Ten-best lists are a mug's game. They're never as definitive as they should be. They compare and contrast intangibles. Slippery, demanding films that keep you thinking long after you've left your seat (like the knockout Korean murder mystery "Mother") vie with others that I love and admire but didn't demonstrate staying power ("The Kids Are All Right"). High-profile blockbusters contend with inspired indies, sober documentaries with animated larks. How do you reconcile those imponderables? By making a list.
1) "Inception" - A threshold-raising combination of spectacle, technical brilliance and conceptual daring. Christopher Nolan's cerebral heist movie is an adventure that owes more to Freud and Descartes than to Thomas Crown or Danny Ocean. The meticulously designed layer-cake finale, with multiple climaxes playing out in parallel, interconnected dream states, makes "Memento's" backward structure look like child's play.
2) "The Fighter" - A uppercut to the jaw of those who say Hollywood films are no longer character-centered. This fact-based prizefighting drama focuses mostly on battles outside the ring. It's a story of clan dynamic in a too-close blue-collar family (good boy, bad boy, meek dad, overbearing cougar ma, half-dozen big-haired, big-mouthed sisters) and the way the characters navigate blood relations turned toxic. It's also uproarious, and the thick-as-chowdah Boston accents are delicious.
3) "Toy Story 3" - If you didn't cry at the finale you must have a heart condition. We all know that a kiddie sequel in 3D doesn't have to be good to rake in the dough. The people at Pixar went ahead and made a classic anyway. Buzz Lightyear being reprogranned as a Spanish-speaking flamenco dancer and Michael Keaton's foppish Ken are sublime comic counterweight to a story that ends on a note of deep, honest feeling.
4) "True Grit" - There's a fine new generosity of spirit in this Coen brothers horse opera, For the first time, it's the performances, not the direction, that carry the film. Young Hailee Steinfeld creates a stunning debut as a bullheaded teen avenger and Jeff Bridges fills the screen as her cantankerous assassin-for-hire. Forget the Duke, Bridges is the definitive Rooster Cogburn.
5) "The Social Network" - An instant classic that bears comparison to "Citizen Kane." Aaron Sorkin's inspired script and David Fincher's brilliant direction diagram the interconnections between status, genius, money, sex and influence that make the world go 'round. Jesse Eisenberg brings an edgy anger to the role of Facebook's founder, and Armie Hammer delivers an incredible two-headed performance as the Winkelvoss twins.
6) "The Ghost Writer" - A stylish, trim, "Chinatown"-level thriller from Roman Polanski. Ewan McGregor is a self-effacing snoop brought in to salvage a disgraced Prime Minister's memoir. Wherever McGregor is positioned in the frame, he looks threatened, as if someone is about to swoop in and carry him off for a round of waterboarding. As the politician Pierce Brosnan does career-best work, a jittery blend of egotism, bravado and insecurity. The film is a witty, sinister salute to Hitchcock's thrillers and John Le Carre's paranoid spy novels, surely the best work ever done by a director under house arrest.
7) "The King's Speech" - An elegant, accomplished, wise movie about a monarch beset with self-doubt and the raffishly confident commoner who became his counselor and friend. Inspired by the relationship between King George VI and his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, the film features excellent performances by Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth. David Seider's screenplay crackles with wit. Logue tells the king his previous therapists were nitwits. "They've all been knighted," the royal protests. "That makes it official then," says Lionel.
8) "Winter's Bone" - Here's something we haven't seen before: Ozarks noir. Jennifer Lawrence is a revelation as a poor rural teen searching for her meth-cooking father who put their home up for collateral on a bail bond, then vanished. She's an indomitable force, but it's hard to stare down an outlaw like her uncle Teardrop (a feral John Hawkes). When he tells his wife, "I already told you to shut up once with my mouth," you have a measure of the man. As her heroine goes deeper into the dark woods, director Debra Granik delivers a missing-man mystery with the weight of myth.
9) "Fair Game" - A riveting dramatization of CIA agent Valerie Plame's outing, but also a compelling portrait of a battered marriage and a broken intelligence system. Naomi Watts beings quick intelligence and resolve to the role; as her husband, ambassador Joe Wilson, Sean Penn creates a flawed man of principle. The finest fact-based Washington thriller since "All the President's Men." Go here for an interview with Plame and Wilson.
10)"Inside Job" - Charles Ferguson's fluid, lucid and infuriating documentary on financial services firms' role in the economic meltdown is a must-see. With breathtaking access to powerbrokers, the film builds a damning case against economists-for-hire who charge fortunes to write reports praising hazardously fragile investment instruments. The film clearly explains the dire effects of deregulation, the rise of exotic derivatives, and the ways in which investment industry has corrupted the study of economics itself. The take-away is not "Woe is me" but "We've got to do something about this!" Go here for an interview with "Inside Job" director Charles Ferguson.
Honorable mentions: "Restrepo," "Black Swan," "Client 9,The Rise and fall Of Eliot Spitzer," "Mother," "The Kids Are All Right" and the "Three Brothers" silhouette animation sequence from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186