Hiker Aron Ralston is portrayed as a loner, a daredevil, and a man who lives an empty life. Actor James Franco nails all of Ralston's eccentric qualities while still giving the audience the pleasure of following a character arc that may have taken place in real life. Aron must embrace his fate in order to find his way in life in this adrenaline-fueled story from Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy about a hiker who gets trapped under a boulder while out hiking by the Grand Canyon. The cinematography is amazing and the dream sequences are imaginative.
9. The Town (Ben Affleck)
A stellar ensemble cast (Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Pete Postlethwaite, and Chris Cooper) bring us into the world of bank robbing criminals and determined cops in one of the most action-filled love stories in quite a while. The neighborhood of Charlestown and its characters are portrayed as people who want to rule the streets, but are afraid to actually leave them behind. When one crook decides he no longer wants to live the life of a criminal after meeting a girl during a heist, he attempts to walk away leading to violent scenarios that he couldn't have predicted.
8. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
This foreign film from the director of The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about an Arab-French boy (newcomer Tahar Rahim) who enters prison as a frightened teenager and emerges as a man who is a self-made crime boss. One could argue that this makes The Godfather look like a romance film because this film is taut and shot documentary style to bring the audience closer to these extremely dark characters. We see the world of prison and mobsters collide and the power struggle is full of interesting characters all played by fantastic actors.
7. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
Ryan Gosling stars as a tender man that just seems to be on a losing streak as far as life is concerned. Michelle Williams stars as a woman who is debating whether she should run from or embrace her place in life. They fall in love and that's only the beginning of the movie. We are used to seeing love stories, but are we used to seeing them fall apart. This film is the most heartbreaking movie I've possibly ever seen as its main purpose is to show a dead love and a fractured romance. You might ask why you are sitting through this movie, but it actually examines the truth behind most relationships that nothing is every perfect.
6. Another Year (Mike Leigh)
A great cast with three phenomenal performances. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play a couple who are trying to rekindle their romance later in life and Lesley Manville is a dreamer who longs for a passionate relationship with a man. Mike Leigh succeeds at taking the idea of spending some time in the English countryside and leads us into a look at where love goes later in life once you've met your "one-and-only." It's almost a great companion piece to Blue Valentine as the two both show two different sides to what happens as you move through life as a companion to another person.
5. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
This is Polanski at his best (see The Pianist, Chinatown, or Rosemary's Baby; this is right up there with them). Ewan McGregor plays a hack writer thrust into a large scheme when he is asked to ghost write the memoirs of a British Prime Minister who is suddenly accused of war crimes. Pierce Brosnan plays the British Prime Minister in what I'd consider to be the best performance of his career thanks to Polanski's sharp dialogue. This film is highly suspenseful and there are no gimmicks at play. No predictability or cliches, everything is just storytelling from a director who knows how to thrill audiences by keeping them guessing.
4. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
This year, Pixar decided to transport us back to a world they've already spent two films in and the return after all this time is fresh and welcoming. The toys are becoming obsolete, so after Andy's mom sends them to a daycare, they plan a daring and hilarious escape. This film is all about imagination trying to return to the lives of children and frankly, it rings very true. Today, kids are more used to technology than they are used to going outside and playing a "pretend game." Yet at the end of the day, the movie is about the love we have for our friends and family and most Pixar films can be traced back to that theme.
3. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
Jennifer Lawrence's breakthrough performance features her as this proud yet economically disadvantaged teenager who has taken the role of matriarch in her family because her mother is sick and her siblings are too young to help out. Her meth-addict dad (played brilliantly by John Hawkes) is running from the law so Lawrence's character must find her father and ask him for help with the bills or she'll lose her house to the bank. This movie is very gritty and dark and unrelenting in its view of these circumstances and characters. It's one of those movies you'll only want to experience once, but you'll be thankful as it makes you count your blessings after the story has ended.
2. The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
This is perhaps the first R-rated family film I've ever seen. The entire mood and tone of the film is relaxed and easy going while still being witty and dramatic. The film is about two lesbian mothers who were each impregnated by the same sperm donor and when their kids come of age they want to meet their donor father and they end up brining him into the family. Annette Bening as one of the mothers is radiant, defiant, and devoted to keeping control over her family. Julianne Moore as the other mother delivers a very sensual performance, but still lets the audience see her insecurities. Mark Ruffalo is very vibrant, especially in the scenes where he meets his kids played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. The film is very simple, but that is why I enjoyed it. The acting is great, the characters are well-defined.
1. The Social Network (David Fincher)
This movie is scripted so well thanks to Aaron Sorkin that it's practically a thriller as we learn about the early days behind the formation of the website known as Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg delivers a subdued and emotional performance as Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the cast (Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Josh Pence, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara, and Rashida Jones) all help with a dramatization that reminded me of The Insider where we saw how plot-driven films can pack just as much of an emotional punch as character-driven films. This story is about human beings who make some bad choices, but turning friends into the click of a button isn't the answer to atone for your mistakes. Sometimes we look for the easy way out and we are denied. Very meaningful filmmaking while not being outrageous with the storytelling.