The 2010 Halftime Top 10

July 10, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only critic who does this. By "this," I mean that around the mid-point of the year, I take a look back at the first six months' of releases and highlight the ones that have impressed me the most. This "halftime" Top 10 is never as lofty as the one released at the end of the year - only about 50% of the annual roster is available by July 1 and it's an acknowledged truth that Hollywood generally saves the best (a.k.a. "Oscar-bait") for last, making November and December the period during which movie-lovers emerge from hibernation. Nevertheless, mumblings and grumblings notwithstanding, winter and spring provide their share of worthwhile reasons to venture out to multiplexes and art-houses and this list is an attempt to (a) remind readers of this, and (b) provide some titles for possible DVD consideration as the year matures.

Some might argue that a mid-year Top 10 is pointless because there aren't enough good movies released in the first six months to warrant such a list. Poppycock. There are always a few Scrooges who take this position. Even during the worst of times, good movies still make it to theaters - maybe not in large numbers, but there are enough to populate a modest roster of 10. If the time arrives when I haven't seen that many solid movies by July 1, that's when I'll start looking for another second career.

As with any list, this is entirely opinion-based, so feel free to scratch your head and disagree. These are my choices, and probably not anyone else's. All entries in the halftime Top 10 garner a recommendation from me, with the most enthusiastic cheers reserved for those at the top. Although it's hard to guess how many of these titles will find their way to the end-of-the-year list, the cutoff (based on past performance) will likely be around #3 (either right before or right after). So here they are, in reverse order. Take them for what they're worth.

10. Shutter Island: Anticipation was high for Scorsese's latest, especially since it was delayed several months from its original planned release. Unfulfilled expectations aside, the director delivers a taut and engaging genre entry, and one that's worth a second look to see how everything does (or doesn't) hold together.

9. Green Zone: Having read the non-fiction book Green Zone before seeing the movie, I wondered how the filmmakers planned to adapt it. Simply put, they didn't. Instead, using some of the background and information presented in the book, they crafted a first-rate thriller that's a worthy successor to the Damon/Greengrass Bourne collaborations. This one's a tense ride from start to finish, but its lack of appeal to key multiplex demographics (teenage boys, families) made it a hard sell, especially considering the Baghdad location.

8. Kick-Ass: This half-serious/half-spoof superhero movie turned out to be more entertaining than all of 1H2010's "legitimate" superhero movies. That says something about the state of the genre, which is floundering through its second consecutive "down" year. The film polarized critics, with some being horrified by the violence involving a young girl. I appreciated the audacity displayed by director Matthew Vaughn in not backing away from cinematic taboos. (Given the opportunity, I suspect he would have killed a cuddly puppy as well.) It's the edge that makes Kick-Ass more than just another tired superhero parody.

7. How to Train Your Dragon: The first of two animated films on this list. How to Train Your Dragon is a bright, colorful tale with winning characters and a good sense of humor. It's also one of those rare 3-D movies that isn't hurt by the glasses-wearing requirement (because the behind-the-scenes people did it right). The film opened soft but had legs, re-enforcing how valuable word-of-mouth can be for family fare. It found its audience even amidst the avalanche of 3-D and kid-friendly entries that populated multiplexes during 2010's first six months.

6. Cyrus: True dark comedies are rare. Most movies pull their punches, willing to cause audiences a little discomfort but fearing a backlash by going too far. Although Cyrus doesn't venture as deeply into bleakness as Observe and Report, it's far enough off the beaten path to be classified as "alternative fare" despite the participation of several big names. It's my kind of comedy.

5. Fish Tank: This British indie is so low-key that it could easily slip through the cracks. It was not well marketed and didn't play in many theaters. A searing and compelling character study, it's worth seeking out on DVD.

4. The Red Riding Trilogy (Red Riding 1974, Red Riding 1980, Red Riding 1983): The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If I was to break up The Red Riding Trilogy into its components, only the middle segment would make this list. But, although the divisions are not artificial (each movie had a different director and a different stylistic approach), the three deserve to be seen as one (which is how they were shown in many U.S. theaters). Grim and unsettling, these tell a story with vivid characters embroiled so deeply in a cesspool of corruption that escape seems unlikely. It's not for those seeking lightweight escapism; it's powerful cinema.

3. The White Ribbon: Officially a 2009 release, this one ended up on the 2010 list as a result of a distribution pattern that kept it hidden from most of North America until January or February. Nevertheless, regardless of the year in which it is seen, this is a tremendous study of human nature that doubles as a mystery. The ambiguity surrounding the resolution is one of its strengths, proving that "closure" isn't always the best way to go.

2. Toy Story 3: The best of the Toy Storys? Perhaps, although I'm partial to #2. Still, the release of Toy Story 3, likely the best animated feature of the year (unless something really surprising is lurking out there), provides a conclusion to the trilogy that elevates it to an elite level of consistent quality where few three-movie cinematic series have previously ventured. Toy Story 3 is a completely different production when seen through the eyes of a 7-year old and a 70-year old, and is all the better for it.

1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: At the end of the year, this will no longer be a stand-alone entry, but will be included as the first chapter of The Millennium Trilogy (I feel reasonably certain it will land in the end-of-the-year Top 10.) As of July 1, however, this was the only installment to have been released in North America, so it has to stand on its own for the purposes of this list. (The Girl Who Played with Fire was released on July 9; The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is due in October.) A traditional mystery flavored with lurid noir highlights, this morally complex and decidedly adult thriller provides not only one of the most memorable female protagonists to reach the screen in years, but also successfully adapts a difficult-to-film novel. The pace is fast and furious, but not so fast that the characters and themes (violence against women) are lost in the action, and the narrative twists (of which there are several) come across as entirely within reason. David Fincher is re-making this in English, but why bother? Why waste time on a copy when the original is so readily available? But that question can be asked about just about any remake, and it's almost never answered satisfactorily.