I don’t how other critics do it- make definitive top 10 lists of a year. We’re halfway through December and I cannot claim I’ve seen nearly all the 2010 movies I had hoped to watch. In fact, I still have screenings of Somewhere and True Grit this week. Rather than compile a disingenuous top 10, instead we are sharing some of our favorite films of 2010. I hope you love these films too or use this list as an impetus to get out and see them. Enjoy! - David Harris
Black Swan (dir: Darren Aronofsky)
Darren Aronofsky’s aria of masturbation, self-mutilation and “Swan Lake” is a perfect – and superior – companion tale to The Wrestler; a self-conscious performer who drags their body through hell for their art has a chance in the spotlight with their mental and physical survival on the line. But rather than coke with firefighter fetishists, the obstacles for Natalie Portman’s Nina are horrific visions, warped reality, really deep scratching and Ecstasy-fueled sex fantasies.
The ballet scenes themselves are lit, shot, acted and scored to brilliantly mimic the psychological time bomb that is Nina’s mind. Aronofsky only really shows off in these scenes (relaxing a bit more than in his Requiem For a Dream days), but in thanks to his understated mastery as well as cinematographer Matthew Labatique, each step of every toe seems dazzling. The director and Portman, are in perfect sync and it’d be a shame for the nuance and naiveté go unrecognized when gold statues start getting passed out. She’s supported by a cast that’s equally adept for the roles they’re filling out. When the score isn’t the Tchaikovsky piece itself, Clint Mansell’s gently maddening accompaniment fits the shifting tone to a tee.
It’s when Black Swan turns into something wholly sinister in its third act that viewers so far have veered in the direction of love or hate. I’m firmly in the former camp. The film twists you back and forth into unapologetic mayhem, supernatural sights and “jump in your seat” moments that border on schlock but arrive a half-step earlier or later than they would in a The Number 23 or The Sixth Sense. After a number of events both gruesome and brain-wrangling, all the elements falls together in the climactic “Black Swan” reveal – in and out of character – that each participant had fretted about so much. Portman wears each of the story’s twisted events on her face as she completes the ballet, and it couldn’t be more convincing, or frightening. – Kyle Wall
Dogtooth (dir: Giorgos Lanthimos)
In a year of figurative mindfucks from every angle, one small Greek drama presented a truly unique and intimate story that was no less surreal than the trippiest blockbuster production. Eschewing Escher-like special effects and hallucinations in favor of a personal family story that is certainly odd but not altogether unbelievable, Dogtooth is a film that defies easy classification. Centered around the story of a married couple who have decided to isolate their children from the outside world and society at large, it’d be easy to dismiss Dogtooth as gimmicky- except this is a film that refuses to let its gimmick seem anything less than natural.
No explanation is ever given for the actions of the parents; to the couple, what they’re doing is simply a matter of training and for the best. On some level, Dogtooth represents a rejection of the loss of private space in the digital age. The children are refused media and certainly don’t have internet access, which grants Dogtooth a relevance that outshines its polar opposite, The Social Network.
But Dogtooth is more than a clever argument against constant web presence, it’s a reminder of how much of our everyday lives and goals are built around things that don’t exist- be they social media, social constructs or society itself. The actions of the parents in Dogtooth are by no means proper but they’re understandable. After all, who’s to say that the society we know is truly any better than one an individual creates? - Nick Hanover
Enter the Void (dir: Gaspar Noe)
Enter the Void is one of the most striking films of the year. I haven’t seen a film as ambitious, expansive or unique as Gaspar Noé’s latest this year. Structured around the death of a teenage drug dealer in Tokyo and his soul’s journey in the aftermath, the film’s narrative exists mostly to frame the way that it’s told, first through his first-person perspective as a living being, and then as his soul floats over the city, passing through walls and viewing from overhead the comings and goings of the people he’s left behind.
