2010 might not have been the strongest year for movies, but it was an interesting and transitional one for the medium of film as a whole. If the art of cinema wasn’t’ always apparent, technique and delivery were constantly evolving.
Although most of 2010 ran like an eternal movie summer with big shiny popcorn flicks playing from January onward, there was no discernible lack of quality in the films that actually ended up being worthwhile. Of course there were sequels and remakes and flimsy conceits churned out to cash-in on the latest craze of 3-D. Many of these were instantly forgettable, and at worst nearly unbearable. Still, strewn through the multiplex and the indie film scene alike, there were great films.
I’m not writing this article to talk about what was lacking in 2010. We can save that for another conversation. This list and the ones to follow were written to celebrate those treasures that made 2010 another wonderful year. The following movies are the ones I consider to be the best of the best; films I’ll be watching over and over for years to come.
To begin, here are five honorable mentions that just fell short of the main list.
The Runners Up:
Although it jumps through some familiar narrative hoops, this gentle throwback about a 30′s hermit throwing himself a pre-funeral party is a feast of great acting and old-fashioned filmmaking. The trio of Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray and Lucas Black make Get Low a pleasure to watch, but it’s Duvall’s entrancing tour de force as the backwoods recluse that lifts the film above it’s melodramatic pedigree. When his Felix takes the stage at film’s end, revealing decades old secrets and stepping out of the darkness for the first time, everything comes crashing into sharp, poignant focus.
Toy Story 3
With as much to offer parents as it does their children, Toy Story 3 continues Pixar’s tradition of worthy family entertainments that stand-up to multiple viewings. The third installment doesn’t just give us a richer and more vibrant visual palette, but also a more melancholic and poignant bent as Woody, Buzz and company learn the value of adapting in the face of time and loss of purpose. The result is an animated films that is more mature then one would expect, and more joyous than any recent meditation on aging. Once again those heroic toys travel to infinity and beyond!
Matthew Porterfield’s thoughtful and meditative look at a small Baltimore community in the wake of the death of one it’s younger members. Utilizing a naturalistic style that evokes the feel of an authentic documentary, Porterfield both magnifies and obscures the binding ties and unseen chords that knit together the residents of areas like Putty Hill. Truthful and elegiac in equal measure, it’s a picture that takes some warming to but rewards the viewer with characters who are breathtakingly real and vivid, all the way down to their flaws. Porterfield sees Baltimore differently than his predecessors Levinson and Waters, but his technique and his ability are no less powerful. I look forward to more from this unique filmmaker.
Jennifer Lawrence steers Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone with a steady and nuanced performance as Ree Dolly, a tenacious Ozark mountain girl who’s search for her father takes her into dark and shadowy terrain. We have had a number of strong female characters in genre film this year, including Maddie Ross and Lisbeth Salander, but Lawrence’s Ree bests them all with a plausibility that makes her journey both heartbreaking and triumphant. Folksy and unnerving, Winter’s Bone is one of the year’s best mystery thrillers.
A deliriously mounted genre mash-up that combines elements as disparate as Stephen King, The Beatles, Japanese pop art and American conspiracy thrillers, Golden Slumber is a work that feels electric fresh at the same time it’s comfortingly familiar. Ostensibly a comedic thriller based around the concept of an everyman hero framed in a Lee Harvey Oswald-esque assassination, it delivers witty humor, snarky social critique and a sneaky and rewarding humanistic bent. Director Yoshihiro Nakamura brought us the crazy and lovable Fish Story last year, and does it again here with helpful serial killers, clandestine plots and rescued pop stars to tell a story about the bounds of friendship and the power of memory.
The Top Ten
10. How To Train Your Dragon
As thrilling and as immediate as a live-action blockbuster, this adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s book series is the most rewarding animated feature of the year. While not as thematically driven or poignant as Toy Story 3, Dragon is the more full-bodied entertainment. The voicework and animation meld together to create characters that expand beyond the screen and the relationship between Hiccup and the dragon Toothless evokes the wild wonder of The Black Stallion. One of the best uses of 3-D yet seen, Dragon also finds time for action sequences so stirring that my inner 8 yr old rejoiced and remembered that first time he saw the assault on the Death Star.
