As usual, I begin by noting some of the acclaimed films or fan favorites that didn’t quite make the cut this year: The Oscar-nominated 127 Hours is a gorgeous-looking film but ultimately can’t escape the trappings of its limited plot; audiences understandably shied away from “the Movie About the Guy Who Cuts His Own Arm Off.” Another Oscar-nominated film, Kids are All Right, is a good example of a movie that suffers from the high expectations generated by glowing reviews. Annette Bening is terrific but the overall story left me wanting more. Another great acting performance is delivered by Javier Bardem in Biutiful, and while I’m a big fan of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, this is the feel-bad movie of the year, so bleak, so depressing, that like last year’s Precious it’s difficult for me to recommend. At the other end of the spectrum, I appreciated Scott Pilgrim versus the World well enough for its flashy style and inventiveness, but its endless battle sequences grow tiresome fast. Finally, Ben Affleck’s highly regarded crime drama, The Town, while well-executed, suffers from an unsympathetic protagonist and characters that appear to be in an F-Bomb-dropping competition (with exaggerated Bah-stin accents).
But enough stalling. Here were my favorite movies of 2010:
10. Winter’s Bone. A 17-year old girl (Jennifer Lawrence) sets out on a journey to find her missing father, who’s skipped bail, in this haunting film set in the backwoods of the Ozarks. It’s difficult to believe that this story takes place in modern-day America and not in some other century or post-apocalyptic setting. Both the film and Jennifer Lawrence are deserving of their Oscar nominations.
9. Toy Story 3. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of the gang are back in Pixar’s clever and touching story about the fate of toys abandoned when their child owner grows up. Surprisingly melancholy, it still manages simultaneously to generate laughs while pulling at the heartstrings. Is Pixar even capable of making a movie that’s less than great?
8. Black Swan. In this edge-of-your-seat, psychological horror film, an ambitious ballet dancer struggles to embrace her dark side in order to master the role of the black swan in “Swan Lake.” Natalie Portman makes a lasting impression as the troubled ballerina and Barbara Hershey is particularly creepy as her domineering stage-mom. My only reservation is that the movie cheats – alternating between reality and delusion to “trick” the audience – and, as a result, becomes a bit one-note about three quarters of the way through. Still, the soaring music, the great performances and the unsettling story make Black Swan unforgettable.
7. Please Give. The year’s best indie stars Catherine Keehner and Oliver Platt as a married couple who purchase undervalued items at estate sales and mark them up for resale at their chic Manhattan furniture store. When they look to expand their apartment by buying the unit next door owned by an elderly woman, they form a relationship with the unpleasant old lady and her two granddaughters (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet). While short on plot, Please Give is an honest, slice-of-life movie that examines in an effective and understated manner the different ways in which everyday people deal with guilt.
6. The King’s Speech. Colin Firth deserves the best-actor crown for his portrayal of King George VI, the stuttering monarch tasked with delivering an inspiring speech to his subjects in the days leading up to World War II. When his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) engages the services of an unconventional Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), an unlikely friendship develops between these two men in this uplifting British drama.
5. True Grit. The Coen Brothers resurrect the rollicking, beautifully shot Western in yet another movie, like Winter’s Bone, about a missing father and a young girl’s odyssey. Hailee Steinfeld steals the movie as the unusually mature14-year-old on a quest for justice, and Jeff Bridges is terrific as well (though he delivers half of his dialogue in an incomprehensible growl) as the U.S. Marshal she hires to track down her father’s murderer.
4. Inception. Hands down the year’s most inventive film, this science fictional “heist movie” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the leader of a team of agents who enter the dreams of corporate rivals to hijack their secrets. It is a classic Christopher Nolan film, a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream “puzzle movie” in the vein of Memento, and easily the most talked about (and over-analyzed) movie in years. Originality is such a rare commodity in Hollywood these days, who can blame the critics and bloggers for giving Inception so much attention?
3. The Ghost Writer. This Hitchcockian political thriller set in rainy Martha’s Vineyard stars Ewan McGregor as a ghost writer hired to pen the memoirs of the former British prime minister. When an international tribunal charges the former prime minister with war crimes, McGregor’s character finds himself ensnared in a web of mystery and intrigue that culminates in the year’s best and most surprising ending.
2. The Secret in Their Eyes. A murder mystery. A love story. A compelling drama set in 1970’s Argentina. A brilliant movie. Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, which opened last January in the States, flashes back and forth between 1974 and 2000, telling the story of the relationship between a criminal investigator and a woman judge–and the old case that still haunts them. A must-see.
1. The Social Network. The top spot this year goes to David Fincher’s fast-paced biopic about the socially inept Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook. The rapid-fire dialogue (courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, in fine form) crackles with wit and intelligence. The film focuses on the troubled relationships between Zuckerberg and the friends who soon become his bitter enemies. It’s an amazing accomplishment that a plot that consists mainly of deposition testimony and flashbacks can be so riveting.
Runners-up: 11. The Fighter (Christian Bale steals the movie as the crack-addicted brother of a boxer (Mark Wahlberg) looking for Rocky-like redemption but held back by his dysfunctional family); 12. Blue Valentine (affecting indie with stellar performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams that tracks both the hopeful beginning — and heart-rending breakup — of a romantic relationship told through alternating present-day scenes and flashbacks); 13. Inside Job (disturbing documentary that analyzes the underlying causes of the country’s financial meltdown – and the fact that not much has changed to prevent another such collapse); 14. Let Him In (a slow-paced, moody and evocative flick that focuses on the relationship between a lonely misfit boy and the girl vampire who lives next door).