Before we get to our Ten Best Films of 2010, we should first take a moment to recognize two important notes:
1) Top Ten Lists of this nature are a farce. First of all, it’s possible, but not likely, that any critic could see every film released in a year (it would take the ability to see 60 films in the month of December alone). And by combining the lists of a staff or organization, you’re basically weeding out some of the fringe (or interesting) picks, which is good because it adds homogeneity to the list, but bad because it adds homogeneity to the list. What you end up with, essentially, are not necessarily the best films of any one list, but the films mentioned the most among all the lists. That’s why his year, we’re also providing the top ten lists of each regular critic here, and if you align more or less with one of us, maybe you’ll align better with one of our individual lists. Maybe you should take your recommendations from that individual. We’re a staff of many, and while our sensibilities are similar enough to bring us all to this one place, our opinions are not uniform.
But 2) it doesn’t really matter, in the end. We’re not trying to create a Top 10 Films of 2010 that’s better than anyone else’s. We’re just trying to highlight the ten films we think are most worth your time. Maybe you disagree, or maybe you agree with one of the individual lists more than the overall list. Or maybe you’re more interested in one of the Top 10 Rental Type movies, one of the Top DVDs of 2010, one of the Top 10 Documentaries, one of the Top 1o Non-Theatrical Releases of the Year, or one of the Best 12 Independent Films of the year not listed in the ten movies below. That’s cool. Any way we can increase interest in excellent filmmaking is good.
Most importantly, these lists are not about us. They’re not about trying to show off how cool we are for name checking a certain movie, they’re not about shaming anyone else for their Top 10, nor should it be used as a means for dismissing the opinions of others. It’s about the films. We think these are ten you should check out if you haven’t already.
10. The Ghost Writer: The Ghost Writer is a low-impact thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on PBS or even a West End 99-seater. Instead of relying on massive car chases or shadowy men with sunglasses and black leather coats stalking our hero through footraces in towns with statuary and fountains, the film does what all excellent mysteries should do. It quietly gets on with the business while uncomfortably settling beneath you and itching at your brain. Polanski and Robert Harris — adapting the screenplay from his own novel — create a taut political espionage in whispers, ponderously letting the audience mire in serious unease as we watch our hero, The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), stumble about like an actor in the wrong play. There are murders and there are gunshots and car chases, illicit sex, and underhanded double-dealing, but it’s all done with such exquisite control and restraint. It’s a Bourne movie without ass-kicking, a Bond without flash and winks, and yet still manages to be thought provoking and entertaining. — Brian Prisco
9. Four Lions: When most people attempt to do terrorist comedy, they always approach it with a broad stereotype. Usually, some buffoon wearing a towel around his head, making “durka durka” sounds while repeatedly shouting Allah and wearing some sort of belt of plastic explosives. Just Hi-LAR-ious. In order to get a laugh, they have to pull out the old trope of “Lookit da funny furrinner! He don’t right talk right, hyuk!” What makes Christopher Morris’ Four Lions so daring is that he totally humanizes a group of jihadists. He essentially pulls off “Seinfeld” in Riyadh. It’s a bumbling buddy comedy about a group of petty and pissed-off friends who insult each other and get mad at each other — but who also happen to be British Islamic extremists. But make no mistake, it absolutely takes jabs at Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist bombings and governmental stupidity. However, it comes from the same kind of jokes you would expect from any four friends who are fuck-ups. You could easily replace Islam with Christianity, Scientology, or hell, even the Mormons. The characters are so sharp and rich, and so brilliantly hilarious, it’s like watching the In The Loop mash-up of Dr. Strangelove. I just think most audiences are going to find it unpalatable because of the sheer kudzu stranglehold of the British slang and dialects, and the dark, dark, stunningly dark places it inevitably goes. It’s like listening to someone reading Swift’s A Modest Proposal with a BBQ rib apron and face smeared with sauce. And then they actually bite into the crisp apple noggin of a toddler midspeech. — Brian Prisco
