Last year my records show I watched about 250 new movies, including US theatrical releases and still-unreleased ones at festivals or series, and I reviewed all but about twenty of them, which helps me to remember. It didn’t seem like an outstanding year (maybe in part due to worldwide economic woes?). There seemed to be a lot of fuss over films that seemed to me pointless, like Inception and Black Swan. But that doesn’t matter much as long as there are one or two great ones. My personal favorites were The Social Network, and, released for the first time in the US, Audiard’s awesome prison coming-of-age story, A Prophet. I prefer not to rank the others. If you got into the club, you’re in. So I list them all alphabetically, unranked, within groups. I also have a shortlist (The King’s Speech is there); a best documentaries list; a best unreleased-in-the-US list; and a most-overrated list.
BEST FILMS IN ENGLISH OF 2010
127 Hours (Danny Boyle 2010). An extreme outdoor experience in which a canyoneer must amputate a limb to escape death when trapped in a remote Utah slot canyon. An impossible subject, handled with panache and imagination by Boyle and the mercurial James Franco.
Animal Kingdom (David Michôd 2010). An Australian gangster family has a total meltdown under concerted pressure of the police. Michôd excels at blending rich character delineation with action for a story worthy of Greek tragedy.
Fighter, The (David O. Russell 2010). The sweet fighter played by Mark Wahlberg must succeed in spite of the coaching “help” of Christian Bale’s skeletal loser crackhead brother and Melissa Leo’s matriarch in this successful experiment in non-stop intensity by the maverick director David O. Russell.
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold 2009). A girl in an Essex council estate deals with the dangerous charms of her irresponsible single mom’s handsome lover in this superb film that turns the English kitchen sink vérité style into something more natural and beautiful.
Ghost Writer, The (Roman Polanski 2010). An old master at work, a classic-style thriller without special effects but fully supplied with excitement, suspense, and memorable scenes. Superficially conventional — except that everything is perfect.
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach 2010). Baumbach gives Ben Stiller a chance to turn from pop comedy to ironic character study in playing a self-centered loser negotiating the outer shores of Hollywood, with distinctive, specific results.
Life During Wartime (Todd Solodnz 2010). A sui generis writer-director at the top of his game in every aspect returns to previous characters years later, with a series of scenes that are both disturbing and hilarious.
Social Network, The (David Fincher 2020). Fierce battles among brilliant and ambitious young men at Harvard over cyberworld creations that turn them into billionaires are reshaped through the distinctively smart, acid, fast-moving pen of Aaron Sorkin and the deft directorial skills of David Fincher with three of the best young actors today in what turns out to be the smartest and most timely American film of the year.
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola 2010). Coppola has assimilated her Antonioni well in this elegant study of anomie focused on a young movie star (Stephen Dorff) adrift at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, atop Sunset Boulevard, and, for a while, in Milan with his young daughter (Elle Fanning).
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich 2010). The Pixar formulas can be manipulative and sentimental but for excitement and fluid action this animated film about the end of childhood cannot be beat, and it touches on themes of great significance.
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik 2010) Jennifer Laurence becomes an instant star and Granik a bankable director in this best Amerindie film of the year about a young woman fighting her tight, outside-the-law Ozark community to save her family’s property; the film is dense with atmosphere and flavorful dialogue.
Carlos (Olivier Assayas 2010). A miniseries in which the superb Édgar Ramírez totally embodies the ballsy Seventies terrorist and political assassin Ilich Ramírez Sánchez AKA “Carlos” who kidnapped the entire leadership of OPEC and spoke Spanish, English, French, and Arabic while serially seducing women. The film flows from the Middle East to various parts of Europe and Assayas and Ramírez never falter for a minute.
Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman 2009). A bold Israeli feature about an Orthodox butcher and husband and father who falls in love and lust with a handsome young man, with dire consequences. The young lover, a Yeshiva dropout, is played by matinee idol Ran Danker. You might want to see this together with Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers, about young American orthodox Jews in the Nineties who become drug mules, starring an actor more noted for another movie this year, Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. See how different he can be.
Father of My Children, The (Le père de mes enfants, Mia Hansen-Løve 2009). Hansen-Løve moves to the forefront of young French directors with this touching and mature study (based on the tragic life of great independent film producer Humbert Balsam) of an overtaxed man and his loving family, before and after his suicide.
Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont 2009). Provocateur Dumont turns from provincial oafs to a young woman whose desire for sainthood leads her into terrorism; the result is poetic and strange.
Mademoiselle Chambon (Stéphane Brizé 2009). A classic, old-fashioned, restrained and pitch-perfect “brief encounter” story of two people who fall in love in the French provinces but cannot be together, with the great Vincent Lindon as the working-class man who is shyly attracted to his child’s lonely schoolteacher.
Making Plans for Léne (Non, ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser, Christophe Honoré 2009). Honoré turns from jeunesse dorée flirtations and tragedies to family meltdown and creates great roles for Chiara Mastroianni and a lot of other good actors in a story that shifts between city and country.
Prophet, A (Un prophète, Jacques Audiard 2009). With malleable newcomer Taher Rahim and the wonderful Niels Arestrop as a young Arab-French prisoner and the Corsican gang leader who becomes his cruel protector, Audiard depicts the making of a crime leader, a strange apprenticeship and role-reversal that happens over a five-year period in a big French prison. Complex and absorbing, this utterly transcends genre.
Welcome (Philippe Lioret 2009) Vincent Lindon again, this time in Dardenne brothers territory, with a swimming coach trying to help a young illegal who wants to swim from France to England to meet his sweetheart. A subtle film that creeps up on you.
Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani 2009)
American, The (Anton Corbijn 2010)
Anton Chekhov’s The Duel (Dover Kosashvili 2009)
Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie 2009)
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood 2010)
King’s Speech, The (Tom Hooper 2010)
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell 2010)
Solitary Man (Brian Koppelman, David Levien 2010)
Terribly Happy (Henrik Ruben Genz 2010)
White Material (Claire Denis 2009)
Alamar ((Pedro Gonzalez Rubio 2010)
Art of the Steal, The (Don Argott 2010)
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy 2010)
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Michèle Hozner, Peter Raymont 2010)
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson 2010)
Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa 2010)
Nénette (Nicolas Philibert 2010)
Thorn in the Heart, The (L’Épine dans le coeur, Michel Gondry 2009)
Waiting for Superman (David Guggenheim 2010)
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (Emily and Sarah Kunstler 2010)
BEST UNRELEASED IN US
Double Hour, The (La doppia ora, Giuseppe Capotondi 2009)
In the Beginning (À l’origine, Xavier Giannoli 2009)
Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois 2010)
Poetry (Lee Chang-dong 2010)
Post Mortem (Pablo Larraín 2010)
Rapt (Lucas Belvaux 2009)
Robber, The (Der Räuber, Benjamin Heisenberg 2010)
Strange Case of Angelica, The (O Estranho Caso de Angélica, Manoel de Oliveira 2010)
We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay, Jorge Michel Grau 2010)
You Think You’re the Prettiest, But You’re the Sluttiest (Te creís la más linda, pero erís la más puta, Che Sandoval 2008)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky 2010)
Boxing Gym (Fred Wiseman 2010)
Inception (Christopher Nolan 2010)
Kids Are All Right, The (Lisa Cholodenko. 2010)
Restrepo (Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington 2010)