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Critic's Notebook: Movies show a kinder, gentler side in 2010

Many movies in 2010 were served up light and over easy, with "True Grit." "Alice in Wonderland," "The Social Network," "The Fighter" and "The King's Speech" among those offering charming, winsome or uplifting entertainment.

January 01, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit."
Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn… (Lorey Sebastian, Paramount…)

There were hints of what was to come when Sandra Bullock's good-hearted Memphis mom in "The Blind Side" blindsided everyone in 2009 and even Quentin Tarantino staunched the blood flow a bit as his "Inglourious Basterds" stacked up Nazi scalps. But in 2010, across the vast cinematic landscape, a softer side began to emerge in nearly all genres, affecting, and reflecting, filmmakers and actors alike. Quite simply, movies, and moviemakers, became nicer.

Case in point: Set the Coen brothers' "True Grit" alongside "No Country for Old Men" or even their bloodless "A Serious Man" and it's as if the boys themselves underwent a charming conversion with their very winning and winsome western. As significantly, "True Grit" would suggest that, wrapped up right, nice can be both critically acclaimed and audience-embraced.

Let me hasten to inject that dark, angry, edgy, brooding, bloody films certainly didn't disappear — just look at the run of bleak end-of-year movies, such as "Blue Valentine" and "Biutiful" — nor am I advocating that they should. Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," of which I'm an admitted fan, is arguably even darker than "The Wrestler" of a few years back. On the other hand, "The Wrestler's" stars — Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei — definitely had more fun in 2010, he in "The Expendables," she in "Cyrus."

And being nice didn't always equate with being good. There is a long list of misses on that score. "Eat Pray Love" comes to mind, a movie that even Julia Roberts' 100-watt smile couldn't salvage. It's just that when done right, nice proved to be just what the doctor ordered.

How much have things changed? Consider David Fincher's "The Social Network," which brilliantly captured the birth of a cultural revolution and is the leading contender for best picture. Last year in that slot it was Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war story "The Hurt Locker" — a dark adrenaline rush.

While Jeremy Renner's fearless soldier had a scary genius for dismantling bombs, the war around him remained unwinnable and the bombs never stopped being made. In contrast, Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg developed a devastatingly stoic style haggling over intellectual property rights but at the end of the day gave us a technological advancement that did make it a smaller world, after all.

And now, a sampling of the swells who helped make the movies slightly more inviting, gracious, good-humored and forgiving. All in all, a peach of a trend.

The nerds aren't out for revenge

There was a seismic attitude adjustment among the geek crowd, led by Edgar Wright's inventive "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." The angry itch that ran through "Superbad," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and went really dark with Seth Rogen in "Observe and Report" nearly disappeared. In its place we got Michael Cera's Scott on a high-flying fantasy quest to vanquish his girlfriend's evil exes, Keir Gilchrist's sociable if suicidal nerd in a psych ward in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "It's Kind of a Funny Story," and Jonah Hill as the responsible party in a world of outrage in "Get Him to the Greek."

No more running with scissors

And no more wire hangers. Families for the most part bonded and supported each other through their differences and difficulties. It was an eclectic mix of texture and tone, virtually all of it engaging, starting with Nicole Holofcener's musing over whether charity truly begins at home in "Please Give," with its two families colliding in a New York City hallway; "Cyrus," with Marisa Tomei as a single mother sorting out the troubles between her two main squeezes; and the sleeper indie hit of "City Island" with Andy Garcia's patriarch just one of many keeping family secrets.

Topping that list are two award favorites — "The Kids Are All Right," with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as two moms trying to keep the ties that bind, and "Winter's Bone," which, though darker than the others, revolves around Jennifer Lawrence as an Ozark teen taking care of her kin by any means necessary.

They came in from the cold

When it came to espionage and mercenaries, the black-ops trade went lighter, and, for once, age was an asset. In "Red," payback was a @#%$*, with Bruce Willis getting an assist from a machine-gun-toting Helen Mirren, while Sylvester Stallone envisioned guerrilla warfare for the AARP set in "The Expendables."

Mean girls lost the election

Emma Stone's good girl looking for a bad rep in "Easy A" took on high school angst with a lot of cheek and charm. In the tradition of "Glee," the problems somehow seemed manageable and the cool kids were only lukewarm. In "Alice in Wonderland," from director Tim Burton (talk about someone going to the light side), you knew that Mia Wasikowska's Alice had her coming-of-age issues in hand. Even Rapunzel's long "Tangled" imprisonment didn't dampen her verve.

Directors didn't cut

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