2010 was a really strange year for movies, though in the end, I don’t think it’s as bad as a lot of people are saying. I think this has to do with the bad first impression made by the abysmal first half of the year. It wasn’t until the middle of the year that things began to turn around for me and by the end of the year, things were looking up. Indeed, many of my favorites turned out to have been released in that first half of the year, just with limited distribution. As I caught up with some of the smaller films from earlier in the year, I managed to fill out most of the below list.
As of right now, I’ve seen 81 movies that would qualify as a 2010 release (with the usual borderline 2009 releases that don’t make it to my market or DVD until 2010 – usually foreign films). It turns out that this is something of a record for me, though I have to admit that around 50 of those have been watched since November (previous years were generally more spread out through the year) and mostly on DVD or Netflix Watch Instantly. Anyway, this is probably way more than most ordinary folks, but also less than most critics. I had no problem putting together a top 8, but those last two slots were really difficult to fill. Not because I couldn’t find a good film to put there, but because there were too many films that I could put there. Many of the Honorable Mentions could easily fit in those last two slots (the first two listed below).
The other thing I found really interesting about this year is how thematically similar a lot of films were. I actually mentioned this in a recent book review:
One of the themes of 2010 cinema has been a question of reality. Is what we’re watching real? Or is it a fabrication? Or perhaps some twisted combination of the two? Interestingly, this theme can be found in the outright fictional (films like Inception certainly induce questions of reality), the ostensibly true story that is notably and obviously fictionalized (a la The Social Network), and most interestingly of all, the documentary. Films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop are certainly presented as fact, though many questions have arisen about their verisimilitude. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck collaborated on I’m Still Here, a supposed documentary about Phoenix’s strange transition from a well known actor to a crazy aspiring rapper that Phoenix and Affleck have since admitted was something of a hoax (I have not seen the film, but from what I can see, many of the events certainly did happen, even if they were manufactured). In most cases, audiences don’t seem to mind the blurring of reality with fiction (this includes myself), so long as that blurring is made clear (that may sound paradoxical, but it is perhaps better understood as the main component of the Reflexive Documentary: movies that acknowledge the biases of the filmmakers and the subjectivity of the material at hand are more trustworthy than movies that claim objectivity). Indeed, one could probably make a case for the presence of fiction in most non-fiction stories. Bias, subjectivity, and context can yield dramatically different results depending on how they’re portrayed.
And there are even some other themes that people have been noticing this year (i.e. strong female leads, interesting Mother characters, etc…) This sort of consistency doesn’t seem to be present in the past few years, and I found that interesting. Ultimately, I think 2010 has got a bad rap. It’s certainly not one of the best years in recent memory, but as usual, I’ve managed to find a lot of stuff to like.
As always, I should note that this list is inherently subjective and of course most people will find something to gripe about. So be it. One thing I’ve found interesting in the past few years of doing this list is that I’ve gravitated away from trying to put together a list of the best films, instead favoring my favorite films. What I’m ending up with is a mixture of both components here and it’s a tricky line to walk, but I think it ultimately makes for a more interesting list. So without further ado:
Top 10 Movies of 2010
* In roughly reverse order
- Triangle: The most notable feature of this film is the strange, elliptical plot that amazingly manages to write itself out of several corners, leading to a consistently surprising viewing. The less said about this, the better. This is arguably the least deserving of a top 10 slot, but I’m including it due to it’s obscurity and the fact that the film worked really well for me. Fans of Kaedrin favorite Timecrimes would probably also like this movie, as the two are similar.
- The King’s Speech: The stench of Oscar-bait initially turned me off, but I gave it a shot anyway, and was very glad that I did so. Fantastic central performances by Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush, and a witty script elevates this film beyond typical indie Oscar bait (though there is maybe one or two groaners in that respect, it was much less than I was expecting). Like most Americans, I don’t really get the Monarchy, but I find myself with this sneaking curiosity and awe of the institution, and I find movies like this one scratch that itch.
- Kick Ass: Violent, funny, aggressively juvenile, and an absolute blast to watch. I suppose you could argue that this film is trying to have it’s cake and eat it too, but honestly, I think it actually succeeds in that respect. There’s a sorta self-deprecating nature to the film that I find works really well. Plus, it, well, kicks ass. It also features one of the biggest badasses in recent cinema, Hit Girl (played excellently by newcomer Chloe Moretz). It’s maybe a bit unfocused, but still a very good film.
