The Ten Best Movies of 2010

It was an off year, except in the Land Down Under.

Let’s face it, 2010 was a less than enchanting year in general. And, as if the Earth hadn’t enough bad news in this dreadful Year of the Tiger, supposedly knowledgeable critics are going around saying 2010 may be one of the worst all-time years for movies, as well.

Gadfly Joe Queenan devoted a feature story to the subject in the Wall Street Journal, in which he made fun of sequels and the eminently dismissible Dinner for Schmucks as examples of films no one wanted to see. Over at The New York Times, A.O. Scott floated the idea that TV has taken over from movies as the number-one platform for provocative and exciting entertainment. And, as if to rub salt in the wound, film-generation hero Jean-Luc Godard blew off his honorary Academy Award as meaningless. What’s the cinematic world coming to?

In the heat of the Tiger Year, ordinary dramas, comedies, and fantasies seemed inadequate and pale. Only the most extreme flavors registered and only the strongest terms could describe the situation meaningfully. That’s why we’ve decided to return to Oz — as in Australia, the country and the film industry — if only as a state of mind.

We’ll discuss that impulse further, but first, in the order in which they’re discussed below, here are the Ten Best Movies of 2010:

The Square directed by Nash Edgerton

Animal Kingdom directed by David Michôd

The Social Network directed by David Fincher

The Lisbeth Salander Trilogy, comprising The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, directed by Niels Arden Oplev and Daniel Alfredson

Carlos directed by Olivier Assayas

14-18: The Noise and the Fury directed by Jean-François Delassus

Mother directed by Bong Joon-ho

Winter’s Bone directed by Debra Granik

The Kids Are All Right directed by Lisa Cholodenko

True Grit directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

In other words: two Australian neo-noirs, a big-budget drama about an online empire builder, a Swedish psychological action mini-series, a French made-for-TV miniseries about a real-life political terrorist, a French historical documentary, a Korean crime thriller, a rural American crime thriller, a US indie sitcom about a pair of lesbian moms, and the lone traditional Hollywood genre flick, a Western sequel. That is, a Coen Bros.-style Western sequel, with all that entails.

Why this fascination with the land of kangaroos? In 2009, a documentary called Not Quite Hollywood played for a week at local Landmark art houses. Its writer-director, Mark Hartley, wanted to show us that what most American foreign-movie fans reckoned was the “Australian renaissance” of art films in the Seventies and Eighties (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, etc.) represented only a pallid trickle compared to the rich, pulpy stream of genre flicks being made in Australia at the time — stuff like Mad Dog Morgan or Turkey Shoot. Hartley’s terrifically entertaining doc, subtitled The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation, was stuffed with titillating clips from dozens of action, sexploitation, and horror films. We wanted to see them all. But only dedicated fanatics could hope to dig up such buried nuggets as Deathcheaters from thirty years ago.

This year, however, there magically appeared on Bay Area screens a string of unheralded new releases from Oz, glistening with possibility. Genre still turns them on Down Under, and apparently neo-noir is the flavor of the moment. The most striking new Australian films to open here this year, Nash Edgerton’s The Square and David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, deal with grandiose hubris embedded in petty criminality in their stories of cheating spouses, drug deals, armed robbery, arson, and plain old murder.

Edgerton, a stunt man turned writer-director whose short Spider had audiences writhing in their seats when shown on the same program with The Square, develops the latter’s tawdry tale of serial betrayal with a precise combination of malice aforethought, finely chiseled scene-setting, and the mean-spirited character acting of David Roberts (as a wannabe-wily construction boss suffering from fatal doses of both horniness and greed), Claire van der Boom (the boss’ girlfriend, wife of the dope dealer they plan to rip off), and the director’s brother, Joel Edgerton, as one of many resident lowlifes in the Joe Six-Pack environs of Caringbah, New South Wales. Evil deeds are done, but they’re nothing compared to the dumb accidents that befall.

If Edgerton’s portrait of lower-middle-class contempt brings interpersonal relations down to the level of a pit bull obsessively swimming across a deep river in search of a cute pup, Michôd’s Animal Kingdom relates a family saga that summons up images of Shakespeare drowning in a pint of Victoria Bitter. The milieu is a clan of Melbourne holdup artists headed by violent psychopath Andrew “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) and his eerily cheerful mother Janine, aka Grandma Smurf (the amazing Jacki Weaver), den mother to a brood of thieves, and what happens when Pope’s seventeen-year-old nephew J (James Frecheville) comes to live with them. Bloody dangerous.

The Cody family’s exploits would make a sympathetically creepy twin bill with filmmaker Geoffrey Wright‘s 2006 Australian goth version of Macbeth. First-time writer-director Michôd — he co-wrote Spider with Nash Edgerton — is a major talent right out of the box. Keep an eye out, so to speak, for him. And if you think you spotted The Square‘s Joel Edgerton as Pope’s crew mate Baz, you’re getting the hang of it.

