A month and nine days after the year originally ended, I still haven't really been able to compile ten films (I've now seen 30) I enthusiastically recommend without any reservations, but i'm pretty close. Here it goes, and watch out because I'll be using a lot of fancy words:
1. Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard, starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon: Frost/Nixon is an excellent political thriller. It's kinetic, fast-paced, energetic, and more importantly, it is profoundly relevant to our times: Power is determined by who can make themselves look best in front of a camera. I also admire the film for creating a battle of wits with an indistinguishable line between who's the protagonist and the villain, yet taking time to humanize the "villain" at the film's end. Frank Langella has an incredibly difficult role to play as a former president and he doesn't even bother going to the original source to pull off his interpretation. I found Langella's Nixon (an the whole movie, for that matter) to be reminiscent of Citizen Kane in that Citizen Kane was powerful and wealthy beyond anyone's wildest dreams, but he never felt truly loved by the people and that was the film's big reveal.
2. Gran Torino, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Hor-The story about a grumpy and somewhat bigoted veteran of the Korean War who copes with the changing makeup of his decaying town and his faith as he enters old age sounds more like a film one would see in Sundance due to its character-centered plot. If it hadn't been for an A-list star like Cliint Eastwood the film might not have ever reached a wide release which is a shame because this is among the most profound and moving pictures in years. Gran Torino is a sweeping exploration at shell-scock, culture clash, urban decay and especially ageism. In this film, Eastwood clearly looks like a shadow of his former self, but he plays a hero with the resolve, grit, and firepower of Dirty Harry or the "Man with No Name." When he befriends his neighbors and takes on the gang that threatens their safety, you've never seen an 80-year old hero on screen like this before and that's a tribute to Eastwood as an actor.
3. Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle, starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal: Although it's set in India and directed by a Brit, Slumdog Millionaire is the most American of stories. It's the classic rags-to-riches dream of a boy working his way to riches and it's set in the country whose notoriously rigid class system makes it harder than anywhere else to get out of poverty. In this setting, uneducated slum boy Jamal Malek uses his life experience to try to win a fortune on the Indian rip-off of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Shot on location, the film is such an engrossing visual experience that you can almost taste, smell and touch the Bombay slums. What's more, the film is also an amazing love story between Jamal and the love of his life who he'd give anything to get out of harm's way.
4. Wall-E, directed by Andrew Staunton: Some might call the first 30 minutes a Chaplainesque comedy and classify the film accordingly while I see Wall-E as a Dystopian fantasy of two star-crossed robots who inadvertently save a disenfranchised human race. Whether you see it as a comedy, science-fiction, an unconventional romance, or a moral parable, it's a winner either way. To even suggest making an animated film about two robots who can't talk is bold enough, but to make us care about these two inanimate objects is a feat for the ages. It's also safe to say from all the critical reception that Wall-E is far more than a cartoon, and has transcended the complement of "a good animated film." The Pixar studio has been fawned over for it's innovation so it must feel good for those folks to have one of their films be praised so highly on an adult level, for the first time.
5. Doubt, directed by John Patrick Shanley, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis: I haven't seen this film, but what the heck, I only feel enthusiastic about 9 of the films I've seen so far, and of all the films I haven't seen, this seems like it has potential to be great. I've started to get more and more fascinated by it after watching interviews with the cast and seeing all four of it's stars get nominated for Oscars. Other contenders for films that look great are Australia, Religulous, and Frozen River. Why haven't I seen it? Last time I went to the movie theater, we were 15 minutes too late and saw Rachel Getting Married instead and now I can't afford to see a movie again, unless you donate to the site or buy DVDs from my site. (see "Reasons Why You Should Donate Money to Me #41")
6. Burn After Reading, dir. by the Coen Brothers, starring John Malkovitch, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, JK Simmons, Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand: I personally find the work of Joel and Ethan Coen to be uneven but I couldn't resist the brilliance of the storyline and the brothers' ability to manipulate its various threads. The film resembles a British comedy of errors where characters exist in varying degrees of being in the dark as to what's going on, except it's taken to extremes. The characters are all hilariously inept and the comedy builds to an explosive climax as the circumstances become more and more outrageous. The Coen brothers usually have a strong sense of place in their films and as a Washingtonian, I got a special thrill out of saying the the Coen Brothers so cleverly lampoon the inefficient and bloated bureaucracy that plagues every corner of life in this city. It's truly an unforgettable film.
7. Be Kind Rewind, dir. by Michael Gondry, starring Jack Black, Muriel Hemmingway, Mos Def, Danny Glover-When the videotapes are accidentally erased of their content in an ailing video store, two friends try to save the store from foreclosure by creating their own homemade versions of the store's films. The film also stars Danny Glover as the store owner. The fun of watching Mos Def and Jack Black attempt to recreate low budget versions of Driving Miss Daisy, Rush Hour 2, King Kong and Ghostbusters is worth the price of admission alone but the film also has deeper themes about the way we consume and create art and the joy of the process.
8. Encounters at the End of the World, dir. by Warner Herzog-How about adding a documentary to the list? I don't normally spring for docs but I saw three this year and I felt this was a really great film in the mold of escapism. If a film's job is to take you out of the mundane and into a brand new world, where else can you go but the metaphorical world's end? A filmmaker goes to Antarctica and not only shows you how otherworldly the flora and fauna are, but how quirky the land's inhabitants are as well. If I had to make a complaint, Warner Herzog could have used a narrator other than himself, considering his accent is a little distracting.
9. In Bruges, dir. by Martin McDonaugh, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleason, Ralph Feinnes-It's kind of funny because I spoke so highly of this film to my parents and they went to watch it and hated it because it has so many bad words, but if you look a little past that, you'll see some very interesting dialogue and very interesting characters. The film just won best screenplay at the British version of the Oscars (the BAFTAs) and it is nominated for best screenplay at this month's Oscars, so I can't be the only one to think that the film is doing something right. The film isn't just a slightly dark comedy. It plunges all the way into the dark side. At one point, a guy is risking life and limb to save someone who insists on wanting to commit suicide anyways.
10. Quantum of Solace, dir. by Marc Forrester, starring Daniel Craig, Matthieu Almaric, Gemma Arterton, Judi Dench, Jeffery Wright, Olga Krulyenko-I felt the series' reboot was justified not by Casino Royale, but by its follow-up, Quantum of Solacae. The action scenes and visuals were amazing, Craig is even more comfortable in his groove, but more importantly, Bond finally seems human. Yes, the trend started in Casino Royale, but this was the first time that a Bond film actually surprised me. Bond not shooting a villain or bedding a girl just because those are filmic conventions is something truly novel.
Buy some of these films:
To recap, during my last two years as a columnist for D.C. Scene, I submitted two top ten lists to them. Here they are:
1. 3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold
2. There Will be Blood, PT Anderson
3. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Sidney Lumet
4. Michael Clayton, Tony Gileroy
5. Charlie Wilson's War, Mike Nicholls
6. Sicko, Michael Moore
7. Great Debaters, Denzel Washington
8. Juno, Jason Reitman
9. Lions for Lambs, Robert Redford
10. Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson
1. Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood
2. Little Miss Sunshine, A pair of unknown directors whose names I can't remember
3. Departed, Martin Scorsese
4. Babel, Alejandro Inarritu Gonzalu
5. Blood Diamond, Ed Zwick
6. Prairie Home Companion, Rob Altman
7. Dreamgirls, Bill Condon
8. Bobby, Emilio Estevez
9. Hollywoodland, Allan Coulter
10. Cars, John Lassiter
Buy these films on amazon.com: