Stephanie Zacharek's 10 Best Movies of 2010



There's no other American filmmaker quite like Sofia Coppola: She has the most delicate touch of anyone working today, yet there's fierceness in her precision. Somewhere appears to drift along: Stephen Dorff gives a marvelous, understated performance as a too-successful movie star who's decamped into a world of bored stasis at the Chateau Marmont, only to be nudged out of it by a surprise visit from his preteen daughter, played by a fawnlike (and superb) Elle Fanning. Only at the end does it become clear how much feeling and fortitude Coppola has poured into every seemingly casual scene, every offhand moment. It takes nerves of steel to make a movie this unassuming, and this moving.

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski gave us one of the most beautifully crafted thrillers of the year, in which a writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to polish up the memoirs of the former British prime minister (a cool-as-Italian-marble Pierce Brosnan), which turns out to be not exactly the safest job in the world. This wily, mischievous entertainment is put together like a piece of clockwork, with no silly editing or inane wriggly cameras. The basics are all you need -- and yet, these days, more than you can usually hope for.

The Social Network

A movie that's basically a bunch of young guys talking, when they're not totally nerding out. How does it work so well? David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin give us not just a fictionalized version of the birth of Facebook, but a study of how being a misunderstood asshole can work both for and against you.

The King's Speech

Colin Firth stars as the stuttering king-to-be, Albert, who overcomes his fear and faces his public by working with a self-styled speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). The movie's pleasures lie in its quiet but sharply observed details, and in the performances given by Firth, Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, as Albert's concerned but cautious wife. She eases him toward boldness and confidence without ever wounding his masculine, kingly pride. And she wears some great hats.

I Am Love

Luca Guadagnino's story of a repressed Italian society wife finding true love with a down-to-earth chef is both crazy (in the good way) and meticulously controlled (also in the good way). And it features Tilda Swinton in one of the finest performances of the year; she's like a translucent butterfly, with long, long, human legs.

Despicable Me and My Dog Tulip

Yes, it's cheating to cram two movies into one entry. But isn't it grand to have too many good movies to list, rather than not enough? Here, two marvels of animation: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud's thoroughly disreputable and deeply pleasurable Despicable Me brings lots of casual naughtiness to the increasingly classy -- too-classy -- world of animation. And Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's My Dog Tulip is a near-perfect adaptation of what may be a perfect book, J.R. Ackerley's memoir about the years he spent with his beloved pet Alsatian. My Dog Tulip is computer animation that has the look and warmth of old-fashioned hand-drawing; it's the best of both worlds, proof that there's no reason they can't co-exist.


Marco Bellocchio's haunting feature about Mussolini's mistress, Ida Dalser, is epic filmmaking done on a relative shoestring. This is a grand, melodramatic sweep of a movie, and it features another of the year's great female performances: That of Giovanna Mezzogiornio as the ill-fated Ida. Her eyes seem larger than life; so does her suffering.


Olivier Assayas' five-and-a-half-hour portrait of Carlos the Jackal -- starring a regally foxy Édgar Ramírez -- follows the nation-hopping (and bed-hopping) trail of the international celebuterrorist without ever condoning his less-than-moral acts. The thing moves like a shot, though it's also available in a surprisingly satisfying two-and-a-half-hour version.


The brilliant Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To spins a tale of principled hit men and the aging restaurateur -- played superbly by French pop star Johnny Hallyday -- who hires them to avenge the death of his daughter and his grandchildren. The movie's violence is brutal, but so beautifully staged that you can hardly take your eyes off it. There's more, and better, ballet here than in Black Swan.

