2. “Four Lions” — At last, some suicide bombers you can feel good laughing at. Chris Morris’ wonderfully absurdist nightmare about terrorist wannabes plays like the Three Stooges carrying out their own jihad — with terribly real consequences instead of the slapstick of Curly, Larry and Moe. The tale of phenomenally incompetent British Muslims on the path to martyrdom against Western imperialism balances gasps with guffaws to create a film that’s one of the year’s funniest and scariest.
3. “Barney’s Version” — When you need a curmudgeon with an old, deep soul, Paul Giamatti’s your man. Richard J. Lewis’ adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s big, sloppy, heartbreaking and hilarious novel is all that and more. A self-righteous arbiter of all the world’s ills on the outside, an incurable romantic on the inside, Giamatti’s Barney is like an old friend who sadly goes sour living his unrepentant life, while Rosamund Pike is a counterweight of decency as the soulmate he cannot help but fail.
4. “The King’s Speech” — How’s this for great acting? Colin Firth plays a guy who can barely string two words together yet still delivers one of the year’s most eloquent, august performances. As stammering King George VI in Tom Hooper’s near-flawless period drama, Firth is both regal and an everyman — a guy with a job he doesn’t want, for which he’s ill-suited, yet he goes to work and does his best, aided by his joyously irreverent speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) and queenly sweetheart (Helena Bonham Carter).
5. “Never Let Me Go” — There’s never time enough to do and say the things we really should, both in our world and in this melancholy offshoot, an alternate yet familiar reality that’s a beautiful allegory for the journey we’re all taking. Mark Romanek’s film faithfully preserves the simple but bottomless spirituality of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, while Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield embody hope, heartache and everything in between as school friends with a terrible destiny.
6. “Inception” — Christopher Nolan messes with our heads in ways no other studio filmmaker dares. He dazzles with his visual effects, wows with his action scenes, thrills with his surprises. All along, he asks us to think as he spins a fantastically entertaining tale of a lost man (Leonardo DiCaprio) clawing his way back to the things that matter through a virtual world of dreams. Nolan has planted the seed of the brainy blockbuster in Hollywood. Here’s hoping the idea doesn’t die of loneliness.
7. “Another Year” — “Life’s not always kind,” a friend laments to an utterly disconsolate woman in Mike Leigh’s latest, a quiet dramatic jewel so authentic it’s like eavesdropping on the neighbors. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen provide the stability as doting old marrieds with a circle of lovelorn friends and relations. Lesley Manville provides everything else with the performance of the year as a woman desperate for the tiniest happiness but too turned inward to go searching for it. She’ll make you weep.
8. “True Grit” — The little girl was looking for a man with true grit. Joel and Ethan Coen were looking for a little girl who could act. They got Hailee Steinfeld, a girl with true grit to hold her own alongside Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in this take on novelist Charles Portis’ darkly comic Western that’s far superior to John Wayne’s 1969 version. Just turned 14, Steinfeld is a revelation in her screen debut as the fearless girl who bends two seasoned lawmen to her will in avenging her father.
9. “127 Hours” — Give Danny Boyle two sock puppets and he’ll probably do a “Romeo and Juliet” to rival Zeffirelli’s. The “Slumdog Millionaire” director plunks a man alone in a crevasse, trapped there for most of the movie, yet the story’s a cyclone of hallucination, horror, agony and euphoria. As real-life adventurer Aron Ralston, James Franco re-enacts a deed excruciating to watch, but it’s one of the most life-affirming acts you’ll ever see on screen, in one of the most life-affirming films.
10. “The Social Network” — Just about everyone’s friends with this critical darling and box-office success chronicling the rise of Facebook — and the falling out of friends who quarrel over its riches. David Fincher crafts a sharp-tongued tale of egos ballooning like tech stocks before the bubble burst. As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg is a marvel of contradictions, a genius for the masses but an interpersonal lout for whom, even with all his billions, you can’t help but feel a little sorry.