Each December, as we look back at the 12 months that have passed us by, the same question arises: has this been a good or bad year for cinema? Well, that depends entirely on what you consider a 2010 film. After all, when I look at my own top ten list for the year, half of them were films I first saw in 2009, and one first appeared at the London Film Festival in 2008. The complex nature of film distribution means it's often hard to know what festival hits will receive a proper cinema run, and as I wait patiently for two favourites from LFF 2009 (Balibo and About Elly) to get the release they deserve, I have just heard that Lance Hammer's Ballast (for many, one of the films of 2008) will finally reach UK cinemas in February. So when I talk about the year in cinema it seems wise to restrict it to films that have been released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st, and on that basis, this has been a very good year indeed.
Of course, your perspective on the quality of a year's cinema depends entirely on how much you saw of it, and if you restricted your viewing to mainstream fare then you would have every reason to gripe about falling standards. It comes as little surprise that most of the films I hated this year were major studio releases, with so many of the year's biggest films feeling thrown together, with no thought given to plot, coherence or character, and driven by the belief that spectacle (often with shoddy 3D) will compensate for all sins. Alice in Wonderland, TRON: Legacy and Gulliver's Travels were guilty of this approach and all three ended up on my worst of the year list. It's not impossible for a 3D family entertainment to balance visual splendour with great storytelling – Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled (a 2011 release in the UK) all managed it this year – but why do animated films so routinely succeed where live-action blockbusters frequently fail?
The only live-action big summer movie worth talking about was Christopher Nolan's Inception, and while I have problems with Nolan as a director, I'm pleased he's out there trying to make serious, ambitious films on a major scale, and that he's resisting 3D and pushing IMAX technology in the process. I enjoyed Inception as I watched it but the film doesn't linger in the memory, unlike the year's other film to feature a traumatised Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. One of the real delights of the year for me was seeing three of the great directors of the 70's – Scorsese, Polanski and Coppola – making films that showed they had lost none of their enthusiasm, skill or perceptiveness. In particular, it was a thrill to see Francis Ford Coppola producing the gorgeous, operatic and idiosyncratic Tetro, which is one of the year's most sadly overlooked pictures.
Aside from those pictures (and a few other gems, like Please Give and Winter's Bone), there's no doubt that the most exciting cinema in the world is being made outside America. My top three films of the year all originated from Asia, with Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Still Walking and Bong Joon-ho's Mother both managing to breathe fresh life into genre conventions, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul continues to ignore genre altogether and forge his own path. His Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives deservedly collected the Palme d'Or at Cannes and offered viewers a truly singular film experience. Such experiences are all too rare these days, but we were fortunate enough to have a few extraordinarily daring filmmakers pushing against the boundaries of convention in 2010. Giorgos Lanthimos presented us with the ultimate dysfunctional family in the dark and surreal fable Dogtooth, while Gaspar Noé gave us a mind-bending vision of life after death in Enter the Void, and Olivier Assayas kept us gripped for five and a half hours with his decades-spanning, multilingual epic Carlos.
The other key experiment that developed into a common cinematic theme this year was that of blurring the lines between documentary truth and narrative fiction. There was much debate surrounding the reality of I'm Still Here, the record of Joaquin Phoenix's year of living strangely, before Casey Affleck finally confessed that it was all a performance, but other filmmakers have been less easy to pin down. Is Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop a genuine street art documentary, or another one of the enigmatic artist's pranks? The makers of Catfish still maintain that everything we see in their film is occurring as it happened, but do you believe them? Other filmmakers have been much more open about the artificial techniques they have used, like Pedro González-Rubio, who built a fictional narrative around a real father and son in Alamar, or Clio Barnard, who hired actors to lip sync to real life testimonies in The Arbor.
The slippery nature of truth was also a key theme in one of the year's best pictures, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, which was 2010's most satisfying anomaly: a popular hit that is both entertaining and smart, and a film that deserves all of the prizes it will surely claim. Perhaps in years to come The Social Network will be seen as the film that defines 2010, but when I look back at the year, most of my memorable cinematic visits were to see older films on the big screen. I saw a brand new print of Peeping Tom and the reconstructed Metropolis; I experienced Visconti's The Leopard on the big screen and was thrilled by a nitrate print of Brighton Rock; I saw Mizoguchi's remarkable Ugetsu Monogotari for the first time and enjoyed The Red Shoes for the umpteenth time. When contemporary cinema disappointed me I could always take refuge in the great cinema of the past, often finding those films to be as impressive and relevant as anything being produced today. In the first weeks of 2011 I will be seeing Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century and DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and I'm looking forward to those cinematic visits more than any of January's new releases. So maybe the lesson here is that talk of 'good years' and 'bad years' is ultimately pointless as there are always bold, interesting films being made and there is always a vast wealth of cinema history to become reacquainted with or to experience for the first time. Depending on how adventurous you are in your film viewing, and how determined you are to seek out these special pieces of work, every year can be an exceptional year.