2009 has been an interesting year for cinema. While it didn't boast the ridiculously generous quantity of superior films that 2007 can claim, or 2008's uncommon breadth of form and subject, this year has proven to be a exciting one, provided viewers had the courage to seek out the gems amid an increasingly homogeneous sludge of multiplex inanities and arthouse banalities. No overriding artistic theme has emerged from 2009, but among its most estimable works were those that strove to bend the rules, to various degrees of success. 24 City, Avatar, The Beaches of Agnès, The Girlfriend Experience, Inglourious Basterds, The Limits of Control, and Of Time and the City all upended the conventions of genre, narrative, and visual possibility to marvelous effect. Yet it was also a year for astonishing films executed with established cinematic methods and within familiar generic modes: farce (In the Loop), horror (Drag Me to Hell), gangster (Gomorrah), science-fiction (Moon), and war (The Hurt Locker). The finest dramatic and comedic narrative features were not mainstream critical darlings, but already-forgotten greats like Bright Star, Goodbye Solo, and A Serious Man, or non-English-language triumphs such as 35 Shots of Rum, Summer Hours, and Treeless Mountain. Superior animated films were conspicuous in 2009 as well, as it saw the release of Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Ponyo, Up, and the lamentably undistributed Sita Sings the Blues. Without further ado, let's get to the best of 2009. To be considered, a film must have opened in America between January 1 and December 31, 2009 in wide, limited, or select city release. Film festival premieres don't count, but even, say, a one-week run in New York City does. As with my previous year-in-review features, I've avoiding numerical rankings, which I find difficult to assign and fairly ridiculous anyway. This year I've selected five films that I believe are flat-out masterpieces, nine exceptional contenders, and one undistributed little marvel.

The Very Best

The Beaches of Agnès - Agnès Varda - France


I'm playing the role of a little old lady.

The late films from the living luminaries of the French New Wave have proven to be middling works, or even outright duds. (Yes, Chabrol, Resnais, Rivette: I'm looking at you.) Into such an environment, The Beaches of Agnès wafts like a welcome breeze, a confident, impish, heartfelt cinematic memoir from the movement's lone female director. Agnès Varda's most renowned film, the French arthouse hit Cleo from 5 to 7, was released over four decades ago. However, as her latest, intensely personal feature makes clear, she has always been a relentless creator, working in any medium she fancies: film, video, photography, print, sculpture, and performance art. Varda escorts us on a wry, wistful tour of her life and her art, lingering on memories and revisiting the scenes of various delights and tragedies. She re-enacts and reconfigures key moments of her eighty years in a half-serious search for meaning. Beaches reveals the artist not as a tormented soul, but as a spirit of curiosity, grace, humor, and, above all, warmth. Exhilarating in its honesty and unfettered joy, Varda's masterpiece proves to be one of the most emotionally enthralling and unabashedly intimate self-portraits ever put to film. Impressions from SLIFF here.

Coraline - Henry Selick - USA


Oh my twitchy, witchy girl.

Released in the ancient history of February 2009, Henry Selick's stop-motion horror fable seems to have been all but forgotten beneath a wave of enthusiasm for Pixar's Up. That's a shame, because Coraline isn't merely Selick's finest work to date: it's an essentially perfect film in every way. Boasting breathtaking design that puts the director's own The Nightmare Before Christmas to shame, Coraline wipes away the seams of stop-motion animation and welcomes us—with a Vincent Price grin—into a funhouse reality of stunning tangibility and limitless delights. Selick delivers not only a formal masterpiece that uses 3D technology to ravishing effect, but a sharply constructed, elegantly plotted tale crackling with mythic resonance. It's an epic Hero's Journey reborn as a tidy little monster-in-the-closet yarn. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Coraline presents an uncommonly complex and humane message for parents and children alike, a gentle call for us to curb our egos and cultivate a giving outlook towards those we love. That Selick achieves all of this in one film, a film that most critics seem to have regarded as little more than a kiddie-goth bauble, is nothing short of astounding. Full review here.

Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino - USA


Facts can be so misleading.

For months the debate has roiled around Quentin Tarantino's World War II thriller-cum-revenge fantasy, and yet the vigorous back-and-forth seems to have only whetted the film's blade and thrown its stunning achievements into sharp relief. Like all of Tarantino's works, Inglourious Basterds functions at the primary level of visceral thrills and quotable wit, and also at a secondary level, where it evinces a profound affection for and absorption with cinema. The writer-director's often overlooked talent for pulse-quickening, people-driven drama is in stunning evidence here, as Basterds boasts some of the finest scenes and characters of QT's career. Effusive and encyclopedic devotee of cinema that he is, however, Tarantino can't resist reshaping his Nazi Film into a cerebral, free-wheeling deconstruction of genre and celebrity. It's from this angle that Basterds' breadth snaps into focus. What emerges is a maddening, enthralling torrent of critique and commentary on art, culture, history, and morality, where each avenue of exploration reveals two others. This is Basterds' triumph: a riveting tale of revenge and betrayal that shares the screen with a deceptively rich and ambitious treatise on... well, everything. It is staggering to consider that the man who created Pulp Fiction was just getting started. Full review here, and further thoughts here.

Of Time and the City - Terence Davies - UK


Come closer now, and see your dreams.

One word describes Terence Davies' cinematic love letter to a vanished Liverpool: exquisite. Of Time and the City is not a film to appreciate or study; it is a film in which to lose yourself, in which to soak like a warm bath drawn by a loving parent. Davies, in what is remarkably his first documentary feature, delves into the recesses of his own memories and into voluminous, often perplexing archival footage of Liverpool in the mid-20th century to craft a poignant poem of images, music, and words. There is no story here, but rather a sensory and emotional experience, a work of personal nostalgia that never once feels indulgent. The genius of Of Time and the City lies in how elegantly Davies uses his own story—wistful, melancholy, sometimes acidic—to explore the meaning of home and transience. The curiously compelling footage, the classical music, and Davies' own lyrical voice-over narration tug irresistibly on the mind and heart. The director's sense of loss and yearning are not backgrounded in favor of abstract meanderings, and yet still something painfully universal emerges, compelling us to reflect on our own loss and yearning. A majestic film that moved me to tears. Full review here.

A Serious Man - Ethan and Joel Coen - USA


Mere surmise, sir. Very uncertain.

In what proves to be their most scathing and plaintive feature in a prolific decade, the Coen brothers offer a work of cinematic theodicy, as absurdly funny and thematically intricate as one would expect from the virtuosos of American film. Accusations of misanthropy and mean-spirited glee are misplaced when discussing the Coens, and never more-so than vis-à-visA Simple Man, a work of profound sadness and awed confusion in which its hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, watches in terror as his life disintegrates before his eyes. The Coens effortlessly balance sympathy for Larry's plight with buzzing doubts about the nature of culpability and causality. Who else but the brothers could turn the story of a nebbishy physics professor and his misfortunes into something so beautiful, so entertaining, and so philosophically audacious? Just as No Country For Old Men was the Coens' blistering howl of post-faith despair, A Simple Man is a masterpiece of religious woe, a horror film with the rhythms and sensibilities of a timeworn Jewish joke. Yet for all its theological probings and bitter amusements, the potency of A Simple Man is summed up in its devastating cut to black and implicit caution: "It can always get worse." Full review here.

The Next Best

24 City - Zhang Ke Jia - China


Zhang Ke Jia builds upon his reputation as the most exciting and perceptive film-maker in China with his latest stunner, a chimera of fact and fiction, chilly observation and soulful humanity. Like all of Jia's films, 24 City is a work characterized by a heightened awareness, here for the sights and sounds of an industrial complex's slow evolution into modern high-rises. Steeped in equal doses of hope and anxiety, 24 City demonstrates Jia's enviable fusion of empathy and visual artistry, not to mention his eerie facility for capturing the aura of a time and place. Impressions from SLIFF here.

35 Shots of Rum - Claire Denis - France


Claire Denis' magnificent exhale of humane drama boasts a stable of remarkable performances, but what sets 35 Shots of Rum apart from its contemporaries is the authorial strength and emotional insight that sizzle beneath Denis' understated style. In telling this languid story of lonely souls in a block of Parisian flats, Denis discovers psychological authenticity through a graceful, bewitching approach that favors tender social observation over strident declaration. Every frame of 35 Shots of Rum sings with the energy of a confident film-maker whose understanding of the human heart is daunting in its precision. Impressions from SLIFF here.

Bright Star - Jane Campion - UK / Australia / France


For her blissfully tragic tale of the chaste love between Fanny Brawne and John Keats, Jane Campion relies upon both familiar romantic tropes and an effortless emotional intimacy with her audience. Bright Star presents Campion working in her most admirable and purely cinematic mode, where even story itself is secondary to the collision of sensation and mood. Bright Star utilizes the texture of its nineteenth-century pastoral setting to marvelous effect, not for the sake of authenticity, but always to heighten and underline the pathos that coils around its doomed lovers. A veritable vision of romance itself. Full review here.

In the Loop - Armando Iannucci - UK


Armando Iannucci's razor-sharp, achingly funny, breathtakingly profane farce is the best film yet made about the Iraq War—and more generally about the unremitting cascade of bullshit that characterizes politics and media in the twenty-first century. Films about horrible people doing horrible things don't come more maniacally entertaining or uncannily frank than In the Loop, which might be classified as a tragedy if it weren't so damn funny. Iannucci's comedic triumph boasts not only the screenplay of the year, but also Peter Capaldi's magnificently contemptible performance as Malcolm Tucker, a contender for cinema's asshole of the decade. Full review here.

Moon - Duncan Jones - UK


With unwavering focus and fierce intelligence, Duncan Jones crafts an old-school, thinking-man's science-fiction powerhouse, built on the foundations of a single enthralling performance and masterful use of practical special effects. Moon is what sci-fi can be at its finest: densely layered drama about the perilous intersection of technology and humanity, drama that seizes us and refuses to let go. Sam Rockwell positively carries the film with his frazzled portrayal of a spacebound worker bee who yearns for the truth. Moon is an unexpected triumph and an affirmation of the enduring power of futuristic settings for probing artistic discourse. Full review here.

Ponyo - Hayao Miyazaki - Japan


Animation titan Hayao Miyazaki demonstrates that his talent for blending surreal fantasy and authentic emotion has not wavered with Ponyo, an oceanic fairy tale that dazzles both the senses and the soul. Miyazaki pulls back the curtain on weird, wonderful marine vistas inspired by equal measures of scientific awe and folklore-tinged fancy. Yet as with all of Miyazaki's triumphs, Ponyo's most profound appeal lies in its humanity and its warm regard for life's smallest details. By means of an elemental tale of love and separation, Miyazaki plumbs the magical, often sorrowful character of life's transitions. Full review here.

Summer Hours - Olivier Assayas - France


With the marvelously observed, endlessly touching Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas reminds us that family drama need not be histrionic and ugly to be captivating. The list of highlights in this bittersweet tale of inheritance is long, from a parade of utterly genuine performances to Eric Gautier's dreamy, roving camerawork. Most conspicuous, however, is the rigorous command of Assayas himself, whose hand provides the film with a powerful thematic coherence and luscious visual language. Summer Hours discovers the drama inherent in endings, rendering the dispersal of a family's heirlooms as one of the most compelling stories of the year. Full review here.

Treeless Mountain - So Yong Kim - USA / South Korea


So Yong Kim solidifies her position as one of the most gently perceptive and soulful social realists working today with her tearful, empathetic sophomore effort, Treeless Mountain. Within the story of two young girls shuffled from relative to relative by financial pressures, Kim exhibits a profound understanding of the slow, proud way that awareness and emotional maturity germinate in a child's consciousness. Kim's lean, understated approach to storytelling reveals a uncommon talent for conveying meaning through the smallest details of performance, and belies the director's masterful use of setting and motif to underline her film's rich psychological texture. Full review here.

Up - Pete Docter - USA


Under the guise of spinning a rousing adventure tale that treats childhood whimsy with absolute conviction, Pete Docter wallops us with a sorrowful gut-punch about deferred dreams and the craving for human connection. The most emotionally complex film yet from Pixar, Up woos us with a (yes, visually dazzling) story of escape that resonates with the fussy crayon blueprints of our younger days. Even as it starkly portrays the ease with which life's caprices stymie the grandest plans, the film posits that love itself is the noblest adventure, a trite sentiment rendered magnificently uplifting by Docter's assured hand. Full review here.

