By Amy Nicholson
2010 was a lousy year for movies. The studios invested just $260 million on creative, bold projects: $200 million on Inception and the rest on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Our Oscar contenders, as ever, are crowd-pleasing cowards. But when I combed the catacombs of the over 200 flicks from this year cluttering up my brain, I uncovered a list of quiet gems—great films that snuck in and left their mark on my mind. Only two of them will be rattling their sabers come awards season, but hey, history’s always wrong. Especially the history that declares this year was worthless.
1) Let Me In
In this quiet, controlled chiller, adults barely register—like Dracula designed by Charles Schulz. What matters is immediate—the film exists in that margin between kid and teen when every day is a drama and every tumble is a catastrophe. But Let Me In is wise beyond its years, even if only the grown-ups in the audience bear witness to pain that the preteen stars can’t see.
2) Life During Wartime
Todd Solondz’s semi-sequel to Happiness is a merciless melodrama. Ten years ago, Ciaran Hinds was locked up for pedophilia. Not that life’s any better for his three kids, ex-wife and flock of sisters-in-law. With its formal performances and sloppy emotional honesty, it’s bracing, mature and the best film of Solondz’s career.
3) The Illusionist
Loved the wordless first third of Wall-E? Sylvain Chomet’s hypnotizing cartoon about a travelling French magician and a social-climbing Scottish girl rarely speaks, and when it does, it mumbles. But even the supporting characters—an angry rabbit and a sad ventriloquist—are as finely drawn as if they’d been nattering about themselves on Twitter 24/7.
4) Please Give
A small, perfect film like, well, everything by Nicole Holofcener, doesn’t demand awards. But it deserves them just the same. Holofcener’s comedy of death and greed looks as offhand as a YouTube video of a sleeping cat—it’s simple, subtle and powered by big ideas.
5) The Square
A relentless Australian thriller about an everyday husband trying to skip town with his mistress. Roadblocks include: a blackmailer, her thug boyfriend, a hired arsonist and even his dog. Is it karmic noir about consequences, or a nihilistic warning that even a simple scheme can’t be controlled? Either way, it’s wicked fun.
6) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
A 112-minute entertainment contraption, celluloid that shapeshifts its frames into video games, comic books and sitcoms. But under the chaos, it beats with empathy for the too-human mess we make of relationships. Everyone has loved, everyone has lost and everyone has been the villain to another hero (or heroine). That’s the game of life, and we’re all playing.
7) The King’s Speech
Mechanical perfection, but the agony in Colin Firth’s eyes gives it life.
Like a wisp of a pop song, Sofia Coppola’s near-silent study of a movie star lingers longer than you’d expect. When you’re hooked, you’re hooked. An actor playing an actor, Stephen Dorff is getting robbed by awards groups who can’t quite respect that he’s acting—he and Joaquin Phoenix should share a bottle of Maker’s Mark and gripe.
Cute, sure. But this globe-spanning French documentary had the smartest editing of the year. (I loved the cat torture montage.) Optimistic, earnest and all-embracing, it’s this year’s “We Are The World.” And hey, ease off on the San Francisco yuppies—they’re doing their best.
10) The Tempest
If Julie Taymor didn’t exist, the stage and screen would suffer. We need artists willing to gamble, and we need to double down in our trust when one of Hollywood’s only auteurs takes a risk. The payoff is a wild, gorgeous Shakespeare that’s as alive and immediate as Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Also-ran: Trash Humpers, The Freebie, Four Lions, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Tiny Furniture, The Social Network, Everyone Else, MacGruber, The Ghost Writer, Oceans, Hot Tub Time Machine.