The 15 Best Feature Films I Saw from 2010

So, I know it is nearing the end of March, 2011, but I wanted to see as much as I possibly could before finalizing my list.  In any case, narrowing it down as much as I did was already too difficult to go much further with it.  Of course this means that many films I loved are missing from the list, notably TRUE GRIT, THE OTHER GUYS, LET ME IN, THE CRAZIES, and WINTER'S BONE.  I also wanted to focus on my main interest, which is narrative feature films, and though I saw a good many documentary and experimental films in the past year, I just don't feel versed enough in those worlds to really rank and qualify them, especially among the features that share a special place in my heart.  Anyway, these aren't really in any order, though BLACK SWAN most definitely was my favorite film of 2010.

1. BLACK SWAN (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
I'm not finished with this film, and it's definitely not finished with me.  I haven't felt as strongly toward a film in years.  Aronofsky's masterpiece, no matter your feelings toward it, has a way of getting into your brain and noodling around (or tunneling, if the metaphor is to lack subtlety in the same manner) for days and weeks afterward.  I don't believe anyone who says they haven't thought about it since they saw it.  Natalie Portman's performance as Nina, a ballet starlet striving for perfection, is admittedly one-note innocence, until the final forty minutes, when she really starts unraveling and there's enough sturm and drang and outward physical expression of her inner turmoil that even Fritz Lang would rise from the grave and take notice.  Surrounded by a more-than-capable cast (a terrific Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder), Portman's interpretation is breathless, filled with the kind of bravura that most actors shy away from (though there are hints of Daniel Day-Lewis' comic-grotesque employed in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and GANGS OF NEW YORK to be found here and there).  The Grand Guignol of the whole affair is something refreshing and exhilarating in the landscape of American cinema, not merely rehashing and blending older genres like many of our most capable filmmakers, but re-appropriating entire filmmaking styles to make something bold, fresh, daring and ultimately as divisive as BLACK SWAN turns out to be.  By the time the final notes of SWAN LAKE play, and the screen turns into a bright, searing white, it never fails to send genuine shivers down my spine.

2. SALT (dir. Phillip Noyce)
A master of the political thriller, having directed two Jack Ryan films with Harrison Ford and the subtler but no less break-neck THE QUIET AMERICAN, Phillip Noyce has returned with a more action-oriented take on the genre within which he seems most comfortable, and turns in the first Movie Star movie in quite some time.  Angelina Jolie is in full-on movie star mode (helped along with the gorgeous cinematography of Robert Elswit) as Evelyn Salt, a U.S. CIA operative who may or may not be an insider for the defunct Soviet regime in Russia.  The film is pretty breezy, and packs enough of a wallop that the Blu-Ray release features three different cuts of the movie, all overseen by Noyce, and all of which are worth a look.  It's a shame this is an action film, though, since it automatically excludes it from any serious awards consideration.  Except for from me, of course.

3. THE KILLER INSIDE ME (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
A literal and figurative sucker-punch, this bleak, utterly hopeless adaptation of Jim Thompson's rowdiest novel sticks very close to the first-person narrative of the novel, with closet psychopath/sheriff's deputy Lou Ford expounding his every horrible thought.  Directed by the chameleon-like Michael Winterbottom, who shows a seemingly innate ability to work within any and every genre, THE KILLER INSIDE ME wears its nihilism on its sleeve, and features two of the most realistic, brutal and physically sickening murders many audiences have likely ever seen.  What is so profound and disturbing about the film (and what makes it stick with me) is that Lou's descent into his suppressed dark side only comes about by what he sees is a necessity for his survival.  Essentially, he's happy to murder people, in fact he seems to actually feel nothing about the act other than its status as an action that must be undertaken, but never once does he even care that his own fate may be sealed before he's even found out.  Lou Ford is a monster, and THE KILLER INSIDE ME is a horror film that is more terrifying than any two or three genre films released in any given year.

4. DESPICABLE ME (dir. Pierre Coffin, dir. Chris Renaud)
A refreshing change of pace for an animated film glutted by pop-cultural references and the morass of an industry that views its child audience as mere money-generating morons.  And while the last part of that statement may apply to parts of DESPICABLE ME (especially the marketing surrounding the Minion characters), the film itself is generally devoid of everything that makes one loathe the current climate of children's entertainment: it is a sweet, funny and poignant film that earns its laughs through situation, dialogue and universal truths rather than forced imitations of other, usually much better products.  The plot, which concerns a super-villain named Gru, who seeks world domination (also the plot of MEGAMIND, another film of note this year, though lacking in some respects as regards the praise I have for DESPICABLE ME), is wrapped in the story of his changing focus when he takes in three young girls from an orphanage as pawns for one of his schemes.  The animation is exaggerated and smooth, with a very welcome cartoonish slant, and it finally puts to rest the debate about whether or not Pixar holds a monopoly on the quality of mainstream animated features.

5. SPLICE (dir. Vincenzo Natali)
An early surprise for 2010, the brilliant sci-fi freakout SPLICE was the perfect antidote to a slate of genre releases that featured heavy on the remakes (some of them being very good notwithstanding), and with diminishing returns in original content.  A biomedical / body horror / ethics meditation worthy of the distinction of being Cronenbergian, Vincenzo Natali's little film about a superstar team of geneticists who design what they think could be the perfect creature is one of the more disturbing films to receive a major release.  Seriously, the Adrien Brody / Sarah Polley / Dren triangle is beyond bizarre (and beyond intriguing material for a film), and I can't honestly say that I've experienced as big a sucker-punch to my mind since.

6. GET HIM TO THE GREEK (dir. Nicholas Stoller)
This semi-sequal to FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL features Russel Brand's character Aldous Snow returning in his full rock-god glory, anchored by Jonah Hill's record company errand boy trying to get him to an anniversary show while avoiding all kinds of disturbances and distractions.  The script is smart and funny and I kind of love the idea of serializing characters through multiple films and in different situations (something uber producer / director Judd Apatow is looking to do with his next movie).  In addition, the soundtrack is absolutely hilarious, with spot-on pop and rock tracks by Aldous Snow's band Infant Sorrow as well as Rose Byrne's pop-star, Jackie Q.  Seriously, "Ring Around the Rosie" was robbed of Best Original Song awards left and right.

7. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (dir. Niels Arden Oplev)
I don't think there's any doubt that 2010 was the year of Lisbeth Salander.  There wasn't a single place you could turn where there wasn't a copy of one of the books or without talk of Noomi Rapace's absolutely bewitching (and star-making) turn in the film versions of the novels.  Oplev's first film is still the strongest because the first book's story could be effectively trimmed down into a lean thriller without losing too much of the enchanting nature of all the side characters littered throughout the periphery of the story.  Following an punk computer hacker with Asperger's, Lisbeth Salander, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a dark and gritty Swedish thriller that unearths corruption on many levels both corporate and private in almost all of its characters.  And though the film may focus more on journalist Mikael Blomquist, there is no forgetting Rapace's interpretation and dedication to the role that took the entire world by storm.

8. THE TOWN (dir. Ben Affleck)
The second feature from Affleck may be 2010's overlooked gem, telling a complex story about the failings of human nature and the ineffable nature of our actions with the veneer of a crime drama and heist film.  Affleck also stars in the film as Doug McCray, a professional thief who runs a crew in Charlestown, an area of Boston that, statistically speaking, has spawned the most armored car thieves in the U.S.  After a bank robbery that gets a bit out of hand, and from which they abduct a hostage (a wonderful Rebecca Hall), the crew must protect themselves as an FBI team led by Jon Hamm (MAD MEN) starts looking into the members and putting the pressure on them as they cook up their next scheme.  Of course, McCray takes to making sure the former hostage doesn't know who he is, and he ends up falling in love with her.  This may seem very silly, but trust me it's not.  Based on Chuck Hogan's supremely enthralling novel, the film flies by, even though it clocks in at over two hours.  Trust me on this, THE TOWN is a must-see, slow burn crime film that is all about human interaction.

9. SHUTTER ISLAND (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Yet another collaboration between the greatest living American director and his current muse Leonardo DiCaprio, SHUTTER ISLAND is a psychological thriller that is all about film aesthetics, film history and paying homage to the old Hollywood masters while providing an engaging old-school entertainment with shades of Hitchcock and Samuel Fuller.  I remember sitting in the Denny's with my podcast co-hosts Woody and Pierce for over an hour afterward just picking apart the imagery and sound design, and it was one of the most thrilling academic exercises in aesthetics I was exposed to by a mainstream film all year.

10. THE RUNAWAYS (dir. Floria Sigismondi)
I'm a big fan of Joan Jett, and when I heard a biopic was being developed for The Runaways, I was a bit apprehensive, but I have to say the end result completely knocked my socks off.  The performances by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Jett and Cherie Currie are electric, erotic and moving.  And that's not even factoring in how brilliant Michael Shannon is as sonic mastermind and band manager Kim Fowley.  Director Floria Sigismondi perfectly captures the youthful urgency of the music and the spirit of the band while also exploring the growing chasm between the hodgepodge group of musicians that form the band, particularly the desire and distrust surrounding Jett and Currie.  I wrote at length about this film last year when I saw it, and have revisited it a few times since then, and each time I feel the same way.  I don't really care how anyone else feels about it, THE RUNAWAYS is an amazing piece of filmmaking.

11. THE ILLUSIONIST (dir. Sylvain Chomet)
Based on an un-produced screenplay by the French master Jaques Tati, THE ILLUSIONIST follows an aging magician who plays variety shows throughout the world, but is slowly being edged out by the mainstream entertainment of hot, new rock and roll acts.  As with his previous film, THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, Chomet uses very little real dialogue to tell his story, focusing instead on his magical hand-drawn animation and the development of strong, sympathetic characters.  The film's best moment also features a cameo from the deceased Tati, and it's quite brilliantly done, and not forced at all.  THE ILLUSIONIST is a film that is heartfelt, beautiful and urgent.  A masterpiece by one of the most intriguing animators in the world.

12. OUTSIDE THE LAW (dir. Rachid Bouchareb)
Telling the story of four brothers who dabble in organized crime in Algeria and France during the Algerian revolutionary period, Rachid Bouchareb's film allows a glimpse into an oft-neglected chapter of world history, and provides us with a classic gangster picture at the same time.  Featuring the same cast of his previous, Academy award-winning film, DAYS OF GLORY, all playing characters who are unrelated but have the same first names as the characters they played in that film, Bouchareb weaves the stories of the brothers into the history of the Algerian resistance.  I particularly appreciated Jamel Debbouze (AMELIE, ANGEL A) as Said, who is trying to distance himself from the political and criminal lives of his brothers and make it as a legitimate boxing promoter and trainer, but is seen as an outcast and traitor by his own family for respecting the French oppressors in any way.

13. THE FIGHTER (dir. David O. Russell)
The only real difference between any boxing film is the milieu within which it attempts to tell its story.  With ROCKY it was an underdog picture, with RAGING BULL we had a tale of masculine self-destruction, and with MILLION DOLLAR BABY it was a message picture.  THE FIGHTER takes place firmly within the family melodrama genre, following Micky Ward's rise from stepping stone to world champ, and also his brother Dicky Ecklund, a former contender whose one famous moment was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, as he overcomes a crippling addiction to crack.  Directed by David O. Russell, THE FIGHTER is a film that is worth seeing just for the performances, with Oscar winner Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky's overbearing witch of a mother tearing up every scene she's in, and a love interest played by Amy Adams that brings a bit of heart to a film that might otherwise be too depressing to seriously contemplate as reality.

14. GREEN ZONE (dir. Paul Greengrass)
An action film that takes all the best parts of Greengrass's masterful work with his historical/political drama period pieces and the Bourne flicks, GREEN ZONE is the adrenaline rush the Iraq-war subgenre needed, and it delivers on all fronts.  I personally think this is Greengrass's masterpiece as an action filmmaker.  Matt Damon once again proves why he's one of the most interesting movie stars in ages and co-star Amy Ryan proves that she needs much more work than she has been getting.

15. DEEP IN THE WOODS (dir. Benoit Jacquot)
This film hasn't seen a release here in the U.S. yet, but when it finally does come out, I will see it again and again.  Isild Le Besco pairs with Jacquot yet again for the story of a girl who follows a stranger wanderer into the countryside in 1865.  Timothee, who may or may not have the gift of hypnotism and bewitchment, is smitten with Josephine, who is from a well-to-do family, and he wills her to go with him into the woods and live outside of civilization.  The big question throughout the film, of course, is whether or not their relationship is consensual, or if she is in fact being raped and Timothee really does have these powers she claims he has.  The characters in the film come to a conclusion, but director Benoit Jacquot allows the story to linger and settle with the audience.  The film also has a brilliant score, with baroque chamber tendencies.  Loved this.

"The Other's a Fish": THE LINCOLN LAWYER

This faithful adaptation of Michael Connelly's best-selling legal thriller, THE LINCOLN LAWYER, is a throwback to breezier, slightly funkier courtroom procedurals.  A smart performance by Matthew McConaughey that imbues the character of Mickey Haller with a knowing swagger anchors this approach, and the film's loose sensibilities serve as a counterpoint to the efficient clockwork plot.  The latter quality of the film may in fact be its lone weakness, as it has trimmed much of the juicy fat away from the story, leaving bits and pieces hanging here and there, and not quite giving us enough character information in a few instances.  Still, THE LINCOLN LAWYER is a wonderful film that kept me enthralled even though I was familiar with the many twists and turns beforehand.

The film follows Mickey Haller, a criminal defense attorney who will defend anyone who can pay his price.  As the film opens, he stalls a case from going to court because a client of his, a member of a bike gang, hasn't paid the bill to date.  In the following scene we meet the rest of the bikers, who have brought payment to Haller, and are given a sense that he is a man unafraid to take risks, but who has an ethical code even though he's willing to take a razor to the prosecution and bleed even the most guilty clients' charges down to an empty shell.  A bit later, when Haller meets with repeat-client Gloria, a hooker who he never charges for his services.  The relationship is a bit murky in the film, but in the book, it's really a sweet motive on his part, because he sees the good in Gloria, and wants her to get straight and stay that way.  In any case, it serves to show his golden ideals held deep within the hard exterior of a money-driven defense lawyer.

As mentioned earlier, McConaughey's turn as  Haller is a major reason this film works as well as it does.  Haller has just enough sleazy wit and smart-ass charm to keep the audience alert to the plot, but the trick of casting someone as instantly likable and recognizable as McConaughey also serves to make us root for him and know that, no matter what twists get thrown at him, Haller is a good guy who will do the right thing in the end.  Haller doesn't care what others think of him, and when cops come at him with jabs about his job and his culpability in keeping scum on the streets (Bryan Cranston is fun in a bit part), he brings it right back to them, knocking on crooked cops and how easy it is to do his job when the D.A. and the police are so inept at prosecution.  Haller is a fun character, one that is challenging and emotional and downright engaging.  He's a real, honest human being, and for once he's on screen in front of us.

McConaughey isn't alone, though, and is supported by a strong supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and prosecutor Maggie, William H. Macy as his private investigator, and Ryan Phillipe as Louis Roulet, the client he's been hired to get off an attempted murder charge.  Phillipe's character in particular is worthy of notice because of his many faces, all of which are played expertly.  Phillipe isn't an actor we've seen much of lately, and that's a shame, because I've always enjoyed his work.  I'm sure audiences will be intrigued to see him here first as the story's underdog, and then as its villain.  Josh Lucas is also enjoyable as prosecutor Ted Minton, and the courtroom scenes hinge a lot on his reactions to Haller's defense tactics.  It's a shame there's not more of the court proceedings in the film, though, because Minton has some fantastic scenes in the book that would have likely been explosive between the two actors on screen.

While defending Roulet, Haller stumbles upon information that leads him to believe Roulet is not only guilty of the crime he is now accused, but also of the murder of another woman that got pinned on a previous client of Haller's, and who pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.  Of course, not giving too much away, the attorney-client privilege is given a lot of play in how everything turns out, and it's really quite intriguing and plausible.  Let's just say there aren't any surprises, no matter how dark the film gets, as to how everything ends.

Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, who also provided us with the most memorable and pleasing part of recent plotless disaster BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, turns in some really fantastic late-Sixties exploitation style "slick" cinematography, balancing just enough edge and flatness that really feels like that period, but in a completely good way.  There are plenty of gorgeous close-ups of the stars, as well as some stark, matter-of-fact exposures we're not used to seeing in a Hollywood film, including an emotional drink with Haller after a close friend's murder which really doesn't make McConaughey seem like the pretty boy we all think of when his name gets mentioned.

I think what will stick with me the most, though, is McConaughey.  Finally the man has returned to actual acting.  I'm content with him popping up in small but memorable roles while cashing major paychecks for rom-coms, but it's nice to see him headlining something that requires him to actually show up to work.  Maybe we're entering a new period for him, one that will see him really come into his own. Or, maybe we'll just get hints of true brilliance here and there.  Honestly, I get the feeling that, much like Mickey Haller, he doesn't care all that much come to think of it.