And here is the momentous list everyone has been waiting for. Gee whiz, had to get the shite out of the way first didn’t I? Well, I did. Now it’s on to the good stuff.

Mostly this was an agonizing list to construct and the edit. I struggled with where to place certain films as well as with the ones that had to be demoted from Top to Honorable Mentions. For example, it breaks my heart a little to leave Valhalla Rising off my list but c’est la vie.

This is a year that’s had as many strong small movies as it has big ones, where some truly landmark moments have been had both in terms of the summer event movie and the under-seen festival darling. This is also a year that’s been owned by soundtracks and scores. I hope when I look back on 2010 I remember it for all the amazing fucking music made for some truly great films.

As with my Worst list, this follows the basic format of CHUD critics’ lists for the past number of years. Enjoy and try not to get too angry about the stuff I snubbed or the stuff I elevated. Besides, this list is dedicated to the late Peter Postlethewaite (who appeared in two of the films on it). You can’t be mad at it now, can you?

15. Never Let Me Go (review)

This movie has stayed with me, which is the reason it appears here. I didn’t love it when I initially saw it and I bet if I were to see it again, it would have risen far higher in the ranks this year. For now though, it gets the second most controversial spot on this list. As I’ve said, it’s a beautiful and understated film anchored by outstanding work from the three leads. It is also as immediate and realized a “science fiction” film as it gets. In a lot of ways, it’s almost the anti-Inception in terms of its approach to the genre.

14. Monsters (review)

A surprisingly effect and low-budget flick, Monsters is this year’s answer to District 9 and although it isn’t quite as great a debut as that was, it is still one of the best of the year. There’s a great concept here and coupled with the intricate design and world-building, everything that we experience through the leads feels authentic. Authenticity is becoming quite the prize in genre films these days, and Monsters again shows us how this can suspend the fantastic nature of science fiction and throw the ideas and trappings right up in our faces in a believable, immersive way. I also love that this is a genre mash-up and most people won’t even realize it. Monsters is a road movie, a genre of film in itself, mashed with alien invasion science fiction. With a subtle love story that proves surprisingly effective added to the mix, it’s a really great blend of filmic awesome that I’m sad more people didn’t see. I’m not as in love with it as I was when I first saw it, it’s got some clunky political subtext for example, but I will be closely watching everything Gareth Edwards does. Like the Strause Brothers, responsible for cinematic travesties like Skyline and that second Aliens vs. Predator movie I managed to avoid but have only heard complaints about, Edwards comes from a VFX background. Because of that, and the low-budget alien invasion thing as well I guess, Edwards is sort of a counterpoint to the Strauses and his movie is as fresh and as good as theirs is stale and terrible.

13. Splice


I think Splice is one of the most underrated movies of the year, well at least one that many people saw and have dubiously supported problems with. Most people I’ve talked to claim the last 10 minutes or so are a cheat because now all of the sudden it’s a conventional monster movie. What these people are missing is that this is intentional and part of the dark comedy that underscores everything in the film. One of the points here is that Elsa and Clive have literally created a monster and like Dr. Frankenstein before them, how they have treated this creature is what makes it monstrous. Throughout the movie, Dren is a situation they are never going to be able to contain and that is why it is so dramatic when it finally attains the freedom to follow the instincts it has not learned to properly temper with self-control, a lesson that both its “parents” are poorly equipped to offer. In fact, their treatment of what they’ve made is dramatically perverse and cruel in turns, but this whole thing is really just a giant metaphor for how parents fuck up their children and how they don’t always have the most altruistic or sane motivations for child-rearing in the first place.

12. The American


Ah, George Clooney. I’d love to see more of this kind of work from him. I like super-charisma guy as much as anyone, but all of the trappings of who this guy is, both in the majority of his films as well as his real-life persona, are completely dropped away here. Framed around this character is his quiet, lonely, and above all tense world where reliance on animal instincts and a labyrinthine network of contacts can keep you safe. The American has one of the best scores of the year, which comes up seldom but punctuates perfectly.

11. The Town (review)

A lot of people are saying this one was good, not great. I disagree. It could have been Affleck’s Heat if he were more concerned with an ensemble or with subtextual mirroring, but instead it’s a very personal story about a guy who is obviously trapped in a life and environment he doesn’t want and how personalities, motives, and obligations can drag you back in when you’re really pretty much grasping at anything to get out. The escape fantasy is why Doug falls for Claire and it is smart as fuck to not let them be together in the end, giving Claire just that much more credit than so many of her cinematic sisters get in movies like this one. Further from this, the desire to escape from self-created confinement is a major theme of the film and is implicit in the motives of Doug and Claire as well as Jem and his white trash sister, Krista. Mostly, it’s the small touches and differences in what is ostensibly a pedigree genre film that make The Town special. This is also the best Ben Affleck has been on screen in like 10 years and aside from himself, he has pulled together a watchable and interesting cast who crackle even in smaller roles like Chris Cooper’s or Pete Postlethwaite’s. In terms of Affleck’s performance as a director, this is not the lightning in a bottle debut but the confident step forward after arriving. It is too self-aware and deft in its handling of its own containing influences and cinematic place to be anything less than a great.

