It's that time of year when movie critics everywhere are busy with bookkeeping, tallying up 2010's screen offerings and issuing their Top 10 lists.
But dictating the year's “best” films is so often a rote ritual, driven by urgencies of the upcoming awards season and marked by a certain inevitability as studios march out their prestige pictures and promotional blitzes to generate maximum holiday fanfare. Thus, many top 10 lists are necessarily top-heavy with these inescapable Oscar contenders.
The fated suspects show up on every list: “The Social Network,” “Inception,” “The King's Speech,” “Black Swan” and so on. And rightfully so. These are indeed among the year's indisputable best.
In a mild act of rebellion, we hereby issue our highly subjective list — not of “bests” but of “favorites.” These movies might not show up on others' lists and they might not figure into the manufactured hype of the pre-Oscar run-up, but they're movies we found among the most thoughtful, stimulating and/or fun and entertaining in 2010.
Here they are, in no particular order:
• “Metropolis” — Though it was originally released in 1928, the restored version with 25 minutes of formerly lost footage makes Fritz Lang's futuristic silent masterpiece feel finally complete, like a brand-new film. Its release was truly one of the year's highlights.
• Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest”) — Taken individually, the films of this Swedish-language trio had their excesses and lapses. But collectively, their chilly Nordic noir style, psychological complexity, exhilarating thrills and indelible characters added up to a relentlessly haunting and compelling time in the theatrical darkness.
• “The Ghost Writer” — Roman Polanski's personal and legal demons notwithstanding, the Oscar-winning maker of “Rosemary's Baby” and “Chinatown” showed he still has the master's touch with this cool, cunning and polished political thriller that packed loads of sinister, Hitchcockian intrigue and a memorable climactic wallop.
• “My Dog Tulip” — While “Toy Story 3” will certainly garner the lion's share of animation kudos, this modest, hand-drawn treat for canine lovers (originally released in 2009 but just now making U.S. rounds) adapts British academic J.R. Ackerley's wise and prickly 1956 memoir of life with his exuberant German shepherd. It's a human-scale story that's a tad more sophisticated, rough-edged and offbeat than the broad-stroke, family-friendly stuff that studio animation units have polished to glossy perfection.
• “Leaves of Grass” — Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson corrals an unruly passel of influences — classics, philosophy, spiky comedy, bleak drama, the Coen brothers — to produce a smart, funny and bracingly irreverent journey back to the quirky offshoots of his Okie roots. All the parts come together neatly in this light-dark film (the title itself suggests a heady dichotomy — wacky tobacky or the words of Walt Whitman?), which is graced with an uncanny duel performance by star Edward Norton.
• “Restrepo” — Few films capture the gut-level jolts of panic, fear, exhilaration, macho humor and numbing boredom that informs this stunning documentary which charts a year with one American military platoon posted in Afghanistan's deadliest valley. Writer Sebastian Junger (author of “The Perfect Storm”) skips the politics of the war and concentrates on the daily grind of the combat soldier. The result is harrowing and enlightening in a way that makes us think about the war viscerally, without the petty fog of punditry.
• “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” — Comedienne Joan Rivers — acerbic, opinionated and strident — is not everyone's cup of tea. But in this nakedly revealing documentary she emerges as both a savvy and vulnerable survivor, a tough woman with a grinding work ethic and an endless (some would say crass) hunger for celebrity. It parts the curtain of celebrity culture, and what it shows us isn't always pretty but is always funny and thought-provoking.
• “Red” — This is how you make a formula action blockbuster (with a savvy AARP vibe). Surrounding the droll Bruce Willis with a nicely aged supporting cast — Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine — this swift, engaging spy romp expends loads of bullets and bombs in service of pure popcorn entertainment and makes other blockbusters seem puny and pompous by comparison.
• “Inside Job” — No one will confuse this pithy piece of documentary journalism with popcorn entertainment. But as an exhaustive and infuriating look into the darkest heart of Wall Street greed, it's a movie that should not be missed by Average Joes with paltry bank accounts and 401(k) retirement plans. Amoral financial “insiders' have pushed the country to the brink of ruin while padding their pockets with obscene profits, and director Charles Ferguson's film brings home with chilling clarity the enormity and tragedy of our badly broken banking system.
• “A Film Unfinished” — Media's capacity to sell “the big lie” was never so profoundly and disturbingly demonstrated than in this potent documentary built around Nazi archival film supposedly depicting the daily lives of happy and well-off Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Director Yael Hersonki reassembles all of the SS propaganda footage (the film unfinished) and contrasts it with recollections of Holocaust survivors and a chastened SS cameraman to create a vivid, horrific portrait of genocide unfolding.
Dennis King blogs about movies at blog.wimgo.com/projections.