There were a number of excellent movies this year. Toy Story 3 had deep emotional resonance. Scott Pilgrim breathed new life into the comic book film. And Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 1 was the best in the series. But it was writer/director Christopher Nolan's Inception that won the coveted spot of best picture. And make no mistake, this is completely a Nolan movie. This does not take away from the great performances of the (to my mind) finally grown-up DiCaprio, the haunting Marion Cotillard, and the ultra cool Joseph Gordon-Levitt (this is the same kid from 10 Things I Hate About You, right?). Many people focused on the technical achievement of this film, and rightly so. But all of that is just smoke and mirrors.
The plot: Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb is someone who engages in industrial espionage by stealing ideas from people's dreams. The tables are turned, however, when he is hired by a businessman (Ken Watanabe), not to steal an idea, but to plant an idea in the mind of a business rival (Cillian Murphy). Cobb gets a crew together consisting of wing-man Arthur (Levitt), heavy-hitter Eames (Tom Hardy), techie Yusef (Dileep Rao), and newbie dream designer Ariadne (Ellen Page). Together they embark on a high stakes mission into the mind.
Even with this set-up, Inception achieves great originality and spectacle, but the fun just begins. Soon, the plan begins to fall apart, causing the group to improvise deeper and deeper into the dream world, each time upping the stakes and the tension. All the while the dream thieves are being haunted by Cobb's wife Mal (Cotillard). What sets this film apart, in the end, is its complexity and its emotional heft. The film acts as a movie version of Russian nesting dolls: action takes place inside of action, inside of action, all happening simultaneously. The effect is a multiplication of thrills because you are not simply experiencing one high tension sequence after another, but instead you see them all at the same time.
But even with this complicated achievement, it is the central mystery, the mystery of Cobb's broken life, that puts this over the top. Something is haunting this man, who is so lost he can barely separate reality from dream. Understanding his pain, his guilt, and his need for redemption makes us desperately desire that he navigate his was through the mental maze of his own making and make it back home.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 1
Toy Story 3
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World