- A Prophet: There’s a common trope among ganster movies where the protagonist goes from rags-to-riches via a corruption of innocence, and this movie certainly qualifies. However, setting the story inside a prison is an interesting juxtaposition of the usual cliche. It’s a long movie, and it even feels like a long movie, but that is a curiously good thing in the case of this movie. It’s not an especially pleasant movie, but it’s engaging in a way that most unpleasant movies are not. A nominee for the best Foreign Picture Oscar last year, it wasn’t released in the US until this year (and personally, I think it should have won the Oscar).
- Toy Story 3: Pure, unadulterated fun. Another sublime effort from Pixar and a wonderful sequel (two words that almost never go together) to a great series of films (that being said, I hope this is the last). I really don’t have much else to say about it (that would fit in this context) so I’ll just leave it at that.
- True Grit: The Coen Brothers’ take on the classical Western, I found it very refreshing to just watch a solid Western without having to bother with all the revisionist traditions that most Westerns these days seem to embrace. Great performances by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, the always excellent Jeff Bridges, and the underrated Matt Damon (I’d vote for him as a best supporting actor here), and of course the Coens are always excellent.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I have not read the book this was adapted from, but I enjoyed this movie immensely (except, of course, for the scenes I wasn’t supposed to enjoy, of which there are a few). A great lead character in Lisbeth Salandar (an excellent performance by Noomi Rapace) and a well executed mystery immediately propelled this movie out of the early year dregs. I was especially impressed with the deftly executed relationship between Salandar and Blomkvist (something that was sorely lacking in the two sequels). It might get a bit too intense at times, but it worked really well for me.
- The Social Network: A film I initially felt was doomed to become a boring failure. As you might imagine, going into the film with such low expectations lead to a surprisingly fun moviegoing experience and this quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Excellent performances all around, Aaron Sorkin’s witty script and crackling dialogue, Trent Reznor’s perfect score, and Fincher tying it all together perfectly. Unfortunately, this one is receiving a bit of backlash as a lot of people are now seeing it with much higher expectations and coming away disappointed. But it remains one of my favorites of the year.
- Exit Through the Gift Shop: Intriguing documentary ostensibly about street art and one of its most mysterious figures, Banksy. But it’s ultimately a much deeper film about the nature of the art community and the reality that art attempts to represent. There’s lots of great footage of street artists and an unexpected look at the man behind the camera. This film is probably the poster child for the year’s theme of “is it real?” movies. Ultimately, of course, those questions don’t matter, as it’s a good story in any case. It didn’t go where I expected, but I loved where it went. It’s a great film and it raises a lot of really fascinating questions.
- Inception: This is the movie that turned 2010 around for me. An interesting premise, intricate plotting, and internally consistent mechanics lead to that “sense of wonder” feeling that most filmic science fiction is sorely missing. The film features solid performances all around, and the visuals are well done, but the strength of Christopher Nolan, in my mind, has always been story and editing (and in this particular case, the way Nolan weaves music into the film to reinforce the story is also noteworthy). It’s a brilliant film.
* In alphabetical order
- 127 Hours: A surprisingly effective lead performance, a script that makes good use of a single location and Danny Boyle’s kinetic direction lead to a very well executed film. That this movie is watcheable at all is especially noteworthy given that most of the audience already knows what’s going to happen. It may even have been a bit too hyper or too on-the-nose, but it was still a very good movie.
- Animal Kingdom: Not especially well paced, but an otherwise engaging tale of a family of bank robbers and their feud with the local police. It features an excellent, Oscar-nominated performance from by Jacki Weaver as the Matriarch of the family. Also notable for featuring a teenager that actually acts like a teenager (i.e. he’s generally an idiot) and not a precocious mastermind who outsmarts everyone. Again, a bit too slow moving and some unpleasant subject matter, but a decent film.
- The Art of the Steal: Thought provoking documentary about the Barnes art collection, and how various political powers maneuvered to relocate the art from its longtime home in Lower Merion to downtown Philadelphia (despite the clear wishes laid out in Barnes’ will). Unapologetically one-sided, but still a fascinating documentary and well worth a watch. Another film that came very close to nabbing the last slot in the top 10.
