The 25 Best Movies of 2010

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Our 25 Best Movies of 2010 range from a Facebook biopic to a Western remake, from an animated story about toys to a war movie that hardly ever leaves the interior of a tank. There’s a Venezuelan story filmed in Austria, an Israeli film called Lebanon, an American remake of a Swedish movie, and films from Belgium, Australia, Argentina, Great Britain and Italy. Some are popcorn flicks, and others will change the way you think. But all are worth the $10 ticket, the $2 rental or the two hours you’ll spend enjoying them. Here are the 25 best films of 2010:

25. Lebanon
Director: Samuel Maoz
Though nominally concerned with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a more fitting title for this film would be Tank. The plot is simple, recounting the first 24 hours of the conflict 
entirely from inside a tank, where four soldiers (and a few other intermittent visitors) struggle through their first taste of war. Drawn directly from writer/director Samuel Maoz’s personal experiences in the Israeli army, the film is jarring and stressful, offering a unique anti-war message told almost entirely in first-person. Lebanon stumbles when it unloads some extremely pat metaphors and generalizations, a heavy-handedness likely owing to the first-time director’s inexperience. Still, even those clumsy moments have more than a hint of truth to them, and the film is too visceral for them to really blemish the rest of the chilling look at the nature of war.—Sean Gandert

24. Somewhere
Director: Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola has made ennui the focus of her first four films, including her latest, Somewhere. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is an actor whose sole purpose is sleeping with whichever beautiful woman he meets, eating good food and enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle that gives him no pleasure until he’s suddenly left with his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). Coppola’s film rises above similar efforts by offering its protagonist redemption. Elle Fanning’s performance perfectly captures the joy of life and offers Marco an alternative path which, ultimately, he takes. Coppola really believed in the content here, and while she needs to tone down her metaphors and return to more realistic characters, her actors believed in her vision just as much as she did and are able to carry it through.—Sean Gandert Read full review.

23. The Secret In Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)
Director: Juan José Campanella
For its first hour, The Secret in Their Eyes is a conventional crime thriller focusing on the investigation of a rape/murder case that goes awry in exactly the ways audiences have learned to expect: with a frame-up, red tape and bad luck preventing the suspect’s arrest. And then writer-director Juan José Campanella takes the gloves off and delivers one of the most virtuosic chase sequences ever filmed, followed by a steady trickle of new mysteries. New light is shed on previous events with the criminal’s arrest and subsequent release, effectively starting the film anew while questioning both Argentinean politics and the boundaries of ethical justice. Campanella’s classical style is assisted by a nuanced performance from his longtime collaborator Ricardo Darín, who brings gravity to the investigation and the somewhat-less-interesting love stories that surround it. Though slow at times, The Secret in Their Eyes recaptures the greatness of its genre, and does so without mimicking or replicating its predecessors.—Sean Gandert Read full review.

22. I Am Love
Director: Luca Guadagnino
The Recchi family, the powerful Italian clan at the core of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, is exclusive. Its wealth is nearly immeasurable, if not incomprehensible, and even marrying into it doesn’t warrant an invitation to its inner circle. Although Emma (Tilda Swinton) gave up her life in Russia—with the exception of her Russian accent, which she just can’t keep from tainting her Italian—in order to become a Recchi, she orbits the rest of the family in the Recchi villa, where the sense of propriety is nearly as tangible and cloying as its thick tapestries. I Am Love is a beautiful film, and a lesson in storytelling. It unfolds at a leisurely but lovely pace, taking time to revel in the details of the setting but never shifting focus from its many rich, complex characters. Swinton becomes Emma, her every pore and follicle embodying passion, guilt and grief with equal conviction. Even in its most tense moments, I Am Love is like the many dishes Antonio shows off in the film—painstakingly created and never overdone.—Ani Vrabel Read full review.

21. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Director: Banksy
When renowned graffiti artist Banksy took the camera away from the man shooting his biopic and decided that the subject would become the documentarian (and the documentarian, the subject), the zaniest doc in years was born. Was it Banksy’s own attention and the pressure of the film that motivated Mr. Brainwash to become an international sensation in his own right, with his inaugural show in Los Angeles becoming the largest and most profitable in street-art history? Or was the artist born, not made? Or is his whole career just part of the whole huckster atmosphere of the film? Banksy’s not saying. But it’s certainly a wild ride to watch.—Michael Dunaway Read The 20 Best Documentaries list.

20. How To Train Your Dragon
Directors: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
First, my five-year-old son’s review of this movie: “I’d like to see this movie one million times. [Pause, deep in thought.] And I think if I saw it one million times, I’d want to see it one million more times.” My feelings were somewhat more restrained, but I get his enthusiasm. It’s a movie about flying a dragon. That’s the only thing that trumps pet robots and dinosaurs. And even if that’s the film’s real raison d’être—much of the screentime is given to aerial training, aerial romance, aerial battles—the result is fun and thrilling, and plenty of snappy jokes and sight gags will keep audiences of all ages entertained. On the first viewing, anyway; I make no promises for the next 999,999.—Josh Jackson Read full review.

19. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia
Director: Julien Nitzberg
You can have Gene Simmons, the Palins and the Kardashians. I’ll take the Whites of Boone County, West Virginia for pure reality entertainment. Produced by the “Jackass” MTV folks, the film takes a close look at these modern day hillbillies with a bent for crime. They make the Gotti mob look like the Osmonds. Openly using and selling drugs, milking the government entitlement system and, maybe worst of all, giving their kids names like Cheyan and Tylor. In one scene Derek White demonstrates the “Boone County mating call” by shaking a bottle of illegal drugs and shouting, “Come and get it, baby.” Hank Williams III contributes some tunes to the movie with “Punch Fight Fuck!” being the most appropriate theme song.—Tim Basham Read The 20 Best Documentaries list.

18. Blue Valentine
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Most films about disintegrating marriages are grim, gray affairs, and filmmakers often use the device as an excuse to punish their audiences. But Blue Valentine is different—the story is told with such overwhelming tenderness and humanity that although the slow unraveling of Dean’s (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy’s (Michelle Williams) love is still heartbreaking, it feels like the director’s heart is breaking along with yours. That’s rare. It doesn’t hurt that Gosling is in top form, or that Williams gives the finest performance of her career. The script was promising enough to win the Chrysler Film Project even before those performances were turned in, and indie favorites Grizzly Bear contributed a haunting soundtrack. There was really nothing in director Derek Cianfrance’s resume to suggest he had such a nuanced, sensitive film in him, but I’ll certainly be watching his career with interest from here on out. In the meantime, Blue Valentine was one of the very best highlights of Sundance 2010.—Michael Dunaway

17. Vincere
Director: Marco Bellocchio
In its first act, Vincere is as an over-edited biopic about the rise of fire-bellowing orator Benito Mussolini. As the future dictator moves from broke rabblerouser to fascistic rhetorician, he marries Ida Dalser, who gives birth to their son. But as Mussolini’s ascent quickens, director Marco Bellocchio inverts all expectations and the film instead follows the downward trajectory of the scorned Dalser. A little-known footnote of history, she was discredited and locked in an insane asylum by Italy’s fascist forces, her son mocked and left to die in an institution. Bellocchio began investigating the dysfunctional Italian family with his audacious 1965 debut Fists in the Pocket, but here he goes further, implicating cinema itself. In Vincere, we behold the medium shifting from entertainment to propaganda tool, the character of Mussolini replaced by a demigod image projected on the screen for the enraptured audience.—Andy Beta Read full review.

16. Animal Kingdom
Director: David Michôd
David Michôd’s first narrative feature film Animal Kingdom is a menacing, slow-build crime drama set on the mean streets of Melbourne, Australia. It’s powered by one of the best performances of the year from Picnic at Hanging Rock’s Jacki Weaver and riveting turns from Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and a very strong ensemble. Based on a true story, it follows the path of J, a Melbourne teen who goes to live with his grandmother and uncles once his mother overdoses. Despite his reservations, he finds himself drawn into the family crime business, with devastating consequences.—Michael Dunaway Read an interview iwth director David Michod.

15. Shutter Island
Director: Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s pulp thriller is a brainy and compelling take on that most hoary of film genres: psychological horror. Equal parts parable and cautionary tale, Shutter Island is an expertly-paced thriller that feels far shorter and more exhilarating than its lengthy runtime suggests. Federal marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio dressed to the nines as a scenery-devouring g-man) is sent to the eponymous isle—a maximum security mental-ward-cum-penitentiary off the New England coast called Ashecliffe—to investigate a criminally insane prisoner’s disappearance. It’s quickly apparent that there’s something amiss about this case, and a palpable sense of foreboding bleeds through Scorsese’s gorgeous and ominous establishing shots: brick buildings loom against murky skies, the prisoners’ screams echo through the facility’s crumbling corridors, and Daniels, a WWII veteran, is haunted by vivid and surreal flashbacks to his dead wife and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Scorsese’s knack for getting his audiences emotionally invested in the ride fosters a near-voyeuristic thrill at seeing DiCaprio (ravenous for what might well be an Oscar nod) break down, so the fragments of his psyche can be sorted out along with the plot. Which is why Scorsese hasn’t just crafted an admirable thriller—he’s damn near made the genre his own.—Michael Saba Read full review.

14. Nowhere Boy
Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
John Lennon taught the world that all you need is love. What the world may not realize is that he spent his entire childhood vying for it. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut feature film tells the story of a staggeringly bitter young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) struggling to make sense of the relationship with his happy-go-lucky mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and his tight-lipped caretaker Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), and ultimately with himself. It plays out like a therapy session, with the audience witnessing such an intimacy between characters that watching these moments feel almost voyeuristic. An exhaustingly visceral look at a fascinating artist, Nowhere Boy is a portrait of the struggles of a boy from Liverpool who became the man whose music conquered the world.—Maggie Coughlan Read full review.

13. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney was a presence in 2010 with four major documentary features. Client 9 was his tightest, his most personal and his best. Gibney has great sympathy for Spitzer and great anger at the powers that brought him down, but his impatience at the weakness Spitzer exhibited in making that fall possible is evident. As with most of Gibney’s films, expect a sharp intellect, crisp photography, brilliant use of music and a strong viewpoint.—Michael Dunaway Read The 20 Best Documentaries list.

12. Marwencol
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Some of the best documentaries are the ones that confuse and confound you before
completely winning you over. Marwencol does that, sneaking up on you with a
simple story of a damaged man whose unique form of self-treatment is making him
whole again. That part of Mark Hogencamp’s life would suffice as a pleasing story,
even if we never looked closer. But director Jeff Malmberg does bring us closer, and
the result is a story rich in awakenings, Barbie dolls and shoes.—Tim Basham Read The 20 Best Documentaries list.

11. Rabbit Hole
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Who would’ve thought that the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shorbus would bring to the screen one of the most traditionally dramatic films of 2010? Filmed so as to distract as little as possible from the performances on-screen, Rabbit Hole has the intensity of a John Cassavetes film but with much more controlled writing. Tackling the incredibly difficult subject of coping with the death of a child, Rabbit Hole brings its characters through some of the darkest moments of life, offering questions about mortality and faith without pretending there are easy answers. By the end of the film, neither parent has really come to terms with the tragedy of their son’s death (nor, as it’s shown, will they ever), but they have found a sense of peace with a world where such an event can take place.—Sean Gandert Read full review.