For critics, 2010’s best pics revel in details

'Fighter,' 'Ghost Writer' get small touches just right

2010 films fly or falter amid screen convergence

Getting film critics to agree on anything is a tall order, and thus the overwhelming year-end consensus in favor of “The Social Network,” echoing last year’s across-the-board acclaim for “The Hurt Locker,” is fairly remarkable. Perhaps too remarkable: Given the dominance of David Fincher’s justly celebrated drama — it’s won almost every best picture award and topped almost every poll in sight — a degree of media backlash against the film would seem the logical next step.

Still, of all the darts hurled at ‘Social Network’ (It’s sexist! It’s glib! It’s about a bunch of jerks who don’t change!), the most pointed observation I’ve heard came not from a member of the press but from my sister. She opined that the film, in tracing Mark Zuckerberg’s meteoric rise from geek to giant, omitted an essential component: the tremendous technical expertise that must have gone into creating Facebook.

It should be noted that my sister is an IT consultant with a formidable computer science background (and no Facebook account), and is thus among the handful of moviegoers who could be transfixed by entire sequences devoted to lines and lines of code zipping across the screen. Yet as a relative Luddite, and an ardent admirer of Fincher’s film, even I wanted a higher level of HTML proficiency from “Social Network,” which features only brief glimpses of Facebook pages and generally depicts the act of programming as a drinking-game diversion, a project that Zuckerberg worked on in his free time — rather than a white-hot creative urge that drove the entire project, far more than lust or lucre, from day one.

God is in the details, and part of me hoped Fincher would geek out as obsessively as he did in “Zodiac,” his meticulous re-creation of the decade-spanning investigation of the Bay Area murders. That’s a film that fully immerses you in its subject, even to the point of risking boredom. And it’s precisely that willingness to risk — to focus on nuts and bolts without pandering to the viewer’s attention span — that elevates it, in my mind, to the rarefied realm of great movie art.

The obvious rebuttal is that “Social Network” isn’t really about Facebook, but rather a timeless illustration of how, even in the wake of a game-changing Internet phenomenon, social barriers stemming from differences in class, gender, ethnicity, perceived intelligence and sex appeal remain more clearly demarcated than ever. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In refusing to dramatize, or play into, Facebook’s allure, Fincher and scribe Aaron Sorkin have arguably taken a principled stance: They’ve made a defiantly analog movie about a digital revolution. They’ve sacrificed a measure of the specific to capture the universal.

In this respect, they are hardly alone. Many of the year’s other memorable releases use visual shorthand to describe the mechanics of a complex process. You learn something about the art of ballet in “Black Swan,” the sport of boxing in “The Fighter” and the practice of therapy in “The King’s Speech,” but the representations of these difficult human endeavors are ultimately subjugated to the conventional satisfactions of storytelling. This is less a criticism than an observation — an acknowledgment of the necessary balance these films strike between enlightenment and entertainment, without compromising either too severely.

David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” falls back on the time-honored syntax of the boxing picture: training montages and round-by-round fight coverage pegged to an uplifting underdog saga. The canon of boxing movies is an estimable one, and Russell shoots his fairly conventionally, as though aware of the futility of trying to compete with, say, “Raging Bull.” If anything, he’s liberated by it — free to make “The Fighter” a darkly comic performance piece that’s far more rousing, loose-limbed and unpredictable outside the ring.

The ballet-movie pantheon is considerably smaller, and “Black Swan” surely deserves a place for the verve and beauty of its rehearsal and performance sequences, shot in a muscular handheld style that captures the raw athleticism behind the most delicate gestures. Darren Aronofsky’s filmmaking is keenly attuned to minutiae; the mere act of putting on ballet shoes is depicted as a task requiring incredible patience. And yet, each of the three times I’ve seen “Black Swan,” I wanted that third act to go on longer, even at the risk of losing some momentum — not only to prolong the thrill of Natalie Portman’s transformation, but to allow us to savor the pleasures of “Swan Lake” itself.

Roman Polanski’s devious thriller “The Ghost Writer,” meanwhile, is all about the details. The film might appear overly simplistic; the act of ghost writing is dispensed within a single edit, as the film cuts from a deadline-stressed Ewan McGregor to a shot of book jackets being printed. But in far more significant ways, its steady, patient accretion of clues is precisely what allows its atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia to build so implacably, in a manner sadly out of fashion among most contemporary suspensers. For that matter, I wish there were more films as patient as Anton Corbijn’s underrated “The American,” with its wordless, beautifully observed passages of George Clooney quietly assembling a sniper rifle (and telling us almost nothing about how he intends to use it).

For me, at least two 2010 releases were distinguished by their extreme devotion to process, to the point where the process becomes the movie. Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” offers not just a biographical portrait of a notorious criminal, but an astounding history of international terrorism in the ’70s and ’80s — a project so ambitious and intricate that Assayas required 5 1/2 hours to do it justice. Crammed with dates and incidents, skipping across multiple continents, handily juggling nearly a dozen languages, yet always moving propulsively forward, “Carlos” adopts a maximalist procedural approach. Crucially, this panoramic view captures psychology along with action, the big picture along with the small. (Not coincidentally, Assayas has cited “Zodiac” as a key influence.)

And finally, given my predilection for nuts and bolts, it was perhaps inevitable that I’d fall for one of the year’s more critically divisive pictures, “Inception.” Some carped that Christopher Nolan’s mind-bender sacrificed some character depth and emotional immediacy, and it never stops explaining itself, never stops establishing rules within rules. But such intricate gamesmanship is one of the great underappreciated pleasures of the movies, and “Inception” creates a dreamscape that’s eminently worth expounding on. The dialogue may not sizzle like Sorkin’s, but whereas Fincher made a movie about geeks, Nolan made a movie for them: Call it “The Subconscious Network.”