10. 127 Hours
Director: Danny Boyle
A crime thriller. A drama about heroin addicts. A romantic black comedy. A zombie movie. A charming kids’ flick. A space odyssey. And then an Oscar-winning tale about a poor, lovelorn boy in India. If there’s another director alive with the range of curiosity that Danny Boyle has, he’s not as talented. So naturally for his 9th film, Boyle decided to tell the true story of Aron Ralston, a mountain climber and canyoneer who was trapped alone by a fallen boulder in Utah for 127 hours in 2003. It’s a harrowing story, expertly told by Boyle. In the opening shot, we see crowds of people at ballgames, mosques, city streets. And then we see a man trying to get away from it all and finding some of the most isolated, barren and beautiful landscape in America. He’s alone with his music and enjoying the freedom. James Franco’s character is kinda funny, kinda crazy and a complete loner. But his story taps into that deepest emotional center—survival. And, better still, survival comes with the hope of a kind of redemption. Yes, the penultimate scene is gruesome and difficult to watch. But the ending is so triumphant to the soundtrack of Sigur Rós’ “Festival,” that it’s well worth reliving Ralston’s ordeal. Another genre mastered, Mr. Boyle.—Josh Jackson Read full review.
Director/Writer: Christopher Nolan
In the history of cinema, there is no twist more groan-inducing than the “it was all a dream” trope (notable exceptions like The Wizard of Oz aside). How, then, to create a compelling movie where that conceit isn’t just a plot device, but the totality of the story? Director Christopher Nolan does just that with Inception, a bracing and high-octane piece of sci-fi drama. The measured and ever-steady pace and precision with which the plot and visuals unfold, and the gorgeous, globe-spanning on-location cinematography, implies a near-obsessive attention to detail on Nolan’s part. The film winds up and plays out like a clockwork beast, each additional bit of minutia coalescing to form a towering whole. Nolan’s filmmaking and Inception’s dream-delving work towards the same end: to offer us a simulation that toys with our notions of reality. As that, and as a piece of summer popcorn-flick fare, Inception succeeds quite admirably, leaving behind imagery and memories that tug and twist our perceptions—daring us to ask whether we’ve wrapped our heads around it, or we’re only half-remembering a waking dream.—Michael Saba Read full review.
8. A Prophet
Director: Jacques Audiard
Focused on prison drug syndicates in France, A Prophet excels at taking a cold, documentarian look at an ascendant thug Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) without backhanded glamorization. The film packs a brass-knuckled punch as we see Malik painfully shove a folded razor into his mouth for an assassination assignment, a perfect marriage of adrenalized plot and assumed reality. Call it Noir Verite. The story begins with Malik, a bewildered, illiterate 19-year-old tossed into a prison that bears an uncanny resemblance to an American university dorm. Charged with assaulting a police officer, the teenage offender is soon introduced to a prison yard built around racial battle lines. Half Arab and half Corsican, Malik is left in a precarious position defined by France’s ethno-religious strife. Herein lies the film’s ironic morality. Its “hero” manipulates racism as a tool to control the intolerant, uniting the color-blind and downtrodden into a triumphant force—to deal drugs. The message is about as cynical an affirmation of brotherhood as be, and this provocative ambiguity makes the question less about moral ideals than how morality can facilitate blind survivalism. For those who revere the gospels of De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola, A Prophet delivers the right message.—Sean Edgar Read full review.
Carlos is more than just the most epic movie of the year—running at two hours and forty-five minutes even in its shortened version—it’s a picture that captures the feeling of world caught in the turmoil of terrorism. Its wildly international scope tells the story of a post-modern revolutionary, whose idealism slowly transforms into pragmatism despite a willingness to die for his cause. In particular Edgar Ramirez’s performance in the lead role is spectacular, illustrating both the man’s charisma and commitment alongside his vanity and self-deception. Olivier Assayas manages to make Carlos empathetic despite a largely critical view of his actions and the work, like the man at its center, ends up a bundle of intentional contradictions, as fascinating as any biopic put to film. —Sean Gandert
6. Toy Story 3
The latest adventures of Woody and Buzz are about as perfect as an animated feature can be. The challenges facing the gang at a daycare center are every bit as scary as any major drama, and the one-liners are pure gold. Plus, there’s a baby doll that’ll scare the bejeebers out of you. That well-worn ad line never fit as well as it does here: It’s a film for the whole family.—Tim Basham Read Pixar’s Greatest Hits.
