Maybe 2010 wasn't the best film year in recent memory, but across three separate year-end lists, our critics found 43 different films to recommend — even if we occasionally looked back (Metropolis) or ahead (Another Year) to get there. In a somewhat surprisingly lack of consensus, we tab three distinct number-ones, none of them the lone film — financial crisis doc Inside Job — to be cited in all three Top Tens. Our picks:
1. The Social Network: No surprise here. The Social Network is dominating year-end lists, and while it might be fun to buck the trend, sometimes the consensus is right. The widespread Citizen Kane comparisons that greeted this film's arrival were partly a function of it being a portrait of the rise and not-quite-fall of a brilliant, ambitious, and arrogant media tycoon. But more so, David Fincher's finest film provoked the comparison because this is narrative filmmaking at a frequently ecstatic pitch of achievement, with Aaron Sorkin's rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' bravura score, deft performances from a deep ensemble cast (Rooney Mara!), and Fincher's audaciously assured editing and shifting, natural camera locking into a hypnotic rhythm.
2. Winter's Bone: This modern mountain noir from filmmaker Debra Granik, where meth is a more destructive replacement for moonshine, has an increasingly Southern Gothic narrative that could be the skeleton of a mediocre movie. But Winter's Bone becomes something special due to a steely, engrossing lead performance from newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, an undeniable sense of place, and persuasive — if sometimes misread or misunderstood — social detail. And the film's perilous story arc and starkly depicted landscape is nailed in place by stray snatches of visual poetry and bits of observed beauty that mark it as something of an Ozarks answer to Charles Burnett's subterranean classic Killer of Sheep.
3. Inception: After pushing the superhero movie into uncharted territory, director Christopher Nolan tops himself here, combining the scope and command of The Dark Knight, the intricacy and demand for audience attentiveness of his breakout Memento, and the richness of his underrated The Prestige. The result was the most complex and daring mega-blockbuster in film history. Underrated key: a luminous, vulnerable Marion Cotillard, who adds essential danger and emotional weight to what could have been merely a fanboy wet dream.
4. Inside Job: The kind of traditional, big-issue-overview documentaries made by Charles Ferguson don't tend toward dynamism. But as with his previous film, the Iraq war-focused No End in Sight, Ferguson overwhelms with detail, clarity, and a relentless pursuit of truth on Inside Job, a stomach-turning examination of the global economic crisis. With this mammoth film, audience rage emerges from an accumulation of facts, not from operatic prodding.
5. Night Catches Us: The year's best debut feature, from writer/director Tanya Hamilton, is a prickly portrait of former Black Panthers in late-'70s Philadelphia that eschews easy or fashionable nostalgia to deliver a sad, honest reckoning with the complications and contradictions of the Black Power movement — bolstered by a killer score from hip-hop band the Roots and terrific performances from underused young actors Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington. Night Catches Us screened this fall at the Indie Memphis Film Festival.
6. Black Swan/Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: A should-be double-feature of the year's two most wonderfully insane movie entertainments, one soon to be Oscar-feted, the other barely released, both blowing past such petty distinctions as "good" and "bad" in their increasingly gonzo back halves.
7. The Ghost Writer: This elegant, subtly self-referential political thriller from Roman Polanski — featuring gracefully classical direction, crisp performances (Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams, Pierce Brosnan), and coolly mordant comedic notes — was the year's most neglected mainstream film.
8. Please Give: A barbed but surprisingly generous comedy of manners set amid an interconnected group of comfortably middle-class Manhattanites (most notably Catherine Keener and Rebecca Hall), Nicole Holofcener's richly observed fourth film sketches complicated characters with identification, understanding, and rueful amusement.
9. Broken Embraces: A late-2009 release that slipped into Memphis this past January, Broken Embraces is a twisty, shimmering, movie-mad soap opera from Spanish art-house fave Pedro Almodovar that puts his favorite actress, Penelope Cruz, on opulent display.
10. The Fighter: More Rocky than Raging Bull, this engaging story of boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his troubled, crackhead brother (Christian Bale, somehow channeling Ed "The Honeymooners" Norton, somehow making it work) satisfyingly treads familiar ground but has something to say about the limits of familial loyalty.
