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The Social Network (2010)
This film belongs to Aaron Sorkin, a display of pure screenwriting virtuosity that has the good fortune to be impeccably directed by David Fincher (completely making up for Benjamin Button) and performed by what may be the best young cast in the world. It is, by far, the best film I saw in 2010, and we will still be talking about it in 10, 20, 30 years.
127 Hours (2010)
I can't name another film as physically affecting and emotionally resonant at the same time. James Franco gives an incredible solo performance - thoroughly besting Tom Hanks' "Castaway" - and Danny Boyle does not waste one second of screen time. Forget about gore or discomfort, the feeling that stays with you is pure euphoria.
Finally released in the US in 2010, this period epic dramatizes the end of ancient intellectualism and the on-set of the Dark Ages. This immersive, exciting, terrifically-acted film contains a moving defense of rationalism very much intended as allegory for the present, and ponders man's place in the cosmos without presuming to have an answer.
The Fighter (2010)
This film delivers far beyond what is expected for a sports film or biopic. All the praise Christian Bale is receiving is entirely earned, and Mark Wahlberg's quieter lead performance is equally praiseworthy. David O. Russell packs the film with authentic faces, and unlike most Hollywood films set in working class MA, you never get the feeling that these people are movie stars dropping their "R"s. In a banner year for films with bad/irresponsible mothers, this one wins by virtue of the truly frightening female energy generated by the 7 Ward/Ecklund sisters.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Polanski is at his absolute best, lacing every frame with tension and packing the film with dark, dark humor to offset any potential preachy-ness from tweaking the War on Terror and the British-American "special relationship." Brosnan and McGregor are the best they have been in years. Prepare yourself for the most menacing empty parking lot you have ever seen.
Well worth the investment in the 3-part TV miniseries version, this portrait of the terrorist as a self-made media figure illuminates the politics of its era and speaks pointedly to the present. Edgar Ramirez' performance belongs among the best of the year, and Olivier Assayas' direction is flawless. An indelible image: a group of rag-tag terrorists aim a rocket launcher at an El Al jet in a wide, handheld OTS shot, and you will not be able to exhale until the scene is over.
Easy A (2010)
This highly clever comedy has a smart script and charming performance by Emma Stone, but goes deeper than the average hyper-verbal teen comedy to reveal the authentic vulnerability beneath its banter. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci have entirely too much fun with each other in their few scenes as Stone's parents, and other veteran actors turn up in engaging supporting roles.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
Although this film is about John Lennon's teenage years, it would be just as moving a family drama if the lead were a fictional character. All of the leads give beautiful, finely-nuanced performances, but Aaron Johnson brings John Lennon to life exactly as I've always imagined him: cocky, self-conscious, brilliant, cruel, and funny. Although the film dramatizes only the very beginning of the Beatles, it says more about the personalities behind the band than most biopics that tackle the artists' entire careers. It would be a gift to John's fans if Sam Taylor Wood and Aaron Johnson make more films about other phases of Lennon's life as Johnson ages with the role.
Yes, the labyrinthine plot required too many scenes of characters simply explaining what was going on. And yes, Christopher Nolan's vision of the unconscious is too ordered, cold, and British (just imagine this film directed by David Lynch or Luis Bunuel...). But how often can we say that the most exciting and satisfying action film of the year is also the smartest?
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are pitch-perfect as a long-married (technically...) couple navigating middle age. Their every moment together is fraught with a palpable sense of shared history, and they communicate with a shorthand anyone in a long-term relationship will find instantly familiar. The untidy ending is brutally, reassuringly real.
Shutter Island (2010)
Black Swan (2010)
Honorable Mention: these last two films, to paraphrase Spinal Tap, "go to 11." Directors at the top of their game push filmmaking to the edge of self-parody, and pull off two immersive fever dreams of films, creating both genuine unease and moments that can best be described as "I can't believe he just did that." A perfect nightmare world would somehow contain both Vincent Cassel's Thomas and Max Von Sydow's Dr. Naehring.