Film Retrospect's Top Ten Films of 2010

Honorable Mentions

1. The American

A euro-noir disguised as an assassin flick, and let there be no mistake: The American is geared more towards an arthouse audience than anything else.

It's minimalistic, understated, and sparse with dialogue -- but a mounting sense of tension and paranoia prevent it from becoming a snoozefest. George Clooney gives a mature, enigmatic performance that's full of subtlety and self-reflection. Sometimes less is more, and that seems to be the prevailing aesthetic here for Clooney and director Anton Corbijn.

A slow pace coupled with a european-laced style and backdrop, and also a distinct lack of any extravagent action or set-pieces (not enough explosions or transformers or Jason Stathams) likely baffled the hoi polloi, but the fact that it became such an afterthought this awards season is kind of surprising to me. It's a shame, because The American, I feel, is a deeply misunderstood film, and easily one of the more underrated gems of the year.

2. Never Let Me Go

This one begins as a familiar period drama, but eventually unfolds as a meditative, existential sci-fi romance-drama.

Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name, Never Let Me Go chronicles the lives of three childhood friends who must come to terms with the fact that they are clones being manufactured for their organs.

There's some serious soul searching going on here, and solid performances from Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and Kiera Knightley help us feel the innocence and anguish of these characters. And though at times the sentiment may come across a bit forced, it never becomes too distracting, as Never Let Me Go is surely one of the most unique and emotionally affecting films of the year.

3. Greenberg

An atypical style of film for Ben Stiller, but the role itself suits him well.

Greenberg is the name of the film and the name of our protagonist, who's an eccentric, unlikeable middle-aged man in the midst of a generational crisis. He's in LA to housesit for his brother's family, and it's quickly learned that he once led a promising life in the City of Angels before strangely vanishing to New York.

This film is all about rediscovery. It's also a character study in the sense that Greenberg's delineation is far more important than plot (which there is little of). We, as the audience, are forced to follow this self-absorbed, bitter guy around, and it's not until he precariously falls into the developmental stages of love that we realize that there's an actual character arc at work. In the end, while we might not be able to truly feel for the character, we can at least identify with some of his issues as he attempts to revitalize his life.

Special nods to The Fighter, I Love You Phillip Morris and Animal Kingdom; all quality films.

My top ten of the year after the jump...

10. Monsters

Sci-fi, horror, human drama, romance, road movie, creature feature -- all of these labels could be used to describe the film that Monsters is.

Sure, it has some derivative elements (think District 9, Cloverfield), but don't get too discouraged early on, as this genre-bender has plenty of ideas of its own. A conventional alien invasion set up eventually gives way to thoughtful, metaphorical subtext, and soon we're wondering who the real monsters are.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect here is the DIY-approach taken by director Gareth Edwards, who also wrote, produced and did visual effects for the film -- all for a miniscule budget of $500,000. That just doesn't even seem realistic, as the creature effects and deserted wastelands are very impressive.

Call it the anti-Avatar.

9. Winter's Bone

Like True Grit, this film centers around a young girl's unrelenting pursuit for redemption in the wake of her father's death. However, unlike the Coen brothers' western remake, this one doesn't falter under tonal incongruities.

Winter's Bone paints the picture of a lawless, barren landscape, not unlike what's seen in classical westerns. However, this isn't the Old West -- it's the ruinous, impoverished backwoods of Ozark region, USA. Unlike True Grit, there's no tonal confusion here, as a steady diet of doom and gloom is implemented from start to finish.

Jennifer Lawrence gives the second best female performance of the year (behind Black Swan's Natalie Portman) with her portrayal of an earnest, mentally tough daughter-turned-guardian. It's a tremendously powerful film with a solid payoff, but it's grim tone and stripped-to-the-bone minimalism doesn't exactly solicit repeat viewings.

8. The Ghost Writer

A slow-paced but effective political thriller from the great Roman Polanski.

At this point in his career, Polanski has become such a masterful filmmaker that it's hard to pin-point why and how this film works so well, but it does. It's slyly effective and moody, but really, there's not a whole lot going on here at the surface; it's long, slow, sometimes tedious, and largely driven by dialogue, but Polanski's subtle craftiness induces a mounting sense of intrigue and slow-burning suspense.

