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No greats, but plenty of goodness

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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Every year some movie critic declares that the year was a superior one, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. This year that movie critic is me. Twenty-ten was stingy with true greatness but flush with excellence, very goodness, and “hey, that wasn’t bad at all.’’

One movie I liked a lot also became the movie that wouldn’t leave me alone. Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg’’ was chiefly about a rudderless, semi-obnoxious, mentally fragile 40-year-old (Ben Stiller) who returns to Los Angeles and the scene of trouble he caused as a younger man paralyzed by principle. No one saw the film beyond the 90272 and 10025 ZIP codes, but it’s essentially a halting romance between him and the daffy but perceptive woman (Greta Gerwig) who works for his brother. But, really, Baumbach made a singular film about depression and generational anomie.

The movie’s centerpiece, toward its end, is a house party in which Greenberg sits among dozens of his niece’s friends, simultaneously depressed and high, and tries to matter. He attempts to explain them to themselves, and they don’t hear him. He plays them music from his youth, and they’re not interested. Out back at the pool, there’s commotion. Someone finds something floating in the water. The camera watches the kids looking on and waits a suspenseful minute or so to show us what it is. Even after it’s scooped out and flung onto the cement, I still don’t know what it was.

That party sequence felt to me like a sign of the apocalypse. Baumbach senses a kind of doom and leverages it with some of the movie’s cutesier moments. “Greenberg’’ really captures this generation’s post-collegiate bourgeoisie unlike any movie I can think of. It’s a doomy “Graduate,’’ and the first one to make me feel spiritually old. The kids here sense something is coming, like the tsunami that opens Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter’’ or the Chinese (Greenberg’s niece and her friend try getting him to run away with them to Australia), and there’s no longer any point in caring. The movie has elements of the so-called mumblecore movie, in which young people luxuriate in melancholy and romantic indecision. Greenberg is the genre’s equivalent of the old guy at the nightclub. He needs to realize it’s time to go home.

Christopher Nolan’s “Inception’’ is a movie people did see and another movie I keep returning to. Not so much because it’s great but because it’s “wow.’’ “Inception’’ is a caper movie, as much as “The Town’’ is a caper movie, but Nolan set a high bar for what a major commercial movie could be. He is very much a filmmaker with a knack for how to attract and build an audience. As a pop artist, he has nothing in common with Steven Spielberg or James Cameron. But all three share a rare talent for making art that pops for us. There’s a scholastic fussiness to Nolan’s movies than doesn’t afflict Spielberg or Cameron. Nolan needs us to know he’s smart. But his intelligence keeps getting more accessible.

For a couple of months this summer, “Inception’’ was the only movie anyone wanted to talk about, even people who hadn’t seen it. It wasn’t a movie I wanted to discuss (for all the time we spend in the characters’ heads there’s no true psychology to speak of). It was a movie I wanted to savor. The origami cities, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a zero-gravity Fred Astaire, the slowest-motion descent of a 12-passenger van. The movie was about money, but it had the kicky weirdness of some dreams.

It’s been ages since a movie became a smash using that much slow-motion and narrative cul-de-sacs. The movie wasn’t deep, but Nolan has an uncanny gift for sustaining the illusion of depth. Maybe profundity is overrated with him, anyway. Nolan’s vision is incomparably vast: With him the surfaces go on forever.

“Inception’’ is the most encouraging hit Hollywood has had in years: a director’s movie whose source material resides completely within the imagination of its maker, not with video games, toys, comic books, or cult-movie kitsch. The scope of our bandwidth is capacious enough for Nolan’s movie and “Clash of the Titans.’’ Maybe Nolan will inspire the major studios to take more chances; and major directors, like Tim Burton, whose gassy, dreary-looking “Alice in Wonderland’’ was the second-biggest movie of the year, to take bigger ones. I’d even point to the fizzy, old-Hollywood first 40 minutes of the otherwise ho-hum “Iron Man 2’’ as an example of how the blockbuster can reinvigorate itself.

