The first 30 minutes of the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers rivals standout sci-fi films like District 9 and Gattaca in scene-setting ability, transporting the viewer to the year 2019—a dark dystopia where a plague has transformed most of the world’s humans into vampires. Lead vampire hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) works for a pharmaceutical corporation run by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), which is the leading blood supplier in the U.S. Since humans, who the company captures and farms for blood, have become scarce, Dalton is working on a blood-substitute so that the vampire race can survive. Things change, however, when he encounters “Elvis” (Willem Dafoe), a former vampire who knows the cure that can save the human species. Although Daybreakers’ final half hour devolves into a blood-splattered chase film, that shouldn’t take away from its clever premise, stylish production design, and two strong actors—Hawke and Dafoe—giving it their all. Sadly, Daybreakers was released on Jan. 8, (aka big screen purgatory) where it failed to find much of an audience.
2. Fish Tank
Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and the Best British Film recipient at the 2010 BAFTAs, Fish Tank is a gritty, naturalistic bildungsroman reminiscent of Ken Loach’s finest work. The film centers on Mia (Katie Jarvis), a headstrong 15-year-old who lives on an Essex council estate with her alcoholic mother and foul-mouthed younger sister. Mia yearns to be a hip-hop dancer and practices her routine in baggy pants in her room. Things get complicated when she establishes a close relationship with her mother’s boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), a dreamy Irishman who works as a security guard. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Jarvis, who had no prior acting experience and was cast after one of director Andrea Arnold’s assistants saw her arguing with her boyfriend at a train station. And Fassbender, who stole every scene he was in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, is equally captivating in his role. Fish Tank “may begin as a patch of lower-class chaos, but it turns into a commanding, emotionally satisfying movie, comparable to such youth-in-trouble classics as The 400 Blows,” according to The New Yorker critic David Denby.
3. A Prophet
Although A Prophet was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Academy Awards, where it suffered a head-scratching loss, the French film actually wasn’t released stateside until February. Unfortunately, it failed to find much of an audience. It’s the story of Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19-year-old Franco-Arab who is sentenced to six years in a racially divided prison. He soon falls under the wing of César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the leader of a Corsican mafia gang that rules the jail. Behind bars, Malik flourishes, rising up the ranks from César’s boy Friday to a hit man, and then, an eventual drug lord himself. A Prophet is the French Scarface and one of the most compelling crime sagas in recent memory, cementing filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s ( Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) status as one of the finest French directors.
4. Please Give
Though particularly relevant to city dwellers, the latest dramedy from acclaimed writer/director Nicole Holofcener ( Walking and Talking) is an insightful commentary on both the alarming wealth gap and the obsession with social mobility in America. Please Give follows Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a couple living in New York City with their teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele). They buy up furniture for far less than it’s worth at estate sales, spruce it up, and then sell it for huge profits at their furniture store. Kate and Alex want to expand their apartment and have bought the one next to theirs, but they can’t move in until its senile old tenant, Andra (Ann Guilbert), dies. The family befriends Andra’s two granddaughters—Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a kindhearted breast cancer radiology technician, and Mary (Amanda Peet), a narcissistic cosmetologist. Kate becomes overwhelmed by her circumstances—scamming furniture sellers, the homeless people in her neighborhood, the Andra waiting game—and tries to assuage her guilt (unsuccessfully) by volunteering or handing twenty dollar bills to the homeless, much to her daughter’s chagrin. The performances are all great, but it’s the underrated Hall ( Vicky Cristina Barcelona) who steals the show as the film’s moral center. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern said, “This gorgeous film, always tender and sometimes dark, is a deeply resonant comic drama that's concerned with nothing less than life, death, love, sex, guilt and the urban logic of mortality.”
The immature, gross, but more importantly, hilarious feature film adaptation of the popular Saturday Night Live skit about a half-baked explosives expert named MacGruber was no box office hit, despite Lonely Planet’s Jorma Taccone at its helm. The title character, however, is played in brilliant deadpan fashion by former SNL cast member Will Forte, who gets taken off the assignment to track down his arch enemy Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) and tries to beg his way back in to Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe). “I will suck your f---ing d-ck. I'll let you f--- me. I'll f--- you. I'll f--- something. Tell me what you want me to f---. Tell me what you want me to f---!” MacGruber pleads. “What’s wrong with you?!” Dixon replies. Yes, “ MacGruber is crude. It's obscene. The dialogue is puerile and the jokes adolescent. And for the most part, it's hilarious: a bawdy riot drunk on impropriety, which is why the movie works,” said Premiere’s John DeVore. But perhaps, like fellow SNL star Andy Samberg’s underappreciated Hot Rod before it, MacGruber is an acquired taste.
