Susan Tavernetti's top films


10. Black Swan

Ballerinas gone mad. How many times have we seen this story of obsession with one's art, subservience to an authoritarian ballet impresario and rivalry with another dancer? But director Darren Aronofsky's lurid drama has the kick of a paranoid fever dream -- with one toe shoe delicately performing the role of the White Swan of "Swan Lake" and the other dancing on the grave. Natalie Portman's fixation on finding the black swan within should result in her pirouetting to an Oscar nomination.

9. The Tillman Story

Amir Bar-Lev's documentary illustrates that truth is the first casualty of war. The U.S. military and Bush administration used the tragic death of Pat Tillman, the NFL star-turned-Army Ranger killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004, as a propaganda tool. Engrossing and infuriating, the expose reveals the extent of the cover-up. Through painstaking research and an iron resolve, the mother of the late San Jose native spearheaded the family's search for the facts. As her surviving son states, "She hit it out of the park but the government kept moving the fence." The nonfiction film honors Pat Tillman in ways that a fabricated heroism never could.

8. The King's Speech

The subtle artistry of David Seidler's screenplay and Tom Hooper's direction makes this blue-blood biopic easy to dismiss as a crowd-pleaser featuring astounding performances. But there's much more to what you see -- and hear. The invention of radio has changed the image game: No longer can a Brit royal appear regal by merely looking respectable in uniform and staying atop his horse. As the man who would become King George VI and lead his subjects through times of crisis, Colin Firth stammers through personal and class conflicts with his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) until he no longer stumbles over his words.

7. Un Prophete (A Prophet)

Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film last year (and released in the Bay Area in 2010), Jacques Audiard's riveting French prison drama traces the troubled life of a young Arab (Tahar Rahim) who reluctantly slashes a snitch in the first reel and then climbs to self-made crime boss while behind bars. The Gallic grime-and-crime saga has the sophisticated restraint of a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster classic of the 1960s. Multi-ethnic prison gang wars, startling violence, and a Corsican mobster (Niels Arestrup) channeling Don Vito Corleone are only a handful of reasons to watch one of the most assured French films in years.

6. The Ghost Writer

Few can fill every frame with ominous dread and white-knuckle tension like Roman Polanski. And Pawel Edelman's lensing gives the twisty political thriller a cool gray-blue look with warning splashes of red. As the ghost writer hired to tweak the memoirs of a retired Tony Blair-like prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), Ewan McGregor plunges into paranoid fantasies. Or is he a Hitchcockian "wrong man" in the midst of a real conspiracy? A master filmmaker, Polanski seems to imbue the film with his personal feelings of persecution and inability to rewrite the past.

5. Inside Job

The horror flick of the year, Charles Ferguson's clear-eyed documentary exposes the Wall Street, economist and investment-banking vampires whose insatiable lust for money triggered the economic crisis of 2008. Ferguson doggedly asks the tough questions to lay bare the manipulations and deceptions that led to massive private gains at public loss. Depicting such activities as the gutting of regulations and the "analyses" of financial practices, the nonfiction film about the culture of greed and corruption should scare us into fighting for change. (It pairs well with Alex Gibney's "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.")

4. Toy Story 3

As much fun as a Barrel of Monkeys and as dear as a well-loved teddy bear, the third animated film of Pixar's "Toy" series has 17-year-old Andy bound for college. What will become of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang? Director Lee Unkrich and his team sustain the perfect tone, balancing the playful power of imagination with serious themes about growing up, change and loss. Completely accessible yet sophisticated, the bittersweet tale resonates with anyone who has packed away the carefree days of childhood or who has fought for their dignity and survival in a world that no longer treasures them.

3. The Kids Are All Right

Lisa Cholodenko's high-concept dramedy feels timely and truthful rather than contrived. Everything about the "Mothers Know Best" family seems ordinary -- until the two kids decide to track down their sperm-donor biological father. Turns out the anonymous donor-dad is a hip, motorcycle-riding restaurateur (Mark Ruffalo), who destabilizes the marriage of the longtime lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). Funny and smart with the year's best ensemble cast, the irresistible romp addresses the meaning of family in the modern world.

