The Top 10 (Click on the film titles to read my full reviews, where available)

1. A Serious Man
In many ways, A Serious Man is the movie that Joel and Ethan Coen have been building to their entire careers.  Up until this point, the brothers have studiously avoided injecting too much of themselves into the films, in the way that such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Wes Anderson and even Martin Scorsese do on a regular basis.  Apart from a wickedly dark sense of humor, the movies in their filmography pointedly do not reveal very much about the men that made them.  With A Serious Man though, the duo finally allow themselves to get personal, recreating the world they grew up in–a ’60s-era Jewish-American enclave in an unspecified Midwestern city (most likely their hometown of Minneapolis)–and the people they knew, including fellow yeshiva classmates, self-important rabbis and bickering families.  Much more than just a hilarious trip down memory lane, A Serious Man is arguably the best film every made about Judaism, at once both poking fun at religion while also posing many of the same questions Jews have been asking themselves over the centuries, among them “Does God exist?” and “Why does this shit always happen to us?”  The movie also features the year’s best final scene, a moment that suggests that the sins of the father don’t necessarily have to be the sins of the son.



2. Up
Much has already been said about the first ten minutes of Pixar’s latest (and, quite possibly, greatest) animated achievement, a beautifully rendered encapsulation of one couple’s decades-long marriage that left many in the theater–including yours truly–openly weeping in the theater.  But not as many people have been buzzing about the film’s second and third acts, which, to me, are the closest any Hollywood studio has come to capturing the thrills, energy and imagination of a ’30s action/adventure serial since the first Indiana Jones adventure.  More importantly, those sections of the movie are crucial to the elderly hero’s emotional journey; after essentially giving up on life in the wake his wife’s death, Carl has the opportunity to experience the kind of globetrotting adventure he dreamed about as a child and, in the process, re-opens himself to life’s possibilities.  It’s not for nothing that he literally brings the Spirit of Adventure back home with him at the end.



3. In the Loop
Apart from Comedy Central’s nightly Daily Show/Colbert Report double-bill, political comedy is all but dead in America, which is all the more reason to celebrate this brilliant British farce that offers the funniest and, in a way, the most insightful explanation for how we ended up in Iraq.  Not that the word “Iraq” is ever uttered in the course of the movie and neither, for that matter, are the words “Blair,” “Bush,” or “Cheney.”  That’s because director Armando Iannucci isn’t ribbing a particular administration, but instead takes aim at an entire bureaucratic process that’s been corrupted by deceit, double-talk and plain old stupidity.  In the Loop is also a movie about language, one in which a seemingly simple phrase like “war is unforeseeable” can be twisted into a declaration of invasion.  Like the great screwball comedies of yesteryear, the film only grows richer and funnier with repeat viewings.



4. Coraline
Along with Wallace & Gromit mastermind Nick Park, Henry Selick is directly responsible for the current creative resurgence of stop-motion animation thanks to such memorable features as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.  Instead of resting on his laurels, Selick challenged himself to outdo his past successes and succeeded with Coraline, his hugely entertaining and visually stunning adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s creepy novella.  Featuring the best use of 3D seen in any movie this year–including James Cameron’s AvatarCoraline instantly joins the ranks of family classics like The Wizard of Oz and Labyrinth, which delight (and occasionally terrify) kids and adults alike without talking down to them.



5. The Limits of Control

“Reality is arbitrary,” says the unnamed hero of Jim Jarmusch’s dreamlike pseudo-thriller which appears to follow an assassin on his latest mission across Spain to dispatch a Dick Cheney-like American bigwig.  I say “appears” because, as that line suggests, this whole adventure may just be a figment of his imagination, one that’s inspired by the pictures he views in repeated trips to a Madrid art gallery.  Like all of the director’s more experimental works (Dead Man, for instance), The Limits of Control tried the patience of general audiences and most critics for that matter.  But I left the theater absolutely elated by the movie’s hypnotic marriage of sound and image–cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s lush visuals are perfectly complemented by the atonal sounds of alt-metal acts Boris and Sunn O)))–and its funky, surreal, utterly Jarmuschian vibe.



