Every four years, the American people act en masse to send a message to the nation's power brokers, and every four years, this vote is interpreted as a sign of the decline in taste, intelligence, and moral rectitude of the populace. Every four years, a Jackass movie opens at number one.
I'm not too worried that the continued success of Jackass (which offered me the closest thing to pure escapist pleasure found on the job this year) is a sign that we're getting stupider. However, I do sort of wonder whether the massive success of Inception is a sign that we're getting stupider. Sold — and bought — as the year's most "intelligent" blockbuster while actually baldly insulting its audience's intelligence (to quote Andrew O'Hehir's Salon.com review, "every time the story gets puzzling, the characters call a timeout and explain it"), Inception both conquered the 2010 zeitgeist and helped define it. It was merely the biggest rendition of the year's most prevalent movie theme: How do you know that what you think is real is actually, like, really real? How do you know that you're not being fucked with?
It's a theme that manifested itself across budgetary strata and genres, popping up overtly or as subtext in everything from camcorder quasi-docs such as Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and I'm Still Here, to big-money entertainments like Salt and How Do You Know. Two of my Top Ten choices, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, directly deal with the "real real" question, and most of the other films on my list incorporate some variety of au courant skepticism, from the romantic questioning of Everyone Else (is what feels like love really love?) to Enter the Void's vision of afterlife as "the ultimate trip," to the full-on phantasmagoria of my number one film of the year.
So, counting down from 10:
10. Enter the Void (directed by Gaspar Noe): I can't fully condone Noe's trip — in my review, I called it a "mash-up of the sacred, the profane, and the brain-dead," and I stand by that. But I've come to appreciate its stoner stoopidness as part of its charm. And nothing else in 2010 set off my "What the fuck am I watching?" sensor quite like it.
9. The Ghost Writer (directed by Roman Polanski): The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood didn't make this year.
8. Shutter Island (directed by Martin Scorsese): The best Hollywood thriller Hollywood did make this year.
7. Everyone Else (directed by Maren Ade): Want your Blue Valentine-like dissection of marital strife but could do without the Academy-montage mugging and wall-to-wall Grizzly Bear? Try Maren Ade's second feature, a grueling (but gorgeous) snapshot of a young couple whose vacation idyll is slowly eroded by the insecurities brought in from outside.
6. The Red Chapel (directed by Mads Brügger): The surprise winner of the World Cinema Documentary prize at Sundance in January, Brügger's hilarious document of his subversive journey into North Korea with two Danish-Korean comedians in tow is, like Dogtooth (see below), concerned with a closed system maintained through manipulation of reality. But Brügger and gang come armed with their own complicated series of manipulations: In The Year of Being Fucked With, the year's best doc offered a game plan for how to fuck with Them back.
5. Somewhere (directed by Sofia Coppola): The year's second masterful portrait of L.A. ennui as seen through the camera of Harris Savides (the other is Greenberg), Somewhere should be remembered as a game-changer for Sofia Coppola, the point at which she shrugged off the crutches — music video language and decorative design — that defined her first three films, adopting an entirely new stylistic approach while remaining true to her key concerns. Don't think of it as a movie about the rich, famous, and beautiful from the perspective of a woman who has been all three since birth; think of it as a movie about what happens when you get everything you thought you wanted, and you're still miserable.
4. Dogtooth (directed by Giorgos Lanthimos): Feted by Cannes in 2009, heralded by aging tastemakers (David Byrne, John Waters) upon its summer 2010 release in New York, the second film from Greek director Lanthimos is a matter-of-factly violent, blacker-than-black comic parable about sex, pop culture, and closed societies set in a single suburban home.
3. Daddy Longlegs (directed by Josh and Benny Safdie): Ronald Bronstein, the director of the 2007 underground opera of awkwardness Frownland, is starting to attract awards attention for his go-for-broke performance as the desperate dad of two young sons in the Safdie brothers' manic, electric 16mm roman à clef. If only all awards-bait family dramas were as unflinching, honest, and funny-horrifying as this.
2. Greenberg (directed by Noah Baumbach): Through Ben Stiller's epic depresso Roger Greenberg, a 40-ish Bushwick refugee floundering around L.A. and anti-seducing the much younger and surprisingly receptive Florence (Greta Gerwig), Noah Baumbach and soon-to-be-ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh distilled a certain toxic stew of unearned snobbishness, generational entitlement, and self-defeating self-obsession — familiar from "Losing My Edge," the 2002 single by James Murphy, who composed Greenberg's soundtrack — and gave it a name. They also gave Stiller the best role of his career.
1. Trash Humpers (directed by Harmony Korine): Influenced by surveillance and prank videos, but hardly haphazard (in fact, its non-aesthetic is the result of intricate design and careful production), Korine's faked relic about a separatist group of drunken, garbage can-fetishizing, self-mythologizing miscreants is the ultimate, twisted fairy tale allegory for our decaying times. After prevaricating on a number one, in the end I voted with my heart. And no, I am not fucking with you about that.