The Do-It-Yourself Best

Sita Sings the Blues - Nina Paley - USA


Nina Paley's labor of anguish and liberation never found a distributor due to copyright concerns, and jumped directly from one-off screenings to a DVD release. Its theatrical absence notwithstanding, Sita Sings the Blues deserves a place of honor as one of the most inventive, giddily entertaining works of musical animation since Yellow Submarine. Endlessly imaginative, expressive, and witty, Sita gleams with a consuming authorial resolve and passion. Gently feminist and distressingly personal, it nonetheless retains an atmosphere of funky good times, burnished by a plethora of wondrous styles and a sprightly affection for Indian culture and early jazz. Full review here.

Honorable Mentions: Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, Avatar, Drag Me to Hell, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Girlfriend Experience, Gomorrah, Goodbye SoloThe Hurt Locker, The Limits of Control


Underrated: Antichrist, Tetro, Watchmen

Overrated, Slightly or Highly: Adventureland, Amreeka, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, District 9, An Education, The Hangover, Lorna's Silence, Paranormal Activity, Precious, Star Trek, Two Lovers, Where the Wild Things Are

Biggest Disappointment: Adoration

AuthorAndrew Wyatt
CategoriesYear in Review

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy at MSN Movies are back with their annual "Moments Out of Time" feature: the "images, lines, gestures, moods" from the films of 2008 that have stuck with them. It's become something of an unofficial tradition for cinema bloggers and commentators to offer up their own moments, so here are mine. Feel free to add, amend, and bicker in comments. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) sits at a cramped, noisy dinner table, but her mind is trapped in a dingy hotel room miles away.


The Band's Visit: In a sad little roller disco, Haled (Saleh Bakri) tutors Papi (Shlomi Avraham) in the rules of romance with a hands-on demonstration.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster*: California Representative Henry Waxman awkwardly admits that he doesn't know the legal drinking age in the United States.

Blind Mountain: Bai (Lu Huang) regards a meat cleaver with smoldering eyes, contemplating its possible role in securing her long-thwarted escape.

Burn After Reading: Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) spits the insult of the year: "Fuck you, Peck, you're a Mormon. Compared to you we all have a drinking problem."

Chris & Don: A Love Story: Sly, spry 74-year-old Don Bachardy weeps as he recalls sketching his lover Christopher Isherwood in the man's final days.

The Class: For a few heady minutes, the unruly grammar students under the charge of Mr. Marin (François Bégaudeau) gaze admiringly at the photos taken by their classmate Souleymane.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: At the end of their inverted biological trajectories, an elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett) caresses the dying infant that was once her lover.

The Dark Knight: The Joker (Heath Ledger), cackling in a police interrogation room, revels in Batman's (Christian Bale) realization that his impotence is absolute: "You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with!"

Days and Clouds: Michele (Antonio Albanese) runs in a panic from a bungled wallpapering job, shamed at his imcompetence, his cowardice, and the abject failure of his life.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father: David Bagby confesses his elaborate homicidal fantasies regarding the psychopathic woman who murdered his son.


The Edge of Heaven: As men descend a staircase on their way to mosque, Nejat (Baki Davrak) explains to Susanne (Hanna Schygulla) that he has forgotten the depths of his estranged father's love.

Encounters at the End of the World: A solitary penguin, miles from its nesting ground or the sea, waddles off towards the mountains and certain death.

The Fall: An emotional crescendo as Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) and Roy (Lee Pace) whisper in the language of storytelling: Please don't kill yourself. Why not? Because I love you.

The Flight of the Red Balloon: Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), her life coming apart at the seams, embraces Simon (Simon Iteanu) with boundless love, while Song Fan and a blind piano tuner attend to their work.

Happy-Go-Lucky: On Poppy's (Sally Hawkins) final driving lesson, Scott (Eddie Marsan) loses it, and a torrent of repressed rage, resentment, and desire pours forth.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz (Selma Blair) wander dumbfounded through a Garden of Eden that has sprung from a slain behemoth's remains.

I Served the King of England: Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) serves milk to a gaggle of nude Teutonic beauties at a Nazi "breeding center".

Iron Man: With his final line, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), thrusts his superhero alter ego into the sunlight: "I am Iron Man."

The Last Mistress: Wailing over the death of their daughter, Vellini (Asia Argento) couples frantically with Ryno (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) in the Algerian desert.

Let the Right One In: Naked under the covers, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson) gently hold hands.

Man on Wire: Annie Allix chokes up, searching for words as she recalls the sublime beauty of Philippe Petit's performance.


