51 Films From 2010 That You Really Shouldn’t Have Missed

I think 2010 was a good year for film. Maybe not as good as 2009, all things considered, but still good. Then again, I think I find plenty to like every year.

The following list is made of films that I’ve seen and liked this year. If you haven’t seen them, then each and every one comes recommended. I’ve got no way of knowing if you’ll like these films, but I really do think you should give them a go.

Some of these films have been overlooked, so I’m listing them for that very reason; some of them have been talked about so much that they’re practically just wallpaper on the blogosphere now, and I hope to remind you that, actually, they’re films, unique films, and well worth your time in their own way.

And yes, I’ve put the list in some kind of ascending order of enthusiasm, ending with what is – very comfortably – the most wonderful piece of filmmaking I saw this year. Before then, though, 50 others – from the extremely well known to the slightly more esoteric.

51. Paranormal Activity 2

This film makes the list for the ways it builds on and twists around elements of the original. I can’t say I actually found the film scary – not at all, really – but there is one plot twist that I’d call genuinely horrifying, presenting the the things we’ll do to others when we’re frightened and selfish and scared and thinking only of ourselves. Brrrr.

50. Burning Bright

A film about a brother and sister being endangered by a tiger in a boarded up house in the middle of a hurricane. I spoke to director Carlos Brooks about what makes it so interesting: the odd, weird resonances of the eccentric premise, and the palpable sense of animal danger that comes from the filmmakers having filmed with a real tiger and not VFX.

49. Dinner With Schmucks

Most of this film didn’t work as well as you’d hope (ie. bits of it were miserable) but it did start with an incredible, almost self-contained sequence telling an ultimately tragic love story through romantic tableau of dead mice, all accompanied by The Beatles’ Fool on the Hill. It’s actually a very clever, brilliantly designed and wonderfully well executed mini-film, and if you come back to Bleeding Cool next week, then… well, just come back to Bleeding Cool next week. That’s all I’m saying for now.

48. Shrek Forever After 3D

The character designs still seem like a mismatched hodgepodge, most of the jokes still bellyflop into a ditch, but this was the best of the Shrek series. In part this was down to the excellent 3D – amongst the best, most subtle and pervasive we’ve seen so far – but also because the series is established enough now that this could work like a self-contained installment. Forever After was like a good, extra-long episode of a Shrek TV series, and I mean that in the best possible sense.

47. Iron Man 2

I preferred the second Iron Man to the first, largely because the action sequences were there to embody and dramatise the various character conflicts more than to punctuate them. I felt like the first film kept the character and action more distinct, and felt a tad imbalanced for it. This was a step in the right direction, and I hope for better still in chapter 3. Cracking cast too.

46. The Hole 3D

Joe Dante’s first full-on horror film for kids (seeing as Gremlins wasn’t quite for kids, the scene in which Barbie dolls torment Kirsten Dunst in Small Soldiers wasn’t a whole film, and his Seaworld sideshow is a sideshow), The Hole felt like a work from another time. That time was 1984-85, ’86 at a push. Dante makes some good use of 3D, cast his film well and understood just how to walk the line in being creepy but also family friendly.

45. The Other Guys

In its own way, this film was as dense and detail-packed as Scott Pilgrim. I couldn’t help but appreciate the creation of a complex world almost like our own, but not quite. It’s a movie world in which most people are that bit goofier, that bit more compliant with genre stereotyping, and even the rules of physics have been tweaked a little. The end credit animation, detailing institutional financial corruption and the economic slide of modern capitalism, was a nice surprise too.

44. St. John of Las Vegas

It’s always good to see Steve Buscemi, Sarah Silverman and Peter Dinklage, better still when the film is engaging and ambitious. Maybe Hue Rhodes’ contemporary re-weaving of tropes from Dante’s Inferno has a rare taste, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it earn cult status. If St. John wobbles a little, it’s only from ambition.

43. Red

Deviating from the Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner comics to become more of a zippy, winking comedy, the movie version of Red is a living testament to star power. Getting to see this cast – Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich et al – is a treat in and of itself; when they let rip and chew things up a little, the Red needle pops right to the top of gauge.

42. Chloe

Another blend of malice and sex from Atom Egoyan, one of the few modern filmmakers who is happy to paddle in the same pool as Hitchcock without trying to drink the water from a ceremonial chalice screaming “The master stood here! All hail the master!”

