I won’t pretend to have seen everything that came out this year. And living in Birmingham, it’s almost impossible to see all the award contenders before February. But I don’t have that kind of patience, and I love to make lists, so here are my 10 favorite films of 2010.
Black Swan—A thematic cousin to director Darren Aronofsky’s film The Wrestler, this is another film about a performer whose pursuit of artistic goals comes at great personal cost. Natalie Portman plays a ballerina who lands the lead role in Swan Lake, but is driven to the edge of madness by external pressures and her own perfectionism. Aronofsky makes the film a vivid nightmare, keeping the focus on Portman, who gives a career-best performance here as we travel deep into her damaged psyche. The film keeps us wondering what is real, but Portman’s performance never lies.
Exit Through the Gift Shop—This fascinating documentary, if that’s what it really is, gives us a look deep inside the world of street art. Eccentric Frenchman Thierry Guetta seeks out elusive graffiti artist Banksy for a documentary, capturing some amazing stunts in the process. Eventually, though, Banksy takes over and begins making a film about Thierry, who co-opts many popular street art techniques and is mistaken by the public as the next brilliant street artist. Or perhaps he actually is one. Whether Thierry is a legitimate artist, a talentless hack or merely a brilliant satire of one remains unknown, but the film remains thrilling.
Inception—Christopher Nolan’s head-trip is a compelling look at the architecture of dreams. Whether dreams should have architecture is another question, but for the purposes of this movie, they’re transfixing. In telling his story of a team of people who can steal ideas from your dreams, or plant them there, Nolan keeps an amazing amount of balls in the air to terrific effect, dreams within dreams within dreams. The film’s special effects and action sequences are terrific, but also quite impressive is the way the movie explores how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character almost lets the guilt over his wife’s death destroy his life.
The Kids Are All Right—Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are a lesbian couple whose children, played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, seek out their sperm daddy (Mark Ruffalo). Lisa Cholodenko’s film is a great study of modern family values, as well as a funny and insightful character study of the mismatched lesbian couple and the laid-back sperm donor who has coasted through life on his looks and charm but tries to grow up when his children come into his life.
Mother—Korean director Bong Joon-ho gave us the monster movie The Host and the fantastic crime drama Memories of Murder, a landscape he returns to here. A mentally challenged man played by Won Bin has an unhealthily close relationship with his mother (Kim Hye-ja), but when he is arrested for murder, she turns detective in an effort to prove his innocence, and will stop at nothing to free her son. The film could have just been a sort of procedural, but Bong goes for something deeper, giving us a sad, heartfelt film on the lengths family members will go to in order to protect each other.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—Everybody brings baggage to a relationship, but it doesn’t always punch you in the face. Edgar Wright’s film, based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels, finds musician Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) obsessed with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but he must defeat her seven evil exes before they can date. Inspired by late ’80s Nintendo games, the film is an exhilarating directorial tour de force for Wright, who uses every stylistic trick in the book and invents some new ones, giving us one of the most energetic, joyous films in recent memory
The Social Network—The pairing of hyperverbal writer Aaron Sorkin and notoriously obsessive director David Fincher seemed like a bad idea, but their skills meshed amazingly well, giving us a dynamic, engrossing version of the founding of Facebook, the joy of invention and ensuing onrush of acrimony among everyone involved. Framing the movie with the depositions in two different lawsuits against Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg (an excellent Jesse Eisenberg), the film gives dueling versions of the company’s beginnings, the man who runs it and the people he screwed over. The movie explores the very human flaws of all its characters, but particularly the pathological need to belong that led Zuckerberg to create the website.
Toy Story 3—Pixar just keeps cranking out classics. This film finds the toys, including Tom Hanks’ cowboy Woody and Tim Allen’s astronaut Buzz Lightyear, being donated to a day care when their owner, Andy, goes off to college. They desperately want to maintain loyalty to Andy, even though he doesn’t care about them anymore. The movie is both a very funny and action-packed romp for the kids, and, for the adults, a devastating meditation on obsolescence and the cycle of life. Tykes who watch this may wonder why their parents are weeping in the seat next to them.
True Grit—It’s no mean feat to take on the film that won John Wayne his only Oscar, but the Coen brothers have made the definitive version of True Grit, adapting Charles Portis’ novel and keeping its dark humor and peculiar point-ofview intact. Jeff Bridges is a shambling, vicious delight as Rooster Cogburn, while Matt Damon brings unexpected dignity to his vainglorious Texas Ranger. But newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, as Mattie, the girl who wants vengeance for her father’s death, comes out of nowhere and almost walks away with the film, easily standing up to Bridges and Damon. The movie is one of the warmest things the Coens have ever done, and the growing respect among the three leads is perhaps the film’s biggest treat.
Winter’s Bone—Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year-old who does most of the parenting of her younger siblings. Faced with possible homelessness after her meth-cooker dad skips bail, Ree has to traverse the dangerous terrain of her backwoods Ozark community to find him. Lawrence gives an incredible performance as Ree, who is fiercely independent, but mostly strong and silent. The film functions largely like a detective film as Ree tries to find out what happened to her father, but director Debra Granik also paints a harrowing portrait of the place Ree lives in, which inspires an intense desire to leave as well as a clannish distrust of outsiders.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.