Every year has its share of A-list duds. But in what other movie year was the collective star power of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, and Sylvester Stallone and practically every living action icon used to so little effect as in, respectively, Knight and Day, The Tourist, Robin Hood, Eat Pray Love, Green Zone and The Expendables?
That’s not counting Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman (The Switch), Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher (Killers), Liam Neeson (The A-Team) or Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman), because, well, you have to draw the line somewhere. Meanwhile, who exactly decided that the next generation of action stars included Adrien Brody (Predators), Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and Sam Worthington (Clash of the Titans)? Okay, apparently the answer to the last question is James Cameron. Duly noted.
Dumb, crude comedies are a Hollywood staple, alas—but have we ever been subjected to the likes of Grown Ups, The Other Guys, Dinner for Schmucks, Little Fockers, Get Him to the Greek and Hot Tub Time Machine, all in the same year? Has there ever been anything like a convergence of two artificial conception comedies (The Back-Up Plan and The Switch), a lesbian marriage/parenting dramedy (The Kids Are Alright) and a Sex in the City sequel?
At least family audiences didn’t do too badly. In addition to Toy Story 3, animated offerings included How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, Tangled and Megamind; there were also a few decent if unspectacular live-action family films: Ramona and Beezus, Flipped, Nanny McPhee Returns, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. On the other hand, the year also brought us Marmaduke, Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Yogi Bear.
And I haven’t even gotten to Alice in Wonderland, The Last Airbender, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Tron: Legacy, Jonah Hex, Gulliver’s Travels…
The Year’s Best
Of course there were good films in 2010, though you had to go a bit further to find them. In particular, it was a great year for documentaries; at one point I noticed that nonfiction movies made up fully half of my unofficial top 20. I’ve diversified since then, but there are still plenty of good documentaries out there. Here, in alphabetical order, are ten films that made the biggest impression on me in 2010.
Ten Films That Stood Out
- Babies Thomas Balmès’s joyous portrait of the first year of life for four babies in California, Tokyo, Namibia and Mongolia is a life-affirming celebration of new life, of love, of family, of the wonder of the world.
- Get Low Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek bring grace and humanity to Aaron Schneider’s fact-based Depression-era tall tale of an eccentric Tennessee backwoodsman who throws himself a “living funeral.”
- Inception Part mind-bending caper flick, part eye-candy sci-fi action movie, part existential philosophical puzzle, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious exercise in shared dreaming is as good as popcorn movies get.
- Lourdes Jessica Hausner’s troubling, documentary-like film about a group of pilgrims in Lourdes contemplates ambiguities around faith, hope, disappointment and uncertain miracles; it’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s an honest one. Ambiguous treatment of religious themes. Subtitles. (Adults)
- The King’s Speech Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush shine in Tom Hooper’s winning period piece about Great Britain’s Prince Albert, later George VI, and the speech therapist who helps him with a stutter. Divorce and remarriage, public duty and private happiness, family dysfunction and the looming shadow of WWII add thematic heft. Therapeutic use of obscene and crude language; brief profanity; references to remarriage after divorce and adulterous liaisons. (Adults)
- The Social Network Aaron Sorkin’s daredevil dialogue highlights David Fincher’s ode to our cultural moment by way of the founding of Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg with a chip in his brain as well as on his shoulder.
- Toy Story 3 Lee Unkrich winds up Pixar’s signature series in grand style. Woody takes a victory lap; old friends stare into infinity and beyond with clasped hands; and the baton is passed.
- True Grit Unfashionably eloquent, sporadically violent, matter-of-factly religious, the Coens’ thrilling old-school Western is one of their best films, with an outstanding performance by 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as one of the most memorable heroines in years and Roger Deakins’ impeccable cinematography.
- Waste Land Belying its deceptively bleak title, Lucy Walker’s documentary about Brazilian garbage pickers and their remarkable collaboration with Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is among the most uplifting and humane films I’ve seen in years. An extraordinary testament to human dignity, the dignity of work, and the transformational power of art. References to drug traffic and violence, prostitution and such; some profane and crude language. (Teens & up*)
- Winter’s Bone Set in a chilly Missouri Ozarks world of meth cookers, poverty and violence, Debra Granik’s quietly riveting film stars a flawless Jennifer Lawrence as an unforgettable heroine who is both in and of a world unworthy of her. Hard to watch but harder to forget.
Ten More Worth Noting
Last year I wrote that my runner-up list was rife with films that could just as easily have gone in the top list. This year I can’t say the same — partly because the strongest films of the year are so outstanding, but also clearly because 2010 was a weaker movie year overall (certainly for me). Even so, I’m excited about each of the films below and warmly recommend them all.
- 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s electrifying fact-based survival story starring James Franco as a Utah mountain climber caught between a rock and a hard place (Adults)
- Alamar (To the Sea), Pedro González-Rubio’s lovely, poignant semi-documentary portrait of a few weeks in the life of an indigenous Central American father and the young son who lives in Rome with his Italian mother (Kids & up*)
- The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale star in David O. Russell’s fact-based not-just-a-boxing movie (Adults)
- The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s effective thriller about a ghost writer working on the memoirs of a former prime minister (Adults)
- The Oath, A companion piece to Restrepo, Laura Poitras’s eye-opening documentary chronicling life after bin Laden for two Yemeni brothers-in-law, one on trial, the other after prison (Adults)
- Oceans, Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s marine documentary, with its startling and unprecedented images as well as a lot of familiar friends
- Restrepo, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s apolitical record of a year among American troops in Afghanistan’s most dangerous region (Adults)
- The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s bewitchingly gorgeous animated fairy tale about Irish monks, a woodland fairy and the Book of Kells
- Tangled, Disney’s revisionist take on the Rapunzel tale: lovely, charming, funny, and more than a little psychologically intiguing
- Waiting for Superman, David Guggenheim’s activist documentary on the state of public education, a challenge to teachers’ unions and a call for everyone to take responsibility
Also Worth Mentioning
- Kids & up: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, Nanny McPhee Returns, Ramona and Beezus, Secretariat, Shrek Forever After, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
- Teens & up: Flipped, Iron Man 2, The Karate Kid, Percy Jackson & The Olympians, Salt, Unstoppable
- Adults: Last Train Home, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, Rabbit Hole, Solitary Man, Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen