the progress of the poem. It’s a big ball of creativity and inspiration- which includes actor Jon Hamm’s stirring delivery of the defense’s position in the trial of Beat publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti- and an open door into the mind of a modern poet and outspoken homosexual.

Directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman…2010…84 minutes…featuring James Franco (as Allen Ginsberg,) Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, Aaron Tveit, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Andrew Rogers, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, Allen Ginsberg.

Monsters ***

A large part of Mexico has become “infected” with extraterrestrial monsters and a cynical photographer gets the job of escorting his boss’s cute daughter across the middle of the zone. Gritty realism mixed with outlandish suppositions results in a passable adventure. The monsters are really just a sideshow to the developing romantic feelings between the two, but some monster attacks and particularly footage detailing the destruction they cause keep things anchored to the sci-fi camp.

Directed by Gareth Edwards…2010…94 min…featuring Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga Benavides.

Hunter Prey ***

Exotic, barren settings give this movie an otherworldly ambiance, but beyond the extra planets in the sky, this is a chase yarn with a sci-fi twist.

Directed by Sandy Collora…2010…90 min…featuring Clark Bartram, Damion Poitier, Isaac C. Singleton Jr.

You Don’t Know Jack ****

“You Don’t Know Jack” is a powerful movie thanks, in part, to tremendous performances but more because the “right to die” issue is so very heavy in itself. The movie gets kudos for even trying to tackle such an intensely emotional subject. That it does so with a modicum of style makes it all the better.

Of course, the movie centers around the career of Dr Jack Kevorkian, a medical man who not only crusades for patients’ right to die, but puts his actions where his words are by personally assisting patients in ending their lives. This is a medical situation, involving patients with terminal diseases and horrific disabilities and there is a point made in the movie that assistance was given only after a stringent screening process.

I can see why actor Al Pacino would want to play Kevorkian- apparently he was a confrontive and intensely dedicated man, which seems to fit Pacino’s skills as an actor. But along with his strong performance, the people who play the stricken patients- often seen in interview videos discussing their situations- are very effective at drawing a portrait of pain and suffering that could be resolved in a more dignified manner. In fact, your heart aches for it.

Directed by Barry Levinson…2010…134 min…featuring Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman, Todd Susman, Susan Sarandon, Danny Huston.

Incendies ***

This is a horror movie of the very real sort. As a twin brother and sister in Canada fulfill their Lebanese mother’s dying instructions, they unravel deep layers of horrible truths about her life and their heritage. Caught up in the violence of the Lebanese civil war, the woman endures brutality and savagery and by tracking down clues about her misfortunes, her children gain an understanding of the deep flaws in their mother’s spirit.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve…2010…130 min…featuring Lubna Azabal (as Nawal Marwan, “the Woman Who Sings”), Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz.

Never Let Me Go ***

It is obvious that “Never Let Me Go” means to underscore that the kids of an exclusive private school in England are special, but as it slowly reveals just how special, you are drawn into the same dull, creeping sense of being trapped that the characters resign themselves to. As the kids turn into young adults and their “donations” begin, they reveal many of the emotions of regular people- jealousy, sadness, lust, heartache- but then again the movie asks the question: are they really human?

Directed by Mark Romanek…2010…103 min…featuring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling.

Salt ***

Enter Evelyn Salt, Angelina Jolie’s new action hero alias. There’s a lot to the story involving the secret activities of age-old enemies, Russia and the United States and Salt is in the middle of it. Or should I say Jolie is in the middle of it. Honestly I found it hard to separate the character from the actress, so strong is her public image.

The plot is somewhat complicated- current events and flashbacks cutting in and out quickly- so you have to keep up with it, just like you have to keep up with the action sequences, that teeter over the edge of what is believable. But then again, maybe that’s the point. This is kind of a comic book action movie starring a woman who doesn’t really appear to be able to wipe out squads of armed men just by kicking them a couple of times, or withstand the battery and torture meted out to her regularly throughout the production. The movie ends up ripe for a sequel- a new action franchise in the making.

