1. The Social Network
Forget about Facebook. Forget about Harvard. And definitely forget about Mark Zuckerberg. The Social Network is about a nerd who just wants some love. Too bad he’s enough of an asshole that even a few billion dollars can’t help him get any.
Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s latest, a fictional account of Zuckerberg’s rise to social network glory, is meant to warn a generation that was raised in the shadow of dot-com entrepreneurs who made a shit-ton of money. What happens when you hit the jackpot? You lose your girl, fight a nine-figure lawsuit filed by your best friend, and hang out with a coke-addled Justin Timberlake. Some trade.
Zuckerberg yearned for two elite worlds: one of hoity-toity Ivy League eating clubs, and another of drug-fueled parties on the West Coast. But after Facebook vaults him past both, he’s alone. The Social Network is the best movie of the year because it owns that message: a billion dollars may be cool, but it sure as hell won’t buy happiness.
Christopher Nolan went for broke and scored big with Inception, this summer’s dreamy, mind-twisting blockbuster. The film’s high-paced concept of dream-heist was at times overwhelming, but its quick-moving plot only piqued audience interest. With unmatched special effects (upside-down fight scenes!), big-name actors, and a big sound, thanks to an ear-blasting score by Hans Zimmer and a slowed-down Edith Piaf song, Inception captivated the world’s audiences. Not since The Matrix has a sci-fi action film looked this good.
3. Toy Story 3
Revisiting the franchise that introduced audiences to computer-animated film, Pixar’s Toy Story 3 centers on what happens to the toys as Andy, their owner, prepares to leave for college. As they find themselves in a daycare where they meet some friendly and some not-so-kind fellow toys, Woody must gather up the original gang to team up against a stuffed bear. Perhaps because the same kids who loved the original are now just as grown up as Andy, the movie, this time in 3D, manages to hit the same poignantly touching and funny notes as the original.
4. 127 Hours
Painful to watch? Yes, but also painfully good. 127 Hours depicts the true story of trapped outbacker Aron Ralston (James Franco) and his five-day struggle with his arm pinned under a boulder. Franco carries the film, portraying Ralston with a level of precision that may well earn him an Oscar. Danny Boyle’s directing propels the film towards its grotesque conclusion—Franco’s amputation of his own arm with a dull pocketknife—which notoriously left several audience members at screenings passed out. Elegantly acted and beautifully shot, 127 Hours one of the year’s best. Just keep a brown paper bag within reach.
5. Shutter Island
There’s nothing subtle about Shutter Island. From the blaring score to the supersaturated cinematography and delightfully over-the-top acting, every facet of Martin Scorsese’s latest noir-thriller is designed to overwhelm the audience—and that’s a good thing. The film is a mess of clichés and B-movie tropes, but they’re woven together so slyly that audiences will never question the dashing federal agent with the dark past or grow frustrated with the extended dream sequences. Instead, these elements are disconcerting in their familiarity. Like storm waters crashing against its titular landmass, Shutter Island sweeps its audience away, leaving only awe in their place
6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I
After the disappointing misstep that was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, diehard fans of J.K. Rowling’s books—myself included—worried that part one of the series’s final installment would betray the original text just as much as its predecessor. Thankfully, director David Yates delivered a film that allowed its trio of leads to develop emotionally and stayed (mostly) faithful to the book it’s based on. Audiences got to see Dobby as a free elf, and even an imaginary Harry-Hermione love scene. Is it still too early to start counting down for part two?
7. Despicable Me
With Pixar in the middle of a three-year run of sequels, Universal chose a wise time to enter the animation game. If they had turned out a Dreamworks-quality snoozefest, we’d have no choice but to sit back and watch talking toys for the third time. But they mercifully granted us a reprieve: Despicable Me is hilarious, charming, and fantastically animated. The voice cast puts in an excellent performance, but it’s the goofy minions and lovable orphans who make the film. Never cloying, they find the perfect balance between endearing and hilarious. So Pixar, go ahead and make RataTWOy—I’ll be waiting to see what original concept Universal can deliver on next.