9. The Town
Ben Affleck’s exceptionally strong sophmore effort is fashioned like an old 40’s crime thriller with terrifically updated chase sequences and a prominent sense of fatalism. The Town is well named for the way in which it makes the city of Boston its own living, breathing character that steals nearly every scene. That’s not easy to do either considering the strong cast and the ingenious and intuitive ways that Affleck utilizes them. The entire ensemble gives it their all, but Rebecca Hall as a sympathetic and soft-hearted bank teller and Postlethwaite as a rabid gangster hiding inside a frail florist are breathtaking. Affleck is currently two for two as a director, and he’s shaping up to be as good as his contemporaries. At this rate, Scorsese and Mann can expect some stiff competition.
8. Certified Copy
Certified Copy has two things going for it right away; it takes place in an old-world Italian village and it stars luminsecent French actress Juliette Binoche. I’m a sucker for both, and Iranian-born filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami draws the beauty and grace from these subjects with the patient skill of a master artisan. When art-critic James Miller (William Shimell) goes on a book tour in Italy, he winds up meeting a gorgeous but harried French antiquarian who drives him off to a gorgeous hamlet in Tuscany where they swap stories, philosophies and an apparent history. Who they are to each other, and where the film is leading them is less important than the drama that unspools in the picturesque spaces between their banter. Binoche gives a performance of weary exasperation and hopeful expectation and Shimell matches her as a man both heartfelt andpragmatic, whose greatest fault is his ability to balance the two.Here is a picture full of cheerful and sometimes aching life, with images as lovely as any captured on film.
7. 127 Hours
There are those terrible moments in life where you make a significant mistake and then the universe and time slow down and let you drink in the complete tragedy of your folly. Danny Boyle’s surprisingly entertaining and even heartening 127 Hours captures one of those moments—lasting the titular timeframe—for Aaron Ralston. Ralston, the real-life daredevil rock climber who found himself trapped in a chasm with a boulder pinned against his right arm, is portrayed with fearless gusto and introspective spirit by James Franco. Given the limitations of the tale they are telling both Franco and Boyle, who has always had difficulty with third acts, up their game and hone their craft and find clever and imaginative ways to make Ralston’s ordeal not just engrossing but invigorating.. The very traits that trap Ralston also come to his rescue, and no film has ever made the pre-emptive breaking of one’s bones such a triumphant cinematic moment. Boyle’s most successful film to date.
6. True Grit
The Coen Brothers understated and surprisingly literate adaptation of Charles Portis’ True Grit is a heartfelt and joyful pleasure. The brothers skew closer to Portis’ portrayal of the West as a mythic and harsh world containing characters both emotionally larger and morally stronger than they initially seem. In addition to Roger Deakin’s evocative but subdued cinematography, there’s Carter Burwell’s lyrical folksy score that reconstructs classic hymns like ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ into a rugged and lilting soundscape. Bridges is majestically grizzled and gruffly sympathetic in his portrayal of marshall Rooster Cogburn, but it is newcomer Hailee Stanfield as the young and impetuous Maddie Ross that takes the film to the next level. Stanfield hits all the right notes as a girl growing into a woman who can both endure the hardships of the West and meet them with a steadfast and determined heart. In a time when new westerns are few and far between, True Grit shows up to rekindle the homefires and set them burning anew.
