Time was, movies were the greatest of cheap dates, with plenty of paycheck left over to cover dinner for two. These days, by the time a couple have made it through the box office and concession lines, they've already shelled out enough money for a fairly decent restaurant meal. After that, they can only cross their fingers, hoping the show is worth the hefty cash outlay. Movie lovers who gambled on the following 10 titles in 2010 got lucky, even if they couldn't afford to dine out afterward.
1. Director Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”), co-writing with Stuart Blumberg (“The Girl Next Door”), created the brightest event of the year with “The Kids Are All Right,” their poignant, painful and often hilarious new twist on a close-knit (but atypical) family unit dealing with universal family issues plus some not-so-conventional conflicts that arise when same-sex married couple Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in irresistibly funny and heartbreaking, Oscar-class turns) have to deal with a teenage daughter and son who've decided they want to meet the sperm-donor (Mark Ruffalo) who fathered them.
2. There's a scene in the original “True Grit” in which John Wayne as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn confronts four outlaws and informs them they're under arrest, to which one of the varmints responds, “I'd call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.” An angry Cogburn replies with the challenge, “Fill yore hand, you son of a b----!” and a galloping gunfight ensues. That memorable set piece was also included in Joel and Ethan Coen's remake of the 1969 Western classic, but there the similarities ended as the writing-directing brothers burned their own left-handed brand on novelist Charles Portis' tale of a young Arkansas girl (spirited newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who hires a hard-drinking, ill-tempered lawman (Jeff “the Dude” Bridges) to help track down her father's killer in the Indian Nations. The Coens made it all feel real with their portrait of grimy 1880s wilderness hardship, and the Dude's roughhewn and often riotously funny version of Rooster rode roughshod over the Duke's rendition and is every bit as deserving of an Oscar, which Wayne won for simply playing himself.
3. Director David O. Russell's “The Fighter” weighed in as the next great boxing movie with Mark Wahlberg's roundhouse punch of a performance as real-life contender “Irish” Micky Ward, who had to win battles outside the ring with his blue collar Lowell, Mass., family — including his domineering manager/mother (Melissa Leo) and his ex-con, failed-boxer-turned-crackhead of a half-brother, Dicky Eklund (a convincingly wired, wild-eyed Christian Bale, swinging for a best supporting actor decision) — in order to win the welterweight title. Fancy acting footwork and jarring dramatic jabs to the gut abound.
4. “Winter's Bone” director Debra Granik, co-writing with producer Anne Rosellini, took audiences deep into the Ozark backwoods and the closed subculture of methamphetamine cookers who don't hesitate to kill off anyone including their own kinfolk (and everyone seems to be related to varying degrees) to protect themselves from the law. Jennifer Lawrence gives an indelibly heroic performance as a 17-year-old girl — caring for two young siblings and her mentally shattered mother — who risks her life to find her bail-jumping father and save her family from being evicted from their modest mountain home. This one was full of suspense wound as tight as banjo strings, with a heroine worth cheering for.
5. The facts surrounding the invention of Facebook and the triumph of technology over face-to-face human contact are stranger, funnier and more outrageous than any recent comic fiction, and director David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) milked the awful truth for all it was worth in “The Social Network.” They were aided by the considerable talents of Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard computer whiz who's portrayed with brutal honesty as being as much a jerk as a genius, inventing the website out of vengeful anger over his status as a social reject, and becoming a billionaire for his trouble. It's also not a flattering reflection of who we are now in this computer-driven age, but certainly an enlightening and entertaining one.
6. Leave it to the man who turned conventional storytelling structure on its ear with 2000's brain-boggling “Memento” to top himself with the most mind-blowingly original crime thriller of the past 10 years. Writer-director Christopher Nolan's “Inception” starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a master thief of valuable secrets of the subconscious, operating in a world where it's possible to invade the dreams of others, as long as one is willing to risk all the nightmarish and catastrophic perils the sleeping human mind can conjure. The action is unpredictable and virtually nonstop, the special effects jaw-dropping, and Nolan's imagination seems as wonderfully weird and infinite as an M.C. Escher staircase. Pure movie manna.
7. “Never Let Me Go” mysteriously got up and went away from theaters in most markets after a week's run, despite reviews that glowed with praise that was fairly radioactive in intensity, and all of it richly deserved. Based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro set in an alternate reality of the 1990s, director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland brought together the seemingly incompatible elements of low-key sci-fi horror and the warm visual and emotional colors of bittersweet British romance storytelling involving a thorny love triangle made up of three young people (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, uniformly superb) who are bred to literally sacrifice themselves when they reach majority age.
The film's lessons in the impermanence of life and love and the importance of living in the precious moment were haunting and lasting.
8. With Adolf Hitler on the march and war clouds gathering over Great Britain, reluctant new King George VI suffers a debilitating speech impediment that may prevent him from rallying his subjects in “The King's Speech,” an inspired historical drama from director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler that featured Colin Firth as the stammering monarch and Geoffrey Rush as the oddball Australian amateur speech therapist who comes to his aid, forming one of the most unlikely, little-known and touching friendships in the annals of human events. Firth and Rush both deserve to be crowned with Oscar glory.
9. Director Darren Aronofsky made a broad leap from the seedy world of professional grappling (“The Wrestler,” which saved Mickey Rourke's career from being counted out) to the gracefully bounding and pirouetting world of ballet with the efdisturbing and absorbing psychological thriller “Black Swan,” featuring Natalie Portman in a dizzyingly affecting portrayal of a fragile young dancer on the edge of losing her mental balance.
10. Leonardo DiCaprio was unusually busy this year, working with yet another great director, Martin Scorsese (for the fourth time), in Laeta Kalogridis' gripping adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel “Shutter Island.” DiCaprio was gut-ripping as a U.S. marshal with some deep emotional problems of his own, investigating the totally baffling disappearance of a homicidal mental patient from an asylum on a remote island in Boston Harbor that is supposedly escape-proof.
Performances by Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo were pitch-perfect, and the film's methods of illustrating the human mind's ability to blank out events and deeds of monstrous dimensions were chillingly effective.