Tracking a platoon of U.S. Army soldiers battling the Taliban in Afghanistan over the course of a year, Restrepo is war journalism in its most extreme and powerful form. Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington thankfully refrain from editorializing on the morality or necessity of the war, instead letting the alternately traumatic and post-traumatic rhythm of the soldiers’ lives speak for itself. It feels like a real-life version of The Hurt Locker, mercilessly intense and occasionally horrifying, but, in the end, unforgettably moving. And as an apolitical war documentary in an increasingly polarized political climate, it’s a vital look at the terrifying human experience of modern warfare.
Whiskey and ice cream sandwiches: those are the only things on Roger Greenberg’s grocery list. Greenberg is about a neurotic 40 year-old (Ben Stiller) recovering from a mental breakdown while house-sitting for his brother in Los Angeles. Stiller is a natural fit for the script—he’s at his best when playing tightly-wound, obsessive-compulsive characters. Director Noah Baumbach’s distinctive style of relationship-based storytelling keeps the film moving, but it’s the discomfort of watching Stiller’s capricious interactions with old friends and his strange sexual tension with a vulnerable woman (Greta Gerwig) that makes Greenberg worth watching. It’s the best character-driven film of the year.
10. Get Him to the Greek
Though it lacks the sweet sincerity of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, spinoff sequel Get Him to the Greek features the same mix of gross-out humor and emotional resonance that have made Judd Apatow’s films so popular. Russell Brand, playing the same rock star that debuted in Marshall, proves that his character is more than a hilariously freaky British guy who says unnecessarily lewd things. His character’s somewhat depressing exploration of the drawbacks of fame and celebrity are an interesting addition to the story, making the film more than just another sex and drugs comedy. Too bad the other leads are Jonah Hill and Diddy.
1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
No one loomed larger over the second half of 2010 than Kanye West. His G.O.O.D. Friday releases dominated music blogs for months. His 30-minute music video-cum-art film, Runaway, was broadcast simultaneously on MTV and BET. Throughout the year, whispers kept creeping around the Internet about the magic that Kanye West and his co-collaborators were creating out in Hawaii.
When the album dropped, it was instantly lauded as a classic, and Kanye’s damning 2009 outburst at the VMAs all but forgotten. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an impeccably sequenced, beautifully orchestrated epic, the sound of a genius shooting for the moon and making it. Lyrically, West manages to capture the loneliness and despair of a man—himself—who has lost the ability to maintain functional human relationships, giving the album an emotional resonance that that his previous effort, the melodramatic, robo-achy 808s and Heartbreak tried (and failed) to convey. He’s finally broken free of the producer-rapper stigma, with bitingly humorous and defiantly bombastic rhymes supported his most controlled, refined flows to date. Despite its masturbatory song lengths and grandiose self-indulgence, it’s the most gorgeous-sounding rap album in years, and by far the best album of 2010.
2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
On The Suburbs, The Arcade Fire maximized their range of songwriting and put out one of the best albums of the year. The indie-rock eight-piece squeezed an impressive amount of sound on each track of the album, making personal feelings about suburban isolation sound meaningful and even heroic. Taking full advantage of what they are capable of in a recording studio, the band’s signature piano, guitars, and full rhythm section drive the album from its pensive beginning to its lonely finish. The Suburbs’s sonic and emotional depth made it a deeply satisfying release.
3. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Once adored for crafting quirky folk music with lush instrumentation, on his newest album, The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has gone off the deep end and into a whirlwind of self-reflection and fruitless contemplation. Lucky for us, he’s manifested his existential crisis as one of the most expansive and intricate albums released this year. Equipped with what sounds like the backing band from Hell’s version of Disney on Ice, Stevens orchestrates a colorful montage from the wreckage of his former selves. The result is an album that drastically surpasses the limits of what we had previously thought possible in his songs.
4. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
When Jive Records told Big Boi they wanted him to write the next “Lollipop,” he did what any self-respecting MC would do—he walked away from the label completely. Their loss. Big Boi’s long-awaited solo debut, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, is everything fans have wanted for years. The album eschews some of the quirkier elements of Outkast’s style, bringing track after track of speaker-rattling Southern rap. Big Boi’s flow is complex and dynamic, dropping catchy club hooks as easily as complex puns, and making the absence of Outkast bandmate Andre 3000 hard to notice.
5. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Though it is nominated for a Grammy for “Best Contemporary R&B Album,”—one it deserves to win—calling The ArchAndroid rhythm and blues is a bit misleading. This album defies genre classification: Prog-soul? Art-funk? Neo-pop? Dance-punk? Afro-futuristic glam rock? All are valid, and yet none of them even come close to capturing the disparate range of sounds on this album. This is a neo-soul record with the heart of a Bowie concept album and the vibrant thump of an Outkast release. It’s a 70-minute cyber-punk epic which gazes so far into the future that it ends up with something timeless. Who cares what genre it is?
6. Jonsi – Go
The ethereal, experimental music of Sigur Rós may not be for a mass audience, but lead singer Jonsi’s solo album Go is a beautiful composition that incorporates the best aspects of the Icelander’s songwriting in a more accessible manner. The album begins with the standout “Go Do” and subsequently takes readers on a mysterious and sonically adventurous 40-minute tour. Jonsi is never dull, and while you might not always be able to understand his lyrics—most are in the nonsensical invented language “Hopelandic”—the energetic, layered arrangements of Go will likely compel you to do exactly what the title suggests.
7. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
Titus Andronicus’s second LP, The Monitor, is one of the rowdiest, most booze-fueled diatribes against suburban despair in recent memory. It boasts the cleverest, most venomous lyrics one moment and undercuts them with sardonic humor and pop culture shout-outs the next. Frontman Patrick Stickles’ gritty vocals are topped off with shredding guitars and merciless drums, bound together with a (surprisingly unpretentious) Civil War motif. On The Monitor, the band sees there is no winning in this world, but says “fuck it” and battles on anyway. Even if they are resigned to losing, Titus Andronicus puts up one hell of a fight.
8. Toro y Moi – Causers of This
Though there is still a good deal of controversy over what exactly the genre “chillwave” signifies, South Carolina’s Toro y Moi—also known as Chaz Bundick—has in recent months become a kind of paragon for the movement. Causers of This, Bundick’s first LP, harnesses a full range of styles. By meticulously chopping up and sampling piano riffs and hip-hop beats, he creates a rich and woozy sound panged with wistfulness. It’s funky, melodic, and danceable, but it is Bundick’s attention to detail and musical craftsmanship that set him apart from chillwave contemporaries content to make nostalgia- and reverb-drenched beach tunes.
9. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest is one of those albums best experienced in one continuous listen, not a string of disjointed singles—a rare feat in the iTunes era. Perfectly crafted to hold the listener’s attention, it is a beautiful record that seems to shape-shift into a different sound with each listen, from melancholy moodiness to uplifting resilience. Powered by a strong vocalist in Brandon Cox and consistently varying musical tones, Halcyon Digest was one of 2010’s strongest indie releases and a highlight in Cox’s incredibly prolific and increasingly broad discography.
10. Waka Flocka Flame – Flockaveli
Halfway through Flockaveli, you would be forgiven if you can hardly tell one gunshot-filled track from the last. This wouldn’t be a compliment for most debuts, but Waka Flocka Flame’s first effort succeeds because of its focus: an hour-long immersion in producer Lex Luger’s apocalyptically aggressive crunk. In this sea of oppressive, surreal violence, he drops the Wale-featuring club hit “No Hands”—the only breather he provides—simply to prove he can kill the charts as easily as the motherfuckers he spends 16 tracks threatening. His name might be ridiculous, but underestimate Waka Flocka Flame at your own risk.