For some reason, filmmakers really knew how to make movies about war and crime this year. That having been said, my number one pick has neither.
10. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
"Easiest money we'll ever get."
For those of you who thought A Stranger Among Us, Guilty as Sin and Gloria marked the end of the great Sidney Lumet, rest assured he still has plenty of piss, vinegar, and depictions of ruthlessly desperate people left in him. And he's still able to illicit career-best performances from the likes of Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who deserves some sort of special award for the year he's had). Plus, plenty of naked Marisa Tomei, but that totally didn't influence my opinion. And credit screenwriter Kelly Masterson with drawing characters that are at once despicable, pitiable and, most importantly, enthralling.
9. Gone Baby Gone
"Kids forgive. They don't judge. They turn the other cheek, and what do they get for it?"
Who'd-a thunk Affleck had it in him? Well, if we paid attention to his Academy Award-winning co-writer credit on Good Will Hunting, we'd at least remember he knew how to tell a story. But to direct a Dennis Lehane adaptation (which he co-wrote with Aaron Stockard) into a film of equal or greater (there, I said it) moral complexity than Master Eastwood's crack at Lehane is another matter entirely. How many other movies leave you with a question so troubling that you honestly can't answer it? (Besides Gigli?) And let's not forget a cast that combines sure-fire stalwarts like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman with up-and-comers like Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan (likely on her way to a Best Supporting Actress win), and Casey Affleck, who proves his ability to carry a film many times over.
"Hey, Pam, remember when I said this car was death proof? Well, that wasn't a lie. This car is a hundred percent death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat."
Technically, if you nailed me down to which of the two films that make up Robert Rodgriguez and Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece of schlock I prefer and promote to this list, it would be the latter's Death Proof, which goes beyond paying tribute to the genre and stands on its own as one of the director's best. But Grindhouse is a complete experience. Three hours in the dark with grueling, nasty fun and faux trailers that put today's real trailers to shame. And it's not like Rodriguez's Planet Terror entry is any slouch. It's actually more of a pure grindhouse film than Tarantino's. That having been said, watch Kurt Russell in Death Proof give one of the best performances of his career without anyone seeming to notice.
"Do you know more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed? He offed a few citizens, wrote a few letters, then faded into footnote… Not that I haven't been sitting here idly, waiting for you to drop by and reinvigorate my sense of purpose."
Many directors turned to the '70s for inspiration this year, but none did it with the artistry of David Fincher in his account of the investigation into the eponymous serial killings. Fincher's aesthetic evokes a personal tone (indeed, he grew up in the Bay Area under the shadow of the murders) and that may be why the film's relatively tame violence packs as much of a punch as the more graphic horror of his other serial killer flick. More affecting still are the lives of the men who become obsessed with the case, most notably Paul Avery, portrayed with typical brilliance by Robert Downey, Jr. It doesn't hurt that this film is nothing short of character actor heaven, with Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Philip Baker Hall, Zach Grenier, Adam Goldberg, and James LeGros all turning in Hey, It's That Guy! performances that somehow don't distract.
6. American Gangster
"Judges, lawyers, cops, politicians. They stop bringing dope into this country, about a hundred thousand people are gonna be out of a job."
Though set firmly in the '70s, Ridley Scott's epic has the timeless quality common to all great crime sagas. What drives this particular rise-and-fall tale, however, is the contrast between dedicated family man/criminal entrepreneur Frank Lucas and dedicated cop/inveterate womanizer Richie Roberts (Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, each knocking their respective roles out of the park). It is a photo negative of The Untouchables, where Ness' focus on the family (I swear if they say "It's nice to be married" one more time in that film…) is the counterpoint to Capone's solitary existence among a faceless entourage. Also like all great crime sagas, it has a lot more on its mind than crime, touching on issues of race, economics and what exactly makes a "good" man, much of which coalesces in the film's showstopping verbal mano a mano.
"It is not a question of what a Spartan citizen should do, nor a husband, nor a king. Instead, ask yourself, my dearest love, what would a free man do?"
