Sizing up the year in movies

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' sci-fi action film "Inception." (Credit: Warner Bros. )

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Someone once said that a movie should be about the most important day in a person's life. This is why sequels tend to disappoint: Who cares about the second-most important day?

Whoever said it probably never worked on a "Harry Potter" film. That successful franchise, which has grossed more than $5 billion - with a "b" - is the reason theaters are filled with sequels, threequels or, even worse, pilots. The movie industry is constantly thinking about the second-most important day, and the third and the fourth. Movies used to be bigger than television; now they want to be television.

Remember Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," insisting that she was still a big star? "It's the pictures that got small," she said, and she wasn't entirely wrong. The movies have long been accused of shrinking: First when they started talking, then when they appeared on home video and more recently when they squeezed onto our iPods. But these were examples of technology exerting its influence. Lately it seems the movies are shrinking from within.

It's not just because in 2010 nearly every major studio tried to launch another "Harry Potter." We saw Fox's "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief," Paramount's "The Last Airbender" and Warners' "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole," each based on a popular series of young-adult novels, each hoping to become a suite of movies. Each fizzled, sunk by an unoriginality that no amount of 3-D could hide.

Even adult movies suffered from the lure of a potential franchise. Take Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables," supposedly a return to the explosive "hard-action" genre. It turned out to be as toothless and risk-averse as an octogenarian. The film couldn't bring itself to kill any important heroes - what if fans want a Part Two? Smart thinking, except that the film got a middling reception. People wanted an ultra-bloody "Predator" but instead got something closer to "The A-Team."

A few movies tried to be big, if not in sheer scale, like Christopher Nolan's eye-popping "Inception," then in cultural impact. David Fincher's "The Social Network" was arguably the first movie to be "about" the Internet; Lisa Cholodenko's "The Kids Are All Right" embraced an unconventional modern family (two lesbians, two children, one sperm donor) in a sensitive but irreverent way that wouldn't have been possible just a few years ago. In fairness, there was one truly great sequel released this year: "Toy Story 3," which provided a poignant ending to a 15-year story.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" - even the ending has been serialized - already has plenty of folks weeping, especially at Warner Bros. But waving bye-bye may be good for the movies overall. Just as the last of the initial "Star Wars" trilogy helped dampen the sci-fi craze, next year's final "Potter" may cool the fever of franchise-mania.

The 10 best movies of 2010


1. "INCEPTION"

Christopher Nolan's visually stunning epic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a mind spy trapped in a dream, polarized viewers: Half called it a masterpiece, half called it incomprehensible. They're both right. Once you admit the movie is too smart for you, it's a total blast.

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2. "BLACK SWAN"

Who's weirder: Natalie Portman's deranged ballerina or Darren Aronofsky, who directed this psychosexual freakout? Subliminal imagery, creepy sounds and Barbara Hershey as Portman's domineering mommy add up to one memorably wiggy movie.
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3. "THE SOCIAL NETWORK"

The first truly trenchant movie about the Internet age, thanks to Aaron Sorkin's jackhammer script, David Fincher's vigorous direction and a terrific young cast (even you, Justin Timberlake). And if the story is based more on impression and opinion than fact, well, isn't that just so Web 2.0?
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4. "BARNEY'S VERSION"

Paul Giamatti is terrific as a habitual womanizer in this semi-surreal, free-form picaresque that feels like a forgotten classic from the 1970s. Its one-week Oscar-qualifying run ended earlier this month; it opens theatrically Jan. 14.


5. "THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT"

Lisa Cholodenko's comedy-drama about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore) and the man who sired their children (Mark Ruffalo) strikes every note perfectly. Down with the academy if the film and all three actors aren't nominated.
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6. "TOY STORY 3"

Few animated films have had the emotional power of "Toy Story," whose characters - Tom Hanks' Woody, Tim Allen's Buzz, Don Rickles' Mr. Potato Head - remain engaging even after 15 years. The franchise's farewell couldn't be more perfect, or more poignant.
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7. "THE FIGHTER"

Like Muhammad Ali popping awake late in a bout, Christian Bale suddenly delivers the performance of a lifetime as Dicky Eklund, the skeletal, crack-addicted half-brother of famed boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Bale is the support act, but the movie belongs to him.
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8. "SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD"

Add up the one-liners, running gags, sight-gags, pop-culture riffs and meta-jokes, and you'd lose count after about 6,000. The film flopped at the box office (Michael Cera fatigue, maybe?), but it seems destined to become a treasure trove for generations of cultists.
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9. "WINTER'S BONE"

This tough-as-jerky backwoods drama features newcomer Jennifer Lawrence as a girl whose meth-cooking father has made enemies among his family. Unfortunately, in the Ozarks just about everyone is family. You'll never complain about your relatives again.
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10. "THE TOWN"

What would you expect from a heist film whose director, co-writer and star is Ben Affleck? How about intelligence, class and several fine performances (particularly from a steely Jeremy Renner)? Nobody else expected that either, but this overlooked film is a modest gem well worth finding.
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