So the long year is finally over, and while many of us return to work today, here is a chance to look back at what I thought were the cinematic achievements of the year. January is usually a time when the shittier films come out (except Cloverfield) so you’ll have the month to catch a lot of these in theaters or on DVD. I didn’t get to see everything, so if you notice something missing that you think deserves to be listed, please let me know.
1. There Will Be Blood – If No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece of editing and restraint, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece of balls-out bravado. From the first silent fifteen minutes to the wildly violent last ones, Daniel Day Lewis brings his character to such life that I was often scared that he would pop out of the screen. While I wish he would make films more often, it’s always nice when Paul Thomas Anderson shows up every couple of years and proves yet again that he is the most daring and exciting American filmmaker working today.
2. No Country For Old Men – Joel and Ethan Coen decided to go back to their roots this year in making their most exciting movie since Blood Simple. While this is largely a plot driven movie, they managed to create one of their most frightening characters in Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, who almost turns this violent crime drama into a full blown horror movie.
3. Once – Just recently released on video, this film seems to be the sleeper hit of the year. I’ve met few people who didn’t enjoy watching the film’s subtle relationship (between an Irish folk singer and a Czech pianist) unfold. They might as well sell the DVD with the soundtrack, because once you’ve seen the film, it’s impossible not to buy the music that goes with it. If you’re lucky, you even caught the pair while they were on tour earlier this year.
4. Juno – Backlash for Juno has already begun. Like Garden State and Little Miss Sunshine before it, this film is twee and has a good soundtrack. Unlike those (or at least Garden State), the film also has some fantastic writing, an incredible performance from Ellen Page, and never corrupts the story to make things squeaky clean. Unwanted pregnancy had two big movies this year, and while Knocked Up was often hilarious, this is clearly the more interesting film.
5. Superbad – The biggest mistake from the Golden Globe nominations was this film not getting nominated for best comedy/musical. Do they know the definition of comedy? No film made me laugh more than Superbad this year. Aptly written by a teenage Seth Rogen and his high school friend, this teen sex comedy reinvented a genre that lately has only generated straight-to-video American Pie movies. While the plot is still the same (teens want sex; high jinks ensue), the writing is funnier, the acting is better and despite all the shenanigans, the characters feel like people you might have actually known in high school.
6. Ratatouille – Though it is not the funniest of the Pixar cartoons, I would say Ratatouille is the sweetest and most adult of them all. Instead of being over-populated with celebrity voices and pop culture humor, the film gets laughs out of its characters and the amazing animation work that lends itself so perfectly to slapstick.
7. Eastern Promises – This film is suffering from having come out earlier in the year, but there’s no denying that David Cronenberg’s latest is thrilling from start to finish. Armin-Mueller Stahl deserves a lot of praise (but isn’t getting it) and Viggo Mortensen is impressive as always, especially in a tense naked bath house knife fight that has to be seen to be believed.
8. The Host – A fantastic monster movie from Korean director Joon-ho Bong. When vats of toxic chemicals are dumped into the Han River, a monster is created with the grace of Nancy Kerrigan and the brutality of…Tanya Harding (zing!). The monster takes a young girl hostage and her dysfunctional family has to fight off government quarantines to save her. It’s been compared to Jaws, and for good reason.
9. Control – The story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis through the lens of music video director Anton Corbijn. Actor Sam Riley does an eerily good impression of the late Curtis, mimicking his mannerisms and vocals. The story itself is more interesting than your average music biopic, simply because it consists of more than just someone rising to fame, doing drugs and cheating on his wife (though clearly, that’s in there too).
10. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – This film was as quiet and distant as its title characters. I saw it several months ago and have just now come to terms with how beautifully filmed and articulately scripted it was. Writer/director Andrew Dominik takes so much time setting up the mood of the film that, despite the title, you are still surprised by the inevitable ending of the film.
Honorable Mention: Sweeney Todd, 30 Days of Night, This Is England, Into the Wild, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Lesley Vernon, Knocked Up, Charlie Wilson’s War, Southland Tales and…no joke…Shoot ‘Em Up.