By Drew Taylor | The Playlist January 5, 2011 at 10:31AM
2010 was a year which initially seemed quite bleak and like all things over-emphasized for dramatic effect, picked up drastically before everything was said and done. Thematically, the most arresting films investigated the line between imagination and reality, from Leonardo DiCaprio battling his very literal demons in a pair of dreamworld thrillers ("Inception," which charted here, and Martin Scorsese's gorgeous trifle "Shutter Island," which did not) to Natalie Portman's Grand Guignol psychological breakdown in "Black Swan," to Woody's self-delusion in "Toy Story 3" and Scott Pilgrim's videogame-enhanced brawling in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." (We also can't forget James Franco, as a pinned mountaineer, talking to an imaginary television audience in "127 Hours.") Even "The Social Network," arguably the most straightforward film on this list, was structured with reality butting up against stylized self-myth-making, as a trio of stories on the formation of Facebook collided loudly. 2010, as far as movies were concerned, started out as a nightmare and ended up as a dream.
10 "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" (Edgar Wright)
The year's best comic book adaptation came not in the form of some caped crime-fighter, but an aimless twenty-something, one that wasn't plagued by some space-virus or super-villain but by the even-more-insurmountable foe of male insecurity. Edgar Wright's dazzling tour-de-force not only seemed like some genuinely next-level filmmaking but also contained an unexpected emotional wallop. (And this is not just because my Ramona walked through a magical door with some doofus with a bird tattoo on his arm -- talk about a long story filled with sighs.) It also, for me at least, was one of the more re-watchable movies of the entire year with a number of visual flourishes and performance tics (by an outstanding ensemble that included Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and countless more) easily missed the first time around. No wonder the movie bombed in theaters -- it moves so quickly I practically wanted to scream "Hold on! Freeze! Can we go back and see that again?" But then I realized no one was listening and I'd probably be asked to quietly leave the theater.
09 "Rabbit Hole" (John Cameron Mitchell)
Who would have guessed that John Cameron Mitchell, hereto known for his work on the outrageous rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and the even-more-outrageous sex comedy "Shortbus," would have made such a lovely, delicate, sensitive relationship drama. Even with her weirdly frozen lips, Nicole Kidman slays as a suburban mother mourning the accidental death of her young son in some truly unproductive ways (with equally great work by Aaron Eckhart as her somewhat-more-stable husband). For a movie about a marriage sagging under the weight of a dead child, too, it's pretty fucking funny. And optimistic even, with one of the most memorable and moving final shots of the year. It's a shame that this hasn't been more well received by critics or audience (at least in its limited run)....hopefully it'll get some Oscar love.
08 "Piranha 3D" (Alexandre Aja) / "Let Me In" (Matt Reeves)
Here's a weird analogy (hold on for this one) -- "The Fighter" did exactly what it was supposed to do. It was a rousing sports drama where the underdog triumphed in the end and it made you feel all ooey-gooey happy sappy when you left the theater. And it's not on this list. "Piranha 3D," on the other hand, could have just been about man-eating piranhas chomping down on spring breakers. But instead, it was an incredibly smart, pointed political satire made by a smart-ass European filmmaker about the nature of American excess dressed up as a movie about man-eating piranhas chomping down on spring breakers. So it made the list. Also, it was probably the most fun I had at the movies last summer. "Let Me In," sharing this spot because of the tenuous connection that both films are superior genre remakes, exceeded its original both in terms of ballsiness (it's a more brazen, more political, and more sexual exploration of the same themes) and in terms of its streamlined narrative (goodbye, cat attack sequence!). People that skipped the film because of their staunch allegiance to the original missed out on one of the best, most emotionally fulfilling genre pictures in recent memory. They also missed one of the best scores of the year, courtesy of one Mr. Michael Giacchino.
07 "Mother" (Bong Joon-ho)
We saw this way back in the fall of 2009 at the New York Film Festival and were totally taken aback by this bizarre melodrama-detective hybrid about an elderly woman who goes to extreme lengths to protect her mildly retarded son after the local authorities implicate him in a young girl's murder. It's exactly the kind of genre mash-up that has become a calling card of Bong Joon-ho (who we last saw with 2007's game changer "The Host"), liberally mixing comedy and tragedy and creating, in Kim Hye-ja's unforgettable performance, one of the more compelling big screen detectives. Instead of most heroes, she's not interested in truth as much as her dogged pursuit of clearing her son's name, which adds for some moral kinks you might not expect from this kind of movie. Why it was so overlooked is totally beyond me; it should have been an art house sensation.
