Film Feature: The 10 Best Films of 2010

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CHICAGO – When we look back on this past year in cinema, what will we remember? Ironically, a year after “Avatar” was supposed to change the movie paradigm forever, it’s the human faces that I most vividly remember from 2010.

Mark Zuckerberg lit by a computer screen, Nina Sayers’ blood-red eyes, the longing look of Mal as she urges Cobb to join her in suicide, Teddy Daniels as the walls of his mental charade come tumbling down, Dean’s realization that his marriage is over, a little boy learning his first girlfriend happens to be a vampire, and so many more memorable, undeniably human moments. It’s the characters of 2010 that feature so prominently whenever I think back about the year in film.

Was it a “good year”? It depends on how you quantify it. At the very top of the year-end list, the quality was remarkable. There were at least four films released this year that I’ll watch again and again and again for years to come. In fact, my top ten, as a whole, is better than in many recent years. But the sheer drop-off in quality beyond that top ten comes pretty quick thereafter. By the time you get into the teens, the films beyond that impressive top ten, the quality slides fast and furious and continues to freefall from there. Having seen over 200 films this year, I’d say only around 25 approached greatness, overall a much lower number than most years. Looking at the quality at the top of the list makes 2010 look like a great year, but, when you take the year as a whole, it was somewhat lackluster.

Note: I’ve seen hundreds of films this year, but it is possible that the following films I missed could have made the list and so you should know that I didn’t see “Last Train Home,” “Lebanon,” “Vincere,” “Ajami,” “Carlos,” and “The Secret in Their Eyes”. I did see “The King’s Speech,” “True Grit,” and “Winter’s Bone” and, while I like all three films to varying degrees, they didn’t make the cut for the top 20 — I only mention them because they have made so many other lists and I wouldn’t want you to think they were not included because they were not seen.

Runner-ups: “127 Hours,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “The Fighter,” “Fish Tank,” “The Good The Bad The Weird,” “The Illusionist,” “Inside Job,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Mother,” and “The Red Riding Trilogy.”

10. “Let Me In”

Let Me In
Let Me In
Photo credit: Overture Films

If you’re one of those souls who believes a remake is never a good idea and have therefore avoided “Let Me In,” I’d like to offer a parallel that might persuade you to check out one of the best horror films of the last decade: Bruce Springsteen wrote “Because the Night” and gave it to Patti Smith who added her own lyrics and made it her own. Both versions of the song are brilliant. Both “Let the Right One In” and “Let Me In” are brilliant. This is how a remake should be done: Taking what worked about the first film and refining it, while also adding your own style. Playing up the horror elements of the story and pulling stronger performances from the great Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz, Matt Reeves has made a complex coming-of-age story with some of the most powerful imagery of the year. I love “Let the Right One In.” But I can love “Let Me In” too.

9. “Blue Valentine”

Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

The dissolution of a marriage has rarely been more devastatingly captured than in the best debut of the year, Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine.” With stunning performances by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, “Blue Valentine” tells a very common story. Its dramatic success proves that you don’t need an outrageous hook to make an amazing film. The story of Dean and Cindy is not truly a love story in the traditionally romantic sense, but it is in the sense that young love in the real world is often a product of circumstance more than romance. Cindy and Dean feel almost pushed into their union, and Cianfrance has the nerve to suggest that fate doesn’t always work in favor of love. As he tracks the decline of their relationship, he flashes back to its inception, a move that shades everything in melancholy. We know where Dean and Cindy are going in the not-too-distant future, making the first days of their relationship even sadder than the last ones. With all the high-concept, CGI-driven films of the new millennium, Cianfrance and arguably the two best actors of their generation have proven that there’s no effect more special than amazing acting.

8. “The Tillman Story”

The Tillman Story
The Tillman Story
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Pat Tillman’s story is one of the most complex of the year. He never wanted to be a hero. He never wanted to be a martyr or a symbol for the human cost of the war and its importance. He never wanted to be a political pawn. And yet he became all of these things through not just his death but also what happened after it. The brilliance of Amir Bar-Lev’s stunning documentary, the best of a very good year for the genre, is that it honors Tillman’s wish to not be turned into anything but what he was: a brave, strong young man doing what he thought was right. “The Tillman Story” could have easily become an anti-war diatribe against the men who used Tillman’s death as political currency but that would have been just as much of an injustice to Tillman’s memory. Instead, Bar-Lev focused on the family that Pat left behind and how much we should all be so lucky to have people like the Tillmans on our side, in life or death.