The American and The Tourist

Two examples of mainstream thrillers -- although the latter is more of a caper -- that attempted to give audiences something beyond choppy editing and incoherent action sequences. The first was greeted warmly by audiences and some critics. The second was met with a resounding "What the heck?" Anton Corbijn's The American looks and feels like a movie made by a filmmaker who hasn't been to the movies since the '70s -- and I mean that as the highest compliment. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Tourist -- clearly modeled on sprightly '60s espionage romances like Charade -- met with more open hostility from critics than any movie I can recall in recent years. I can certainly see viewing it as a failed experiment (though I don't happen to share that view), or being disappointed by it, or simply not having a good time. But those who saw it as a major crime de cinema should get out more. Movies aren't lumps carved out of gold or wood or lead. They're mechanisms with many moving parts, each intended to strike a mood or set a tone or in some big or small way pull one of the many, many levers in our equally complicated brains. How a DP frames scenery we've seen, or think we've seen, 100 times, the knowledge that the actors are in on a movie's jokes, the fact that a costume designer has taken care with all sorts of small but crucial details: There are almost too many things to be open to in movies.

When it comes to The Tourist, I'm baffled that more critics didn't see, for instance, the wit in the idea of a woman boarding a train for another country with only a tiny clutch bag, to find upon her arrival that her absentee lover has filled the closet of her luxury hotel room with evening gowns and jewels. (I'm hoping no one thought that was supposed to be realistic. If this is your idea of realism, I have only two words: Call me!) Few movies this year gave me the kind of light, glancing pleasure I got from The Tourist. If only all experiments could "fail" so grandly.

Honorable Mentions: Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, Mia Hansen-Løve's The Father of My Children, Sngmoo Lee's The Warrior's Way, Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us, Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3, Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, Neil Jordan's Ondine, Matt Reeves' Let Me In, Robert Rodriguez's Machete, John Wells' The Company Men, Marshall Curry's Racing Dreams, Tony Scott's Unstoppable, Vincenzo Natali's Splice and Bartosz Konopka's Rabbit a la Berlin.

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  • Drew says:

    I liked what you had to say about top-10 lists. I think the personal choices are what's most important. I love reading as many as I can, seeing how many of the usual suspects critics included, and finding the more interesting lists that have those personal choices not liked by the majority critics and audiences. I make top 20 lists and send them to people I know. I haven't seen every title I am interested in, so it will take me until Feb before I put mine together.

  • Lee Ann says:

    I would submit 'Animal Kingdom' to this list---devastating performances, particularly by Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendolsohn. It stayed with me for days, especially since it is a true story.

  • kudos says:

    "I’m baffled that more critics didn’t see, for instance, the wit in the idea of a woman boarding a train for another country with only a tiny clutch bag"
    Are you serious? Is that really witty to you?? Do you have a college degree or is this a job you're doing to pay through it?
    If this site hired better writers there may be better feedback. My two cents. -

  • Sid says:

    Nice list and I certainly prefer a personal best list to the critics' choice ususal suspects lists which are all over with the numerous Odcar blogs.
    The American was not warmly received by audiences since it had a "D" CinemaScore and only made $35M domestic. But I agree with you that many critics didn't appreciate the wit and escapist intent of The Tourist and focused too much on some of the failings of the director/writer. In enjoyed it and found it a pleasurable 2 hours even though I could write a long list of what I thought von Donnersmarck did wrong. It's the sort of movie that would be an easy choice when I'm looking for light, escapist entertainment.

  • Peg Aloi says:

    Nice list Stephanie!
    My own (which will be posted on the Phoenix blog this week): Another Year, True Grit, The Red Riding Trilogy, Winter's Bone, The American, Sweetgrass, Toy Story 3, Marwencol, Please Give, Never Let Me Go.
    I had a long list of Honorable mentions, too, including Let Me In, Carlos, Ondine, I am Love, 127 Hours, Chloe, Blue Valentine, Client 9, Nowhere Boy, Hereafter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Biutiful, Monsters, Wasteland, Shutter Island, and Exit Through the Gift Shop.
    I appreciate your comments about Somewhere. I'm going to give it another chance.

  • Bonnie says:

    Ah, in spite of what "Kudos" says, Stephanie Zacharek is a very good film reviewer - and she writes with a lot of wit - but sorry, *The Tourist* is a witless wonder.