06 "127 Hours" (Danny Boyle)
Only Danny Boyle, an aesthetic fetishist of the highest order, could take the story of a man getting trapped in a canyon (and forced to sever his own arm with a dull pocket knife) and turn it into a euphoric meditation on life and one of the most visually arresting films of the year. James Franco, in a stunning one-man show, takes us through every draining emotional beat, while the visual embellishments (which some have derided), like the delirious moment when our trapped mountaineer, dying of thirst, imagines a lush montage of soda pop commercials (set to the tune of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day"), put us totally and completely in his state-of-mind. Darren Aronofsky has been given a lot of credit for encapsulating a very specific psychological state with the hysterical "Black Swan," but Danny Boyle does just as great a job, in a completely different context. And the Coca-Cola I got after I saw the movie had never tasted so refreshing.
05 "Inception" (Christopher Nolan)
Simply put, "Inception" was the most boldly ambitious studio movie of the entire year. That director Christopher Nolan would dare to create such an expansive, thematically rich alternate universe (and then that he would pull it off) is kind of mind boggling. Yes, the first half is a little too talky and it's weird how sexless the movie is, but once everything clicks into place, it became one of the most breathless theatrical experiences of the year. Even if you didn't grasp everything the first time around, it was hard not to marvel at Nolan's fabulous execution of the action set pieces (particularly the zero-G hallway stuff), and the surprisingly three-dimensional performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (even Ellen Page, saddled with the wide-eyed Luke Skywalker role, performed admirably). I'm still trying to figure out how Nolan came up with all of this stuff, let alone cut it together in such a satisfyingly cohesive whole. Maybe we'll be bombarded this year by romance-sci-fi-action-dream movies. But probably not.
04 "True Grit" (Coen Brothers)
After coming off last year's brilliant, polarizing comedic drama "A Serious Man," the Coen Brothers have crafted their most straightforward, audience-friendly film in years. Instead of merely remaking the original (which won John Wayne an Oscar), they've chosen to more closely adapt the source material, Charles Portis' 1968 novel, and the result is quite possibly the brothers' most straightforward and emotionally satisfying film to date. As Mattie Ross, a young girl who hires a drunken U.S. Marshal to track down her father's killer, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, steals the entire movie, which is no small feat considering her co-stars (Jeff Bridges in the iconic, one-eyed Wayne role, Matt Damon as a scenery-chewing Texas Ranger, and Josh Brolin as the baddie). She's a wounded girl that is also hell-bent on revenge, and her moral fortitude always comes through, no matter how sticky the situations get. I'm probably not alone in expecting some smart-ass revisionist exercise from the Coens; the fact that they didn't deliver something so predictable makes me love the movie even more.
03 "Toy Story 3" (Lee Unkrich)
Those championing the film's grim, "facing death" moment are mostly overlooking the hellzapoppin' fun the movie's middle section, when the story of anthropomorphic toys took on the dimensionality of a prison escape film (with Buzz, always facing an identity crisis, reprogrammed as a hellish warden), and those exclusively looking towards the go-for-broke entertainment value of the movie often ignore the more heart-ripping stuff. I also firmly believe that there should be some thought given to the different ways that the film represents death -- Lotso's philosophy seems more based in reincarnation, while Woody and the gang have a much more linear, atheistic view of the final resting place. But that's neither here nor there. Undoubtedly there will be some kind of weird backlash (it's already begun on this very site!), but it's hard not to commend a series of films this artistically and emotionally sound. Quite frankly, it's the all-time greatest cinematic trilogy. Of all-time. Ever. Bonus points go for it being the most awkward post-screening moment since no one would look each other in the eyes since everyone had been crying.
02 "Black Swan" (Darren Aronofsky)
The debate as to whether Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" is high art or high camp is beside the point; it's both, after all. Anytime you deal with an emotional, psychological experience this heightened, there will always be some bleed-over. And no matter how delicate and jaw-dropping Natalie Portman's performance is (and, really, it is), you can't get over the fact that this is a bizarre, over-sized feminist monster movie about the power of sexuality, creativity, and becoming a woman (that owes a fair deal to genre mavens Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg and Nic Roeg). So, yeah, subtlety is pretty much off the table. The movie is all about raw force, which it delivers in spades. The first time I saw the movie was at the tony Hamptons Film Festival and I was pretty sure the audience of stuffy while folk would spontaneously explode and that I would leave the movie covered in human goo. That would probably be the most fitting way to leave this compulsive, gorgeous, achingly energetic film.