8. True Grit: Drawn from Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, the Coens’ take on True Grit is a heartbreaking failure for how close it comes to being great. The solid cast gives dependable performances; the score from Carter Burwell captures everything from terror to triumph; and Roger Deakins’ cinematography brings a beautiful grace to even pedestrian set-ups … The A-B-C story line is one of the simplest in the Coens’ history —indeed, it’s one the trimmest possible for any film — and they show no haste as they gradually trot their characters through a wasteland that’s never as fearsome as it’s made out to be … Women in Coen brothers movies tend to be hyperactive and vaguely shrew-like, saddled with grand schemes and given to fast talk. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is no exception, but she’s the most natural fit for the persona because she’s 14 years old and doing her best to put on a brave face for a world that’s taken her father and left her in charge of her mother and siblings. Coming from her, the tics feel like actual choices a child would make to toughen herself up. — Daniel Carlson
7. Exit Through the Gift Shop: As the the NYTimes also noted: “Ultimately, wondering whether “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is real or not may be moot. It certainly asks real questions: about the value of authenticity, financially and aesthetically; about what it means to be a superstar in a subculture built on shunning the mainstream; about how sensibly that culture judges, and monetizes, talent.” And I think that’s exactly right. If Exit is a legitimately true documentary, it’s an entertaining ride. If it’s one big put-on, it’s even better for the questions it forces us to ask about art and culture. — Seth Freilich
6. Blue Valentine: Blue Valentine is a hauntingly effective work, one that defies encapsulation. Because at times it’s a relationship drama, at times it’s comedic, at times it’s typical indie romance, at times it’s straight up rom-com, and at times, it’s a tragedy. It’s so real, it’s such an honest portrayal of two people who come together and tear apart. It’s not like two pieces of driftwood in a riverbed — there’s no drifting. This is like a Band-aid being attached with superglue being torn off and reattached. There will be many folks who just hate the ever-loving shit out of this film, and that’s absolutely understandable, because when they say blue, they don’t mean Blue Christmas blue but the blue-violet bruise of a fresh attack. It’s agonizing and gorgeous, with two outstanding heartbreaking performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance doesn’t just toe the line of cliche, he embraces it passionately, squeezing it somehow into something completely fresh and yet familiar. Abortion, separation, infidelity, singing to your sweetheart, having your own special song — it’s all there, but in this really astonishingly well assembled form. Had the film been one long dreary sustained tone of melancholy, it would have been boring, but because Cianfrance infuses the story with moments of levity and sweetness, it’s all the more crushing. It’s everything I normally hate in films, and in particularly romantic films, but Cianfrance is able to shape it into something ugly beautiful. — Brian Prisco
5. The Town: Ben Affleck’s love for his hometown of Boston is tangible in The Town. He thrives on the color and life of it all and is determined to capture its many fragmented angles on the screen for all to see. The Town is at its best when it focuses not merely on the city but on the people trying to survive there, yet the ending is just one of many moments when Affleck loses control and cares more about the buildings than the men and women who populate them. With just a bit more restraint, he would have nailed it. Which is a damn shame, because the story itself is packed with some fantastic moments that show just how good a director Affleck can be. — Daniel Carlson
4. The Fighter: David O. Russell’s The Fighter is based on the true story of Micky Ward, a stepping-stone boxer, and his older brother Dick Eklund, whose claim to fame was dropping Sugar Ray Leonard several years and many crackpipe hits long ago. Because it’s beholden to the framework of Ward’s technical boxing style and the fights he fought, the story has a tendency to lag and meander. But what elevates it to championship status is the acting, because it’s kind of ecstatically horrifying to watch Christian Bale and Melissa Leo tear themselves and everyone else apart. Ultimately, the family dynamic and the bitter squabble of this destructive family is what makes The Fighter worth watching. — Brian Prisco
