The first year of the new decade may have been a hit and miss affair as far as the big blockbusters were concerned (for every good one there was also an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or ‘Twilight: How Many More of These do we have to Endure’, not to mention the worst crime ever committed in the history of cinema, as well as all of humanity, otherwise known as ‘The Last Airbender’). But what I found within the best films of the year was a commonality in that they were all films of intimate events. Rather than a good helping of grandiose ambition we were treated to intimate character studies. They were small stories about genuine people and with one notable exception I found them all to be movies driven primarily by their characters, kept constantly in momentum as it also sought to deconstruct them.
As ever though I have some honourable mentions. Though I may be murdered in my sleep as a result, ‘Toy Story 3’ did not make my top ten (let down purely for having a narrative that felt a little too repetitive of its predecessors) but I will gladly give it a shout out for its mature themes and emotionally powerful ending that put a brilliant end to Pixar’s trilogy, goodbye childhood. But Dreamworks actually had good competition on the animated front with ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ which as well as having possibly the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen (suck it, ‘Avatar’) also contained a resonant narrative with compelling characters.
We also saw plenty of excellent biopics emerge as serious awards contenders. It pains me to say that I could not find room for David O Russell’s ‘The Fighter’ despite the fact that it features Christian Bale giving one of the best supporting performances I’ve ever seen. Then there was ‘The King’s Speech’ which allowed Colin Firth to once again demonstrate his superb talent for portraying characters conflicted by their own status and personality which would earn him the Academy Award for Best Actor (though he should have won in 2009 for ‘A Single Man’).
I would be remised if I didn’t mention ‘Tucker and Dale vs Evil’, a hilarious comedy that paid homage to classic slasher films while also parodying them to brilliant effect. I also have to give a mention to ‘Another Year’ by Mike Leigh and ‘Somewhere’ by Sofia Coppola. I also have to recommend some of the great ensemble casts of the year like ‘The Kids Are Alright’, a drama that will make you laugh, and ‘Blue Valentine’, a drama that will make you feel the soul crushing, emptiness of life and force you to confront the notion that every ounce of hope you have is futile. Enjoy.
There were also some brilliant surprises. While it’s no shock that Joel and Ethan Coen would deliver another superbly made, darkly humours and oddly poignant movie, the fact that it was in the form of the western remake ‘True Grit’. But it was a glorious triumph that stands as another terrific entry into the Coen’s filmography as well as the western genre in general. The cast that included Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld and Josh Brolin were fantastic as well as the one and only Jeff Bridges who in my opinion actually gave a better performance here than the one that won him an Oscar in 2009(what the hell, Academy?) What was also surprising was the fact that someone found a way to make a comedy about aspiring ISIS soldiers but ‘Four Lions’ did just that in a comedy that was well as being hilarious also showed more social insight than most serious dramas this year.
Finally, I have two documentaries that are both so bizarre and unique that they could only come from reality. The first is ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, focussing on one man’s obsession with Street Art and directed by Banksy himself. Then there is ‘Catfish’, a movie one can’t really describe without spoiling it so just trust me when I say that you should watch it if you have not already. But now for the top ten.
10: The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski’s taught political thriller is not only a masterfully crafted piece of filmmaking but also so bitingly relevant that it might as well be labelled a biopic. It displays an inherent knowledge of how to effectively raise tension through dialogue due in part to its incredibly sharp screenplay but also the stylish direction of Polanski who does such an effective job of creating an immersive atmosphere that the rain swept landscape in which the movie takes place is likely to be enough to send chills up your spine. Though on the surface the performances of Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan would appear to be subdued, they actually end up complementing the films ominous tone and ensure that the audience are constantly guessing over how much truth is being withheld at any one moment, or if anything is even true at all. It’s a low key thriller that harkens back to the classics of the genre whilst boldly moving forward.
In a film that is both harrowing for its subject matter but also awe inspiring in how effectively it conveys those qualities, Denis Villeneuve’s film is masterfully constructed. It is has the feel of something made by an artist with meticulous control over his craft but also a refined understanding of the human elements that make the story so compelling. Villeneuve knows when to demonstrate his own directing prowess but he also knows when to take a more restrained approach and simply focus on the amazing performances from his actors. Touches like that which allow us to sink into the characters skin and really consider their position are what make ‘Incendies’ so empathetic, to a point where when the movie does show us the more harrowing aspects of its story it feels all the more impactful. It’s a hard hitting movie that highlights the senselessness of hatred as well as its enduring consequences.
8: Winter’s Bone
If you want to know how a film can be crushingly bleak but also poigniantly hopeful simultaneiously, then watch ‘Winter’s Bone’. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and it is not hard to see why. Director Deborah Granik observes her character with an almost documentarian kind of impartialness, that views them not on a moral level but simply a realistic one. She forces you to see the events play out in a realistic manner but also makes it engaging for the movie’s entire runtime. However the talking point of the film, without a doubt, is Jenifer Lawrence’s truly staggering breakout performance. It’s a performance that balances vulnerability with courage so perfectly that the main character never fails to be empathetic, while also playing into the larger developing arc that underpins the movie and making us feel every emotional beat of it.
