I’ll go out on a limb and declare 2010 the best year for movies since I’ve been watching them, going back almost fifteen years. That has something to do with Netflix, through which I’ve accessed more foreign, independent, and documentary titles than ever before, but it’s more a credit to the work of great filmmakers.

2009 was the nadir. That year had no shortage of good films, and a few great ones, and I unreservedly stand by each I listed among the best, but there were few I felt unequivocally passionate about, few that held up against previous years’ offerings. I started to question myself, wondering if I’d lost some of the thrill of moviegoing. 2010 put that fear to rest.

Directed by Roman Polanski – Ewan McGregor stars as an unnamed ghost writer for a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who is composing his memoir. It’s a straightforward political thriller without any high-concept bells and whistles; Polanski, who directs with masterly confidence and edge-of-your-seat suspense, doesn’t need them.

Directed by Debra Granik – Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), like an Ozarks Red Riding Hood, ventures into the woods to find her missing father and discovers big bad wolves all around. Granik, in her script and direction, evokes Ree’s isolated backwoods community with a kind of mythic naturalism, revealing a dangerous underworld just beneath the everyday poverty of the rural Midwest.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance – Cutting back and forth between the beginning of a romance and its bitter end, Cianfrance’s film is an unflinching study of how and why love sometimes fails. It doesn’t arrive at a clear answer, but maybe that’s the answer; Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) don’t seem to understand what went wrong, but as they break each other’s hearts ours break for them.

Directed by Nicole Holofcener – Holfcener’s fourth feature, about a New Yorker (Catherine Keener) guilt-ridden over her own prosperity, is another perfectly observed slice of life from a filmmaker who may be American cinema’s best writer of women. She’s the antidote to a Katherine Heigl movie.

Directed by David Michôd – This pitch-black Australian crime drama hinges on the subtle performance of James Frecheville as a teenage boy who is considered weak by both the cops and robbers but quickly learns how to adapt to murky moral waters. In showing, with gradually building tension, how the practicality of survival trumps the rule of law, it’s reminiscent of A Prophet, but I like this one better.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky – Aronofsky somehow marries the stylistic sensibilities of his Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, finding just the right balance between the grueling physicality of ballerina Nina Sayers (the exquisite Natalie Portman) and the fractured obsessiveness of her psyche, producing a virtuosic fever-dream of a movie that suggests the path to perfect art is perfect destruction.

Directed by Christopher NolanInception is a head-rushing, free-fall tumble into the mysteries of the subconscious. Does it all add up? I think so, but the real pleasure is getting lost in its freewheeling visual style and multi-layered story. In ten years, I’ve placed Nolan on my top ten list four times (previously: The Dark Knight, The Prestige, and Memento), more than any filmmaker save Steven Spielberg. He’s in good company.

Directed by Samuel Maoz – A deeply personal film, inspired by Maoz’s own service in the Israeli army, Lebanon places us in the confines of a single tank as the soldiers inside contend with circumstances they don’t understand. They observe the battlefield only through the scope of the tank’s gun, alienated from but intimately connected to the violence around them. It’s a visually and emotionally captivating account of war, full of guilt, terror, empathy, and regret.

If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise
Inside Job
Last Train Home
Waiting for Superman

Directed by Spike Lee, Charles Ferguson, Lixin Fan, and Davis Guggenheim, respectively – I almost never declare ties on my lists of the year’s best, but this year’s remarkable crop of non-fiction films demanded it. These four films, the cream of quite an impressive crop of documentaries, are dissimilar in their subjects and approaches (the poetic outrage of God is Willing, the journalistic vigor of Inside Job, the stunning intimacy of Last Train, and the full-hearted compassion of Superman), but are alike in giving us a deeper understanding of the world we live in.

Directed by Lee Chang-dong – I waited three years to be able to put this on a list of the best films. I was stunned by its raw emotionality when I saw it at the New York Film Festival in 2007 and ranked it among the top twenty films of the last decade, but it didn’t receive an American theatrical release until last December, when IFC premiered it in New York and made it available On Demand. In all likelihood you haven’t had access to it yet, but when it arrives on DVD (fingers crossed for that one, since it took three years just to reach an American movie theater) it should be at the top of your list.

If there were any justice, Jeon Do-yeon would have won an Oscar for her seismic performance as Shin-ae, a young mother devastated by one tragedy and then another. She won Best Actress at the ’07 Cannes Film Festival and warrants comparison to Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. The film develops as a fearsome spiritual and psychological crisis, following Shin-ae as she wrestles with God and with her neighbors. It’s a battle that can’t be won.

The Second String

Films I would have ranked among the best in the past were squeezed out by the sheer volume of worthy choices this year, so to be named among 2010’s runners-up is an especially honorable distinction. Here are the films that narrowly missed a spot in my top ten:

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman – This documentary sparked debate over its veracity, but what matters more than that is its insight into how social networking has reshaped our culture. The filmmakers show surprising compassion when they lift the veil and find something unexpected on the other side of an internet romance.

Directed by Banksy – Another “Is it or isn’t it?” documentary, but more coy than Catfish, Gift Shop is a playful and often riotously funny chronicle of street art that subtly raises questions about what truly determines the value of an artist. Is it something intrinsic, or is it all in the eye of the beholder?

Directed by Bong Joon-ho – Kim Hye-ja’s performance is the centerpiece of Bong’s absorbing mystery from South Korea, about a devoted mother who searches for the truth after her son is railroaded for a murder. What we learn about the crime is almost as shocking as what we learn about her.

Directed by Martin Scorsese – Written off as Scorsese’s genre exercise, I think Shutter Island is in fact his best film of the last ten years, merging superb technical craft (it boasts some of the year’s best cinematography, production design, and editing) with deep, haunted themes about how 20th Century upheaval rewrote our understanding of madness, violence, and evil.

Directed by David Fincher – Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay may be my single favorite piece of writing from 2010, as verbally dexterous as his best West Wing scripts and given a chilly, sinister intensity by director Fincher. Together they explore how Facebook was the setting for the fall of old-world entitlement and the rise of a new 21st Century archetype: the anti-social upstart billionaire.