3. Black Swan: Darren Aronofsky is a master at making beautiful films you never want to see again. Part of this has to do with the inherently unpleasant nature of the obsessions and addictions he chronicles: the heroin chase of Requiem for a Dream, the eon-spanning pursuit of doomed love in The Fountain, the thirst for a dying fame in The Wrestler. These are dark and unwelcoming stories, but Aronofsky presents them in such a way that their emotional impact becomes a physical one through an often dazzling use of sound and vision. Think of (respectively) Harry’s infected arm, Tomas’ physical martyrdom, or Randy the Ram’s gruesome flagellations. These moments aren’t observations by a filmmaker but inflictions upon an audience. Yet even though none of Aronofsky’s films could remotely be called fun, the ones that worked married the director’s fondness for skin-crawling discomfort with a commitment to telling a story populated by rounded characters. The pain only matters if it’s being felt by someone real, which is why, for instance, Tomas remains a caricature cobbled from rough ideas while Harry and Randy feel like genuine, breakable people. Black Swan, Aronofsky’s latest, feels like it’s meant to be a companion to Wrestler, in that it also deals with the relentless physical strain performers put on their bodies as well as the lengths someone will go to in order to achieve their dream, a theme common to the director’s works. — Daniel Carlson
2. Micmacs: Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has explained that the meaning of “micmacs” is something akin to “shenanigans.” And this film offered the best kind of shenanigans, in the form of multiple mini-capers. Micmacs has the visual style of Jeunet’s earlier films without any of the darkness. Written by Jeunet with Guillaume Laurant, the film is a cartoonish farce, loaded with over-the-top scams and silly self-referential movie references (including what I have to believe was an intentional shout-out to Eddie Murphy’s exchange student from Cameroon in Trading Places). In lesser hands, the execution could come across as just plain silly. But the cast of unknowns (unless you’re a fan of French flicks or know the wonderful Dominique Pinon from Jeunet’s previous films) manage to portray these odd and quirky characters wrapped up in their shenanigans without coming off as absurd. The film is visually stunning, firmly planted in that dream-like reality that Jeunet does so well, and saturated with yellows and golds that help to emphasize the underlying brightness of the film. Micmacs is not a particularly emotionally resonant film, but it’s not intended to be. It’s meant to be a light and upbeat affair, with the heart of Amelie and the soul of a kid’s cartoon. And Jeunet hits the mark squarely. If I sound effusive about the film, it’s because I not only dug the movie, but I truly enjoyed the experience of watching it. It’s hard to describe, but it was almost like being a kid again, watching the hijinx and shenanigans of Mssrs. Tom and Jerry. Only with much better animation. — Seth Freilich
1. The Social Network: What’s almost poetic about The Social Network — besides the masterfully constructed narrative, the effulgent banter, and the whooshing virtuoso performances by everyone in this film, including Justin Timberlake, but especially Eisenberg — is the cultural metaphor that Fincher has constructed. Eisenberg has created what most of us would consider a dweebish anti-hero, but for the Millennials his Facebook has helped to shape, there’s nothing anti about him. Gen Y has never been about putting something good out into the world; it’s been about putting themselves out into the world, which is why reality shows are one of the biggest industries in the United States. Millennials aren’t selling vacuums; they’re selling themselves (and part of the reason the economy is going to shit is because no one is buying). Zuckerberg is the FACE on the poster of this generation. He didn’t create Facebook to make money or improve the lives of college kids — there’s barely any attention paid in the film to what Facebook actually accomplishes for the individuals that use it — he created it to make himself look important. If Facebook had existed before he’d invented it, “creating Facebook” would be the centerpiece of his FB wall. He invented Facebook for one fucking reason: So he could say, “I invented Facebook, bitch.” It takes Fincher and Sorkin — a couple of Gen Xers, one of whom, Sorkin, has professed little knowledge of social networking before he took on this screenwriting gig — to hold a mirror up to an entire generation and smash it in their faces. It’s the brilliant, fast-paced back-and-forth zing-pop banter of Sorkin drenched in Fincher’s cynicism that reduces Zuckerberg from billionaire entrepreneur to a little fuckface dweeb who is misguided enough to believe that the best way to connect with someone is to make a name for yourself. — Dustin Rowles