Directed by Phillip Noyce…2010…100 min…featuring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) ***

The Mumbai Diaries has a lot of criss-crossing action between the main characters, who are of much different social classes- something, evidently, that really means something in India. That they interact so much is amazing considering what a crowded, busy city Mumbai appears to be.

At the center of things is an American girl who has traveled to India to rediscover her roots and get into taking photographs in the gritty urban environment. That means establishing a relationship with a slum dweller who opens up to her journalistic requests while vaguely dreaming of movie stardom- and falling for the girl. Unfortunately, the girl comes from a different strata and she is consumed with pursuing a stormy artist.

Meanwhile, the artist has discovered some taped letters from a young wife to her brother back in a more rural district and watches with fascination at the progress of her unhappiness, fueling his work. Munna, the slum dweller played with intense believability by Prateik Babbar, ends up accomplishing the only selfless act in the movie, however, making the ache of reality of what really divides people all the more painful.

Directed by Kiran Rao…2010…100 min…featuring Aamir Khan, Monica Dogra, Kriti Malhotra, Prateik Babbar (as Munna).

Trust ***

A 14-year-old girl develops an online relationship with who she thinks is a teenaged boy, but turns out to be a sexual predator. She meets with him and the results tear her family apart.

Despite the grave seriousness of the crime, this is a lackluster production for the most part. The mother and father characters, played by Catherine Keener and Clive Owen, could have been any other actors really, neither bringing much substance to the table except a lot of raised voices and crossed brows.
However, Liana Liberato plays the teenage girl with plenty of passion, basically carrying the whole thing on her shoulders. One element of invention here is the flashing of text messages across the screen as the action, such as it is, ramps up.

Directed by David Schwimmer…2010…106 min…featuring Clive Owen, Catherine Keener, Liana Liberato, Viola Davis.

Sarah’s Key ***

A heart-rending story emerges when a journalist tracks down the fate of a young French Jewish girl who escaped being sent to a concentration camp during World War II. The story becomes all the more poignant since the journalist’s husband’s family owns the apartment the girl’s family once inhabited- and where the girl’s brother was hidden from police during the roundup of the Jews in Paris. There’s more- a broken marriage, a kind of obsession on the journalist’s part and the ruffling of family feathers- lending more weight to an already heavy situation.

Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner…2010…111 min…featuring Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frederic Pierrot, Aidan Quinn, Natasha Mashkevitch.

Skyline ***

A derivative sci-fi thriller. By that, I mean there are bits of War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Alien, Starship Troopers, The Matrix and maybe even a little Transformers in there. Honestly, it doesn’t really break any new ground until the last few minutes, then it gets cut off abruptly, heavy handed but custom made for a second edition. This smells like marketing to me.

However, kudos are to be given for the special effects that make the alien invaders terrifying. It’s unclear whether they are organic or machine- probably a little of both- but they wreak a respectable amount of havoc, which is also well done on the screen with a sense of the big picture of what is supposedly going on here. The weakest thing here are the humans- a whiney lot in general and surviving by pretty much dumb luck- but I guess the end of the movie addresses that problem. Wait for the sequel, then watch them together…

Directed by Colin Strause, Greg Strause…2010…94 min…featuring Eric Balfour, Donald Faison, Scottie Thompson, David Zayas.

The Conspirator ****

There’s an awkwardness that runs throughout this movie. That awkwardness is born from the fact that this is a story from another time and the people caught up in the events are not modern human beings. They are 19th Century human beings who think, talk and act just a little bit differently than people nearly 150 years later.

This is part of the fine craftwork involved in “The Conspirator”- to transport the viewer to another time and place and believe it. This movie accomplishes that with costuming, lots of fuzzy beards and dialogue that expresses not only a different feel for language- kind of stiff and more formal- but also reasoning.

