I have a bit more of a skeptical view of this now, as does Ebert, who published his top twenty of the year in alphabetical order---just to bug the crap out of everybody--and then a completely distinct list of the top ten foreign films of the year. I can't blame him for breaking the rules--after all, how do you really choose between the third and fourth best movies of the year? Ask me again next week and I would probably give you a slightly different list, especially towards the bottom.
To compound matters, I am not a professional film critic and have only seen an infinitesimal fraction of the 650+ films that came out this year. Nonetheless, with this disclaimer, here is my best attempt at a list of the top ten films of the year:
- Synecdoche, New York: You don't need to be a part of a cadre of eggheads to appreciate this film, but it sure helps to have an open mind. Buried (for some) in a self-referential story of life turning into art (or vice-versa?) is the downfall of a great mediocrity--Caden Cottard, who always thought he could be more than a well know theater director in Schenectady, but ended up being miserable forever grasping at an impossible ideal. Intellectual, bizarre, self-effacing, and painfully poignant (especially the scenes regarding his daughter), Synecdoche, New York is the best film of the year.
- Doubt: I know that I am in the vast minority on this film which has as many detractors as supporters--although it has not polarized critics quite like Synecdoche. "Meryl Streep is hammy"--hogwash, it's a fantastic performance. "The ending is awful"--maybe for some, but I found myself profoundly moved. "It's not cinematic enough"--OK, this one hurts a bit, as I love a film told visually. But the sparse scenes of the urban Catholic school mixed with the ancient rituals of a slowly reforming church tell us so much about the environment these characters inhabit. More than that, we see the real obstacles within the church bureaucracy that restrict Sister Aloysius--otherwise a fearless disciplinarian--from protecting her students. Of course, it is never entirely clear what has happened, but the battle of wills between two giant figures--and the underlying theological issues each has on their side--is as intense and engaging as any cinematic experience this year.
- The Dark Knight: The best action movie of the year--and quite possibly the best superhero movie of all time--deserves high praise--although considering the obscene amount of money it brought in, I doubt it needs it. Batman Begins rescued the character--who has always been my favorite--from its Adam West (and later George Clooney) campiness and reminds us how dark and brooding his story is. The newer film does something far more unexpected, providing not only a canvas for the late Heath Ledger's brilliant performance, but also for a story that challenges the entire enterprise of the costumed vigilante.
- Milk: "I'm 40 years old and I haven't done a thing with my life," says Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. The next 8 years, on the other hand, would be extraordinary. Milk becomes a spokesman for gay rights at a time when it was not safe to be openly gay and walk the streets of San Francisco at night. Not limiting itself to Milk's personal story, we see how he became the leader of a movement, both holding it back at times and quietly supporting the occasionally violent outpourings of anger. It would have been much easier--and safer--to become a moderate voice inside the fold of the Democratic Party, but sometimes change requires pissing a few people off. Milk did it with a smile, which unfortunately was not enough disarm the opposition. Milk the movie tells this story without ever missing a beat.
- Slumdog Millionaire: A young man is born into miserable poverty in Bombay and spends his life dealing with the effects of global capitalsim, until he ends up on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire"--a show that would certainly not exist without an unfettered free market. His story is incredible, but it is more about survival than achievement. Beyond the grittiness of the Global South lies a fantastic fairy tale, one that is well beyond the bounds of reality but still rooted in the struggles and dramas of a poor orphaned Muslim boy.
- The Wrestler: Mickey Rourke gives us the best performance of any man, woman, child, slumdog, vampire, gay politician or retired president in any film this year. The story is simple although we still learn substantially about the morbid side of the theatrical professional wrestling scene--the washed up stars, disappointments, steroids, and a surprising amount of physical pain for a "fake" sport. The story may not be the most original, but Rourke inhabits his character so convincingly that it hardly matters.
- Waltz with Bashir: One of the most unique and innovative film-going experiences of the year, this "animated documentary" recounts the story of Israeli soldiers in the war with Lebanon. Their fantastic memories--including true stories, half-forgotten incidents, and dreams--create a haunting tapestry of time better left forgotten. If it were only that easy.
- Let the Right One In: If vampires were real, they wouldn't glitter in the sunlight and take their girlfriends on piggy-back rides up a mountain. They would live in the darkness, constantly in fear for their lives, sneaking around and killing people in the dark. Their sexuality would be creepy and weird, not silly and romantic. Their families wouldn't be happy and they wouldn't go to high school or live in huge houses in the hills, but in crappy run-down apartments. Fake goth kids and teenagers who have never heard of Kafka are into Twilight--Let the Right One In is the real thing.
- The Reader: What would you do if you were a teenage boy seduced by Kate Winslet in the early sixties in Germany? Ok, but what if she turned out to be a Nazi? The question, as in Bashir, is who is responsible for atrocities committed in the past and how can society--and individuals--atone for their sins--or can they? At times feeling a bit neat and staged, the latter part of the film becomes gut wrenching and painful.
- Wall-E: How many films in the post-silent era can say that their two main characters have almost no dialogue besides saying each other's names, and still find a way to communicate character and warmth? This is a movie that a generation of youngsters will look back on as the movie that raised their cultural bar and made them appreciate how film can tell a story without poorly written dialogue and obviously arbitrary plot points. It took me until I saw The Godfather on video at 13 to make this realization, perhaps for the next generation it will come sooner with Wall-E.