It was a tricky year at the movies. Sure things were critical disasters (“Sex & the City 2,” ”Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”). Remakes were either charged with new energy (“The Karate Kid”) or not enough (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”).
Animation continued to top the box office whether it deserved it (“Toy Story 3,” “Despicable Me”) or not (“Shrek Forever After”).
And we welcomed familiar franchises (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1,” “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” “Iron Man 2”), but still gave bold, new ideas a chance (“Inception”).
Amid all of these were the smaller, heartfelt gems, many of which made my top 10 list of best films for 2010. Here they are:
1. “127 Hours”James Franco delivers a gut-wrenching performance as the real-life Aron Ralston, who went to extreme lengths to survive after a boulder pinned his arm, trapping him in a canyon. It’s amazing how director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) makes the film so urgent, even though the action hardly leaves its claustrophobic space. At its simplest, this is about a man who simply got tired of waiting to die and decided to live. Yes, the scene that we know will happen is indeed harrowing, but the film is ultimately an exuberant, life-affirming experience. (Now playing at Warren Theatre east)
2. “Winter’s Bone” Director Debra Granik’s gripping “hillbilly noir” tale is drenched in a sense of place, and makes the Ozark woodlands seem as foreign as another country. The isolated, mountain people have their own code, and no one knows this more than teenager Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, in a revelatory, Oscar-worthy performance), who defiantly treads dangerous social territory in search of her drug-dealer father to save her family. Lawrence makes us feel every emotion that flashes across her face, especially — finally — relief. (Available on DVD)
3. “The Social Network” A fascinating account of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the legal war spurred by his riches, told with cool conviction by director David Fincher and a crackling script by Aaron Sorkin. But the performances bring it to vibrant life, with Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, who makes us hate him and feel sorry for him at the same time, Andrew Garfield as his former best friend, who we actually do feel sorry for, and Justin Timberlake, who finally disappears into a role, as conniving Napster founder Sean Parker. Slick and stylish, the film emerges as a commentary on how we use social media to communicate, and — ironically — just what that overly used word “friend” means. (Available on DVD Jan. 11 and also playing at Warren east)
4. “Inception” A thought-provoking, dazzling feat from writer/director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), who wasn’t afraid to make up his own rules and revel in them. The technique and the story — about a team of specialists who infiltrate a businessman’s dreams to plant an idea — are the real stars, but Nolan’s actors (led effortlessly by Leonardo DiCaprio) inhabit the dreamscapes with precise motivation. Though the script could have used more character development, the movie makes for a dizzying, euphoric ride. (On DVD)
5. “The King’s Speech” A monumental performance by Colin Firth brings out the humanity in King George VI, who struggled with a psychologically devastating speech impediment all his life. The real story, though, is about the king’s relationship with his eccentric speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), who prepares him to address the world via radio when Britain has no choice but to go to war. Director Tom Hooper makes the actual speech surprisingly suspenseful as we hang on every syllable — it’s rousing only in the way that against-all-odds films can be. Sure, it’s classy Oscar fodder, but it’s also accessible, moving and entertaining. (Showing at Warren east)
6. “Toy Story 3”Pixar’s incredible streak continues as Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the toy box gang return, this time facing abandonment when their owner, Andy, leaves for college. Paying clever homage to suspenseful prison escape films, this final adventure was expectedly fun. But we weren’t prepared for the profound message that came along with it — about growing up, letting go and moving on. It made us recall our own childhoods, and, yes, our own beloved toys. (On DVD)
7. “The Fighter” We’ve seen underdog boxing tales before, but this film is really about family dynamic. And Micky “Irish” Ward certainly had a combustible one, which he tries to control as he finally gets a shot that could advance his flailing career. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are outstanding as his loud-mouthed brother and mother, and Amy Adams is brilliant as his spitfire girlfriend, but Mark Wahlberg is every bit as impressive as Micky. He’s the center of the chaotic storm, only his shouting is internal — and it’s louder than anyone around him. (Showing at Northrock 14,Warren Old Town and Warren east and west)
8. “The Kids Are All Right” An exploration of just what it means to be a family, as the adopted children of a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) find their birth father (Mark Ruffalo) and try to get to know him, with comic and messy results. It’s a breezy soap opera, made engaging by its stellar cast. But it’s Bening who ultimately outshines as her character pieces things together — we see the realization of betrayal in her eyes, and it stings more than any tears could. (On DVD)
9. “Un prophete (A Prophet)” An Oscar nominee in last year’s foreign film category (but not released in the United States until this year), this French film is a riveting, violent, heartrending story of a naive but intelligent young inmate who rises through the criminal ranks to become the boss in a corrupt prison. What keeps us compelled is the sympathetic performance of Tahar Rahim as the inmate, who is forced to do horrible things but becomes a stronger person for it. Brilliantly executed, the film is also surprisingly creative, as Rahim’s character is haunted by those he has been forced to kill. (On DVD)
10. “Kick-Ass” My fanboy guilty pleasure of the year shouldn’t make me feel all that guilty — this is exactly what an adult comic book film should be. It’s entertaining and daring, but also giddily violent and laden with profanity — especially from its pint-sized heroine Hit Girl. But what makes it work is the wide-eyed, earnest performance from Aaron Johnson as a high schooler who decides to become a superhero, and a surprisingly touching Nicolas Cage, who provides the story’s maniacal heart. Here’s a testament to the film’s loyal fan base: Its box-office haul was around $48 million — hardly a blockbuster — yet a sequel is in the works. That does kick æ.æ.æ. well, you know. (On DVD)
Runners-up: „ “Black Swan”— Darren Aronofsky’s beautifully bizarre ballerina tale features a bravura performance from Natalie Portman. (At Warren east and west)
„ “Never Let Me Go” — Achingly melancholy but rightfully so, as Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley discover they are being raised for a specific, horrific purpose. (On DVD)
„ “Exit Through the Gift Shop” — Whether this jubilant documentary is real or a hoax, it’s still a commentary on what defines art either way. (On DVD and On Demand)
„ “The Town”— Ben Affleck proves again that he’s a filmmaker to be reckoned with in this gritty Boston crime drama. (On DVD and at the Palace West)
„ “Restrepo”— Harrowing but triumphant documentary that spends a year with a platoon stationed in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. (On DVD)
„ “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”— Make no mistake, this is not an always flattering portrait of the controversial comedienne, but it’s a surprisingly inspiring one. (On DVD)