I’ve seen more movies this year than ever before, and I’m still haunted by what I missed. Would I have loved Michael Clayton
if I’d seen it? Why did I miss Away From Her
? Still, what’s done is done, it’s 2008 now, and I have to put together my first-ever top ten list.
There’s a lot that almost made it on here-- Persepolis
, The Savages
, Into the Wild
and Knocked Up
were all close calls—but for the most part these are the ten movies that moved me or delighted me or thrilled me in ways nothing else did this year. Some of these I feel deserve universal praise, but others just struck me particularly hard, made me feel a little different when I walked out of the theater. It’s been a fun year to be a moviegoer, and I’ve been blessed to see so much of what’s been out there. So without further ado…
1. No Country For Old Men
Directed By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen Written By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald
The Coen Brothers tone down the quirk and pump up the tension in their perfectly made thriller. An insanely talented cast plays a game of cat and mouse across West Texas, all in search of a satchel of money and all trying not to get killed by the monstrous Anton Chigurh, the kind of demon you usually find in Dante or passion plays. Except the movie isn’t about the money at all—it’s about our times, the harshness and the despair of it all, and whether or not there’s hope for anyone who can’t play by these new, brutal rules. Without that theme, embodied by Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country for Old Men would still be a well-crafted chase movie featuring stellar performances. But when the movie turns to face us in the last 20 minutes, forcing us to reckon over what we’ve seen, it becomes something grand, desolate and lovely.
Best Moment: Llewellyn is chased through a desert and down a river by an angry pit bull.
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed By: Julian Schnabel Written By: Ronald Harwood
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Max von Sydow
We’ve seen so many movies about remarkable people overcoming their handicaps that we’d mostly forgotten the story could be done as well as Julian Schnabel tells it here. The painter-turned-director accomplishes the miracle of making a dynamic, visually stunning and, somehow, funny movie about a paralyzed writer. Trapped within his own body by a stroke, Jean-Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) refused to let his limitations hem in his visual imagination or his personality. Within the confines of narrative Hollywood filmmaking, Julian Schnabel does the same thing, infusing his film with florid poetry breathtaking imagery, treating his film like a moving painting rather than a story. Who knew an art film could be stuffed with such aching humanity?
Best Moment: In a flashback, Jean-Dominique and his girlfriend drive to Lourdes, France; for about a minute, we see nothing but her hair flying in the wind.
3. There Will Be Blood
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier
Paul Thomas Anderson outgrows his smarty-pants wunderkind reputation with this bloody, brutish and bombastic epic of American greed. Transforming Upton Sinclair’s polemic Oil! into a deep character study of one of the most fascinating figures put on screen, Anderson digs deep into everything that makes filmmaking so powerful. With Daniel Day-Lewis as his main character, Anderson gets at a depth and a fearlessness none of his earlier movies even imagined. It’s stupid to compare anything to Citizen Kane, but There Will Be Blood takes a similar look at American ambition and comes away with many of the same answers. It’s a perplexing and tough movie to watch, but There Will be Blood is too well-made and thought-provoking to ignore. Film students of the future, get ready: you’ll be seeing this one again.
Best Moment: Best Moment: Daniel gets on a train with baby H.W., and newfound father and son bond in the kind of tender way they’ll never manage again.
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Directed By: Cristian Mungiu Written By: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov
It’s obnoxious to single out a movie that has barely been screened in the U.S., and probably won’t be seen much of anywhere given that it’s a Romanian art film, but I can’t help it. Cristian Mungiu’s quiet, devastating drama is the best kind of filmmaking experiment, exclusively using long takes to allow the audience to dig deep into his conflicted, trapped characters. College student Otilia must help her friend Gabita secure an abortion in 1980s Communist Romania, an act so dangerous it must be planned out weeks in advance. Things go wrong, mostly thanks to the monstrous abortionist Mr. Bebe, and both girls are tested in ways neither is prepared to handle. The movie has plenty to say about Communist politics and the abortion debate, but it says it quietly; it is above all a story about a tenuous friendship carried out in trying times.
Best Moment: Otilia sits through a dinner party at her boyfriend’s house and, without saying a word, expresses all the conflicts and frustrations of being a young person in a Communist country.
5. Sweeney Todd
Directed By: Tim Burton Written By: John Logan
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
A year ago my friend and I left a screening of Dreamgirls and argued over whether a movie adaptation of a stage musical can ever really be cinematic. A few weeks ago, when we walked out of Sweeney Todd, he admitted he was wrong: it can be done, and Tim Burton did it. By carefully cutting and rejiggering musical numbers and ignoring all the conventional wisdom, Burton made a spooky, gothic thriller that happens to express itself through songs rather than dialogue. And that was all he had to do: the classic story and Stephen Sondheim’s music take care of the rest, and Burton smartly gets out of their way. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter make you forget their weak singing voices with their powerhouse performances, and the supporting cast makes the whole bizarre world come alive.