Chloe is a cool, controlled film about control, the themes are written into every camera angle and every cut, and there’s a shimmering sheen that comes across as both stylish and, not without reason, reminiscent of softcore Skinemax fare. Smarter than the average saucy thriller.

41. Hot Tub Time Machine

The best material in Hot Tub Time Machine is the political stuff, when it’s allowed to break through, but the film is also strong on the subject of grown men acting like teenagers. Indeed, that’s the entire premise of the film, and what makes the subtext more like a 17 Again or Vice Versa than a Back to the Future. John Cusack is a real favourite of mine, but he’s sometimes upstaged here by Craig Robinson and a monstrous Rob Corddry.

40. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

A film full of smart-alec conceits and clever-clever ideas that are most often pulled off with flair and skill. At the heart of all that, though, it’s a film about Michael Cera as mild-jerk Scott Pilgrim, and the details of how the character is written and performed. He’s not exactly a hero, but he’s understandable. It’s nice to see a film revolve around characters that it’s so much easier to empathise with than sympathise, and these character arcs makes a nice change from seeing too-nice characters overcome stakes-less problems to become just that little bit more perfect.

39. The Social Network

A thrilling script that explodes with a nervous, intellectual energy kept me at the edge of my seat for much of the film’s running time. You might argue that these characters are all unbelievably witty, sparky and quick with the quotables, but that’s like dissing a Yuen Woo Ping fight sequence because everybody in it is so good at scrapping.

38. Amer

On one level, Amer is more of an art film than a narrative one, so perfectly does it pastiche different modes of Italian thriller and horror cinema. There’s a never ending flood of interesting, rich images, however, and the accumulative effect is quite pleasing, in a sometimes steely, chilling way.

37. Gallants

Another genre tribute, this time to the Hong Kong martial arts dust ‘em up. A cast of older-than-the-average Shaw Bros. legends get another go around, and do a cracking job too. The Hong Kong version of Red? If you like action scenes, this is an honest to goodness must. The best genre film about aging with dignity since Bubba Ho-Tep.

36. The Thorn in the Heart

Michel Gondry’s second feature-length documentary keeps its final focus secret for a while. Gondry slowly draws out a quietly surprising picture of a sad familial relationship from his A-plot, a catalogue of the schools where his aunt worked as a teacher over the last fifty years or so. This being a Gondry film there’s both visual inventiveness and genuine sense of unguarded honesty.

35. Exit Through The Giftshop

What was that I was saying about honesty? Yeah, forget about that. Some of the fun in Giftshop comes from not quite knowing if you’re having your leg pulled or not. Ostensibly a study of graffiti artists, including Banksy and some others who may be fictional characters, aliases for Banksy or – maybe, just maybe – real people, the film works best as personal essay on art and its place in our culture.

34. Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton’s latest is most definitely not his greatest, but Linda Woolverton’s initial idea was a cracker: take Alice, an icon of pre-pubescence, and reinvent her as a post-pubescent girl. There’s some typically Burtonesque design, which I like, but the overall aesthetic is lighter, brighter and less cobwebby than you might expect, which I also liked. There are visual details here well worth a good close look.

33. Kick-Ass

Nicolas Cage’s remarkable performance in Kick-Ass was truly one of my highlights of the year – a bona-fide star turn that’s neck deep in Adam West, but with its head in the clouds. The film has a lot of fun, and that’s infectious, and when it starts to look into ideas of morality, social decay and the drive and inspiration of the vigilante, we’re given a little bit more than bubble gum to chew on.

32. Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

People have made some very lofty claims for Henri Georges Clouzot’s unfinished film Inferno, and this documentary only encouraged more. Partly comprised of a recreation of Clouzot’s incomplete pciture, this movie inherits some visually astonishing material, and embeds it in a compelling documentary narrative about how the unmaking of a film brought its director to both mental and physical breakdown.

31. Restrepo

Here’s what I said about Restrepo a couple of weeks back:

Restrepo is on the Oscar long list for Best Documentary, and well expected to end up with a nomination if not the actual prize. It tells a human story about young men going to war and, in many cases, not coming back again.

If TV revolutionised the way we saw war in the Vietnam era, then video technology (small cameras that work in natural light, long recording times) are revolutionising the way such conflicts are being presented now and Restrepo is a perfect example of this new war media.

Often lauded for having no political angle, which I’d contest is actually nigh-on impossible, the film does nonetheless eschew overt polemics to focus on the day-to-day lives of scared people, brave people, foolhardy people, people who believe in honour and camaraderie, when they’ve had guns put in their hands and they’ve been sent off across the world to take part in a war they have no command over.

