Whether through tales of cowboys or ballerinas, strong-willed women or tenacious teens, street artists or religious extremists, dreamers or dream weavers, the best films of 2010 brought our senses alive. Below are my favorite picks of the year.
1. True Grit Joel and Ethan Coen craft a profoundly beautiful and darkly funny mythic Western that deepens long after the credits roll, adapted from the Charles Portis novel of the same name. Jeff Bridges breathes humor and humanity into the gruff, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, but newcomer Hailee Steinfeld steals the show as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a girl with smarts, a sharp tongue, and a good deal of true grit of her own.
2. I Am Love Passion battles with rigid institutional tradition in this elegant drama about an Italian aristocrat’s wife whose sensual awakening marks changing tides for her entire family. Tilda Swinton is a marvel in the lead (speaking fluent Russian-accented Italian), transforming from repressed matriarch to full-blooded lover with increasing urgency; the film culminates in a virtuoso grand finale that left me gasping for breath with every note of John Adams’ operatic score.
3. Black Swan Darren Aronofsky takes the glittery, delicate, femme-filled milieu of ballet and turns it into a nightmare world filled with dark visions, doppelgangers, and paranoia – and it all makes such twisted sense. Natalie Portman’s turn as the fearful and repressed prima ballerina haunted by visions as she approaches the pinnacle of her professional career is revelatory in itself, especially in the moments that burst with delicious sensuality, suspense and scares.
4. Inception Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending opus achieved a rare feat: It made us question the world around us, after we left the theater. But Inception was more than just a cerebral exercise; it was an impeccably gorgeous one as well, filled with wondrous dreamlike images and places that only exist in the mind and ideas that seeped out from the screen into real life.
5. Blue Valentine In a year filled with aching, heartbreaking films and performances, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling turned in two of the achy-breakiest performances of all. We meet their characters as they take one last stab at recapturing the magic in their doomed marriage, but director Derek Cianfrance simultaneously shows us their first meeting, the first date, the beginnings of love. The wistful ode to a failed relationship ends in the saddest fireworks in the history, a reminder to remember the good times as love fades away.
6. Mother A number of great foreign films slipped by mainstream notice in 2010 (also see: Animal Kingdom, A Prophet, Fish Tank, Dogtooth) but this offering from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho remained a favorite. Hye-ja Kim is Mother, a working-class merchant who turns amateur sleuth to clear her son’s name when he’s accused of murder; as she uncovers clues and secrets to the real killer’s identity, Bong weaves unexpected and darkly comic surprises into the noir-ish proceedings. The film is bookended by a pair of wonderfully strange, melancholy moments that count among my favorite scenes of the year.
7. The Fighter David O. Russell’s nimble biopic of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward isn’t just a sports movie about a boxer; it’s about an entire family of scrappers and hustlers, all gouging their way towards their dreams. Sometimes loved ones get pummeled in the process, which is where The Fighter lands its best gut punches. Tough and passionate performances all around give even the most thoughtless characters sympathetic souls, making for one of the most solid and unapologetically intense ensembles of the year.
8. Four Lions Fair warning to the easily offended: Four Lions is a comedy about terrorism. Specifically, it concerns four hapless Muslim Brits who attempt to wage a jihad in suburban England with mixed results, owing to their general idiocy and ineffectiveness. Hilarious and subversive, Chris Morris’s deadpan debut film is a must-see, as cutting as it is thought-provoking; you’ll never look at a cowboy on an ostrich costume or the War on Terror in the same way again.
9. Winter’s Bone Debra Granik’s hillbilly noir could just as well have been titled True Grit; its heroine, 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), is like a modern-day Mattie Ross, forced by circumstance to brave the backwoods folk and meth dealers of her rural community in search of her missing ex-con father. Lawrence turns in a steely, career-making performance, paired with the ever-startling John Hawkes as Ree’s volatile uncle; together, these two bring awards season attention to this excellent little drama.
10. Exit Through the Gift Shop It begins as the simple story of a self-declared “filmmaker” who makes his way into the graces and confidences of street artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy by filming their secret graffiti bombings, documenting their work with an amateurish but enthusiastic eye. But then this simple little documentary takes an unexpected turn, transformed by Banksy himself into a film that questions the very nature of art and its makers. Is it true? Is it a hoax? Does it matter? The film remains ambiguous, which makes it all the more intriguing.
Check out Dave’s Top 10 of 2010