There are further Oz-tentatious displays. It may have had only one screening in the Bay — a midnight showcase at the San Francisco International Film Festival last April — but Sean Byrne‘s The Loved Ones qualifies as a find for fans of old-school splatter horror. It’s the old Prom Night from Hell, winningly done up as a game of wilted wits between a vengeful high-school wallflower named Princess (Robin McLeavy) and the surfer boy who turned her down for the big date (Xavier Samuel). Cue power drills.

Meanwhile, Patrick Hughes‘ new release Red Hill has stylish genre fun with a Western set in the title village, where an Aboriginal escaped convict (Tommy Lewis) comes hunting for the ockers who done him wrong. (We review Red Hill at length elsewhere in this issue.) Fancy an Aboriginal musical? Western Australia fantasy Bran Nue Dae, by filmmaker Rachel Perkins, crosses Baz Luhrmann with Rabbit Proof Fence in the whimsical story of a teenage boy named Willie and his search for identity, which is hampered by mock-sinister Catholic priest Geoffrey Rush.

More Australian films are reportedly on their way to American screens, including Brendan Fletcher‘s Outback story Mad Bastards; Matthew Bate‘s viral-video documentary about dueling neighbors, Shut Up, Little Man!; the vigilante thriller Blame by Michael Henry; and Coffin Rock, Rupert Glasson‘s melodrama about a possessive ex-lover, sort of a Fatal Attraction riff with a male in the injured-party spot. The first two of the above get their US debuts at Sundance this winter. The upshot of all this is that we needn’t get depressed sorting through tepid Hollywood sequels and remakes for movie excitement. The wizards of Oz are ready to pick up the slack.

We reviewed Mother, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Square, The Kids Are All Right, Animal Kingdom, The Social Network, Carlos, and True Grit during the year in the course of our weekly movie coverage in the Express. The Social Network is the very best film of the year by a wide margin, and we take back (almost) every negative thing we said about director Fincher while he was toiling in the vineyards of Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He finally found a story that means something. The film’s strongest selling point, aside from Fincher’s remarkable cast and the iron-clad topicality of profiling a tech billionaire in classically tragic terms, is Aaron Sorkin‘s screenplay. Now we’re pacing the floor, anticipating what Fincher is doing, even as we speak, to another of 2010’s best bets, the Lisbeth Salander Trilogy, as he helms the obligatory H’wood remake.

Alongside the bland ambitious deadpan of Facebook‘s founder, solitary Swedish riot grrrl avenger Salander is 2010’s most striking poster child. Ever notice how every third person on BART is carrying a copy of one of the late Stieg Larsson‘s books? Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the series, is a stressful actioner with just enough headline kink to satisfy jaded urban audiences, but it was The Girl Who Played with Fire, under the direction of Daniel Alfredson, that really set the hook for Lisbeth’s violent saga, aka The Millennium Trilogy — named after the investigative magazine where Mikael Blomkvist (actor Michael Nyquist) works.

Noomi Rapace, the face that took a thousand punches as hella-picked-on Lisbeth, successfully kept a lid on her character when a lesser mortal, say Uma Thurman’s The Bride in the Kill Bill films, would simply hack everyone to pieces. Lisbeth is cool, hurt, and alone, and she’ll never get over it. Many of us can relate. Her distressing adventures — after all, she’s ridding the world of her family — tell us as much about the current state of things as Mark Zuckerberg‘s wounded acquisitiveness.

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the real-life protagonist of Carlos, also cast himself as a righteous avenger. He took his nom de guerre from two-time Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez, an anti-IMF, anti-World Bank petro-activist. When we first meet Carlos (a tour-de-force performance by fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramírez) he has already worked himself up to a pitch of anger (“words get us nowhere”) where violence is the only recourse to social injustice. And so he rents himself out as a hit man for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Potential audiences for filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ monumental, five-and-a-half-hour portrait of the notorious international terrorist and his times have reportedly objected to the film’s relentless cataloguing of assassinations and bombings.

As in The Baader Meinhof Complex, Carlos’ depredations, detailed by director Assayas and screenwriter Dan Franck in machine-gun montage, put the story in clear, murderous context. Carlos was a sincerely committed, and sincerely misguided, man whose deadly career gradually took over his life. After all is said and done, what is a revolutionary? And what is a just cause worth dying for? This thought-provoking, visceral political drama is probably the pinnacle of Assayas’ filmography.

Carlos, the Lisbeth Salander Trilogy, and Jean-François Delassus’ tapestry-like documentary 14-18: The Noise and the Fury all began as TV shows. World War I literally destroyed an entire French generation, and director Delassus uses everything at his disposal — reenactments, newsreels, colorized footage, animations, etc. — to bring the full force of the horror of that war to the screen, through the requisite haze of time. The implication is that each and every one those lives was wasted. Maybe someone, some day, will do for the American people, vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan, what Delassus does for the French with this haunting, brilliant, ineffably sad evocation of a time and place.

Bong Joon-ho’s Mother and Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone take us deep into the interior of their respective countries, where the unglamorous dwell, for stories of mayhem and redemption keyed by world-class performances. In Mother, it’s actor Kim Hye-ja as the determined mom of a mentally challenged young man charged with killing a woman in his South Korean village. Everyone in town wants to hang the murder on her son and be done with it, but she’s not buying.

Winter’s Bone, another murder mystery with deep emotional currents, gets noteworthy acting jobs from Jennifer Lawrence, as an Ozark Mountains resident named Ree Dolly, who’s looking for her disappeared, meth-dealing father, and John Hawkes as Ree’s sinister uncle Teardrop, who knows where the community’s bodies are buried, literally. It’s tempting to imagine that these two movies are driven by their actors, but Bong (The Host) and Granik (Down to the Bone) have both made a specialty of getting under the skin of preoccupied characters when they’re not looking, and this is those directors’ year to shine.

Zesty life-styler The Kids Are All Right benefitted mightily from the perfs of Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, fitted with great precision to Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg‘s screenplay. Look for this property to make its way to the tube. In the meantime, it’s our idea of a cool summer refresher.

As for the Coen Brothers and True Grit, the project was already halfway home before it began shooting, with the casting of Jeff Bridges and ingénue Hailee Steinfeld in the roles of garrulous lawman Rooster Cogburn and guardhouse lawyer Mattie Ross, the drunken old coot’s teenage trail marm. Everyone talks about the Coens’ verisimilitude in showing the Old West “as it actually was” — but it’s the unreality of the situation that makes it unique. With No Country for Old Men and now this, the Coens are hitting their stride with the Western. In its best moments, True Grit approaches the sanctified realm of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, if not quite John Ford‘s sagebrush Valhalla.

Every ray of sunshine contains a black shadow, as the saying goes. This year perhaps more than most, the films we admired weren’t necessarily the ones we cherished with fiendish glee, against our better judgment. With that in mind, here’s the evil twin of the Ten Best List, a sullen little doppelganger we call Top Ten from the Dark Side (in no particular order):

Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé

Splice by Vincenzo Natali

When You’re Strange by Tom DiCillo

The Loved Ones by Sean Byrne

Let Me In by Matt Reeves

Machete by Robert Rodriguez

The Killer Inside Me by Michael Winterbottom

Marwencol by Jeff Malmberg

The Mesrine series: Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 by Jean-François Richet

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within by Yony Leyser

No one yet has replicated the recreational drug experience onscreen with the same panache as French director Noé — he’s the Abel Gance of Ecstasy. Reeves’ Let Me In was not only not an insult to its Swedish original, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, it was arguably the better version of that melancholy adolescent vampire story. Machete, the best Robert Rodriguez movie since, well … ever, rescued us from a summer of boredom. ¡Viva Danny Trejo and Michelle Rodriguez! Jim Thompson adaptations run the gamut, and the Winterbottom/Casey Affleck version, The Killer Inside Me, fits uncomfortably into the mix. Its two graphic beatings may be the strongest whiffs of realistic, stomach-knotting violence on multiplex screens this year, definitely not for everyone.

More Dark Side notes: One of the year’s finest documentaries — in company with Inside Job, Client 9, Restrepo, Sweetgrass, Winnebago Man, and the wonderful The Tillman StoryMarwencol takes us into the private world of a man who has retreated from life, and his fantasy creation, a WWII Belgian village, is pretty damned seductive. Actor Vincent Cassel had a gratifying year with Black Swan and the Mesrine two-parter, but he looked like he was having a bit more fun as Mesrine, the legendary bank robber and jail breaker. Think William “Old Bull Hubbard” Burroughs was weird? Yony Leyser’s doc biography of the writer takes us down into the sub-basement of that proposition.

List-o-mania continues. “Worst of” tabulations are always difficult. Failures of ambition vs. clueless blundering, etc. Who really wants to add up all the wasted hours? But here are seven deadly sins against moviegoers that must not go unpunished:

Repo Men

Valentine’s Day


Robin Hood

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Perrier’s Bounty

The Tourist

We could go on for days naming rotten movies, but what’s the point? Get out of the house and into the “shared entertainment experience.” True Grit, at least, is still in the theaters. Or stay at home and watch William S. Burroughs’ The Junky’s Christmas. For a good time, visit:


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