Top 10 Movies of 2010

I can’t delay it any longer.

It’s Oscar nominations day, fer chrissakes. I need to get my list out. I am strangely peeved that so many of my faves from 2010 also appear on the Oscar list. I feel one of my roles is to shine a light on lesser-seen pictures, and if I’m digging all the same movies as the Academy, maybe there’s stuff out there I’m missing. Or it just could be that there are far fewer quality movies this year, so it’s easier to find a consensus.

Is it too late for New Years resolutions? Mine is to see more independent and off-the-beaten-track movies in 2011.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m still waiting to see a few of those well-reviewed films released last year. Partly that’s due to the staggered release schedule for art house movies. Blue Valentine arrives in Halifax this coming Friday and remains unseen by me. Also still to be seen; the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, the new Mike Leigh picture Another Year, Rabbit Hole and Javier Bardem in Biutiful. If one of them wows me enough to dislodge one of the 10 I’ll pick, there’ll be a sheepish review to follow, and an asterisk. I’m also not listing any documentaries this year because I have a few of those to catch up on, too. Being a part-time film writer is hard work.

When I choose my favourite films of the year it’s a bit like a dog show. I do my best to look at all the breeds, all those furry little guys, and choose a few Best of Breeds before I get to Best in Show. Sometimes there are a couple of terriers who both deserve a special mention, but it’s good to spread the love around to different kinds of dogs. Er, movies.

For 2010, I had a really having hard time picking a Best in Show. Oh, sure… I’ve got a Great Dane, a Schnauzer, a Mastiff. But in a year that didn’t have a lot of classics, I struggled picking a purebred who stands above the others. But in the end, I found one that I couldn’t deny.

So here are 15 films that impressed, but for one reason or another didn’t quite make the 10 (in alphabetical order):

127 Hours
Director Danny Boyle makes what is a very simple but intense tale—the true story of rock climber Aron Ralston who gets trapped beneath a boulder while in the Utah desert—and squeezes every last drop of tension from it using all the stylistic arrows in his quiver. Props to James Franco for the award-worthy performance. 

The American
George Clooney eyes refuse to sparkle in this dour but compelling hit man picture set in rural Italy and helmed by rock photog and Control director Anton Corbijn.

Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky’s high-pitched melodrama set in a New York Ballet company, with Natalie Portman delivering a career performance.

The Book of Eli

Post-apocalyptic fable from the Hughes Brothers. Not many loved it, but I admired its conviction and especially Gary Oldman wearing the villain hat. It fits him so well.

The Fighter
In many ways a straight-ahead boxing film, except so little of it takes place in the ring. Instead it’s about a large, dysfunctional family and the two battling brothers at its core. 

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The first of the Swedish trilogy adapting the internationally popular Millennium books, this procedural set in icy Sweden grabbed me hard. But it felt good!

The Illusionist
A melancholy treat from the director of The Triplets of Belleville, about a magician and his young friend making their way in Edinburgh of the late 1950s.

The Kids Are All Right
The kind of American indie that makes all the quirky, self-conscious Sundance films of recent years—I’m looking at you Little Miss Sunshine—seem especially contrived. It’s nice to feel this kind of authenticity in a story of family drama featuring a same-sex couple other than on American cable.

A first feature from special effects guy Gareth Edwards, it doesn’t actually show much of the alien creatures until late in the running, which is fine. The achievement here isn’t in the effects as much as it is in the story, shot on the fly.

Never Let Me Go
The most strangely marketed movie of the year, completely downplaying the fact it’s a hard science fiction story, about doomed clones. Unique, moving and desperately sad. 

Sofia Coppola returns with a film that thematically treads ground that’s familiar. Still, it’s a lovely thing to see, the story of a lonely and shallow movie star living in an LA hotel, doing next to nothing with his time, until his 11-year-old daughter comes to visit, changing everything.

The Town
Ben Affleck continues to impress as a director, with this fine, tonally similar follow-up to his Gone Baby Gone. Just keep making Boston crime dramas, Ben. We’ll keep going to see them. 
Toy Story 3
Of all the movies on my long list, this is the one that didn’t make the 10 that probably deserves to the most. Eleven years since Toy Story 2 and they still have the magic. It’s an amazing achievement.

True Grit
The Coens make their most conventional film maybe ever, a western. That’s not a slight, mind you. It’s a great entertainment.

Valhalla Rising
Director Nicolas Winding Refn makes one of the most hypnotizing films of the year, with Mads Mikkelsen—who should be a star any day now—as the mute warrior travelling with Christian soldiers to hell. Or Newfoundland. It’s unclear.

And here are the 10 that made the cut:

10. The Ghost Writer 
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski and Robert Harris, from Harris’ novel.
Released around the same time as Scorcese’s Shutter Island, I preferred Polanski’s genre exercise right down the line. There was so much to enjoy, with Ewan MacGregor as the titular ghost writer travelling to a sandy New England island to pen the memoirs of a Tony Blair-esque British politician, played with typically sleazy charm by Pierce Brosnan, and uncovering a host of secrets along the way, including the final fate of his predecessor. So sure-handed in the storytelling I could even enjoy a few bizarro casting choices, such as Kim Cattrall’s assistant.

