Call it the Year of the Woman, as 2010 featured more standout lead female performances than any 12-month stretch in recent memory. Whether that was just a fluke or denotes a sea change in the industry's gender-power dynamics remains open for debate. There's no question, however, that from domestic stars Michelle Williams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Natalie Portman, to foreign thesps Do-yeon Jeon, Sylvie Testud, Hye-ja Kim, and Isabelle Huppert (among many, many others), there was an avalanche of striking turns by outstanding actresses willing to push boundaries in daring, emotionally arresting roles.
If women commanded the cinema's spotlight, they were joined there by The Social Network, David Fincher's ultra-timely Facebook origin story, a superior mainstream entertainment whose style, wit, and substance elevated it above the crushing middlebrow pap of many other studio awards contenders. The economy was a predictably hot topic, and one confronted more astutely through nonfiction (Inside Job) than fiction (The Company Men), a situation generally true of a year that practically overflowed with riveting documentaries (Prodigal Sons, October Country, 45365, Marwencol). The heartfelt Toy Story 3 and empty-headed Inception dominated a largely dreary summer season, in which underwhelming tent poles reaped financial windfalls while Edgar Wright's dazzling Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was met with polarizing critical notices and moviegoer apathy.
From overseas shores came superb efforts by stalwarts Roman Polanski, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Lee Chang-dong, and Neil Jordan, as well as two standout works courtesy of Germany's Maren Ade (Everyone Else) and Greece's Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) that plumbed the warped dysfunction of romantic and familial relationships. Like the best 2010 had to offer, they afforded profound insight into the human condition, rather than the omnipresent 3D spectacles that merely offered a view of Hollywood's limitless desire to fleece customers via technological gimmickry. Nick Schager.
Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio)
Straddling the line between fiction and documentary with as much tenderness and sensuality as Robert Flaherty's works, Pedro González-Rubio's micro-budget coastal idyll flows by like a seaside breeze. Set in the Mexican-Caribbean reef of Chinchorro, it spends time with a real-life father and son who don't so much “play” themselves on screen as add their innate essences to González-Rubio's vivacious play of nature, people, and camera. Among Alamar's valuable vérité spectacles are lambent views of underwater crustaceans, the boy's graceful bond with a white egret, great barracudas splashing seawater at the lens, and the poignancy of estranged human beings briefly reunited in a world as vast and fluid as the ocean. It's a cinematic vision André Bazin would surely have dug. Fernando F. Croce
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
If Noah Baumbach is, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested, Renoir to Whit Stillman's Rohmer, then Greenberg is both his Boudu Saved From Drowning and his Golden Coach; we're invited to see past the palate-cleansing kitsch of southern California, where the titular misanthrope (Ben Stiller) takes a long post-breakdown vacation in his absentee brother's upper-class villa. But Greenberg's aged interloping inadvertently reveals the perverse strength rather than the hypocrisy of his sterile surroundings; he coldly pounces on his brother's assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), not realizing that her Valley dorkiness is a more effective emotional shield than his Manhattan causticity. They painfully, and hilariously, grope at each other's aversion to intimacy amid L.A.'s lonely, mile-long city blocks. And Baumbach, unafraid to rescue multiple lives from the brink of death, hesitantly unspools the milieu's plaintive magic. Joseph Jon Lanthier
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Awe and uncertainty reverberate equally throughout The Social Network, David Fincher's fictionalized take on Mark Zuckerberg and the birth of Facebook. Spearheaded by Jesse Eisenberg's commandingly nuanced lead performance, Fincher's latest is a sleek, scintillating portrait of intellect and ambition, a snapshot of a particular time and place, a stinging class-hierarchy comedy, and a universal story of trying to fit in. As Aaron Sorkin's rat-a-tat-tat script psychologizes its programming-prodigy subject, Fincher's enthralled camera swings, pops, and speeds alongside the meteorically rising Zuckerberg, all while sumptuously evoking the Ivy-League privilege that his protagonist both coveted and ultimately circumvented on his way to billions. Thrillingly electric and yet quietly tragic, it's a keenly observed film about genius, technology, and social desires that's rooted in ambivalence. Nick Schager
Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes)
How do the circumstances of a film's production affect the content of the finished product? How much of a role do happy accidents play in the construction of a movie? And where does one draw that ever-elusive line between fiction and documentary? These are three of the many questions Miguel Gomes asks in his provocatively offbeat second feature, Our Beloved Month of August, a film that could be described as chronicling the making of itself, if there weren't so many tricky ambiguities involved to complicate such a relatively straightforward summary. Sent to the Portuguese countryside with a massive script but no actors or funds, Gomes instead turned his camera on a local musical festival and the area's residents themselves. These telling semi-docu-glimpses of rural life make up the film's first half before giving way to a movie-within-a-movie whose tale of music, romance, and incest draws its immensely satisfying power from the way it seamlessly incorporates the previously glimpsed facts and people of the region into its fictional edifice. Andrew Schenker
