Summing up 2010’s best and worst and everything in between.

The Top Ten
(Links to original reviews where available.)
1. Exit Through the Gift Shop

True or false, the genuine article or smart-ass prank, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the feature filmmaking debut of rogue British artist Banksy, is a marvelous synthesis of documentary and narrative techniques, spinning a terrific yarn while educating the viewing public at the same time.  If taken purely at face value, the film offers a fascinating account of the early years of the street art movement (enhanced by lots of rare behind-the-scenes footage) as well as the origin story of one of the industry’s dominant players, Thierry Guetta, an L.A.-based videographer who–we’re told–morphed into the in-demand artist Mr. Brainwash.  If approached as a somewhat embellished version of events, Exit cheekily reflects its maker’s penchant for surprise and misdirection.  Either way, it’s great fun to watch and functions as a provocative comment on (or spoof of) our commodity-based culture, when even supposed “outsider art” can be bought and sold at a respectable institution like Sotheby’s or in the gift shop at your local art museum.


2. Carlos
Olivier Assayas’ sweeping history of international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal was broken into three installments for its initial airing on French television (a format the Sundance Channel followed for the film’s domestic TV premiere), but if you have the time and the fortitude, this riveting five-and-a-half hour production demands to be seen in one sitting.  That’s the best way to keep track of Assayas’ decade-spanning narrative—which involves a cast of characters that numbers in the double digits—and witness the astonishing transformation that Carlos (played Edgar Ramirez in an intensely committed performance) goes through not only physically, but idealistically as well.  He enters the film as a young, fit convert to the revolutionary cause and exits a middle-aged, overweight businessman that sells his increasingly irrelevant services to the highest bidder.  For a number of reasons (including its length) Carlos has frequently been compared to Steven Soderbergh’s Che, but in a sense it’s really the inverse of that film.  Che is about a revolutionary so committed to his beliefs, he refuses to abandon them even when they result in his downfall.  Carlos follows a man who fancies himself another larger-than-life icon, but, when the moment of truth arrives, opts for self-preservation over martyrdom.


3. 127 Hours
Danny Boyle bounces back from the overpraised, overspiced masala that was Slumdog Millionaire with his most focused and exhilarating film since Trainspotting.  While some of taken issue with the movie’s breakneck pace, I find this to be one instance where Boyle’s hyperkinetic camerawork proves absolutely essential to the film as it reflects the mindset of the character he and his star James Franco create, who is modeled after Aron Ralston, the real-life hiking enthusiast that famously sliced his own arm off in order to escape from what would have been his tomb—a ravine in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.  The movie’s version of Ralston is a guy that’s always in motion and that restless energy has cost him some important relationships.  So when his body is pinned in place, his mind becomes the thing that can’t stop moving and Boyle effectively captures this by filling the film with fragmented memories, hallucinations and, ultimately, a pivotal vision.  But the director’s visual flourishes wouldn’t stick if he didn’t have Franco holding down the center of the movie, in much the same way that Ewan McGregor anchored Trainspotting.  If there were any lingering doubts about the actor’s range and resourcefulness, his work here lays them to rest.    


4. Another Year
Consider this something of a belated apology for leaving Mike Leigh’s previous film Happy-Go-Lucky out of my Top Ten two years ago.  Several times now, I’ve undervalued a Leigh picture after one viewing only to revisit it later and kick myself for not recognizing its brilliance.  I’m not going to make the same mistake with Another Year, which is another fine example of his unique artistry.  Rather than write a conventional screenplay, Leigh assembles his actors for an intense rehearsal process during which they construct their characters from the ground up and map out the general arc of the movie.  That approach never fails to yield some remarkable performances, from David Thewlis in Naked to Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky and now Lesley Manville in Another Year, playing a woman whose ebullience turns, over the course of the year depicted in the film, to despair and desperation.  Manville commands the viewer’s attention, but the film boasts one of Leigh’s strongest ensembles to date, including Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Martin Savage in a small, but memorable role.  I eagerly look forward to another viewing of Another Year and this time I won’t come away feeling as though I missed the boat the first time around.


5. The Social Network
It’s best not to think of The Social Network as the official history of Facebook and not just because both director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have freely admitted to taking significant liberties with the historical record.  A more important reason is that the film isn’t particularly interested in Facebook as a technological tool.  In Sorkin’s hands, the site becomes the idealized invention (Hitchcock would have called it a MacGuffin, Joss Whedon would label it phlebotinum) at the center of a wonderfully twisty narrative that all of the characters—including its nominal creator Mark Zuckerberg—are fighting each other to claim ownership of.  The Social Network has been a trending topic for so long, it’s easy to underestimate how well-crafted it is, from Sorkin’s snappy patter, to Fincher’s sumptuous visuals to the stellar young cast led by Jesse Eisenberg in his most poised and confident performance to date.  The film is proof positive that Hollywood’s modern-day studio system is occasionally capable of packaging the right elements together to produce a superb super-production.