Nolan’s movie was a popular highlight. But there was a lot of life under the radar, as well, particularly in the universe of nonfiction filmmaking. Twenty-ten might be the strongest year yet for the production, distribution, and audience support for documentaries. Nonfiction filmmakers lean left, and with the Bush administration out of the White House, American documentaries now seem freer to comb the world for other stories.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still urgent subjects for filmmakers. Laura Poitras’s “The Oath,’’ Amir Bar-Lev’s “The Tillman Story,’’ and Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s “Restrepo’’ each dealt with some aspect of those conflicts. But the ground was so fertile for documentaries that the trendlet of the docu-hoax was permitted to thrive.

Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,’’ Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman’s “Catfish,’’ and Casey Affleck’s notorious “I’m Still Here’’ provoked some interesting fights about what a documentary is and should be. Alex Gibney made two movies about political corruption — “Casino Jack and the United States of Money’’ and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.’’ Both are overstuffed and overstaffed, but they’re decent entertainment, as opposed to the tracts that dominated the field in the last decade.

One of the year’s best documentaries, Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,’’ looked critically at the sort of crooks and capitalists who were everywhere in Hollywood movies. The pharmaceutical salesman Jake Gyllenhaal played in “Love and Other Drugs’’ was the only man we could afford in 2010: well-paid, kind of sleazy, really into you. The number one movie for three consecutive weekends in the fall was about men who want a lot of money. Ben Affleck led a gang of bank robbers in “The Town.’’ Michael Douglas returned to playing Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street’’ sequel. And in “The Social Network’’ Harvard frenemies snipped and sued over the founding of Facebook.

After “The Town,’’ “The Social Network,’’ and “Wall Street,’’ the first movie to take the top spot had an apt title for both its predecessors, as well as Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man 2’’ and those “The A-Team’’ alphas: It was “Jackass.’’

Most of the manipulative men in these movies are also obnoxious or conceited or indifferent to the suffering they cause. But for all their faults, we loved them still. In 2010, when women acted this way, it was called “Sex and the City 2.’’

The stars came up short. The Hollywood cosmos failed to realign for any one actor the way it did for Sandra Bullock last year. So perhaps next time, Tom Cruise (“Knight & Day’’), George Clooney (“The American’’), and Julia Roberts (“Eat Pray Love’’), you should take in an illiterate, overweight black child.

The year still managed to produce at least 30 movies I adored. In putting a customary frame, as I’ve done, around only 10, a single title doesn’t dominate. I don’t have a favorite. I have a team, unranked, equally admired, and mostly available in theaters or through most video services.

THE FIGHTER

It’s not that this isn’t a boxing movie (at least two of the televised matches feel utterly real). It’s that the ropes of the ring have been redrawn around the streets, living rooms, and triple-decker porches of Lowell and the nature of the fight has been recast. The director, David O. Russell, gets his many actors to emote from the same aching place, as a wonderfully bewildered Mark Wahlberg looks on in passive confusion. The great shock of the movie is how it lightens emotional heaviness without trivializing any type of pain. Its odd, energetic buoyancy is what moves you: a cracked-out Christian Bale constantly falling out of windows into garbage, his singing that Bee Gees song to Melissa Leo. This is a minor domestic tragedy lovingly restaged as screwball comedy.

INSIDE JOB

It’s possible that, through shrewd editing, Charles Ferguson rigged the most outrageous moments in his financial-disaster documentary and it’s true that the call for revolt emerges out of nowhere. But that doesn’t do much to diminish the movie’s galvanic achievement. It concentrates such a persuasively clear, richly articulated case for what produced the crisis in the first place that I still can’t think straight. I just want to run to my nearest hedge fund and beat it with my depleted 401(k).

JACKASS 3D Johnny Knoxville and his gang of merry masochists set out to test the limits of 3-D moviemaking and discovered that there may no longer be any. A portable-toilet booth, for instance, is shaken like a bottle of Cristal at the end of the World Series, and urine arcs high enough in the daylight to leave us under its rainbow. The two slow-motion Technicolor fantasias that serve as bookends exhaust the possibilities of both physical comedy as homoerotic dream and sex toy as projectile missile. We spend a lot of time wondering about the frontier of 3-D. This movie is so eager to show us that it nearly puts out an eye.