The film begins as an assault, with a deafening, strobing credits sequence that beats you into submission in order to bring you into a different headspace: that of this kid, standing on his balcony in Tokyo, looking out over the neon nightscape. The kaleidoscopic drug trip at the beginning of the film, evoking the wormhole at the end of 2001 either tests your patience, or it lulls you in. Like the wormhole, it takes us from one world and brings us into another, which the film sustains for its duration through incredible art design, a constant strobing effect of varying intensity and subliminally destabilizing sound design.
That the film wallows in the druggy misery of trad-edgy ’90s cinema might only serve to distract from the emotional arcs under its surface, the story of a pair of siblings who try to maintain their connection within a world that continuously lets them down, and how it feeds into a wildly imaginative and deeply felt metaphorical portrait of one theory of the cyclical nature of life and the transference of energy, modeled however tenuously on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When it ends, it abruptly spits you back out into the world, and its woozy physical effects remain with you, a pleasantly affirming buzz that makes the world feel a little warmer. - Andrei Alupului
Exit Through the Gift Shop (dir: Banksy and Shepard Fairey)
Exit Through the Gift Shop may not be the very best film of 2010, but there’s no doubting that it is one of the most interesting, most confounding and most outrageously fun movies I’ve seen all year. It purports to be a documentary about the mysterious street artist “Banksy” and how his exploits in graffiti brought him fame and notoriety the world over. Wait, that’s not it. It’s really about Thierry Guetta, hapless French fanboy and slavish devotee to his street art heroes, and how his inability to make a documentary about Banksy turned Exit Through the Gift Shop into a movie about him. Well, no, that’s not it, either. It’s really about the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, art and life, and how the two can blend and shift and merge in increasingly subtle ways. If you were to plot out this film’s pattern it would soon begin to look like one of those higher dimensional projections from superstring theory, all knotted and looped and self-referentially dense. At its deepest level, it is perhaps about the nature of art and how our perception of what it is and what it means changes when it’s been commoditized. All of this putting aside the very real possibility that the entire thing may well be a practical joke. Whatever it is, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a blast to experience and to think about long after it’s finished. - Shannon Gramas
Inception (dir: Christopher Nolan)
It’s always heartwarming when one of the strangest, most mindbending films of the year is also a huge critical and commercial success. It’s a rare combination, but Christopher Nolan’s Inception managed to pull it off, simultaneously mystifying and engaging audiences around the world. Preceded by an enigmatic marketing campaign that did little but leave potential filmgoers with stark images of endless rotting apartment buildings and star Leonardo DiCaprio wandering in pools of water, Inception is that magical thing: a blockbuster that challenges its audience.
DiCaprio portrays Dominic Cobb, a corporate espionage expert whose cons run to dreams, a man whose own haunted past keeps him in a constant state of paranoia as to the reality of the world. Along with a team of fellow dream-thieves (including a fantastically dour Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he’s tasked with a supposedly impossible mission: to enter the dreams of a corporate titan and instill an idea in him, a process known as inception. But that’s only the surface of the film; as Nolan takes the audience deeper into a film obsessed with the concepts of memory and reality, we go further into dreams upon dreams, until even the idea of waking up becomes fraught with danger.
Inception is a film that combines the breathtaking with the horrific, the spaces where something beautiful can become unexpectedly terrifying. As entire cityscapes fold in on themselves and gravity and time become dismissed contexts, it’s a testament to Nolan, DiCaprio and the summer blockbuster. - Nathan Kamal
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (dir: Tamra Davis)
Oscar rarely dotes on little art history movies; but the distinctively empathetic and effective eye with which Tamra Davis recounts the life of The Radiant Child, her friend and American art superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat, deserves, if not the Best Picture Academy Award, at least the recognition for superb filmmaking that will most likely prove elusive come awards season. This likelihood is a shame: Basquiat’s short-lived star was nothing if not glamorous, and his work was both cutting edge and culturally conversant in a manner reminiscent of the Modernist greats.
