WITH WARS on two fronts and the economy in the toilet, Hollywood may post its richest year ever, some $10.6 billion in sales.

Yeah, people go to movies in tough times, and ticket prices are up, but it's more than that - this was a good year for movies. Or so my record shows.

I gave out more A's and near-A's this year than I can remember. I gave a B+ to "Easy A." I gave a B+ to Tony Scott. I kind of liked "MacGruber." I haven't graded this liberally since the late 1980s, when I used to go to happy hour before screenings.

Most years, I have to scrounge for a Top 10 list, but picking plums in 2010 was easy.

Here they are, along with some thoughts on the year that was.

Strong women

Female characters played with fire, kicked hornets' nests and kicked you know what. Regardless of age. The year started with the tween superhero of "Kick Ass" and ended with the 14-year-old whippersnapper in "True Grit." A title, by the way, that would apply nicely to the lead character in "Winter's Bone," a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) fighting to keep her family together.

Who was the toughest character in "The Fighter"? Mark Wahlberg plays a man who's fearless in the ring, but afraid to confront his own family over his brother's drug addiction. So he brings in girlfriend Amy Adams as a human shield, and she does the dirty work.

You know the gloves are off for women when Adams is pulling hair and throwing combinations.

Given all the tough, with-it women we've seen this year, I'm a bit baffled that Natalie Portman has emerged as a best-actress front-runner for her evaporating, gas-lighted ballerina in "Black Swan," but that's showbiz.

Kind of strong men

We don't find the same kind of underdog aura among men. In "The King's Speech," Albert (Colin Firth) manages to overcome the obstacle of being prince to become king, with the help of a speech therapist. In "The Social Network," Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) overcomes the obstacle of being a genius and having a Harvard scholarship to found Facebook. Great movies, but not quite the same level of adversity. Funniest underdog drama was "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," with Michael Cera fighting all seven of his new girlfriend's former lovers.

The cinema of claustrophobia

The most clever horror/thriller, "Buried," never left the coffin that held Ryan Reynolds for 90 minutes. Danny Boyle expended all of his Oscar chits on the unmarketable "127 Hours," which leaves the viewer stuck in a canyon with a stranded hiker (James Franco), who cuts off his arm to get out. People, especially women, did not want to see it, so they missed the most moving mother-son moment of the year, when Franco's character leaves a video message for his mom, conceding that he did not keep her in his heart as he should have. I dare you not to cry.

Chris Nolan's "Inception" takes place almost entirely inside Cillian Murphy's head, though his subconscious does branch out into six separate realities, moving at six different speeds.

The fix is in

We had two remarkable trilogies this year built around fictional conspiracies of the rich, powerful and demented. The Millenium Trilogy wrapped up with great art-house fanfare. Less celebrated, more depressing, but exceptionally well done was England's "Red Riding" trilogy, originally a BBC TV program loosely based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders, expanded to reveal multiple layers of societal corruption and rot. Andrew Garfield, later of "The Social Network," is excellent.

Not all of the Big Fixes were fictional. "Inside Job" followed the money in the financial crises from bad loans to bad securities to bad ratings to . . . bummer, Credit Default Swap doesn't start with "B." But "bail-out" does. See this before you read the dissenting report from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

"The Pat Tillman Story" made a circumstantial case for a high-level cover-up in the battlefield death of the former NFL star, but left us with something more indelible - an unforgettable portrait of an unclassifiable American original.

The over-the-hill gang

"RED" stood for Retired, Extremely Dangerous, and managed to put Helen Mirren on screen with Bruce Willis. Denzel Washington, playing a nearly retired freight engineer in "Unstoppable," stopped an extremely dangerous runaway train, presenting a gorgeous tour of Pennsylvania's rust-belt back yard, a galvanizing parable of recession economics. (On that score, keep your eye out for "Company Men," next month).

"Toy Story 3" found its collection of obsolete toys in the attic, ready for the dumpster or worse - a day-care center. The 3-D was lousy, but the epilogue was terrific. "Get Low" had a great role for Robert Duvall as an over-the-hillbilly planning his own funeral, with help from Bill Murray.

Can't we all get along?

David O. Russell's "The Fighter" is about drugs and about boxing but ultimately about the powerful tug of family: A fighter (Mark Wahlberg) decides he needs help from all of the people he loves and won't take no for an answer.

The Coen brothers altered Charles Portis' "True Grit" to create an allegory of cohesion built around the unifying Old West mythology. What a timely Christmas present.

Uncategorical

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is its own thing - a fascinating 20-car pile-up at the intersection of art and commerce, real and fake.

The Top 10

Here's my take on the best of 2010, in alphabetical order:

  • "Exit Through the Gift Shop"
  • "The Fighter"
  • "Inside Job"
  • "Red Riding"
  • "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"
  • "The Social Network"
  • "The Tillman Story"
  • "True Grit"
  • "Unstoppable"
  • "Winter's Bone"