1. Waiting for Superman
Say what you will about the director’s previous film, An Inconvenient Truth. His latest documentary takes a focused look at an issue that nearly all Americans have an equal stake in: the failings of the public school system. Even with an issue that has yet to become a prominent political hot-topic, moviegoers no doubt came into this film with certain expectations and assumptions about both the movie and its’ subject matter. What Waiting for Superman does better than anything else, though, is sort out those assumptions and present us with a film that rings true. By treating all sides of the argument with respect, by refusing to create villains for the film and insisting on a nuanced take on all related issues, the film avoids looking like the next Michael Moore hatchet-job. Yes, the film seems to praise certain charter schools and present labor unions in a negative light, but that’s not a result of tricky editing or title cards as much as it is the actions of those respective systems.
There is no snide, smirking cynicism in this movie, and every emotional beat feels truthful rather than manipulated. Instead of indulging our pretensions and bias, it asks us instead to care about the individuals affected by a flawed system. All kinds of people will see this film, but as a middle-class white guy, I remember taking my education for granted and coasting through high school. I had that luxury because I felt assured of a halfway decent life. Waiting for Superman reminded me that there are some who desperately want to learn their vocabulary words, to do their math homework, to read books. One kid wants to leave home for a boarding school where he will be forced to give up television and video games. He wants to do this because he wants a future that doesn’t end in jail, death or poverty. Leaving the theater, I wanted to do anything I could to make sure he gets what he wants, even if it meant voting for policies that seem to fly in the face of my own libertarian ideals. -Richard Clark
2. The Social Network
If The Social Network is not the year’s best picture, it certainly is one of the most fascinating personal stories told in any movie this year. The movie is equal parts exploration of the social struggles of the brilliant, the allure of money, and the dawn of social networking. It is certainly up for debate as to how much of The Social Network’s story is based in fact, but if even 5% of the story is true, it’s still fascinating—most notably in the revolutionaries of social networking making such a horrendous mess of their own social relationships.
I think people wanted The Social Network to be about what Facebook has done to the world, but the movie just isn’t about this—its about what the world has done to the people of Facebook. You should see The Social Network because the movie illustrates how the allure of money and notoriety can make monsters of us all. The movie sends an important message to all of us: we can understand people’s deep desire to connect and yet never make any meaningful connections because we all love ourselves more than we are willing to admit. -Drew Dixon
3. Toy Story 3
Sometimes films made by big name movie studios can feel like they are all style and no substance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth with regard to Pixar. Though the studio has always excelled in animation, its latest offerings, Up and Toy Story 3, have provided viewers with meaningful cinematic experiences. Toy Story 3 has great art, writing, and action but what makes it stand out is how each of these elements are brought together to promote themes worthy of the Christian’s attention. In short, Toy Story 3 was a story about friendship, growing up, loyalty, and selfless service. However, what I found most fascinating about Toy Story 3 was its exploration of how we feel about our possessions. It’s rare for any movie to explore the temporary nature of our possessions in any serious way, but Toy Story 3 did this quite naturally and maturely for a movie aimed at a young audience. Here’s to hoping that there is no Toy Story 4, because the third installment was an appropriate end to wonderful triology. -Drew Dixon
As a general rule, any film that can be described as a “blockbuster” or “roller coaster” or “event” will probably just annoy me: Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ironman. I can’t defend this flaw in my character which prevents me from immersing myself in rollicking big-screen fun, so I won’t. Thankfully, there are a few movies that have managed to be skillfully made blockbusters, big budget action movies which provoke the viewer to entertain important and interesting ideas. Christopher Nolan’s Inception was one of these movies. Although it is hindered by Nolan’s typical directing flaws (supporting characters who lack development, hard to follow dialogue, convoluted plots), Inception affected me on many levels. It was visually stunning, the action was exciting and captivating, the universe was intriguing and imaginative, and the themes of love and forgiveness and redemption and truth were developed both emotionally and conceptually. Inception was the most enjoyable moviegoing experience I have had a long time and I’m excited to see what Christopher Nolan has in store for us next: The Dark Knight Rises. -Alan Noble
5. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
When it was announced that Edgar Wright was adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley’s acclaimed graphic novel series, it struck me as a stroke of genius given Wright’s track record (particularly the TV series Spaced, which feels like a Scott Pilgrim precursor in many ways). Wright’s adaptation is not without its flaws, and it hasn’t stood up to multiple viewings quite as well as I would’ve liked. That being said, however, the film is so full of geeky/nerdy love, so goofily self-aware, so full of wild, imaginative style — like the sadly maligned Speed Racer, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World pushes so far beyond reality that it becomes hyper-real, with its style becoming its substance — that it still engenders more good will and affection than nearly any movie I’ve seen in recent memory, flaws and all. - Jason Morehead
6. Winter’s Bone
If I see one more review calling Winter’s Bone a “slice of Americana,” this Arkansan is going to slam her nonexistent banjo over someone’s head. What’s striking about this movie—about an Ozark girl’s quest to find her meth-cooking father—is how it unites the universality of Antigone-ish themes of honor and justice with the particularity of life in southern Missouri, without reducing that particularity to prepackaged charm or shock (the two things the mountain South is usually good for, in filmmakers’ eyes).