It’s all about the trial of Mary Surratt, a dour, serious woman who runs a boarding house used as a meeting place by conspirators just before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It also happens that her son is also wanted as one of the conspirators and at the time of her trial, he remained at large. The question before a military court was whether Surratt really was a conspirator or not.

This is where the difference in era starts to become clear. In the emotional wake of Lincoln’s murder, a deep and violent hatred colors everything about the trial. The young man who rises to the task of defending Surratt even has his own doubts. There’s a bloodlust in the air for retribution after the loss of a President and the suffering that the Civil War had exacted. Lincoln’s assassination is a particularly bitter insult to the Union as the war came to an end. The conspirators, destined to be hanged, become a huge target for all of that hatred.

So, despite the formal language of the 1860s, and the veneer of a civilized culture, the people of the Civil War era still had plenty of primitive urges running the show. Those urges, according to “The Conspirator,” pushed Surratt all the way to the gallows.

Directed by Robert Redford…2010…122 min…featuring Robin Wright (as Mary Surratt), James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Huston, John Cullum.

The Way ****

An embittered father takes a long walk in his son’s shoes as he spreads his boy’s ashes along the pilgrimage route in France and Spain called the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage route is full of colorful characters, all on the same walk but for their own reasons.

Anyone who has ever traveled with a backpack as their home knows that friendships and alliances are often easily made on the road and that is even lovingly expressed here. But the moments I liked the best in this movie were those when the spirit of the father’s dead son would appear at odd moments along the road, smiling at his Dad at all he is experiencing. By the end, the father has learned plenty and appears to be on the road for his own reasons.

Directed by Emilio Estevez…2010…123 min…featuring Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt.

The Debt ****

A woman must return to her darkest days as a Nazi-hunting Israeli agent or risk exposing that she has been living a lie for decades. Helen Mirren plays the woman with scarred beauty and a damaged spirit in the present and Jessica Chastain plays her younger self.

Directed by John Madden…2010…113 min…featuring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain.

The Way Back ***

Prisoners in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia during World War II escape, only to suffer intense hardships due to the elements on their way across the Mongolian Desert and the Himalayas into India. It’s just hard to watch at times- their sun-cracked faces screaming out for moisturizer- but there are some moments of a kind of hallucinatory ecstasy that somehow help relieve the pain.

The movie is full of strong images. One in particular caught my eye- the group has made it to an oasis in the desert, enjoying the more or less abundance of water. One of the guys just soaks a piece of cloth and places it fully on his face. The wet cloth sucks down hard on the guy’s face revealing a skull-like vision of survival.

Directed by Peter Weir…2010…133 min…featuring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan, Gustaf Skarsgard.

Beginners ***

A somewhat morose graphic designer embarks on a new relationship with a young French actress in the wake of the death of his father. His father’s death, preceded by his mother by several years, is somewhat complicated by the fact that the man came out as gay after his wife’s death, claiming he has always been gay and this was the first time in his life he has been able to “explore” that side of himself. The father establishes a relationship with a younger gay man and gets involved in all matters gay in his community.

It becomes clear that his father’s act of “coming out” becomes inspirational for the younger man as he “comes out” of his shell to test the waters of relationship with the actress. Even the serious moments in this movie are treated with a fairly light touch. It’s not a thinking person’s movie- it’s a “feeling person’s” movie.

Directed by Mike Mills…2010…105 min…featuring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Mary Page Keller.

Despicable Me ***

An animated adventure in which a bad man who delights in all things wicked- and who feels he must compete with other villains to maintain his beastliness- gets sidetracked by three orphan girls. Cute, cute, cute.

Directed by Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud…2010…95 min…featuring Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Mirande Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Kate Fisher.

The Lost Tribe **

Directed by Roel Reine…2010…100 min…featuring Emily Foxler, Nick Mennell, Marc Bacher, Lance Henriksen.

Winter’s Bone ****

A return to this harrowing story of tough backwoods survival underscored the nearly inscrutable code of conduct among crime families in the hills.