The end-of-year 10-best list makes sense neither as an objective ranking system nor as a personal aesthetic manifesto. The first option is absurd on its face; the second subordinates the movies themselves to some idealized critical vision, ignoring the way good films sneak in and rearrange our neat shelves of likes and dislikes. I prefer to think of this always-daunting yearly assignment as a polyamorous love letter, sent out to trusted companions and dangerous crushes alike. Here (in touchy-feely, hierarchy-resisting alphabetical order) are some mash notes to the 2010 movies to which, at the end, for a few moments, my only response was "wow."
Another Year, Mike Leigh. Leigh, long the chronicler of England's working class, is in his lion-in-winter phase now. With no one to please but himself, he's tackled the uncommon task of making movies about that fragile station of life known as happiness. Another Year takes place over the course of four seasons, as we witness the blossoming and waning of a garden belonging to Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen). This loving older couple is surrounded by a network of younger, less contented single friends—the most difficult of whom is the scattered, melodramatic, perpetually tipsy Mary (an unforgettable Lesley Manville). Leigh's broad, compassionate vision, and the attention he pays to nature and the passage of time, recalls the late Eric Rohmer (who died early this year at 89 and whose 1981 film The Aviator's Wife made for another of my best 2010 viewing experiences).
Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance. An impressively assured second feature for the 35-year-old Cianfrance, this is a wrenching snapshot of a marriage in dissolution, impeccably acted by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. As a colleague of mine put it, this is the kind of movie about marriage Americans don't usually make: We like our marital dramas to say something big about the meaning of the institution, to affirm it humanistically or else to satirize it cruelly. Blue Valentine simply and unflinchingly shows us a particular marriage—one which, for reasons that are neither and both parties' faults, may be damaged beyond repair. Although the violence is almost entirely emotional, you walk out as devastated as if you'd seen a war picture.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy. Of the many films this year that used the documentary form as a Trojan horse to smuggle in something else entirely—an audience-baiting prank in I'm Not Here, an online relationship turned performance-art piece in Catfish—this one was the smartest and most surprising. The enigmatic British graffiti artist-turned-director Banksy uses the story of Thierry Guetta, an L.A. man who can best be described as a graffiti artists' groupie, to tell a part-true, part-staged, 100 percent jawdropping tale about media hype and credulity in the world of gallery art.
The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski. Solemn and playful, mournful and elegant, politically astute and erotically charged, Polanski's moody little gem about a ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) who gets in over his head when he agrees to work on the memoir of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) is a throwback to the great paranoid thrillers of the '70s. And I know all the non-film-score-nerds out there are tired of hearing me say this, but Alexandre Desplat's Bernard Herrmann-esque strings and nerve-jangling glockenspiel made for the best movie soundtrack of the year.
The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko. In a year punctuated by loud public debates about whether gays should have the right to marry and to fight—"yes" and "yes"; can we stop talking about it now?—this comic drama about a lesbian couple in conflict served as a bracing, funny reminder that there are already gay people out there doing plenty of both. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore's characters didn't need no piece of paper from the City Hall to be just as messed up, and just as deeply committed to their children, as any pair of straight parents in the movies or out.
Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg. A quietly radiant debut documentary about art, imagination, addiction, and survival. Mark Hogancamp, a former alcoholic from upstate New York, was nearly beaten to death in a bar fight in 2000. When he awoke from a coma, his brain was damaged in obscure but significant ways. These days, Mark no longer drinks, shuns most social contact, and spends his days creating a never-finished work of art in his backyard: a scale model of an imaginary WWII-era Belgian village called Marwencol, with elaborately customized Barbie and Ken-type dolls that represent Hogancamp and the people close to him. His relationship to his creation is as emotionally intense as a child's relationship to toys, yet Hogancamp is also capable of creating and photographing extraordinarily expressive tableaux and talking about them with depth and sophistication. Nope, this description isn't cutting it; Hogancamp's Marwencol, and Malmberg's Marwencol, have to be seen to be believed.
Mother, Bong Joon-Ho. Remember how I said above that a post-movie utterance of "wow" was a key criterion for admission to this list? Mother elicited something that sounded more like "wooooah." This Korean murder mystery/slapstick comedy/melodrama managed to pull off more tonal shifts than a Schoenberg song cycle without ever sacrificing its populist appeal. And Kim Hye-Ja, as the fanatically devoted mother of a village simpleton who may or may not have murdered a young girl, was fierce, fearless, and unforgettable. Possibly this year's greatest female performance. Plus, of the movies I saw, this one had the most unexpected and transcendent ending.
Please Give, Nicole Holofcener. Nobody else makes movies like Holofcener's: movies that open with a title sequence pairing a peppy Roches song with the image of middle-aged female breasts being squished into mammography machines. Movies that ask hard questions about class and wealth without caricaturing the rich or sentimentalizing the less rich. Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play a pair of married Manhattan furniture dealers who are waiting for their aged neighbor to die so they can combine their apartment with hers. They're awful, but they know they're awful, and the film chronicles their struggle, and that of the other excellently drawn characters, with the simple, impossible question: How should we live? Keener has long been Holofcener's muse, and no director is as in tune with that actress's peculiar brand of brainy, knotty charm.
The Social Network, David Fincher. I wouldn't have believed a film about out-of-court mediation and intellectual property theft—the essential subject matter of Fincher's drum-tight, masterfully paced drama—could nail me to my chair the way this one did for two closely spaced viewings in a row. This isn't a perfect movie: The woman problem is a legitimate concern (if not a movie-ruining one) and that Edvard Grieg-scored rowing scene is hokum. But The Social Network is as densely layered with sharp writing and great acting as anything I've seen this year. Jesse Eisenberg (whom I've had a crush on since before it was legal to do so) takes an already promising career to the next level as the brilliant, impenetrable, backstabbing, but never simply villainous creator of Facebook. Eisenberg has already won the Oscar in my mind.
Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich. The exigencies of the alphabet place this at the end of the list, but had I been forced to rank them (by some obscure enforcer of 10-best-list bylaws) this would probably have been No. 1. There wasn't another movie I walked out of this year saying not just "That was really good" but "I wouldn't have changed a thing." Everything was perfect: the animation; the voicework; the countless flourishes of visual and verbal wit; and the sheer emotional range of the story, a full palette of melancholy and terror and joy. A great Pixar film is like a Gothic cathedral, fashioned by the hands of countless skilled craftspeople working toward a single collective vision.
Runners-up include the Coen brothers' funny, sweeping and—rare for them—warmhearted Western, True Grit, and Luca Guadagnino's exquisitely beautiful, certifiably crazy melodrama I Am Love. Also Chris Morris' Four Lions, for its weird comic courage; Claire Denis' White Material, for its pitiless rigor; and Glen Ficarra and John Requa's I Love You, Phillip Morris, for its scabrous liveliness.
Finally, there are those movies worth mentioning because they gave the viewers of 2010 something to disagree about. These would include both Black Swan, which I mostly didn't like, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I mostly did. The aforementioned I Am Love is another surefire fight-starter. But I think the single-most fun movie to argue about this year was Greenberg, which went way beyond the love/hate dialectic: There were 150 different ways to feel ambivalent about that movie. We'll sample many flavors of love, hate, and ambivalence in the Slate Movie Club, beginning the week after New Year's.