The cold, ominous interiors and exteriors help to create a chilling atmosphere not unlike something depicted in an Agatha Christie novel, and enigmatic (if not downright menacing) characters help to reinforce these obvious parallels. It's effective and quite complementary to Polanski's trademark biting tonality.

The Ghost Writer strikes a measured balance that's rarely seen in mainstream films of its kind; it thrills, chills, and engages in a mostly sophisticated manner. It's certainly not a game changer, but it's a solid up-market thriller with some overt politcal commentary, that, at times, borders on the subversive. It's clearly the work of an old-school auteur.

7. Easy A

Easy A is something of an anomaly: a teen sex comedy with a high IQ and moral backbone but no actual sex. Not since Clueless has a teen movie been so sharp with satirical wit and obscure pop-culture and literary references.

Emma Stone is proving to be one of the best young leads of her generation, as she effortlessly carries the film with a tremendous amount of charisma. She's bright, sassy, and witty  -- almost to the extent of being smug -- yet somehow I still find her endearing, and this feeling carries over to the film.

Easy A is a refreshingly honest spoof of modern adolescence that never takes itself too seriously, but also doesn't dumb itself down for young audiences. It's the most entertaining, funniest and best comedy of 2010.

6. Inception

Inception is an imperfect masterpiece; of course that's somewhat of a contradictory statement, but to me it perfectly reflects the film's propensity towards undermining its own inherent ingenuity.

It's ultra-dense framework is unparalleled (maybe somewhat Kubrickian), but at a certain point in the film, it also becomes part of the problem. There's simply too much exposition going on, and though it's obviously required to help us understand the film's puzzling architecture, it also serves to confine the film in such ways that it starts to feel sort of mechanical.

Excellent performances from Leonardo Dicaprio, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard help in saving the film from becoming a nihilistic cerebral workout, and the sentimental angle created by Nolan is certainly undervalued; we do care about these characters, and that's partly why the final sequences resonate so deeply (Hans Zimmer's powerful score also helps).

Despite any of its design flaws, Inception is still easily one of the finest, most ingeniously crafted existential sci-fi films of the last two decades. It challenges viewers to find their own meaning in a convergent world of dreams and reality.

Some will say that the totem falls -- others will say that it keeps spinning -- and then a few people (me included) will proclaim that the totem's fate is irrelevant, because the film is actually an allegorical autobiography designed to symbolize the way that films, by nature, plant ideas into audience's minds (whoa). The beauty of a sci-fi mindbender like this is that there's seemingly infinite modes of interpretation that can be applied, and this is what'll give Inception the same cinematic legs that have immortalized films like Blade Runner, 2001, The Matrix, etc.

But regardless of is meaning, the most amazing thing to me is that such a challenging, auteurist work such as this had the ability to manifest itself in the form of an action-based summer blockbuster -- and it made nearly $300 million at the box-office to boot. That's the true feat of Inception.

5. A Prophet

This French prison film was actually released in 2009, but it didn't get a stateside release until 2010.

To label this as a gangster-crime saga set within the confines of a prison wouldn't be doing it much justice. A Prophet is a humanist drama at its core, and it transcends the boundaries of conventional gangster fare.

Sure, its grim, gritty, and at times pretty brutal, but it also has heart and soul. We care about the protagonist's fate. The film does so well in letting the audience see and feel the harsh realities of prison life. Without this crucial element, it would likely serve as nothing more than a rehashing of the classical gangster narrative set forth in films such as The Godfather and Scarface.

It's also a story of survival, and the protagonist does what he must to get by in the world in which he's forced to live in. And though the film is slightly overlong and not so adequately weighted in terms of pacing, it does ultimately manage to carry the load of its lofty themes.

Look for this exceptional gangster saga to stand the test of time.

4. The King's Speech

Look, I realize that it's somewhat fluffy, middlebrow and caters to the Academy's traditional values -- and yes, it could of probably just as easily been a made-for-tv movie; however, The King's Speech is also an authentic period drama, an impressive actor's showcase, and an emotionally rich, sentimental piece of classic cinema.

The fact that a film based around a man with a speech impediment and his vocal trainer can be so riveting and emotionally affecting is truly a testament to the craft of Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and director Tom Hooper. Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce also do some solid supporting work, and the cinematography, art direction and score are all top-notch.