01 "The Social Network" (David Fincher)
Praises for this film have been sung so loudly (and so often), that anything I write in this space will be beyond arbitrary. But that won't keep me from writing. Yes, the movie was a hell of a good time, thanks largely to Aaron Sorkin's ratatat script and David Fincher's equally crisp direction (anyone who claimed that he had softened his stylistic edge are out of their fucking minds -- Exhibit A is the tilt-shifted rowing sequence), and offered us insight into the formation of something (Facebook) that we all are now, no matter how begrudgingly, a part of. Just as Jesse Eisenberg's Zuckerberg wanted to shape his own narrative when it came to the website's foundation, so too do we every time we log in and update our "favorites" or change our profile picture. The movie, like the website it's centered around, isn't about who we are, but rather about who we want the world to believe we are. (If only our lives thumped to the beat of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' unforgettable score.) "The Social Network" might also be David Fincher's most autobiographical film to date, with the similarities between himself and Zuckerberg fairly obvious: they both shot to attention at a young age, had an outsider's relationship with the college experience (Fincher never went) and have both been accused of being too emotionally distance and enchanted by technology (to a prohibitive degree). What's amazing is that, for all the criticisms of the movie's mechanical "coldness," what an incredibly accessible film it is on an emotional level, with the movie's final image of a lonely geek refreshing a girl's Facebook page while the Beatles strum in the background, is as resonant as any more boldly sentimental film moment this year. It's a moment that reverberates with anyone who has come of age in the Internet era. Refresh, refresh, refresh...
Best Non-Pixar Animated Movie: "The Illusionist"
Sylvain Chomet's wordless, haunting hand-drawn tale about an aging magician (modeled after French comedian Jacques Tati, whose lost script the film was based on) and his relationship with a young Scottish girl, left me utterly destroyed and thus, narrowly edged out Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois' superb "How to Train Your Dragon." "The Illusionist" is opening wide in February, so be about it. You won't be disappointed. It's truly magical.
Best Documentary: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"
The whole reality-versus-fantasy thing even extended into documentaries this year, with a number of high-profile non-fiction films straddling the same fine line ("Catfish," anyone?) I'm still trying to figure out "Exit Through the Gift Shop," Banksy's impish look at street art (to say anything more would ruin the exhilarating fun of the movie).
Best Movie That Still Doesn't Have Distribution: "Tabloid"
Errol Morris' "Tabloid" is still without a distributor. In the popular acronym of our generation: WTF? It's easily Morris' best, most entertaining film in years (and years and years), the tale of a woman who kidnapped her Mormon lover and incited a media firestorm. One of the most memorable film-related experiences I had all year was when the woman (Joyce McKinney) stormed the stage at the inaugural DOC NYC film festival (you could tell Morris had no clue she would show up). It was just as shocking and hilarious as the film itself; one that would have made my top 5 had it actually, you know, been released. (Werner Herzog's boring 3D cave movie has a distributor and this doesn't? Criminal!)
Best Film Trend: On-Screen Cunnilingus
For far too long men have been the only ones receiving sexual pleasure in movies, with cunnilingus being far too taboo to show in mainstream fare. But this year showed a handful of lovingly photographed moments when women are getting head, not giving it. It's supposedly for a very sweet, sensual sequence in "Blue Valentine" that helped it secure its temporary NC-17 rating, even though there's a similar sequence in "Black Swan" (except that's rendered in more acceptable girl-on-girl terms). My most favorite sequence was probably from the grossly underrated "The American," when George Clooney goes down on the breathtaking Violante Placido. (Like all great sequences, it's also a dynamite character-building moment.) I'm fairly sure that Jake Gyllenhaal performed a similar act on Anne Hathaway in "Love and Other Drugs" and there are a probably a million smaller/foreign movies that I'm forgetting about or haven seen. Anyway, it's good that the girls are finally getting theirs.
Worst Film Trend: Digital Blood
Enough, already, with the computer generated blood. Occasionally, this works (I'm thinking specifically of Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects"), but this year there seemed to be an abundance of digital blood that just looked phony and awful, and not just in grade-Z horror stuff like the new "Nightmare On Elm Street;" I actually sat through lame-ass Kung-Fu western "The Warrior's Way." One of the reasons "Piranha 3D" was so awesome was that it was mostly reliant on practical visual effects, courtesy of the boys from KNB, so when the young girl's face is pulled off by a propeller, it has the wet slap of looking like a bloody Halloween mask. Because it is. More of this, please.