Paranoid Park: Alex (Gabe Nevins) ambles in slump-shouldered slow-motion through the corridors of his high school, cloaked in gray shadow.

Rachel Getting Married: Kym (Anne Hathaway) rambles her way through a self-absorbed, incoherent toast that just keeps getting worse.

Revolutionary Road: April (Kate Winslet), eerily calm, declares, "Fuck who you like, Frank."

Shotgun Stories: Son (Michael Shannon) spits contemptuously on the grave of his father, setting in motion a tragedy that will swallow two families.

Speed Racer: Clinching victory in a race for the ages, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) slides the Mach 5 to a halt as its tires melt into puddles of black goo.

Standard Operating Procedure: Flabbergasted, Errol Morris intrudes into his film with a query for Sabrina Harman: "Did any of this seem unusual to you?"

Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains: Overcome with the enormity of their friends' sacrifice, the survivors of the Andean disaster marvel at the miracle of their own children and grandchildren.


Synecdoche, New York: Olive (Robin Weigert) denies her father Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a deathbed absolution, and an indigo flower petal falls onto a white sheet.

Tropic Thunder: Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) realizes with horror exactly what sort of animal he has killed.

Trouble the Water: Kimberly Rivers Roberts, discovering a picture of her mother in her hurricane-ravaged home, hugs it to her chest with a look of pure joy.

Up the Yangtze: After weeks of work on a tourist pleasure boat, "Cindy" Shui Yu can barely conceal her embarrassment as she meets her peasant parents at the docks.

WALL•E: Laboring in the epilogue of human civilization, our robotic hero stacks cubes of refuse into a pollution-stained sky.

Waltz With Bashir: As corpses are carried out, an Israeli soldier mops pools of gore from the inside of his tank.

Wendy and Lucy: Wendy (Michelle Williams), too terrified to move or breathe, listens to the midnight ravings of a derelict.

Wonderful Town: Na (Supphasit Kansen) lays down tentatively on Ton's empty hotel bed and savors the sensation of a budding love.

The Wrestler: Settling into his new position behind the deli counter, Randy (Mickey Rourke) charms and wisecracks his way through the day's customers.

AuthorAndrew Wyatt
CategoriesYear in Review
2 CommentsPost a comment

Last year I waited until mid-January to post my Year-in-Review feature. Inevitably, there were a few 2007 films that I caught later that month—particularly There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton—that probably should have been ranked among the best of the year. Nevertheless, this year you're getting my assessment of 2008's films on the final day of December. The risks of shutting out features that won't arrive in St. Louis theaters until next year have to be weighed against the faded relevance of a 2008 Year-in-Review feature published in January of February. In the end, the decision was somewhat arbitrary, just as the marking of a "Year in Film" from January 1 to December 31 is fairly arbitrary. Ultimately, I relied on my sense that I have a fairly full quiver to draw from this year. Simply put, I saw a lot more films in their theatrical release in 2008 than I did in 2007, which has significantly enhanced my ability to assemble a respectable Year-in-Review feature.

So let's get to it. I still have mixed feelings about last year's self-imposed constraint of just five films, so this year I'm veering in the other direction. I've assembled a list of the best films of 2008 without any regard for a final number. I ended up with thirteen luminaries and thirteen honorable mentions. The top thirteen were those works that truly jumped out at me when I combed back over this year's films. These features didn't just stand out from the pack as cinematic achievements; they also possessed some elusive element that touched me personally. The films are listed alphabetically, because A) this method seemed to work well last year, B) I hate agonizing over rankings, and C) rankings are fairly ridiculous anyway.

To be considered, a film must have opened in America between January 1 and December 31, 2008 in wide, limited, or select city release. Film festival premieres don't count, but even a one-week run in New York City does. Got it? My wife also offers up a capsule second opinion, including some contrarian tweaking of the Coens and Claude Chabrol. Let the nitpicking begin!

The Best of 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - Christian Mungui - Romania


Christian Mungui's harrowing drama is steeped in the gnawing agony of oppression and desperation. Hurtling out of the gray purgatory of 1987 Romania, 4 Months employs a realist approach to the story of an illicit abortion, all while engaging a fearsome snarl of themes. Much more than a thriller, and yet fueled by a groaning tension that Mungiu winds to nearly unbearable tautness, 4 Months collapses the viewer's awareness until it matches that of protagonists Otilia and Gabita. Possessing both a stony gaze and a searing feminine empathy, this is cinematic drama at its most potent. Full review here.

