Why make an annual Top Ten list of movies? Because everybody’s doing it? Nah. Habit? Well, sure. But we reviewers should create Top Ten lists for the same reason we write reviews: to give movie fans (you) one particular insight, for those who seek it. You rely on critics to be clear, truthful and entertaining; we have to live up to our end of the unspoken bargain. A Top Ten does the same, but fast and covering more ground, illuminating those films a reviewer finds exciting or important or so well-done that you just can’t miss them. So here we go.
10. The Misfortunates
One of the wilder, more unconventional coming-of-age movies, this autobiographical Belgian tale is small-town hilarious and universally sad, recalling the life of a teenage boy who lives in near-squalor with his disgusting drunk of a dad and a trio of degenerate uncles. Their antics are riotous — sanctioned, all-day beer drinking contests, naked bike races — but the sins of the father and the potential of a nowhere life loom large. Excellent sense of mood and tone by director Felix Van Groeningen.
9. Toy Story 3
Once again, the brilliant minds at Pixar display their remarkable mastery of screenwriting, visual storytelling and editing (they’re some of the best editors anywhere). Toy Story 3 is a logical follow-up to Up, a poignant commentary about growing up, but also about one’s usefulness and mortality. (Sob. Sniff.)
8. Cairo Time
Patricia Clarkson nails the role of her life as the wife of an American aid worker who passes time in Egypt waiting for her spouse to free up and meet her. The marketing of her “love affair” with the husband’s friend (Alexander Siddig) is BS — the beauty is in their possibility for love, not the act itself. Cairo Time is all about Clarkson embodying the odd feeling of being out of country, and a little out of mind.
7. The Town
As a director and actor, Ben Affleck understands how to excite with genre technique — The Town is an expert, old-school crime drama — and how to make us feel sympathetic for a bank crook. The studio avoided selling the film with Affleck’s name saying “From the director of Gone Baby Gone…” That will change. Affleck is the real deal at the helm, and The Town is proof that he can make a very well-paced, immensely entertaining film from start to finish.
It has its rules, and even its weaknesses, but Christopher Nolan’s brain-bender is so visually invigorating, so gloriously and confidently realized, its impossible not to get lost in it. The exhaustive level of detail Nolan displayed in Memento and The Prestige is at full throttle, and the film as a whole is grand popcorn cinema with just enough brain to make us all feel a little smarter for hanging in. (Or a little dumber for not getting it.)
5. Shutter Island
Here’s the perfect double-feature with Inception: Another DiCaprio mystery-thriller that’s tricky, smart, and wholly accessible. It’s the 1950s and DiCaprio’s a mentally tortured U.S. marshal who just can’t figure out how a woman escaped an isolated island psych facility. Then, he can’t figure out how to leave. This could be schlock in lesser hands, but Scorsese (and DiCaprio) know when to tread gently and when to hammer it with everything they’ve got. Spooky stuff.
4. The Social Network
The thrill in David Fincher’s tightly wound tale of Facebook’s seminal days is larger than Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue; it’s in the lack of heroes and villains. Considering the back-biting, missteps, and ridiculously young age of the players, the careful neutrality is amazing, letting us sort of connect with anyone involved. Or none of them, for that matter.
3. Enter the Void
This bad-ass feature from bad-boy Gaspar Noe is seriously audacious and occasionally mind-blowing. In a dreamlike version of Tokyo, an unlikely American drug hustler is killed by cops; for the rest of the film, his spirit recalls his corporeal downfall, looks out for his troubled sister, and searches for a body in which to be reincarnated. And nearly all the action is from the main character’s point of view. Daring, appealing, technically shocking. A true dedication to moving the art of cinema forward.
2. The Oath
Some of the most spellbinding storytelling of 2010 — and it’s in a documentary. Director Laura Poitras follows two men connected with Al-Qaeda: the first is her main focus, a Yemeni cabbie who may or may not have agreed to participate in the September 11 attacks; the second is a low-level driver who had no connection to the attacks, but sits in a Guantanamo prison (and is never on camera). Poitras is quietly relentless, searching for answers where there may be none. The cinematography is award-winning and near-perfect.
1. 127 Hours
If Danny Boyle’s movies have something in common, it’s a zest and appreciation for life. An uplifting approach that has natural art and cinematic energy, perfect for this true-life tale of a man trapped for days after a mountain-climbing accident. Too many have focused on the guy choosing to shred his arm in order to escape; 127 Hours is about much more. Boyle, with Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy, chooses to study how the mind works during moments of stress, concession and resolution. And in a time of unparalleled technology, 127 Hours becomes a work of primal activity, of howling survival just degrees away from our ancestors who survived tens of thousands of years ago. It would seem Boyle can entertain with practically any genre of film and, yes, James Franco is really that good. Go see this, you can handle it.
Worst movie: Sex and the City 2
Overrated: The Kids Are All Right
The Definition of Blah: Valentine’s Day, Date Night, Leap Year
The best homage to 1970s Brian DePalma psycho melodramas: Black Swan
Favorite festival feature: Phillip the Fossil
Best Performances: Patricia Clarkson, Cairo Time; Jonah Hill, Cyrus; Greta Gerwig, Greenberg; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Overlooked Performances: Richard Jenkins, Eat Pray Love; Jon Hamm, The Town