1) The Social Network – The Social Network has garnered much praise this year, with many critics proclaiming it something along the lines of “the film of our times”. While I’m about to laud the movie even more, I wouldn’t go that far. In fact, the great strength of The Social Network is that it doesn’t rely on an affected importance of Facebook or “our times” to create drama. Instead it brilliantly and methodically builds its own drama, constructs its own importance. The film is rich enough to support any theory about its depiction of a uniquely 21st century brand of greed, ambition or genius, but more importantly it succeeds on its own merits. In the backlash that’s sure to come from the extraordinary praise The Social Network has gotten this awards season, we should not forget that, more than a movie about our times, this is just as unapologetically smart, exciting and entertaining a film as you’re likely to see.
2) Our Beloved Month of August – The blurred line between documentaries and narrative features has been much discussed this year, but no film made more of the conceit than this beguiling travelogue-musical-drama. Director Miguel Gomes documents the modest people and rustic festivals of a small Portuguese town with such breezy, amiable directness that the intricacy of his design, once revealed, comes as a true shock.
3) Mother – Emerging from the vibrant cinema scene of Korea, Bong Joon-ho has been dazzling since his debut feature in 2001. While Mother doesn’t have the same large scope of Memories of Murder, it does feature his characteristic blending of tones and genres. He masterfully injects humor into scenes of drama and suspense, and lends poignancy to moments of comedy, all while juggling a murder mystery that will keep you guessing.
4) Alamar – A joyous and unassuming little film, Alamar chronicles a few days in the life a boy and his dad. The pair swim, fish and play among the reefs of Mexico, a world apart, the film makes clear, from the land and cities beyond. Director Pedro González-Rubio gracefully films his subjects and the waters and skies they love, and though the images are beautiful, the reef is grounded in reality; it’s exotic but a recognizably genuine place full of real people. Similarly, the dynamics of father-son relationship are real and touching, never succumbing to sentimentality.
5) Toy Story 3 – Pixar’s streak of excellence continues as the Toy Story saga concludes, in a film about, fittingly, aging and mortality. Its bravely mature themes will justly be what’s remembered about this film, but let’s not forget its inspired, manic fun. After all, wrapped up in this mournful story of growing up is a brilliant send-up of the prison escape film that brought us the image of Mr. Tortilla Head.
6) Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky’s visual style has, thankfully, matured over the decade since Requiem for a Dream. By keeping the camera out of the way of his story and making the most of tools like sound and editing, he constructs a very precise feel and rhythm which perfectly complements the dark, twisted psyche of his protagonist. At times, the story comes across as sketchy or broad, but it’s saved by an embrace of horror conventions and pure, exhilarating filmmaking.
7) Sweetgrass – The refreshingly, deceptively simple Sweetgrass proves that a documentary doesn’t need narration, but can tell a compelling story with nothing more than the strength of its images and the persistence of its gaze. A strictly observational look at Montana sheep headers – modern day cowboys – and the tasks, terrain and animals that define them, the film is surprisingly poignant and subtle. As an added bonus, it features the most elegant profanity since In The Loop.
.8) A Prophet – A Prophet is long, epic and enigmatic, but it might be the most watchable two and a half hours of the year. It understands the importance of small moments and layers the film in immersive detail. A few unexplained, surreal moments give this prison drama the feel of myth and are a welcomed addition to its gritty, realistic tone.
9) I Am Love – Tilda Swinton delivers a standout performance in this Italian neo-melodrama from director Luca Guadagnino. The tone is heightened and exaggerated, at times almost ridiculously so, but its pitch is perfectly calibrated. Guadagnino matches his material’s ornate drama, employing a sweeping, lusty, romantic camera and whipping things up to a thrilling emotional climax.
10) Vengeance – Johnnie To’s Vengeance is everything an action film should be: exciting, creative, over-the-top and masterfully constructed. To composes breathless setpieces, painting with almost surreal swathes of vivid red blood, but he also stages slower scenes with just as much care. The film is at heart a simple revenge story, but it’s written with wit and intelligence and features characters worth caring about.
Honorable Mentions: The Secret in Their Eyes, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Ghost Writer, True Grit, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Best Lead Performances of 2010
- Leonardo DiCaprio – Shutter Island
- Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
- Kim Hye-Ja – Mother
- Tahar Rahim – A Prophet
- Tilda Swinton – I Am Love
Best Supporting Performances of 2010
- Niels Arestrup – A Prophet
- Sónia Bandeira – Our Beloved Month of August
- Pierce Brosnan – The Ghost Writer
- Justin Timberlake – The Social Network
- Mia Wasikowska – The Kids Are All Right