It wouldn't be the end of the year without at least one critic bemoaning the state of cinema as worse than ever. In 2010, however, the movie mainstream did seem to produce more misfires than usual, as Hollywood gradually figured out that post-conversion 3-D doesn't work very well, M. Night Shyamalan shouldn't be trusted with money, and Gemma Arterton isn't going to become the next big thing just because you force her on us.
Notably, this year's best list features more independents and international entries than usual.
On the other hand, if you see enough movies across the spectrum, there will almost always be more than enough for at least a 10 best list. I haven't seen absolutely everything of significance, but have made a heroic effort to get to most of it—nonetheless, Yogi Bear or Marmaduke could be hidden masterpieces, and I will never know.
So, from the top down:
1. Four Lions. Chris Morris' take-no-prisoners spoof of incompetent Islamic terrorists is hilarious for its audaciousness and smart scripting, and somewhat tragic in its more-accurate-than-we'd-like-to-think depiction of just how easily stupid people can be motivated to violence. A must for fans of South Park, Dr. Strangelove, and last year's In the Loop.
2. Enter the Void. In 1999, I picked the South Park movie as my No. 1, and Fight Club as No. 2; years later, it seems those should have been reversed. Similar dilemma this year. Gaspar Noe's latest attempt to make the 2001: A Space Odyssey of nihilistic art-porn observes the seedy side of Tokyo nightlife quite literally through the eyes of a dead man. Love it or loathe it, you'll respect its ambition.
3. The Ghost Writer. Hate him as a human being, sure, but as a filmmaker, Roman Polanski's still got it. A fun, suspenseful ride where it's always clear that you're in the hands of a master driver.
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. The movie every Internet fanboy always claims to want: a faithful franchise adaptation, true to the characters, with effects that serve the story, technically assured and occasionally artful direction, well-chosen actors (it doesn't get better, frankly), and dark, dark, dark.
5. I'm Still Here. The best performance of the year was that of Joaquin Phoenix as "himself," keeping character for over a year to make a "documentary" that exposes and mocks how easily we believe so-called reality entertainment. The film works better when you already know it's a put-on, but if you didn't, you helped make its point.
6. Idiots and Angels. Maybe you remember Bill Plympton's MTV cartoons of two identical men punching each other in the face. He's still making movies almost all by himself, and they're the punk rock of animated features: handmade, profane, challenging to the status quo, and occasionally ugly, yet groundbreaking. This tale of a drunken, misogynist jerk who grows angel wings that help him become a better person is everything Hollywood cartoons aren't supposed to be.
7. Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga'Hoole. Not quite as radical as Plympton, but still a pretty amazing step forward for a major studio work of animation. Proof that when you let a director with a proven track record (the seemingly mismatched-to-material Zack Snyder) do whatever he wants, it can be the right thing sometimes.
8. Inception. Ditto to everything above, minus the animation part. Particularly impressive is the way the script conveyed a relatively complex idea in a manner that the average audience member could get, without overtly pandering or talking down.
9. The Illusionist. The most feel-bad work of animation on this list, Sylvain Chomet's realization of Jacques Tati's unproduced script captures the low-key slapstick spirit of the French great, while also being a mournful reminiscence on the death of vaudeville.
10. Piranha 3-D. Yes, Piranha 3-D. It'd be dishonest to deny that it was the most purely entertaining film of the year. That the sequel is being called Piranha 3DD tells you everything you need to know.
Honorable mentions: Despicable Me, Life During Wartime, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Blue Valentine, True Grit, Tron: Legacy, The Social Network, Carlos, Easy A, Black Swan, Mother, Lebanon, The A-Team, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Kick-Ass, and The Human Centipede (First Sequence).