6. Four Lions
Scene for scene, no film made me laugh harder this year than Chris Morris’ proudly provocative comedy chronicling the assorted mishaps and fuck-ups of the world’s most dysfunctional jihadist cell.  Much of the movie’s humor emerges from the disconnect between the characters’ words and their actions, as well as their general lack of self-awareness.  The excellent ensemble cast plays even the broadest moments with straightforward sincerity, never winking at the camera to let us know they’re in on the joke.  That the film ends on a dark, somber note is only appropriate–after all, it’s all fun and games until someone actually blows himself up.


7. The Illusionist
From How to Train Your Dragon to Toy Story 3 to Legend of the Guardians to Tangled, 2010 was one of the strongest years yet for computer animation.  As eye-popping as those respective films are, none possess the simple magic of Sylvain Chomet’s finely crafted hand-drawn tale—based on an unproduced screenplay by French filmmaking icon Jacques Tati—of an aging vaudeville performer and the surrogate daughter he welcomes into his life.  Their relationship may drive the movie’s gentle narrative, but The Illusionist is really about the passing of an era and, more specifically, a kind of entertainment.  That makes Chomet’s use of 2D animation even more appropriate—it’s a beautiful example of a slowly passing tradition.


8. Alamar
It may just be the dad in me talking, but I fell hard for Pedro González-Rubio’s lovely little father-and-son story about a Mexican fisherman who takes his young boy on one last voyage before the child moves to Italy with his mother.  None of those details are invented for the movie, by the way.  Taking a page from Robert Flaherty, the director met a real-life fisherman whose son really was moving away to live with his estranged Italian wife and came up with the idea of filming their last fishing trip together.  The resulting film is perhaps best described as a lightly fictionalized documentary, not unlike Flaherty’s groundbreaking Nanook of the North.  (In interviews, González-Rubio has indicated that he gave his “actors” specific tasks he wanted to film, but didn’t dictate how they went about carrying them out.  He also didn’t pen any dialogue, just a broad outline of how he hoped the movie would unfold.)  What makes Alamar special is the way it captures circumstances that are unique to this father and son, but taps into emotions that are universal.  It doesn’t hurt that their expedition takes the pair through some stunning Caribbean seascapes that made me seriously consider planning a spontaneous family vacation.


9. Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold’s coming-of-age story Fish Tank is an impassioned update of the so-called “kitchen sink dramas” that defined British cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s, in which angry young working class men raged against a society that didn’t seem to care about their wants and desires.  Mia Williams (a striking debut by non-actor Kate Jarvis), the 15-year-old aspiring dancer at the center of Fish Tank, burns with much of the same fury.  Trapped in an ugly council flat with an annoying younger sister and a mother that’s barely around, she’s desperate to forge a bond with someone that will treat her as an adult and thinks she’s found that person when mum’s cool new boyfriend (the effortlessly charismatic Michael Fassbender) moves in.  It’s all too clear where this relationship is headed, but the movie never strikes a false note on the way to its melancholic resolution.  A few belabored visual metaphors aside, Fish Tank is also one of the year’s most vividly directed films with Arnold’s terrific eye for composition lending the movie a stark beauty that’s in keeping with the kitchen sink tradition while also establishing its own distinct vision.


10. Boxing Gym
This list kicked off with the film that best encapsulates the dominant cinematic trend of 2010: movies that blur the line between fact and fiction.  So what better way to cap it then with a classic example of old-school cinema verite from one of the form’s masters, Frederick Wiseman?  Unfolding almost entirely within the weathered walls of the Austin, Texas-based boxing mecca, Lord’s Gym, Boxing Gym offers no overarching narrative, no central character and no question that everything we’re watching is one-hundred percent on the level.  While the film may lack some of the heft of Wiseman’s more expansive works (think Public Housing, Domestic Violence and State Legislature), it’s a superb example of his filmmaking craft, moving at the precise rhythm and pace of a boxer going through a workout.

The Next 10
11. Please Give

One of the best New York films to come along since Woody Allen blew town, Please Give is a small-scale study of human behavior that showcases writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s terrific ear for dialogue and the formidable skills of a crack ensemble led by Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt and Ann Guilbert as Manhattan’s most ornery old lady.  By the end, no dramatic breakthroughs are reached and no perfect endings are achieved—life simply goes on with everyone just a little bit older and not a whole lot wiser.

12. Un Prophete
Jacques Audiard’s captivating jailhouse saga deserves to be placed alongside HBO’s OZ and Dead Man Walking in the annals of great prison dramas.  Powered by a crackerjack script (co-written by the director and three other scribes), a memorable setting and magnetic performances by Tahar Rahim as the new fish in over his head and Niels Arestrup as the wizened lifer that welcomes him into his crew, Un Prophete should have become a breakout hit on these shores.  Perhaps HBO can help win it the audience it deserves by programming the film in between OZ marathons.