All petty smear campaigns and critical backlash aside, this is a moving film that's made with grace and authenticity. It's not the most innovative film of the year, nor is it the best; but it's prestige and sentimentality rang true to me, so I'm willing to give this oscar bait-y crowd-pleaser a pass.

3. The Social Network

Only time will tell if this is the generational film that many of its rabid enthusiasts say it is.

Yes, it is the Facebook movie, but does it really have a whole lot to say about about Gen-Y's fixation with online social networking? Perhaps some. Is it really a critical snaphot of our culture? Does it capture the zeitgeist of the internet era? Again, maybe, but who's to say at this point in time? These kind of labels normally come after a film has a chance to stretch its legs. We must first measure its impact on our culture, so enough with the Citizen Kane comparisons for right now.

It really is a great film, but I see it as more of a personal tale of betrayal, regret, power, class and identity (very classic themes) rather than some grandiose cultural introspection.

Jesse Eisenberg is great as a complex, slightly misunderstood (and fictional) version of Mark Zuckerberg. Andrew Garfield is just as good as Eduardo Saverin, the emotional center of the film and the only character worth caring about.

The pacing is uniformal, refined, gripping. The narrative unfolds gradually and masterfully. The characters are mostly complex, with dialogue that's riveting, clever, and Mamet-like in its aesthetically-stimulating syntax. The tone is somber, cold, and cynical; the score is unique, powerful, atmospheric, and reflective of Fincher's tonal styling.

All of these elements add up to create the most wholly and intellectually absorbing film of the year.

2. Black Swan

Black Swan is an imperfect work of abstraction that thematically personifies it's protagonist's struggle to achieve an artistic perfection of body and mind. It begins as a sexually-charged psychological thriller, takes a left turn into gothic horror, and ends with an expressionistic, cathartic piece of ballet.

Natalie Portman gives a transcendent performance that is, without a doubt, one for the ages. Her character (Nina) is soft, fragile, reserved, and all too controlled. She needs to become the black swan, but doesn't seem capable. She must break free of the mental prison in which she is confined, and must break free from the clutches of her over-nurturing mother.

Mila Kunis plays Lily, who is Nina's foil and the objectification of the black swan. She's seductive, dark and visceral. Is she Nina's doppelganger? Does she even really exist? These are questions in which concrete answers may or may not be really important. But needless to say, this is not light material. We begin to feel the weight on Nina's shoulders as she's tortured by not only those that surround her, but also by the enigmatic forces within her own mind.

Tight framing and kinetic camera work induce a sense of claustrophobia and disorder. Melodrama gives way to over-the-top absurdism. Surreality blends into reality. Literal meaning takes a back seat to symbolism. In the end, the cathartic climax of Swan Lake serves as a reflection of Nina's own life. She does achieve artistic perfection, but at what cost?

The only slight knock I can give this film is the fact that many of its most attractive qualities are borrowed (or stolen, whatever) from Polanski's Repulsion.

1. 127 Hours

The only film of 2010 that still floored me after a second viewing, and also just one of two films that made me think, feel and marvel at the boldly innovative filmmaking at hand (Inception being the other). This is simply powerful, gut-wrenching, life-affirming cinema. I applaud Boyle and Franco for taking a giant leap of faith and absolutely nailing a film that really should not have worked at all from a practical and conceptual standpoint.

As usual, Boyle employs his hyperactive visual energy and doesn't shy away from exploring the inner thoughts and psyche of his protagonist. To criticize these narrative and visual elements (as some have) would be neglecting -- or, at the very least, misinterpreting their creative function -- which is to reaffirm the endurance of the human spirit.

The visual elements not only reinforce the film's predominant themes, but they also serve to personify Aron Ralston as an individual. He's foolish, selfish, energetic, daring, and generally full of life. But sometimes people can't see the error of their ways on their own, and Ralston inadvertently enters into an impromptu rehabilitation program in which he must make an ultimate sacrifice.

It's not a wholly enjoyable experience to sit through, but it will leave you with an unparalleled appreciation for human life, and that has to count for something. 

127 Hours is my favorite film of 2010.

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