Everyone has their own way of making lists like this. Some writers secretly use their end of year top ten as a way to promote movies no one saw, rather than to highlight the films they liked best. This is not that kind of best movies list. Others draw an imaginary line in the sand and make a distinction between the movies they think are the best and the movies they loved most. For me, there is no difference. A few turn their list into a series of categories to avoid being forced to compare movies of different styles and genres, or put them in random order to avoid picking one movie over another. I'm not wimping out. This list has the heart of a lion.
What you'll get here is my list, an ordered list of the movies I believe to be the ten best released in the United States of America (because that's where I live, sorry Australia) this year and because they are the best, also the movies I saw in 2010 which I love the most. I didn't see every movie released this year. The days of the single-minded newspaper critic with nothing but time on his hands to see every single movie released are long gone. The modern movie writer must wear many hats, blogging and editing and interfacing, all while seeing as much as he possible can. I saw everything I could and I'm reasonably confident that I saw everything which had any chance of making its way through my brain up to the top. This list is the whole enchilada and these are the best movies of 2010, as I see it.
In Toy Story 3, a story that's been decades in the making culminates not in a big special effects sequence or in a round of fisticuffs, but in a perfect expression of love. The film builds and builds as our heroes are endangered, but it's the emotion behind it all that really matters. Impossibly, Pixar's latest and perhaps greatest masterpiece makes us believe that loving an inanimate object matters. Caring about that useless piece of plastic sitting on your desk means something, somehow. Maybe it's only because the ability to care so completely about something, anything, says something beautiful about ourselves; but we'd all like to believe it's because that useless piece of plastic loves us back in return.
In Hollywood making a sequel usually means going bigger. Normally it means more stunts, grander stakes, and even more epic locations. For Toy Story, bigger has always meant bigger feelings and the lump rising in my throat as I write this, months after having seen the film, tells me that the feelings in this film are the biggest. Toy Story 3 left us all feeling as if our hearts were too full, as if at any moment they'd burst right out of our chests. Pixar has already given us two utterly perfect Toy Story movies, yet this one takes that perfection to an entirely new level of significance. I still love you Buzz. I still love you Woody. You'll always be more than plastic, to me.
Albert Frederick Arthur George, Bertie to his family, doesn't remember a time when he didn't stammer. He's spent his entire life with a debilitating speech impediment. Chided by his disappointed father and mocked by his brother since boyhood, someone else might have simply shut down long ago, but Albert keeps fighting for his voice. When circumstance unexpectedly puts him on the throne of England while Hitler marches across Poland, he fights even harder, knowing that his people need him to have a voice as much as he needs it himself. In The King's Speech Colin Firth, in what is clearly the year's best performance, presents a portrait of a kind, frightened, and deeply damaged man who wants desperately to love his family and do his duty, but finds himself betrayed time and again by his own voice.
It's not a movie about conquering your fears, the terror in Albert's eyes even as he succeeds in the film's final moments tells you those fears will never be eliminated, but going on in spite of them. British author John Wainwright once said that “there is no such thing as bravery, only degrees of fear”. I'm not sure he had it right. Fear will always exist but bravery is what happens when you go on anyway, in the face of those fears. When a firefighter rushes into a burning building, he's afraid of what might happen inside and that fear stays with him, but he goes inside anyway. That makes him brave. More than bravery, when someone faces down their fears for the greater good, for something bigger than themselves, that makes them a hero. King George VI is a hero.
Inception is about ideas; contagious, powerful, unstoppable ideas and how they shape the way we live, breathe, and think. It wonders how you became the person are and explores how the things you've experienced have affected the decisions you've made and will make. It tells the story of a man who uses dreams to plant an idea in someone's head, but after you've seen it, you may suspect that in fact the movie has been secretly planting its own ideas somewhere inside you. Watching Inception is like striking a match and setting your brain on fire.
It is a movie which contains many amazing special effects, but isn't about them. It succeeds primarily by risking collapse at any moment, by stacking complexity upon complexity until it reaches the point where any sensible filmmaker would assume his audience probably won't be able to keep up, and would then pull back. But Inception never holds back and director Christopher Nolan keeps right on going, living on the edge of sanity, challenging his viewers to keep up with the twists as it rips across the screen pulling us along in its wake. Every moment is constructed with perfect precision and, even though you may have trouble holding all four of five of the dream worlds happening all at once in your head, Inception never has trouble juggling them. It's everything a big Hollywood movie should be, but these days almost never are. Inception is a perfect blending of big spectacle and even bigger ideas. No one except Christopher Nolan makes movies like this.
In its best moments The Social Network is an exploration of who we are as a people, the way we're all connected together more closely than ever before and yet still so incredibly distant from one another. It's a movie centered on the development of a technology, which isn't really interested in technology at all. Some have seen the Mark Zuckerberg portrayed on screen by Jesse Eisenberg as a villain. I see something different. His character is sometimes spiteful and cruel, but he's also a bonafide genius, a guy with a billion dollar idea who isn't motivated by greed as much as a refusal to settle for mediocrity. Zuckerberg rages against those who oppose him, observing correctly that none of them could have done what he did. “They're suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn't work out the way they were supposed to for them,” he notes in the midst of one of his legal battles.
The Social Network isn't just a film about new technological ideas, it's also a film about old fashioned American ideals. It's a movie about individualism and determination, a movie about what can still happen in America with the right idea and the will to make it a reality without settling for mediocrity. Yet by refusing to settle for second best, Zuckerberg alienates himself from everyone around him. He creates a new way to connect people out of a deep seated need to connect with others, but remains unable to connect himself. More than anything else The Social Network is a movie about the need for acceptance inside all of us, acceptance this Mark Zuckerberg knows he'll never have.
Doomed to be redone by Hollywood soon, this Swedish take on the first book in deceased author Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy is gritty, spine-tingling noir at its very best. It's carried by a powerhouse performance from relative unknown Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, a damaged feminist computer hacker with more balls than the most heavily-muscled male action hero. She's paired with a pudgy, preening, male reporter hired to investigate a decades old murder by a wealthy family on a lonely, isolated island. They work together to form one of the great detective duo's of all time, right up there with Watson and Holmes, dropped in a visually fascinating, utterly gripping mystery.
There are two sequels, also released this year in America, but the followups were made on a less ambitious scale and the story diverges drastically from what makes Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so completely brilliant. Those sequels are worth seeing for Noomi Rapace's performances alone, but unlike those inferior revisits Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on this list because it offers up her brilliant performance and so much more. This is intelligent, adult, mystery perfectly told.
Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island ends in a big twist, but does not exist in the service of that surprise ending. Instead the twist exists in the service of a bigger story. The second time you watch it Shutter Island is a completely different movie yet, no matter which way you see it, both versions are equally compelling. In the first story Leonardo DiCaprio plays a US Marshall sent to investigate a mental facility on a remote island. Something isn't right. He's haunted by vague, forgotten memories of a past tragedy and wanders the island looking for answers to what seems like a conspiracy almost too big to comprehend.
The film is full of beautiful, perfectly crafted contradictions created in an ominous and foreboding atmosphere of fog and slowly wafting cigarette smoke. It's all the little subtle touches, the kinds of things which only a filmmaking master like Scorsese could ever pull off, which make Shutter Island so much more than it seems. Those easy to miss subtleties linger in your subconscious and hang around until you need them. Eventually it all fits together into one unexpected, whole. It left me with questions I'm still asking, months after leaving the theater.
Though almost without a doubt one of the greatest, most poignant stand-up comics ever to take the stage, the late Bill Hicks never found widespread fame in America. American: The Bill Hicks story attempts to change that, not by simply showing a series of great stand-up moments from Bill, but by exploring and honoring the man he was. Of course the big problem with making a documentary about someone who's dead is that they aren't there to put up on screen. American solves this with technology, by animating a vast archive of still photos to create a complete window into Bill's world as the people who knew and loved him best talk about his life.
American comes alive in creating a vibrant portrait of how Hicks became the brilliant social commentator and comedian he was. It works because his message is as relevant now, or perhaps more relevant now, than it was then. Throughout the film Bill stalks the stage railing against injustice and stupidity. He pleads with his audience for logic and common sense, wandering the country begging people to listen. No one did then, but it's not too late. He's been gone for more than a decade, but his comedy could still change your life because Bill Hicks played from his fucking heart.
DreamWorks Animation's movies are at their best when striving purely for escapism, and this is escapism at its very best. How to Train Your Dragon soars to epic heights by taking its audience on a fire-breathing, dipping, diving ride and never looking back. Along the way to sending us leaping into the clouds and skimming along endless oceans on the back of a dragon, the movie creates a convincing world full of animated Vikings and hordes of flying lizards, eternally at odds with each other for reasons no one understands.
At the center of it all is the relationship between a boy and his friend, who just happens to be a dragon named Toothless. The entire film is done in a less realistic, more cartoony style of animation but that allows them to use visual exaggeration as part of their storytelling, and have it feel completely natural. Toothless in particular is a masterful piece of characterization, in nature part loyal hound and part inquisitive lizard. How to Train Your Dragon belongs on this list, if for no other reason than that it was the most flat out fun to be had in a theater this year.
I'm not sure most of us will ever really understand what it's like to be a soldier, but short of joining the armed forces, Restrepo is about as close as you can come. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's documentary takes place over a year embedded with the Second Platoon in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, a place where they're under attack every single day. The amount of insight into the life of real soldiers engaged in almost constant battle is unlike anything you've ever seen before. It's not just the unflinching battle scenes or the backbreaking labor, or the constant stress that sticks with you. It's the way the film so completely depicts who these young men are that stays with you most in the end.
In a moment that for me sums up everything Retrepo is, a young soldier sits behind a massive machine gun preparing to fire at hostiles lurking in the far distance. He talks to the camera about his childhood raised by a hippie mother who refused to let him play even with toy guns. He fires off into the distance and you get the sense that once, he might have smiled when he told this ironic story of his pacifist upbringing, but no longer. Now, like everyone else around him fighting stay alive, he just wants to go home.
The competition was fierce for this last spot, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World earns its place here over other really good movies like Black Swan or 127 Hours for one simple reason: I plan to watch it again. In fact I'll probably re-watch it every time someone who hasn't seen it enters my house and sits down on the couch. Scott Pilgrim is the kind of movie you can't just see and forget about, it's the kind of movie you have to share. It's the kind of movie that inspires annoying fan groups like the Browncoats, dedicated entirely to proselytizing the film's greatness to others who have somehow missed out.
Director/co-writer Edgar Wright's film is an infinitely creative piece of art, made without cynicism or marketing demographics in mind. Like a musical with fights instead of songs, Scott Pilgrim's visually stunning, often hilarious battle scenes are used to voice all the emotions too big to be expressed by mere words. It's through these elaborate and detailed special effects moments, which are far more than FX moments, that Scott grows into a better person. Wright has developed a new way of storytelling and Scott Pilgrim is a movie unlike anything else released all year. It's the kind of movie which, once seen, you just have to share with everyone you know.
Good Movies That Didn't Make The Cut:
Black Swan, The Next Three Days, Tangled, The Town, 127 Hours, Buried, The Kids Are All Right, The Runaways, The Expendables, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Going the Distance, Exit Through the Gift Shop
Just In Case You Were Wondering:
The Back-Up Plan was the worst movie released in 2010. Revisit the ways in which it harmed me right here.
For more of Cinema Blend's 2010 wrap-up go here.