Exit Through the Gift Shop - The most exciting cinema mystery of the year was guessing which parts of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" were real and which were staged. The identity and intentions of its director, the street artist Banksy, remain a mystery, and so far the real circumstances of the film's creation have too. But that doesn't stop it from being a wonderful primer on the street art movement, a cautionary tale about fame, a satire on doing business in the art world, and a portrait of an aspiring filmmaker who turns out to have only a limited understanding of his subject.
The Illusionist - A labor of love by the French animation director Sylvain Chomet, who turned an unproduced script by the great French comic Jacques Tati into a traditionally animated film. Mostly silent, very subdued, and deeply nostalgic in tone, "The Illusionist" follows the declining career of a master showman in his twilight years, who must bring his act to a close and cede the stage to a new era. Full of small delights and subtle sorrows, that one suspects are more Chomet than Tati, it was nonetheless the best animated film in a very good year for animated films.
The Social Network - They're making a film about Facebook?! A laughable notion just a little over a year ago, but when the filmmakers include director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, and the cast full of burgeoning young talents like Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer, it's no laughing matter. Less a film about the internet than the internet age, and the morality of the generation that spawned it, "The Social Network" may go down as the defining film of an era. Or at least it'll share the title with "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."
Another Year - Mike Leigh's latest small-scale masterpiece looks at the interactions of an aging British couple with various friends and relations over the course of an eventful year. Why are some of them so happy and some of them so unhappy? Is it luck? A result of their personal choices? Or is it all just a state of mind? For a film where most of the cast is older, and so much misery is dealt out to the characters, "Another Year" is remarkably blunt and unsentimental. For a film that appears so pleasant and amiable at first glance, it has some startling, and perhaps uncomfortable depths.
Dogtooth - Extreme cinema tends to put me off, but Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is interested in far more than sickening his audience. He first creates the proper context, by introducing one of the most twisted families ever caught on film, a microcosm of humanity suffering under oppression. It's hard not to think of the behavior of real world tyrants and governments when witnessing the cruel, often arbitrary schemes of the insane parents being inflicted upon their deeply repressed and ignorant offspring. The violence and sexuality in the film are indeed shocking, but also entirely appropriate.
Incendies - There have been so many films about war and carnage in the Middle East, they can start to blur together. "Incendies," however, is unforgettable. It dispenses with the usual political rhetoric and cuts through cultural complexities to chronicle the tragedy of a single woman's life, that continues to unfold even after her death. The film is a string of small heartbreaks, building up slowly to an emotional climax. Even if the final revelations may not come as much of a surprise, the performances and the skill of the storytelling will still hit you where it hurts.
Inception - We have so few real cultural touchstones anymore, that when a genuine one emerges, it tends to be an event. In the late summer of 2010, "Inception" caught fire and it was everywhere. One of the few bright spots in a season of disappointments, it gave those of us who were sick of watered-down blockbusters a potent reminder of what the right director can do with the full array of special effects available to modern directors. This is Christopher Nolan's best film since "Memento," and contains some of the most memorable images and mind-bending ideas of his entire career.
Blue Valentine - A bleak subversion of the notion of happily-ever-after romance. There's no denying that Dean and Cindy, played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, truly fall in love. But whether that love is able to sustain them through the difficulties of marriage, parenthood, and broken dreams is another matter entirely. The film may be best remembered for the MPAA controversy it sparked, and that's a shame. The performances are rich, the filmmaking is deft, and the stark honesty with which director Derek Cianfrance approaches the difficult material is far too rare.
127 Hours - This is my pick this year for the most enjoyable film experience, totally irrespective of the traditional measures of quality. Director Danny Boyle, fresh off his "Slumdog Millionaire" win, turned his attention to the true story of hiker Aron Ralston, who survived 127 hours pinned under a rock in a canyon in the Utah desert. The wildly kinetic style, fast-paced camera work, and fantasy sequences aren't there just to spice up a spatially limited scenario, but to reflect the inner world of Ralston, whose daredevil personality and can-do spirit may have been what saved him.
Poetry - Last year the thriller "Mother" was on my Top Ten list. This year, I'm including another Korean film with very similar themes and a very different approach to them. Lee Chang-Dong's "Poetry" is less about the moral quandry that its elderly heroine faces, than her struggle to gain the self-respect and self-awareness to assert herself when it comes time to make her decision. More contemplative and far less exciting than most of the recent Korean crime films, "Poetry" nonetheless evokes powerful emotions and features a heart-rending performance by its leading lady, Yoon Jeong-Hee.
And finally, I'm instituting something new. I'm adding a Plus One spot, for the best film of the previous year that I didn't get a chance to see before compiling my previous Top Ten list. Instead of bemoaning the fact that some obscure titles, particularly the foreign ones, tend to escape my notice until it's too late, I'm just going to make a little more space for them. So the best 2009 film that would have been on my last Top Ten list if I'd seen it in time is...
The Maid - A Chilean film about a maid, Raquel, who has devoted herself to an upper-class family for so long, she has become overly protective of them and a source of brewing conflicts. When her position is threatened, she goes to extremes to protect her place in the household, which leads to some unexpected revelations. Directed by Sebastián Silva and featuring a great performance by Catalina Saavedra, "The Maid" is refreshingly unpredictable and contains some of the best surprises that a film has managed to spring on me in a long time.
Never Let Me Go
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
I Am Love
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The Milk of Sorrow