7. “The Ghost Writer”

The Ghost Writer
The Ghost Writer
Photo credit: Summit

One of the few films of the last few years that deserves the over-used appellation “Hitchcockian,” Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” proves that the controversial director is still one of our best living filmmakers. While so many of Polanski’s peers from the ’70s have turned their back on the very concept of quality cinema, he continues to make films that are distinctly his own. The paranoia that’s been at the heart of much of his best work fuels this tale of a man, hired to ghost-write the autobiography of a former British Prime Minister, who begins to suspect an international conspiracy and quickly becomes drawn into a web of double-crosses and possible murders. “The Ghost Writer” is a master class in building tension and creating mystery in a way that doesn’t feel forced or clichéd.

6. “Shutter Island”

Shutter Island
Shutter Island
Photo credit: Paramount

If Martin Scorsese’s latest film had come out in December, it would be widely considered as a top Oscar candidate, vying for nominations in several categories. However, since it came out in February, the film will be lucky to get a couple of well-deserved tech nods for cinematography and possibly art direction. Thus is the insanity of the modern Oscar campaign. Easily one of the best films of the year, “Shutter Island” shares common themes with two other films on this list (“The Ghost Writer” and “Inception”) in that it’s about a man caught up in a nightmarish maelstrom of paranoia, fear, and, ultimately, denial. It’s a trip through the cinematic funhouse with one of the best directors that ever lived serving as tour guide. With perfect technical elements on every level along with an amazing series of supporting performances to bolster one of the best lead actor turns of the year, “Shutter Island” is mesmerizing from first frame to last: a true cinephile’s dream come true.

Austin's picture

List... Shmist...

No surprises here, I think you may have a lower opinion of “Inception” if you had seen the truly breathtaking Japanese film “Paprika” which Nolan blantantly ripped off thus striking a few “Creativity” points off of my score card for him. And “The Ghost Writer” was one cliche after another, which seems appropriate considering the author described it with the cliche “Hitchcockian”. Was Hitchcock ever this contrived and boring? Child rapist or not (and he is), Polanski hasn’t made a good film since he was double the age of consent. The less said about “Shutter Island” (which has an ending that I saw from 2 plodding hours away, and I’m not pretending to be an expert) the better.

Anonymous's picture

Actually I LOVE the movie

Actually I LOVE the movie “Paprika”, as I love all of Satoshi Kon’s films. Instead of making me hate inception I enjoyed the movie all that much more. He didn’t rip off the idea and I’m growing tired of hearing this reason for hating on inception.

There was also a “Fawlty Towers” episode that is strikingly similar to inception, which was created waayyyy before “Paprika”….so if you feel strongly enough about this to judge “Inception” differently then you have just contradicted yourself. Inception was an awesome movie, so was Paprika. They deserve separate praise and acknowledgment. The end.

googergieger's picture

So, if I see Let The Right

So, if I see Let The Right One In. If I don’t see Let Me In, am I missing out on a new story? Honestly name one significant change found in Let Me In that wasn’t in Let The Right One In? Name one reason for it to exist and be so similar to the original that it tells you, the film makers knew why it shouldn’t be remade but decided to do it anyways. For easy money, or easy praise, whatever. Honestly remakes should either exist because the original had a great idea but flat out failed.


Because you can truly identify what makes the original special and unique, and can find different ways to get to those places or to go from those places. Let Me In is a superficial remake that shows. It only works on the surface of things because that is only place it changed things. You can like it. You can call it one of the best horror movies of the last blablabla. But you better sure as hell start loving the Psycho remake and putting it up on the same lists you’d put the original on.

Oh and Chloe was beyond wooden and lost in this movie. Actually majority of kid actors was lost, just Kodi was good enough to overcome that. Beyond that, the score was distracting and generically phoned in. The cgi was laughably bad and inexcusable considering it’s budget. The eighties music soundtrack was so painfully on the nose and needless, it along with the 80 to 90% retread of the original movie, showed just how big a hack Reeves is.

But yeah rest of the top ten is meh. I mean if all you watch are Hollywood and things that want to be like Hollywood, and foreign films that are big enough to get here on a comparatively speaking mainstream scale. It’s rather by the numbers and expected.

walterj513's picture

Best films of 2010

Maybe I’m weird, but the best I saw this year was Kick Ass. I saw all the most popular things like Inception and nothing could top the unpredictable fun story of Kick Ass with Hit Girl stealing the show. And yet, at least one critic listed the film among his ten worst. Go figure.

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