  • Sally shimmin says:

    I would add The Killer Inside Me and The Road. Otherwise completely agree.

  • Brian says:

    I thought The Tourist was pleasant, but not one of the year's best movies.
    There are a few 2010 movies that I still need to see (True Grit, Somewhere, Company Men) but my list so far is: Ghost Writer, The Town, The Fighter, Fair Game, The King's Speech, The American, Let Me In, Unstoppable, Easy A, and Harry Brown. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Chloe, Salt, and Hot Tub Time Machine were pretty good as well.

  • Peg Aloi says:

    Sally, THe Road was form 2009, but, yes one of last year's best, I thought.

  • Gilgamesh37 says:

    I far prefer personal best lists to the "good for you," purportedly objective lists some critics make, especially when, as this critic notes, such lists are inherently subjective anyway. Even when I don't agree with you, your columns are always wonderfully written and terrific to read. So thank you, Stephanie--all the best for 2011.

  • Ralph says:

    She liked the Fucking Tourist and hated Inception she should never review movies.

  • Gilgamesh37 says:

    Because she doesn't agree with you on 2 specific films, she should never review movies? Really? Look, whether you agreed with her assessment of those two films or not (and for full disclosure, I haven't seen Tourist, and I was frankly kind of bored by Inception, I didn't care about anyone in it and the thought of trying to sit through it again to catch all the "subtleties and nuance" holds zero appeal) the fact is that Ms. Zacharek has a depth and breadth of knowledge about film that very few people do. It's why--along with being an excellent and witty writer--she's a paid critic. Critics aren't supposed to just go along with the masses (or worse yet, with the studio publicity machines)--they're supposed to analyze, parse, compare, view and dissect in a way that the average viewer probably won't and almost certainly cannot. They can do all that AND also engage on the level of pleasure, which, hey, whaddya know? Is basically what she says in this piece. I just can't believe people are still questioning her obvious skills and tenure as a critic just because she wasn't wowed by Inception--a position, incidentally, which she ably and extensively defended, which is more than I can say of most of hte backlash, which seemed more on the line of "It was great, if you didn't like it, you're stupid." Yeah, that's well reasoned debate, folks. Move on, people.

  • Charles says:

    In reply to Ralph: Stephanie should have hated BOTH The Tourist and Inception. I understand she has an Angelina fixation, but to cite the wonderful Charade in comparison to The Tourist is a joke. However, I don't think Inception (or, for that matter, last year's grossly overrated Batman movie) is any better. In fact, they might even be worse.

  • Charles says:

    Oh, and since Stephanie invited us to list our own top 10, here are mine:
    1. Social Network; 2. The Kids Are All Right; 3. The King's Speech; 4. Ghost Writer; 5. 127 Hours; 6. The American; 7. Unstoppable; 8. The Town; 9. True Grit.
    Make that top 9. Oh, and I haven't seen Somewhere yet.

  • Patrick says:

    played superbly by French pop star Johnny Hallyday?
    you really don't know what you are talking about, do you? That was probably the worst piece of "acting" ever seen in a J-TO movie !!!! (seen any other than this one?)
    On the other hand, nice picking for the female cast (Mezzogiorno - who played also in "La Prima Linea" this year - and Swinton (who apparently has to be producing something to get roles that truly emphasize her talent, though "Julia" was nice too but not in a "butterfly" way as you put it beautifully)
    The American? is this an hormonal choice? (that, I would understand =D)

  • Nick says:

    Alphabetically: Black Swan, Blue Valentine, The Exploding Girl, Greenberg, I Am Love, Never Let Me Go, Shutter Island, The Social Network and Somewhere.
    If I had to put one at the top, it'd probably be Somewhere, with I Am Love and Greenberg a close second and third.

  • Nick says:

    And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Musn't forget that.

  • jamesyd says:

    nice list, social network and inception are my fav's. check out my list if you're interested

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