10. Tron: Legacy


This is going to be a super controversial choice and I wish I had time to review the movie before explaining why it’s here. I really wasn’t sure if it was going to place when I first saw it, but then I saw it again and liked it even more and its (my?) fate was sealed. Tron: Legacy has a somewhat messy script, some heavy-handed allegory, and relies a bit too much on the plot structure of the first film. These are its chief flaws and they have been ridiculously overstated by a bunch of butt-hurt critics whose revulsion is something I just don’t understand. The performances are fun and energetic and the overall texture of the film (look, sound, and 3D execution) make it a sensory feast. This doesn’t mean that writing doesn’t matter, just that it’s the weak point in an otherwise masterful piece of cinema. Now while I have my problems with Avatar, it at least went a long way toward justifying this bizarre gimmicky resurgence and emphasis on 3D. Tron: Legacy is a much better film than Avatar even though it is not as “big” as I think a lot of people wanted it to be (and this, I suspect, is the unacknowledged reason why so many people are giving it a thumbs down), and it is the only (non-animated) 3D champion of 2010, a year in which this new element has had a rough time due to post-conversion fiascoes like The Last Airbender and Clash of the Titans. In terms of the non-sensory and non-contextual issues like character and writing, or whether Tron: Legacy has a heart or brain, I am probably also in the minority. I don’t think it’s a dumb movie. It doesn’t go as far into the “god in exile” or “organic programs” ideas as it could, but these things are present. As are the ideas of duality, some unfortunately conveyed zen ideas about selflessness, and big-picture stuff about how digital worlds really are starting to alter the way we conceptualize reality. Alongside these smarts is a core story about a father and how he has failed his sons and how this has affected them. CLU and Sam are mirrors of each other as much as they are mirrors of different parts of who Flynn has been and is. Added to this is Quorra who injects a lot of charm, charisma, and wonder into the proceedings. Her storyline should have been given a bit more attention but we have to remember that it probably doesn’t end here and that Tron: Legacy is in many ways another chapter in what is being primed to be a major franchise. Bring that on, I say. They can only improve from here.

9. How to Train Your Dragon


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I usually include at least one animated film on my year-end lists. I typically pay a lot more credence to live-action stuff unless there’s a new Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movie or a non-sequel Pixar film. This year, against all expectation, Dreamworks owns the animation game (I am not a fan of Toy Story) after years of garbage. How to Train Your Dragon is a heartfelt and ridiculously earnest story about acceptance. The misunderstood teenager subtext is classic, and maybe a bit boring by now but it is completely elevated by the work done by Gerard Butler and Jay Baruchel in bringing their characters to life. And yes, this is a pretty heavily celebrity cast where it doesn’t distract for a change. How to Train Your Dragon is a real movie with flying sequences that beat out Avatar‘s even in 2D. I’ve watched this flick about a billion times because my kid loves it so much and it still hasn’t gotten old. From vikings to the dragons and world design, to epic cloud battles and the balls to maim the main character, every element of the film works. The secret weapon is Toothless, though. My favorite Disney movie is Lilo and Stitch, and it may not surprise you to learn that some of the same designers responsible for Stitch are also responsible for Toothless. Combining the loyalty and loving character of a dog with the playful and addicting antics of a cat, Toothless offers something to anyone who ever owned a pet or wanted to fly on a dragon.

8. Black Swan (review)

Aranofsky tells stories about obsessives who risk self-destruction and alienation  in the relentless pursuit of their white whale. In most of his films, the whale is something transcendent and metaphysical, in this case the whale is a moment of total perfection achieved through complete mastery of a particular physical art. That Aranofsky is dealing with an art-form and world that is implicitly sexual and overtly feminine means that he is able to come at this central element of his work from yet another direction. Black Swan is a psycho-sexual thriller that plays with our expectations about Nina and where her journey is going with a sort of gleeful, Hitchockian disregard for our grasp of the reality of the film. Right up to the end, you’re not exactly sure what does and doesn’t happen even though you know the surreal delusions are almost certainly exactly that, there’s an undercurrent of plausibility in what Nina experiences (even though she sees wacky shit during, we can believe Lily might come have a lesbian adventure with Nina just as we can believe that Nina is capable of murder in a fit of jealous rage). Again we have a beautiful, haunting score from Clint Mansell which adds to the landscape of amazing music this year. The real heart of the movie is Natalie Portman’s expert handling of Nina’s various transformations which are really a series of explosions and implosions, someone who seems on the cusp of changing but will revert to her safe identity with little warning. Beyond the nitty gritty is the fact that Black Swan is really a modern myth containing all the psychological and sexual subtext that mythology scholars love digging up in everything from Greek myths to the Bible. Being a symmetrical and sublimely functional modern myth is not a bad place to be for a film.

