2010 represents an incredibly important milestone in my film-watching journey. I was in the thick of graduate school in Pasadena where I found myself in walking distance from the newly opened ArcLight Pasadena and the arthouse Laemmle Playhouse 7, meaning that many a weekend that year was spent diving into double-features (since a movie ticket was still the cheapest form of entertainment in the L.A. area for this cash-strapped grad student). Between these two theaters, my expert gamification of my Netflix DVD subscription, and the mere fact that I was living in extremely close proximity to Hollywood, I found myself kickstarting my deep obsession with the “moviesh” and haven’t looked back since.
YEAR AT A GLANCE
U.S. Domestic Box Office Top 10 (in millions):
- Toy Story 3 ($415.0)
- Alice in Wonderland ($334.2)
- Iron Man 2 ($312.4)
- The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($300.5)
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 ($295.9)
- Inception ($292.6)
- Despicable Me ($251.1)
- Shrek Forever After ($238.7)
- How to Train Your Dragon ($217.6)
- Tangled ($200.8)
In many ways 2010 seems to be a turning point in Hollywood. This is perhaps the first box-office result that reflects the economic crash of 2008, as the slate of major studio releases bends towards things that are safe bets. If you look at the top box office, the only movie that is an entirely original movie that is not animated is Inception made by Christopher Nolan, one of the last remaining directors to be given the freedom by a major studio to make whatever they want at the budget that they want. Meanwhile the rest of the box office is littered with animated movies and family-friendly franchise entries that tend to perform well overseas. Not coincidentally this was also the age where, in the wake of Avatar, just about every major film release was also given the 3-D (as is the case with six of the movies in the top 10) as the up-charge fro premium seats helped boost many a mediocre film’s performance. Looking at this box-office it is no surprise that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (with Iron Man 2 being the only entry this year) ends up being the cultural phenomenon that it is, as the major franchise to nail the critical balance between being a safe and familiar product that also at least superficially moves into new directions. It is also not hard to see how Netflix looked at this box office, saw the gigantic hole available for comedies and adult dramas, and exploited it to turn into the gigantic media behemoth it is now.
Oscar Best Picture Nominees: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech (WINNER), The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone.
Inception and Toy Story 3 share the distinction of being the only movies in the the top 10 box office and Oscar Best Picture entries which may in some sense served as justification for the Oscars to open the slate up to ten nominees. But as with The Hurt Locker becoming the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner the year before, having ten nominees also turned out to be a boon for allowing a diversity of indie projects to crash the party (with the women-directed movies The Kids are All Right and Winter’s Bone leading the way). But after choosing a bold winner the year before, the Academy reverted to its middle-brow ways, choosing The King’s Speech – an old-fashioned and dusty war-time drama that harkened back to Hollywood of old – over what is unquestionably one of the best movies of the century. Color me surprised.
25. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK dir. Richard Press
Bill Cunningham New York feels like a joyous eulogy to a passing way of life. The portrait of the reclusive but joyful photographer who captured fashion trends from his bicycle both high and low for the New York Times for nearly 40 years is so lovingly crafted that you cannot help but smile watching it. And as it chronicles the twilight years of the living legend, it also wistfully reminds us of all the other things that have similarly faded away in the intervening years like print newspapers and analog photography, even as it anticipates our more cynical digital age. But more than anything Bill Cunningham New York is the rare documentary that dives deep into this enigmatic man’s life while still leaving him tantalizingly mysterious by movie’s end.
24. BOY dir. Taika Waititi
At first glance just about everything about Boy seems derivative. It is basically a coming-of-age movie, a genre done many times in the past, that has the odd distinction of being, for lack of a better word, quirky during a time and age when off-beat and oddball indie dramedies were fast losing their novelty (even if oddball has been one of the hallmarks of modern New Zealand cinema). But Boy rises above its seemingly formulaic by being incredibly heartfelt and sincere, and using its humor as a means to disarm the audience and allow truth to seep in. To watch Boy is to see the seeds of a great director being born as Taika Waititi skillfully crafts a movie so incredibly likeable, heartwarming, and funny; it is easy to draw a straight line between what he brings here and all the great work he has done since (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok).
23. TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL dir. Eli Craig
If there is one thing that will be increasingly true about me, it is that I will always fall head-over-heels in love with a horror-comedy that manages to thread that perilously thin line between both terrifying and hilarious. When a bunch of college students end up camping at a location conveniently located near a famous murder spot while two suspicious hillbillys also go on a fishing trip nearby we are led to believe, thanks to years of watching Deliverance, the Friday the 13th series, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that we know exactly where this movie is headed. Yet the true genius of this movie is the way it plays upon all of our expectations of a slasher flick and then continually upends them while all the while still allowing its story to proceed in more or less the tried and true conventions of the genre resulting in a movie that is a comedic delight.
22. THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi
The late-Ghibli Studios era is defined by an intermittent sadness, as the old studio veterans Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata move closer to hanging up their hats and the weight of expectation on being heir-apparents seem to almost overwhelm the next generation of directors. This is of course a completely unfair way to judge The Secret World of Arrietty against the impossibly high standards of what the studio has produced before. The movie is instead a quiet, intimate, meticulously detailed, and gentle adaptation of The Borrowers that gently lulls you into its comforting and confident storytelling. When compared to fantastical works like Spirited Away and Ponyo that turned Ghibli into an international sensation it is easy to see why Arrietty seems unambitious by comparison. But on its own terms, it is a beautiful and simple story that reminds us of the breadth of storytelling that can happen through animation.
21. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP dir. Banksy
It is impossible not to view Exit Through The Gift Shop today and not be struck by its prophetic voice. The incredible and unbelievable deep-dive into the twisty world of street art in so many ways anticipates our current world in which publicity is cash, the term social influencer is a job description, and the traditional gatekeepers between content creators and their audience are increasingly irrelevant. That the relationship between the documentary’s director Banksy, the one person synonymous with the modern outsider art movement, and its subject Thierry Guetta is both intimate and contentious simply adds to the fascinating drama of this documentary, making it as interesting as any fictional narrative.
20. BLACK SWAN dir. Darren Aronofsky
My relationship with this movie is a strange one. When I first watched this fever dream ballet horror I was immediately enthralled by its hypnotic power, but then in the following weeks I found myself souring to it as I felt that Aronofsky’s lack of empathy toward his protagonist Nina Sawyer (Natalie Portman) was especially oft-putting. Then years later I encountered Aronofsky divisive movie mother! and while I did not necessarily appreciate that movie, it did make me revisit Black Swan where it suddenly seemed not as cruel by comparison which in turn helped me see Nina’s journey as empowering in its nihilism. But then again, given my turbulent relationship with this movie so far, check back with me in ten years to see where I stand again.
19. THE TOWN dir. Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck’s crime-heist thriller The Town was such a throwback to a long-forgotten type of movie even in 2010 which makes it all the more precious ten years later. Nothing about the movie is wholly original as you have on the one side a motley group of bank robbers led by a charismatic Affleck and on the other side a bunch of cops led by a smarmy Jon Hamm looking to stop them with Rebecca Hall playing the woman caught in the middle. But where the movie lacks in originality it more than makes up for in execution. Just about every actor leaves an indelible impression with Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, and the late Pet Postlewaithe rounding up a solid ensemble. Meanwhile director Affleck is wise to let each of his action set-pieces unfold at a ground-level, evoking Michael Mann’s Heat in the best possible way. There may be better movies on this list, but not many of them are as eminently rewatchable.
18. SENNA dir. Asif Kapadia
By the time the movie Senna ends, I wished that they could have delved deeper into the legendary Formula One race Ayrton Senna but then I realized that this was probably the appropriate response to an athlete who is the picture-perfect definition of someone tragically “taken too soon”. Eschewing most of the conventions of a sports documentary, Asif Kapadia ditches narration or talking heads in favor of simply placing us at the heart of the sport that Senna loved so much. In chronicling Senna’s too-short career in its highs and lows, especially through his legendary rivalry with Alain Prost, Kapadia paints the stoic ideal of an athlete whose love of the sport goes to an almost spiritual level.