Best We Missed: Carlos, French director Olivier Assayas' five-plus-hour, decades-spanning, multi-language docudrama is on the "career" of international terrorist Carlos "the Jackal." In terms of scope, achievement, and pure film-watching pleasure, it rivals The Social Network and Inception as the Movie of the Year regardless of how few U.S. screens it will appear on.
Best To Come: Another Year, British master Mike Leigh's latest, a brilliantly acted, autumnal study of marriage, friendship, and growing old is tentatively scheduled to open in Memphis on February 4th.
Honorable Mentions: Lebanon, Animal Kingdom, And Everything Is Going Fine, The American, The White Ribbon, The Town, The Kids Are All Right, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Chloe
1. Inception: I've never had a filmgoing experience as exhilarating, engaging, and intellectually stimulating as Inception. The movie is simply badass. Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who's more impressive the more money he has to spend. As visually agog as Inception is — the hallway battle is my favorite sequence of the year — the cast is what propels the movie to the top: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, and especially Marion Cotillard as the terrifying Mal.
2. Inside Job: I can't tell you how angry Inside Job made me. The documentary, by Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight), chronicles the worldwide financial implosion of the last few years. Ferguson takes complicated schemes and explains them for the layman. His case is airtight and undeniable. The bad guys are the financial-industry warlords who manipulate the system for staggering gain. Reagan, Clinton, the Bushes, and now Obama: one administration after another enabling the screwing of the American people. Inside Job makes the point clear: America is a plutarchy, and things aren't getting any better.
3. The Social Network: I suppose any other year The Social Network would be king. For sure, David Fincher's opus is as engrossing and whippy a film as was released this year. The secret history of a known, familiar phenomenon fascinated, as did the period trappings of a time so recent and full of nascent import.
4. The American: George Clooney may be the best current American actor, and The American might be his best film since Three Kings. Clooney has been great in plenty of "bigger" films, but none has demanded of Clooney what The American does, which is to put the whole production on the back of a character — a professional assassin/gunmaker — of questionable moral fiber who doesn't talk much. With photographer/filmmaker Anton Corbijn at the helm, The American is elegantly shot and executed.
5. Black Swan: The Late Show does a bit where an amateur performer does something unusual, and David Letterman and Paul Shaffer determine if what they've seen "is anything." The human trick they observe may not even be good, but if it's at least interesting, it gets a pass. The same logic holds for how I feel about Black Swan, an insane, claustrophobic look at a ballerina (Natalie Portman) cracking up. Many of the words I would use to describe Black Swan are expletives. Director Darren Aronofsky merges many of the themes and emotional underpinnings from his earlier films. What he comes up with is a brilliant movie that goes off the rails too many times to be great. What is great is Portman — about as good as any actress in any role in the last couple years. Not for the faint of heart.
6. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky: All due respect to Black Swan, but the cinematic ballet scenes of the year come in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, which opens with a 20-plus-minute re-creation of the infamous 1913 Parisian premiere of The Rite of Spring. The movie then leaps ahead several years, to when Igor (the always-appreciated Mads Mikkelsen) meets Coco (luxurious Anna Mouglalis). They have the hots for each other. The movie has the hots for Coco's gorgeous rural estate. See, kids, ballet doesn't always lead to madness, psychological horror, and physical mutilation. Sometimes it just leads to torrid extramarital affairs in the French countryside.
7. Winter's Bone and 8. True Grit: A couple of movies about Ozark-area girls forced to act as adults and take charge of difficult situations for their family's sake. Winter's Bone is measurably better — set in the provincial hollows and ridges of the contemporary Ozarks, the movie has a plucky gravity shot through with details and observations that lend an irascible verité. The Coens' True Grit features more of a mythical, problematic Arkansas: a citizenry no less grumpy but maybe a little more worthy of jest. What makes Winter's Bone and True Grit stand above are the performances of their leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld, respectively. I believe their characters would get along.
9. Hereafter: Clint Eastwood's Hereafter isn't about what happens to people once we shuffle off the mortal coil, it's about what we do with our existential struggle while we're alive. Hereafter is a movie about the afterlife that is supernatural in conception, humanistic in perspective, and mundane in scope. It's quietly powerful.