30. Frozen

Adam Green’s best film of the year isn’t a party six-pack like Hatchet 2, but an uncomfortable and tense thriller that does the Lifeboat thing of trapping some characters in a small, apparently inescapable place and watching them bang off of one another. This time, it’s a broken down chair lift at a ski-run, and just that one simple location offers a good variety of ways to torment the characters and (if they’re anything like my wife) the audience too.

29. Monsters

Noteworthy for its labour-of-love special FX and rich, subtly presented milieu, Monsters actually impressed me most of all as a character piece. At one juncture, our war photographer hero is challenged on how he’ll always need somebody to undergo misfortune in order that he can do his job, and profit. This, he points out, makes him like a doctor. It’s a great beat, and shades in character both efficiently and convincingly. Just one example of how this film works, at its best.

Overall, I expect better things from Gareth Edwards in future, but I doubt he’ll ever make something that feels as personal and intimate as Monsters.

28. Please Give

A great ensemble cast helps disguise the more meandering, less focused moments of Please Give, but this is a tenderly awkward, witty comedy that, actually, won’t make you laugh out loud as much as it will just engage you with an interesting ethical idea or two.

27. The Ghost

An overt bit of Hitchcock-styling in the very last shot belies how much of a Roman Polanski picture this is. The Ghost takes its place in a century-long history of thrillers, and while it seems quite old-fashioned in many respects, I could care less if it tickles the fancy of a mainstream modern audience.

26. Ondine

Neil Jordan is one of cinema’s masters of the folkloric and mythic, and this fairytale is steeped in the real magic and mystery that he conjures up so easily. Unfortunately, the film had a sex scene cut before release, to secure a lower certificate, but there’s an interesting love story here, and I can’t say that as often as I’d like.

25. Daybreakers

Directors Peter and Michael Spierig are great world builders, and this film demonstrates that right off the bat. I fell in love with this picture during the opening sequence that unveils, shot-by-shot, a world in which vampires have taken over, and what humans remain are now factory farmed animals to provide blood. This then provides the context for an action-thriller plot that would have fit quite nicely onto a VHS in 1983 and made John Carpenter send a flunky straight down to the Pacific Coast Video to grab him a copy. I’m most encouraged that the Spierigs are moving on to the Dark Crystal sequel – they’ve got just the right stuff.

24. The Kids Are All Right

Mark Ruffalo’s oh-so-Californian sperm donor comes into the lives of his children and their lesbian mothers, and the stage is set for a very modern family comedy. Of course, at the moment, this film carries the burden of representation, but as time goes on, I think we’ll see less attention paid to the sexual politics, and more to the brilliant character interactions, nicely mounted plot shifts and, above all else, compelling acting.

23. The Disappearance of Alice Creed

2010′s films offered us nothing more lean and muscular than the first ten minutes of this kidnap thriller as two masked figures abduct and imprison the titular Ms. Creed with great attention to detail – of course, you know immediately that somebody must have overlooked something and that these best laid plans will go awry. The thrills are kept simmering quite nicely, with just a few moments where credibility is put under a touch too much stress, and there’s a pay off that, while not proving entirely unpredictable, shines a new light on… on…um… Well. That would be telling.

22. Buried

A stark, political statement in the shape of a claustrophobic nightmare, this might be the best idea that Larry Cohen never had. I spoke to director Rodrigo Cortes about just how you make a thriller set entirely in a coffin, and his answers were one of my favourite Bleeding Cool articles of the year.

21. Black Swan

Black Swan is so close to Repulsion and Perfect Blue that I actually found it all a good deal less exciting than many of my peers, but there’s no denying how well made Aronofsky’s latest is.  Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is some of the best of his career, Clint Mansell’s score is as emotive as you’d expect and, aside from a few moments where he seems to have gotten rather carried away and lapsed into the too-obvious, the sound design by Brian Emrich makes for great oil on the film’s gears.

20. Four Lions

The stand-out performance in Four Lions comes from Kayvan Novak, the man who was Fonejacker. I’d go so far as to credit it as some of the year’s best acting. It’s unfortunate that presenting these would-be suicide bombers as humans has been seen as subversive, but that doesn’t take away from how much depth the cast, director Chris Morris, and his co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell* have drawn in their characterisations.

