Best Picture AND Best Director:
Black Swan, directed by DARREN ARONOFSKY:
Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is a staggering work of cinema about the artist's odyssey and the self-consuming quest for perfection. Aronosfsky, who has a way of getting his actors to turn themselves inside-out, draws a career-best performance out of Natalie Portman, whose transformation from 'sweet girl' Nina Sayers to the confident but vicious Black Swan is one of the best descents into madness put on film. But this is still Aronofsky's show, and what a terrifying show it is. He puts us inside Nina Sayers' head for a stylized exploration of a tragic artistic process. The screenwriters deserve credit for providing a strong, thematically rich story, but it's more by Aronofsky's direction that we understand Nina's doomed journey.
Inception, directed by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:
Christopher Nolan's dreamy extravaganza excels both on an emotional level and as pure action entertainment. Nolan pushes the envelope on the tried and true “race against time” technique by staging races against time within races against time within races against time! The entire final hour of the film is a masterstroke of bravura storytelling, executed with infallible clockwork precision. Inception earns the right to have its faults (and it does have faults) forgiven. As far as ambitious, committed, exhilarating, and above all, intelligent movie entertainment goes, it's a winner. Nolan's influences and sources of inspiration are apparent, but you've still never seen anything quite like this. It's a true original.
The Kids Are All Right, by LISA CHOLODENKO:
Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is a wonderful dramedy of manners whose no-nonsense style delivers a perfectly measured emotional cadence by not drawing attention to itself. To try and pick a standout actor would be folly, as this is a true ensemble piece wherein all five principles give outstanding performances which add up to a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. The film enjoys a genuine realism. Void of snappy one-liners or bold dramatic flare, the comedy and tragedy stem organically from the characters and the complex relationships they share with each other. Subtext abounds in every conversation, and Cholodenko's tactful direction lets it gleam through without ever relinquishing that realness of feeling.
The Social Network, directed by DAVID FINCHER:
Some may get hung up on the historical accuracy of the film (no one for sure knows the true story), but that would be missing the point. It's not a biopic. It can get away with taking creative liberties because of its unimpeachable trifecta of fine writing, intelligent direction, and authentic acting. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay slices through the perceived glory of the Internet with a cynical but perspicacious edge. Give David Fincher credit for extracting such terrific performances from all. He lets every character have just the right amount of exposure, and paces the story as only an expert can (with the help of his excellent film editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, of course). It may not have an auteurial feel, but that's probably just as well.
(just Best Picture):
Toy Story 3, directed by Lee Unkrich:
The third instalment of the Toy Story franchise might not have seemed like a good idea on paper, but credit veteran story men John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, and new-to-the-team Michael Arndt for putting together yet another engaging story that continues to push the many themes explored by the two originals while still preserving their charm and wit. What allows the Toy Story movies to continue to resonate after the novelty of the 1995 original concept has worn off is an increasingly direct approach to mature ideas. The script moves swiftly and with purpose before settling into an ending so poignant and emotional it reduced me to a teary mess. They could not have ended this series on a better note. Utter perfection.
(just Best Director):
Exit Through the Gift Shop, directed by BANKSY:
The film threatens to end up as a one-note character study about a larger-than-life personality, but Banksy has bigger plans. By the end we realize that the real question Banksy has been posing is “what are the true natures of art and genius?”. He extrapolates from a wacky biography to a meditation on celebrity, culture, the death of a movement, and creative expression vs. creative pillaging. Is Giuetta a genius or a nut job? Is he the rabbit or the turtle? The answer proposed by Banksy to that small question is pretty obvious, but think about who won that fabled race, and you'll understand his definitive stance on the bigger issues.
Andrea Arnold Fish Tank, Charles Ferguson Inside Job, John Cameron Mitchell Rabbit Hole, Mike Leigh Another Year, Silvain Chomet The Illusionist, Peter Weir The Way Back