The number of really superb films has declined in recent years. The last year in which there were a significant number of truly great films was probably 2007. But there were some good films this year, even perhaps a few great ones. I have not seen all the biggest films but I have seen all that I want to see and I’m thus prepared to share my Top Five List. (There are a few art house films I have not seen and will when they come out on disc and of course the great foreign films are not included since they are generally only available on disc, at least in my suburban part of Chicago.)

11154473_det 1. The King’s Speech

After the death of his father King George V (Michael Gambon) and the scandalous abdication of King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), Bertie (the superb Colin Firth), who has suffered from a debilitating speech impediment all his life, is suddenly crowned King George VI of England. With his country on the brink of World War II and in desperate need of a monarch who is (a powerful symbolic) leader, Bertie needs special help. With the assistance of his wife, Elizabeth (the always wonderful Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mother, arranges for her husband to see an eccentric speech therapist named Lionel Logue (played by the magnificent Geoffrey Rush). After a rough start, the two men delve into an unorthodox course of treatment that leads them to form an unbreakable bond. With the support of Logue, his family, his government and Winston Churchill (a not so impressive role by Timothy Spall), the King overcomes his stammer and delivers a radio-address that inspires his people and unites them for battle. Based on the true story of King George VI, The King’s Speech follows the Royal Monarch's quest to find his voice in a time of great peril. Whether you like British films, culture or the monarchy and the modern (non-significant) role it plays this is simply a superb film and a great story. Critics and movie-goers alike love it. There is good reason for this response.

Social Network 2. The Social Network

A story about the founders of the social-networking website, Facebook, this movie will likely win major awards from the Academy. It won the most awards at the Golden Globes this week, though this is not always an indication for what the Academy will do. Don’t rule out The King’s Speech on this front.

There has been a great deal of hype about this movie, pro and con, but its compelling honesty creates its true entertainment value even as it limits its emotional impact in a moving way. (Read that sentence again as I mean precisely what I write.) It is really hard, after all, to make Mark Zuckerberg into a compelling human character who makes you want to conceive of anything remotely called greatness!

The film is, if all hype is put aside, the portrait of a genius jerk. The genius is billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, the main face behind Facebook. The bulk of the film has to do with two major lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg by others who say they were instrumental in the site's birth. Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg was a brilliant choice for lead actor. What make his character in the film, and what troubles Zuckerberg personally, is the condescending meanness and self-involvement of the character that he plays. The  Zuckerberg of the film is in a constant state of rage to conquer his own insecurities through crushing others. The man who created the largest social network tool in the world cannot network with people to save his life! The irony must not be lost.

Most readers know the story. Mark Zuckerberg is a computer genius at Harvard when he devises a site that lets people judge which of two girls is hotter by seeing their photos. The site receives so many hits that it crashes the college's computer system. From this first effort he is disciplined by the school but then allows twin brothers to talk him into a site that will allow Harvard students to keep in touch with one another. While this is going on Zuckerberg decides to start a somewhat similar type of site with the help of his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who will eventually run the business of their potential enterprise. The site was to be called thefacebook. Zuckerberg's creative genius is evident as he stumbles forward, figuring out what thefacebook should become. The network soon spreads to other campuses across the country. Zuckerberg and his partner then meet with computer entrepreneur hotshot Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). The money starts to pour in and the breakdowns in relationships everywhere follow. (It is not all darkness as the work environment of the company seems very inviting in certain ways.)

One critic noted: “The film has one central problem that's unavoidable. It's a movie about one of the most unlikable characters imaginable. That lack of complexity, along with any real sense of passion beyond the sheer surge for power, keeps The Social Network from truly catching fire. It's a really good film. It's not a great one.” I agree.

The film will give you insight into the history of Facebook and perhaps remind you of the limitations of all social networking in the process. It is worth seeing but I felt a little depressed in the end.

True Grit 3. True Grit

In some ways this is my favorite movie of the year. The film is girded by strong performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and teenage newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. I love almost everything done by Joel and Ethan Coen but I honestly never imagined anyone could take a classic older movie and improve it in such a big way. This has to be some of the Coens' most finely tuned, unaffected works ever. A very dear friend, and a fellow movie fan, assures me that True Grit is a worthy companion to the classic Charles Portis book. I plan to read the book soon on his recommendation.

Although True Grit does not deliver the typical Coen detached style, this film is every bit as idiosyncratic as the Coens' other (albeit much more subversive) Western award-winner, No Country for Old Men. I am assured this film sticks closer to the reported darkness of the novel than the John Wayne version did decades ago. As the young heroine Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is simply amazing. Mattie is determined to avenge the murder of her father by the cowardly drunkard Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). As her hired bounty hunter the infamous Rooster Cogburn (Jeff  Bridges) is so appropriate in the role he plays even if he is not the iconic John Wayne.

One leading film critic writes: “

[True Grit] provides proof for the usefulness of remakes by great talent (if anything, the '69 original is now a better film that it can stand alongside this one), the Coens' True Grit also functions as an equally somber and hilarious criticism/correction of racism past. As a nearly-definitive cinematic representation, one doubts it will ever be contested.” Agreed. Don’t miss True Grit.