13. Toy Story 3
There’s not much left to say about the final installment in Pixar’s signature franchise.  Does it live up to its predecessors?  Absolutely.  Is it the best “Part 3” ever made?  Probably.  Will it make you laugh?  Yes.  Will it make you cry?  Hell yes.  Will you want to watch it again and again and again by yourself and with your kids?  The DVD is already cued up…

14. True Grit
A deceptively simple and straightforward old-fashioned Western from those cheeky Coen Brothers, based on the novel by Charles Portis and featuring strong performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.  Beyond Roger Deakins’ reliably superb cinematography, the beauty of the film lies in its marvelous screenplay, which turns conversation into a more effective weapon than a six-shooter.

15. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World/Black Swan/Enter the Void
What could possibly unite these three seemingly disparate movies?  Easy—they’re all virtuoso directing jobs where exceptional filmmaking covers up uneven material.  My personal favorite of the bunch is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Edgar Wright’s lively, endlessly inventive romantic action comedy that brilliantly marries video game and comic book aesthetics.  Wright’s direction is so precise and his editing team’s work is so deft (remember these names for your Best Editing Oscar, Academy—Jonathon Amos and Paul Machliss), they distract you from the fact that the central romance really isn’t all that interesting.  Darren Aronofsky’s claustrophobic camerawork is the primary virtue of Black Swan, enlivening the film’s silly, shallow screenplay and creating an atmosphere of tension, horror and, finally, transcendence that plays like gangbusters.  I don’t buy what the movie’s selling about the pursuit of artistic perfection or the need to get in touch with one’s inner slut, but I greatly enjoy watching Aronofsky try to sell it.  By far, the year’s biggest directorial gamble has to be Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void, a first-person trip through life, death and the great beyond that’s both profoundly dumb and absolutely breathtaking.  It’s a tour-de-force sensory experience you won’t easily forget, even if, at times, you wish you could.

16. Let Me In
See, American remakes of foreign films don’t have to suck!  Matt Reeves’ take on the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In is a strong adaptation of a widely-liked movie and a very good film in its own right.  Where its predecessor was more of an austere character study, this is a full-bore horror film, albeit one constructed around a potent emotional core.  As the picked-upon pre-teen and the young vampire-next-door he falls in love with, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz, deliver remarkably poised and mature performances.  Theirs is arguably the year’s finest love story.    

17. Stonewall Uprising
With the recent repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, we’re slowly, but steadily moving away from the America depicted in the wrenching first half of this  timely documentary, which covers the years leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots.  At that time, only four short decades ago, gays and lesbians were effectively treated as non-citizens by society at large.  Then came Stonewall—an event that directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner chronicle in extensive detail through eyewitness testimony, archival footage and dramatic recreations—which launched the modern gay activist movement that has gone on to achieve significant victories in the decades since, up to and including the DADT repeal.  Stonewall Uprising reminds us of how far we’ve come in achieving equality for all no matter of sexual orientation…and how much further he still have to go.

18. The Killer Inside Me
One of the year’s most misunderstood movies, Michael Winterbottom’s gripping, if flawed adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel places the viewer inside the rapidly deteriorating mind of a small-town police officer (Casey Affleck in his best screen performance to date) who is wrestling with some disturbing urges.  True, the film’s violence is frequently shocking, but Winterbottom doesn’t fetishize bloodletting in the way Hollywood thrillers so often do.  Brutality defines the film’s central character and looking away would just be letting him (and us) off the hook.

19. Casino Jack and the United States of Money/My Trip to Al-Qaeda/Pure Corruption/Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Most documentary filmmakers are lucky if they’re able to put out one movie every three years.  Alex Gibney released a whopping four films in 2010, starting with Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which uses the story of former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff to explore the widespread culture of corruption within Congress.  After that came Gibney’s filmed version of author Lawrence Wright’s one-man stage show My Trip to Al-Qaeda and his half-hour investigation into Japan’s secretive sumu society Pure Corruption, which was one of the best entries in the uneven documentary anthology Freakonomics.  He closed out the year with Client 9, the tale of an ambitious politician who rode into office a conquering hero, but was brought down by outside forces and his own personal failings.  Gibney’s chief strength as a documentarian is his dogged desire to follow a real-life story wherever it may lead, even if certain threads bring him to a dead end.  These films are fine examples of investigative journalism in action.

20. Inception
I wish Christopher Nolan’s screenplay wasn’t quite so clunky and exposition-heavy, but Inception still ranks as his most effective and entertaining brain-teaser since Memento although, for me at least, it lacks that film’s emotional impact.  I saw Inception twice in theaters and both times it was a pleasure to see how it penetrated the audiences’ imagination.  In a summer largely filled with tedious time-wasters, Nolan delivered the big-budget spectacle moviegoers were hungry for and sent them home with an ending to puzzle over.