MACHETE To like the movies of Robert Rodriguez is also to want them to be better. He might manage to top this immigration satire — which has one foot in the gutter and the other on the throat of our political moment — but it won’t be easy. What looked like a sure hit when it appeared in August shrank to a cult item almost instantly. Who knows, that might be just what Rodriguez wanted: for it to live forever as an astute yet outraged work of trash. The movie, loosely about assorted Mexican rebels, the Americans exploiting them, and Officer Jessica Alba in her first good role, is a blaxploitation picture with generous Chicano seasoning. For years, Rodriguez appeared to live in the shadow of Quentin Tarantino. They broke up a few years ago, and the end of their friendship appears to have freed Rodriguez to do more than imitate bad art. He’s finally made his own.

MOTHER AND CHILD The year’s most psychologically and emotionally complex American movie; Rodrigo Garcia wrote and directed this melodrama in which three Los Angeles women — Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, and Kerry Washington — separately negotiate different angles of maternity: loss, disdain, anticipation. Garcia might be the least-heralded great director of actors. Each woman here does smart, instinctive work, as do the many supporting performers (Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, and Shareeka Epps). Garcia prefers compartmentalized, interlaced storytelling, which in most movies now feels like a played-out gimmick. But he happens to be a tailor in a room full of hacks: It’s a style that he can do everything with, including devastate you.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD Edgar Wright’s movie is the only one since the original “Tron’’ to cinematically personify the high of playing video games. It runs on quarters and laughing gas. Wright works at a maniacal physical and technical level — the editing, art direction, photography, and sound design are state of the art. But he also loves characters. So his film is fat with arch, post-adolescent charisma. How on earth did it fail? It was based on an intensely well-liked graphic novel (Michael Cera battles a potential girlfriend’s many evil exes), released in the summer, and provided the relentless refreshment of a busted fire hydrant.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK Sure, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s thriller is the story of who did or didn’t start Facebook. But the bruised egos, petty recriminations, mouthy speechifying, baggy sweatshirts, shower sandals, blazers, sulking, brooding, screen-staring, personal righteousness, probable prevarication, conduct codes, envy, greed, blind ambition, blinding horniness, intellectual insecurity, defensiveness, fear of rejection, hurt feelings, and crying to the dean, then to daddy’s lawyers, all constitute something greater: the realest movie ever made about the college experience.

SWEETGRASS

It’s easy to take camera placement for granted in documentaries. But whether it’s framing the truth or, in this staggering case, assorted sheep being herded to Montana mountains for a summer pasture, where the camera sits is crucial to where you stand. Almost every shot here is a work of art. A slight pivot, for example, to the right produces a just-born lamb being dragged to the center of a barn. With patience and some humor, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor document a now-bygone way of American life, and the filmmaking captures it with the eloquence of a eulogy.

TOY STORY 3

The first quarter of installment three is rather humdrum. Then Andy’s toys are accidentally discarded, provoking another existential trek. But who could have known that Pixar’s secretly spiritual comedy franchise would have the nerve to give first Barbie a brain and then explore the dark side of the soul? There’s a crypto-totalitarian teddy bear and a climax that perches its stars at the brink of perdition. And for a few emotionally exhausting minutes we see computer-animated, flame-engulfed faces express a terror, then a stoic, heroic acceptance that eludes many human Oscar winners.

VINCERE Marco Bellocchio turns Benito Mussolini into the sexiest man alive. First the future dictator seduces a lusty beautician, then it’s Italy’s turn. The movie is ostensibly about the poor beautician Ida Dalser and how she more or less goes mad after Mussolini turns his back on her and their unborn child to maintain another family and lead the nation into war. Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi go at each other and the scenery with amazing vigor, while their 71-year-old director outdoes them both, putting his venerability to such absurdly erotic ends that everything from fascist salutes to piping smokestacks seems phallic. Mussolini’s allure is meant to stand for the gravitational pull of all politicians. It works. When this operatic tragedy ends, you will feel ravished, too.

“Mid-August Lunch,’’ “A Prophet,’’ “Another Year’’ (opens in Boston Jan. 21), “Greenberg,’’ “Everyone Else,’’ “Cropsey,’’ “Gasland,’’ “Predators,’’ “Inception,’’ “Enter the Void,’’ “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,’’ “Black Swan,’’ “Last Train Home,’’ “Boxing Gym,’’ “The Town,’’ “A Film Unfinished,’’ “Soul Kitchen,’’ “White Material,’’ “Tiny Furniture,’’ “Secret Sunshine.’’

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

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