Any critic who could, with a straight face, populate a ten-best list either primarily or exclusively with American films released in one of the worst years in recent memory for homegrown filmmaking at all levels either wasn’t watching enough movies or watching movies well enough. Yet if the various polls and top ten lists that spring up like mushrooms around this time of year (feel free to stomp on ours, if you wish) are to be believed, then only a handful of films—mostly American—mattered in 2010. The Social Network, of course, but also Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, 127 Hours, The King’s Speech, Inside Job . . . That these are films of wildly varying quality—to say the least—is less important to note than the insane herd mentality that has decimated critical film culture. We like The Social Network just fine, but the more one reads about its elevated status as the One Movie That Dares to Say Something About the Way We Live Now, the less convinced we are that those writing about it spent serious time thinking about movies, how they say things, or the way we live now. Likewise, claims that the only worthy adult dramas were spearheaded by Darren Aronofsky (oh, come now), Danny Boyle (how often must we go through this?), Debra Granik (boogedy boogedy boo! Ozarks!), and the Pixar committee only made us more disheartened. Furthermore, in a year when the re-release of a 25-year-old documentary (Shoah) roundly shamed every new theatrical nonfiction film (save for a crafty offering about a boxing gym made by another veteran of the form and a quite unique rethink of the Western starring sheep), our current documentary “renaissance” hardly seemed worth celebrating.
The troubling homogeneity of film “criticism” is no longer just an outgrowth of Oscar season. None of us are wholly immune to this, but the amount of ink spilled on the same films over and over leads only to stupefying consensus. It can be exhilarating when critics rally together to get behind a movie they believe in (and where were most of them when Bong Joon-ho’s Mother opened in theaters last February?), but it can also create monoliths, and other films wither in their shadow. Every given year will produce plenty of films to love (we’ve wondered in past iterations of this same article whether any year can really be a bad year for movies), and, given how many different ways there are to see films right now, it’s shocking and frightening that the bulk of critics, afraid to go out on a limb, still rally around the same studio-manufactured products simply because (let’s face it) they are readily available.
Of course, rules are rules, and, despite our increased disillusionment with the film community and the changing landscape of filmgoing, we continue to do this top ten as we have in recent years—polling our major contributors from 2010 to determine only the best films that were released only in the United States in the past twelve months (in other words, those films that moviegoers had a chance of seeing theatrically.) The highest ranked film received the most votes, and so on. We’re pleased as punch with the results (four female directors! seven different countries! two are-they-or-aren’t-they docs, neither of them Catfish or Exit Through the Gift Shop!)—these are the kinds of films that we keep trudging to theaters to find. And just in case anyone wonders whether our list was the result of any sort of oppositional stance, rest assured that we began polling our guileless contributors well before the onslaught of top tens began unfurling (look, even Social Network made the cut!). We just didn’t feel the need to rush it all online just to get there first. —MK & JR