This will almost certainly be remembered as the Year of 3D, and that’s fitting—3D can do amazing things, but here’s something it can’t do: make a movie great. Similarly, 2010 was full of intriguing, eye-popping yet ultimately disappointing films. In fact, none of the movies in my top ten were shot or screened in 3D (though Toy Story 3 narrowly missed the cut). Two-dimensional though they may be, all of these are worth watching again—or discovering for the first time.
The first time you watch it, it’s a dizzying, intellectual carnival ride. After the second viewing, it feels like an American classic. The performances are perfectly understated: Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Ellen Page are so topnotch in supporting roles, you might miss how wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy are. From the dizzying establishing scene to the revolving hallway to the moment we first witness The Kick to the powerful closing shot, Christopher Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream dazzler is one we’ll be talking about for years.
2. Black Swan
It’s completely nuts—like Wes Craven directing a performance of The Nutcracker—but the fact that something so challenging, erotic and brilliant came out of Hollywood is nothing short of astonishing. Natalie Portman’s performance is a career milestone, though give special notice to Barbara Hershey, whose subtle and terrifying turn provides the key to the dark mystery at the heart of Darren Aronofsky’s cracked masterpiece.
My favorite entry at this year’s Maui Film Festival, an original, mostly improvised comedy full of startling humor (that was, naturally, sold as a dumb summer farce). John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill are terrific as three lost souls looking for love and falling all over themselves.
4. Blue Valentine
A tough, stunningly real and haunting portrait of why we fall in love and how it’s sometimes hardest to be the person we need to be. Ryan Gosling and especially Michelle Williams give gigantic, revealing performances that stay seared into your mind for days. Not a smooth ride, but it’s better and more honest than any other love story this year.
5. Robin Hood
The year’s most underrated movie. Audiences complained that this summer blockbuster was too serious—get over it. Ridley Scott’s best film in years is as thrilling, vividly acted (especially by Cate Blanchett and Max Von Sydow), gorgeous and potently dramatic as you’d expect from the iconic director. Russell Crowe ain’t Errol Flynn (or even Kevin Costner), but it works. Just know you’re in for a gritty prequel and drop the image of a jolly dude in green tights.
One of the best films that nobody saw, a micro-budgeted, atmospheric, scary and surprisingly tender horror film. Imagine Cloverfield, only you care about the characters and the special effects and setting are even more chillingly authentic. Both beautiful and edge-of-your-seat exciting, it’s this year’s Ink—an art film to seek out.
7. I Love You, Philip Morris
Jim Carrey plays a religious family man turned gay con artist whose life becomes a series of lies and elaborate confidence games…oh and he and Ewan McGregor are touching as jailbird lovers. An original, surprising comedy that takes huge risks and earns big pay-offs—and it’s faithfully based on a true story!
8. The Town
Daredevil, Surviving Christmas, Gigli…forgiven and forgotten. Ben Affleck directs the year’s best action movie and also delivers his best work in years in front of the camera. Add a riveting Jeremy Renner and a remarkable ensemble cast, a story that crackles and the best large-scale shoot-out since Heat and you have a movie for dudes that the wahine will find equally captivating.
9. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Another under-appreciated film that does almost everything right. OK, the Hollywood ending is out of place, but give director Oliver Stone credit for trying something unexpected. Otherwise, the actors dazzle (Michael Douglas, Frank Langella and a never-better Shia Labeouf), and Stone’s passionate direction and typically potent mixture of entertainment and social commentary make for a hugely enjoyable yarn.
10. The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski managed to tie Mel Gibson as the year’s most controversial celebrity—and direct this sinister cinematic page-turner. Ewan McGregor (again) and a nasty Pierce Brosnan are terrific but Olivia Williams walks away with the whole thing as the scariest cinematic political figure since Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. Only Polanski could make the story of a writer-for-hire this exciting—and it has the year’s biggest knockout of a closing scene.