By WALLACE BAINE
Though 2010 was a decent year for movies, you can’t say there were a lot of surprises. At first glance, it sounded like a movie about the founding of Facebook was a lot of hype about nothing, but if you knew anything about social media, it made perfect sense. You could have predicted a year ago that, come Oscar season this year, everyone would be buzzing about Colin Firth and no one would mention Jennifer Aniston. You could have guessed that Pixar would make another animated masterpiece, that the latest “Harry Potter” would cruise into port like a massive ocean liner, and that sequels to “Sex and the City” and “Meet the Fockers” would stink up the place.
So, not many surprises, but many pleasures. The best films of 2010:
1) “Exit Through the Gift Shop” – What a strange and wondrous thing “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is! Technically, it’s a documentary – though, that’s a poor descriptor. It really needs its own classification. “Directed” by the notoriously mysterious British guerrilla artist Bansky, “ETGS” is the story of an obsessive Banksy who himself becomes a “brilliant” big-name artist. With its mix of behind-the-scenes frankness and wink-wink blarney, the film always keeps you guessing about who’s being pranked here, the hapless doofus who’s the subject of the film, or the audience watching it. In the end, it becomes a fascinating, off-center look at the danse macabre between art and celebrity, and have you wondering whether the greatest art is in the content, or the hyping of the content.
2) “Toy Story 3” – Each year, I’m determined to break the pattern of including a Pixar product in my year-end top ten, and each year, I’m drawn back again to that company’s knack of making its dazzling technological prowess secondary to its magnificent feel for storytelling. The final saga of Woody, Buzz and the gang is a gem from the beginning, but I’ve never seen, read or heard a more moving and evocative passage to the end of childhood than the last 10 minutes of “TS3.” And the moment when Woody reaches out to grab the hands of his friends as they all seem to be about to die – and, yes, spoiler alert, they do get rescued at the last minute – is a moment of such simple and courageous humanity, I’ve been meditating on it for months. Imagine that, a lesson in spiritual grace coming from a plastic toy!
3) “True Grit” – Ethan and Joel Coen reunite with “Big Lebowski” star Jeff Bridges in this simple, but elegant Western yarn of frontier justice. The Coens’ famously askew vision and the luscious cinematography of the great Roger Deakins are ever-present, of course. The incidental music really adds to the elegaic tone as well. But what makes “Grit” one of the year’s best is the Coens’ decision to return to the ornate 19th-century language – a kind of American brand of Shakespeare — of Charles Portis’s novel, harkening back to an era when the primary literary point of reference was the King James Bible, not some celebrity’s Twitter feed.
4) “Inside Job” – Documentarian Charles Ferguson took on the considerably difficult task of creating a compelling narrative out of the shameful Wall Street shenanigans that threatened to take down the global economy in the fall of 2008. Working with the intentionally complicated details of the factors leading up to the crash, Ferguson lays out an engrossing story sure to enlighten and enrage audiences. Sure, every American should see it. But, Ferguson makes what could be an eat-your-vegetables doc into a timeless tale of the creative energy of greed.
5) “Black Swan” – Bombastic and self-glorifying in parts, Darren Aronofsky’s creepy psychological thriller set in the world of high-stakes ballet is still the most exhilarating film experience of the year. Featuring a career-defining performance by Natalie Portman, “Black Swan” is really about the emotional and mental price demanded of full artistic commitment and, with its potentially malignant opposing forces embodied by the ballerina’s clingy mother and her imperious director, it operates on the level of myth. One of the few films where you can hear the audience struggling to catch its breath at the end.
6) “Winter’s Bone” – This hard-knuckles rural drama’s insistence of grim hyper-realism makes it an outlier among the year’s best films. But writer/director Debra Granik’s immersion into the lives of the subsistence-poverty hill people of the Ozarks is so convincing, it feels like something out of another time. Star Jennifer Lawrence opened some eyes as a teenaged girl who resolutely goes out on the hunt for her no-good dad to save her family into an underworld of menace and danger that is not in the least “movie-ish.” An unsentimental film as evocative as its title.
7) “The Tillman Story” – This absorbing documentary is called “The Tillman Story” and not “The Pat Tillman Story” for a reason. It’s only half about the heroic sacrifice of the former NFL star who was killed in a friendly fire incident while serving with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. It’s also about Mary Tillman, Pat’s tireless mother whose maternal rage was channeled into dragging military brass and the Bush administration in front of Congress in an effort to find out what really happened to her son. An astounding story of family, celebrity and political sleaziness that exposes the contradictions and frustrations of contemporary America.
8) “The Social Network” – This widely praised drama about young Mark Zuckerberg and the rise of his social-networking behemoth Facebook may have a rather slippery claim on the truth. But if you watch the film through an appropriately skeptical lens, you’ll see a kind of modern-day “Citizen Kane,” the dizzying story of an ambitious and talented visionary on his way to unprecedented media power and the betrayals it took to get him there. Yes, the sleazy and charismatic Justin Timberlake steals the show from star Jesse Eisenberg, but the film puts a thrilling new twist on the ever-popular get-rich-quick American story.
9) “The King’s Speech” – Though its plot and trappings might indicate otherwise, “The King’s Speech” is not the kind of sweeping epic of historical grandeur that would be an automatic Oscar magnet. Instead, it is a warm, human-scale story of a reluctant king trying to fight through a maddening affliction with the help of a cheeky commoner. A world leader having to deal with a stutter at the exact moment radio begins to transform the world is a delicious historical irony. But in the end, the film becomes a triumph because of the perfectly calibrated performance by Colin Firth, that master of British emotional repression, who enters the annals of film history as having given one of the most relatable performances ever of royalty.
10) “Never Let Me Go” – This luminous adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s popular novel didn’t connect much with audiences, due mostly to its unrelenting sense of melancholy. But the quasi-political fable about three promising young Brits wrestling with the cruel dictates of a dystopian future shimmers with a kind of fatalism that expresses life’s fleeting moment with heartbreaking clarity. Carried along mostly by an amazingly empathetic performance by rising star Carey Mulligan, “NLMG” only appears to be about three kids born into a dismal fate. In a larger sense, their dilemma is everyone’s dilemma. We all hear the ticking of the clock.
The near-greats this year included the beguiling family comedy “The Kids Are All Right,” the mind-bending popcorn movie “Inception,” the romantic Irish fable “Ondine,” the curiously absorbing look at the famous Allen Ginsberg poem “Howl,” and the Dean Rockwell/Hilary Swank drama “Conviction.”