17. FOUR LIONS dir. Chris Morris
Like In The Loop before it, Four Lions is an incredibly funny movie that manages to pull off the magic trick of making you laugh out loud first even as you recoil in existential terror. Admittedly the five minute pitch of this movie sounds like the most tasteless premise: four bumbling British men (who happen to be Muslim) stumble hopelessly as they try to plan and execute a suicide bombing. There are a thousand ways to make the movie and for it to be a disaster but somehow Chris Morris manages to thread the needle by committing completely to a pitch black brand of comedy, by penning and incredibly smart script ,and by never straying too far from bitter truth. Would that more filmmakers be as brazen and bold in their storytelling.
16. THE FIGHTER dir. David O. Russell
While credit needs to be given to Christian Bale and Melissa Leo who swept the Supporting Acting Oscars that year, but the true star (an undeserved Oscar snub) is Mark Wahlberg who here proves that there is no one better at portraying a person with a proverbial chip on their shoulder. The actual plot of this true life biography about welterweight champion Micky Ward hues fairly closely to the conventions of a boxing movie, including its triumphal ending, but it is the excellent and explosive dynamics of the cast within that helps this movie rise above its peers.
15. ANOTHER YEAR dir. Mike Leigh
I cannot do better than quote Roger Ebert here who describes Another Year as nothing more than “a long, purifying soak in empathy.” Mike Leigh’s humanism comes to the fore again as he draws our attention to Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a couple who display that very rare quality (in movies anyway) of being intelligent, warm, understanding, and happily married for many years. Besides being genuinely lovely people, they are admirable because the love they have for each other is not confined to one another but is big enough to accommodate and welcome in their many hurting and wounded friends so that they can find some form of healing in their homes. It is such a radically and life-givingly human movie that my heart becomes full merely thinking about it.
14. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON dirs. Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois
Sandwiched between mediocre Dreamworks releases like Monsters vs. Aliens, Madagascar 2, and Shrek Forever After, it is easy to see why not many people were excited about a movie with as unwieldy a title as How To Train Your Dragon. However that simply meant that the movie was perfectly primed to be the sleeper hit of the year and deservedly so. The movie ditches most of the Dreamworks playbook at the time of overly specific pop references in favor of a simple story focused on the touching relationship between a boy and his dragon, and the way it lets him come of age. It is certainly not innovative storytelling, but that is entirely forgivable because that allowed the animators to instead push the medium of animation to its absolute limit and create absolutely breathless high-flying action sequences.
13. WINTER’S BONE dir. Debra Granik
What is most astounding about Winter’s Bone is that you repeatedly have to remind yourself that you are watching a contemporary story. Debra Granik film’s the Ozarks as if it is a mystical and bygone place, and the quest she puts her heroine Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) on seems almost like an ancient odyssey as Ree goes into the heart of the Ozarks to find her missing father. Much has been said about how masterful Lawrence is in her debut, filmed when she was still 19, and how in watching her performance her eventual stardom is inevitable. But such is her rise that it sometimes overshadows the fact that Winter’s Bone is also by itself a fantastic and slow-burn thriller, somehow overlapping between a fantasy and a noir.
12. THE TRIP dir. Michael Winterbottom
I realize that in our current climate (in April of 2020) a movie about going on a road-trip in which two people who don’t live in the same household eat in multiple restaurants in close proximity to each other might be tantamount to porn, but here we are. Still, ten years later The Trip (and its sequels) remind us of the gentle and life-giving power that is sharing a meal with another person, even if that person slightly annoys you. More than anything watching The Trip right now is a comforting reminder that no matter how much our human connections are now forced to be mediated by screens, that we can be sure we’ll go back to sharing meals together again soon. Also, Coogan and Brydon are simply a hoot, and their endless bickering is something I have yet to get tired of three films into this unlikely franchise.
