This year's best movies played with genres in ways that changed their audiences' perceptions. Video-game movies, action movies, heist movies and superhero movies — they all had dazzling reinventions. Here are the 10 best and worst SF/fantasy movies of 2010.
The Last Exorcism
The "found footage" horror/disaster movie is fast becoming a cliche, and tons more are on the way. But there's still room for a clever, exciting take on the genre, as proved by this film about a preacher who decides to prove that exorcisms are fake — so he invites a documentary crew along to document the trickery, as he does one last exorcism on a disturbed girl. Only one problem: the preacher leads the slick city film crew into a situation that's a lot more messed up than the usual small-town case of madness. And our post-modern evangelical preacher quickly finds himself out of his depth. The progression into horror feels logical and unforced, as everybody grapples with what to do about this poor disturbed girl — never allowing themselves to think her possession could be real. Our original review is here.
Let Me In
The Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In was one of our favorite movies of 2008, and we were dreading the inevitably dumbed-down U.S. remake. But then something weird happened — Matt Reeves' remake won us over with its intense creepiness. This was not a warmed-over, smoothed-out, homogenized, mainstreamed and supersized reimagining for U.S. audiences — if anything, Reeves' determination to capture the spirit of the original novel cost him audiences in the U.S. At least, there were tons of people walking out of preview screenings during the intense emotional scenes between Abby the permanently pubescent vampire girl and Owen, her new friend. Gorgeously bleak and disturbing, this film isn't so much about seduction of an innocent as it is about the ways Owen is already alienated from a brutal world that makes life with a vampire seem preferable. Our original review is here.
Another film that was just too creeptastic for a lot of audiences. Vincenzo Natali's thriller about a genetically engineered monster girl is as much about an unethical family unit as it is about unethical science. In fact, just like Last Exorcism and Let Me In, this film is about a girl who's just not... normal, and what to do about her forms the crux of the narrative. This time, the girl is named Dren, and she's an animal-human hybrid, who develops a weirdly intense, sexualized relationship with her "parents," played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. There are some serious stumbles in the film, including some stuff that feels thrown in for pointless squick factor, but the central relationship, between Dren and Polley's character, feels raw and true. Our original review is here.
A remake of a little-known George Romero film, about a military experiment that turns a town full of people into violent lunatics, this should have been a forgettable mess. But some smart storytelling choices on the part of director Breck Eisner, including focussing in on the survivors in the town, turned this into a thrilling action-horror masterpiece. The pacing is really nifty, and instead of just piling on scene after scene of someone creeping around a deserted silo waiting to get attacked, or fighting off mobs of lunatics, the film seems to take great care with its scares. Every fight scene, every scary bit, seems well thought out, and by the time we come to the challenge of figuring out who's infected among our heroes, we've actually gotten deeply invested in their survival. This is a nice tutorial on how to do an apocalyptic movie right. (Read our original review.)
Superhero movies have long since become overrun with cliches, and the kind of wish-fulfillment that borders on the psychotic. So it's especially refreshing to see such a batshit insane, irreverent, and above all ultra-violent take on the genre. Dave Lizewski, the earnest teenager who wants to become a superhero, is a stand-in for the audience, and his utter masochism — and the joy he gets from encountering and fighting actual evil — are captivating. But the film's great joy is the creation of Big Daddy (Nic Cage) and his pink ninja daughter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), who's one of the all-time great film creations. Years from now, people will be talking about how this film helped transform superhero movies. (Here's our original review.)
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
The year's other great comic-book movie was also genre-defying and relentlessly inventive, using the tropes of video games as well as comic books to tell the story of Scott Pilgrim's courtship of Ramona Flowers, which involves defeating her seven evil exes. Director Edgar Wright exaggerates the already intense video game motif in Bryan Lee O'Malley's original comic, and amps up the sense that Scott Pilgrim's whole life is a video game. There's hardly a moment in this heavily stylized film that doesn't feel fresh or surprising, thanks to a cavalcade of Bollywood motifs, flashbacks, video game sounds and other pop culture motifs. Watching Wright experiment on film is as much fun as watching Scott Pilgrim level up. Here's our original review.
Most Hollywood sequels suffer from a swollen budget and a shrunken sense of storytelling. But Predators gets its priorities right, with a low-budget, back-to-basics approach. This is just a tremendously well-made action movie, in which every piece feels as though it's been thought through carefully, and blurry visuals and quick cuts are kept to a minimum — in fact, there's not much CG effects at all. The central twist this time around is that humans are brought to a "game preserve" planet to be hunted by the Predators, instead of the Predators coming to Earth to hunt, and this change means the main characters are trapped, even if they escape their pursuers. Both the Predators and their human prey are trying to get a step ahead of the other, and neither side behaves idiotically. Adrien Brody and Alice Braga manage to infuse their potentially cliched characters with enough personality and conviction that we actually care whether they survive. All in all, this is a rock-solid action movie, and an example of a sequel that builds on the original in a smart way. Read our original review.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
This should have been the most boring of the Harry Potter movies, since it adapts the first half of J.K. Rowling's notoriously slow-starting final Potter book. Instead, it's widely being regarded as the best of the Potter films — a movie that stands on its own as a great film in its own right instead of just a movie adaptation of a successful book. Director David Yates picks up two strands in the original book: Harry Potter and his friends on the run, grappling with very adult relationship conflicts in the wilderness; and Voldemort consolidating his power and creating his ultimate wizard-supremacist regime. The result is intense, action-packed... and very, very dark. We're not in Hogwarts any more. Read our original review.
