Hollywood loves a good log line, a single sentence that's supposed to sum up an entire movie. "A working-class boxer struggles to make a name for himself in the shadow of his crack-head brother and demanding mother" ( The Fighter). "A perfectionist ballerina is driven mad by the duelling demands of playing good and evil characters in Swan Lake" (Black Swan). The log line serves as shorthand in story meetings, and, when it's clear and pithy enough, makes the marketing department sigh with satisfaction, because they think that if a movie is easy to summarize, it'll be easy to sell.
But for someone like me, who thinks a log line is only the starting point, 2010 was an underwhelming year, because so many films treated it like a finish line. For example, I thought there was a much darker movie lurking under The King's Speech, about the coldness of the British class system and the hollow propaganda of the monarchy. But the filmmakers were only too content to stay on the surface: "With the help of a courtly Australian speech therapist, a handsome British monarch overcomes his stammer to inspire his people on the eve of World War II." And God save the box office.
Same for The Next Three Days. It sticks so vigorously to "A desperate husband breaks his wrongly convicted wife out of prison" that it doesn't leave any room for doubt, or even the suggestion that spouses may not know each other as fully as they think - which would have made for a much richer film.
True Grit ("A plucky teenage girl in the Old West hires a burned-out bounty hunter to track down her father's killer") goes beyond the log line in its love of language, but neglects to provide much emotion. And Unstoppable ("An engineer about to retire and the rookie who's replacing him race to stop a runaway freight train loaded with toxic chemicals") delivers its log line word for word, which makes for a fun 90 minutes but is forgotten the moment you hit the aisle.
So in my Top Ten of 2010, I'm celebrating the films that went beneath and beyond their log lines, to revel in complexity and nuance and mess.
The Social Network. Director David Fincher, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and their stellar cast take what could have been an all-American can-do story ("Whiz kid makes millions inventing Facebook") and twist it into a kinetic pretzel of jealousy, longing, betrayal and the fundamental loneliness of our electronic age.
127 Hours. I knew the log line: "With his arm trapped under a boulder in a remote canyon, a charismatic outdoorsman faces a grim choice: Cut it off or die." What I couldn't have imagined is how that story could not only fill out a whole movie, but also expand inward, into memory and hallucination, to take the audience on a heartfelt journey, and send them out of the theatre on a high of being alive.
Winter's Bone. "Steely Ozarks teenager must find her meth-cooker father before the bank forecloses on their house" could easily have been too grim or too condescending to bear. But the unstinting veracity of the writing, acting and mise en scène turns this film into a riveting, deeply unsettling portrait of a class in America disowned by both political parties.
Please Give. "Well-meaning Manhattan couple buys the apartment next door, agrees to allow its elderly occupant to live out her days there, and becomes entangled in the lives of her granddaughters" doesn't even scratch the surface of this one. The dialogue, characters and situations are so specific and acute as to be painful. Anyone searching, 100 years down the road, for accurate, well-observed information about a cross-section of American urban life circa 2010 will be able to find it here.
Cyrus. "A lonely guy wooing his dream woman has to contend with her jealous grown son" could have gone in any number of directions: gross, tragic, comic, scary. That it found this tone, at once borderline odd and utterly familiar, is fantastic. Co-writers/directors the Duplass brothers are humanists; they're on their characters' side, and they win us over. Plus, Jonah Hill's unstinting performance was, for me, the revelation of the year.
Inside Job. "A documentary about the banking crisis that nearly crashed the global economy, starring some of its key players" sounds like homework. But I love this film's controlled anger, and how the damning facts pile up and up like the mountains of debt. But mostly I love the surprised looks on the faces of the dastardly perpetrators, who are arrogant enough to participate, and then get offended when they're confronted with their crimes.
Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine. The log lines are similar: "An attractive couple struggles not to let their opposing ways of grieving for their dead son tear apart their marriage" and "An attractive couple toggle back and forth in time between the charming beginning and the sad ending of their relationship." These may not seem like pleasant nights at the movies. And indeed, you do have to steel yourself to face them. But both movies are alive with characters who behave in surprising ways, and moments that enlighten us about the human condition, which is what I go to the movies for.
A Prophet. "A young Arab man becomes a Mafia kingpin in a French prison" sounds like it should have "cautionary tale" or "American remake" written all over it. But the observations are so subtle (the shot of a con delivering fresh baguettes to each cell in the morning was one of my favourite details of the year), and the setting and characters seem so authentic that the power of it sneaks up on you and leaves you breathless with despair.
I Am Love. It could be the plot of an opera: "A Milanese matron falls in love with a friend of her son's, with tragic results." But it's an opera under ice, since the grand-sounding emotions are trapped beneath a fanatically perfect exterior. It's chilly, arch, deliberately arty, pretty much the opposite of every other film on this list. But I can't get it out of my head.
High Life. No one saw this terrific anti-caper ("Four hapless drug addicts plot to rob an ATM"), and that's a shame, because it is witty, well-acted, tons of fun and - get this! - Canadian. It was made for peanuts, and if there were any justice in the world, it would have grossed millions. So go get the DVD right now, bid farewell to 2010, and start your new year right.