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Fox Searchlight
TODAY contributor
updated 12/16/2010 4:49:12 PM ET 2010-12-16T21:49:12

If 2010 is notable for anything in movies, it should be remembered as the year Hollywood's brightest directorial lights delivered on their most ambitious projects. From Christopher Nolan's "Inception" to David Fincher's "The Social Network" to Danny Boyle "127 Hours," bold directors were coming up winners all year long.

Not all movies were hits, of course. Even the megawatt star power of Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler couldn't save "The Bounty Hunter." And director M. Night Shyamalan almost became a punchline when both "The Last Airbender" and "Devil" received negative reviews.

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Here are one writer's choices for the best and worst films of the year.

No. 1: 'Black Swan'
Natalie Portman is fearless as an obsessive dancer whose fevered efforts to conquer the twin demands of ballet — bone-breaking precision and body control, and transformative sensual abandon — drive her to the edge of her sanity. It would all be something we've seen before if not for director Darren Aronofsky, who takes these themes of physical and emotional extremes as carte blanche to put Portman through a nightmare metamorphosis. He doesn't pull a single punch, and Portman doesn't flinch, even as the film turns down some howlingly lurid corridors.

Story: Trippy 'Black Swan' a gorgeous nightmare

No. 2: 'Winter's Bone'
In director Debra Granik's Ozark odyssey, wood-paneled living rooms and double-wide kitchens are the seats of power that teenaged Ree must appeal to as she makes the perilous journey up the crystal meth food chain in search of her wayward father. There's a heartbreaking fatalism in Ree's quest — she knows good and well the likelihood that her dad's been swallowed up by the Missouri meth country in one way or another. As Ree, Jennifer Lawrence gives a performance of such defiant courage, and supporting performers such as John Hawkes and Dale Dickey bring dangerous life to their roles. It's a triumph of mood (the cold harshness of Ree's circumstances) married to a compelling backwoods noir.

No. 3: 'The Fighter'
Director David O. Russell wakes up the snoozily familiar genre of the underdog boxing movie with specific, familiar, funny characters who carry the film through the sports-movie and true-story beats of its final third. The family, friends, lovers, vultures and saviors surrounding boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg, once again thriving under Russell's direction) are so vibrant and integral to his story that even story beats like "Micky's not just fighting for himself, he's fighting for his family, his hometown!" feel authentic and pack a real emotional punch. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo bite into their trashy characters with gusto, and Amy Adams is shockingly capable of going toe-to-toe with both of them.

Story: Co-star Bale rules in Wahlberg's 'Fighter'

No. 4: 'Never Let Me Go'
The sneaky sci-fi reality at the center of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel-turned-film isn't meant to be a mystery in the classic sense. What makes the students at British private school Hailsham so "special" is revealed soon enough, and the point of the movie is never to overcome their sad circumstances. This turned off some moviegoers, but for others, the heartbreakingly small struggles of Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley told a story of a different kind, one about brief lives and fleeting chances. Each of the performances is its own kind of powerhouse — from Mulligan's self-sacrifice to Garfield's maddeningly open face, to Knightley's sharp edges — and they all benefit from some stellar supporting work. We already knew Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins were aces, but a turning-point moment at a diner offers brilliant single-scene work from Domhall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough. Like the characters they play, their moment burns bright and briefly.

No. 5: 'Inception'
How did Christopher Nolan get huge, broad audiences to flock to a complicated, cerebral sci-fi movie? Well, first of all by making it very complicated and yet, secretly, not all that cerebral. Which isn't to say American audiences were taken in by some shell game ("Eyes on the spinning top! Now guess whose dream we're in!") just because Nolan's movie makes you feel smart for watching car chases and gunfights. Selling the illusion of braininess in the package of an adventure story has been around as long as science fiction itself. And what an adventure, besides! If the exquisite choreography of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in zero gravity doesn't get you, Leo DiCaprio's crumbling subconscious by the sea surely will.

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No. 1: 'The Bounty Hunter'
The "charmless romantic comedy" genre was well represented in 2010, and certainly this slot could have easily gone to "When in Rome" or "Leap Year." But while "Leap Year" performed the impossible and made the adorable Amy Adams and Matthew Goode into smug and insufferable jerks, you can at least understand how those two got paired up. It remains a mystery how anyone thought Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler would make a good screen couple. Aniston's talented in her own way, but someone needs to point out one piece of evidence to explain why an actor as unlikable as Butler keeps getting cast as a romantic lead. Particularly in a movie that continues the regrettable trend of a central couple who clearly hate one another. Congratulations, we agree with you both!

Slideshow: Jennifer Aniston

No. 2: 'Grown Ups'
The common denominator among the year's worst films is a lack of effort, particularly with regard to a concept that might've worked otherwise. I'm not sure if the "school buddies reunite as adults and marvel at how they've lost their childlike spirit" plot of "Grown Ups" could have ever made a great movie, but Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and company never bothered to find out. Setting aside the dishonesty of the concept (these men-children are cracking jokes in church within minutes of reuniting and they're worried they've become too mature?), the execution feels like a collection of half-hearted line readings filmed in between the takes from a real movie. They might as well have shown the stars cashing their paychecks during the closing credits; that might've at least elicited some interest from the actors.

No. 3: 'Legion'
While it's true that the intersection of apocalyptic religion and bloodthirsty horror is far from everyone's cup of tea, "Legion" should have been able to satisfy some kind of audience. It's not high art, but the "One truck stop at the edge of the world faces down an Armageddon of wrath-of-God-bearing angels" concept should have worked on a lowest-common-denominator level alone. Especially with actors as competent as Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Lucas Black and Adrianne Palicki. Alas, nothing ever seems to happen. Bettany sleepwalks through his lead performance, and the action set pieces are as by-the-book as can be. Good news, though! Bettany and director Scott Charles Stewart are back in 2011 with "Priest," a religio-horror tale of a vampire-hunting man of the cloth!

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Story: From demonic grandmas to murderous icicles, the best movie moments of 2010

No. 4: 'Alice in Wonderland'
You would think that the one thing any adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" wouldn't be lacking is a sense of imagination. Which makes it all the more shocking that Tim Burton — Tim Burton! — wasn't able to come up with a single fantastic thing to do with Alice's latest on-screen trip down the rabbit hole. It feels like Burton cast Johnny Depp as his Mad Hatter, gave him some schizophrenic actorly business to play and then called it a day. The visual effects are drab and uninteresting, the performances (save for Helena Bonham Carter, who is kind of a hoot as the Red Queen) are all lethargic, and the finished film was then made subject to what may have been the ugliest 3-D transfer of a year packed with them. Burton's always darkened his fantasy environments and resisted the warm and cuddly, but this is the first time he's made an ugly movie.

Slideshow: Faces of Depp

No. 5: 'The Wolfman'
Of the three monster types currently saturating the culture (along with vampires and zombies), werewolves would seem to be the most advantageous to work with. There's the sense that we're all still waiting for the definitive wolf movie (all due apologies to Lon Chaney and "An American Werewolf in London"). So how did director Joe Johnston miss such a wide-open goal? Well, for starters, he cast Benicio Del Toro as the wolf. Del Toro's a fine actor, but his mumbly lethargy does nothing to counteract the snooziness of the rest of the movie. It's one thing to meditate on the sad poetry of a man condemned to be a monster;  it's quite another to deliver a movie so slow and ponderous that the audience ends up sleeping through the wolf attacks. There's "the sad poetry of a man condemned to be a monster" and then there's "I can't see my way through all that fog, but it sure is making me wish I had a pillow."

