Editor’s Picks: The Ten Best Films of 2010

By  · Published on December 28th, 2010

One of my favorite non-starters for articles is the very bland “as you may know.” There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ve seen me use it in the past (I’m doing it again right now). So when I thought about how to begin this year’s top ten article, I wanted to begin by saying “as you may know, one of my great honors around here is to deliver my list of the ten best films of the year.” But you may not know how much of an honor that really is. In fact, it’s difficult for me to put into words how honored I feel to have anyone read this at all, let alone the scores of readers we see on a daily basis here at Film School Rejects. It’s safe to say that I speak for everyone here when I say that I am deeply honored by the opportunity just to write about film. You, the reader, offer that to us every day with your patronage.

So my hope is that I can do you proud, dear reader, as I present my list of the ten best films of 2010. This year saw a great deal of personal turmoil for me, meaning some movie-watching blind spots. But some late-year scrambling has pushed my total films seen number well north of 200. And of those 200 or so eligible films, whittling it down to ten wasn’t quite as difficult as it’s been in recent years. Does that mean that 2010 was a big letdown? Not really. In fact, you’ll likely find that there are plenty of good (even great) movies that didn’t make my list. I was simply blessed with seeing a handful of films that simply stuck with me all year. So when it came time to put together my big year-end list, it wasn’t all that bad. That is, until I got around to the ordering. Don’t even get me started.

Without further ado – because I know how little you enjoy ado – here is my walk through the best of 2010’s cinematic landscape…

The Honorable Mentions:

These eight films wouldn’t exactly comprise #11–18 on my list – that’s not what honorable mentions are about in my eyes. This is about spotlighting a few films that have had a lasting impression on me this year. Films that deserved your attention, and probably didn’t get it. I would not waste such space on films that you know are great, such as Toy Story 3 (which would definitely be in that #11–18 range, I’m sure). These are the films I’m happy to have seen, even if only a few others did as well…

Kick-Ass // Alright, the paragraph above was a lie of sorts, because this would be #11 on my list if it ran that long. In fact, I may look back next year when compiling my list of previous year lists and kick my own ass for not putting Matthew Vaughn’s riotous comic hero story in my top ten. The rewatchability on this film is through the roof. It’s got action, romance, a killer soundtrack and a little girl with a propensity for using bad words that rhyme with “blunt.” Blunt as in the instrument of entertainment – the hero flick known as Kick-Ass.

Best Worst Movie // In the year of the geek (or another year of the geek), it was nice to see that it wasn’t all comic book fiction and remake-a-thons that hit with the niche. How about a charming, odd documentary about the worst movie ever made? That worked wonders in the circles of nerd-dom. Full of charming (and ridiculous) characters and a story that would be fiction if we didn’t have proof that it’s true, Best Worst Movie is a wonderful homage to the world of cult cinema and the passionate people who are its beating heart.

Animal Kingdom // So few crime dramas ever aspire to be as atmospheric and raw as Animal Kingdom. Fewer still succeed in part, let alone find success on so many levels. The startling performance of Ben Mendelsohn anchors a story that is unpredictable and relentless. The deliciously evil performance from Jackie Weaver elevates it to another level. And director David Michod’s keen eye for subtlety before explosion lock it in as one of the best crime dramas of the year, if not in recent history.

Exit Through the Gift Shop // Street artist Banksy got a lot of attention for his movie – is it a prank? Or is it a genuine anomaly of chaos and chance that propels his subject, happenstance artist extraordinaire Thierry Guetta, to overnight stardom. Prank or not, Exit is one of the most playful and outlandish journeys committed to video this year. And whether you find in it deeper meaning (it’s there) or surface-level shenanigans, you’re sure to find something either way.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale // Thanks, filmmaker Jalmari Helander of Finland. You’ve forever altered my list of must-watch Christmas-time movies with your twisted take on Santa Claus and the children that worship him so. Creepy and delightful don’t often go hand-in-hand so easily, but you make it happen with your devious, imaginative and spirited tale. We’ll never think of jolly ole’ St. Nick the same way again.

Barry Munday // Too few critics ignore the merits of quality comedy these days. In fact, in a landscape of high drama it’s easy to overlook a seemingly simple film like Barry Munday. But unlike the surface-dwelling comedies that struck gold at the box office this year, this relationship tale gets boat-loads of substance from two wonderful leads, Patrick Wilson and Judy Greer, and an honest take on what it means to finally grow up and be someone worthy of parenthood. Think Knocked Up, but even more honest.

Blue Valentine // A few films that made my top ten list may very well earn the adjective “heart-stopping,” but I can’t say that any of them can also add “soul-crushing” as well. An affecting and often torturous examination of an imploding marriage, Blue Valentine features two of the most intense performances of the year from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Two heart-stopping, soul-crushing, career-defining performances.

HIGH School // Again with the comedy. This time it’s of the stoner variety, as director John Stalberg puts Adrien Brody into his most unusual (and ridiculously fun) role of his life. He’s a psychotic drug-dealer who is bamboozled by two high school students (Matt Bush and Sean Marquette), leaving him no choice but to bring the whole system down. It’s an imaginative take on a genre that hasn’t received much imaginative care lately. And it’s full of high-concept absurdity. My hope is that you’ll get the chance to see it sometime in 2011.

The Ten Best Films of 2010:

10. Thunder Soul

It was a great year for documentaries in the mainstream. From the loud victories (the Banksy one) to the nerdy adventures (the Troll 2 one) to the epically failed ones (the Joaquin Phoenix one), there was a lot of chatter about films of the real. But none were able to so effortlessly inspire and crush the way Thunder Soul did when I took in a viewing at SXSW. The story of a high school stage band’s steadfast leader and his knack for changing the lives of kids growing up in Houston’s rough neighborhoods, it is one of the truly wonderful stories told this year, fiction or non-fiction alike. A beautiful human story, a freight-train of funk, a heartbreaker if I’ve seen one this year. 2010’s best documentary, hands down.