19. Tamara Drewe

Bawdy, rowdy and a little bit mean, Tamara Drewe is a uniquely British kind of farce that skips zippily along and appealed to both my better and worse sides at once. Even when played by the diverting Gemma Arterton in a pair of ludicrously short denim cut-offs, the lead character of Tamara is not the main attraction here, and many of the supporting cast get their chance to come centre stage and steal a scene or two. Tamsin Grieg, Roger Allam, Bill Camp and Jessica Barden excel in particular.

Because the film stretches back to the light social observations of Posy Simmonds’ original comics, but barely to the more determined material of Thomas Hardy that had inspired Simmonds in the first place this is probably best taken as a tonic – but be warned that you might get bubbles up your nose.

18. Skeletons

Compared by many to Terry Gilliam and Inception, for it’s off-kilter, lo-fi tech designs and mind-entering plot devices, I think Skeletons will one day be most often discussed as the out-of-the-blue debut of director Nick Whitfield. Judging from the best scenes in this picture (there’s a run of wordless shots towards the end which shows a great mastery of storytelling through sequence, and I don’t think it was luck) I believe Whitfield has great, great things ahead of him.

17. The Way Back

Peter Weir’s epic is just that: an epic, and a Peter Weir film, so fans like me will be very happy.Some of the best sound work of the year creates a huge, living breathing world with a real immensity of scale, and also plays a powerful part in creating movements in the drama – juxtapositions of the loud, the quiet, the shrill, the booming. The film looks good too, and there’s a good cast, and though the story isn’t as perfectly structured as I hoped, it was realised as a truly, honestly cinematic work.

16. The King’s Speech

I loved Tom Hooper’s theatrical feature debut last year, The Damned United. In many respects, the qualities of this film mirror that one rather closely – the off-centre compositions, for example, or the stylised use of colour. This film has the better screenplay, but maybe not such a wonderful spread of great performances. Colin Firth is great in the lead, however, and I’m glad to see he’s continuing his recent run of committed, well-judged performances after many of the oughts seemed to be a little wasted.

15. Winter’s Bone

A strong sense of place pervades the “Ozarks noir” of Winter’s Bone, assisted by specifics in the production design, location choice and idioms of speech and behaviour. Aside from a rather deflating dream sequence, the film manages a steady increase of dread and fear throughout, swirling around a brilliantly stoical, determined performance from Jennifer Lawrence as the unsinkable Ree Dolly.

14. Dream Home

I already offered Five Reasons for you to see Dream Home, but here’s an excerpt:

At heart, Dream Home is a satire about run0away housing markets and the victims of economic pressure, but it’s dressed as a character piece and armed to the teeth like a slasher film.

Most of the tropes of the typical hack-and-flay picture are present, but bent out of shape, right down to how the actual slashing is portrayed on screen. Attacks fall short realistically, weapons miss their targets and glance off of the wall, everything is grunty and gaspy and fleshy and solid.

Plenty more reasons where that came from.

13. Splice

Ancient myths of sex and death are reprised in the post-modern world of genetic splicing sci-fi. Vincenzo Natali continues in his amazing run of sophisticated and ambitious genre pictures with this crowd-pleaser with a loaded agenda. Some have said that the film doesn’t have much to say, which I think is an unfair way of indicating that it isn’t a message film wanting to axe-grind over the ethics of scientific experimentation, but is instead something far more universal about the human condition.

12. Tangled

The innovations of Disney’s Tangled aren’t readily obvious to the most casual of observers, but there are new techniques of CG modelling and animation here that have allowed for stretchy, squishy manipulations much more in step with hand-drawn toons than was ever possible before. Add this winningly elastic, cartoony animation to a nicely told story, some great gags and some of the best vocal performances in any recent musical, and Tangled was a sure fire hit with fans of Walt and Co.

3D skeptics note: there’s a sequence with floating lanterns in this film that has convinced a good number of stereophobes in my circle that 3D can be wonderful.

11. Another Year

Aside from Lesley Manville’s frightfully overbearing central performance, Another Year is a rich treasure trove of great actors doing great work. Devised in Mike Leigh’s typical manner (weeks of improvisation, deep back story development, a gradual excavation of the key plot threads) the film finds its structure in the months of the year. These changing seasons are demonstrated by the best cinematography of Dick Pope’s career, and his first, perfect use of post-production colour correction.

I think it wasn’t just Another Year, but Leigh’s best film since the 80s.