6. Collapse

Less a documentary than a feature-length monologue, Chris Smith’s timely film gives the floor to noted lecturer/investigative journalist/conspiracy theorist/crackpot (take your pick) Michael Ruppert, who proceeds to regale the audience with his visions of the troubled future that’s in store of the United States and the rest of the planet.  As this soothsayer continues to talk though, it quickly becomes clear that film’s title has a double meaning; while Ruppert is describing what he views as an impending global collapse, he lets slip several details about his own life, all of which point to a personal collapse he experienced at one point in the past that set him on his current career trajectory.  Ultimately, the film isn’t concerned with whether Ruppert’s predictions are right or wrong–Smith is more interested in exploring how a person’s beliefs are shaped by his or her experiences.  You may not come away from the film convinced by Ruppert’s apocalyptic visions, but you’ll have a fascinating insight into the mind that conjured them up in the first place.



7. Thirst

Vampires are all the rage again thanks to Twilight, but I’ll take Park Chan-wook’s bloodsuckers over Edward Cullen any day.  A delightful mélange of gross-out horror, dark comedy and lusty melodrama, Thirst provides the shot in the arm this increasingly shopworn genre requires.  I’m still surprised that the movie failed to gain any traction at the box office this past summer–what happened to all those Old Boy fans?–so here’s hoping that it finds the sizeable following it deserves on DVD.


8. Summer Hours

This beautifully crafted family drama from French filmmaker Oliver Assayas is an unassuming stunner.  The premise is simple: when the matriarch of a prominent family passes away, her three grown children have to decide what to do with the things she left behind.  Thankfully free of any over-the-top dramatic histrionics, Summer Hours is instead a movie about the mundanity of death–the lawyers that have to be consulted, the home that has to be put on the market and the personal items that have to be sold or given away.  It’s not until the end of the film that the characters fully understand what they’ve lost, not just a loved one, but also a significant part of their history.  That moment of quiet realization packs an emotional wallop that stays with you long after the credits roll.


9. Passing Strange: The Movie
Don’t let anyone tell you that Spike Lee’s filmed version of the Tony-award winning Broadway rock musical isn’t a “real movie.”  If that’s the case, terrific pictures like The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense don’t count as real movies either.  Lee may not have opened up the play for the screen, but that’s actually to the film’s benefit.  Instead he puts the focus where it belongs: on the performers and their remarkable musicianship, as well as the production’s stellar stagecraft.  As much as I enjoyed the lavish cinematic spectacle on display in Rob Marshall’s version of Nine, Passing Strange is the superior movie musical, one that taps into the joy and exhilaration of watching talented musicians singing and dancing their hearts out.




10. Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are
Ten years after breaking through with two much-loved independent features, Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze both released studio-backed adaptations of classic children’s books by Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak respectively.  Before you accuse them of selling out though, take a look at the movies themselves, which are light-years away from typical kiddie fare.  Anderson took Dahl’s light caper Fantastic Mr. Fox and turned it into another one of his hilarious and surprisingly sweet studies of family dynamics, while Jonze used Sendak’s Wild Things as a vehicle to explore very personal emotional terrain.  If I’m being completely honest, I consider Fox to be a stronger, more successful film than Wild Things.  At the same time, I find myself regularly wanting to re-watch Jonze’s picture to marvel again at the terrific imagination and inventiveness on display.  Taken together, both films rank as some of the best book-to-screen adaptations in recent memory–movies that don’t merely photocopy the printed page, but emerge as their own distinct creatures.


The Next 10

11. Avatar
In terms of sheer spectacle, no Hollywood blockbuster delivered this year like James Cameron’s spirited throwback to the sci-fi pulp novels of the ’50s and ’60s.  Yes, the story has been done before, but Cameron tells it like he believes it–a refreshing change from the cynical incoherence of Transformers or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

12. Funny People
Judd Apatow gets semi-serious with his third and, in my opinion anyway, best directorial effort, which finds Adam Sandler delivering his finest performance since Punch-Drunk Love.  Most of the criticisms of the picture seem to involve its admittedly rough third act, but that section is the reason I admire the film so much.  If the first half is about Sandler’s character coming to terms with death, the final act allows him to live out the life he wishes he had led…only to discover that it would have made him miserable.

13. Star Trek
Kudos to J.J. Abrams and his team for rebooting the Star Trek film franchise with such style and energy.  But what really makes the movie click is the ensemble cast; from Chris Pine’s Kirk to Zachary Quinto’s Spock to Zoë Saldana’s Uhura, these actors step into some of science fiction’s most iconic roles and make them their own without seeming to break a sweat.

14. Precious, Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire
The performances by the movie’s fine ensemble cast–particularly Mo’Nique and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe–make Precious a must-see, but director Lee Daniels hasn’t gotten enough credit for telling the title character’s sad story with such a compelling mixture of melodrama and humor.

