2010 will not be remembered as a great year in cinema. While there were a number of diamonds in the rough - many included on this list, obviously - the year felt noticeably overstuffed with uninspired retreads, remakes, sequels, , 80s nostalgia, slavish adaptations and calculated attempts at franchise-building (Hello Prince of Persia! What's goin' on, Tron: Legacy?). Frankly, there wasn't a great deal to get really excited about - especially in the first dire 8 months. However, a handful of releases stood out from the rest, offering hope that magic could still be found in a darkened room on a glowing screen. The ten films listed below, and the honourable runner-ups, each, in their own individual way, managed to leave a permanent mark and loom large over the competition. If you haven't yet seen them, I recommend you add them to your list.
1) 127 HOURS Forget 3D, director Danny Boyle’s vigorous portrayal of climber Aron Ralston’s traumatic ordeal in the Utah canyons was easily 2010’s most immersive cinematic experience. Utilizing almost every technique in his very distinctive bag of tricks, the Oscar-winning director created a gruelling, sweaty, life-affirming action film in which the lead character rarely moves. With his right hand pinned down by an errant boulder, Ralston (a magnetic James Franco, almost invisible behind his character’s stubble, grimy skin and weary eyes) battles valiantly for not only survival but redemption; facing down the demons of his past as he tirelessly chips away, day after day. Boyle places us in that canyon right next to him, experiencing every ache, moment of weakness, bout of unbearable thirst and - when desperation kicks in - agonizing cut. Though 127 Hours mercilessly runs you through the emotional gamut, the overwhelming sensation of catharsis waiting at journey’s end is profound and intense – this film doesn’t just reward the senses, it rewards the soul.
2) INCEPTION If there was any doubt left after The Dark Knight that Christopher Nolan was the premier master of intelligent, bold blockbuster filmmaking, Inception cements the fact. As Leonardo DiCaprio (a doppelganger for the auteur, with his slicked-back hair and suave suits) and his crack team of high-tech corporate con-men navigate the subconscious of mourning energy mogul Cillian Murphy, we’re content to let the director guide us through the tale, eager to witness each new grand sight and original idea. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nolan respects the audience and the act of viewing cinema and, like a true showman, creates enthralling works of large scale high-wire entertainment that reward the thinking film-goer and the adrenaline junkie alike. In combining his fascination with psychoanalysis, science fiction mind-benders and the James Bond catalogue, he’s crafted his most ambitious and engrossing work to date; the rare studio event picture that knows that smart and cool often go hand-in-hand.
3) THE FIGHTER Great sports films understand that dramatic heft comes from the rich personalities involved, not the game itself, and David O. Russell’s electric biopic of welterweight champion “Irish” Mickey Ward (portrayed with understated modesty by Mark Wahlberg) is bursting at the seams with fascinating characters. While Christian Bale – giving a career best performance as Ward’s crack addicted half-brother and trainer – and ferocious family matriarch Melissa Leo are the obvious stand-outs, The Fighter gives even the tiniest bit players juicy material to bite into. The result is a scrappy, authentic and honest boxing picture that holds us firmly in its grasp until the final victory bell rings out.
4) WINTER’S BONE Bleak and sombre, Debra Granik’s breakthrough neo-noir sleeper creeps up on you like an icy draft from a cracked window. Set in a desolate, moody Ozarks mountain town overrun by poverty and crystal meth, Winter’s Bone follows an intrepid teenager as she embarks on a perilous quest to track down her father, who has jumped bail and put the family farm in jeopardy. Headlined by confident, strong-willed Jennifer Lawrence and a fearsome John Hawkes - who commands your attention in every scene with his gripping, tragedy-soaked turn as the girl’s criminal uncle – Granik’s captivating film sucks you into its wounded, ominous world, where a single misspoken word can lead to a sudden burst of violence and grim secrets lurk behind every battered door and cold, weathered face.
