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The best (and worst) movies of 2010 

They say that the cream always rises to the top; that goes for the cream of the cinematic crop as well.

Glance at any two random critics' 10 Best lists for 2010 and chances are the majority of the titles will match. What that means — at least to my way of thinking — is that truly fine films were in such short commodity during this past year that the nation's scribes were all forced to rally around the same pictures. There were several exemplary achievements, to be sure, but the pool was awfully shallow.

This dearth of powerful pictures is even reflected in my own year-end compilation. Of the 135 films I screened during 2010, few seem likely to stand the test of time. And while I'm pleased with the movies that grace my Top 10, I can say with certainty that some of the titles on the lower half of my Honorable Mentions list would not have made the cut in other, more vibrant years.

As is occasionally the case, coming up with the top eight films for my 10 Best list was easy; choosing among four worthy titles for those final two slots was painful. So even though they head my 10 Honorable Mentions, I'd like to pay extra tribute to Mike Leigh's Another Year (opening in Charlotte in early 2011), an exemplary achievement in writing, and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, an exemplary achievement in directing.

And now, here are my picks for the 10 best movies of 2010, followed by 10 worthy runner-ups, other assorted superlatives, and one last slam of the 10 worst films of the year.

THE 10 BEST

1. BLACK SWAN (Darren Aronofsky). The best picture of 2010. No other movie released during the last 12 months has gripped me quite like this penetrating piece set in the world of ballet, a pas de deux between director Darren Aronofsky and star Natalie Portman. Combining the sensibilities that defined his two equally great past films — the nerve-shattering approach of Requiem for a Dream coupled with the absorbing character study of The Wrestler — Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, examines with painstaking precision the process of suffering for one's art. Yet the film goes deeper than that, functioning also as an incisive piece about the rites of passage endured by a young girl as she fully transforms into a woman. Heavy with symbolism and expertly staged by Aronofsky and crew, this psychosexual thriller burrows both under the skin and into the brain, and it showcases a magnificent Portman in what is clearly the performance of the year.

2.TOY STORY 3 (Lee Unkrich). Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang bid a fond farewell in this emotional outing, the perfect final chapter in a trilogy that's guaranteed to live on for generations (to infinity and beyond?). This superior sequel — funny, smart, gut-wrenching, even scary — taps into the feelings all of us have encountered during our respective childhoods, when we employed our toys as a passageway to new worlds and new experiences. Toy Story 3 may look like a family film, but as it tackles issues of loss, identity and self-worth, it reveals itself as one of the most adult movies of recent vintage.

3. INCEPTION (Christopher Nolan). Dream weaver Nolan creates a moviegoing marvel that has the ability to get cineastes intoxicated on the pure pleasure and the pure possibility of the medium of film. Tackling such prominent themes as (to borrow from dream expert Salvador Dali) the persistence of memory, Nolan has fashioned a head-scratching one-of-a-kind that's both knotty enough and ambiguous enough to lead to conflicting opinions down the years. It all adds up to a superb motion picture, one with the ability to infiltrate both our dream state and our waking life.

4. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (David Fincher). Exhibiting an extraordinary gift for gab, this relates the fascinating story of how Harvard nerd Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created Facebook and in the process became the world's youngest billionaire. Yet this isn't an inspiring movie about an underdog beating the odds as much as it's a prickly mishmash of how one person's insecurities led to success even as his personality remained grounded in arrogance. Fincher keeps the proceedings moving at a rapid clip, a task made easier by Aaron Sorkin's script and great performances by the entire cast.

5. THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (Juan Jose Campanella). The most recent Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this Argentinean import offers a dizzying mix of suspense, intrigue and romance. A midlevel employee (Ricardo Darin) in the Buenos Aires court system spends a quarter-century obsessing over an unsolved rape-murder, with his boss, his perpetually drunk colleague and the victim's husband all figuring in his investigation. This exhilarating drama leads to a brilliant conclusion that will haunt — and satisfy — just about anyone who's ever mulled over the inadequacies of the world's courts.

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