11. THE ARBOR dir. Clio Barnard
Andrea Dunbar, a British playwright who achieved fame with her play The Arbor which she wrote when she was 15 years-old but passed away from a brain hemorrhage at 29, left behind a complicated legacy where her great contemporary plays tragically mirrored the horrible circumstances in which she grew up and the children she left behind. In a move that blurs fiction and reality, this docu-fiction employs a unique theater technique where actors lip-sync the recorded audio from people they are portraying. It really shouldn’t work, but somehow the actors walking around the real spaces where Dunbar grew up and speaking the words she wrote and her family uttered ends up being mesmerizing as it forces the viewer to face the vicious cycles of poverty and blur the lines between generational curses and personal responsibility.
10. INCEPTION dir. Christopher Nolan
Admittedly my feelings to this pretty great movie have been affected by how tired I am by a certain segment of the population’s obsession about the deeper meaning that is supposedly hidden in the film’s ending (and by how that supposed hidden meaning does or does not change the movie’s narrative). But taken on its own merits, Inception is in fact a fairly brilliant metaphor for the process of filmmaking that is wrapped up in an effortless action movie that rewards viewers who don’t spend too much time contemplating its philosophical queries. That it is also one of the most visually inventive movies to come out this century is merely a bonus.
9. MEEK’S CUTOFF dir. Kelly Reichardt
Meek’s Cutoff is perhaps the first Western to properly adapt the video game “Oregon Trail”, where the largest danger is not the threat of being robbed and murdered but rather the much more banal threats of accidents and disease. Reichardt’s wonderful revisionist meditation of the myth of the West focuses her attention on the women of a three-family caravan who find themselves increasingly lost as they try to find a way through the Cascade Mountains thanks to their ego-driven guide Stephen Meek whose belief in his own abilities puts them in ever increasing peril. By focusing on the women of this group, Reichardt intentionally places us at the periphery of their hapless male-dominated world, giving us little to grasp on to except the sparse and harsh beauty around them. It is as unsettling as it is enlightening.
8. POETRY dir. Lee Chang-dong
Now that the world has been awakened to Bong Joon-Ho’s prowess thanks to Parasite‘s Best Picture win, it is high time the world get to know the rest of Korean cinema and Lee Chang-dong’s filmography is as good a place to start. Poetry‘s premise – about an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia who has to maneuver her way to try and cover up for her grandson’s heinous act – is one that could so easily descend into melodrama or callousness. Yet it is testament to Chang-dong’s unequalled talent that he manages to thread the line to strike the perfect tone and create a quiet masterpiece in which beauty and ugliness coexist side-by-side. It is also the refreshing movie that offers no easy answers because it refuses to insult your intelligence.
7. SHUTTER ISLAND dir. Martin Scorsese
While DiCaprio’s other mind-bending thriller released this year (Inception) is a puzzle-box movie that revels in asking its viewers to solve the mystery, but for me Shutter Island is the movie that has left deeper claws in my psyche. What begins as a hard-boiled noir about a missing-person case at an asylum quickly descends into a psychological horror as every new revelation comes with a further untethering from reality. And all the while DiCaprio seems particularly well-suited to play the neurotic and anxious Federal Marshall assigned to the case, whose own faults and past traumas lead to him increasingly muddying the waters of this previously clear-cut case. It is precisely his descent into madness, and the supreme control Scorsese employs in directing us there, that make it such a watchable (and under-appreciated) classic.
6. TOY STORY 3 dir. Lee Unkrich
The history of the Toy Story franchise is of the general public throwing their hands up in disgust every time a new sequel is announced due to the “perfect” ending the previous movie set up, only to be proven wrong when the new movie finally gets released and more than justifies its own existence*. With the third installment Pixar drives home the franchise’s existentialism by having Woody, Buzz, and company having to face their impending departure from their now-grown up kid Andy, leading to what is effectively a theological crisis as the toys contemplate and explore what life is without the chief animating force in their lives anymore. Of course, given that it is a Toy Story movie, it is much funnier, touching, and genuinely bittersweet than it sounds.
