I enjoy reading Top Ten Lists, but I give special kudos to the pieces by reviewers who take that extra step and talk about why certain titles placed where they did and why some prominent contenders fell by the wayside. In this post, like last year, I'm going to give some brief thoughts on some of the award season favorites, and how they measured up, or didn't. Plus, I'm sticking in a few more recommendations for odd or overlooked films that didn't fit anywhere else.
I thought "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech" were really about on par, but I knew "The King's Speech" was going home with the Oscar for reasons that had nothing to do with how good the film was. However, when they both ended up vying for the final spot on my list, and after going back and forth about my final choice for months, I had to seriously hash out which I thought was better and why. As much as I enjoyed Colin Firth's and Geoffrey Rush's performances as King George and Lionel Logue, in the end they weren't enough to match the brainy joys of Aaron Sorkin's audacious script for "The Social Network," which was easily the best of the year. That, plus "The Social Network's" consistent quality in every other category you could name, put it ahead in the end.
The rest of this year's Oscar nominees were better than last year, but still a mixed bag. I didn't like "The Fighter," and felt that David O'Russell really lucked out with the performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. While "Toy Story 3" was a lot of fun and exceeded my expectations, I didn't think it was awards-worthy. It got too maudlin and self-important for that, and "Toy Story 2" remains my favorite of the trilogy. Probably the most disappointing nominee was "True Grit," which I didn't find nearly as charming or iconic as the original with John Wayne. I wonder if I would have felt differently if I'd watched the Coen brothers' version first. Similarly, "The Kids are All Right" had a few moments that were interesting, but just played out like a typical indie comedy about a dysfunctional family. The subject matter may have pushed buttons for some, but once you got past the idea that there were two moms and one was cheating, it was very familiar territory.
Harder to dismiss was "Black Swan," which was a fantastic, intense story of ballet and madness from Darren Aronofsky. And yet, I thought "Black Swan" fell short of "Requiem for a Dream" and "The Fountain," two aggressively ambitious films from the same director. I got the sense that Aronofsky wasn't at the top if his game with "Black Swan," and though it may not be fair, that counted against him. "Winter's Bone" was also a wonderful find, and I'm glad it got so much recognition, but there were a few moments that rang false - too many to overlook. Among oft mentioned also-rans, "Fair Game" was too narrow in scope to say anything particularly interesting, "Somewhere" didn't feel properly developed, and "The Ghost Writer" did nothing for me. "Shutter Island" was a lot better than I think most people realized, but again not quite good enough to be awards worthy. I'd have given "The Fighter's" spot to "Rabbit Hole," which was far from perfect, but had several strong, overlooked performances.
Among the foreign notables, "Animal Kingdom" was on the list for a while, but with so many more daring films this year, it got edged out. Same with "Carlos," which features an excellent performance by Edgar Ramirez, and "I Am Love" with Tilda Swinton. "In a Better World" won the Oscar, but got too contrived for me. I was anticipating the British terrorism satire "Four Lions," but the characters were portrayed as much too incompetent to impart any real thrills, and the whole thing just came off as very, very silly. Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful" had the opposite problem, which was wallowing in its own misery to a deplorable degree. The French film "Of Gods and Men" went over my head, while I still have some very conflicted feelings about "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." One nice surprise was "The Milk of Sorrow," a Peruvian film that nabbed an Oscar nomination but not much critical attention.
Documentaries had a very good year, but the war chronicles, like "Restrepo" and "The Tillman Story," and Wall Street exposes, like "Inside Job" and "Client 9," didn't interest me as much as the ones tackling more obscure subjects, like "Marwencol," "A Film Unfinished," "Waking Sleeping Beauty," and perhaps "Catfish," if it turns out that it really was a documentary. I also thought the animated films of 2010 had some real gems, like "How to Train Your Dragon," "Tangled," "My Dog Tulip," "The Borrower Arrietty," and parts of "Despicable Me."
Finally, a few personal favorites that I briefly considered were Vincezo Natali's "Splice," which audiences abhorred but I got a lot of good squirms out of, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," for sheer chutzpah, "The American," for doing a lot with a little, and "Easy A," for introducing us to the joys of Emma Stone. "Never Let Me Go" and "White Material" were on the list almost until the end, and were among the hardest to cut. I still like them both an awful lot.