10. Whip It

Who knew, Drew? A wonderful directorial debut from Ms. Barrymore is blessed with a perfectly cast ensemble and Shauna Cross’ witty, personable screenplay. I had a love affair with this film in the spring of this year, and just typing this is making me itch to go get the Blu-ray and watch it again now. I like these characters, and I like to see them happy.

9. Cyrus

The Duplass brothers’ first mid-budget (ie. some budget) feature is a greater triumph of characterisation and awkward comedy than it is a failure of lurching, distancing zooms, but I do still wish they’d tidy up their camerawork and cutting a bit. What we have in this one film is John C. Reilly’s best comedy role to date, Jonah Hill’s best comedy role to date and Marisa Tomei’s best comedy role to date. I have a weakness for rom-coms that many won’t indulge, but Cyrus is the film I succeeded in getting nasyayers to watch and to love.

8. The Princess and the Frog

Not released in the UK until early 2010, the best of the two most recent Disney animations – by a nose. There are moments of staging in this film that stand alongside anything in the “Disney 50″ pantheon, and the best of the animation is the kind of witty, character-rich work that the Mouse house was built on. There’s some really neat surprises in this film, and while the influence of John Lasseter is always present, it’s never overt.

7. The Last Exorcism

Written by mock-doc provocateurs Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, The Last Exorcism is the best enquiry yet into an essentially cinematic question: is seeing believing? I spoke to Eli Roth recently, and you can find out more about why I loved this film in my report on that. Oh – and the end? I loved it. But I don’t believe all is quite what it seemed…

6. Micmacs

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest circus of imagination and invention. The film has a political grounding from very near the start but the audience are catapulted so high into the sky that it was still a surprise to me, near the end, when a sudden reminder of the stakes came back into play, right out of left field.

If Micmacs is sentimental and nostalgiac, so be it. It’s also smart and resolute.

5. Toy Story 3

The final chapter of Pixar’s flagship series was an amazingly complex work, yet still flowed along accessible plotlines. The highlights are too numerous to mention, but my mind boggles at the implications of Mr. Tortilla Head, and the infamous scene in which the toys face a seemingly insurmountable threat is one of the most profoundly striking scenes in all of cinema.

There’s a great book on the philosophy of the Toy Story films to be written, and a good half of it could be filled with ruminations on chapter 3. What a fascinating film.

4. Agora

A combination of historical epic, mathematical lesson and philosophical enquiry, Agora might sound like a day at school but it’s actually one of the most enervating, enraging dramas of recent years. Set in Alexandria in the era of the great library, the film tells the tragic story of Hypatia, played wonderfully by Rachel Weisz, when she’s caught up in a struggle between both warring political factions and brutally conflicting ideas about reason and faith.

Alejandro Amenebar has delivered a better film each time he’s stepped back behind the camera and this, his fifth feature, shows some development from even his fourth, the much-loved The Sea Inside.

3. Mother

At once a murder mystery shown from the unexpected vantage point of the prime suspect’s mother and a scathing critique of patriarchy, Bon Joon-Ho’s latest is a worthy companion piece to his earlier cult smash, Memories of Murder. At times, Mother will turn your knuckles white. Other times, it will have you shake your fist at the sheer injustice of what you’re seeing unfold.

2. Red Hill

Patrick Hughes’ debut feature film is a modern day revenge-Western that I saw at Frightfest, a horror film festival. Did it belong on the program? Trust me – this belongs on any program. There are horror undertones, though, to be fair. Just undertones.

Shot in, shot out, Hughes has always found a great place for his camera, and he often impresses with the pitch-perfect control of tone and pace. This is great filmmaking born out of a deep engagement with both the story and characters, and the needs of an audience. It isn’t obvious, and it isn’t flashy, but it’s built to work and it really does.

1. Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go eschews even the least obvious and most deeply engrained of genre conventions to best tell a beautiful and melancholy story about the value of life. Fittingly, every image, sound and performance in the film walks a line between this beauty and sadness.

Some of the focus in the film feels different than in Kazuo Ishiguro’s original novel, and the self-delusion of the lead characters is foregrounded a little more. As a result, the film is rather more about the lies we tell ourselves, about love, and death, and reason, and chaos than it is just about living in that chaos.

No film this year has had such a powerful, and persistent effect on me.

There were a few films I saw this year that haven’t been released anywhere yet, so I left them out. Similarly, there are some films here that I saw in 2009 but saved for the 2010 list. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some too. Tsk.

*I don’t think Simon Blackwell is necessarily a real person.