7. Winter’s Bone (review)

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I was put onto this, like so many good smaller movies, by Devin Faraci. I don’t know what he’s doing these days but he used to be the reason to read CHUD before other movie websites. He’s been very influential on me as a “student of film” and Winter’s Bone is this year’s contribution from Mr. Faraci. In a lot of ways, Winter’s Bone is simply a really excellent detective film that happens to take place in a really specific environment and it’s exactly this specificity that gives it so much power and authenticity. Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes give absolutely amazing performances, easily some of the best of the year (Hawkes is especially a surprise given his usual type of character). With these elements in place, the quality of this film is augmented further by particularities derived from the setting. These particularities affect everything from the plot, which is structurally familiar to the hard-boiled detective genre, to the complex motivations and personalities thrown in around Ree (Lawrence) and her simple quest. At first glance, Winter’s Bone is as hard a movie as the title might suggest. That it has a soft side, a strange sentimentality that is bound up in frightening hardness, makes it more than just an unusually well-made tale of meth-cooking rednecks and their bizarre filial protocol.

6. Kick-Ass


I’m surprised to see that this movie has graced few if any critical year-end lists. Early on in 2010, Kick-Ass was basically held as a triumph and “omfg can’t believe that worked” surprise. It’s true that it hasn’t hit the pop culture as hard as some might have expected, but it’s still an incredible film and one of the best comic book films ever made. That it isn’t the best of the year is a sure sign that some people (the British, mostly) are actually interested in getting this shit right. Every departure made from the comic is thoughtful and serves the story, making this the superior version of the story (fuck you very much, Mark Millar). Kick-Ass is a complete slap in the face to Let Me In and The Last Airbender for being so stupid. Sometimes I imagine Hit Girl being set loose among the versions of the characters (Chloe Moretz killing herself?) in those movies and it makes me much happier. I’d be inclined to give Kick-Ass a high spot just for providing me with that fantasy but luckily for my credibility, it’s also an excellent film with a lot of attitude, great sense of fun and humor, and excellent performances. And a great soundtrack, too. Not to mention that this one is probably going to change the landscape of comic adaptations due to its success, mainstream appeal, and the fact that it dares to be ironic and earnest at the same time without telling that same old Campbellian story.

5. The Wild Hunt (review)

This is the big surprise of 2010 as far as I’m concerned, but it’s also kind of a more personal story than I really like for my grandiose attempts at being mostly objective about movies. This is pretty much the only movie I watched in 2010 with no expectations and no foreknowledge. In fact, I thought it was a fantasy movie before I watched it. The Wild Hunt is a compelling but small story about a escapism and the consequences of going too far with that. You can lose yourself in your fantasies, and there are a certain type of people who are maybe more susceptible to that than others. Those people frequently pick up elaborate games like LARP or Dungeons & Dragons to scratch their itch (as well as for many other reasons, but we’ll focus on this for now). I sympathize with that because that is the type of person I happen to be, though I typically get my fix from videogames. Because it is so intimate a movie, it is able to straddle several genre lines to such an extent that you’re not sure what kind of movie you’re watching until near the end. In a lesser film, this would be a weakness, an example of something that doesn’t know what it is and tries to be several things before collapsing under its own weight. The Wild Hunt knows exactly what it is and wants you to find out slowly, as it gives itself space to be funny, shocking, and dramatic in turns. The cast all put in great performances and I wish I knew more about them so I could give some shout-outs. Beneath the pageantry and reckless escapism of LARPing and particularly the sophisticated group this film is about, are some really heavy things that inform this search for escapism. It is where the deep-seated needs collide and undermine each other that the conflict in the film rests, and where it builds into a crescendo that will haunt you long after it’s all over.