20.5: A Letter to Elia
Working with noted film critic Kent Jones, Martin Scorsese pens a heartfelt cinematic letter to director Elia Kazan that doubles as a terrific hour-long “Kazan 101” class for film buffs.  Available only via one of the year’s best DVD box sets, The Elia Kazan Collection, A Letter to Elia is a memorable tribute from a student to one of his teachers.

Best Revivals

Kudos to Janus Films and the good folks at the Criterion Collection for finally bringing Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror-comedy freak-out to these shores.  It’s required viewing for anyone who professes affection for subsequent gonzo horror pictures like The Evil Dead and Bad Taste.

One of the best science-fiction films ever made got even better thanks to the discovery of a half-hour’s worth of previously lost footage that expands Fritz Lang’s already epic vision.

On the Bowery
Lionel Rogosin’s 1957 neo-realist tale transports viewers back in time to a New York that no longer exists, capturing the hard life that awaited new arrivals to the then-blighted Bowery neighborhood.

The Leopard
New Yorkers can ring in the New Year by heading to Film Forum between December 31 and January 13 to catch this beautifully restored print of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 drama The Leopard, which features a towering performance by Burt Lancaster, a mesmerizing appearance by screen beauty Claudia Cardinale and a sprawling story that unfolds in the lavish estates and against the sweeping vistas of the Sicilian countryside.  If, like me, you haven’t seen The Leopard before, this is the perfect way to experience it for the first time

Honor Roll
Blue Valentine
Disco and Atomic War
Everyone Else
The Fighter
Ghost Town
How to Train Your Dragon
I Am Love
Inside Job
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
The Red Riding Trilogy
Secret Sunshine
Soul Kitchen
Shutter Island
Winter’s Bone

Comme Ci Comme Ca/Meh
The American
Barney’s Version
The Company Men
Fair Game
The Ghost Writer
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
Never Let Me Go
Tamara Drewe
TRON: Legacy

Despicable Me
The Karate Kid
Waiting for “Superman”

Knight and Day
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Dumb Fun
Hot Tub Time Machine
The Other Guys
Piranha 3D

Just Plain Dumb
Cop Out
Clash of the Titans
Gulliver’s Travels
Jonah Hex
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Pleasant Surprises
The Book of Eli
I Love You Phillip Morris
The Runaways
Tiny Furniture
Waking Sleeping Beauty

Big Disappointments
Alice in Wonderland
The Expendables
I’m Still Here
The Tempest

Movies I’m Sorry I Missed
Easy A
The Square
Wild Grass

Movies I’m Not Sorry I Missed
Charlie St. Cloud
Life as We Know It
Little Fockers
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Valentine’s Day

The Bottom 10
1. Remember Me
2. The A-Team
3. Last Day of Summer
4. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street
6. All Good Things
7. The Bounty Hunter
8. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
9. The Girl Who Played With Fire
10. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Best Performances
Casey Affleck: The Killer Inside Me
Christian Bale: The Fighter
Michael Fassbender: Fish Tank/Centurion
James Franco: 127 Hours
Kate Jarvis: Fish Tank
Lesley Manville: Another Year
Edgar Ramirez: Carlos
Noomi Rapace: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Tilda Swinton: I Am Love
Michelle Williams: Blue Valentine

Best of 2011 (So Far)
Certified Copy
(Opens March 11)
Meek’s Cutoff
(Opens in April)
My Perestroika
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
(Opens March 2)

10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2011
1. The Tree of Life (Director: Terrence Malick, May 27)
2. The Muppets (Director: James Bobin, December 25)
3. Paul (Director: Greg Mottola, March 18)
4. The Descendents (Director: Alexander Payne, TBD)
5. The Trip (Director: Michael Winterbottom, TBD)
6. Your Highness (Director: David Gordon Green, April 8)
7. The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (Director: Steven Spielberg, December 23)
8. Super 8 (Director: J.J. Abrams, June 10)
9. Contagion (Director: Steven Soderbergh, October 21)
10. Source Code (Director: Duncan Jones, April 1)

10 Least Anticipated Movies of 2011
1. The Smurfs (Director: Raja Gosnell, August 3)
2. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon (Director: Michael Bay, July 1)
3. Straw Dogs (Director: Rod Lurie, September 16)
4. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (Director: Bill Condon, November 18)
5. Just Go With It (Director: Dennis Dugan, February 11)
6. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Director: Jon Chu, February 11)
7. Thor (Director: Kenneth Branagh, May 6)
8. Scream 4 (Director: Wes Craven, April 15)
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Director: Rob Marshall, May 20)
10. Sherlock Holmes 2 (Director: Guy Ritchie, December 16)