2. Winter's Bone

Regional filmmaking meets riveting conspiracy thriller in co-writer/director Debra Granik's spare adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel about a Missouri girl trying to find her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father. The indie gem about hardship and codes of silence in the crank-addicted backwoods of the Ozarks features complex characters in a taut screenplay. As a teenager shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood, Jennifer Lawrence gives a raw performance that cuts straight to the bone.

1. The Social Network

What may be the defining film of the decade, David Fincher's drama about the founding of Facebook intrigues, enthralls and reflects on the social-media site that has forever changed the world. A sharp look at the intersection of creativity, entrepreneurial acumen and ethics, and the nature of friendships, the movie has potent content to match its dark visual style. Whether spewing Aaron Sorkin's brilliant dialogue or brooding intensely, Jesse Eisenberg boldly plays Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student-turned Palo Altan who invents the digital-era phenomenon. Definitely share this with your friends.

Note: Susan Tavernetti decided not to write a pans list this year. She was fortunate enough not to be assigned any films bad enough to qualify for a "Worst Five" list," she said.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Guy Montag
a resident of another community
on Jan 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm

In his “The Fog of War” interview with Jason Guerrasio, Amir Bar-Lev, the director of “The Tillman Story,” said: “… there’s been no culpability on the second half of this tragedy, which is the higher ups trying to cover it up. … to borrow a football metaphor, they [the Tillman family] ran the ball 99 yards over four years time, they handed it off at the one-yard line to Congress and they fumbled it...."

Shortly after Sundance, Bar-Lev emailed me that “he was pretty hard on the Democratic Congress in his film.” True, his film does portray Congressman Waxman’s Oversight Committee as ineptly failing to get answers from the top military leadership during their hearing.

However, Bar-Lev’s film missed the ”untold story” that the Democratic Congress and the Obama Presidency shielded General Stanley McChrystal from public scrutiny of his central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death. This cover-up was a thoroughly bi-partisan affair. It wasn’t just a case of the Bush administration and the Army stonewalling the Democratic Congress. Congress didn’t just “fumble” the ball, they threw the game.

It’s not surprising that after their initial cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death fell apart, Army officers and the Bush administration lied to protect their careers. But after they took control of Congress in 2006, the Democrats (including Congressman Henry Waxman, Senator Carl Levin, and Senator Jim Webb)could have gone after those responsible. Or at least not promoted them!

Just before the 2006 mid-term elections, Kevin Tillman published his eloquent letter, “After Pat’s Birthday”. Kevin had hoped a Democratic Congress would bring accountability back to our country. But, just as with warrantless wiretapping and torture, those responsible for the cover-up of his brother’s friendly-fire death have never been held accountable for their actions.

See "The Tillman Story" when it comes out on DVD 2/1. To learn more, read Mary Tillman's "Boots on the Ground by Dusk" (preview at, or Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory" (revised paperback), or the posts at Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Guy Montag
a resident of another community
on Jan 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm

See "The Tillman Story" when it comes out on DVD 2/1. To learn more, read Mary Tillman's "Boots on the Ground by Dusk" (preview at, or Jon Krakauer's "Where Men Win Glory" (revised paperback), or the Tillman Files posted at Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 7, 2011 at 10:07 pm

"What may be the defining film of the decade..."

"clear-eyed documentary exposes the Wall Street, economist and investment-banking vampires..."

Leftist drivel without context. Nothing surprising, because it it de riguer among the film critic circles, yet, it is so tiresome.

Tavernetti is reflexive of her own time...uncritical of the "documentary" style. She has very little real experience, and it shows in her reviews. She is not unusual, in this context, but we should all be aware that her reviews are loaded with her own biases. She sounds like she lives in Paris.

Like this comment
Posted by Norman
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 9, 2011 at 9:37 pm

The Social Network? A drama? What was the drama. Here's the movie: Zuckerberg writes code, steals the idea from the Harvard rowers, gets sued for screwing his old buddy over, settles the case. There is no drama in Zuck. He's the same jerk in the end as he was in the beginning. And we know how its going to work out. All of the critics love this movie but we won't give a damn about it in one year let alone saying its going to last ten. My vote: The Black Swan. Now there is drama and a performance.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 4,092 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 1,201 views

Premarital and Couples: "You're Not Listening to Me!" may mean "I don't feel heard."
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 1,066 views

All those things our city does – and doesn’t -- do
By Diana Diamond | 6 comments | 1,003 views

Migraines and motherhood
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 593 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.