Though by now we’re all a little fatigued by the flurry of end-of-year best-of lists, I’m going to go ahead and add to the critical chorus with my picks for the best films of 2010. This is the list I think about the most and put the most hours into compiling. That’s because I love films, see a lot of them (I saw upwards of 60 new releases in 2010), and want others to see them too. I will be posting a more in-depth analysis of the year in cinema this weekend (in which I also try to make sense of Banksy, Facebook and flashmobs). But for now, here are my picks for the best of the year…
10) Rabbit Hole (dir. John Cameron Mitchell): Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart shine in this quiet little drama about a couple coping with the death of their young child. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole is an insightful, beautifully made film about perseverance amid grief. Unlike many films about familial strife which seem more interested in wallowing in misery (for the sake of “realism”), Rabbit Hole has an insistent, if tentative, optimism about how we can grow from and move forward after a tragedy.
9) True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): The Coen Bros’ first true western is a hero of the genre. It’s vintage, classy, chivalrous and straightforward, appropriately self-conscious and rousingly cinematic. Featuring the Coens’ trademark cerebral subtlety and quirky edge, True Grit is at times boldly austere, refusing the chaotic, big-explosion tendencies of today’s historical action blockbusters and instead favoring nuanced character portraits and thematic explorations. It’s a film about grace and justice in a wild, unjust world.
8) 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle): The climactic amputation scene of this torn-from-the-headlines survival story uses the extreme depiction of violence not to underscore the depravity of man, but to viscerally communicate the preciousness of life and the perseverance of hope. The result is a film about the extremes of life that, for the viewer, feels like running a marathon or climbing a mountain: an experience that is excruciatingly painful and yet supremely cathartic.
7) Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola): Though aptly described by some as a B-side to Coppola’s masterpiece, Lost in Translation, Somewhere is certainly not re-tread material. Exercising a formal experimentation that ranks up there with Vincent Gallo or Gus Van Sant, Coppola offers something that is genuinely new and yet perfectly at home in her oeuvre of films exploring celebrity, isolation, and a sort of “morning after” existentialism. Here, Stephen Dorff plays an actor living with his teenage daughter (Elle Fanning) at Hollywood’s fabled Chateau Marmont when he’s not promoting a movie in Milan or chasing girls in the Hollywood Hills. It’s a true film about place in a physical sense, seen through the probing gaze of a perceptive explorer.
6) Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek): This is one of those quiet little under-the-radar gems that will undeservedly be forgotten at Oscar time, but which has stayed with since I saw it months ago. Featuring a trio of solid performances from Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew “I’m everywhere this year” Garfield, Never Let Me Go tackles a bleak subject matter in a chillingly unassuming manner. The sci-fi drama is elegant, stately, haunting and provocative, raising fascinating questions about what it is that actually makes us human.
5) I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino): Featuring a can’t-turn-away tour-de-force performance by the strange and wonderful Tilda Swinton, the Italian I Am Love is a feast for the senses. Overflowing with life, depth, beauty, elegance, and originality, all on grand scale, Love feels somewhere between The Godfather and Fellini. Embodying a style critic Manohla Dargis called “postclassical Hollywood baroque,” I Am Love is one of those films that reminds us why we love movies so much. It puts the beauty of the world under a microscope in a way that feels both familiar and foreign, real and imaginary.
4) Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold): In the tradition of Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, Andrea Arnold’s social realist examination of the British underclass is gritty, eye-opening and sometimes transcendent. Centering upon the harrowing coming-of-age confusion of a teenage girl named Mia (Katie Jarvis) in a working class neighborhood of Britain, Fish Tank is full of shock and awe (and a little despair), but it’s also shockingly full of hope, beauty, and not a little absolute truth about the adolescent experience.
3) The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper): It seems that every year around this time a new arthouse film about the British royal family starts wooing prestige filmgoers in advance of Oscar season (last year it was The Young Victoria, a few years ago it was The Queen). This might grow tiresome if it weren’t for the fact that these films are usually amazing. And this year’s entry is no different. With an excellent cast of British thespians and a phenomenal performance by Colin Firth as King George VI, The King’s Speech is an entertaining, inspiring, beautifully rendered study of friendship and perseverance.
2) Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance): In his astonishing debut, director Derek Cianfrance offers a devastating, uncannily observant treatment of a great American love story. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams deliver performances nothing short of miraculous in a film that—by jumping back and forth between a couple falling in love and falling out of it—feels like a red and blue diptych befitting its title. Though the journey is rough and sometime bleak, Blue Valentine is tenderhearted and full of moments of truth and transcendence the likes of which few films this year captured. It’s an earnest film about chivalry, hope and romanticism in an age when those things seem more literary than real.
1) The Social Network (dir. David Fincher): Everything about this movie succeeds. The stellar acting, the score by Trent Reznor, the epic dialogue scenes courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, the Citizen Kane grandeur of it all. But The Social Network is not just an example of 21st century filmmaking par excellence. Fincher’s masterful narrative of the fabled founding of Facebook is a also time capsule for our time. It’s a document of a curious revolution in social communication, economics, and the shifting notion of “status” in a world where roots, tradition, and familial privilege are less important than the ability to navigate media and manipulate tech-enabled perceptions of one’s digital self. It’s also a frenetic, words-as-action thriller that underscores just how much language and communication are changing in the age of texting and Twitterspeak. It’s a triumphant feat of cultural observation in a world where pop culture interprets history even before history has a chance to understand itself.
Honorable Mention (The Next Best 10): Letters to Father Jacob, Inception, Winter’s Bone, Everyone Else, Toy Story 3, The Ghost Writer, Black Swan, Shutter Island, Please Give, A Prophet.