STARRING: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush
As stuttering King George VI and his cheeky speech therapist, Firth and Rush boast more chemistry than most romantic-comedy pairs. That the story is true makes it even sweeter.
Toy Story 3
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack
Cast aside the gorgeous animation, A-list talent and clever jokes (si, even Buzz's caliente flamenco), and it's still one of the most expertly crafted, emotionally rich movies of the year. That's what we've come to expect from Pixar, though-not just sublime films, but instant classics.
The Kids Are All Right
STARRING: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo
It's an impossible choice. Oscar voters will likely have to pick between two bravura performances: Bening's aching wife, fighting for her family after Ruffalo (spot-on as a seductive interloper) slinks in, and Moore's arguably tougher turn as the partner who does the hurting but makes us understand. So who wins? The audience.
STARRING: James Franco
As Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm after five days trapped in the desert, Franco is so mesmerizing, holding the screen on his own, that it's easy to forget the rest of 127 Hours. Here's the rest: mind-expanding cinematography; sound effects so visceral, they're half the reason folks faint during that scene; and kinetic direction by Danny Boyle that takes us deep into Ralston's flirtation with death and, ultimately, his drive to live.
STARRING: Natalie Portman
, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
There's a line between art and camp, and just on this side of right is Darren Aronofsky's torqued ballet tale. Portman is so precise as a ballerina consumed by her role, she deserves award notice, though her costars shouldn't go ignored. Cassel makes for a feral ballet director, while Barbara Hershey plays a delightfully grating smother mother. We never quite know if she's infantilizing the brittle girl or saving her from a vicious enemy: herself.
STARRING: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes
Lawrence set the bar in a year that featured plenty of gutsy performances by young women (in True Grit, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Easy A and more). As Ree, defying her savage clan to find her missing meth-cooker dad before the law takes their land, she's unflinching, conveying a knowing weariness far beyond Ree's tiny Ozarks enclave. Winter's Bone may be a small film, but Lawrence's performance is world class.
The Social Network
STARRING: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield
From the staccato bursts of dialogue in the first scene, Aaron Sorkin's script about Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg dares us to keep up. The film succeeds because its actors take that dare and run with it, humanizing a brutal grudge match between friendship and genius.
STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio
, Ellen Page
One day we'll stop parsing what it all means and just appreciate Inception as a first-rate drama. Let's stick with what we know: DiCaprio is in full control of his talents as a man haunted by the death of his wife (Marion Cotillard) who makes his living rooting around in people's heads. Add in unearthly effects and a terrific cast, including Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the ultimate fixer, and it's a hell of a caper movie-even if we never quite crack the case.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
STARRING: Banksy, Thierry Guetta, Space Invader
Documentaries excelled in 2010, from Waiting for "Superman" to Restrepo to the revelatory Joan Rivers bio A Piece of Work, cruelly shut out from Oscar contention. But none unfolded like this bit of cinematic origami in which street artist Banksy turns the camera on the guy filming him, igniting fierce debate on the nature and value of art. In fact, the Oscars sounds like just the spot for such a debate-if the elusive Banksy shows up.
STARRING: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon
Given how starkly funny and authentic True Grit is, the question isn't why did the brothers Coen gin up a remake about a girl hunting for justice for her slain father-it's why didn't they do it ages ago? Perhaps they were waiting for Steinfeld, whose earthy talent somehow rises to match her brilliant costars'.