In True Grit, the Coen brothers’ new remake of the classic 1969 John Wayne western, the heroine—a hard-headed 14-year-old girl on a mission to avenge her father’s murder—tumbles into a collapsed mine shaft, where a snake lurks coiled in the rib cage of a decayed corpse, ready to strike. That’s a fitting image for the kind of year it’s been at the movies. If Hollywood is the Dream Factory, 2010 was the year of dreaming dangerously, a year when horror films had no monopoly on nightmares. Scan the lists of award-pedigree movies, and a striking trend emerges: time and again we’re dropped into a snakepit of fear and loathing, paranoia and paralysis, isolation and loss. Almost all the good movies played like bad dreams.
You have to address the nation with a monumental stutter (The King’s Speech); you’re hit by a tsunami while shopping for trinkets in paradise (Hereafter); you fall for a nice guy who turns out to be the bank robber who held you hostage (The Town); the older brother who’s training you to be a boxing champ is a crack-addict pimp (The Fighter); you’re dancing the lead in Swan Lake and something weird is growing out of your back; or, in the best worst dream of all, you’re trapped by a boulder and have to cut off your arm with a blunt penknife (127 Days). Even children’s fantasy was not immune. In Toy Story 3, a utopian daycare centre turns out to be a prison camp that tortures toys; The Nutcracker in 3-D gave us a Nazi Rat King whose stormtroopers feed toys into industrial ovens that blacken the sky.
In one film after another, we saw narratives powered by dread—not just of death, but of an unthinkable fate. Nowhere was that more evident than in Winter’s Bone, the year’s most powerful small independent feature. It’s the harrowing tale of a resolute teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence) who braves an Ozark Mountain underworld in search of her drug-dealing dad, or what’s left of him. Akin to the young heroine of True Grit, but less folkloric, she navigates an austere hillbilly hell, where crystal meth is the new moonshine, and morality is ruled by a ruthless code of silence.
Traditionally, Hollywood heroism has been driven by hopes and dreams, but in American cinema these days fear and vengeance seem to have more currency. For many critics, the movie of the year is David Fincher’s The Social Network, the story of how Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) backstabbed his friends and colleagues in an imperial quest for cyber supremacy. This non-fiction fable, which Fincher cynically dubbed “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies,” could be called The Sociopath Network. Its tale of a geek who got even with Harvard’s elite is an anti-romance, a portrait of ambition fuelled by envy and insecurity. Boy loses the girl in the first scene, and that Rosebud moment comes back to poke him in the last scene, as the Friend King faces his computer, alone and friendless.
Eisenberg will likely get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but he’ll face stiff competition from Colin Firth for his role as a stammering royal in The King’s Speech. Talk about a contrast in styles. Eisenberg burns through Aaron Sorkin’s barbed dialogue at an amphetamine clip. Yet he, too, suffers from a kind of speech impediment: he’s incapable of expressing his emotions. In fact, the favourites in this year’s Oscar race are playing characters who are pathologically unable to connect. There’s no small irony in the fact that the leading contenders for Best Actor and Actress—Firth and Black Swan’s Natalie Portman—both portray characters crippled by performance anxiety. He’s a future British king meeting the radio age with a mortal fear of the microphone; she’s a ballerina besieged by nightmarish delusions. Now, it seems, the ultimate test for an actor is to play somone who is unable to act.
Or unable to move. That’s the case with Ryan Reynolds, who spent all of Buried locked in a coffin, and James Franco, who spent most of 127 Hours pinned to a canyon wall by a boulder. For these men, both Oscar contenders, their feat is that they have no one to talk to but themselves and nothing to look at but the black hole of their own desperate existence. Hey, anyone can work with co-stars. The new Everest of stunt acting is the marathon soliloquy. Reynolds, a Canuck in danger of being typecast as a hunk, found the perfect way to protect himself from the imminent curse of being branded the Sexiest Man Alive. Talk about thinking outside the box—acting inside a box! So what’s next? Spending a movie in a coma?
Well, dream states are already in vogue. For the fanboys who tend to drive film buzz, the year’s most anticipated picture (until Tron: Legacy) was Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Like Avatar, it features characters who lie down and sleep while their minds colonize other worlds, and was the year’s most ambitious movie. With Leonardo DiCaprio surfing planes of the subconscious like James Bond with a licence to dream, it was truly inspired. But it was more clever than smart, and the whole contraption was weighed down with plodding exposition, and set-piece concessions to action formula, as if Nolan was trying too hard to cover his commercial ass.
Inception was weirdly close to that other DiCaprio epic, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, a Kafkaesque shocker that takes place in a dimension of psychotic delusion. In both movies, the most powerful moments were chilling close encounters with loved ones from beyond the grave. There’s no wife quite so clingy as a dead wife.
While Nolan and Scorsese took us on gonzo cruises to the dark side, Clint Eastwood, the slow and steady octogenarian, quietly trumped them with Hereafter. Starring Matt Damon as a modest psychic who sees dead people but regards his gift as a curse, this multi-plotted story could be the year’s sleeper. It doesn’t aim to knock you dead, though it does makes you reflect on death. And it sits well. Exquisitely composed, Hereafter may be Clint’s finest movie since Unforgiven (1992). Along with The King’s Speech, it’s also one of the few Oscar contenders that sends you out of the theatre with an uplifting sense of closure that does not seem forced.
Subtlety is a rare gift in Hollywood movies, especially ones that dramatize unspeakable loss. In Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart walk on eggshells as a couple devastated by the death of their child. The fact is slowly introduced, barely alluded to at first. It exists as a hollow space between them. Based on the Pulitizer Prize-winning play, this may sound like a movie no one would want to see. But it’s an emotional delicacy, a stark magnification of the invisible minefield underlying every marriage. And at least those bereaved parents, who have the perfect house, are better off than the lost souls in Never Let Me Go (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield)—factory-farmed slaves of an Orwellian horror who lack even the benefit of the human condition. The cozy underworld of submerged English melancholy has never been evoked with such aching beauty.
Amid so much bleakness, there wasn’t a lot of room for love stories. In a year full of spirited performances by women, we found relief in a couple of game attempts to re-engineer the romantic comedy. It was fun to watch Annette Benning and Julianne Moore spar as lesbian parents whose relationship is derailed by a sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo) in The Kids Are All Right. And Anne Hathaway rose above the mishmash of Love and Other Drugs, which juggled sex, Viagra and Parkinson’s disease. But the year’s most passionate love story was, oddly, Barney’s Version (opening Dec. 24), which spins old-fashioned romance from Mordecai Richler’s arcane satire.
Crime and violence, not love, offered the more compelling blasts of escapism—notably two tough working-class dramas set in the Irish-American mean streets of Massachusetts: The Fighter and The Town. Director David O. Russell lends a Scorsese rhythm to The Fighter, based on the true story of 1980s boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), while a reptilian Christian Bale steals the movie as the drug-crazed older brother who trains him. Bale will be up for Best Supporting Actor in this combo of white-trash freak show and Rocky triumph. So will Jeremy Renner for The Town, Ben Affleck’s riveting heist movie, where he has the same powder-keg volatility that he brought to The Hurt Locker. May the worst man win.
But of all the bad boys darkening the big screen in 2010, none was as impressive as Édgar Ramírez in Olivier Assayas’s Carlos. In the role of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Carlos the Jackal), the first celebrity terrorist, the Venezuelan actor gave a virtuoso performance in five languages. Because Carlos was shot as a six-hour miniseries, it may not get Ramírez the nomination he deserves. But in a year when bad dreams offered the only escape, no one better incarnated the mix of politics and insanity that has become the world’s worst nightmare.