The postmortem on 2010 is that there were fewer great films on display than in other recent years, but the possible explanation is that the talent was heavily concentrated in the top percentile. Not only were the best films better than usual, but there are some stone-cold classics on this list.
1. Watch “The Social Network” once, and the story of Facebook and its contentious creation is a marvel of modern storytelling, a tale as old as the human race and as new as the latest status update. The second go-round reveals just how tightly Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin crafted the story and how the mesmerizing performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer match the film's kinetic energy. Behold the compact epic of its time, a kind of “Citizen Kane” for the era of mass transparency. Click “Like.”
2. A worst-case scenario for ballerinas everywhere, a pitch-black retelling of “Swan Lake” and a relatable horror film about workplace stress madness, Darren Aronofsky's “Black Swan” delivered its emotional churn through Natalie Portman's searing performance as Nina Sayers, a prima ballerina engaged in a pas de deux with insanity. Portman is fully invested in this challenging performance. Expect a best actress nomination for Portman and a supporting actress nod for Mila Kunis as Nina's chief rival, Lily.
3. Recommendations for viewing Christopher Nolan's “Inception”: eight solid hours of sleep and a clear mind ready to grasp every detail of this sharply conceived, genre-defying heist film. In this thriller dealing in the planting of subconscious ideas, Nolan devises a complex system of parallel actions operating within a series of nesting doll-like dreams experienced by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of sleep invaders (including Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page and Tom Hardy).
4. Australian David Michod's feature-length debut, “Animal Kingdom,” swept viewers into the sociopathic Cody household, where 17-year-old “J” (James Frecheville) gets dumped into the arms of a crime family matriarch (Jacki Weaver) and dragged into the brood's bloody business. Weaver is an absolute nightmare as Janine “Smurf” Cody, as is Ben Mendelsohn as “Pope,” the psychotic oldest brother who serves as the family's chief mayhem strategist.
5. Set in a French prison where Corsican Mafiosi run their crime syndicate from within, Jacques Audiard's “A Prophet” centers on Malik (Tahar Rahim), who is forced into a murder scheme by crime boss Cesar (Niels Arestrup) in an attempt to get the Muslim population in line. Malik proves to be an apt pupil in this tense, uncompromising import that is worthy of all the “Godfather” comparisons heaped upon it.
6. “Winter's Bone” captures the full tragedy of the Ozark methamphetamine epidemic through the story of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a teen who must locate her meth-cooking father or risk losing her family's modest home. Working from Daniel Woodrell's novel, Director Debra Granik populates “Winter's Bone” with believable characters, including John Hawkes' unforgettable performance as Ree's uncle, Teardrop, a man whom even the hardest cases grow to fear.
7. Less a remake than a second adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, Joel and Ethan Coen's “True Grit” shakes off the memory of the comparatively cute John Wayne/Kim Darby version and aims for high, lonesome and captivatingly strange territory. In telling the story of Mattie Ross (excellent newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl who hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to avenge the murder of her father, the Coens capture the hard, dirty life of the frontier. Bridges delivers such a strong performance as Cogburn, even Wayne's most steadfast fans will tip their hats.
8. Few 2010 films made adults cry as much as “Toy Story 3,” in which Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of Andy's toys must grapple with obsolescence as Andy leaves for college. It can be taken as a colorful and witty tribute to classic escape films, but “Toy Story 3” reflects the human condition — principally the fear of being used up and thrown away.
9. Director Danny Boyle's “127 Hours,” a dramatization of Aron Ralston's unthinkable 2003 escape after being trapped by a boulder in a canyon, makes the case that Ralston's survival instincts and lust for life are a universal thing. No one wants to find out how they would respond, but the most surprising thing about “127 Hours” is how reassuring it is that the fight impulse will take over when flight is not an option. James Franco's extraordinary streak as one of Hollywood's true acting daredevils continues.
10. One of the oldest stories in the movie playbook gets its freshest interpretation in years with David O. Russell's “The Fighter,” the true story about boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), who finally rose from palooka to champion once his half-brother and trainer, onetime boxer Dickey Eklund (Christian Bale), overcame his crack addiction. Bale is nothing short of phenomenal. And considering that all performers in “The Fighter,” including Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, are performing at the top of their games, that is one incredible upset victory.