See it because it’s a well-made film with great performances, especially by Jennifer Lawrence as 17-year-old Ree and John Hawkes as the creepiest uncle ever (both have been nominated for Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Lawrence has been nominated for a Golden Globe). See it because it’s a film directed by a woman not named Catherine Hardwicke or Nora Ephron. See it because the credits roll to the gospel hymn “Farther Along”: “We’ll understand it all by and by.” See it on DVD, because it probably didn’t come to a theater near you. -Carissa Smith
7. 127 Hours
They could have made this film for network or cable television. It could have won a Golden Globe for best TV movie. It could have been a fascinating story about a guy who does something we could never do. Instead, thanks to director Danny Boyle, the story of the man who cut his own arm off became a story of a man who learned to let go and let others take up his burden. It went from being a sensationalistic headline to a story with a theme that is universal. While Boyle’s tendency to disorient the viewer through constant sound and editing tricks can take their toll, those same tendencies enhanced this film. A film is more than just a good story. It has to be directed in such a way that the story takes in the audience and allows them to internalize what is happening on screen. For this story, Boyle is the only director I can imagine succeeding at this task. -Richard Clark
While not the most entertaining movie I saw this year (a toss up between Red and Iron Man 2), Babies is definitely the most interesting. The film follows four babies, in Tokyo, Namibia, Mongolia, and San Francisco, from birth to their first steps. This is documentary in the purest sense I can imagine. There is no dialogue, no voice-over, no subtitles. The only information given is each child’s name and location. The Christian Science Monitor aptly called it an “essentially enjoyable celebration of the mundane.”
Two things stood out to me. First, babies are babies. I figured that going in, but none of these kids did anything mine haven’t done, or wouldn’t if given the opportunity (it’s tough to run outside naked when you live on the 8th floor of a high rise). They eat toilet paper, bite each other, make messes of their parents’ things, and throw fantastic tantrums. Yes, babies are babies. The second thing is how ridiculous my parenting seems compared to the Mongolian and Namibian parenting. In an early montage, these scenes are put together in something close to this order: a rooster walking around on the bed with the Mongolian infant, the American parents worriedly discussing SIDS with their doctor, the Namibian baby laying naked in the dirt, chewing on rocks, and back to the American girl, who’s being cleaned with a lint-roller by her father. I remember leaving the theater laughing sheepishly at the whole idea of baby aerobics, then took my kids to a class that weekend.
Of course, raising children in these harsh areas can’t be as parochially charming as filmmaker Thomas Balmes made it appear on screen, but the story he told made the growth of these children in exotic places and cultures just as familiar as the growth of my own. Sometimes they’re all just too adorable for words. Babies is so sweet it’s like film dessert – not a Klondike bar, but that $20 chocolate cake volcano that gives you a sugar rush just looking at it. -Charles Jones
9. The Town
I’d like to tell an old joke. This line has served me well through the last decade, constantly refreshed with new material. Here goes: Ben Affleck. From “Armageddon” to “Pearl Harbor” to “Surviving Christmas,” the man spent nearly a decade constantly refueling the jabs at his poor film choices and paltry acting within them. Yet I want to tell the joke that is Ben Affleck because the old joke now has a chance of staying old. Starting with “Gone, Baby, Gone” a couple years ago, film-watchers saw a new side of Affleck: the director. This film was no joke and with his new directing project, “The Town,” neither is Affleck. A tense film with the some parts heist film, others doomed love story, Affleck shows great potential behind the camera. The picture is not perfect; it does suffer from sparse but ill-advised melodrama. Also, the near-constant profanity, while at times accurate to the characters, at other points seems gratuitous. Affleck’s acting is adequate though not nearly to the level of his movie-making. The Christian themes are not easily picked off the surface. In fact, the film is a harsh teacher, showing how the ripple effect of past wrongs can permeate later choices, even those aimed at redemption. Its Christ-less nature, ironically enough, can point us to Christ. -Adam Carrington
10. Shutter Island
The mantra “everything you know is wrong” is not exactly new but Leonardo DiCaprio seems to have jumped on the “question reality” bandwagon with his two films this year: Inception and Shutter Island. Inception, written of elsewhere on this list, digs into that murky territory between dream and reality. In Shutter Island, DiCaprio delivers a protagonist as likable as any other he has played, and yet as the movie progresses we begin to wonder if he is not the good guy. If he is not innocent then he is certainly wrong about everything. His whole understanding of reality is mired in that premise of his goodness.
Another film, 2000′s Memento, trod this familiar path. In that film, Leonard was a monster but told himself differently. He created an elaborate framework to collaborate his theory and he was convinced! Memento had been Christopher Nolan’s directorial breakthrough and of course, it was Nolan who directed DiCaprio in this years’ Inception. Nolan is said by many to be more precise and to leave the viewer with fewer unanswered questions. That has been used to prove a now popular theory about Inception. With Shutter Island, Scorsese presents us with a Hitchcock-induced treatment of this repeating post-modern theme of skepticism. While Shutter Island may not provoke as much discussion as Inception, it did generate divided opinions about its outcome: Was Teddy criminally insane or was he the victim of a most impressive conspiracy? How we answer this kind of question about ourselves says much about how we live. While Shutter Island may not have been the strongest work of either DiCaprio or Scorsese it is superior to the bulk of 2010′s cinematic fare. If for no other reason, the film is worthwhile for its exploration of this question: if everything I know is wrong, what does that say about me? -Chase Livingston
11. Honorable Mention: True Grit
Our process started too soon for True Grit to make the cut this year, but it’s clearly one of the better films this year. Had it come out before December 2nd, it very well might have made this list. You can read more about that film here.