Forget all those other pansy “Top Ten Lists” you’ve seen. Mine goes to 11! My list for last year included films which struggled to break even and those which were financial disasters. This year, believe it or not, there are at least two films on my list that actually made a modest profit!
This year’s list includes two directors finding their way back to greatness, three comedies including one of the best satires in many a long year, a G-Rated animated film, three documentaries, a film about 9/11, a dysfunctional family in a yellow VW bus, a man whose life may be controlled by an unseen narrator, and a rat on the Boston State Police. So who’s #1? Let’s just say the answer may surprise you (and possibly piss you off to no end), but my choice was, in the end, the only one I could make.
I’m not going to leave you hanging, so let’s get to it.
Before we begin the countdown there are a few honorable mentions. For the second straight year no Sci-fi flick made my list, but there were three very good ones, each in their own unique way, and all are worth checking out – The Fountain, Children of Men, and A Scanner Darkly. Also worth mentioning are some very good family films such as Akeelah and the Bee and Charlotte’s Web. Also worth noting – the conversations from 10 Items or Less, the flashbacks from Hollywoodland, the obsession of The Prestige, the dreamworld of The Science of Sleep, and the hard choices of The Proposition.
A final note, in whittling my list down I found four films I considered better than anything else released theatrically this past year. Trying to rank these final four films proved to be a monumental undertaking. In various drafts of this post each of the four was placed in the coveted #1 spot. The ranking I finally decided to go with represents how good each film is, how remarkable, how important, and how original and ground-breaking. Feel free to disagree with me if you like, but this is my list and I’m sticking to it.
Our first entry on the list is a wonderful little documentary about an amazing feat of American ingenuity (yeah, who knew we could still do stuff like this?). 10 Years ago General Motors, in accordance with new stricter emission standards in California, did the impossible. They built, and mass produced, a car (the EV1) without an exhaust which ran without a single drop of gasoline. Those who were given the opportunity to lease the cars instantly fell in love with them. This is the story of how it all went away, almost over night, how the stricter emissions called for were repealed, how GM moved on to the Hummer, and how a great feat of American ingenuity was gathered up and destroyed in a trash compactor. Who killed the electric car and why? The film, in classic whodunit style, leaving no stone unturned, examines each of the suspects, and making a ruling on each. This is a must-see film folks. Now available on DVD.
10. The Departed
Martin Scorsese returns to a genre he knows well – cops and robbers. Here the focus is on the Boston State Police and a crooked cop on the inside (Matt Damon) and an honest one undercover (Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s overflowing with great supporting performances from Vera Farmiga, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin (who deserves a supporting nod from the Academy). Good pacing and suspense here as Scorsese balances the two stories creating his best film in many a year. It does turn into a bloodbath in the final act creating a conclusion that isn’t as satisfying as it should be given the build up. Despite this small flaw it’s a great suspense film and intellectual thriller providing some of today’s best talent some juicy roles in a great script. Not Scorsese’s best flick ever, but easily his best entry in the last fifteen years. Still playing in theaters.
If the entire film were as good as the final fifteen minutes this would be the best film of the year hands down. Even though that’s not the case there’s something special about Emilio Estevez’s mixing of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Grand Hotel. Freddy Rodriguez and Nick Cannon both deserve a long Oscar look, William H. Macy and Anthony Hopkins are good as ever, and then there’s a surprising turn by young Mary Elizabeth Winstead. He even gets good performances from some of my least favorite actors (Heather Graham, Lindsay Lohan, Ashton Kutcher). All these characters interact, dealing and agonizing over issues that will seem trivial by the end of the film. It’s one of those movies that improves from beginning to end (and with each viewing), as it focuses on a time when we still dreamed and believed and one senseless moment when it was all taken away. Now playing in select theaters.
As longtime readers of Transbuddha know I’m not always a fan of Will Ferrell, but when he’s given a good script and a nice supporting cast he is starting to prove he can create something truly funny and, even more surprising, emotionally moving. Here Ferrell plays IRS Agent Harold Crick who begins hearing a voice narrate his life (Emma Thompson) and foretell his doom. An offbeat little film that is truly sweet, oddly original, great fun, and unforgettable. Great work by Ferrell who lets his vulnerability shine, and nice supporting turns here for Maggie Gylenhaal, as the love interest, and Dustin Hoffman, who tries to discover just what genre of story Harold is mixed up in. The film contains two perfect scenes between Ferrell and Gylenhaal that include a guitar and the most romantic gift ever (I defy you not to agree!). Now playing in theaters.