Toy Story 3
Another great example of a sequel done right — Toy Story 3 takes the themes of the first two movies and moves them forward in a clever way that you'll keep thinking about long after you leave the theater. Oh, and if you don't bawl like a little baby in the movie's final moments, then your heart has been eaten by Satan and/or you're a Borg drone. Once again, the film is about the relationship between toys and their owner, in a fantasy world where toys come to life whenever people aren't looking. The toys' owner, Andy, is headed off to college and he plans to put (almost) all of his toys in the attic — but the toys get donated to a day-care center instead, where they discover the dark side of being possessions, and become trapped in a kind of caste system enforced by the treacley Lotso Huggin' Bear. In the end, the toys find a perfect solution to their dilemma, and we learn once and for all that their love for each other will always be greater than any owner's love for them. It's amazing how moving a saga about pieces of plastic can be.
People tend to talk about Christopher Nolan's latest movie as a kind of puzzle-box — as if it's full of mysteries and ambiguities, or it's terribly confusing. (I've been guilty of this myself.) But it's really a pretty straightforward movie with an ending that tweaks you a bit. What is fascinating about this film, and what we found ourselves debating for hours and days after seeing it, is the character of Cobb and his demons. Cobb is presented as a kind of thief, but he's actually more like a con man — even before he takes the assignment to plant an idea in someone's head. And Cobb's marriage is the one relationship he can't con his way through, because his wife's already dead and she's now just a figment of his own mind. This might be the most intimate movie Nolan has done in ages, but it's also a brilliant action movie, with justly famous sequences like the zero-G hotel hallway fight. It's a reinvention of the Ocean's Eleven movies through the lens of a carefully constrained surrealism, and more than any other film this year, Inception will live forever. (Check out our review.)
Honorable mentions: We're still not sure if it was fantasy or just a movie about hallucinations, but we really liked Darren Aronofsky's The Black Swan. We also wanted to give a shout-out to How To Train Your Dragon. And we still like Hot Tub Time Machine, a cute slice of retro-1980s comedy goodness.
Alice in Wonderland
The marriage of Tim Burton and Disney could have been interesting, if Burton's gothy weirdness had been allowed to dominate. But apart from a fascinating frame story in which the grown-up Alice is pressured to get married, this film mostly descends into Disney-style sweetness, and Burton's nastiness is pushed to the sidelines. Burton seems to have substituted CG effects and silly visuals for actual personality or story, and Helena Bonham-Carter is insipid and unmenacing as the Red Queen. The film tries to be about Alice's journey to true heroism, but this mostly consists of dull characters floating around her and smiling vapidly in approval while she hefts her vorpal sword. (Here's our original review.)
We were excited to see Universal reviving the classic monster movie, with Benicio Del Toro as the wolfman and Anthony Hopkins as his evil father — but sadly, this ended up being much more of a cheesy B-movie with daddy issues. A troubled production — including a last-minute change of directors — led to a movie that's both bland and all over the place. Even Hugo Weaving, channeling Agent Smith as an investigator sent from Scotland Yard to hunt down the werewolf, can't bring life to this cheesetastic mess. Our original review is here.
An action movie about angels coming to chastise the human race — sounds good on the face of it, right? Too bad this movie totally fails to follow through on the awesomeness of its premise. Instead, we get trapped in a diner with a group of totally cliched characters, plus the angel Michael (Paul Bettany) who is determined to save a small child from his angelic brothers. You wait in vain for the cool battle sequences, but instead the film drags on with dull conversations between characters we don't care about. When the action does arrive, it's ineptly shot and instantly forgettable. What is it with action movies that don't deliver thrills or, you know, fun? There were a lot of those this year. And Legion was like the heraldic angel of the action-movie crapocalypse. Check out our original review here.
The Lovely Bones
If there's a theme to a lot of the movies we hated this year, it's excessive reliance on gorgeous CG imagery that leaves the audience feeling numb. And Peter Jackson, who used CG to legendary effect in the Lord of the Rings movies, gives in to the lazy use of CG overkill in his adaptation of Alice Sebold's acclaimed novel. After the pure, innocent Susie Salmon falls victim to the pedophile serial killer George Harvey, the movie just sort of falls apart as Jackson tries to smother us with painterly imagery of the afterlife, and we stop caring what's going to happen to her. Instead of facing up to the horror of what happens to Susie, the movie decides to try and balance it out with a flotilla of computer-generated butterflies. A bravura turn by Susan Sarandon as the chain-smoking grandma who steps in to try and solve the Salmon family's problems can't rescue the movie from imploding. Our original review is here.