Best Moment: Mrs. Lovett imagines a happy future with Sweeney in the song “By the Sea.”
Directed By: Brad Bird Written By: Brad Bird
Starring: (voices of) Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Ian Holm, Peter O’Toole, John Ratzenberger
Pixar doesn’t really make bad movies, but this time they’ve outdone themselves with the simple story of a rat who dreams of being a chef. Every one of the characters is as beautifully realized as this animated Paris, and director Brad Bird finds room among the slapstick humor and thrilling chase sequences to condemn pretension, praise natural born talent, and emphasize the importance of staying true to your roots. Heavy stuff for a kids’ movie, but Ratatouille doesn’t really want to be a kids’ movie. It works on both levels, kids and adults, without resorting to pop culture references or ugly stereotypes. The story of Remy and Linguini’s friendship, and both of their attempts to find their way in life, is as universally touching as any live-action movie released this year.
Best Moment: Anton Ego takes a bite of Remy’s ratatouille.
7. Lars and the Real Girl
Directed By: Craig Gillespie Written By: Nancy Oliver
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson, Kelli Garner
How do you make a movie about a romance between an emotionally stunted man and a plastic sex doll? You embrace your tawdry concept while simultaneously making the most sentimental, crowd-pleasing movie you can. But Nancy Oliver’s script still could have flopped if not for the lead performance of Ryan Gosling, who digs so deep into Lars you empathize with him even when you don’t understand him. The town in which Lars and Bianca carry out their strange romance might be a friendlier and gentler place than anywhere on earth except Bedford Falls, but the way in which Lars’ community embraces him points out one of the best things about humanity: in a pinch, we’ve no choice but to stick by each other. Lars breaks your heart and makes you laugh without ever seeming manipulative or cloying. It’s a movie about the best that people can be, and its earnest but knowing spirit makes it impossible not to love.
Best Moment: Lars and Bianca “dance” to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody).”
Directed By: John Carney Written By: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
I love musicals, but even I can admit that the formula gets tiresome. How many times can you watch two people fall in love to the tune of a catchy song? In Once though, they use all the most familiar tropes, the haunting music and natural performances make it all seem fresh again. As our nameless main characters grow closer to one another and build their songwriting partnership, we fall in love with them as much as we do their music. Without big gestures or grand themes, director John Carney and actor-musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova get at the essence of romantic love and longing. The final shot, using a crane to pan away from the girl’s window, is a marvel of unspoken emotion.
Best Moment: The guy and the girl sing together for the first time with “Falling Slowly.”
Directed By: Jason Reitman Written By: Diablo Cody
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Alison Janney, J.K. Simmons
It’s hard to say anything about this mega-hyped movie that hasn’t already been said, but Juno is pretty remarkable for its ability to combine hipster dialogue and brilliant screenwriting in the same, sardonic package. The acting ensemble here is hands-down the best of the year, with each of the supporting characters going through meaningful changes and getting their time to shine throughout the film. I’ve seen this movie three times, and every time I think I’ll finally see through it for what it is, a pastiche of clever dialogue and great wardrobes. But I never have. Juno has at its core a rock-solid heart, and a fantastic understanding of human relationships and the agony of growing up. There’s never been a movie that has been so beloved by everyone I know who has seen it, and empty wit doesn’t accomplish that—good filmmaking does.
Best Moment: New mom Vanessa and Juno’s stepmom Bren meet in the hospital nursery.
Directed By: Greg Mottola Written By: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Starring: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bill Hader, Seth Rogen
Don’t ask me how it happened, but Michael Cera is making two appearances on my list. I struggled over including Superbad on it, but I couldn’t deny how entertaining and ridiculous this movie was, and how often I told people, “Oh man, Superbad is amazing!” I’ve tried to include other movies on this list because they had something to say, about history or the human condition or whatnot, but I’m not sure Superbad really fits that criteria. It’s just, simply, hilarious, an epic adventure and a coming-of-age story told with penis jokes and endless adolescent libido. Seth and Evan are the main characters, and McLovin is the scene stealer, but it’s the girls in this movie that really get me. Even drunk and offering “blow-js” or sporting a black eye, they’re totally in control and about ten steps ahead of the boys. As someone who never quite came to terms with the gender divide in Knocked Up, I was thrilled to find a movie about boys trying to get laid that actually gave the girls personalities too. Oh yeah, and I love the use of the term “dickmouth” and the existence of the word McLovin.
Best Moment: McLovin is forcibly removed from the party by the cops.
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