5. True Grit
A superior adaptation of the Charles Portis novel (though inexorably linked with the John Wayne original), True Grit contains elements of the Coen Brother's trademark quirk and expert cinematography (by Roger Deakins), and pairs them with a collection of memorable performances - not the least of which is the startling lead from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. After the death of her father, Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) hires the wild (and filthy) Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down and kill her father's murderer. A simple tale that borrows much of its language directly from the novel (and, therefore, has some massive similarities with the earlier film version) but there's a roughness and wildness to the proceedings - along with touches that are purely Coen - that make this adaptation superior in nearly every way.
4. The King's Speech
Describing the plot of The King's Speech might rapidly send the average genre fan off to sleep - King George VI must employ a speech therapist to help him overcome a serious stammering problem and maintain the respect of his people during the beginning of England's involvement in World War II - which is part of its relaxed genius. The script by David Seidler (based on a real relationship) is full of good (and broad) humor, having plenty of fun with the audiences expectations of stuffiness. The acting is marvelous across the board, particularly from Geoffrey Wright finding himself uniquely restrained as a Shakespeare loving Australian speech therapist. Much credit should go to director Tom Hooper who manages to find a lovable balance between humor and pathos that makes some difficult material endlessly entertaining.
3. Never Let Me Go
If you were told that a hot-shot music video director was going to tackle a dystopian science-fiction film, you might have expected an effects-filled summer action film like Michael Bay's The Island. However, when that director is Mark Romanek (who also directed the underrated One Hour Photo in 2002) and the work is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go (adapted by Danny Boyle's collaborator Alex Garland), your expectations will be roundly (and happily) shattered. In fact, this alternate reality tale has very few special effect sequences and is instead a heartbreaking character piece focusing on three friends and their lives together (and apart) as they are raised for.. well, I don't want to give that away. The leads are played wonderfully by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, but it's Romanek's sure hand with the content that will keep you enraptured. A beautiful film, and one that deserves more attention.
2. Winter's Bone
The Academy Awards nominations came out a few days back, and I was delighted to see multiple nominations for Debra Granik's intense adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel Winter's Bone. A carefully textured and detailed film, it stars Jennifer Lawrence in an awe-inspiring performance as Ree Dolly, who is tasked with tracking down her father after his disappearance may lead to her family (which includes two younger siblings and a mentally ill mother) losing their house. Her extended family includes many members involved in illegal methamphetamine labs, and her life is soon at risk as her poking around begins to uncover family secrets. John Hawkes - who I knew from Eastbound and Down and Deadwood - gives a darkly unhinged performance as the girl's uncle, while the photography (by Michael McDonough) brings out the cool bleakness of the Ozarks. Builds to almost unbearable intensity, with a collection of terrific character actors (including another Deadwood alumni, Garret Dillahunt) carrying along the mystery of the whereabouts of Ree's father. Haunting.
1. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Street Art is a topic I've had a fascination with for years now, but was hopelessly undereducated when it came to its nuts and bolts. Perhaps this is by design (so to speak), as by its nature street art is rebellious, underground and often illegal, so the idea of creating some sort of oral history would be an incredibly difficult undertaking, particularly as these artists tend to be necessarily mysterious. Perhaps none is as mysterious - or playful - as Banksy, the director of Exit Through the Gift Shop who is assisted greatly by the seemingly endless amount of footage of various artists taken by French immigrant Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash) who begins as the documentarian before the film takes a massive shift to focus on his own rise as an "underground" artist. Many questions have been raised regarding the film's (and Guetta's) legitimacy, but what's certain is that the humor is very much intentional and you can't help but walk away from the film with an increased appreciation for the tremendously ballsy art-form, while still questioning the legitimacy of those who choose to profit from the mass production of it.