2010 has been a year in which the indies, arties, foreign and prestige films overpromised and underdelivered, while the best genre and mainstream films delivered and then some. Hooray for Hollywood!
10. The Social Network - David Fincher’s Facebook origin story is like the NFL team that wins the Super Bowl with the ninth-best player at every position. You have to respect that level of quality and consistency. But at some point, shouldn't football fans and moviegoers want something more than extreme competence? Shouldn't they want to root for brilliance? Even if you admire its stoic precision, you’re left begging for a scene that wouldn’t get lost in the middle of Fincher’s Zodiac.
9. The American - Do you ennui? We ennui! So does George Clooney, as the aging criminal gunsmith stashed in an Italian village waiting for… something. That rare thing – the quietly sexy existential film.
8. Never Let Me Go - Who says all the English can make are literary adaptations and royalty porn? Oh wait. It’s been that kind of year. Nevertheless, Mark Romanek does an admirable job adapting author Kazuo Ishiguro’s Harry Potter story, where all the students are the thematic cousins of Blade Runner's replicants. It's a shame she won't live, but then again, who does?
7. The Town - "I'm proud to be from Charlestown. It ruined my life, but I'm proud." So begins Ben Affleck's Boston crime drama about a neighborhood where bank robbery provides for the family and destroys it. What follows is a dazzling breakneck opener, oats of sentimental characters with considerable fictional depth, a mature love story, and working class ambition, survival and pride. It doesn't have the thematic dots and loops of the film it loves - Michael Mann's Heat. But its clever set piece in the bowels of Fenway Park comes closer than most to Mann's epic bank heist gone awry.
6. Waiting for Superman – Is our kids learning? The answer are no, and David Guggenheim’s quietly angry call to arms for education reform proves its case intellectually and emotionally. The only hesitation for placing it on a top 10 list is that it’s hard to imagine people watching it 30 years from now.
5. Winter’s Bone – The best traditional indie of the year, two hours of backwood bravery and low-budget magic. Debra Granik’s methhead parable gives us a great heroine in Ree Dolly, searching for her father in order to save the family home. Of all the lead roles of emerging stars this year, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance may be the keeper.
4. Unstoppable – Could I have asked for a better week to make the case for Unstoppable? A week with New York knocked out by a blizzard, the roads frozen, the unions scheming, ambulances slamming into parked cars, and the city’s zillionaire mayor standing in front of his mansion telling New Yorkers to chill out and go see a Broadway show? A portrait of institutional failure and industrial decline in the face of disaster, who would have thought Tony Scott’s silly little runaway train flick would be the harrowing zeitgeist movie of the year?
3. The Ghost Writer – Roman Polanski’s on-target thriller crackles with hard-boiled dialogue, claustrophobic isolation, and black humor. A simple plot transformed by style and panache, with one of the most memorable final scenes in a long time. And we heart Olivia Williams.
2. True Grit – Amid Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter’s Bone, 2010 has given us a number of types of women to know and care for. The last and seemingly most successful is the smart-beyond-her-14-years Hailee Steinfeld searching for her father’s killer in True Grit. By turns as funny as The Big Lebowski, as foreboding as No Country, and as gentle as a Disney movie, True Grit is in part a coming-of-age movie and a meditation on justice.
1. Inception – Inception is middling deep and cinematically spectacular. Dazzling as it defies arthouse cookie cutters and studio idiocy, Christopher Nolan’s dreamscape mindbender pushes deeper and deeper into the most vibrant genre of our times – the thinking man’s blockbuster. When I call Inception a “popcorn Tarkovsky,” I say it with admiration on both ends of the phrase. We’re living in the Christopher Nolan Moment.