There are great years in movies and bad years in movies, and by all accounts 2010 has been pretty good.
As often happens when looking at the films that opened over the past several months (and especially the last couple of weeks) to attract the attention of awards nominators, it wasn’t difficult to come up with a list of the 10 best. If anything, in a year that includes such standouts as “Rabbit Hole,” “True Grit,” “The King’s Speech,” “Black Swan” and “Toy Story 3,” it was difficult choosing what to leave off.
These are my 10 best films of 2010 (only a few of which were released during the so-called awards season):
“The Social Network” (no longer in theaters, out on DVD Jan. 11): This sharply written, subtly directed movie featured a lead performance as commanding as it was recessive from Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a suitably ambiguous hero for an era when privacy, notions of personal versus public space, and relationships themselves have undergone radical re-thinking.
“127 Hours” (just left Tacoma’s Grand Cinema, still in a sprinkling of cineplexes): Danny Boyle’s film about real-life adventurer Aron Ralston imbued his inspiring story of survival with verve, excitement and profound humanism, anchored by a breakout lead performance from James Franco.
“The Tillman Story” (had limited release in August; out on DVD Feb. 1): Amir Bar-Lev’s exquisitely crafted documentary about former NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman not only put his story into crucial context, but also offered a provocative meditation on myth, propaganda and our abiding need for narrative neatness.
“I Am Love” (released in June, now on DVD): Tilda Swinton starred in one of the most polarizing movies of the year, a mesmerizing throwback to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and lush historical tableaux of Luchino Visconti in which sensual pleasures drenched almost every scene.
“Please Give” (released in April, now on DVD): The neuroses of real-estate obsessed Manhattanites ricocheted with tone-perfect angst in Nicole Holofcener’s comedy of contemporary manners, by turns a wry and wistful observation of the implications of love and family and neighbors and stuff.
“Inception” (released in July, now on DVD): This ambitious head trip of a movie earned extra points for not being part of a franchise, based on a comic book or adapted from a play. Instead, writer-director Chris Nolan made that rarity in Hollywood: an original movie, in this case realized with vision and smarts.
“No One Knows About Persian Cats” (released in April, not available on DVD): Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi gave viewers a vital, progressive view of modern-day Tehran in this fact-based picaresque through the city’s raucous, diverse underground music scene.
“The Kids Are All Right” (released in July, now on DVD): Like the equally heart-rending “Toy Story 3,” this funny family drama (or wrenching family comedy) centered on that bittersweet moment when that first kid leaves home for college; the fact that the parents letting go were two mothers was almost incidental, leaving audiences with a familiar, cheerful shrug: This is what family looks like.
“The Ghost Writer” (released in February, now on DVD): This sleek, stylish old-school political thriller from Roman Polanski starred Pierce Brosnan as an uncannily Tony Blair-like former British prime minister and created the ethereal world of the super-powerful with hushed, velvety verisimilitude.
“Fair Game” (released in November, playing at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema): Doug Liman’s concentrated, well-calibrated revisiting of the story of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson avoided ax-grinding in favor of a taut drama that reminded viewers that even the most cynically stage-managed political theater possesses unseen human stakes.
Here are some titles that just missed making the “Best of” list but featured notable performances, directorial flourishes or cinematic values that deserve a shout-out (not to mention priority on Netflix queues):
“Tiny Furniture” and “Fish Tank”: These intimate, closely observed domestic dramas dealt with the volatile dynamic between mothers and daughters, with wildly different tones but similarly sharp observational skills. Writer-directors Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) and Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”) delivered naturalistic, unsparing portraits of attachment and separation at their most messed-up and relate-able.
“Budrus,” “Catfish,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Inside Job,” “Client 9,” “A Film Unfinished,” “Marwencol,” “GasLand,” “Waiting for Superman”: These absorbing, provocative, in some cases confounding documentaries proved that nonfiction films can still be counted on for storytelling at its most sophisticated and engaging.
“The Fighter”: Even if you don’t think you like boxing movies, see this one for Christian Bale’s breathtaking performance as Dicky Eklund, the Massachusetts welterweight once known as “The Pride of Lowell” who trains his half-brother Micky Ward in between crack binges. (Speaking of documentaries, see Frederick Wiseman’s entrancing “Boxing Gym” beforehand to get a 360-degree view of this deceptively graceful sport.)
“A Prophet,” “The Secret in Their Eyes,” “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”: Technically, these were all 2009 movies, but they opened in most markets in 2010. If you missed them in theaters, catch them now.