In 2010, they really suffered for their art.

All actors, in some way, suffer for their craft, with the very act of losing oneself inside another being coming at a high price. All that pushing and prodding of one's pain, joy, love, loss and failure and the rest required by the craft is invasive by nature, demanding exposure that few of us would willingly suffer.

But there are those roles in which the physical extremes parallel, or outpace, the emotional ones, where art is found in extraordinary action, an "our body, ourselves" melding of the abstract of emotions with the concrete of bone and sinew. In that, 2010 emerged as one of the most grueling in recent memory — bodies drenched in sweat, ribs cracked, pounds lost, pounds gained, muscle memory stretched to the limits. The year has turned acting into an extreme sport for some stars, an extreme pleasure for its spectators.

Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, James Franco, Mark Wahlberg, Edgar Ramirez and Colin Firth have been among the prime practitioners, with the fascination in what they have accomplished coming not so much in the illusion but the lack of it. Of course, the wires and mirrors are there, but some things even the best Hollywood magic can't cheat.

Does seeing the sacrifice onscreen change the way in which we evaluate a performance? It can't help but to. The medium itself is rooted in relatability, and while beauty is not so malleable (plastic surgery, notwithstanding), the body proper is. That it resonates so deeply now speaks as much to our own needs as to their skills. Surrounded by images of life played out 24/7 on screens large and small, we've become a culture of observers. Yet there is that nagging desire for more, to reconnect with the animalistic, essential part of ourselves, to actually feel the burn.

There is some satisfaction too in knowing that it doesn't come easy. Portman, who studied ballet as a child, spent nearly a year at the barre working on her plies and pirouettes before filming Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan." When the bones of her toes crack, it does not feel like a lie, the effort of the spins visible in her contracting muscles.

Wahlberg built a boxing ring at his home four years ago and used the intervening years before "The Fighter" began shooting to be pummeled and pounded so that he'd be ready to take and throw punches like a pro. When they come, the punches, unrelenting and with brutal force, you can feel the impact. The requirements for Bale, who plays Wahlberg's brother in the David O. Russell film, were different, and distinct as well from 2004's "The Machinist," for which he lost a frightening 60-plus pounds. For "The Fighter" was a shape-shifting balancing act that saw the actor drop enough body fat to mirror the twitchy gauntness of a crack addict and yet work his muscles into steely ropes that could survive the ring.

Ramirez, who played the international terrorist at the center of "Carlos," needed to expand rather than shrink. The Venezuelan actor took a month off to gain the 35 pounds he felt necessary to capture Carlos' increasing dissipation and inflating ego. There is a heaviness that saturates the man and his movements in those moments that would otherwise have been impossible.

For Franco, it was spending hours on his toes, literally, as Danny Boyle filmed his actor nearly immobilized by a boulder that has the character's right arm crushed against a canyon wall. The rest of his body was engaged in such an exquisite dance of life in such a tight space, the ebb and flow of energy made visible in every limb.

Firth, on the other hand, was faced with the torturous tongue-twisting stammer of a stutterer and channeling all the subtle tics that tie up the body as a result. It required him, in a sense, to overcome all that he does so well. That facility with language totally subverted; the tension of mind at war with body played out in the cords of his neck; hesitation becoming a silent scream.

Certainly, the physical alone was not enough to make these performances exceptional — if that were the case, all of the hard-packed abs of the action crowd would result in far better fare. It is the special alchemy of emotion and physicality which these actors have created with a fierceness and force that is extraordinary.

BEST OF 2010

In order of preference:

"The Social Network." In capturing the genesis moment of the Facebook cultural monster, a story of computer codes and concepts, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin unleashed an intellectual thriller packed with crackling dialogue and riveting performances. A mind game extraordinaire and the best action movie of the year. The year's best movie too.

"Winter's Bone." In the searing cold of backcountry poverty, director Debra Granik finds heartbreaking sadness and breathtaking beauty. It simply doesn't get better than Jennifer Lawrence's young Ree Dolly going up against the worst that nature has to offer, human and otherwise, as she digs into the black soul of the drug-infested Ozark hills.

"Carlos." Rarely have 5 ½ hours been better spent in service to the cinematic arts. From the French great Olivier Assayas' refusal to let this sprawling story be bound by the conventions of time to Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez's unerring descent into the charismatic insanity of a terrorist, everything aligns to ensure that each sultry and scorching minute burns.

"The Kids Are All Right." Director Lisa Cholodenko has concocted the singular blend of family function and dysfunction. From the brittle brilliance of Annette Bening to the breakable beauty of Julianne Moore as two moms whose life is upended when the kids bring home Mark Ruffalo's seductive sperm-donating dad, no detail is overlooked in crafting one of the finest grown-up comedies ever.

"127 Hours." Even in the darkest hours, director Danny Boyle finds a way to inject a kind of giddy exuberance that somehow makes sense — here it is James Franco. In a nearly flawless solo turn as a hiker forced to do the unthinkable to survive his own hubris as much as the boulder that has him hopelessly trapped, the actor embodies the essence of the human spirit. It is fierce, funny and bone-snappingly formidable.

"Toy Story 3." Who would have guessed that the one true, heart-tugging tear-jerker of the year would come in a story of a boy packing away his toys? Yet for emotional honesty, nothing topped the animated performances of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and crew (thanks to Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and the rest) in yet another Pixar tour de force.

"True Grit." Maybe it's the Texas in me, but I love a classic Western, and the Coen brothers have made a classic out of a classic. Infused with rough-hewn humor and humanity, the good guys and the bad have something to like, but Hailee Steinfeld's 14-year-old Mattie is what lingers — a portrait of resilience and determination of the type that forced the frontier toward civilization. In capturing the past, the Coens have reminded us of who we are at our best.

"Black Swan." Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is like a mad scientist when it comes to experimenting with the surreal, and in "Black Swan" he's finally gotten the witches' brew right. At the film's dark heart is an extraordinary performance by Natalie Portman, whose agony and ecstasy in the brutal world of ballet is an unforgettable flight of fancy.

"Restrepo." It's hard to put a face on the various wars we are fighting in distant lands, and that is where Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's documentary succeeds so powerfully. On the ground in Afghanistan's deadliest valley and back at base camp, it is the foot soldiers we hear. Theirs is a story of patriotism torn between loyalty, loss and doubt, so raw and real you will never see the numbers or hear the political rhetoric in the same way again.

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"The King's Speech." A traditional film that becomes an unusually satisfying story of social class, personal failings and friendship. Watching the exchanges between Geoffrey Rush's speech consultant, the confident, quick-witted commoner, and Colin Firth's exquisite hesitation as a stuttering royal out of sorts with himself and everyone else, proves how simplicity in the right hands can become exceptional.

MOST DISTURBING TREND

The 3D mania: It has driven up prices — of tickets and the films — and forced all of us to don silly glasses, and to what end? The creative revolution it promised, the depth of experience it trumpeted, has with a few exceptions failed to materialize. Animated films seem fearful of not having it, action and sci-fi are headed in that direction, even cheesy comedies aren't exempt. Please, someone stop the madness. Try spending the money on scripts and talent that will actually deliver another dimension, one that is worth the cost.

Betsey Sharkey: betsy.sharkey@latimes.com. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.