Seen any good movies lately? If you live in Houston, that might be a trick question. Since the recent closings of both the downtown Angelika and the Landmark Greenway theaters, local options for limited-release independent and foreign films have been restricted to three screens at the Landmark River Oaks, a venue currently showing one movie already in semi-wide release (127 Hours) and a foreign film that happens to be based on a series of novels everyone not currently working at the International Space Station has already read (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest).
This is not to propagate the fallacy that "obscure = good" or "mainstream = bad." Speaking as someone who's been reviewing movies for a while, I can tell you plenty of unconscionably shitty films have a limited release, and some movies opening on 3,000 screens have artistic merit.
But to look at many critics' top ten lists each year, you'd think they were trying to punish anyone without press credentials or tickets to Cannes. Not surprisingly, reaction to these year-end recaps is best typified by a frowning shake of the head, followed by muttering about how nice it must be to have nothing to do but sit and watch movies all day.
Sure, many of the more difficult-to-find titles will be available on DVD at some point, but this doesn't do you a whole hell of a lot of good right now. That's why, when coming up with my own personal list of the top ten films of 2010, I tried to keep in mind those movies that were accessible to Houstonians at some point last year. There may be some...dicey choices here, but such are the sacrifices I'm willing to make for my townspeople.
10. Piranha 3-D
Directed by Alejandre Aja
Some will claim I included this solely for the laugh factor, that there's no way a goofy spring break boobs-'n'-gorefest could possibly be worthy of mention alongside the Coens and Finchers of the world. These folks are obviously unaware of the three cornerstones of my moviegoing background: my irritation with tame PG-13 "horror," my decades-long crush on Elisabeth Shue and my abject love of the movie Jaws, which sets up the terrific opening scene and helps establish the tone for the subsequent 88 minutes of wet T-shirts and disembowelments.
9. How to Train Your Dragon
Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
You can be excused if you forgot there were other animated movies this year besides Toy Story 3. Pixar's streak of winning Best Animated Movie awards is similar to that of the 1970s Montreal Canadiens, while DreamWorks' efforts are usually sunk by bad writing and pop culture gags that reached their shelf life six months before release (Shrek bullet time, anyone?). But while TS3 offered a fond (if overly familiar) farewell to Woody and the gang, How to Train Your Dragon actually used animation to its full potential, giving us grand scenery and breathtaking aerial action, all while telling a coming-of-age story of unexpected warmth.
8. True Grit
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
I was as skeptical as anyone when I heard they were remaking the John Wayne classic, Coen Brothers or no Coen Brothers, but in sticking closer to the novel — making 14-year-old Mattie (excellent newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) the focus of the story and providing a more satisfying ending — the new version truly feels complete. And whether or not you think Matt Damon is an improvement over Glen Campbell (he is), there's no denying Jeff Bridges really makes the character of Rooster Cogburn his cantankerous own.
No offense, Duke.
7. The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
I kind of scoffed when I first saw Jesse Eisenberg's performance in this, because I couldn't believe Mark Zuckerberg was that big an asshole. Then I watched his 60 Minutes interview...I stand corrected. Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin don't exactly make us sympathize with Facebook's founder, and that really isn't the point, but their final product is sharply written and compelling enough that it doesn't matter. Plus (and I can't believe I'm saying this), Justin Timberlake is a pretty damn good actor.
6. Fair Game
Directed by Doug Liman
The problem with being Sean Penn — which I have no firsthand knowledge of, not being the former Mr. Spicoli myself — is that every new project of his is filtered through past actions some might judge to be questionable (and I'm not talking about making Shanghai Surprise with then-wife Madonna). This version of the Valerie Plame scandal is better directed and less polemic than similarly themed films like Lions for Lambs or Silver City, and anchored by fine performances from Penn and Naomi Watts, even if the former's involvement still gives certain people in our country another excuse to dismiss out of hand the serious questions the movie raises about the actions of the previous Administration.
Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
War is hell, and Restrepo immerses us in the nightmare with barely a pause for breath and none for contemplation. A companion to War, Sebastian Junger's book documenting a year in the life of 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, during 15 months of fighting in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, Restrepo is about as close to actual modern infantry combat as most of us will ever get. Brutal, upsetting and undeniably affecting, it's as intense a movie-watching experience as you're likely to have this year, and renders fictional war movies laughably moot.
4. Inside Job
Directed by Charles Ferguson
Filmmakers like Ferguson remind me of Newbomb Turk in The Hollywood Knights...wait, hear me out. Here we are, the middle class, hanging out at the Residence Association party, commenting about how the punch has a little wang to it, while Turk is outside trying to warn us the bowl has been pissed in. Well, America is the punch, and that "wang" you taste is the mortgage crisis, 10 percent unemployment and the state of unending war we're being forced to swallow. If, at the end of Inside Job, you're not ready to dismantle Wall Street brick by brick, well, just go back to your punch.
3. The King's Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper
Winston Churchill was the face of British defiance during World War II, but King George VI's wartime speeches were also an important source of inspiration, and these were only possible after the monarch overcame a severe lifelong stammer. David Seidler's excellent script and Colin Firth's best performance since Mamma Mia! uh, A Single Man anchor this study of the little-known king, who had the unenviable task of assuming the Crown after his older brother's abdication on the eve of World War II.
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2. Jackass 3D
Directed by Jeff Tremaine
Movie critics and self-appointed custodians of moral integrity alike have found unlikely common ground in vilifying these movies, a fact that only demonstrates their collective ignorance, for you can trace a straight line from the comedies of Harold Lloyd and the Three Stooges on up to the antics of Johnny Knoxville and company. Their anarchic exploits are about the only sane response to a society that treats Sarah Palin like a serious political figure and believes giving millionaires tax breaks is good policy. At least Knoxville will use his dividend to buy some more gorilla suits.
1. Winter's Bone
Directed by Debra Granik
Granik doesn't pull punches when it comes to the effects of drug addiction. Her first film, Down to the Bone, told the bleak story of a woman struggling to come clean for the sake of her family, while Winter's Bone follows a young girl's attempts to track down her fugitive father through the menacing labyrinth of Ozark meth country. It's Southern Gothic updated for the crank era, yet still shows us how one can occasionally find hope amidst endless poverty and violence.