I never wanted to become that film critic. At the outset of this surprisingly laborious labor of love eight years ago, I reveled in the growth of cinematic sensibilities, theretofore weaned on the comfort food of Spielberg and Star Wars. Masters like Godard and Fellini were joined by aspirants like Ang Lee and Mike Leigh, Alfonso Cuarn and Quentin Tarantino. The era of Francis Ford Coppola was transitioning into the age of Sofia Coppola.
In recent years, however, the well-chronicled cramming of Oscar hopefuls into the wintery heart of movie awards season has sprouted a new, insidious offshoot. Not only are movie studios chasing the calendar, but now filmmakers are chasing the critics.
The superfluity of theater screenings and DVD screeners I've enjoyed the past two months was filled with yak-fests covering every stratum of personal and domestic tumult—failed marriages, coping with the death of a child, growing old, etc. Great movies have been made about these important subjects, and these films were no less earnest or well made. But there is a saturation point for dramatized despair, especially when it starts to feel like systemic pandering.
The films that affected me the most in 2010 were not the morose melodramas or standard-issue staples—heck, I got more enjoyment from watching Salt than The Fighter. The recurring theme in movies that mattered this year was the confluence of tradition and modernism, in its broadest sense. Whether it is an archetypal biopic situated against the backdrop of the new medium of social networking, a classic Western in which a teenage girl drives the narrative and bloodlust, or a story about defining the nuclear family in a time of same-sex parents and sperm donors, the films that moved us most were the films about moving on.
1. The Social Network—It's suddenly become passé to heap hosannas on this film about the origins of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, its tempestuous, brilliant creator. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin crafted a smart, seriocomic story about the blending of genius and ambition, together with a snapshot of the youthful, technological exuberance that largely defined the aughts.
2. Black Swan—Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake becomes the springboard for a modern-day exploration of duality, femininity and the price artists pay in pursuit of creative perfection. Natalie Portman deserves an Oscar, and director Darren Aronofsky further solidifies his place among today's filmmaking elite.
3. True Grit—Joel and Ethan Coen craft an oxymoronic update of the John Wayne classic: a traditional Western set during the twilight of the Old West and centered on revenge exacted by a 14-year-old. With Roger Deakins' sumptuous cinematography as a backdrop and an award-worthy performance from Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, the Coen brothers provide one of their most entertaining and accessible offerings.
4. 127 Hours—The harrowing, heroic saga of real-life mountain climber and thrill-seeker Aron Ralston (James Franco, Oscar-worthy) gives director Danny Boyle another opportunity to chronicle the perseverance of the human spirit. Ralston may lose his arm, but he gains a newfound appreciation for life and respect for the balance of nature.
5. The King's Speech—Before King George VI of England could lead, he had to learn to speak. Such is the predicament facing not only Prince Albert (Colin Firth) but all social and political leaders since the dawn of the communication age. Firth is extraordinary, conveying inner emotions in spite of having to replicate his character's chronic stuttering condition. Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter give solid supporting turns, and director Tom Hooper (The Damned United) notches another triumph in his up-and-coming career.
6. Winter's Bone—This plaintive parable about a once-bucolic Ozark village ravaged by an underworld of meth labs and the drug economy is the indie surprise of the year. As in True Grit, a teenage girl drives the story line; here, she must navigate treacherous terrain to track down her fugitive father and save the family home. Expressive performances from Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes highlight director and co-writer Debra Granik's haunting film.
7. The Ghost Writer—Released last February and seemingly forgotten by December, Roman Polanski's latest—his first thriller since 1988's Frantic—marks a return to his taut, neo-noir roots. Of course, there are the proverbial allusions to Polanski's perceived persecution, along with a clever use of the controversies surrounding the Iraq War. But it's the atmospherics that carry the day here. If this were directed by anyone else, the label "Hitchcockian" would be breathlessly bandied about.
8. The Kids Are All Right—The teenage kids of same-sex parents (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) decide to locate their biological sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo). The disruption and challenges that follow could easily apply to any family, nontraditional or not. Such is the brilliance of the whip-smart script by Stuart Blumberg and director Lisa Cholodenko, aided by one of the best ensemble cast performances of the year.
9. Toy Story 3—This tertiary return of Pixar's beloved playthings fits nicely into the studio's blueprint of growing with its original core audience. Witty, workmanlike fun is the order of the day until the final five minutes, which packs an emotional punch about both treasuring and letting go of the past.
10. I'm Still Here—Yes, the film itself is choppy and schlocky. But no meta-project this year, or maybe ever, so starkly or cleverly shows the trappings of stardom and the malleable line separating fiction from reality in our multimedia age. Joaquin Phoenix deserves serious awards consideration for not only fearlessly deconstructing his public persona but also the months he spent exposing our voracious, unforgiving attitude toward those we call celebrities.