If 2010's best movies weren't messing with your mind, they were daring you to sit through some potentially dreadful premises. The behind-the-scenes startup of a website. A psychological thriller revolving around ballerinas. A historical drama about a guy's speech impediment. A film centered on some dude whose arm is stuck underneath a giant rock for 90 minutes. Each served as the foundation to the year's most riveting films.
Director Christopher Nolan turns the world upside down, literally, in this stunning epic about a group of "extractors" (led by Leonardo DiCaprio) that penetrate people's dreams to get to their innermost secrets. As they delve deeper and deeper into their target's dreamworld, things twist, turn, and — like the top that serves as the movie's pivotal imagery — almost topple. It's a brilliant and stylized work that challenges you to make up your own mind about what's real and what isn't.
2. Toy Story 3
Pixar's best-ever movie accomplished two near-impossible feats: It's the rare third movie that's better than the first two outings in the series, and it made grown men cry (though most of us blamed it on those damn dusty theaters). Solid storytelling, great new characters, and one of the warmest and most touching endings ever put on film are just the start of Toy Story 3's charm. Just try keeping your eyes dry when Andy plays with his toys for the last time.
3. The Social Network
You can thank David Fincher for making the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg more than just a biopic for the computer age. The Fight Club director turns it into a fast, thrilling look at a college kid with way too much time and money on his hands, who also happens to be a wily (and, no irony lost here, friendless) businessperson. Who knew geeks writing code and deposition hearings could be so exciting?
4. Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky has made movies about obsessive people before — Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler. But in this one, obsessions take on a life of their own as an emotionally fractured ballerina (played by a terrific Natalie Portman) lands her dream role — which happens to overlap with her total mental breakdown. In a quieter way, it's just as much of a mindfuck as Inception, and its ending will leave you just as baffled.
It's based on a comic book about a makeshift superhero who has zero superpowers, and many of its scenes make all the villain-fighting stuff seem not only irresponsible, but incredibly dangerous (these heroes bleed — a lot). Still, these kids have guts — especially Hit-Girl (played by scene-stealing 13-year-old Chloe Moretz), a tiny fireball who busts heads and breaks faces as the embodiment of girl power. Often funny, occasionally obscene, and very kick-ass indeed.
6. 127 Hours
No surprise that 28 Days Later ... director Danny Boyle could pull off this movie's climactic scene with squirmy brilliance. But he also manages to make a movie about a real-life rock climber whose arm gets pinned beneath a boulder a truly fascinating piece of filmmaking. Credit also goes to James Franco, who plays a shaggy-haired dude you wouldn't mind spending five days trapped in a canyon with. And that ending is one of the most emotionally stirring of the decade.
7. The King's Speech
Albert, Duke of York — who eventually becomes King George VI of England — dreads speaking in public because of his stammer, so he reluctantly begins working with a speech therapist. That's The King's Speech in a nutshell. Exciting stuff? Surprisingly, yes. Unknown director Tom Hooper's period piece is short on stuffiness and long on great acting — especially Colin Firth, who injects his royal highness with humor, self-consciousness, and a spark of common vulnerability.
8. Shutter Island
Leonardo DiCaprio messes with your mind (again) as a U.S. marshal looking into some strange happenings on a remote prison for the criminally insane. Martin Scorsese is somewhat restrained in his first thriller, but he stages the movie's twists with reserved style. And unlike his other mind-blowing movie this year, DiCaprio gets to show off some acting chops here.
9. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
This explosion of comic books, indie rock, and video games is the most geektastic movie of the year — a celebration of everything that's in the way of you and a hot date. Based on a series of graphic novels, the movie plays like a Mortal Kombat-inspired fever dream, as a 22-year-old bass-playing nerd takes on his new girlfriend's "seven evil exes" with powers straight out of classic video games. A great double bill with Kick-Ass.
10. Winter's Bone
The backwoods folks in this indie hit are Deliverance scary — even more frightening because they seem so real. Debra Granik's deliberately paced thriller sneaks up on you, as a 17-year-old Missouri mountain girl (a terrific Jennifer Lawrence) searches for her dad, who skipped bail after putting the family home up as collateral. Along the way, she meets vicious meth cookers who don't like her snooping one dang bit.
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