Few things are as funny as watching others discomfort, dysfunction, and misery. When young Olive (Abigail Breslin) earns as spot in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant the family all jump into their yellow VW bus and head off to the sunshine state. The crew includes Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell) the leading Proust scholar in the U.S. who has just tried to kill himself after being dumped by his longtime lover, Olive’s silent brother (Paul Dano) who reads Nietche and has taken a vow of silence, her grandfather (Alan Arkin) an acid tongued smack addict, her father (Greg Kinnear) a motivational speaker no one wants to listen to, and her mother (Toni Collette) trying to keep them together. They drive across country, drive themselves crazy, and drive audiences to laughter and tears. There’s plenty of fun and surprises along the way, but it’s the final act when the family reaches the pageant that will make you cheer. Now available on DVD.
When Oliver Stone is at his best he’s a damn fine filmmaker (see Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). Here he tackles the events of 9/11 and tells the true story of two port authority cops (Nicholas Cage, Michael Pena) and the crippling impact the events had on them and their families. Unlike the nameless and far-reaching (and in my opinion scattered and somewhat emotionally detached) approach used in United 93, here the focus is on a small group of people who we come to know over the course of the film as they struggle to make sense of the senseless events of the day. A powerful film with great performances all around, especially from the supporting women of the film – Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello. And if you don’t tear up at Cage’s last line you just aren’t made out of human parts. One of Stone’s best films. Now available on DVD.
“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” One sentence turned the world upside down, and this is the story of what happened next. Shut Up and Sing started out as a documentary on the Dixie Chicks tour, but after the comment their world, and the documentary, became something much more interesting. The film follows the three strong women over the course of three tumultuous years as they deal with the backlash from lead singer Natalie Maines’ comment in a London auditorium. It launched a debate in this country on free speech and the right and responsibility of a celebrity to speak out on political and world views. Unapologetic, hurt, and still angry at those that abandoned them, the Chicks fought against the notion that women are better seen and not heard. This is their story, and it’s worth hearing. Still playing in select theaters.
Our final four begins with the year’s best comedy. Do you think smoking is bad for you? You won’t after Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart – who gives the performance of the year), the spin doctor and spokesman for the Tobacco Lobby, has a word with you. A delicious satire about smoking and the art of spin will leave you shaking your head in amazement. Written and directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) who makes all the right choices from the supporting cast which includes Katie Holmes, William H. Macy, Rob Lowe, Maria Bello, David Koechner, and Sam Elliot in a haunting and humorous scene. The best comedies are about something, and much like Naylor himself Reitman spins the issue from tobacco to liberty and the freedom of choice. Death is easy, comedy is hard, and satire can be a deadly mistress. A comedy like this comes once every ten years if you’re lucky. This year we were lucky indeed. Now available on DVD.
Discounting An Inconvenient Truth (and in some circles counting it) this is by far the most controversial pick on my list. Critics and audiences were strongly divided on Sofia Coppola’s rock opera biopic Marie Antoinette. Beautiful, vibrant, lush and intoxicating (much like its leading lady) the film is an amazing achievement and a huge risk for a third time director to undertake. Kirsten Dunst provides the heart and soul for a film heavy on emotion and light on plot, but her sheer charisma manages to somehow make it all work. It’s the tale of a modern teenager trapped in a world of elegance forced to play princess but who just wants to turn up the radio and dance. The entire film rides on her performance, the cinematography by Lance Acord, and the deft touch of Madame Coppola. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen, the film is one of the most original and amazing achievements of this, or any recent, year. It will be available on DVD Feb. 13.
It’s not my choice for best film of the year (though darn close) but it is definitely the most important film of the year. Whether you agree with him or not, whether you believe in Global Warming (or other science mumbo-jumbo like gravity) or not, you need to see this film. If the evidence doesn’t convince you, or you just don’t care about the world we will leave to our children then that’s fine. Just listen to what the man has to say. Al Gore’s life-long mission has been to bring the troubling and inconvenient truth to you, so at least you can do is given him a couple hours of your time. The result is a little frightening, but also reassuring as Gore shows that we currently have it within our power to stop the many ill-effects of this problem starting today. It is a warning and a message of hope. More than anything else it is a call to action to a country who is still ignoring the problem. Now available on DVD.
The best movie in the year is a G-Rated animated flick? Yes. Now I can’t stand NASCAR, a bunch of rednecks driving around is a circle for hours at a time? Yeah, I’d rather, well, do anything else but watch. I say this so you’ll realize what it means that this film won me over. The tale of a world of cars, hot shot Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the Piston Cup, and a small sleepy town called Radiator Springs. In a year without a leading candidate for Best Picture this one earns my top spot. Why? First, it’s the best looking animated film I have ever seen. Second, it’s a touching story about the small towns, without being preachy. Third, it celebrates the romance of the road trip (ah, so close to my heart). And finally, it created in me a sense of joy and wonder that made me feel like I was five years old. You can’t put a price on something like that. Now available on DVD.