10. Black Swan
Ballerinas gone mad. How many times have we seen this story of obsession with one's art, subservience to an authoritarian ballet impresario and rivalry with another dancer? But director Darren Aronofsky's lurid drama has the kick of a paranoid fever dream -- with one toe shoe delicately performing the role of the White Swan of "Swan Lake" and the other dancing on the grave. Natalie Portman's fixation on finding the black swan within should result in her pirouetting to an Oscar nomination.
9. The Tillman Story
Amir Bar-Lev's documentary illustrates that truth is the first casualty of war. The U.S. military and Bush administration used the tragic death of Pat Tillman, the NFL star-turned-Army Ranger killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004, as a propaganda tool. Engrossing and infuriating, the expose reveals the extent of the cover-up. Through painstaking research and an iron resolve, the mother of the late San Jose native spearheaded the family's search for the facts. As her surviving son states, "She hit it out of the park but the government kept moving the fence." The nonfiction film honors Pat Tillman in ways that a fabricated heroism never could.
8. The King's Speech
The subtle artistry of David Seidler's screenplay and Tom Hooper's direction makes this blue-blood biopic easy to dismiss as a crowd-pleaser featuring astounding performances. But there's much more to what you see -- and hear. The invention of radio has changed the image game: No longer can a Brit royal appear regal by merely looking respectable in uniform and staying atop his horse. As the man who would become King George VI and lead his subjects through times of crisis, Colin Firth stammers through personal and class conflicts with his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) until he no longer stumbles over his words.
7. Un Prophete (A Prophet)
Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film last year (and released in the Bay Area in 2010), Jacques Audiard's riveting French prison drama traces the troubled life of a young Arab (Tahar Rahim) who reluctantly slashes a snitch in the first reel and then climbs to self-made crime boss while behind bars. The Gallic grime-and-crime saga has the sophisticated restraint of a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster classic of the 1960s. Multi-ethnic prison gang wars, startling violence, and a Corsican mobster (Niels Arestrup) channeling Don Vito Corleone are only a handful of reasons to watch one of the most assured French films in years.
6. The Ghost Writer
Few can fill every frame with ominous dread and white-knuckle tension like Roman Polanski. And Pawel Edelman's lensing gives the twisty political thriller a cool gray-blue look with warning splashes of red. As the ghost writer hired to tweak the memoirs of a retired Tony Blair-like prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), Ewan McGregor plunges into paranoid fantasies. Or is he a Hitchcockian "wrong man" in the midst of a real conspiracy? A master filmmaker, Polanski seems to imbue the film with his personal feelings of persecution and inability to rewrite the past.
5. Inside Job
The horror flick of the year, Charles Ferguson's clear-eyed documentary exposes the Wall Street, economist and investment-banking vampires whose insatiable lust for money triggered the economic crisis of 2008. Ferguson doggedly asks the tough questions to lay bare the manipulations and deceptions that led to massive private gains at public loss. Depicting such activities as the gutting of regulations and the "analyses" of financial practices, the nonfiction film about the culture of greed and corruption should scare us into fighting for change. (It pairs well with Alex Gibney's "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.")
4. Toy Story 3
As much fun as a Barrel of Monkeys and as dear as a well-loved teddy bear, the third animated film of Pixar's "Toy" series has 17-year-old Andy bound for college. What will become of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang? Director Lee Unkrich and his team sustain the perfect tone, balancing the playful power of imagination with serious themes about growing up, change and loss. Completely accessible yet sophisticated, the bittersweet tale resonates with anyone who has packed away the carefree days of childhood or who has fought for their dignity and survival in a world that no longer treasures them.
3. The Kids Are All Right
Lisa Cholodenko's high-concept dramedy feels timely and truthful rather than contrived. Everything about the "Mothers Know Best" family seems ordinary -- until the two kids decide to track down their sperm-donor biological father. Turns out the anonymous donor-dad is a hip, motorcycle-riding restaurateur (Mark Ruffalo), who destabilizes the marriage of the longtime lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). Funny and smart with the year's best ensemble cast, the irresistible romp addresses the meaning of family in the modern world.
2. Winter's Bone
Regional filmmaking meets riveting conspiracy thriller in co-writer/director Debra Granik's spare adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel about a Missouri girl trying to find her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father. The indie gem about hardship and codes of silence in the crank-addicted backwoods of the Ozarks features complex characters in a taut screenplay. As a teenager shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood, Jennifer Lawrence gives a raw performance that cuts straight to the bone.
1. The Social Network
What may be the defining film of the decade, David Fincher's drama about the founding of Facebook intrigues, enthralls and reflects on the social-media site that has forever changed the world. A sharp look at the intersection of creativity, entrepreneurial acumen and ethics, and the nature of friendships, the movie has potent content to match its dark visual style. Whether spewing Aaron Sorkin's brilliant dialogue or brooding intensely, Jesse Eisenberg boldly plays Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard student-turned Palo Altan who invents the digital-era phenomenon. Definitely share this with your friends.