2010 might be the first year in memory where movies didn't take up the majority of my personal time (*gasp!*), a fact that was not entirely out of my control. In previous years, had I the quantity of blind spots I do now, I'd be embarrassed to post this list; much as I like them, some of the latter choices in my top ten would be likely Honorable Mention candidates and nothing more. But, I'm far more grateful for the experiences I've had than disappointed at the trips to the multiplex I missed, and I'm still of the opinion that it was a damn good year at the movies. Here's what made it worthwhile to these eyes.
10. How to Train Your Dragon (dir. Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders) Dreamworks Animation, all your prior offenses are hereby forgiven. Although not as gorgeous as the clever, partially redemptive Kung Fu Panda, this account of a scrawny, wannabe Viking Hiccup and his determination to buck the trend is exciting, affirming, witty, and one for the permanent family film collection (just a few slots up from the directorial duo's last feature, the exquisite Lilo & Stitch).
9. Salt (dir. Phillip Noyce) To paraphrase a colleague of mine, Salt belongs on the list of "this is how it's done", it being on par with Die Hard, The Matrix and The Terminator for singular action gusto. It works fabulously whether you catch the details right away or not. At the center of the beautifully contrived plot is whirlwind Angelina Jolie: feline, brainy, secretive and utterly elemental. No sequel is necessary; the ending fade-out is the stuff of legend.
8. The Other Guys (dir. Adam McKay) The comedy of the year, The Other Guys sets Will Ferrell's laid-back zero-risk zen against Mark Wahlberg's clipped claws, they being go-nowhere cops by respective choice and circumstance. In catching the trail of a Ponzi scheme without prosecutable evidence, they unwittingly take bribes, lose all respect as officers, and get their shoes stolen, among other things. Adam McKay's finest act of absurdity yet rails against our collective financial C.F., capping it off with an end credits sequence for the ages.
7. The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell) The Fighter stands in the shadow of failure, and as only the best formulaic crowd-pleasers manage, it convinces us of the emerging victory. David O. Russell's take on this underdog tale - one fueled by the crushing effects of celebrity image, drug use, and familial over-attachment - is cheeky in its postmodern embrace. Highlights include: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Marky Mark, the pack of velociraptors, Amy Adams, Amy Adams, rock-scored sequences, use of slow motion, and Amy Adams.
6. Prodigal Sons (dir. Kimberly Reed) The documentary of the year acts as a palate cleanser to all those snarky over-commercialized ones. Director Kimberly Reed's transsexuality is frankly unexploitative and personal, and she treats her mentally-challenged adopted brother with the same loving, unconditional directness. The discoveries that follow as she watches his grappling with life are shocking, unbelievable, and always revelatory.
5. Winter's Bone (dir. Debra Granik) An ice-cold noir in Ozarkian clothing, Winter's Bone is strictly excellent, always personal filmmaking. Drugs and murder lie just beneath the surface of this rural America, where Jennifer Lawrence's Ree must prove her court-dodging daddy's incapacitation before the bank takes her family's home away. Raw, unflinching, moving and stylistically audacious, it's the movie that Frozen River wanted to be, and more.
4. Let Me In (dir. Matt Reeves) An immediate edition to the short list of superior horror remakes, Matt Reeves' Let Me In trades the icy empathy of the 2008 Swedish original for a classic (and classy) Spielberg glow. If you haven't seen the original (it too is one of the great vampire films), it's excellent, and if you have, it might even be better. Just think: In a parallel, just universe somewhere, this was one of the box office sensations of the year, and Twilight doesn't even exist. Mmmmm.
3. Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese) This hard-boiled whodunit is the stuff of criminal cliché, but furthermore, its a pulp euphoria that taps directly into our survival instincts: (self-inflicted) violence and mental repression. Martin Scorsese's role as director - world creator - has rarely been used to more appropriately contextual ends than in this heartbreaking look at love, death, and defense mechanisms. Elemental, sensual, terrifying, monolithic, and only a sane man would ask the final question.
