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Top films of 2010 built on stories, not technology

It seems somehow appropriate that 2010 in movies began with Avatar's 3-D dazzle and ends with the 3-D fizzle of Yogi Bear.

All year we've watched the movie industry through rose-colored 3-D glasses, expecting the next spectacle that never came.

Moviegoers are slowly catching on; while 3-D and IMAX surcharges push box office receipts over $10 billion again, the number of tickets sold in 2010 will actually decrease for the second time in three years. People are paying more and going less.

Who can blame them for ducking Hangover ripoffs, graphic novels that should've stayed that way, Lord of the Rings wanna-bes and sequels or remakes that needn't exist? The Sorcerer's Apprentice smelled like a bad idea even in 3-D. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World proved gamers type a better game in chat rooms than they play at theaters.

Yet through the gloom of a so-so movie year, a few releases shone brightly (albeit some of them in somewhat limited releases toward the year's end). They helped my Top 10 list, an annual exercise, mean a bit more this year, since it's a reminder that things weren't all bad.

Here we go . . .

10. Inside Job

Charles Ferguson explains where all the money went, in the year's best documentary. Dissecting the causes of global economic meltdown — an unholy alliance of Wall Street and Washington interests — could become a rant or a bore. Ferguson's refreshingly bipartisan approach makes you feel smarter (and angrier) for watching. (Coming soon to DVD)

9. Rabbit Hole

The accidental death of their young son leads a couple (Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart) on different paths of grieving. David Lindsay-Abaire's adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play discards histrionics that usually accompany such themes. Rather than jerking tears, this finely tuned acting showcase focuses on the anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance of letting go. (Opens Jan. 14)

8. Alice in Wonderland

Director Tim Burton found a kindred, twisted spirit in Lewis Carroll, whose classic novel was never visualized so ingeniously before. Not only did this Alice (Mia Wasikowska) grow and shrink, she also matured into a Jane Austen-style heroine, adding layers to the fantasy that Carroll never dreamed. Bonus points for another wonderfully weird Johnny Depp performance, and allowing me the chance to type "galumphing bandersnatch." (Now on DVD)

7. I Love You Phillip Morris

The year's best comedy, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor boldly yet sweetly portraying lovers who meet in prison. The situations that result are a jaw-dropping mosh of Catch Me If You Can and Brokeback Mountain, with Carrey's character doing anything illegal to keep his man — and each scam really happened. Co-writers and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa live up to their Bad Santa reputation with no-holds-barred humor and unexpected warmth. (Now in theaters)

6. 127 Hours

The true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), who was trapped under a boulder in a canyon for five days before amputating his arm to escape. Director Danny Boyle turned Ralston's isolation and dehydration into pulse-pounding drama, using flashbacks and hallucinations to explain Ralston's will to survive. Franco's performance is among the year's best, with a videocamera as a solid supporting actor, recording his escalating delirium. (Now in theaters)

5. Blue Valentine

Love blooms quickly and wilts painfully in director Derek Cianfrance's autopsy of a relationship that never had a chance. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling deliver raw performances reminiscent of early John Cassavetes, with the tiniest gestures and pregnant pauses revealing the inevitable. Cianfrance's structure is similar to (500) Days of Summer, with time shuffled to emphasize the loss. Blue Valentine is more like 500 days of winter; a cold shock to the system. (Opens Jan. 21)

4. Toy Story 3

A glorious farewell to the most consistently superb trilogy in movie history. Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) cope with life after playtime, banished to a toy retirement home run with a fuzzy fist by 2010's top villain, Lotso the teddy bear (Ned Beatty). Surprises kept coming 15 years after the original, with Michael Keaton almost stealing the show as a vain, vapid Ken doll. We'll have friends in them forever. (Now on DVD)

3. The Social Network

The creation of Facebook and the erosion of a soul. Whether or not David Fincher's movie gets either story straight, he created the most topical feature film in years. Jesse Eisenberg is a motor-mouthed revelation as whiz kid Mark Zuckerberg, whose financial triumph comes at the expense of love and friends, like a 21st century Citizen Kane. (Now in theaters; Jan. 11 on DVD)

2. Winter's Bone

The best fiction in theaters this year, an Ozarks gothic mystery set among backwoods meth labs and rattling family skeletons. Jennifer Lawrence delivered a breakout performance as Ree Dolly, a plucky teenager searching for her derelict father in a no-tell culture. John Hawkes was equally impressive as her menacing Uncle Teardrop. Director Debra Granik creates a unique hick noir, with a story Stephen King may wish he wrote. (Now on DVD)

1. The King's Speech

Impeccably written and performed, this movie leaves me — like its stammering hero — nearly at a loss for words. You won't find a better performance than Colin Firth's exquisitely measured role as a British monarch with a debilitating stammer, or a wittier turn than Geoffrey Rush's as his unorthodox therapist. Neither stuffy nor fluffy, The King's Speech has dimensions that don't require special glasses to see. (Now in theaters)

Top films of 2010 built on stories, not technology 12/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 4:48pm]
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