By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist January 4, 2011 at 3:20AM
Once a year, The Playlist team stick their heads above the defensive parapet that is the first-person plural, and put our necks on the line. While there's a certain kinship between all the writers here -- we wouldn't be here if there wasn't -- there's also a real diversity of voices and taste, and we want our year end lists to reflect that. If you missed them, you can check out Kevin's here, Gabe's here and RP's picks here.
Putting this list together, I came to the realization that 2010 wasn't as bad a year for film as it might have seemed at the halfway mark. That impression may have come from the fact that the bad films were as terrible as ever before (our Worst of 2010 list could read happily as a Worst of the Decade list), but there were plenty of gems out there if you knew where to look -- indeed, having struggled to fill out my top 10s in 2008 and 2009, this year proved a tricky one to pare down to only ten.
It could have been even tougher were it not for the fact that, well, I haven't seen a number of films that would likely be major contenders. Being based in the U.K., staggered release dates for the likes of "True Grit," "Biutiful" and "The Fighter" means I haven't caught up with them yet, while "The American," "Please Give" and "Carlos" slipped through my fingers, for a variety of reasons.
It was a slightly disappointing year for world cinema, bearing in mind that, as you'll see from the honorable mentions section, most of the very best ("White Material," "Mother") were 2009 films for me. But 2010 was a year where, while so many of the studio releases were truly terrible, some of our most interesting filmmakers started to work within the system in uncompromising ways and that seemed to be rewarded by audiences: it's hard to get depressed about the state of mainstream cinema when new films by the Coen Brothers, Darren Aronofsky and David O Russell all look likely to gross over $100 million, on budgets a fraction of that. So, with no further ado...
Even given their success with the "The Puffy Chair" and "Baghead," there was no guarantee that Mark & Jay Duplass would be able to translate their unusual, improv-heavy working methods to working with bigger names -- John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill may be used to comic improvisation, but the kind of hardcore truth-seeking that the Bros Duplass are interested in, can be a big ask for actors. Fortunately, the cast, also including Catherine Keener, Marisa Tomei and a scene-stealing Matt Walsh, embraced it wholeheartedly, leading to a rare comedy-drama with plenty of both. The plot was fairly high concept, but there are no easy shortcuts to this -- the pain at the heart of the situation underlies every gag, and every tear. "The Kids Are All Right" may have overshadowed "Cyrus" for most as the year's gone on, partly due to the intimate, small-scale nature of the latter, but for our money, the Duplass Brothers delivered the funnier, sadder and most importantly, more honest film.
9. "Let Me In"
I was never one who fully drank the Kool-Aid on "Let The Right One In" -- a damn fine picture, to be sure, and a beautifully made one, but one with some major tonal issues (principally the Raimi-esque gore) that stopped it from being the genre classic it was billed as. Against all expectations, Matt Reeves' Americanized remake, "Let Me In," fixes most of the flaws while building on the strengths. The acting across the board was stronger (particularly with Richard Jenkins' outstanding supporting turn, which achieves a monumental amount with relatively little), the horror aspects are more effective, and the tighter focus makes the central relationship more fully formed. Some bad CGI and occasional over-scoring (even if Michael Giacchino's work is typically excellent) are black marks, but this was a picture infinitely better than it had any right to be. And Greig Fraser's cinematography is the best work in that category this year to stand no chance of awards recognition.
8. "How To Train Your Dragon"
The high placing of this, and not Pixar's latest animation probably requires as much explanation of the exclusion as the inclusion. So, briefly, while "Toy Story 3" was as satisfying a conclusion to the trilogy as could have been hoped, it occasionally felt over-familiar (Buzz thinks he's a spaceman again? Really?), and can't compare to the impossibly high standards that the studio have reached in recent years ("Ratatouille," "Wall-E," "Up"). Whereas bringing "Lilo and Stitch" helmer Chris Sanders into the Dreamworks Animation fold resulted in easily their best film to date, which, after an unpromising opening five minutes, becomes richer and more rewarding as it unfolds. The story's a simple one, reminiscent of human-animal friendship tales from "Kes" to "E.T," but it's impeccably executed -- thrilling, funny and affecting in equal measure. The voice cast turn in uniformly strong work, with even the normally useless Gerard Butler giving an excellent performance, and the influence of cinematography legend Roger Deakins is felt in the mostly stunning visuals. Plus, in a year full of sub-par 3D work, this was the one film that came closest to making us see the point-of-view of the format's zealots.