The Fighter 4. The Fighter

The Fighter is based on the true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Dicky was on his way to boxing super stardom after fighting Sugar Ray Leonard, whom he knocked down in a fight. But Dicky soon developed a drug addiction and threw it all away. Micky tries to make a name for himself in boxing with his brother training him and his mother managing him. The real story of this marvelous film is not about boxing but family, culture and coming to grips with life in the rough.

Films about boxing are common. A number of good ones come to mind, much more than for other sports when I think about it. But another boxing film was not what Hollywood wanted, which is why it took so long for The Fighter to get off the ground according to my research on this project. But The Fighter is one of the most powerful films about family relationships I’ve seen. It is situated in a part of white Boston that is every bit as unique as anything I knew growing up in the deep South. Wahlberg and Bale as brothers with a love-hate relationship give stellar performances throughout. It almost seems like this was the role they were both born to play together. Bale is especially powerful as a drug addict who lives in his past.

The supporting cast is just as strong as the two stars. Amy Adams plays Wahlberg’s girlfriend, a far cry from the polished, educated beautiful girls she’s previously portrayed, which proves the range of her acting ability. But, the real star here has to be Melissa Leo, who is the manic, loud, control-freak mother of eight kids. She ought to win an Oscar for best supporting actress.

The Fighter is a gem. It is a down to earth cinematic experience and a film that I was not prepared to like as much as I did.

Inception 5. Inception

Almost never does a summer film rate a Top Five for me but Inception was an exception, no pun intended. Inception suggests a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a single idea within one's mind can be the most dangerous weapon or the most valuable asset. You will never think about your dreams the same way again after you see Inception.

Someone has said: “Watching a movie in the theater is one of the ultimate shared experiences, described as an escape from real-world concerns by many—something like a dream, if you will.” Well, Inception lives up to that statement about community and dreams for sure. It is a richly textured brain-teaser featuring some of Hollywood’s top stars.

Before seeing Inception you need to know that you will lose yourself in the labyrinthine layers of storytelling. You're probably going to be confused. As one critic notes: “The film's characters are perplexed half the time.” You will be too.

The writer and director of Inception is the maker of The Dark Knight. While Inception has that film's epic feel from the beginning, this is actually Christopher Nolan's first solo original screenplay since the powerful film Memento. It echoes that film's exploration of how a person perceives what is real and what is not.

This is a science-fiction story. It centers around Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief for hire whose gift is extracting people's dreams and stealing their ideas in their deep sleep. Going into someone's subconscious when their mind is at rest, as you might imagine, is a valuable skill set for corporate espionage. Sin lurks in everything and everyone in Inception.

This is tricky business for Dom since the practice has ripped apart his family and made him a fugitive from authorities. DeCaprio is not stunning but he plays the role well.

Nolan puts the audience off balance right from the beginning but in the process he draws you into ideas and imagination in a very powerful way. The central idea behind Inception is the process of implanting an idea in someone's mind. As if the concept of Inception is not already complex enough, the film takes you into a world where a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream becomes routine stuff as multiple realities grow dim and blurry.

One of the relatively easy ideas to comprehend in this film is the notion that ten seconds of real time equals about three minutes in our dreams world, which could equal about one hour in a dream-within-a-dream context if you follow me. If you can't wrap your mind around such a notion then join me in a “this was a really hard concept to fully grasp” response. If you want to fully process this film, and begin to figure out some of the truly oddest connections, you will want to see it several times I’m sure. I think it may well be worth the effort. It certainly kept me riveted throughout with no sense of a complete resolution at the end.

Inception has been described as “seriously wonky, and the confusion induced is part of the puzzle.” What we see in the dreams here can be difficult to interpret, just as our own dreams don't always make sense to us. But then I pay more attention to my dreams than most of my friends. (Does that mean I am “wonky” or just odd?) Example: Did you know that you never die in your dreams? You always wake up just before you die.

Visual treats abound in Inception. CGI is used well but real acting trumps most of the computer stuff over and over. Leonardo DiCaprio's role is the only one that allows any real depth of character despite the incredible length of the film, 148 minutes. Films like Inception leave your head reeling and stay with you for a long time.

Temple Grandin Special Mention: Temple Grandin

Golden Globe-winning actress Claire Danes shines brightly in this fact-based story of an autistic woman who became an unlikely hero to America's cattle industry–and to autistic people everywhere. Based on the writings of the real Temple Grandin, this HBO Films production is an engaging portrait of a stigmatized, misunderstood young woman who learned to channel her unique gifts into a brilliant career as a scientist, author and groundbreaking animal advocate. Catherine O'Hara co-stars with Julia Ormond and the almost always compelling actor David Strathairn. Directed by Mick Jackson; the screenplay is by Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson. The film is based on the books Emergence by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scariano and Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin.

The movie gives a powerful message that people with special needs can be highly creative, extremely bright, and make substantial contributions. It also shows how having a supportive community of family, friends, and educators is instrumental in developing the strengths of autistic children and adults. Temple Grandin powerfully reveals how overcoming obstacles and standing up for yourself and your ideals in a positive and consistent way can result in significant achievement. This is a truly inspiring film. One friend, who is the parent of an autistic child, told me of how moved he was by seeing it. (He could not watch it all in one sitting because of the powerful emotions he felt.)

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  1. Jessica Mokrzycki January 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Great suggestions…I enjoyed reading your thoughts on them! It gives me some new movies to check out.

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