Young, handsome, resourceful and brilliant, Basquiat probably could have achieved fame with mediocre talent. As it was, he was something of a visionary – a graffiti artist-turned-international sensation with the aesthetic and education necessary to weave pop, street culture and timely matters of race and class into the tapestry of fine art lineage. Davis, a former art gallery employee and obvious storehouse of knowledge herself, is also a consummate weaver. She manages the difficult confluence of personality and detachment, commentary and directorial mediation, education and empathy required of a project like The Radiant Child with grace and subtlety, teaching even those of us who know nothing about modern art the significance and power of Basquiat’s vision without any semblance of effort. For this alone, Davis earns some serious filmmaking props; for achieving such success in part as a testament to a dear departed friend and seminal influence upon the art world, she deserves respect and admiration into the bargain. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is a documentary with staying power, a potent telling of one man’s legacy worth seeing regardless of your interest in or familiarity with 20th century art. Because somehow, both Basquiat and Davis have the gift for capturing everything in a single, crazy, colorful swoop. - Lauren Westerfield
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (dir: Edgar Wright)
A video-game-styled, indie-rock-obsessed action comedy where Michael Cera kung fu battles a beautiful hipster’s evil ex-boyfriends as a grand metaphor for coming to terms with a lover’s past and one’s own insecurities. There’s so much in that could go wrong with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and yet Edgar Wright pulls off yet another glorious high-wire act, coming off of making a Michael Bay-giallo hybrid in rural England. No one could have done Scott Pilgrim justice but Wright, who uses his manic style to create comedies that aren’t just comedies.
With co-writer Michael Bacall, Wright crafts one of the greatest adaptations of anything into anything else, turning an episodic six-volume series of manga-style graphic novels into a 113-minute feature film that’s so tightly packed it threatens to burst at the seams — six incredibly varied set piece action scenes and some of the best jokes and lines from the comics re-contextualized to perfectly fit into the film, plus some personal touches from Wright — I saw the film four times in theatres and the choreographed window-jumping gag always kills. Oh, and there are musical numbers — performed by the (fantastic) actors but created by such talent as Beck, Broken Social Scene, Metric and composer/producer Nigel Godrich — that are as irresistible as they are fucking hilarious (see: “Garbage Truck,” “I’m So Sad, So Very Very Sad”).
Despite overwhelming hype from those in-the-know, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World tanked at the box office — no surprise, as self-loathing vampire movies where nothing happens are what’s in vogue, not bright, colorful action-romance movies where everything happens — but maybe that’s a blessing in disguise. Cult movies are way more fun, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is one that will be loved by the right people, a secret handshake between the cool and the nerdy alike. Fuck the hoi polloi — if they don’t want it, we’ll gladly keep Scott Pilgrim for ourselves. - Danny Djeljosevic
The Social Network (dir: David Fincher)
How can someone make a successful movie about a website, specifically the world’s most popular social network? Yet, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin uses Facebook almost as a MacGuffin- it’s mostly intangible, yet everyone wants to get their hands on it. His script is deft and clever. We don’t need to have a scene of a young Mark Zuckerberg programming on his Atari- we learn everything we need to know in the opening. Zuckerberg and his companion Erica Albright (Mara Rooney) are sitting in a bar, and she is attempting to end their relationship. He states that she must want something he can’t be and that she has clearly been reduced to looking beneath her station. A disgusted Alrbight storms out, but not before summon up succinctly: “Listen. You’re going to be successful and rich, but you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
David Fincher’s direction is also a large part of the success. He and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth use soft, hushed colors that make lights twinkle and faces a bit washed out. They capture the coldness of Boston in December, as well as the aloofness of Zuckerberg’s world view. It is reminiscent of the films of the 1970s: plain, and unprocessed. However, The Social Network isn’t about the foundation of Facebook- it’s about how a network meant to make friends, to bring people together and how this idea has actually ruined more lives and friendships than it could ever have hoped to connect. - Rafael Gaitan
Toy Story 3 (dir: Lee Unkrich)
Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang return for Toy Story 3, the final part of the trilogy begun in 1995. But how does Pixar handle a demographic that is now 15 years older? Just think- the kids who were five when Toy Story came out are now 20 years old. Some may even be parents already. But by concentrating on universal conditions such as the feelings of insecurity and the desire to matter, Pixar has not only crafted a fitting conclusion to its trilogy, but one of the best films of 2010.
While stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen have returned to voice the leads, Toy Story 3 takes place in a whole different era than the first two parts. Andy is now heading to college, more interested in girls and fast cars than playing with his old toys. But when the gang ends up in a daycare center from hell, run by an evil bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) and his fey henchman Ken (Michael Keaton), Woody once again must save his friends from disaster.
Just as in other magnificent Pixar films like WALL-E, we drop our cynicism and believe that pieces of plastic and wood have feelings. Full of heart-wrenching emotion, Toy Story 3 is never maudlin, however. This a film about saying goodbye and new beginnings – teaching us it is okay to break free of relationships that have run their course. Nothing last forever- except enduring characters like Woody and Buzz who are now just as much an important part of our culture as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. - David Harris
White Material (dir: Claire Denis)
Claire Denis’ treatment of the end times of African colonialism has been faulted by some for its non-specificity, resulting from its refusal to offer specifics on the political conflict it portrays. Yet any explicit political structure, or the back-story needed to sustain it, would only distract from how beautifully simple of a story this is. White Material is fundamentally not a film about a country but about a woman, former plantation owner Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), who has adopted a false parentage over a place she mistakenly believes to be hers.
Maria’s actual home, occupied by a trio of tense, dissipated relatives, is corroding just as quickly as the situation in this nameless country, which helps draw a parallel between these two embattled domesticities. It remains a subsidiary issue that her motherhood is so distracted and self-interested in both cases. The problems of her son, who goes feral after a vicious attack by child soldiers, or the plight of fearful farmhands caught between two warring armies are secondary to the threat imposed upon her livelihood. This creates a fascinating double quality, allowing the film to portray both the business-minded callousness of colonialism and the struggle of a woman who cannot bear to abandon her home.
In this way, Denis sketches White Material as an allegory which thrives on ambiguity, highlighting a small personal story within a larger context of societal entropy. The same way a huge traffic jam was exploited in 2003′s Friday Night, the destruction that occupies the borders of the film serves as an impetus for internal analysis. In that film, the female protagonist’s betrayal of an unseen lover was softened by her own fantasies, a series of referential cinematic cues convincing her of the acceptability of such an escape. Here the issue is not escape but a refusal to leave, as Vial clings, beautifully and passionately, to the last vestiges of a vanishing world. - Jesse Cataldo
Winter’s Bone (dir: Debra Granik)
The plot of Winter’s Bone is as plain as the mountain shacks where it transpires. A teenaged girl named Ree (the astonishing Jennifer Lawrence) is charged with looking after her siblings and ailing mother thanks to circumstances that are unfortunate but not especially uncommon in her sad social circle. She finds out that the home and property that together represent their only meaningful possession will be stripped away unless she can determine the whereabouts of her bail-jumping father. The film follows her as she seeks out answers from her relations, all invested in preserving the tightly controlled community they’ve developed with the express purpose of keeping the hostile outside world at a pronounced distance. Director Debra Granik’s second feature isn’t about dispensing shocking turns in its core mystery; it’s about thoroughly exploring the culture where the mystery takes place, and, in the process, understanding how it foments such troubling scenarios. Through exemplary construction of the narrative, Granick lets the foreboding nature of these people in this place emerge with quiet menace. Every interaction is fraught with the promise that any transgression of the well-worn, implicit rules will be met with swift and decisive retribution. The threat is not in their actions, it is in their being, a quality Granik chillingly evokes. She goes so deep that Winter’s Bone begins to feel more like shared experience than something passively viewed from the safety of a theater seat. It is bold, it is powerful, and it is hard to shake. - Dan Seeger