Iron Man 2
The original Iron Man was one of the best superhero movies, and it remains one of the best-told origin stories of all time, thanks to a hefty dose of body horror and Tony Stark's confrontation with the evils he's helped to cause. The sequel, by contrast, is just sort of a mess, and is a bad sign for the future of big-budget superhero romps. The film wastes too much time advertising the upcoming Avengers team-up movie. And meanwhile, Tony Stark, who was enjoyably flawed and complex in the first movie, just becomes kind of a tiresome dick this time around. (Although he does have a few epically funny lines.) There are a couple of great action scenes, notably the racetrack sequence, but the film drags for about an hour with nothing much happening. A subplot about Tony suffering radiation poisoning is built up, only to be resolved in a totally silly fashion. The internet is full of rumors that both director Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. were unhappy with how this film turned out, and it's easy to see why — they're both capable of much, much better. Let's hope this isn't a sign of things to come. Here's our original review.
This film seems to be dividing audiences — a lot of people really seem to like it a lot. For us, though, this film is emblematic of the trend towards unimaginative sequels that throw more money at the screen but don't add anything actually cool. The film is basically a note-for-note remake of the original Tron, in which the same things happen in the same order — except that it's much, much slower. While the film itself tries to copy the original Tron as much as possible, it takes place inside a copy of the original Game Grid built by Kevin Flynn, so the film is literally about what it is — a derivative sequel. There's no suspense, no tension, no action, and not much in the way of fun. Instead, the story grinds to a halt while the characters explain to us that something interesting did happen, but it was a long time ago. The film sputters to life a few times, when Olivia Wilde and Michael Sheen have a few cute moments each. But most of the time, Tron Legacy remains inert and every moment feels just as exciting as every other moment. True to its name, the Tron sequel is too concerned with the legacy of the first movie to focus on being a fun action-adventure movie. More here, in our original review.
The Book of Eli
This movie takes us through a dead wasteland full of wrecked cars, in which small men like Carnegie (Gary Oldman) reign over the ruins. It's not a bad setup for a movie, but Eli never quite gets off the ground — apart from a few scenes where the nomadic Eli (Denzel Washington) takes on a dozen men and kills them all, the movie is as dusty and devoid of life as the world it's depicting. Even though civilization has collapsed, Eli still has handi-wipes from a KFC, and an iPod — but for some reason, the most printed book in human history is impossible to find. The first half of the film feels like it's going to be a sturdy post-apocalyptic romp, but the second half turns into a dull examination of the power of the titular Book — and after a while, you'll wish you'd stayed home and read that book, or any other. (Here's our original review.)
Josh Brolin as a scar-faced gunslinger, Megan Fox playing a Wild West hooker, a horse with gatling guns strapped to it — it seems impossible that this film could lose. Sadly, though, the makers of this DC Comics supernatural Western decided to turn it into a saga about preventing terrorism, in the shape of John Malkovich trying to destroy the U.S. government with dragonballs. Every time you think this film is about to do something awesome, the action grinds to a halt so we can have another flashback about how bad the bad guys are and how sad Jonah Hex is about what happened to his family. For an 80-minute movie, this film spends way too much time looking back and brooding. As silly and dumb as this film is, it doesn't manage to revel in its own pulpiness, but instead tries to make us care about dragonball terrorism. Just say no to dragonball terrorism metaphors, people! Our original review, for your reading pleasure.
Given that this film came from the Strause brothers, makers of Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, we shouldn't have hoped for much. But the cool-looking visual effects, showing people being scooped up into the sky by alien ships, made us raise our hopes in spite of ourselves. We shouldn't have — the actual movie, in which a collection of stereotyped characters meet for a party and then are terrorized by brain-sucking aliens, is a pointless disaster. The alien-invasion movie cliches hit us one by one, including the guy punching the alien in its carapace and the characters deciding they should leave the city. It's all so pointless and rehashed from earlier films that when an actual new plot twist arrives in the final moments of the film, you feel like weeping for joy. Here's our original review.
The Last Airbender
Based on the classic television show, M. Night Shyamalan's movie had amazing material to work with, and it took a lot of work on Shyamalan's part to drain all of the life and fun out of that material. Part of it is the fact that he tries to compress an entire season of a television show into a single movie — but that's not the only problem here. The bigger problem is that the fun, engaging characters from the television show become dull mannequins here, trudging through one set piece after another without any conviction or energy. And like a lot of other terrible films this year, Shyamalan bombards us with so much CG cheese and bad 3D that you feel apathetic pretty quickly. Stuff just sort of happens in this movie for no reason, and since the characters don't seem to care, we're not sure why we should either. I wish I could say that Inception is emblematic of the state of movie-making circa 2010, but unfortunately it's closer to say Last Airbender is: pointless, overblown and mind-numbing. (And here's our original review.)
Runners up: Nightmare on Elm Street 3D, After.Life, Monsters, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, When In Rome, Gulliver's Travels.