It would be enough for this film to revolutionize filmmaking by delivering on the promise of techniques introduced way back when when Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow hit screens, but Zak Snyder's war saga delivers tight, brutal storytelling that would work with any technology. Grandiose without faltering into self-parody (or is that just Frank Miller in general?), the film creates that rarity in the action universe, a unique, memorable experience. In context, it's also surprisingly de-politicized. If you really try you can eke out a "support our troops" subtext, but the strokes here are so broad that about the deepest I think you can dig with any veracity is "Spartans sure could fuck your shit up two times before you hit the ground."
4. There Will Be Blood
"I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people."
From the film that is all about war, but not at all about the current war, to a film that has nothing to do with war, but is particularly about the current war. Suffice it to say Paul Thomas Anderson's latest masterpiece swims in two things, oil and religion. Equal parts character study and political allegory, the film piles baptismal imagery on top of another whirlwind performance from Daniel Day-Lewis to produce a dark fable about what happens when an "oil man" who raises misanthropy to an art form comes to town. The scary thing about this is that Anderson, already an accomplished filmmaker, is getting better. And keep your eye on Paul Dano, who between this and Little Miss Sunshine is eclipsing most of his peers.
3. No End in Sight
"When we were first starting the reconstruction, there were 500 ways to do it wrong and two or three ways to do it right. What we didn't understand is that we were gonna go through all 500."
While a slew of films attempted to address Iraq from a fictional perspective this year, none had the efficacy of docs on the same topic, which have been rolling out for the past few years. Of all those docs, however, it's hard to find a more cogent overview than Charles Ferguson's profile of the first infrastructure-oriented boots on the ground and how they were basically undermined from the very beginning and how that got us where we are today.
Not questioning for a moment whether or not it was a good idea to go in in the first place, No End in Sight instead concerns itself with the dream that was a democratic Iraq and paints a pretty convincing picture that at first, at least, it was achievable. At least that's the impression you get from the insiders tasked with that mission who very honestly depict the clusterfuck that awaited them.
The most telling stat the film highlights is that the post-WWII occupation of Germany was literally years in the planning. The Iraq occupation, maybe 60 days. And strange as it may sound, after watching the film, the surge actually begins to make sense. Scary, unfortunate, eponymous sense.
2. Charlie Wilson's War
"My loyalty? For twenty four years people have been trying to kill me! People who know how. And do you think that's because I'm the son of a Greek soda pop maker, or because I'm an American spy. Go fuck youself, you fucking child!"
After the implosion of Studio 60, it seemed we'd lost Aaron Sorkin to a self-righteous, shrill parody of his former self. Maybe it was the distance of adapting someone else's work, but his first post-60 script (and his first screenplay in 12 years) evidences a return to form.
The same sharp dialog that sets Sorkin apart to the point where you have to ask if a particular actor can speak Sorkin the same way you ask if they can speak Mamet, is firing on all cylinders here, placed in the mouths of some fine performers. Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman in particular form one of the year's best duos (right up there with Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly in Waitress or Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Talk to Me).
The film also manages to accomplish in the last five minutes what most of this year's war-themed movies couldn't manage in two hours. In that short space, the flick makes its point (something like, "If you don't invest in infrastructure after arming a bunch of people, many of whom would like to kill you, it'll probably come back to bite you in the ass") without much fanfare, and still has more to say than 90 percent of its kith. A lot of that is due to the respect it shows for its audience by letting them do the math.
"During the daytime people would want to hear songs that they know, just songs that they recognize. I play these song at night or I wouldn't make any money. People wouldn't listen."
I have never really seen a movie like Once. You could compare it to Lost in Translation, but that would neglect the music. You could compare it to Before Sunrise, but that would neglect the scope. You could compare it to a series of music videos (really, really good music videos), but that would neglect the characters.
That last description, though, would probably be the most accurate. Writer/director John Carney presents us with two characters (played with effortless naturalism by Markéta Irglová and The Frames' Glen Hansard) who fall into what can be best described as real-life music videos. Just watching their relationship develop is charming enough, but the music. Oh, the music. Suffice it to say if I could have downloaded the soundtrack in the theater during the film, I would have.
(Also, as a songwriter, I can tell you this film has some of the most realistic depictions of songwriting I've ever seen.)
There is little more to say about the film because so much of it is in the viewing (and hearing). This is the kind of film that makes me use hackneyed terms like "magical" sincerely. It's an experience. An honest, unironic experience. No war. No crime. Just solid, unique filmmaking.Powered by Sidelines