If any concept connected many of the best films of 2010, it was "reality." Sometimes the films themselves addressed our tenuous connection to reality; sometimes external commentators questioned the films' reality. But for all the puzzling out what was real and what wasn't, one reliable reality emerged: 2010 was a pretty good year to be challenged, delighted and flat-out impressed at the movies.
10. Exit Through the Gift Shop: The reality of this documentary from anonymous graffiti artist Banksy was always suspect. Was Thierry Guetta — who started out making a movie about artists, only to become the subject of one when he took the art world by storm as Mr. Brainwash — a complete fabrication? More to the point: Does it matter? The film was terrifically satisfying as character study, and brilliantly observed as a tale of how easy it is to turn art into a con.
9. Black Swan: Director Darren Aronofsky delivers another feverish look inside the head of someone teetering on the edge of madness. Natalie Portman's riveting performance as emotionally fragile ballerina Nina allowed us those uncomfortable glimpses, as she tore into the role of a woman crippled by her own striving for perfection. It may have been more archetypal than emotional, but it was grandly effective filmmaking.
8. 127 Hours: Here's an experiment for you: Make a feature-length movie about a guy who's stuck in one place for several days. And at the end, you show the guy sawing his own arm off. Danny Boyle took that challenge for you, and — with no small assistance from James Franco's extraordinary performance as Aron Ralston — turned a horrifying real-life story of stasis into something utterly engrossing as cinema.
7. Inception: Were its pleasures more superficial and its ideas less profound than in some of writer/director Christopher Nolan's other films? Sure. But I couldn't wipe the goofy smile off my face as he bent the laws of physics to suit his story of travelers in the world of dreams. I wouldn't have minded if that little top kept spinning a heck of a lot longer.
6. Catfish: Another "Was it all staged?" speculation, another case of "Who cares if it was?" Taken at face value, filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost follow what happens when Ariel's brother Yaniv strikes up an online "friendship" with a young artist, and eventually begins communicating with other members of the girl's family. But even if none of that is "true," the film becomes an amazing combination of detective story, suspense thriller and wrenching drama about the circumstances that lead some people to immerse themselves in virtual worlds.
5. A Prophet (Un Prophète): Jacques Audiard reminds us that there are far worse ways to make great epic drama than delving into the world of organized crime. This one follows Malik as he enters a French prison, and becomes a flunky for the Corsican prison mafia led by Luciani (the terrific Niels Arestrup). But the narrative really deals with how Malik's life in prison primarily teaches him how to be a more effective, more powerful criminal. Character studies just don't get much more complex or engrossing ...
4. The Social Network: ... unless they're about Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. Director David Fincher, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and a masterful cast led by Jesse Eisenberg joined forces for a movie that was one of the year's most purely entertaining, even as it turned Zuckerberg's rise into a modern tragedy.
3. Toy Story 3: Did we dare hope that a series that had already produced two classics could produce a third installment even remotely worthy of that legacy? Oh Pixar, we never should have doubted. The year's most satisfying adventure also continued the Toy Story series' remarkable insight into family dynamics, leading up to a climactic final 20 minutes that was alternately heart-stopping and heartbreaking.
2. True Grit & 1. Winter's Bone: What are the odds that both of the year's best films would feature as their protagonists determined teenage girls dealing with the absence of their fathers? Both lead performances were remarkable: Bone's Jennifer Lawrence scouring the Missouri Ozarks for her bail-jumping dad, and Grit's Hailee Steinfeld as the fiercely independent Mattie who hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track her father's murderer. Both employed stylized dialogue to lend a heightened reality to the no-nonsense plot dynamics. And both showcased the work of gifted filmmakers — Joel and Ethan Coen and Debra Granik, respectively — who understood how to combine masterful visuals with great actors in stories that felt completely ... well, real.