10. Toy Story 3: This Pixar thing is getting old: Make wonderful family films full of energetic storytelling, charm, and visual panache but not at the expense of poignancy.
Honorable Mentions: The Town, Knight and Day, Edge of Darkness, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Messenger, Conviction, Lebanon, Let Me In, Crazy Heart, The Kids Are All Right
1. The Ghost Writer: Roman Polanski's latest triumph takes a beach-read story and uses wit and skill to turn it into a classic. Polanski is one of the few old-fashioned auteurs left, and although there are maybe three shots in the film that might pique discerning formalists' curiosity, no other contemporary director better assays the quotidian horror and absurdity of modern life.
2. The Square: I hope independent video stores don't totally vanish, because this clever Australian noir deserves a prominent place on an "Employee Picks" shelf, where it will delight future cinephiles and seen-it-alls looking for something different. It unfolds like a classical tragedy. One bad decision after another buries the film's protagonist (an agonized David Roberts), as the slow, snooping camera plays the Greek chorus, creeping through houses and peeking around corners to reveal the next impending disaster.
3. Metropolis: The hand-meets-heart ending of Fritz Lang's restored 1927 futuristic class-conflict allegory may be cheesy, but it doesn't erase or even dent its visual and thematic richness. Lang's imagery here is more dense and provocative than it ever would be again: One shot shows a whole galaxy of eyes; another reveals a reptilian claw formed by lines of workers; a third shot watches a dozen workers on the job, shifting back and forth like metronomes as they pull and push gears and levers. Lang's knack for plotting and his interest in exploring social stratification ensure the continued vitality of this silent masterpiece. Screened at the Brooks Museum of Art.
4. Please Give: The characters in Nicole Holofcener's fourth feature ask themselves all the right uncomfortable questions: What can I do if I feel guilty about my success? How am I supposed to treat my neighbor? Why can't I connect with my mom? Why can't I connect with my kid? And, of course, am I a good person? Even if there aren't any clear answers, the subtle, realistic performances (especially Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet) offer the solace of recognizable, unpredictable human interaction — and possibly grace.
5. Looking for Eric and 6. Micmacs: These two foreign films, which aim for both human comedy and social commentary, exude a thrilling, risk-taking unevenness. Looking for Eric's first half stands out for the dreamlike therapy sessions between a single dad and his favorite soccer player, who has become some sort of guardian angel to him. Then it moves into some messy, scary emotional territory before its unlikely, uplifting finale. Like many Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, Micmacs offers imaginative alternate social groups and wondrous gadgetry that work together during scenes of visual ingenuity and crack comic timing. His latest film also shifts into a more serious register when its two dueling arms dealers are forced to reckon with the results of their own business.
7. Despicable Me: Never underestimate the power of a good time, which this film certainly provides. It's sweeter and funnier than the creepy and over-praised Toy Story 3. And it has my favorite 3-D animation sequence of the year, when a handful of the super-villain's plucky minions get a really long ladder and try to break free of the movie screen and reach the audience.
8. Buried and 9. Inside Job: These are the two most frightening films I saw in the theaters. Thanks to a well-paced, clever script, Buried is more imaginative and haunting than anyone could have expected. On the other hand, Charles Ferguson's financial-crisis documentary Inside Job is exactly what you'd expect. And it gives us a chance to hiss and jeer at the villainous investors and advisers running the financial industry, because it's pretty clear that they won't ever suffer any major punishment for their actions. In fact, they're probably managing your 401(k) right now.
10. Chloe/The Other Guys: These two genre exercises refresh their genres in unexpected ways. Chloe, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, is a film about a female mid-life crisis masquerading as an erotic thriller. (It's plenty sexy, though, thanks to another very fine performance by an older, wiser, and bolder Julianne Moore.) The Other Guys charges along thanks to the chemistry between Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, one of the greatest "straight men" of the modern era. Plus, I've been waiting all my life for the shot where hot dog detectives Danson and Highsmith take an ill-advised leap from a rooftop.
Honorable Mentions: The Social Network, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Broken Embraces, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus