The Best Movies and Performances of 2010

A look back at a year of smart blockbusters and piercing independents

As I look over the last year in movies, there were some interesting trends. It was the year of smart blockbusters (Inception, The Social Network) and piercing independents (Black Swan, Winter’s Bone). It was the year that may have ultimately killed some culture icons (Sex and The City 2, Yogi Bear) and may have hurt some careers (The Last Airbender, Furry Vengeance). And it was really a great year for animation. With Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, and the short Day & Night, animators proved that the format is not for kids only.

So here we have them: My choices for the best movies of 2010. (In alphabetical order.)

127 Hours
One of the most energetic, frenetic films of the year stars the charming and believable James Franco. In the capable hands of director Danny Boyle (and Franco), this claustrophobic tragedy is both harrowing and humorous. And makes you question how you might respond in the same situation.

Black Swan
Daren Aronofsky’s fairytale is probably the biggest love-it-or-hate-it movie of the year. A wicked, near-brilliant film that boasts a tremendous performance from Natalie Portman. Despite (or because of) a gaunt appearance, unflattering lighting, and a chaotic emotional arc, she keeps you transfixed. Whether you can trust her or not.

Christopher Nolan has created an Escherian piece of art that distorts ideas of time and place — complete with trippy imagery and multifaceted plots. It takes standard action conventions (gun battles and explosions) and gives them new life (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fight scene in a gravity-less hotel hallway). But truly it is an examination of the subconscious — how regret and loss can become invasive cancers in your psyche. Is it true, or just a great slight of hand?

The Fighter
This movie is all about the performances. Christian Bale is amazing as the fast-talking, a-smile-for-everyone Dicky. Melissa Leo creates a vivid, crass matriarch that demands attention. (Every scene where she leads the gaggle of sisters is hysterical.) And Mark Wahlberg provides the perfect, strong counter-balance. At times the film is unsurprising; yet these performances, especially Bale’s, make The Fighter something special.

The Kids Are All Right
What is so exquisite about this movie is the love that the writer/director Lisa Cholodenko has for her characters. While we are shown — sometimes in heartbreaking detail — the faults of these people, you never question their true intentions, their goodness. We do not focus on the validity of a lesbian couple having a family or children “dealing” with having two female parents. Instead, we focus on the normal troubles that face any family. All made possible by the stellar ensemble. Each actor, specifically Annette Bening, gives a stunning, smart, and award-worthy performance.

The King’s Speech
The performances, the costumes, the script, and the cinematography are gleeful and grand. We hold our breath when King George VI gives speeches. We laugh with Lionel when he has the King, who Lionel calls Bertie, do his exercises. And we fall for these wonderful characters. Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter give performances of their careers, but it is Colin Firth who is utterly astounding.

The Social Network
In pre-release this was the move that friends said, “Really? Isn’t this a little too soon?” Yet with the vision of David Fincher and the words of Aaron Sorkin, these doubts were quickly quashed. In the age of the Google and the interwebs, this is the modern epic. Rosebud.

The Town
Much as with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck has directed an emotionally fraught, messy (but poignant) movie — this time focusing on blue-collar bank robbers. The car chases are gritty and raw. The interplay of sound and silence (especially when switching between surveillance feed and live action) helps build the suspense of heist scenes. The talented ensemble is effective in each of their parts.

Toy Story 3
To some, the exquisite Toy Story 3 may feel like a thematic return to the earlier Pixar films (Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life), as compared to the more adult-appeal films of recent years (Ratatouille). Look closely and you’ll see that even the simplest tales can be the most profound. The movie is really about the love between the toys and children. But above all, you still have heart. So much heart, that at the end many adults around me were wiping their eyes. Including me.

True Grit
In this sepia-colored world, spurs clink and guns are holstered. People say things like, “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements.” And the law is taken into one’s own hands. The latest seems an odd choice for the prolific (and outrageously original) Coen brothers. But it is a slow burn of a movie; it stays with you long after you leave the theater. Particularly due to the strong performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

Honorable Mentions: Blue Valentine, How to Train Your Dragon, Let Me In, Rabbit Hole, Winter’s Bone

Of course, these are my picks. What are yours?