9. Easy A
Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Bert V. Royal
The deftest dialogue in a story featuring teenagers since Juno, maybe since Veronica Mars, Easy A pretty much worked on every level. It skewered classic American lit, teen movie conventions and it offered a selection of bright and believable characters of all ages, while toeing the line between funny and serious while not telegraphing where it was going. And unlike Juno it never got precious.

8. Splice
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Written by Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor
from a story by Natali and Bryant
I love this Cronenberg-esque biohorror. There’s no doubt this film was shot in Toronto, the natural home of this kind of creepiness. Don’t ask me why, it just is. Maybe it’s the grey, cold winters or the quiet lake keeping its own council. Splice is a monster movie that dares to tickle us in places that make us uncomfortable, big props to Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley for going for it.

7. Barney’s Version
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Written by Michael Konyves from the Mordecai Richler novel
Golden Globe winner Paul Giamatti finds a career role as Barney Panofsky, the thrice-married Montrealer of Richler’s book. It’s a big-hearted drama that—despite the Americans and Brits in the cast—feels true to the Canadian author’s vision. Though spanning thirty years it never felt as though it was giving a short-shrift to any element, jumping back and forth in time, a balancing act that is a credit to director Richard J. Lewis. And the supporting cast is universally fine, especially Rosamund Pike as Barney’s true love Miriam, who is repeatedly proving to be one of the best British thesps working.

6. The King’s Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by David Seidler
The most nominated movie at this year’s Oscars? Makes sense. It’s pretty unflashy, I won’t deny that, and total Oscar bait: classy Brits, royals and historical drama? A shoe-in. But it’s also a story so well told, with characters you quickly learn to love, that by the film’s end you don’t want it to stop. I could have spent another two hours with Bertie and Lionel, easily.

5. Despicable Me 
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Written by Ken Daurio, Sergio Pablos and Cinco Paul
In the ratio of laughs to running time, no movie in 2010 had me in stitches as consistently as this one.
A sweet animated movie about an evil inventor who is softened by the presence of three kids, it had all the heart of a Pixar movie, with a lot more laughs. It sounds like I’m bad-mouthing Toy Story 3, which I’m not. I decided to choose just one animated picture for my list, and this one was just undeniable, despite the obvious greatness of the Pixar film. Why? Because Despicable Me was SO FLUFFY I’M GONNA DIE.

4. I Am Love
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by Guadagnino, Barbara Alberi, Ivan Cotroneo and Walter Fasano
A beautiful and intimate story of a wealthy woman rediscovering herself in a romance with a friend of her grown son. It starts as an ensemble, but it doesn’t take long for Tilda Swinton to astonish, as winter moves to summer and a passion for food becomes passion in the flesh. The melodrama spike in the third act was probably inevitable, though maybe slightly disappointing, I loved the way music, image and performance overwhelmed dialogue in the final moments.

3. The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Aaron Sorkin from a book by Ben Mezrich
This one is already getting plenty of kudos from critics, there’s no doubt it’s a front-runner for Oscar.  Largely deserved, I would say. The script is the year’s cleverest, somehow making its lead protagonist both a hero and villain, his appealing and loathsome qualities sometimes shifting in the middle of a scene. And there’s no denying its timeliness, or that haunting Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score.

2. Winter’s Bone
Directed by Deborah Granik
Written by Granik and Anne Rosellini from the novel by Daniel Woodrell
On the surface a grim family drama set in the Ozarks, but actually what this is a gripping and finally uplifting story of survival in a society with a strict code of conduct and of honour. Genres overlap: from a noirish detective story of a 17-year-old girl looking for evidence of her meth-cooking father, knocking on the doors of friends and enemies, to a Shakespearean denoument with lashes of real horror.

1. Inception
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
A pretzel of an action thriller, my feelings about it have vacillated since I first saw it in July.  I initially enjoyed its Russian doll structure of dreams within dreams, and especially the incredible deftness in its pacing, the mounting suspense of its final act. But I didn’t think the character work quite met the brilliance of the plot. A second viewing on Blu-Ray over the Christmas holidays drove it home for me. Sure, it’s a genre picture: This is a stone cold caper, but probably the most unique, most outrageous ever made. For the most part the characters are their jobs, without a lot of variation, but in a film where so much is going on in the concept, the visuals and the action sequences, I can forgive it some of its tropes.

And it’s certainly the most talked-about movie of the year. I’m still having conversations about it. The other day a guy said to me, wouldn’t gravity have been affected in the third level of dreaming, in the attack on the snow base? I responded that by the time they got to the third level, the gravity problems in the first level wouldn’t have had much effect because they were just too deep in their unconscious. But then, Saito was suffering from his bullet wounds, and they could hear the music played over the headphones. Maybe he has a case.

The fact that we’re still discussing these elements—or potential flaws in the logic—is more evidence of Nolan’s success. It’s not a perfect film—I still prefer Nolan’s The Dark Knight (number three on my list from 2008)—but in the years to come nobody will forget the impact of Inception, one of the biggest and most ambitious Hollywood films of the year, and my pick as the best.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.