Even though theaters were focused on 3D and IMAX presentations this year to keep people coming to the theater, the best movies of 2010 aren’t necessarily big epic films—in fact they are kind of all over the map. Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies of 2010.
Runners up that just missed the cut: ‘Red Riding’ Trilogy, Never Let Me Go, Another Year, The King’s Speech, Animal Kingdom, Best Worst Movie, Winter’s Bone, Let Me In, Shutter Island, Inside Job, Catfish, 127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right, The Killer Inside Me
If there were a higher value placed on innovation and originality in the world, Edgar Wright’s kinetic slapstick comedy for a new generation “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” would be on every top 10 list of the best movie 2010. More than every other film this year, “Pilgrim” feels like it’s in its own world—one bristling with excitement. The flush of falling in love has never been rendered with so much energy before. On a technical level, the film struts its prowess through unique visual effects, wild art direction, and slam-bang editing. What makes it different from every other film out there is that all this technical wizardry doesn’t exist in an attempt to recreate reality, it exists to heighten it. For a generation raised on videogames and comic books, the larger than life magical realism of “Pilgrim” is the next logical step in movie storytelling. If only the third act wouldn’t have been such a letdown, it would be a lot higher on this list too.
Roman Polanski and the Coen brothers are master storytellers and, although neither turned in classics on the par of say “Chinatown” or “Fargo” this year, their 2010 films turned decent novels into great movies. Olivia Williams is the cynical black heart at the center of “The Ghost Writer,” a mystery that delves deep into the behind-the-scenes machinations of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). Ewan McGregor is the stand-in for the audience as the title character, but its Williams’ fascinating turn as his embittered wife and Polanski’s grim gray tones that keep the film rooted in its paranoia. “True Grit” is a post-modern take on a traditional Western, with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld all handling old-timey Biblical speech like the punchline to some sick joke. The Coens’ penchant for existentialism is fully there, right down to the last scene, which avoids getting sentimental even as it seems it was designed that way. Thanks to their clear vision, “True Grit” ends up being one of the most satisfying and funny Westerns in years.
Leave it to director David O. Russell to take what could have been a typical underdog boxing story and turn it into a battle of grotesques. Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams all take their turns being supportive and destructive for perennially down-on-his-luck boxer and wet blanket “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg). And don’t even get me started on his sisters…yikes. (Is it exploitation or camp?) Russell is on fire here, doing as much as he can to stay away from familiarity. Cutting in the story of an HBO doc about Ward’s crack addicted brother (a wiry Bale, Oscar-bound) adds another level of toxicity to the movie, one that seems to elude all of its characters but one. Its Adams who becomes the voice of reason and who gets the courage to finally stand up to Mickey’s family, but even she begins to fall into the same traps. When the last half hour finally start clicking like a sports movie should, it’s kind of a welcome relief. But in anybody else’s hands, “The Fighter” could have been as generic as its name.
Christopher Nolan is nothing if not dazzling. He’s had plenty of big ideas (“The Prestige”), big set pieces (“The Dark Knight”), and big puzzles (“Memento”) in his short filmmaking career thus far. It just so happens that he can tell a smart, layered genre story better than almost anyone out there right now. “Inception” is about as clever as action movies can get. Nolan lays out the framework for one of the most elaborate heists in film history—and it all takes place in the mind. Unlike most dreamworld movies, though, it sets up its emotional stakes and follows its rules so that the action sequences thrill and the drama deepens as the plot gets more convoluted. Nolan is a classy guy, so his visual effects aren’t all CGI and thus have the sting of realism—even in dreams. But with multiple viewings, it’s the tragic romance of Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard that sticks with me. The fact that Nolan is able to make something like that stick in a mind-trip like “Inception” is nothing short of incredible.
South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho has such a firm grasp on tone that “Mother,” a genre-defying dizzy of darkness and seemingly inappropriate comedy, never loses its way. It’s anchored by Kim Hye-ja, who in a towering performance, is able to convey resolute determination in the craziest of circumstances as she tries to clear her mentally handicapped son of an awful murder. Despite all the bizarre twists and turns (the script is very shrewd in what it reveals and when), she also manages to make the campiest and most overprotective Mom this side of “Mommie Dearest” seem sympathetic. Sometimes a movie makes you laugh at its sheer gall, but it’s rare that the same movie can make you laugh at it (and with it) and break your heart at the same time.