Like Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster hit Inception, this unsettling sci-fi horror film will haunt you days after seeing it. Rogue genetic engineers Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) hope to revolutionize science and medicine by splicing together DNA of different animals—including that of human’s—to create a hybrid creature for research. Their first creation Dren begins to learn and grow at an accelerated rate, forcing the two scientists to house Dren in Elsa’s late mother’s farm—and that’s when the real fun begins. Vincenzo Natali, director of the 1997 cult film Cube, has created “an intelligent movie that, in between its small boos and an occasional hair-raising jolt, explores chewy issues like bioethics, abortion, corporate-sponsored science, commitment problems between lovers and even Freudian-worthy family dynamics,” according to The New York Times’ toughest critic Manohla Dargis. The production design is gorgeous, and the film features—for better or worse—one of the most simultaneously hilarious and disturbing sex scenes of the year.
Marking the Hollywood filmmaking debut of the celebrated mumblecore directing duo Jay and Mark Duplass, this twisted little comedy opened against Toy Story 3 on June 18, getting lost in the shuffle. The film centers on John (John C. Reilly), a divorced schlub who, after meeting Molly (Marisa Tomei) at a party, thinks he may have found the perfect woman. However, he soon realizes that Molly’s grown son Cyrus may be even more into Molly than he is and thus, the two man-children engage in a battle of the minds for Molly’s affections. After starring in one of last year’s funniest films, Humpday, Mark Duplass and his brother Jay successfully wed their largely improvised, mumblecore stylings with Hollywood actors, resulting in a movie that “amuses and unnerves in equal measure,” according to Los Angeles Times’ film critic Kenneth Turan. The Duplasses’ spasmodic camerawork augments the film’s discomfiting feel, and Jonah Hill’s dark, seriocomic turn as Molly’s demented son was so impressive, it earned him a starring role alongside Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of next year’s most anticipated films, Moneyball. Cyrus is basically like a more playful, tender version of David O. Russell’s 1994 black comedy, Spanking the Monkey.
8. Animal Kingdom
2010 was a great year for Australian film in general, with the neo-noir thriller The Square, the aforementioned Daybreakers, and the recently released underrated western, Red Hill. But Animal Kingdom, a captivating study of the Darwinian Australian criminal underworld, helmed by first-time filmmaker David Michôd, takes the cake. The film tells the story of 17-year-old J (James Frecheville), who is forced to live with his Melbourne-based criminal relatives when his mother dies of a heroin overdose. His maternal grandmother, the ruthless Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver), has a borderline-incestuous love for her three sons. J soon finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between the Cody’s and Melbourne's Armed Robbery Squad, as well as a detective, Leckie (Guy Pearce), who wants to save J from a life of crime. Animal Kingdom “suggests an Australian answer to Goodfellas, minus the wise-guy humor,” said Stephen Holden of The New York Times. Plus, the bleached-blond, blue-eyed “Smurf,” brilliantly played by Weaver, is one of the most terrifying mothers in film history; so terrifying, in fact, that she won the award for Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review and has been nominated for a 2011 Golden Globe, as well.
9. Never Let Me Go
Eight years after directing the creepy thriller One Hour Photo, famed music video director Mark Romanek seemed like an odd choice to lead the big screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s breathtaking novel, Never Let Me Go, which many deemed un-filmable. And yet the movie, featuring pitch-perfect turns from Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and breakout star Andrew Garfield ( The Social Network), is heartbreaking. As young children, Kathy (Mulligan), Ruth (Knightley), and Tommy (Garfield), were raised in a seemingly idyllic boarding school in the English countryside. However, when they become young adults, [SPOIILER ALERT] they discover that they are clones who have been harvested to provide organs to severely ill patients and their complicated love triangle starts to unravel. Despite its all-star cast and mostly favorable reviews, many critics were turned off by its mutability, mistaking it for lifelessness, rather than delicate beauty. Never Let Me Go did not even manage to earn $2.5 million stateside—and opening against The Town, Easy A, and other specialty releases like Catfish and Jack Goes Boating certainly didn’t help much.
10. Let Me In
When news first hit that director Tomas Alfredson’s masterful 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In would be given the Hollywood treatment just two years after its release —and by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, no less —more than a few eyebrows were raised. And yet, surprisingly, this heartfelt story of a bullied 12-year-old boy ( The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee) who befriends his new neighbor ( Kick-Ass’ Chloe Moretz), a mysterious young girl who turns out to be a vampire, is actually an improvement from the original. It adds some superbly executed scenes, including a tense action sequence midway through the film, improves the look of the film, and makes the parental figures more three-dimensional characters, including Richard Jenkins’ creepy turn as the vampire’s caretaker, who kills locals and drains them of their blood to feed his little vampire girl. It’s a unique take on the overdone blood-sucking trope, since “the subtext of the relationship is not sexuality, as it is in Twilight or True Blood, but rather the loneliness of children and their often unrecognized reservoirs of rage,” according to A.O. Scott of The New York Times. Sadly, the film got lost amid The Social Network hysteria, failing to scare up much of an audience.
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and is a masters degree recipient from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial dept. of Blender Magazine, as an editor at Amplifier Magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.