9. Merantau

The “rite of passage” story is one that the genre of martial arts films has all but exhausted. To become a man, one must fight for what is good and true. That’s the groundwork of Merantau, but its not where the substance lies. The substance is in the high-flying choreography of director Gareth Evans and the indelible charisma of lead Iko Uwais. It’s a bunch of premium Indonesian kick-assery with a young martial artist who has more than just a high kick on his side – he’s likeable and he doesn’t feel the need to ride around on elephants. Take that, Tony Jaa (please don’t hurt me.)

8. Micmacs

Jean-Pierre Jeunet has had, in the past, a style that is all his own. Who am I kidding? The guy has always delivered his very own brand of playfulness – even Alien Resurrection had that. So to say that Micmacs is a “return to form” would be a lie, and we don’t do that to each other, do we dear reader? Micmacs is a reminder of the Jeunet that has always been – from Delicatessen to Amelie. And even though Marc Caro wasn’t involved in this one, it’s still got the full form of Jeunet charm. Playful and sinister, all in one energetic package.

7. Inception

Christopher Nolan doesn’t make small movies. Even if he tried, it would feel bigger than it should and it would play on a scale that other filmmakers only talk about in their “it could have been so huge” DVD commentary tracks. So why then, would we expect anything but brilliance from Nolan as he took on the realm of dreams. A great cast, a booming Hans Zimmer score and some big ideas are only the first level of unconsciousness here, as Nolan weaves a grand story that left us guessing, debating and arguing for weeks on end.

6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Combine the blistering pace and fervor of Edgar Wright’s work with the unique wit of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics and what do you get? Bliss. If ever there was a film with great energy, it was the tale of Scott Pilgrim, Canadian Lothario, and his battle for the girl of his dreams. Seven evil exes, one kick-ass soundtrack and a cast (even Michael Cera) that feels grafted directly from the black-and-white pages of the comic – Scott Pilgrim wasn’t a surprise, but only because we couldn’t help but expect it to be a lot of fun. And it was. And it will be for many a rewatch and many a year to come.

5. The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Someone is bound to point out the fact that The Good, The Bad, The Weird was produced in 2007, released overseas in 2008 and has played in the states at festivals like Fantastic Fest in years since. But it wasn’t until May 2010 when IFC finally gave it a theatrical release, so I’m counting it. It must be counted, as its among the most ridiculously entertaining rides I’ve been on in my recorded critical history. It takes chances with giant action set pieces, gets help in the slow moments from dynamic performances and includes perhaps one of the great opening sequences I’ve seen in a western. It’s a western spun on its head and given a distinctive Korean flair by director Kim Jee-woon. Some of the best, most kinetic action I’ve seen in a Western. So yeah, I’m counting it for 2010.

4. The King’s Speech

Sure, you can get your standard control issues with David Fincher’s work on The Social Network, but if you’d like to see a director in complete control of his own personal style, check out Tom Hooper’s beautiful, delicate work on The King’s Speech. As a bonus, it’s also an actor’s clinic, with both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush rising to a level that would make the students of James Lipton’s Actor’s Studio soil their auditorium seats. And through these performances we are able to feel – not just witness – the struggle of one man to find his voice, and the resolute passion of the friend and therapist who will help him do so. Rare is it that we can all feel so close to a member of the Royal Family, but through Hooper’s tonal execution and Firth’s splendid performance, we feel it.

3. Four Lions

The key to good comedy is consistency. One big laugh every 20-minutes just won’t be enough for a refined audience, the humor must transcend the realm of gags and gaffs and work on a higher plane. That’s where Four Lions wins biggest as it takes something familiar – extremism and terrorism – and pulls together a consistently funny narrative that involves idiotic idealists and their plans to change the world one Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumed suicide bomber at a time. But it also manages something else, along with the uproarious tone – it delivers a poignant message. Director Chris Morris may have been aiming for the laughs, but did he expect that he’d also make a thoughtful statement about the dangers of interpretation of faith? Based on the incredibly well-executed nature of his film, I’d say he had a pretty good idea of what he was doing.

2. A Prophet

Do you remember the first time you saw The Godfather series? And the overwhelming rush of emotion that accompanied the scene when Michael Corleone had completed his transformation from reluctant son to ruthless leader of the family? It was a great payoff for a lot of hard work as a viewer. The same feeling is accomplished here, in Jacques Audiard’s intimate prison drama Un Prophete. The story of a young Arab man in a French prison and his methodical rise from whipping boy to leader is made all the more interesting by the unforgettable performance from Tahar Rahim. He gives one of the most awe-inspiring transformations of the year, perhaps only bested by the young lady in the final film on my list…

1. Black Swan

Prior to this year, you couldn’t count me among the ranks of those who worship at the altar of Aronofsky. In his previous efforts, its been as if we’ve been dancing together at different tempos. For the most part, he’s just too slow for my sensibilities – and everything about his style lacks energy. That is until Black Swan, a turbulent, sexual, terrifying ball of energy that ripped a hole in the center of my world. Part werewolf story, part Fight Club for ballet enthusiasts, Black Swan lulls its audience into a false sense of security with the sweet naivete of Natalie Portman’s Nina, then pounds away as reality and fantasy spiral out of control in a whirlwind of beautifully choreographed violence. It’s the kind of genre-bending, heart-stopping film that refuses to be ignored. In his most complete effort to-date, Aronofsky gave us not only the year’s most frightening story, he also gave us its most well-crafted cinematic experience.

Click below to read my lists from years past:

Also, be sure to follow along as we continue our week-long 2010 Year in Review.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)