Director Derek Cianfrance’s wrenching family drama is one of those unflinchingly honest movies that you have to see to believe, even if you may only want to see it once. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a young married couple with a daughter who are barely hanging on. The acting is so good it hardly feels like acting and the handheld camerawork and bare-bones cinema verite style make the movie seem even more realistic. The dissolution of their relationship is made all the more tragic because the story of their initial romance is told at the same time in flashbacks. You want honesty in film? Here it is. Real-life alienation isn’t pretty and it doesn’t contain easy explanations. This is an emotionally bruising movie full of a lot of hard truths, and by spotlighting key moments in the couple’s relationship without the aid of a big score or other easily-coded filmic devices, Cianfrance creates a pretty clear and tragic picture of these two very normal people.
Documentary or prank? Actually, it’s probably a little bit of both, which is no surprise considering it comes from the controversial graffiti artist known as Banksy. Much like his best-known pieces, it takes one work of art (the documentary form) and drops another one (an intersecting narrative of dubious quality) on top of it. When one takes over the other, it’s unclear what is real and what is not, but the point of the film—its ultimate truth—is brilliantly realized. The place where art and commerce collide has always been a difficult intersection, and this clever movie illuminates that while taking a turn that makes you question the validity of everything you’ve seen. Just when you think you have a handle on where this movie is going—trust me, you don’t. “Catfish” was a well-told documentary that seemed too perfect for its own good, but “Exit” feels like a work of art that relies implicitly on the audience being smart enough to ask questions. Ultimately, those questions are what makes the movie what it is.
I suppose it’s fitting that “Toy Story 3” comes in at number three, but it’s no coincidence. Simply put, Pixar are consistent kings of storytelling and this third movie in the “Toy Story” series is the most moving and poignant of them all. It has all the clever jokes and smart writing that all Pixar movies have, but it also mixes in a good dash of palpable danger that most kids’ movies are afraid to shoot for. Pixar doesn’t pander to their audience; they tell well-rounded stories for all ages. Everybody can relate to the difficulties of growing up and how hard it is to keep the friendships that mean so much to you, and those are the themes this series has been playing with for years. This sequel, directed by Lee Unkrich, is so good that I hope they don’t make a “Toy Story 4.” It really is the perfect ending to all the ideas laid out in the other two.
Darren Aronofsky is on a roll. In 2008, he directed “The Wrestler,” the best movie of that year—and is back now with number two of 2010—a kind of companion piece to “The Wrestler” called “Black Swan.” Like Mickey Rourke before her, Natalie Portman lives for one thing and one thing only: Her art. As a young but experienced ballerina named Nina Sayers, she craves perfection on the stage and it affects everything she does on the stage. Things start to get really disturbing for her once she’s offered the lead in “Swan Lake,” and the obsession with perfection engulfs her. The movie chronicles in surreal fashion how Nina internalizes that struggle but when her hang-ups become external as well, “Black Swan” achieves a rare cinematic bliss. Portman is perfect; she plays naive, innocent, haunted, and driven all at the same time. Melodrama has rarely felt so horrific (sometimes its also very campy), and even though it may seem difficult to sympathize with our heroine at first, by the time “Black Swan” has ended, it’s easier to sympathize with her struggle and her sacrifice. Succeed at all costs? That’s a motto both Randy the Ram and Nina Sayers can relate to.
Who knew that writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher would make such a complicated, thrilling movie out of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook”? “The Social Network” is the best movie of the year—it’s at once a celebration of big, ground-shifting ideas and an indictment of the poisonous culture that can surround those ideas.Jesse Eisenberg comes off with the calculated coldness of a guy with an incalculably huge chip on his shoulder, Andrew Garfield plays trusting and empathetic well, and Justin Timberlake has enough ‘cool’ for everyone in the movie, while all three punctuate how smart these guys are. The class warfare and social strata statements are layered right in with everything else, never once feeling preachy or obvious. When people look back at the last 10 years and how fundamentally the Internet has changed all of our lives, they are going to point to this movie and say: “This is what it was like to be there.” “The Social Network” is a briskly paced examination of what it truly means to be social (and anti-social) in this day and age, but it’s also full of all the in-fighting, inflated ego, unchecked ambition, and backstabbing that’s there in any good soap opera. What’s amazing about it is how effortless it all feels and how many hot-button issues it explores in just two hours.