Ghost Town (Zhao Dayong)
An essential addition to the Chinese cinematic project of documenting the collateral damage of the country's massive economic transformations, Zhao Dayong's Ghost Town chronicles a dusty southwest village utterly left behind by the nation's shifting focus toward its coastal-based economy. While a statue of Mao in the town square recalls the questionable legacy of the country's past, Zhao's tripartite doc takes in an estranged father-son pair of Christian priests, an alcoholic ditched by his wife and child and a 12-year-old kid forced to fend for himself after being left behind by his parents. Abandonment is the watchword here, as the country's neglect of its former provincial centers is mirrored by the rifts between family members and between contemporary life and ancient tradition that play out daily on the town's streets, a set of circumstances that Zhao captures in striking digital imagery, most memorably in a fiery ghost-exorcism ritual led by the preteen that speaks eloquently to the boy's will to overcome the privations brought about by his inherited past. Schenker
45365 (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross)
Brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross are literally transfixed by the idea of communication as the essence to rural life in America. In their quiet hometown of Sidney, Ohio—zip code 45365—they freely skulk around capturing poetic glimpses of people simply going about their everyday lives. Essentially a series of fragments, 45365 begins with fireworks lighting up Sidney's sky and ends with snow dusting its ground. In between, a football season and political campaign runs its course, a cop hilariously assesses a disgruntled man's cable connection, and an Elvis impersonator takes to the stage at the local carnival. Gorgeously scored, intuitively filmed, this condescension-free documentary finds something gloriously alive in seemingly mundane Americana. Ed Gonzalez
Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont)
There's no point in Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch that viewers can feel completely safe in the knowledge that they know what's coming next. The emotional tumult that Julie Sokolowski's teenage Celine subjects herself to is, after a point, indecipherable. Celine's age and privilege make her a prime target for all kinds of predators but her conviction prevents attentive viewers from patronizing her as a babe lost in the secular woods. Sex, religious crisis, and the omnipresent threat of imminent violent conflate to the point where the film threatens to implode at every turn. Dumont courts cynicism at every turn because of his immediately distant treatment of Celine's unfathomable secular pilgrimage to find faith in the physical. Impenetrable and devastating, the film is a real modern mystery play. Simon Abrams
Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton)
We're introduced in Samson and Delilah, as if waking from a hard sleep, to a village in a hyper-sensualized Australian outback, and lulled into its circadian rhythms—the painfully sharp sunbeams, the inebriating aroma of petrol, the lazy ska rehearsals chopping through the aridity. And we watch, as if from a nearby tin shack, the brain-dulled Samson (Rowan McNamara) court local beauty Delilah (Marissa Gibson), but the kid can't even build a fire; we shake our heads when the two clumsily steal a truck and light out for the city after a violent altercation. But we eventually realize that the post-colonial crack left on aboriginal culture (c.f. Nick Roeg's Walkabout) has formed an endemic fault line. Tribal heritage has become so alien that its denial is apolitical—and the guns, FM country stations, and paint thinner are wearily anesthetic consolation prizes. Lanthier
Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed)
A heart-wrenching portrait of family dysfunction, transformation, madness, and forgiveness, Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons rebukes your average hermetical reflection on gender identity—a too-prominent fixture of the doc-film circuit. Reed, born Paul McKerrow, returns to her hometown of Helena, Montana for her high school's reunion, reconnecting with the community that knew her only as a basketball-playing jock. Her crisis of self-definition soon collides with that of her mentally ill adopted brother, Marc, who learns he's the biological grandson of no less than Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, in effect throwing Reed's notions of queer identity for a dizzying loop. By the film's openhearted finale, Rosebud is given a whole new meaning. Gonzalez
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
Way down in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, Debra Granik's sophomore feature uses the mystery-suspense genre to survey the damage of rural drug culture on family and community. As 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) shakes off clannish intimidation to search for her missing crank-dealing father, whose absence has endangered the home she struggles to maintain with two young siblings and a near-catatonic mother, Winter's Bone's bleak tale unfolds with classical precision and benefits from lived-in, flinty character work by John Hawkes and Dale Dickey. Drawing parallels between gutting an edible squirrel and bucking the cruelty of the local outlaws, Lawrence's unyielding heroine tells her brother with both compassion and severity, “There's a bunch of stuff you're gonna have to get over bein' scared of.” Bill Weber