According to Peter Hyams’ not particularly well-regarded sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010 was supposed to be The Year We Make Contact. No such luck. Aside from sending a bouquet of party balloons floating across New York City in October, space aliens kept their usual distance. Which just goes to show you: You can’t always believe what movies—or their trailers (or, for that matter, their critics)—are telling you. With that in mind, here are my picks for the best of the best of 2010.
Exit Through the Gift Shop—You could argue all day whether this “documentary”—featuring British graffiti artist Banksy—is real or an elaborate prank. The answer is irrelevant, because—fact or fabrication—the film is still the most insightful look at the modern art scene you’ll find. Bashing this film as false and manufactured would be like criticizing a documentary about punk rock for being loud and chaotic. Major props to Banksy for creating a hilarious, confounding work of art-as-documentary (or is that documentary-as-art?) and inviting us all in on the joke.
Inception—Sure it was a big, splashy summer sci-fi movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. But if you’re gonna make a big, splashy summer sci-fi movie, this is the way to do it! Screw Michael Bay and his bombastic, Transformers-style idiocy. Inception is proof that audiences don’t mind thinking a bit, even when stuff is blowing up. Christopher Nolan’s visuals are easily the year’s most bravura. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in zero-G? The eye-poppingest image of 2010!) But the twisty, turny, 3D maze of a script is what kept people coming back.
The Kids Are All Right—Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (1998’s award-winning High Art) came back strong with an indie film about alternative families that felt neither indie nor alternative. That’s not an insult, mind you. It’s a ringing endorsement of the easy, accessible, everyday reality of this lively family dramedy. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are the rather conservative lesbian couple (not an oxymoron) whose teenage kids manage to hunt down the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who unknowingly fathered them. What follows is a magnificently observed story about the way people communicate with one another (or don’t).
The King’s Speech—Talented actors, well-written script, appropriate direction. It’s surprising sometimes how simple a good film can be. The King’s Speech consists of little more than an Odd Couple friendship between stutter-prone, low-self-esteem-having King George VI (Oscar-bound Colin Firth) and unorthodox, Shakespeare-loving speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). And yet it contains some of the most emotional moments of the year. The back and forth between Firth and Rush is like watching two tennis pros at the top of their game. In the end, we feel sympathy for the poor King of England’s plight (yes, it probably does suck to be king) and a swelling of pride over his eventual oratory triumph (yeah, go kick those Nazis’ asses!). That is real movie magic.
Let Me In—Yeah. This film flopped. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Maybe Americans need their vampires to be sexy and of legal age. Fans of the original Swedish chiller were pissed about this inevitable, Americanized remake. Initially, I couldn’t blame them. Until I saw the film. In all objective honesty, writer-director Matt Reeves made a better movie. Snowbound Los Alamos, N.M., proves to be a more-than-appropriate substitute for the wintry isolation of Scandinavia. In parts, it’s scene-for-scene the original. But when Reeves chooses to stretch his wings, he finds moments of sublime horror—most notably with Richard Jenkins’ character of The Father. His nocturnal quest for blood—ending in the most dazzling car crash of the year—is by turns blackly humorous, soul-suckingly sad and creepy as all get-out.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—Damned if I didn’t just love this movie. Maybe it’s not Oscar-quality filmmaking. But it is, as I said in my review, “an unabashed celebration of juvenile obsessions—a gloriously ill-spent summer afternoon of comic books, video games and Pop Rocks.” Like those wonderful, wasted days of youth, this graphic-novel-turned-movie is fun incarnate. Using the vernacular of movies, video games, comic books, TV shows, indie music and Japanese anime, Scott Pilgrim fashions a romantic fantasy for the Internet Age. No, Scott isn’t a totally nice guy. He’s not supposed to be. He’s a dude who starts out dating a naive high schooler because it’s “simple” and ends up having to get off his smug, hipster ass and battle his way through a super-powered league of evil ex-lovers to win the true object of his affections. Just like real life.
The Social Network—This was the film to beat this year, and it will be again come awards season. David Fincher directing? Aaron Sorkin writing? Wow, right? Funny that a couple of middle-aged fellas could make a film that felt so of the time. Sure, it’s about big-business shenanigans and the go-go era of Internet billionaires. But it’s also about how the guy who created the biggest social networking site in the world was an antisocial introvert who managed to reduce human communication to a computer interface—while pissing off every friend he ever had. Sorkin’s dialogue is exciting to listen to, and the cast (yeah, even Justin Timberlake) is fantastic. But when you watch it again, pay attention to Fincher’s direction. He can’t go as visually gonzo as he did in Fight Club or Se7en, but he makes that camera do some incredible things.
Toy Story 3—The year 2010 confirmed two things we were pretty sure of to begin with: Katherine Heigl will never star in a good movie and Pixar will never make a bad movie. End of story. Any other studio making the second sequel to a mega-popular animated film would have phoned it in. (I’m looking at you, Shrek the Third.) But not Pixar. The company crafted a beautiful, funny and emotional capper that built perfectly on the previous films. What happens to our toys when we outgrow them? ... Look at me, I’m misting up already.
True Grit—Charles Portis’ original 1968 novel (adapted into a John Wayne classic before the ink was even dry) is a ripping yarn. No surprise that the Coen brothers (hot off the equally literary No Country for Old Men) turn it into another Oscar-caliber movie. No surprise, either, that Jeff Bridges creates such a powerful character in hired-for-vengeance anti-hero Rooster Cogburn. No surprise that Matt Damon makes for such a witty foil to the drunken old gunslinger. No surprise even that newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is so good as plucky frontier gal Mattie Ross. (Why else would she be here?) No, the surprise is how straight the Coen brothers play it. No jokey characterization, no grim revisionism. Just straightforward, big screen, this-is-what-we-came-here-for Western mythmaking.
Winter’s Bone—It was a hell of a year for tough young ladies—from Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass and Let Me In to Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit to Jennifer Lawrence in this rawboned backwoods thriller. Writer-director Debra Granik’s frigidly unsentimental “hillbilly noir” finds Lawrence turning detective to hunt down her bail-jumping father. From the Ozark Mountain omertà to banjo-strumming speed dealers, Winter’s Bone crafts a dark criminal underworld as forbidding as any on screen. This one is as hard to shake off as a winter cold.