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The Ten Best Movies of 2010

It was an off year, except in the Land Down Under.

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Let's face it, 2010 was a less than enchanting year in general. And, as if the Earth hadn't enough bad news in this dreadful Year of the Tiger, supposedly knowledgeable critics are going around saying 2010 may be one of the worst all-time years for movies, as well.

Gadfly Joe Queenan devoted a feature story to the subject in the Wall Street Journal, in which he made fun of sequels and the eminently dismissible Dinner for Schmucks as examples of films no one wanted to see. Over at The New York Times, A.O. Scott floated the idea that TV has taken over from movies as the number-one platform for provocative and exciting entertainment. And, as if to rub salt in the wound, film-generation hero Jean-Luc Godard blew off his honorary Academy Award as meaningless. What's the cinematic world coming to?

In the heat of the Tiger Year, ordinary dramas, comedies, and fantasies seemed inadequate and pale. Only the most extreme flavors registered and only the strongest terms could describe the situation meaningfully. That's why we've decided to return to Oz — as in Australia, the country and the film industry — if only as a state of mind.

We'll discuss that impulse further, but first, in the order in which they're discussed below, here are the Ten Best Movies of 2010:

The Square directed by Nash Edgerton

Animal Kingdom directed by David Michôd

The Social Network directed by David Fincher

The Lisbeth Salander Trilogy, comprising The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, directed by Niels Arden Oplev and Daniel Alfredson

Carlos directed by Olivier Assayas

14-18: The Noise and the Fury directed by Jean-François Delassus

Mother directed by Bong Joon-ho

Winter's Bone directed by Debra Granik

The Kids Are All Right directed by Lisa Cholodenko

True Grit directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

In other words: two Australian neo-noirs, a big-budget drama about an online empire builder, a Swedish psychological action mini-series, a French made-for-TV miniseries about a real-life political terrorist, a French historical documentary, a Korean crime thriller, a rural American crime thriller, a US indie sitcom about a pair of lesbian moms, and the lone traditional Hollywood genre flick, a Western sequel. That is, a Coen Bros.-style Western sequel, with all that entails.

Why this fascination with the land of kangaroos? In 2009, a documentary called Not Quite Hollywood played for a week at local Landmark art houses. Its writer-director, Mark Hartley, wanted to show us that what most American foreign-movie fans reckoned was the "Australian renaissance" of art films in the Seventies and Eighties (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, etc.) represented only a pallid trickle compared to the rich, pulpy stream of genre flicks being made in Australia at the time — stuff like Mad Dog Morgan or Turkey Shoot. Hartley's terrifically entertaining doc, subtitled The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation, was stuffed with titillating clips from dozens of action, sexploitation, and horror films. We wanted to see them all. But only dedicated fanatics could hope to dig up such buried nuggets as Deathcheaters from thirty years ago.

This year, however, there magically appeared on Bay Area screens a string of unheralded new releases from Oz, glistening with possibility. Genre still turns them on Down Under, and apparently neo-noir is the flavor of the moment. The most striking new Australian films to open here this year, Nash Edgerton's The Square and David Michôd's Animal Kingdom, deal with grandiose hubris embedded in petty criminality in their stories of cheating spouses, drug deals, armed robbery, arson, and plain old murder.

Edgerton, a stunt man turned writer-director whose short Spider had audiences writhing in their seats when shown on the same program with The Square, develops the latter's tawdry tale of serial betrayal with a precise combination of malice aforethought, finely chiseled scene-setting, and the mean-spirited character acting of David Roberts (as a wannabe-wily construction boss suffering from fatal doses of both horniness and greed), Claire van der Boom (the boss' girlfriend, wife of the dope dealer they plan to rip off), and the director's brother, Joel Edgerton, as one of many resident lowlifes in the Joe Six-Pack environs of Caringbah, New South Wales. Evil deeds are done, but they're nothing compared to the dumb accidents that befall.

If Edgerton's portrait of lower-middle-class contempt brings interpersonal relations down to the level of a pit bull obsessively swimming across a deep river in search of a cute pup, Michôd's Animal Kingdom relates a family saga that summons up images of Shakespeare drowning in a pint of Victoria Bitter. The milieu is a clan of Melbourne holdup artists headed by violent psychopath Andrew "Pope" Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) and his eerily cheerful mother Janine, aka Grandma Smurf (the amazing Jacki Weaver), den mother to a brood of thieves, and what happens when Pope's seventeen-year-old nephew J (James Frecheville) comes to live with them. Bloody dangerous.

The Cody family's exploits would make a sympathetically creepy twin bill with filmmaker Geoffrey Wright's 2006 Australian goth version of Macbeth. First-time writer-director Michôd — he co-wrote Spider with Nash Edgerton — is a major talent right out of the box. Keep an eye out, so to speak, for him. And if you think you spotted The Square's Joel Edgerton as Pope's crew mate Baz, you're getting the hang of it.

There are further Oz-tentatious displays. It may have had only one screening in the Bay — a midnight showcase at the San Francisco International Film Festival last April — but Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones qualifies as a find for fans of old-school splatter horror. It's the old Prom Night from Hell, winningly done up as a game of wilted wits between a vengeful high-school wallflower named Princess (Robin McLeavy) and the surfer boy who turned her down for the big date (Xavier Samuel). Cue power drills.

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