Latest list ever. I can blame my own busy schedule...but this was also a fairly week year as far as movies go. In a stronger year, some of these films would not have made it on, but it is what it is, I guess. The annual Oscar predictions are next week.
10. Sicko: When Michael Moore's latest documentary came out, it carried with it a promise that health care would finally be the subject of a substantive discussion within American culture. However, the prevalence of the issue today owes much more to the current presidential campaign than Moore's movie, which invited critics to distort the issue with the concluding sequences in Cuba. That finale became the discussion, rather than what truly makes this film great – its first half, which is almost entirely composed of personal stories from regular folks who, try as they might, could not find suitable care for their serious ailments. And these were the people who had health insurance. Now on DVD, hopefully Sicko will be understood not as the movie that made the big, bad communists look good, but as an expose of America's health care system, driven by profit rather than a desire to provide any actual care.
9. No Country For Old Men: I'm not positive this film deserves the tremendous success it's currently enjoying on the awards circuit, but there's certainly much to admire here. The stark and beautiful cinematography, breathtaking suspense and the already legendary performance of Javier Bardem as the freakish hitman Anton Chigurh are high points of a primal adventure that gradually morphs into a commentary on the separation between ideals about justice and the unfair truths of real life. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have taken a break from the playful attitude that has pervaded their recent work, and have delivered a bleak portrait of humanity with exceptional craftsmanship.
8. Paprika: Most movies would use the premise of being able to explore the dreams of others as the basis for simply a creative adventure or thriller. Satoshi Kon is not so easily satisfied. Paprika uses this idea to explore a hypothetical debate about the ethics of invading the last truly private element of human life. It’s the director’s most challenging film yet, but it’s also easy to sit back and get lost in the gorgeous animation and another tremendous score from frequent Kon-collaborator Susumu Hirasawa.
7. Sweeney Todd: It’s hard to think of a better movie to see if you’re pissed off at the world. Sweeney Todd begins as an irresistible tale of vengeance, almost like a supervillain’s origin story. But there’s no hero to pit against Sweeney’s nihilism, just a corrupt elite all too deserving of a few slashes from his blade. Yet as the body count piles up, this adaptation of the classic musical brings things to a tragic conclusion, even though the grisly actions of the characters involved surely brought the suffering on themselves. Burton does a great job of staging the dark world Sweeney inhabits, but it’s Depp’s peerless performance that makes the movie soar.
6. Eastern Promises: David Cronenberg made a name for himself with films like Scanners and Videodrome, science-fiction tales that were also milestones in terms of on-screen gore. These days, he specializes in visceral yet poetic dramas like Eastern Promises, the story of a nurse (Naomi Watts) whose search for the truth behind an orphaned child gets her involved with the vicious Russian mob. Viggo Mortensen disappears into the role of Nikolai, a chauffeur who is much more than he first appears. The film features some truly shocking twists, layered characters, and the most animalistic fight scene in years.
5. Ratatouille: It’s not unusual to see a Pixar film make this list, and certainly not one with Brad Bird in the director’s chair. As with The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, this film does a superb job of wholly involving the audience in the story while dazzling them with animation sequences worthy of the late Chuck Jones. The idea of kids watching the work of a director who has always focused on talented individuals overcoming the restrictions placed on them by a society focused on uniformity is encouraging. It’s not exaggerating to say that at least one child may decide to follow his or her dreams based on what the rat character in this film accomplishes, and that’s a great thing.
4. Michael Clayton: You’ve seen the “crooked corporation” story before, but never like this. Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton begins by slowly immersing us in a remarkably convincing world where the titular character works as a “fixer,” getting wealthy corporate clients out of potentially embarrassing situations. It also takes the time to give insight to a character whose attempts to find an escape from his morally bankrupt career have all blown up in his face. By the time the intrigue seeps in, it’s frighteningly realistic. A terrific supporting cast, including Tom Wilkinson as a cog in the machine who finds his conscience and Tilda Swinton as a ice-cold executive, seals the deal.
3. Hot Fuzz: I would humbly suggest that each one of the millions of people who spent their hard-earned money to make Meet the Spartans the highest grossing film of the weekend it debuted go rent Hot Fuzz on DVD and discover how a master spoofs Hollywood. Director Edgar Wright crafts a detailed satire of self-important Bruckheimer-esque action films while also paying tribute to the simple pleasures those kinds of films provide. The script also takes the time to develop the two lead characters to great effect. As a buddy-cop team, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost put Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker to shame. This was the most purely hilarious fun I had at the movies all year.
2. Juno: Picture a young woman who doesn’t neatly fall into any stereotype. Easy, right? Well, not in the movies. Writer Diablo Cody (with director Jason Reitman) has given birth (no pun intended) to a character who may one day be looked back on as the voice of a generation. There hasn’t yet been a film that so nails the sardonic sensibilities of the new century’s youth culture. The examples of this are both obvious (Juno’s opening joke about her mother’s abandonment) and subtle (As she declares her love for her baby’s father near the end, her voice unexpectedly rises as if she’s asking a question…the implication being that she fears a possible backlash from a teen society that mocks any examples of real feeling). The fact that the film refuses to cater to other stereotypes helps as well: a caring stepmother, a cool-headed father. This instant classic’s near-guaranteed win for Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Oscars will be one of the most deserving of the night.
1. The King of Kong: Without a hint of condescension, director Seth Gordon turns his camera on the sub-culture of video-gaming enthusiasts dedicated to scoring new high scores on the early classics. Specifically, we get the story of the battle between Billy Mitchell, who has held the record in “Donkey Kong” for decades, and the humble Steve Wiebe, a quiet genius looking for some recognition to highlight his otherwise normal life. The documentary profiles a cast of characters as endearing and eccentric as any fiction comedy, and it’s one of those great examples where life resembles an underdog sports story. Hilarious and gripping, The King of Kong finds art in one of the most unlikely places possible.