10. Shutter Island
I'm always willing to commend an established artist for venturing into unfamiliar territory when the familiar has done nothing but serve them well. Martin Scorsese reaches far beyond his usual fare with this mystery horror homage to Hitchcockian noir. Leo DiCaprio lays his Departed accent on thick as Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, ostensibly sent to a remote insane asylum to investigate the disappearance of a patient. As his investigation continues, he only seems to get further from the truth until the thrilling climax and heart-wrenching denouement. While the film took some flak for its Scooby Doo-styled reveals and half-baked David Lynch dream sequences, it's so much fun to follow its constant twists and turns that it's hard to hate it – besides, even the weak points can be chalked up to homage, as Hitchcock wasn't always the most well-rounded filmmaker himself.
9. Winter's Bone
In Debra Granik's adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name, the tone is so oppressive that it's difficult to imagine anyone smiling at any point in its duration. Jennifer Lawrence shines as Ree Dolly, a hard-nosed adolescent forced to raise her family deep in the Ozarks while her mother is ill and her meth-cooking father is God-knows-where, on the lam from a bail bondsman and sheriff who promise to repossess the Dollys' house if he isn't found – dead or alive. Ree embarks on a seemingly Sisyphean hero's journey that reminded this middle-class college student that there's a world beyond higher education and its trappings. No one in the movie is seen with a cell phone or on a computer even though it's set in 2010, and showers and orthodontic care appear few and far between. It's a sobering film, and its tragic centerpiece is the scene where Ree finally finds her father. It ends on a somewhat happy note, with Ree coming into some money she very badly needs to take care of her family, but it's clear that even the Good Life in her world is a thousand times harder than the way most of us are privileged enough to live.
As I've descended into the depths of film snobbery over the past year, my capacity to enjoy good old-fashioned dumb fun has somewhat declined. My film critic tendencies couldn't stop me from loving this one, though; it was just too fucking fun. Unlike Roger Ebert, who couldn't quite get past the fact that an eleven-year-old girl (Hit-Girl, played by Chloë Moretz) would call a group of bad guys "cunts" and that the level of violence is beyond gratuitous, I couldn't stop laughing and silently applauding as Hit-Girl sliced through legions of enemies and dropped her distinctly R-rated catchphrases. The second time I watched the movie, some of that novelty wore off and the thinness of the plot (Regular guy decides to become superhero and gets caught up in fairly standard Mob plot) revealed itself, which is why it isn't higher. It was still the most fun that I had at the theaters this year, and the best comic book film of 2010.
7. The Kids Are All Right
Leave it to a lesbian filmmaker to make the most richly detailed, authentic portrait of the life of a normal family in America in 2010 that I saw this year. And conservatives think they're too out of touch to raise kids...but anyway. The Kids Are All Right is a lighthearted, beautiful movie about two lesbian moms of two artificially inseminated kids who get curious about the identity of their sperm donor father, look him up, and forge a friendship with him. One of the moms (Julianne Moore) starts sleeping with him (Mark Ruffalo) while the other (Annette Bening) becomes increasingly stressed at work and starts to take it out on her family. The relationships between the characters – all of whom are brilliantly acted and should land the film plenty of Oscar nominations – are realer than just about any other film relationships I've seen, and the movie is entirely character-driven, with only a few relevant plot points, almost all of which are detailed above. It's a heartwarming movie, even at its most emotionally tense, and it has my vote for 2010's best ensemble cast.
6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
There's hardly a year since cinema's origins that didn't produce an absolutely masterful Swedish film, and this year was no exception. Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is a psychologically taut crime thriller. Veteran character actor Michael Nyqvist plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist locked in a court battle over a libel accusation and in the midst of an investigation on a forty-year-old cold case, and relative newcomer Noomi Rapace gives one of the strongest female performances of the year as punk-rock computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, whose own research talents are at first used to investigate Blomkvist until they eventually join forces. Their individual trials and tribulations are fascinating enough, but it's where their paths intersect and their chemistry is allowed to shine that the film is at its best. There's shades of Ingmar Bergman, as with most Swedish national cinema, but Oplev succeeds in making this adaptation his own.