7. "The Killer Inside Me"
I'm fascinated by chameleonic directors in general, and few are as varied in their interests, while still projecting a strong voice of their own, as Michael Winterbottom. The British director delivered one of his very best films with this adaptation of the Jim Thompson noir novel. Those who accused the film of misogyny, and of reveling in its (admittedly gruesome) violence, missed the point entirely -- it's as subjective a wallow in the mind of a protagonist as we've seen in a long time, and that's meant firmly as a compliment. Any so-called screenwriting guru who decries the use of voiceover needs to see this -- every word of Casey Affleck's bone-dry, deeply deluded narration reinforces the extent to which Sheriff Lou Ford is losing his mind. Unexpectedly funny, in a pitch-black way, and with a great soundtrack, it's a film that, while it didn't get its due on release, will only grow in stature as the years go on.
In the era where the world looks on in horror at the psychotically insular likes of Josef Fritzl, it was only a matter of time before a similar tale reached the big screen. We're not sure that we were expecting it to be as deeply twisted as Yorgos Lanthimos' "Dogtooth," however. Like Michael Haneke directing "The Village," the film is perfectly performed and crafted, and shocking without being attention-grabbing. What's truly impressive is the way that Lanthimos tempers a certain formal sterility with an understated humanism that's sometimes lacking in his European counterparts. Maybe the ending can't quite match what comes before it, but for the most part it's one of the most provocative and thought-provoking pictures to come along in a good while.
5. "Winter's Bone"
It took so long for "Winter's Bone" to reach U.K. screens, after months of glowing reviews following its Sundance premiere, that I wasn't sure either Debra Granik's film, or the much-raved-about central performance from newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, could live up to expectations. In fact, both exceeded them. Granik successfully leavened a gritty Ozarks-set family drama with a noirish mystery genre tinge, with DoP Michael McDonough shooting the action with a gloriously Gothic worldview. And Lawrence is as outstanding as reports suggested -- she's as fearless as she is vulnerable, and it marks the birth of what should be a long career. It didn't receive the same attention, but John Hawkes as her uncle Teardrop is just as much of a revelation -- the normally benevolent character actor is transformed into a frightening terrier of a man, and leaves one of the strongest impressions of any performer all year.
4. "The Social Network"
Stop the presses! Film writer includes "The Social Network" in Top Ten list! But with the film demonstrating a perfect blend of material, writer, director and cast, I'd feel obtuse not having it this high. Until now, Aaron Sorkin's big-screen work never quite matched the transcendency of his TV work, but Fincher complements the writer's strengths and weaknesses perfectly -- mostly dropping the formal experimentation (aside from the misjudged Henley boat race sequence, which briefly derails the film) and letting Sorkin's words take center stage. The cast are flawless too, with even one-scene roles making monumental impressions, although it's Jesse Eisenberg who dominates, giving new Machiavellian depths to his persona. What really makes the film close to a classic, though, is Sorkin and Fincher's skepticism about the Web 2.0 generation -- they have nominally brought the world closer together, but none of these characters are any happier for it.
3. "Blue Valentine"
Let's be honest, considering how much of our time, whether coupled up or single, we spend thinking and talking about relationships, it's kind of appalling how anodyne, contrived and unrecognizable most movie love stories are. Derek Cianfrance's presumably autobiographical (Ryan Gosling is the spit of his director in the film) "Blue Valentine" doesn't have this problem. Every moment, from the butterflies of first meeting to the yawning gulf that develops between the couple feels eminently, painfully recognizable, while Andrij Parikh's lensing gives it an almost magic-realist touch that counters it nicely. And the two central performances are easily among the year's best -- Michelle Williams has rightfully got the most glowing write-ups, but Gosling is easily her match: more actorly, perhaps, but an indelible creation nonetheless. Between them, they've delivered perhaps the definitive, albeit far darker, take on the immature man-child romance that's been in the zeitgeist ever since "Knocked Up."
Intensely personal pictures don't just come in the shape of New Jersey-set broken-hearted love stories; they can also come disguised as $200 million tentpoles. "Inception" is the culmination of everything that Christopher Nolan's been working towards in the last decade, and probably the most thrilling, well-constructed mainstream picture in years. Nolan's hitting new levels as an action director (I even enjoyed the somewhat derided, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"-esque snow fortress sequence), but you also feel that he's opening himself up for the first time, and it can't be a coincidence that (as with "Blue Valentine"), the film's male lead bears a striking resemblance to its director. The emotional content was a little too restrained, almost repressed, for some, but we were left pretty much devastated. And that's not to mention the boldness of the fact that the climax of one of the biggest films of the year involved psychological revelation, rather than explosions. Sure, maybe the rule-heavy, formal dreamscape isn't what you and I think of when we sleep, but you can bet your ass that it's what Chris Nolan dreams of, and as a grand-scale expression of the psyche of a filmmaker, it has few peers.
1. "Black Swan"
Darren Aronofsky doesn't do subtlety, and he doesn't do irony. The full-on sincerity and heart-on-sleeve emotion were what turned some against "The Fountain," and even "The Wrestler," and it's why "Black Swan" has some fervent haters. But to this writer, his work has the directness of a great pop song, and it's never been as good as it is here. Focused on a single idea to an almost burning degree -- the unravelling of the sanity of young dancer Nina as she tries to find the dark, repressed nature of her soul to play the dual role at the center of "Swan Lake" -- that one idea is executed flawlessly and wholeheartedly from start to finish. And, while Natalie Portman's central performance is one that will be talked about forever (you only really comprehend how good she is when you clock her animalistic transformation into the black swan backstage during the final performance), it's really the director's show. His collaboration with regular colleagues Matthew Libatique and Clint Mansell is symbiotic, and every lurid trick Aronofsky pulls, blending gonzo fairy tale with a documentarian's eye, works like gangbusters. What's most impressive is how carefully he toes the line -- coming right to the brink of a melodrama so deranged that you expect Joan Crawford to wheel Bette Davis past the camera at any moment, but never letting it descend into camp or silliness. I left the theater as roused by the filmmaking as I was by anything I've seen in recent memory, and if it had been the only picture I saw in 2010, I'd still consider it a pretty good year.
Honorable Mentions: First up, Spike Jonze made my favorite movie of 2009, with "Where The Wild Things Are," and had "I'm Here" been released in theaters, or more than a half an hour long, it'd be a major contender at the top here too. A delicate, moving love story, with wonderful vocal performances from Andrew Garfield and Sienna Guillory, and possibly the best soundtrack of the year, it can be, and should be, watched right here by anyone who missed it.
A couple of 2009 festival picks with 2010 releases only just missed the top 10 -- Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" and Tom Harper's "The Scouting Book For Boys." The former was a thoroughly gripping crime drama, but couldn't quite pull of its more impressionistic moments, while the latter was the strongest British film of the year by quite a margin, and one that regular readers will be, frankly, sick of me banging on about. "Down Terrace" and "Skeletons" were both innovative British films that weren't seen by enough people, but will hopefully gain some cult love as the years go on -- for more, read our Underrated Films of 2010 Feature. While the film around them wasn't quite as strong as you'd hope, the performances of Emma Stone, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson were great enough to make "Easy A" a well above-average teen comedy.
Banksy's "Exit Through The Gift Shop" was, in a year that saw everyone and their mum playing with the dichotomy of truth and fiction in documentaries, the best of the bunch, talking about art, celebrity and authorship with wit and skill. Clio Barnard's "The Arbor" wasn't far behind though, a deeply moving look at a squandered talent, with a fascinating formal conceit. "The Town" was a solid genre thriller, although one without the courage of its convictions when it came to the closing scenes, while "The Kids Are All Right" was mostly terrific, even if it's faded from memory somewhat since. "Mother" and "White Material" were both magnificent films which I'm counting as 2009 pictures -- otherwise, both would certainly be Top 10 candidates. "The Secret In Their Eyes" wasn't quite as good, but it's undoubtedly worth a watch, particularly for its closing moments.
Special mention has to go to Gareth Edwards' "Monsters," one of the most staggering filmmaking achievements of the year, on a technical level alone. The thin characterization and occasional script weaknesses (that scene on the top of the temple feels like it's being performed by stoned teenagers) keep it out, but Edwards' skill is clearly monumental. Not dissimilarly, the filmmaking on display in "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" was world-class -- there's more wit and ingenuity in its transitions alone than in most films that hit theaters. However, again, the central relationship isn't given enough time to blossom, which combined with the slightly muddled ending, meant it didn't quite live up to what I wanted from the film -- although, as Gabe pointed out yesterday, Wright didn't set out to make an easy romance, exactly.