2. The Ghost Writer (dir. Roman Polanski) Say what you will of the director, but there remains something to be said for troubled artists, and this captivating thriller adds fuel to the argument. This politico is like razor wire, cutting fast and deep and often so swift you don't even notice its cunning straight out; the final punchline gets more brutal in hindsight. What's more, as a politically conscious work, it's timely without the overt suffocation. A masterwork in all ways; if this isn't one of the ten nominees, someone in the Academy needs to be shot.
1. The Social Network (David Fincher) The role of Facebook in society isn't of direct concern here, but it's there, writ large in the context. Writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher's film is about human connection in a digital society, where emotions become masked and muted by information. Luddites be damned, these portals have their own way of stagnating that which they intend to encourage; in our own way, we all become assholes. Like Fight Club, it's worthy of Kubrick, and further displays Fincher's emotional elasticity. The Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score is unquestionably the shit, the cast is the best of the year, and the screenplay - while traditional in structure (at least by 2010 standards) - is endlessly quotable. It holds a candle to Citizen Kane, which is to say, it's a small masterpiece.
Honorable Mentions: The Crazies, The Eclipse, Greenberg, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Hot Tub Time Machine, The Human Centipede (First Sequence), The Kids Are All Right, The Town, True Grit, Unstoppable
And some more: Cyrus, Despicable Me, Inside Job, Mother, Oceans, Piranha 3D, Predators, Red Riding (1974), Resident Evil: Afterlife, The Secret of Kells, Splice, Survival of the Dead, Sweetgrass, Toy Story 3, Tron Legacy, Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest
Surprises (also honorable mentions): The A-Team, Burlesque, Grown Ups, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, The Mini, Shrek Forever After, The Warrior's Way, The Wolfman
Should Have Been Great (but still worthwhile): Black Swan, Easy A, I Am Love, Inception, The Killer Inside Me, Never Let Me Go, A Prophet, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Should Have Been Great (aka, that was awful): Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man 2, Kick-Ass
Blind Spots: More than I'd rather list here. As in, at least 30 or so that I'd consider essential viewing. I'll get back to you.
Best Leading Performances: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right; Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island; Ciarán Hinds, The Eclipse; Jessie Eisenberg, The Social Network; Will Ferrell, The Other Guys; Angelina Jolie, Salt; Hye-ja Kim, Mother; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone; Tahar Rahim, A Prophet; Ben Stiller, Greenberg; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; Emma Stone, Easy A
Best Supporting Performances: Amy Adams, The Fighter; Christian Bale, The Fighter; Andrew Garfield, The Social Network; Rooney Mara, The Social Network; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Mickey Rourke, Iron Man 2; Justin Timberlake, The Social Network; Mia Wasikowska, The Kids Are All Right; Michelle Williams, Shutter Island
Great Ensembles: Cyrus, The Fighter, The Ghost Writer, The Kids Are All Right, Let Me In, Shutter Island, The Social Network, The Town, True Grit, Winter's Bone
Best Performance as a Bitter Old Man: TIE, Jack McGee in The Fighter and Dakin Matthews in True Grit
Thesping Moment of the Year: Jessie Eisenberg in The Social Network, “The site's live.”
Funniest line of dialogue: Jonah Hill in Cyrus, "It's like a crippled tree reaching for heaven."
Best Direction: Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer
Best Bookend Shots (opening and closing): The Ghost Writer
Best Closing Shot: Shutter Island
Best Soundtrack: TIE, Shutter Island and The Social Network
Classic Discovery of the Year: Miami Connection, aka the Citizen Kane of bad 80s action films
In Poor Taste: Remember Me
I'm Glad I Didn't Finish: Clash of the Titans, The Karate Kid, Knight and Day
Worst of the Year: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, You Again, The Back-Up Plan