4. True Grit


This is the film I saw most recently out of the bunch but I’m pretty confident in its placement. I like a good Western and between the cast, the photography, and the dialogue this one’s the best Western in years on every level. 2010 is very much the Year of Jeff Bridges but it’s Hailee Steinfield playing Mattie Ross whom steals the show. Also doing a great deal with very little screen time are Josh Brolin and especially Barry Pepper who somehow manages to infuse his scummy, ugly as fuck bandit with a weird nobility which is completely evoked by his treatment of Mattie. Matt Damon is no slouch either as the ineffectual LaBoeuf, a Coen character like no one else in the film. It turned out to be a bit smaller scale than I thought it would be and many of the great iconic scenes of gunfighter awesome are spoiled in the trailers. Even with that, those moments feel more authentic for being smaller than expected. This is not 3:10 to Yuma (the Crowe/Bale one) after all. And one more time: the dialogue is fucking awesome and very quotable. Less cynical than the Coens’ recent fare, True Grit is letting itself have a bit of fun with the audience while also delivering an expert film and confident Western.

3. The Social Network (review)

A masterpiece from a guy who seems to pretty much shit them out every few years, David Fincher’s take on the people who changed the world of social networking wins almost because the concept seemed like such a loser. Until the first trailer hit, I don’t think anyone expected a movie about Facebook to be any good. People didn’t even want to take it seriously, maybe afraid a little at having a microscope on what has become a cornerstone of their social lives. In any event, it’s not only a critical success but one of the most positively received movies of the year for anyone. This is proof that sometimes a quality movie is appreciated for being such. Maybe my favorite thing about The Social Network is that it is a launchpad and playground for some of the best young actors out there, showing the goods and creating fans of not just vacant pretty-boys but also seriously good performers like Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield. Also, Justin Timberlake has proven what I said about him back in ’06 by now: he has major chops. And seriously, who knew a movie about Facebook was gonna be good, let alone this good?

2. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World


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Ah, I kinda wish I had reviewed this film and I’m not sure why I didn’t. I guess at the time I felt less of an urge to review nearly every movie I saw. I also wrote that little article about Scott Pilgrim in general in anticipation of the film. At any rate, this let’s me mini-review it so let’s go! Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is pretty much the most conscious film made about my generation and the nerd celebration culture that has sort of blossomed in the vacuum of our parents’ generation’s social hierarchies. This is to us what John Hughes movies were to people who were growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s. Above all, it’s the very editing of the film that more than anything else speaks to us as a generation of young people. We get the way this movie moves because it’s hard-coded into us after 15+ years of videogames, nerdy collectibles, strange mutations of gender expectations, self-entitlement, escapism, and immersion in the minutiae of our dreams and fantasies. Oh, and Canadian indie-pop music of course. Taking Bryan Lee O’Malley’s amazing 6-volume epic and making a movie that is its own thing out of that is quite the achievement, but the movie not only complements and credits the original work, it is also another example of an adaptation done right. This whole distinction between good adaptations and bad ones is a major theme of 2010 and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the katana-swinging victor on the battleground of empty translation, misguided Westernization, and commercial re-purposing that plagues the world of comic-book adaptations particularly. It helps that this is also the funniest and most fun movie of the year, hands down.

1. Inception (review)

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A miraculously realized original concept? In 2010? Yes, kids, it happened. Inception isn’t just the best science fiction, action, or puzzle film of the year, it is also an important film. Not only is it important for what it represents for Chris Nolan, it is important in the greater context of contemporary cinema on pretty well every level, but especially that of what constitutes a tent-pole movie. Inception is a summer blockbuster that proves you can be smart, well-made, impeccably written, and awesome all at the same time. It single-handedly redeems the entire enterprise of sinking millions into an effects-heavy global romp with genre trappings and intellectual candy galore. Analytically, Inception is also a philosophical justification for making movies (and this extends to other creative endeavors like novels and videogames) at all. It is just as much about what we get from our myths and stories as it is about Cobb figuring out how to forgive himself. That it gets away with its ambiguous ending due to the strength of the theme it is illuminating is a masterstroke of evocation for an idea, letting go, that seems so counter-intuitive to Chris Nolan’s strong measure of control over his films. I for one welcome the end of his overrated Batman trilogy so we can get more of this.

Honorable Mentions:
Greenberg
Enter the Void
The Karate Kid
Youth in Revolt
The Kids Are All Right
Cyrus
Agora
Shutter Island
Ondine
Valhalla Rising
Despicable Me
Easy A

Wish I’d Seen:

44 Inch Chest
Creation
The Ghost Writer
Holy Rollers
Micmacs
I am Love
The King’s Speech
The Killer Inside Me
Dogtooth
Restrepo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Get Low
The Last Exorcism
Catfish
Leaves of Grass
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Buried
It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Marwencol
Stone
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Megamind
Harry Potter
I Love You Phillip Morris
The Tempest
Casino Jack
Somewhere
Blue Valentine
Everyone Else
Marwenco

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