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.