None of my favorite films of 2010 are in 3D. The year may have demonstrated that this most irritating fad is here to stay. But its best movies were still 2D—and, for the most part, they were fueled by storytelling, not visuals. Inception, you’re the exception.
Which is not to say that the storytelling on the art-house circuit was anything special. To the contrary. If it weren’t for Stieg Larsson, the year’s foreign films would have been completely forgettable. And 2010’s highbrow English-language offerings weren’t much better, with intended Oscar-baiters such as…well, it’s hard to name any, because so many of them were mediocre.
Documentaries, on the other hand, had another stellar year. Films such as Restrepo, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Inside Job, and Catfish—if you believe it wasn’t a hoax, that is—managed to linger in indie theatres, their audiences lured in by tight filmmaking and appropriate praise. And speaking of hoaxes, even Joaquin Phoenix’s totally fake I’m Still Here was captivating, especially once you found out it was all performance.
But “best” is perhaps the wrong word for all the films on this list. Rather, the 10 flicks below are my favorites, the ones I enjoyed most even though their excellence as judged by the usual cinematic standards may be dubious. Splice, you’re the rule.
Ballerina goes bananas. You don’t have to be a fan of dance to appreciate Darren Aronofsky’s return to mind-fucktitude, an increasingly surreal portrait of a delusional ballet dancer whose career pressures threaten to break her. It’s ugly and beautiful, repulsive and magnetic, ethereal and bloody. And you thought ballet was for sissies.
In a word, a dream. Christopher Nolan’s trippy, visually stunning masterpiece about mind invaders is impossible to look away from even when it’s impossible to understand. Yet the real beauty of the film is that the smart script is rarely so loopy that it doesn’t make sense. You’ll gasp and you’ll get it, a rare combination for a summer blockbuster. Bonus points for a perfect ending.
It’s not all about the arm. Danny Boyle’s telling of Aron Ralston’s trapped-in-a-cave story is book-ended by buoyancy, with a center that affirms life even as the character skirts death. These five days are boiled down to a brilliant 94 minutes that will never leave you feeling stuck.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The story’s good; the girl’s better. The first installment of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is the most entrancing because it introduces us to Lisbeth Salander, the hacker with a heart of bile. But only toward the appropriate people: Lisbeth’s been through lot of shit in her life, mostly at the hands of abusive men. But damn if she doesn’t give back as good—or bad—as she gets. It may not be the most upstanding message of grrl power out there, but it’s certainly the most indelible.
The King’s Speech
Witty and bursting with profanity, this arid title couldn’t have received a lighter treatment. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are Oscar-worthy as Britain’s King George VI and the unconventional speech therapist who helps him overcome a stutter. Rarely has a romp with the royals been so fun.
Come for the actresses, stay for the rawk. Dakota Fanning grows up and Kristen Stewart sheds her Bella-ness in this Cherie Currie/Joan Jett biopic that’s more party than biography. Meditations on music and gender you won’t find; instead, groove to the titular band’s ’70s soundtrack (sung, quite well, by the stars). Michael Shannon also turns in an unforgettable performance as the Runaways’ crazy, sex-obsessed manager, Kim Fowley.
I admit that Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi nightmare is a better candidate for a Razzie than an Oscar. It’s likely, in fact, that you’ll howl at a plot turn or two. But this story about a genetically engineered animal/human hybrid and two scientists’ attempt to domesticate it is both outlandish and gripping, with gutsy developments that Go There just when you’re sure the film won’t. Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody’s actorly gravitas helps keep this gem from drifting into late-night-cable unworthiness.
No, it’s not the pugilistic version of The Wrestler—despite the subject matter of an aging boxer who repeatedly gets his ass handed to him. But this David O. Russell drama is so well-acted it will, well, knock you out: Christian Bale, as the main character’s crackhead brother, is a surefire Oscar contender; the performances are almost as strong from star Mark Wahlberg, and supporters Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and an Aqua Netted Greek chorus who play the boxer’s loudmouth sisters.
Surely on the worst-of lists of the easily offended, this campy actioner is a case where the oh-so-wrong feels oh-so-right. Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ elongation of a fake Grindhouse trailer is more ingenious than Grindhouse itself, a balls-out, gratuitous, and ultimately hilarious story of a Mexican (Danny Trejo) you just don’t fuck with. Sure, there’s a decent story about shady politicians and border issues, too, but you’ll be too distracted by the boobs and bloodshed to take any of it seriously.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of a 1969 John Wayne film is a Western with all of the brothers’ usual touches: tight storytelling, fine acting, black humor. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a tough-talking marvel as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old who’s hellbent on finding her father’s murderer and bringing him to justice, even if she has to do it herself. And Jeff Bridges takes grizzled to new depths in Wayne’s role as the bounty hunter who’d just as soon drink, sleep, and shoot first than do much actual sleuthing.