Let us not pretend that this is a democracy.
There are any number of theories on what makes a proper “top ten” list and which films should and should not be eligible for inclusion. Despite this, I don’t really care.
This is not going to be a normal “top ten” list.
On it, you’ll find films that were released in their home countries in 2009 before opening in the U.S. in 2010, and you’ll find films that played in movie houses around the world without every properly opening in the US.
Films with a hyperlink were reviewed right here by yours truly, and the heading will click through to the original piece if you want to delve deeper.
As of this point, I’ve seen just about all of the films that I felt were necessary to make up this list, with the exception of Biutiful. Naturally, I reserve the right to make changes.
Incipit . . .
--Normally, gleefully trashy B-pictures aren’t my thing, but the fact remains that Machete was the single most fun experience I had at the movies all year. If you’re into folks swinging from intestines and grizzled heroes killing tons of people with really big knives after getting with just about every attractive actress in Hollywood, this one’s for you. ‘Cause we all need one of those sometimes.
9. 127 Hours
--One man. A rock. Trapped for days. The elements should add up to a marginally interesting story of survival. By contrast, 127 Hours is gritty and surprisingly theatrical in scope. Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy deserve a lot of credit for making what should be a small story into something much bigger, even somewhat fascinating. There’s more at stake than what happens when a man gets stuck in a canyon. It’s about why that man found himself alone in the canyon in the first place. James Franco’s never been better.
8. The Kids Are All Right
--When the film begins, it’s almost a study in how to make an audience feel awkward. It’s to director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko’s credit that the film evolves into a wonderfully compelling look at a modern family with same-sex parents. Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, in particular, are wonderful. The writing is deft, the performances are strong, and the emotion is true. The Kids Are All Right is groundbreaking, authentic, and resonant.
7. Another Year
--Another Year (and, by extension, Mike Leigh) refuses to give me exactly what I want as a moviegoer, and I love it for that. Nice little bows and neatly wrapped endings to clearly defined story arcs just won’t do here. I cannot think of another film that surpasses this one as a convincing slice of life. The performances are so, so strong, and Lesley Manville is utterly brilliant.
6. Black Swan
--Over the first hour, Black Swan is very quietly creepy in establishing one idea of reality, and then relentless in bashing that reality to bits in the second. Natalie Portman is the best I’ve ever seen her, and the last 10 minutes are breathtaking.
5. Blue Valentine
--In recent memory, there have been a handful of films that have attempted, in different ways, to capture the heartbeat of modern relationships. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a dazzling work of abstract expressionism, Blue Valentine is the heartbreaking portrait in still life. Gosling and Williams are dazzling, and the script seems less a work of fiction than a recording of how people live, breathe, and love.
4. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
--Over and over, I was told that I needed to see this film because it was really, really good. I was (needlessly) concerned that the hype monster was going to strike again. It’s everything I heard it was, and much more. Lisbeth Salander is one of the best characters to hit the screen in years.The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is unflinching, ruthless, spellbinding, romantic, shocking, and beautifully human. No matter what kind of movie you like, chances are good that this is going to satisfy you.
- I thought a lot about what should top this list. Many of the films here lingered on in my imagination long after they’d finished. While this is usually a sign that there’s more at work than meets the eye, it does not necessarily mean that a film’s better or worse than initially thought. I toyed with the idea of not even ranking the films numerically so as to not have to make a tough decision. However, I decided to go for it.
- The final three films represent such a leap in quality that they deserve a separation from the rest of the pack. Any of them could have easily each found itself in the top slot. My decision between #2 and #3 came down to my impression of which film had the more lasting impact emotionally. My pick for the top spot ultimately came out of my decision as to which film I would change the least, if given the chance.
3. True Grit
--If there are better filmmakers than Joel and Ethan Coen working today, I’d like to meet them. True Grit tackles a familiar story with a grace, vitality, and humor the original film never had. Films like this are like feasts in a time of famine. There’s such a sure, confident hand at work in the writing that I doubt that anyone else could take such an established set of genre conventions and make them feel this fresh. I think True Grit is one of the better films the Coens have ever made. Jeff Bridges is simply outstanding in one of his finest performances. He was born to play Rooster Cogburn. Yet again, this is how you make a proper film.
2. Toy Story 3
--Threequels, by definition, have the odds steeply stacked against them. Anything worth developing left over from the original film is usually finished off in the second, and a third or fourth installment is generally a miscalculated misstep to try to expand the mythos. It’s astounding that Toy Story 3 is as effective as it is, and I am dumbfounded by the depth of the emotional experience I had with it. This is one of the best films Pixar has ever made and it just might be the finest film in the trilogy. The conclusion nears perfection.
1. Certified Copy
-- Here is a film that could have been made 50 years ago, and would probably have more easily fit in the cinematic landscape of that period. Kiaorostami’s film reminds me of Antonioni’s La Notte and the poignancy 60’s-era Godard brought to his better work. On paper, the story of a relationship between two people that becomes murkier as it progresses doesn’t seem like compelling dramatic material. It’s remarkable just how wrong that assumption is. Certified Copy is verbose without becoming dull, slippery without becoming frustrating, and enlightening without failing to entertain. Juliette Binoche’s radiant performance is one of, if not THE, best in a stellar career. The warmth she brings to the film is a rare thing. I would be lying if I said that I have all of the ins and outs of the narrative worked out. However, while the film may not be easily explained, it makes sense emotionally, and that is what makes all the difference. A beautiful meditation on art, love, and life.