I thought 2010 proved to be a very strong year for American films, as I was surprised to find that the only foreign film I had on my list this year was a documentary from England and that I didn't have a single foreign language film listed. Admittedly, I missed Olivier Assayas' acclaimed six-hour opus Carlos, not to mention a few other notable pictures, but the general point stands: 2010 was a very good year for American moviemaking.
Below, my top ten films of the year:
10) InceptionTruth be told, I think Christopher Nolan added a few too many layers of complexity to this summer blockbuster, both in terms of the number of dream levels he created (was that gun fight in the snow really necessary?) and the number of rules he used to define his universe (I'm still not clear on what happens in limbo). But you've got to give him credit for creating an utterly original piece of art that attracted a mass audience and had them talking all summer. The bravura climax, particularly the gravity-less scene in the elevator, was the most exciting moment in any big-budget film that came out this year.
9) True Grit
True Grit doesn't quite live up to some of the Coen Brothers' fantastic recent work, but it's a delightful film in its own right. Remaking the 1969 film based on Charles Portis' novel, the Coens apply their unique, deadpan sensibility to the tale of a young girl (Hailee Steinfeld) trying to avenge her father's death by teaming up with a drunken US Marshal (Jeff Bridges) and an uptight Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) to catch the killer. Steinfeld is a real discovery -- she delivers the Coens' typically clever dialogue with incredible self-assurance and ably holds her own against Bridges, who hams it up but never overdoes it as the ornery "Rooster" Cogburn. The story falters a bit in the last act, but until then True Grit is the kind of old-fashioned, nimble Western that Hollywood rarely makes any more.
8) The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski's political thriller about an imperiled former British Prime Minister has a fairly dim political view -- without giving too much away, let's just say it finds a convenient way to explain for the strength of the Anglo-American political relationship -- but that doesn't stop it from being a cracker-jack conspiracy movie. With an excellent cast led by Ewan MacGregor as the newly hired ghost writer who soon discovers a few secrets about his subject (Pierce Brosnan, perfectly cast in the role), The Ghost Writer is a straightforward movie with simple pleasures expertly delivered.
Noah Baumbach understands insufferable characters better than anyone -- and he also understands that no one ever changes overnight, but the smallest bits of personal progress can be worth examining. In Baumbach's Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays the titular, middle-aged layabout as a total jerk, but a weirdly sympathetic one nonetheless who falls into an improbable romance with his brother's assistant played by the lovely Greta Gerwig. In a different movie, they'd be two lost souls who easily fall into one another, but Greenberg is all about those people who stridently resist doing anything easily. It's a far more interesting film that way.
6) Toy Story 3
The third chapter in the saga of Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy's toys has a much more melancholic feel to it than the earlier films did, as 15 years have now passed since we first met these toys and their owner is now headed to college. His departure opens up surprisingly deep questions about the role material objects play in our development and the importance of remembering our childhood. Pixar's films have always been expert at finding emotional resonance in seemingly straightforward tales, but even by their high standards Toy Story 3 is a deeply thoughtful, existential adventure.
5) The Social Network
David Fincher's telling of the creation of Facebook is superbly directed, well written, and expertly acted, an impressive piece of film-making that has some (but not much) added resonance as a document of our technology-obsessed, disconnected culture. But I fail to see The Social Network as the masterpiece it's been called, in part because Aaron Sorkin's script is too glib and the ultimate portrait of Mark Zuckerberg too reductive to be worthy of the pantheon. Nonetheless, Sorkin and Fincher deserve awards for the story's ingenious structure and for finding fascinating characters in the Winkelvoss twins (brilliantly portrayed by Armie Hammer) and even in Zuckerberg, who as perfectly played by Jesse Eisenberg is neither hero nor villain but someone who desperately wants to belong, even if he probably wouldn't want to join the clubs that would have him as a member.
4) Exit Through the Gift Shop
Much of the discussion of Banksy's documentary has been about its authenticity, as its story of amateur videographer-turned-acclaimed artist Thierry Guetta seems too unbelievable, too ludicrous to be real. Surely Banksy, the famed British street artist with a penchant for practical jokes, is putting us on, sending a message about the commercialization and faddishness of the high art world. I'm with the folks who think it's all a joke, though a splendidly told one unlike any told before. Personally, I think that makes the film all the better, but even if we discount the basic narrative we're still left with a fascinating document about the rise of street graffiti as art and the figures who helped to transform and elevate the medium.
3) The Kids Are All Right
A domestic comedy about an untraditional family, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is an honest portrayal of the messiness that accompanies couplehood and parenthood regardless of sexuality. As the lesbian couple whose relationship is thrown into crisis following the arrival of the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who fathered their children, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are perfect at playing two women struggling to maintain their ideals while giving in to their more destructive impulses. Cholodenko's eye is balanced and equally sympathetic -- she loves and understands these characters, warts and all.
2) Inside Job
Charles Ferguson's insightful documentary about the financial crisis builds its case like any good social scientist would (Ferguson has a PhD in polisci) -- by accumulating the staggering evidence and clearly outlining the damning findings. In this case, Ferguson shows how we ended up in our economic mess because unregulated institutions were encouraged to take on greater amounts of risk, fully aware of the potentially dire consequences. Ferguson doesn't limit his ire to the banks and governments either -- he goes after the whole practice of academic economics, where the continual merger of the private and public sectors has created a rats' nest of conflicts of interest. Inside Job is the most important movie of the year and the one most likely to get your blood-boiling, particularly because this time the bad guys are free to continue their reign of terror.
1) Winter's Bone
Debra Granik's country noir about a young woman surviving in the Ozarks who must find her father so her family doesn't get evicted is the most evocative and original film of 2010. As the main character Rhee Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence gives the best female performance of the year, keenly showcasing Rhee's strength while giving hints to her vulnerability. Granik is unsentimental in her depiction of the backwoods lives of her characters, but she never lets her story fall into melodrama, choosing instead to depict Rhee's challenges with a naturalistic eye. Winter's Bone is a tour-de-force of storytelling and direction, an impressive sophomore outing from a mature filmmaker with a very unique voice.