5) BLACK SWAN On paper, a psychological horror film set in the world of ballet seemed like an odd choice for Darren Aronofky, the art-house auteur behind intriguing works like The Wrestler and The Fountain. In practice, however, Black Swan is a mesmerizing and visceral continuation of the director’s many stylistic obsessions and narrative themes; a film which doesn’t so much capture insanity as plunge you into its gaping abyss. As we sit in uneasy silence, watching driven dancer Nina (a fearless Natalie Portman) psychologically splinter while attempting to tap into the duality of her lead Swan Lake role, the helmer gleefully jolts us with unforgettable scenes of shocking body horror and disturbing surrealism. By the time the astonishing culmination of Nina’s madness occurs we’re so completely under the spell of Aronofsky’s warped vision that it’s impossible to not hunger for an encore.
6) THE SOCIAL NETWORK Although the notion of a Facebook movie seemed ridiculous when it was first announced, David Fincher’s engrossing account of the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations surrounding the juggernaut social networking site proved to be anything but. Fiercely clever and observant, with a crackling script by Aaron Sorkin, the film assembles an exceptionally compelling group of fully-rendered personalities – flawlessly inhabited by ace ensemble Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer - and watches intently as they bounces off one another. The ensuing fireworks are fast, hypnotic and frequently hilarious, touching upon a number of universal truths and elevating the material far beyond its trendy roots.
7) HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON After spending more than a decade churning out mediocre animated product that favoured A-list voice stunt-casting and pop-culture references over strong storytelling, Dreamworks finally hit gold with this crowd-pleasing adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s best-selling children’s novel. Lovingly assembled by former Disney talents Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, How to Train Your Dragon soars to the same exhilarating heights as its lovable title character, Toothless, presenting invigorating flying sequences, thrilling action and a genuinely touching central friendship – all set to a John Powell’s pulse-quickening score. A dazzling treat for movie-goers of any age, it’s a film that deserves to be ranked amongst the very best cinematic portrayals of kids and their amazing pets.
8) KICK-ASS Matthew Vaughn’s uncompromising, balls-to-the-wall descent into superhero-driven lunacy was one of 2010’s most unexpected treats. Revelling in the glorious excesses of author Mark Millar’s inferior comic-book series, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman fashioned a comic-book origin tale that blazed with punk rock spirit and snarling attitude. Frequently misinterpreted as a failed attempt at a real world take on masked heroes, the film is, rather, a wry examination and celebration of the superhero genre, with Aaron Johnson’s idealistic masked avenger violently learning the rules of his own fictional universe. Featuring a star-making performance by Chloe Moretz as the purple-wigged, death-dealing crusader Hit Girl and a batty and disarmingly warm turn by an Adam West-channelling Nicolas Cage, Kick-Ass is a startling blast of blood-soaked irreverence that never dares pulls a single punch.
9) THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT One of the funniest films released in 2010, this Sundance fave written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko was especially notable for producing the year’s most memorable on-screen romantic couple in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Cast as long-term lovers raising two teenagers (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), the two actresses each give powerhouse performances and create a wholly believable and endearing movie relationship. Their union isn’t Hollywood perfect; there are huge bumps along the way – especially when formerly anonymous sperm-donating interloper Paul (Mark Ruffalo) arrives on the scene – but Cholodenko’s ultra-sharp writing sidesteps clichés and allows their bond to transform and adapt in frank, absorbing ways. More than just all right, this is a damn engaging film, teaming with witty dialogue and charming characters, which creates such a friendly, inviting atmosphere that we don’t really want to have to leave.
10) RABBIT HOLE Making movies about couples in grief can be an extremely messy business. There’s a tendency to depict one partner as being more sympathetic than the other, or to simplify their emotional processes. Director John Cameron Mitchell and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting his own stage play) get it just perfect. Starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a married couple shattered by the untimely death of their young son, the film tackles its complex adult subject matter with humanity and quiet sympathy. Refusing to take sides, it offers us a window into both protagonists’ heads, revealing both the strengths and limitations of their contrasting approaches to existing day-to-day. Backed by a solid supporting cast which includes Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh and Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole is quiet, raw and often sad, but never loses hope that there’s something better waiting just around the corner.
Honourable mentions: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, WINNEBAGO MAN, TRUE GRIT, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, THE KING’S SPEECH, TOY STORY 3.