15. Paranormal Activity/The House of the Devil
As the horror genre continues to be oversaturated by gore-soaked sequels and remakes, these two terrific low-budget horror films that prove what you don’t see is often scarier than anything an FX artist can dream up.  It was satisfying to see audiences freak out over Oren Peli’s clever haunted house tale Paranormal Activity and I’m betting that The House of the Devil, Ti West’s ingenious throwback to ’80s fright flicks, will garner a cult following on DVD.

16. Sleep Dealer
Produced for less than the cost of Avatar‘s catering budget, Alex Rivera’s debut feature is a smart and scarily prescient near-future sci-fi tale that explores such hot-button topics as illegal immigration, outsourcing and the privatization of fresh water supplies.  Philip K. Dick would be proud.

17. Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi introduces American audiences to Africa’s biggest-selling recording artist in this insightful documentary that’s accompanied by one of the year’s best soundtracks.

18. The White Ribbon
If you can piece together the mystery at the heart of Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or winner, set in a rural village in pre-World War I Germany, after only one viewing, you’re quicker on the uptake than I.  Fortunately, it’s beautiful black-and-white photography and gripping narrative make it an easy movie to revisit multiple times.

19. The September Issue
No film has captured the experience of working at a high-end magazine as effectively as R.J. Cutler’s enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at how Vogue‘s legendary September issue comes together.  From budget meetings to photo shoots to juicy creative clashes between staffers, the documentary captures the messy, maddening and, yes, exhilarating process of putting out a monthly glossy.

20. The Girlfriend Experience/The Informant!
Steven Soderbergh bombed out of both the art house and the multiplex this year when audiences largely ignored his fascinating experimental feature The Girlfriend Experience as well as his clever, witty Matt Damon star vehicle The Informant! That’s a shame because both features are strong additions to the director’s already impressive filmography.  And now moviegoers will only have themselves to blame if Soderbergh is forced to make Ocean’s Fourteen.

Honor Roll

Black Dynamite
Bright Star
District 9
Every Little Step
Food Inc.
Good Hair
The Hurt Locker
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Not Quite Hollywood
Public Enemies
Rudo Y Cursi
A Town Called Panic
Up in the Air

(500) Days of Summer
The Hangover
Inglorious Basterds
Sin Nombre

Away We Go
Monsters vs. Aliens
World’s Greatest Dad

Guilty Pleasures
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Crank: High Voltage
The Informers
Ninja Assassin

Me and Orson Welles
New York, I Love You

Best Performances
Jeff Bridges: Crazy Heart

Patton Oswalt: Big Fan

Michael Sheen: The Damned United
Michael Stuhlbarg: A Serious Man
Christoph Waltz: Inglorious Basterds

Mo’Nique: Precious
Gwyneth Paltrow: Two Lovers
Maya Rudolph: Away We Go
Tilda Swinton: Julia
Rachel Weisz: The Brothers Bloom

The Bottom 10
Gentlemen Broncos
Law Abiding Citizen
The Lovely Bones
The Soloist
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Whatever Works
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Year One

10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2010 (As of Now)
1. Tree of Life (Director: Terrence Malick, December TBD)
2. A Prophet (Director: Jacques Audiard, February 12)
Toy Story 3 (Director: Lee Unkrich, June 18)
4. Shutter Island (Director: Martin Scorsese, February 19)
Hot Tub Time Machine (Director: Steve Pink, March 26)
Enter the Void (Director: Gasper Noe, TBD)
Salt (Director: Phillip Noyce, July 23)
Tron: Legacy (Director: Joseph Kosinski, December 17)
9. Iron Man 2 (Director: Jon Favreau, May 7)
The Expendables (Director: Sylvester Stallone, August 20)

10 Least Anticipated Movies of 2010
1. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Director: Mike Newell, May 28)
2. Marmaduke (Director: Tom Dey, June 4)
3. The A-Team (Director: Joe Carnahan, June 11)
4. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Director: David Slade, June 30)
5. Leap Year (Director: Anand Tucker, January 8)
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Director: Samuel Bayer, April 30)
7. The Last Airbender (Director: M. Night Shyamalan, July 2)
8. The Karate Kid (Director: Harald Zwart, June 11)
9. The Last Song (Director: Julie Anne Robinson, April 2)
10. Shrek Forever After (Director: Mike Mitchell, May 21)