It was a great year for film. No doubt about it. About midway through the fall I started to worry: I haven’t written a bad review in a while. Am I losing my edge? My credibility? My discretion? I was writing one good review after another. But they deserved them. I can’t remember a time so saturated with good cinema as this year has. There were a lot to choose from, but here’s my favorites.
The Top Ten
1. There Will Be Blood - The most ambitious, audacious, epic, classic, groundbreaking, thoughtful, evocative, engrossing, and memorable film of the year. This film is a cut above in so many ways. If you haven’t seen it, go. Now.
2. Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street- It’s my favorite musical. Perhaps there’s no way I couldn’t have enjoyed it. But I also know all the ways it could’ve gone wrong. And it didn’t. Wonderfully performed and visually rich. And Tim Burton has never been better.
3. Ratatouille- I don’t think I’ve ever used the word sublime in print before, but I will now. Because I think that’s the best word to describe the joy at work in this film. Artistically, the most fully realized and satisfying computer animated movie ever. All that would be enough to make the list, but on top of that it’s incredibly enjoyable. I’m convinced that if this film doesn’t warm your heart, you don’t have one.
4. I’m Not There- Bob Dylan is my artistic hero. One of the reasons for that is his refusal to be pigeonholed, to give into the impulse to satisfy anyone. He is solely ruled by his own artistic instincts, a quality I hope I could develop one day. Therefore, there’s no way to do justice to such a man by making a movie trying to depict him as just one man. Six actors was the right way to do it. Todd Haynes has given the biopic a well-deserved kick in the pants.
5. No Country for Old Men- I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said. Well acted, excellently adapted, deftly directed. The consistent mood sustained in this film creates an atmosphere I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. And I liked the ending, for the record, because the movie’s conclusion is correct. What can you really do in the face of such irrational, senseless violence?
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford- One of the most underappreciated movies of the year. Surprisingly good performances all around in what amounts to our American version of the story of Judas. It’s at once a legend and a deconstruction of that legend, with images that tap into our collective American unconscious. Watching it is an experience unlike any other.
7. Atonement- The movie was marketed incorrectly, I think, as a kind of classic wartime romantic drama. There are elements of that, to be sure, particularly in the central love story. But to boil the movie down to that would be an injustice. It’s much more complex than you would expect, with a final message that’s artistically relevant and heartbreaking at the same time.
8. Once- The simplicity of this film gives it a charm not found in any of the big studio releases this year. It might not reinvent the genre, but it does unearth a kind of musical that doesn’t rely on big dance numbers and operatic discourse. More than any other musical, here the characters are truly singing from the heart.
9. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead- one of the most straightforwardly tragic and intense dramas in recent memory. The display of acting here is an achievement in itself, and Sidney Lumet doesn’t pull any punches in his old age. It’s brutal and sorrowful, like a Greek tragedy, but with the kind of energy of a truly modern story.
10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly- Kudos to the filmmakers for turning what might have been an average sob story into a truly unique experience. A story that’s always engaging with emotion that’s not the least bit artificial. And Max von Sydow will break your heart.
The Second Tier
11. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days- Really brutal, at times painful and frustrating, in terms of the characters and their choices. Artistically, confident and thoughtful direction never shy away from the harsh realities.
12. Lars and the Real Girl- one of the best original screenplays of the year. It’s genuinely moving, with a tenderness found in few films of the past few years.
13. Across the Universe- a fitting companion to the musical innovations of the greatest band in history. A weak story is forgiven by surreal musical numbers that never cease to surprise.
14. 3:10 to Yuma- A hopeful sign that exciting, thrilling Westerns are making a comeback. This is the genre we Americans do best. It’s about time we got back to it.
15. The Savages- A serious comedy indeed. It feels real and genuine, with one of Laura Linney’s best performances.
16. The Bourne Ultimatum- the smartest action movie in years. It’s good to see such a well-made product in such an underappreciated genre.
17. Michael Clayton- a fine directing debut for Tony Gilroy. It could be called a thriller, I suppose, as some do classify it. But it’s much more thoughtful than that label would suggest.
18. Juno- A little overrated, I have to say, but a good film nonetheless. The script drove me nuts sometimes, but it’s much more emotionally complex than I originally gave it credit for. Good performances all around, and good to see the Arrested Development alumni thriving.
19. Into the Wild- from Sean Penn, I had expected a politically liberal hippie tribute/odyssey, but what I found was a film that refused to glorify this flawed person, mourned the tragedy of wasted potential, and managed to make him into a hero.
20. Romance and Cigarettes- John Turturro’s crazy surreal/realist musical is hard to classify, even harder to judge. For sheer audacity and experimentation, it earns a place here. Though the ending is a mess, it’s one of the most artistically brave movies this year.
22. Charlie Wilson’s War
23. The Darjeeling Limited
24. No End in Sight
25. Eastern Promises
Guilty Pleasure of the Year Award:
Worst film of the year (tie):
Year of the Dog