5. Toy Story 3
No third movie in a series of animated pictures should, in theory, ever be the fifth best film of a given year. But theory doesn't account for the existence of Pixar, a veritable powerhouse of greatness at this point that has a remarkable masterpiece-to-crap ratio unmatched by any other studio, animated or otherwise. Toy Story 3 is very possibly their most complete film yet, flawlessly marrying the emotional depth of movies like Up and WALL-E with the rip-roaring adventure and comedy of lighter fare like Monsters, Inc. or its own prequels. An entire generation (mine) empathizes with Andy as he goes off to a future uncertain and, both literally and symbolically, leaves behind childish things. The incredibly moving scene at the landfill is likely 2010's best.
4. The King's Speech
This one has so much Oscar buzz and so many big names that it feels weird to call it underrated, but I'm about to: The King's Speech is underrated as hell. It's struggled to find an audience outside of the biggest U.S. markets, it's found itself conspicuously absent from plenty of critics' lists, and I have yet to hear a single person call it the best film of the year. Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush arguably each give the best performance of their respective careers in this historical drama centered on King George VI's (Firth) lifelong stutter and his relationship with speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush). It's not as stuffy as it sounds; Rush's character brings plenty of whimsy and irreverence to the mix, dragging His Majesty into his little world and coaxing some of the funniest scenes and lines of the year from their meetings. While director Tom Hooper's execution is mostly ordinary, the film's climax turns a time-worn cliché on its head: Firth is called upon to give a speech on the day Britain declares war on Germany and invites Rush to guide him through it, and while the speech is undoubtedly rousing, the focus is not at all on the content; it's on the elocution. We've seen speeches as climaxes in films before, but never quite like this.
3. True Grit
It's often considered blasphemy to opine that a remake is better than an original, and that is especially the case in genre filmmaking, where fans cling to the old classics like a religion. Indeed, 1969's True Grit – the film that earned John Wayne his only Oscar – is a difficult movie to best, but the Coen Brothers are just the people to do it, and with this Jeff Bridges-starring throwback Western, they have absolutely done it. Their True Grit is the best film in the genre since 1992's Unforgiven, and it does what every great Western should do: It lets the camera do the talking. Yes, there are brilliant, verbose performances from Bridges, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and others, but the Coens pull the camera back and let us drink in the rolling landscapes of the Old West and then zoom it back in to show us the craggy expressions of work-hardened men and women. This isn't mere Sergio Leone worship, though; the Brothers have their indelible stamp all over it, and it's bound to join the canon of their finest works.
No movie was more anticipated in 2010 than the latest mind-bending thriller by Christopher Nolan. He has forged one of the most recognizable directorial identities of the last fifty years with his brand of exposition-heavy, brainy action films, and Inception feels, in a lot of ways, like the full realization of his talents. It's an at times literally labyrinthine exploration of a completely fabricated dream world. Some criticisms have said that it's not a realistic reflection of dreams, but it's not supposed to be. Leave the David Lynches and Takashi Miikes of the world to paint nightmarish dreamscapes on film; Christopher Nolan wants to show us what dreams would be like if we had drugs and technology that could make them occur in a predictable manner, and he does so with great success. Nolan tells us everything we need to know. A focused viewing will make every scene totally clear, and when we're left to decide the ending for ourselves, we shouldn't feel cheated. Quite the contrary, we should feel honored. It's Nolan trusting us more than he's ever trusted an audience before. Ultimately, it doesn't even matter what the ending is; it's the journey that's important.
1. Black Swan
And at long last, behold: the best film of 2010. Darren Aronofsky spent a decade revising and rewriting a script that was originally about a New York theater troupe to make it the best movie about the stage ever made. Set in the ultra-competitive world of professional ballet, company dancer Nina (Natalie Portman, in a role that finally shows her full potential as one of the greatest actresses of our time) is given the chance to be the prima ballerina in a production of Swan Lake. The pressure of the role, along with the unorthodox methods of her director (Vincent Cassel) and competition from a new company member (Mila Kunis) sends her spiraling into a mental breakdown that makes the audience question what is real and what isn't. Unlike Christopher Nolan, though, Aronofsky doesn't let us off the hook and tell us what to believe. Nothing is certain, and even multiple viewings can produce only theories, not conclusive truths. It's a brilliantly acted, brilliantly directed fusion of Mulholland Dr. and The Wrestler that brings with it countless layers of meaning and limitless potential for analysis, and it is without a doubt the finest movie of the year.