A documentary that is so intimate and insightful that you might mistake it for a written narrative. The movie follows the life of Formula 1 racing driver Ayrton Senna, regarded by many to be the finest in the history of the sport. It makes the bold choice to not rely on any through commentary and lays its interviews on top of the footage as sound only so there is nothing other than archive footage to tell the story on a visual level. Not only does director Asif Kapadia do a terrific job of capturing Senna’s life through said footage, but the way he structures the documentary gives the audience a real insight into his inner workings. We can sense Senna’s unrestrained passion for the sport, his drive to be the best that he can be and his development over time as he goes from being the rookie of the sport to one of its most dominant participants. ‘Senna’ humanises a larger than life figure but also honours him as a legend.
I know any Christopher Nolan fans will be fuming at how I’ve placed this relatively low on my list. But remember how I said one film in this top ten has a plot that feels bigger than its characters, yeah this was it. But there’s nothing wrong with that when your narrative and structure is as brilliantly executed as ‘Inception’. The mere fact that people are still discussing the film’s plot, its layers and that very last shot stands as a testament to Nolan’s mastery in terms of crafting an involving story. The film features some of the best directing I’ve seen this year as Nolan pulls out all his skill to bring his twisted dreamscape to life. Alongside that is a terrific ensemble cast made up of JG Levitt, Ken Wantanabe, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard and Michael Caine, lead by the always magnificent Leonardo DiCaprio whose performance adds a much appreciated layer of empathy to the grandiose ideas the film raises. Nolan has high ambitions and within ‘Inception’ he makes them fully realised.
5: Scott Pilgrim vs the World
I can understand claims that ‘Scott Pilgrim vs the World’ is more style than substance, but my immediate response to those claims would be “Who cares when it’s Edgar Wright doing the styling?” I would also argue however, that even amid Wright’s hyper-stylised, energetic action comedy lies a very humane story that balances its character work with its outlandish premise perfectly. The main characters never feel like caricatures as the script gives them empathetic elements for the audience to latch onto. Michael Cera is wonderfully sympathetic in the title role, and his other half played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead slowly gains more depth as the movie goes on to a point where you won’t even notice it happening. Even the characters that are just walking jokes are played with such comedic perfection by the likes of Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman that it becomes infectiously hilarious.
4: I Am Love
I won’t hesitate for a second to call Tilda Swinton’s performance in this film the best of 2010. Putting aside the fact that she learned two new languages specifically for this movie, her role is conflicted, intricate and endlessly powerful in how emotionally raw it is. Swinton’s performance seems to mirror the tone of the movie as a whole, being broadly powerful when it needs to be but also intimately staged throughout. Even the visual language of the film is on the same level, showing its characters in a wide, sweeping environment to show us the wider world which they fit into but also focussing intently on the details and inflexions of their personas. The movie’s production design has a timeless quality to it that only helps make the broad themes and raw emotions even more universally appealing. It’s difficult to even describe it without the visual mastery of the movie to back it up, so all I can say is watch it and experience it for yourself.
3: 127 Hours
Danny Boyle never makes the same movie twice. Every film with his name attached feels fresh, inventive and original and a quick glance at his filmography will confirm this as it includes ’28 Weeks Later’, ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Sunshine’. Further adding to the variety is this true story of survival that for all the attention given to its final few moments (if you’re that worried about the end just close your eyes and you’ll be fine) is rich and powerful for its entire runtime. Backed by an amazing lead performance by James Franco, Boyle takes us through an inner journey of appreciating life and looking back upon one’s own accomplishments in the face of death. We feel every excruciating minute Aaron Ralston is trapped in that canyon due to how well the film establishes him as a person with so much ambition and so much left to do in the world. ‘127 Hours’ life affirming, inspirational and brilliantly crafted.
2: Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky seems like an expressive person, and I admit I don’t have much to base that on other than the nature of his movies but I feel like that is a good foundation to make such an assumption. ‘Black Swan’ is a tale of obsession so beautifully and hauntingly rendered on the big screen that one can describe as either a psychological thriller or a full on horror movie. As the mian character’s drive for artistic perfection leads her to lose her grip on reality Aronofsky utilises his unique skills as a filmmaker to lead us through this dark and surreal nightmare. ‘Black Swan’ manages to strike the perfect balance between expressionism and narrative, in that the surreal elements of the movie never distract from our investment in the story itself, meaning that the movie is always tense and involving. This is almost certainly due to Natalie Portman’s excellent lead performance (along with Swinton and Lawrence 2010 was clearly a great year for strong female performances) that is both empathetic and repulsive in how her obsession gradually consumes her. Add in the fact that the film is gorgeously shot, composed and designed then you have a modern expressionist masterwork.
1: The Social Network
You will struggle to find a film this year, this decade, which is more tightly constructed, meticulously crafted and utterly involving than ‘The Social Network’. By combining the talents of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the movie becomes more than just a biopic about the founding of Facebook. It becomes a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, a biting commentary on an entire generation and a story of betrayal and empathy that is so twisted and intense that you will be on the edge of your seat for its entire runtime. I hesitate to call a film perfect, but there is not a single element of ‘The Social Network’ I can point to that feels underdeveloped or out of synch with the rest of the movie. The structure, pacing and editing are all so brilliant that I feel actively jealous. The score by Trent Reznor is define on its own but when used in the film becomes transcendent. Every performance in the film is phenomenal, Jesse Eisenberg’s sociopathic protagonist, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Justin Timberlake, they are all brilliant. Sorkin’s masterfully sharp dialogue is only equalled by David Fincher’s direction, elevating one another to new heights of brilliance. Who knew that the internet age could be this thrilling?