*This is only barely true with Toy Story 4.
5. CERTIFIED COPY dir. Abbas Kiarostami
At first, Abbas Kiarostami’s first movie filmed outside of Iran bears much resemblance to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. A woman (Juliette Binoche) finds herself at a lecture of an art historian (William Shimell) who gives a detailed analysis of the difference between an original and a copy. Soon after the two engage in a long flirtatious discussion as they travel through Tuscany and you are lulled into thinking you know what this movie will be all about. That is, until suddenly the conversation shifts and you slide into a surreal unreality in which you find yourself questioning everything about what you are seeing onscreen. It is as shocking a twist as any movie released in 2010, made all the more powerful by the casualness with which Kiarostami pulls off his trick. And of course, I don’t need to tell you that Binoche is anything short of amazing.
4. TRUE GRIT dirs. Ethan and Joel Coen
We can talk about how the Coens masterfully showed the world how to do a remake properly. We can talk about the fantastic script that somehow evokes Charles Portis’ novel even more than the original John Wayne-helmed movie. We can talk about the fantastic cinematography by Roger Deakins (who was once again denied his award here) or Carter Burwell’s beautiful score. We can highlight the phenomenal male-lead performances whether it is Jeff Bridges expertly leaning into his gruffness or Matt Damon tapping into his often underutilized hamminess. But the true miracle of True Grit is in seeing Hailee Steinfeld, barely 13 when making this movie, absolutely command the screen with her presence and go toe-to-toe with her veteran male counterparts. And while I have enjoyed Steinfeld’s age-appropriate career in the years since, I cannot wait for her to land another role as star-making as her stunning debut.
3. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD dir. Edgar Wright
Granted the bar is fairly low, but Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is without a doubt the best video game movie ever made (even if it is not in fact based on a video game). Its zany, dazzling, and eye-popping tone might have been a recipe for a migraine in most circumstances, but thanks to Edgar Wright’s mastery of visual humor and comic timing the movie becomes a joyful and anarchic delight to watch. Michael Cera as the titular character who finds himself battling seven exes to claim the right to date his love interest may indeed have been typecast for the role, but it doesn’t nullify the fact that it was a role he was born to play. The movie was largely shunned when it was released, its box-office failure at least gives it the honor of being the first cult classic of the decade.
2. NEVER LET ME GO dir. Mark Romanek
Perhaps it was ultimately no surprise that a story as bleak and fatalistic as Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel would not turn out to be a shoo-in for box-office and awards season success. This is a shame because it is in its own quietly melancholic way nothing short of a modern masterpiece. Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley were never better as three young adults faced with the nihilistic knowledge of their own mortality, and the paths they take to accept or fight their fates. The premise of the story itself is horrifying especially today when the cost of human life seems more than ever to actually have an economic price tag. The movie’s faithfulness to following through on this premise may be what doomed it as being conventionally appealing, but it is precisely why it holds its terrifying and poignant power.
1. THE SOCIAL NETWORK dir. David Fincher
Let us all not forget the collective mocking disbelief we hurled the filmmakers’ way when we heard they were making a movie about “Facebook”. What we could not have counted on was that the movie would be so incredibly scripted by Aaron Sorkin, have a plethora of phenomenal performances, feature a score by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor that still haunts me to this day, and be shot with such atmospheric beauty. And what we definitely could not have counted on was that the whole package would eloquently and prophetically capture the spirit of our times with our radical commodification of relationships and digitizing of our private lives (even the perceived meanness in its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg and his worldview seem horrifyingly accurate now). No other movie on this list feels as fresh to watch today as the day I first saw it, and few other movies leave me more existentially terrified after seeing it again.
Previous Years Best Of Lists: