Picking the Ten Best films of the year has been a ritual for critics and reviewers pretty much as long as there have been critics and reviewers. There are criteria for Ten Best-ness, of course. But what about criteria for years? The evidence suggests that some are lesser (less Best-er?) than others.
Can it be that the just-concluded 2010 may not have brought us a single great film? Oh, there were good ones, to be sure; some very good. Even a few that were excellent. But no thunderclaps on the order of Unforgiven (1992), Saving Private Ryan (1998), An Autumn Tale (1999), About Schmidt (2002), The Edge of Heaven (2008) or A Serious Man (2009).
Do we have a problem here? Not necessarily. Not every year can be 1939 (Rules of the Game! Stagecoach! Young Mr. Lincoln! Only Angels Have Wings! Mr. Smith Goes to Washington! The Four Feathers! ...). But something did seem to be missing.
Of course, that something simply may not have arrived here yet. The judges at last May's Festival de Cannes reckoned that the best film in competition was Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, from Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul. On the evidence of A.W.'s Syndromes and a Century, a wonderful, unclassifiable film from 2006, I'm prepared to believe them. Uncle Boonmee is only the most oddly titled of quite a few possibly great 2010 films that just haven't had a Seattle booking so far. Some never will.
Then too, the problem might be with the critic. Understanding and appreciating films can be, should be, an ongoing activity - yet journalistic practice and the 24/7 pressure of the babbling Internet demand instantaneous, preferably monolithic assertion of opinion. The end of 2010 isn't necessarily the best time to evaluate 2010. Myself, I'm not bothered that I still haven't come fully to terms with, say, so widely esteemed and much awarded a movie as The Social Network.
As a contributor to MSN.com's annual Ten Best poll, I was obliged to submit a ranked list by Dec. 10. With the usual backloading of Oscar-hopeful movies for release around Christmastime, such an early deadline can lead to embarrassing omissions. But 2010's late-breaking films have proved an anticlimactic lot. I added one title to my tied-for-10th slot. That's it.
So on with the Best of the not-quite-great. The first three positions are solid; four through nine, unnumbered and listed in the order I saw them; and then - well, 10 was going to be that tie, but ... read on.
1. THE GHOST WRITER (Roman Polanski). I'm far from the only observer to remark what a rare pleasure it was to watch a movie made by someone who, in every frame and beat, so clearly knows how to make a movie. A thriller worthy of Hitchcock, and even Hitchcock forgot how to do that after a while. You already know Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan are terrific, so let's spotlight the enigmatic Olivia Williams.
2. WINTER'S BONE (Debra Granik). This adaptation of one of Daniel Woodrell's bleak Ozark novels struck many as the best new movie in the Seattle International Film Festival. Jennifer Lawrence excels as Ree Dolly, 17 years old and mainstay of her household. Her meth-cooking dad has gone missing; trying to find him becomes nothing less than a struggle for survival, in a remote community where everyone is blood kin and blood is poison. In May I wrote that Lawrence's Ree "burns with a cold fire," a metaphor Kathleen Murphy felt wasn't right; there's nothing cold about Ree's heart, or the hurt and fear behind her eyes. I recently watched the movie again, this time on Blu-ray, and was glad for the picture-window clarity. Every detail of place, climate and performance should be allowed to register, because it's all dead right.
3. LET ME IN (Matt Reeves). Unlikely as it sounds, the mostly lazy habit of doing American remakes of successful foreign films has led, for once, to a new film that honors the original version while contributing a distinctive vision all its own - and this in a vampire movie, yet. The 2008 Swedish picture, Let the Right One In, focused on the emerging friendship of two 12-year-old outcasts, one of whom has been 12 for a long time. Relocated to Los Alamos, N.M., the narrative not only retains its integrity and power but takes on an eerie beauty.
PLEASE GIVE (Nicole Holofcener) and THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Lisa Cholodenko). Yes, a lot of the year's best films were written and directed by women. These two family tales are shrewd behavioral studies and, not coincidentally, often side-splittingly funny takes on the quality of life in very different towns. In Please Give, Catherine Keener (an indie-film treasure) and Oliver Platt play a Lower Manhattan couple who haunt estate sales looking for retro furnishings to resell at their boutique - and also wait for the elderly lady nextdoor (Ann Guilbert) to die so that they can enlarge their own apartment. In Kids, Annette Bening (may we have the envelope, please?) and Julianne Moore are a lesbian couple in L.A. who have each borne a child during their 20-plus years together; now the kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) want to meet their sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo). Both films are delightful without ignoring the cost of happiness.
A PROPHET (Jacques Audiard) takes two-and-a-half hours to trace the evolution of a young Arab (Tahar Rahim) from petty-criminal newbie in a French prison to seasoned operator. Not a moment is wasted. Niels Arestrup is superb as a thoroughly unsentimentalized godfather.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK (David Fincher). I don't do Facebook (and, like Machete, I don't text), but this disputable account of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) founded it, and of the legal and financial maneuvering that ensued, is dynamic and compelling, and possibly The Story of Our Time. Written by Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue is almost certainly brilliant, though it plays as the auditory equivalent of a blue streak, so I'll have to listen to it again. (Used to have the same, curiously gratifying problem with The West Wing.)
HEREAFTER (Clint Eastwood). I hate telling you how it begins, so I won't, but you've never been anywhere like it. The 80-year-old master takes a screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen) as stepping-off point for a meditation on life after death, without neglecting the myriad pain and beauties of life before. Matt Damon gives the best performance by an actor in 2010, but since he doesn't stammer or have a British accent, we'll probably hear no more of it.
SWEETGRASS (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor) is too good a film to be classed as a documentary. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor - who take credit for "recording" rather than directing, yet direct beautifully - follow the last seasonal transfer of a sea of sheep from a Montana ranch to the high pastures of the Beartooth Mountains, then back again. It's not work you'd envy, yet the passage is as majestic as it is unpretty.
This is where the tie came: The American (Anton Corbijn), White Material (Claire Denis) and True Grit (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen). Then, when I thought this piece was finished, I sat down and - "an ongoing activity," remember? - watched a late-arriving screener of Peter Weir's THE WAY BACK. Although completed early in the year and screened at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival in September, this movie featuring a limpid, career-topping performance by Ed Harris and high-adventure storytelling of amazing delicacy won't go into release till next year. Never mind, it belongs on the 2010 list. Details to follow.
The year keeps getting better. And really, it's not over yet.