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Photos: December

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  1. 'Black Swan'

    Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis

    Director: Darren Aronofsky

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 3

    An ambitious young dancer (Portman) is given the lead in a production of "Swan Lake," but must come to grips with a threatening new rival (Kunis) and her own dark side in "Black Swan." (Fox Searchlight) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'I Love You Phillip Morris'

    Stars: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro

    Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 3

    Carrey plays a married police officer who discovers his true self as a gay man in "I Love You Phillip Morris." Jailed as a con man, he falls in love with another inmate (McGregor) and will do anything to be with him. (Newmarket Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'All Good Things'

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst

    Director: Andrew Jarecki

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 3

    Inspired by the real-life Robert Durst murder case, "All Good Things" tells a tale of family, obsession, love and loss. (Magnolia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'The Tourist'

    Stars: Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp

    Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 10

    An American tourist in Europe (Johnny Depp) gets caught up in a whirlwind romance with a mysterious woman (Angelina Jolie), and a game of cat and mouse with an unknown, but deadly adversary in "The Tourist." (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'The Tempest'

    Stars: Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, David Strathairn, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand

    Director: Julie Taymor

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 10

    A gender-bending twist on the Shakespearean comedy, "The Tempest" turns the Bard's male Prospero into Prospera (Mirren). A duchess finds herself and her daughter (Jones) stranded on an island with the beast Caliban (Hounsou). She eventually seeks revenge against the brother who left her there. (Touchstone Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader'

    Stars: Georgia Henley, Skandar Keynes, Liam Neeson, Simon Pegg

    Director: Michael Apted

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 10

    3-D fantasy based on the third novel in C. S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series. With the land now at peace, Prince Caspian along with Lucy, Edmund and cousin Eustace begin a quest to find the seven lost lords of the land. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'The Fighter'

    Stars: Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg

    Director: David O. Russell

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 10

    In "The Fighter," Wahlberg plays a professional boxer on the rise, training with his brother (Bale), once a boxer himself who fell victim to drugs and the world of crime. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Tron: Legacy'

    Stars: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlunc

    Director: Joseph Kosinski

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 17

    This 3-D sci-fi flick is a follow-up to 1982's "Tron." Kevin Flynn's now-adult son investigates what made his father disappear 20 years ago and finds himself pulled into the video-game world of the first film. (Disney Enterprises) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'Yogi Bear'

    Stars: Dan Aykroyd, Justin Timberlake, Christine Taylor

    Director: Eric Brevig

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 17

    "Yogi Bear," the famous cartoon bear of Jellystone Park (voiced by Aykroyd), takes center stage in a 3-D adventure that utilizes both live-action and CGI. Timberlake provides the voice of his little pal, Boo-Boo. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Little Fockers'

    Stars: Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson

    Director: Paul Weitz

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 22

    Uptight father-in-law Jack (De Niro) visits the Focker family to celebrate their twins' birthday, and check in on his son-in-law, Greg (Stiller) in "Little Fockers." (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Somewhere'

    Stars: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Benicio del Toro

    Director: Sofia Coppola

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 22

    A Hollywood bad boy (Dorff) must examine and change his lifestyle when his 11-year-old daughter (Fanning) comes into his life in "Somewhere." (Focus Features) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Country Strong'

    Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester

    Director: Shana Feste

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 22

    A fallen country music star (Paltrow) hits the road to start her comeback tour, but a love triangle between her husband and opening act star threatens them all in "Country Strong." (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Gulliver's Travels'

    Stars: Jack Black, Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, Amanda Peet

    Director: Rob Letterman

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 22

    Black takes on the famous role as a man who finds himself a giant among tiny people on the hidden island of Lilliput in "Gulliver's Travels." (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'True Grit'

    Stars: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon

    Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 25

    The Coen brothers remake John Wayne's famous 1969 Western, "True Grit." A 14-year-old girl hires tough U.S. marshal "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges) to track down the man who killed her father. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 'Blue Valentine'

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams

    Director: Derek Cianfrance

    Scheduled release date: Dec. 31

    "Blue Valentine," a romantic drama about a married couple's disintegrating relationship, was originally given an NC-17 rating due to an intense sex scene, but was given an R rating after an appeal. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Fox Searchlight
    Above: Slideshow (15) Winter movie guide - December
  2. Lionsgate
    Slideshow (8) Winter movie guide - January
  3. Universal Pictures
    Slideshow (11) Winter movie guide - February

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