Was 2010 “The Worst Movie Year Ever,” as Joe Queenan argued at WSJ.com a while back? Or at least, bracketing art house and world cinema fare, was it Hollywood’s worst year ever? For most of the year, it sure looked plausible. What was there all spring, other than Iron Man 2? What highlights did summer bring, other than Inception and Toy Story 3?
Every year has its share of A-list duds. But in what other movie year was the collective star power of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and Sylvester Stallone and practically every living action icon used to so little effect as in Knight and Day, The Tourist, Robin Hood, Eat Pray Love, Green Zone and The Expendables, respectively?
That’s not counting Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman (The Switch), Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher (Killers), Liam Neeson (The A-Team) or Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman), because, well, you have to draw the line somewhere. Meanwhile, who exactly decided that the next generation of action stars included Adrien Brody (Predators), Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and Sam Worthington (Clash of the Titans)? Okay, apparently, the answer to the last question is James Cameron. Duly noted.
Dumb, crude comedies are a Hollywood staple, alas — but have we ever been subjected in a single year to the likes of Grown Ups, The Other Guys, Dinner for Schmucks, Get Him to the Greek and Hot Tub Time Machine, etc.? Has there ever been anything like a convergence of two artificial conception comedies (The Switch and The Back-up Plan), a lesbian marriage/parenting dramedy (The Kids Are Alright) and a Sex in the City sequel?
At least family audiences didn’t do too badly. In addition to Toy Story 3, animated offerings included How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, Tangled and Megamind; there were also a few decent, if unspectacular, live-action family films: Ramona and Beezus, Flipped, Nanny McPhee Returns and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Of course, the year did bring Marmaduke, Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Yogi Bear.
And I haven’t even gotten to Alice in Wonderland, The Last Airbender, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Tron: Legacy, Jonah Hex, Gulliver’s Travels ...
The Year’s Best
Of course, there were good films in 2010, though you had to go a bit further to find them. In particular, it was a great year for documentaries; at one point, I noticed that nonfiction movies made up fully half of my unofficial top 20. I’ve diversified since then, but there are still plenty of good documentaries out there. Here, in alphabetical order, are 10 films that made the biggest impression on me in 2010.
10 Films That Stood Out
Babies: Thomas Balmès’ joyous portrait of the first year of life for four babies in California, Tokyo, Namibia and Mongolia is a life-affirming celebration of new life, of love, of family, of the wonder of the world. Maternal and ethnographic nudity. Fine family viewing.
Get Low: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek bring grace and humanity to Aaron Schneider’s fact-based Depression-era tall tale of an eccentric Tennessee backwoodsman who throws himself a “living funeral.” Brief violence; references to an adulterous relationship; at least one instance of profanity; other mature themes. Teens and up.
Inception: Part mind-bending caper flick, part eye-candy sci-fi action movie, part existential philosophical puzzle, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious exercise in shared dreaming is as good as popcorn movies get. Much action violence; profanity and crude language; flashbacks of a suicide; sci-fi violation of human dignity. Mature viewing.
Lourdes: Jessica Hausner’s troubling, documentary-like film about a group of pilgrims in Lourdes contemplates ambiguities around faith, hope, disappointment and uncertain miracles; it’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s an honest one. Ambiguous treatment of religious themes. Subtitles. Mature viewing.
The King’s Speech: Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush shine in Tom Hooper’s winning period piece about England’s Prince Albert, later George VI, and the speech therapist who helps him with a stutter. Divorce and remarriage, public duty and private happiness, family dysfunction and the looming shadow of WWII add thematic heft. Therapeutic use of obscene and crude language; brief profanity; references to divorce, remarriage and nonmarital relationships. Mature viewing.
The Social Network: Aaron Sorkin’s daredevil dialogue highlights David Fincher’s ode to our cultural moment by way of the founding of Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg with a chip in his brain as well as on his shoulder. Sexual content and women in states of undress (no nudity); drug and alcohol abuse; profanity and crude language. Mature viewing.
Toy Story 3: Lee Unkrich winds up Pixar’s signature series in grand style. Woody takes a victory lap; old friends stare into infinity and beyond with clasped hands; and the baton is passed. Some scary scenes and menace; occasional bathroom humor and mild innuendo. Kids and up.
True Grit: Unfashionably eloquent, sporadically violent, matter-of-factly religious, the Coens’ thrilling old-school Western is one of their best films, with an outstanding performance by 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as one of the most memorable heroines in years and Roger Deakins’ impeccable cinematography. Recurring violence; a few gruesome images; occasional profanity and crass language. Could be okay for teens.
Waste Land: Belying its deceptively bleak title, Lucy Walker’s documentary about Brazilian garbage pickers and their remarkable collaboration with Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is among the most uplifting and humane films I’ve seen in years. An extraordinary testament to human dignity, the dignity of work and the transformational power of art. References to drug traffic and violence, prostitution and such; some profane and crude language. Could be okay for teens.
Winter’s Bone: Set in a chilly Missouri Ozarks world of meth cookers, poverty and violence, Debra Granik’s quietly riveting film stars a flawless Jennifer Lawrence as an unforgettable heroine who is both in and of a world unworthy of her. Hard to watch but harder to forget. Pervasive menace and a sequence of horrifying violence (mostly offscreen); a gruesome sequence involving human remains; pervasive drug culture references and depictions of drug use; profane and obscene language. Mature viewing.
10 More Worth Noting
Unlike 2009, this year my runner-up list isn’t rife with films that could just as easily have gone in the top list. That’s partly because the strongest films of the year are so outstanding — but also clearly because 2010 was a weaker movie year (certainly for me). Even so, I’m excited about each of the films below and warmly recommend them all.
127 Hours: Danny Boyle’s electrifying fact-based survival story stars James Franco as a Utah mountain climber caught between a rock and a hard place. Mature viewing.
Alamar (To the Sea): Pedro González-Rubio’s lovely, poignant semi-documentary portrait of a few weeks in the life of an indigenous Central American father and the young son who lives in Rome with his Italian mother. Could be okay for older kids.
The Fighter: Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale star in David O. Russell’s fact-based not-just-a-boxing movie. Mature viewing.
The Ghost Writer: Roman Polanski’s effective thriller about a ghost writer working on the memoirs of a former prime minister. Mature viewing.
The Oath: A companion piece to Restrepo, Laura Poitras’ eye-opening documentary chronicles life after bin Laden for two Yemeni brothers-in-law, one on trial, the other after prison. Mature viewing.
Oceans: Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s marine documentary has some startling and unprecedented images as well as a lot of familiar friends. Kids and up.
Restrepo: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s apolitical documentary records a year among American troops in Afghanistan’s most dangerous region. Mature viewing.
The Secret of Kells: Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s bewitchingly gorgeous animated fairy tale about Irish monks, a woodland fairy and the Book of Kells. Could be okay for kids.
Tangled: Disney’s revisionist take on the Rapunzel tale is lovely, charming, funny and more than a little psychologically intriguing. Kids and up.
Waiting for ‘Superman’: David Guggenheim’s activist documentary on the state of public education is a challenge to teachers’ unions and a call for everyone to take responsibility. Kids and up.
Also Worth Mentioning:
Kids & Up: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, Nanny McPhee Returns, Ramona and Beezus, Secretariat, Shrek Forever After, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Teens & Up: Flipped, Iron Man 2, The Karate Kid, Percy Jackson & The Olympians, Salt, Unstoppable.
Adults: Rabbit Hole, Solitary Man, Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, Last Train Home.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.