Bridging that precarious gap between engrossing popcorn thriller and fastidious slow-burn mindbender, Inception might be the film on this list that benefits most from repeat viewings. Not to puzzle through the mystery, mind you, but to fully appreciate the film’s concealed emotional core. To call this movie striking from a visual standpoint would be a too-vague understatement. The way Nolan melds the twisting, folding cities and materializing steam engines into the unassuming fabric of the mundane is more reminscent of the work of French visualist Jean Cocteau than the overheated imagery of modern cinematic dream fantasies. Inception’s internal themes dealing with the ways in which we dream and make the art of dreaming a collaborative process (whether we know it or not) aren’t just interesting, they are inspiring in their subtleness. Nolan has built his film sturdy, both inside and out. Inception’s heist has been devised with a structurally elegant geometry that serves as holding box for an entire jungle of organic and wild growing wonders. What a terrific entertainment.
4. A Prophet
Un Prophète is captivating, unrelenting and even epic as it goes about its business of turning a familiar, well-worn story of one man’s growing up in a violent prison system into an engrossing character study. Audiard tells a simple tale in a complex, socially volatile environment and he arranges the film’s scenes with a painter’s grace and a street fighter’s avarice. Whole passages of A Prophet are devised as face-to-face confrontations between Niel Astrup’s wily old Caesar and Tahar Rahim’s young and inexeperienced Malik. Both men give powerhouse performances and their chemistry together is the stuff of crime movie perfection. The cinematography and score are stand-alone works of beauty that come together to adorn the film’s centerpiece of moral uncertainty and relentless ambition. Audiard studies human nature and racial discord with a dangerously close magnification and what emerges is a fantastic, moving film that has a real weight and a substance to it.
3. Red Riding Trilogy
Although it stretches across several decades, five hours and three ‘separate’ films, Red Riding forms a cohesive and singular work of art. Inspired by the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, this BBC production is no less ambitiously cinematic simply because it’s been developed for the small screen. Three different directors and three different styles combine to show the ripple effects of a tragic killing spree, pervasive police corruption and a shady real estate conspiracy on one changing community. Thanks to those varied styles, Red Riding coalesces into a consistently gripping and intensely fascinating dramatic thriller. I was personally impressed by how intricate and yet accessible the plotting of the film is, and how deftly it transitions between approaches. To be sure, some of the accents are thick enough to require subtitles, but Riding speaks clearly enough through its own cinematic language that the tale it’s telling isn’t likely to be soon forgotten.
2. The Black Swan
Natalie Portman is breathtaking and brilliant as Nina, the psychologically fragile ballet dancer who spirals down into madness and delusion. Built from similar materials as Michael Powell’s other ballet and obsession classic The Red Shoes, Aaronofsky’s Swan is the kind of film that slowly creeps up and reveals layers and textures you never even knew existed. This is especially true of Portman’s work, who has the tricky job of capturing the dedication, transcendence and pressure of artistic expression while also taking her character into darker, stranger places. That dark side of the artist is something that Aaronofsky has explored to some degree in every one of his other movies and in Black Swan, he devises a final twenty minutes that put an elegant and audacious cap on that particular theme. A film that you don’t need to love ballet or horror to enjoy, but that would never have worked without both of those pieces. Next to The Fountain, this is Aaronofsky’s best work.
1. The King’s Speech
It would be easy to dismiss Tom Hooper’s sublime film as one more piece of Weinstein Oscar bait but that would fail to account for just how entertaining and compelling The King’s Speech actually is. Although it deals mostly with King George VI’s stammering problem and the efforts of Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to help him manage it, Speech is always engrossing and tells a story that grows in immediacy and power. Firth and Rush give performances that transcend mere imitation and instead create fictional portraits that burn brightly within the historical reality. Bonham Carter takes time off from playing freaks to embody a practical, patient and caring wife who strives to see her husband succeed both as a king and as a man. Finally, hats off to Hooper who makes the best film of the year out of a story that seems, initially, small and inconcsequential. Albert learns that the presentation of his resolve to his subjects is as important as the resolve itself. The same is true of cinema, and The King’s Speech delivers its convictions in the form of a wonderful and inspiring picture which will likely call me back many times over the years. It is hard to ask more from a film than that.