5. Waiting for “Superman”
Director: Davis Guggenheim
In a year that gave us three major documentary features about the glaring need for educational reform in America, Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” presents the most unavoidably compelling argument. In one of the biggest eye-openers, he shows that housing a man in prison (where inner city high school dropouts are statistically likely to wind up) costs three times as much per year as sending them (as kids) to even the most exclusive private school. Another—in order to bring the U.S. from close to last in developed-world education to close to first, we’d only have to get rid of the worst 10% of teachers. Like his previous epic An Inconvenient Truth, it’s not the most balanced picture, but he does give the largest teachers’ union their say. They’re on the wrong side of history, however, and one day this film, like An Inconvenient Truth, will be seen as one of the turning points in the conversation.—Michael Dunaway Read The 20 Best Documentaries list.
4. The King’s Speech
Director: Tom Hooper
It’s not the way that a non-stuttering actor stutters that makes Colin Firth believable as King George VI, but the pitch-perfect emotional resonance of gifted actor. And while the performances of his co-stars—Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as the king’s Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue—aren’t highlighted by such an obvious physical obstacle, they’re both subtly brilliant. It’s the interplay between all three actors—and the brief scenes with Michael Gambon as King George V—that make Tom Hooper’s film such a joy to watch, despite a climax that is little more than a man trying to read several paragraphs over the radio. We care so much for his character by the end of the film, that the final speech is indeed a worthy last hurdle to clear.—Josh Jackson Read full review.
3. Winter’s Bone
Director: Debra Granik
Watching Winter’s Bone is like entering into an entirely different world, vividly capturing the sights and sounds of the Ozark mountains in a way that’s stylized yet feels completely natural to the setting. But that’s all just beautiful wrapping around Jennifer Lawrence’s stunning performance as a 17-year-old raising her two younger siblings, supporting her mother, and trying to find the whereabouts of her deadbeat father before their house is taken away. Debra Granik takes this search plotline in dreadful new directions, and while Lawrence may end up battered by her community and nearly starved by an indifferent society, she never loses her dignity. Winter’s Bone is simultaneously the most depressing and uplifting film of the year, showing us the worst of humanity without ever giving in to it. —Sean Gandert
2. True Grit
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
In remaking one of the better cowboy films of the 1960s, the Coens have also taken on the genre’s biggest star—John Wayne, who played the irascible marshal Rooster Cogburn in the original ‘69 adaptation of Charles Portis’ straightforward and engaging novel. Casting, however, has never been a Coen weakness, and Jeff Bridges wholly embraces and reinvents the role for which Wayne received an Oscar. There’s a simplicity about the performances in True Grit that jives well with the rich landscapes and the authentically recreated, urban settings of nineteenth century Arkansas and the Indian Territory. That, and the genuine attire of the times, allows the Coens to create a world where the actors can play real characters, not caricatures of reality. It’s a talent that keeps begging the question, “What’s next?”—Tim Basham Read full review.
Director: David Fincher
This year’s true sequel to 1987’s Wall Street is a smart and engrossing film, a befitting look at the evolution of one of the most financially successful institutions of the 21st century. In The Social Network, the truth is surprisingly stranger—and wildly more interesting—than the fictional and flat Oliver Stone sequel. Never before have coding and algorithms been so titillating. Jesse Eisenberg gives the performance of his life in the best film of 2010. He plays Zuckerberg as a dysfunctional genius desperate to fit a month of ideas into a single moment. Throughout the film he displays an intense stare that alternately masks and reveals his inner thoughts. Although he becomes one of the wealthiest men in the world (in his early 20s) his satisfaction comes from winning, with money merely being used as a measuring stick. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, Se7en) has created a film where the young heroes aren’t superficial, aren’t trying to find a clever shortcut into the castle. In The Social Network they build the castle themselves and then barricade it. But, like the first Wall Street film, greed is still king and the wolves are at the door.—Tim Basham Read full review.