- Black Swan: The younger sister to director Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the two films share a lot of similarities. Unfortunately, both are similarly flawed as well, especially when it comes to the script. Standout performances from the two female leads, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, wonderful visuals from Aronofsky, but ultimately sunk by clunky dialogue and other script issues. Still, a very interesting effort from all involved, and well worth a watch.
- Blood Into Wine: Interesting and slickly made documentary about wine makers in Arizona with a focus on a winery owned by Tool front-man Maynard James Keenan. An interesting look at the wine world from an outsider’s unusual perspective. There are a few bits that fall flat, but it’s quite an enjoyable watch.
- Catfish: Another intersting documentary, and another of the poster-children for the year’s “Is it real?” theme. The less said about the plot the better, but I will say that it made an excellent double-feature with The Social Network (see “Full Review” link below for more).
- The Disappearance of Alice Creed: A brutal but effective tale of a kidnapping gone wrong, with the twist being that it’s told entirely from the kidnapper’s perspective. A few unexpected twists and turns and a claustrophobic setting lend this one a pretty somber atmosphere, but overall, I thought it was very well done. Another candidate for that last slot on the top 10.
- Dogtooth: Profoundly disturbing and weird, but surprisingly not that difficult to watch. There’s an unexpected strain of humor through the whole thing (in particular, I love the Jaws reenactment) and while it is quite distressing from a conceptual perspective, it also raises a lot of interesting questions about parenting and reality (there’s that theme again). I couldn’t quite bring myself to put it in the top 10, but I have a feeling that this one will stick with me for a while.
- Easy A: This breezy, clever and fun modern-day updating of The Scarlet Letter was a lot better than I expected it to be, primarily due to the lead performance by Emma Stone (and her quirky family). It was a welcome relief from the emotionally draining end-of-the-year fare, though not exactly top 10 material (for me, at least).
- The Last Exorcism: Surprisingly effective mock documentary about exorcism (certainly the best film to cover that subject in the past several years). It’s not quite strong enough to make the top 10 (I had some particular reservations about the ending), but it’s a lot better than the marketing for the film would have you believe.
- Machete: I’m still not convinced that this movie actually needed to be made, but I have to admit that I had a lot of grindhouse-erific fun with the film. The mixture of political polemic (something I generally hate in my films) with trashy violence and sex actually struck me as working well (much better than either component alone in the film would). Gloriously over-the-top trashy fun.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: It’s funny and visually spectacular, but I found the ending to be a bit lacking. Even then, this was one of the many movies vying for the coveted 10th slot in the top 10, and it was neck and neck with the films that made it on the list. It’s a really solid movie though, and well worth watching.
- The Secret in Their Eyes: Technically the winner of last year’s Foreign Picture Oscar, this didn’t get a release until this year. Foreign Picture winners tend to make a good showing on my top 10s, but this year, I found that A Prophet was more compelling than this film, which is very good, to be sure (and which was another film under consideration for that last slot on the list). However, I found the film a bit unfocused and maybe even a bit sloppy. Sometimes that can work, but not in this case. Nevertheless, a fine film and worthy of a watch.
- Winter’s Bone: I go back and forth on this film. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I’m kinda “meh” about it. It certainly moves at a glacial pace, but it features lots of good performances, a stark and unusual (but welcome) setting, and a simple but effective story. I can see why it’s a critics’ darling, but I can also see why it wasn’t exactly a mainstream success. If you’re fond of slow moving drama/thrillers, it’s certainly worth a watch.
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Best Worst Movie
- How to Train Your Dragon
- The Town
- The Girl Who Played with Fire
- The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest
- The Fighter
- The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
- Valhalla Rising
Should Have Seen:
Despite the fact that I’ve seen 81 of this year’s movies (and that this post features 30+ of my favorites), there were a few that got away… mostly due to limited releases, though a few of the flicks listed below didn’t interest me as much when they were released as they did when I heard more about them.
- Blue Valentine
- I Am Love
- It’s Kind of a Funny Story
- Let Me In
- Last Train Home
- Enter the Void