The Class - Laurent Cantet - France


The tousled, buzzing energy of Laurent Cantet's wondrous work of social realism seizes the viewer's attention and refuses to let go. Cantet captures the sparks and exasperation of secondary education with a novel, breathtaking sensitivity to classroom dynamics. Pitting nimble pedagogue Mr. Marin against a roomful of defiant grammar students, The Class alights upon an array of cultural and political nodes with striking, naturalistic performances, while maintaining a lean structural discipline. Eschewing condescension or exploitation, Cantet sketches a portrait of contemporary education perpetually teetering on the brink of small miracles and catastrophes. Impressions from SLIFF here.

The Dark Knight - Christopher Nolan - USA


Unnerving, despairing, and unabashedly grandiose, The Dark Knight is action film-making at its most uncompromising and gleefully diabolical. Christopher Nolan resolves to burn Batman Begins' soaring themes—and the entire concept of the "comic film"—to cinders, while still hewing to the genre's meat-and-potatoes conventions. The Dark Knight is assembled out of civic anxieties long forgotten, contemporary hobgoblins suckled on fears of shattering violence, and a bottomless tank of sheer velocity. Stunningly edited and scored, and held together with Heath Ledger's mesmerizing, utterly terrifying presence, the film cleaves comforting political constructs on all sides without pause or pity. Full review here.

The Edge of Heaven - Fatih Akin - Germany / Turkey


Fatih Akin's pained, touching ode to compassion and forgiveness is a work of beauty, brilliantly executed and emotionally sensuous. Zigzagging across borders, cultures, and generations, The Edge of Heaven weaves a tale of six wounded souls in search of contentment and meaning. Suffused with boundless pathos and an elegant sensitivity to the delicacy of relationships, the film ponders the nature of opportunity, calamity, and connection. Accompanied by a score both rousing and mournful, Akin discovers one affecting gesture after another, offering one of the most powerful films about fallibility and grace in recent memory. Full review here.

Encounters at the End of the World - Werner Herzog - USA


Trading the acerbic bite of Grizzly Man for an infectious sense of flabbergasted wonder, Werner Herzog triumphs again with this meandering yet penetrating rumination on the people, creatures, and places of Antarctica. Encounters at the End of the World transcends the sideshow impulses that bedevil nature documentaries, delving with jaunty elegance into the sublime mystery of exploration. Combining visual marvels with Herzog's dry witticisms, Encounters is a rare treat for the eyes and the mind. The venerable director captures moments charged with both awe and sentiment, painting the polar wilderness as a modern oracle who jealously guards her secrets. Full review here.

The Fall - Tarsem Singh - India / UK / USA


Tarsem Singh goes all in with this cinematic gamble, a maddening, bewildering work that gleams with an otherworldly grandness. The Fall nests a dazzling, surreal fantasy within an affecting drama about the power of storytelling, creating one of the most perplexing and indescribable films of the year. Yet for all its storybook camp and breathtaking vistas—every one a real-world locale—The Fall's heart rests in the hands of Lee Pace and the stunning Catinca Untaru. Together they convey a moving and utterly credible bond between a man and child, one that passes through affection and deceit to discover salvation. Full review here.

Paranoid Park - Gus Van Sant - USA


Slippery and addictive, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park burrows into a rattled headspace of adolescent guilt and philosophical fumbling with astonishing empathy. Daring in its visual and aural methods and evincing a profound psychological sensitivity, this film is exquisitely balanced between art and observation. First-time actor Gabe Nevins' inky gazes and awkward musings serve as a humane anchor amid a jumbled, fluid tale of fear, secrecy, and emerging moral awareness. Van Sant shuffles and backtracks through time, then stops to linger on acute, charged moments of motion and light. This is challenging, meditative film-making at its finest. Full review here.

Standard Operating Procedure - Errol Morris - USA


Errol Morris tackles the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuser scandal, riveting the viewer's attention with his meticulous, ominous stylings even as he upends expectations. Blending talking head interviews with hypnotic effects and glinting, gothic recreations, Morris broadens the controversy beyond quarrels about American power to encompass grittier, timeless matters of responsibility, culpability, and perception. Standard Operating Procedure delves into our memories of Abu Ghraib's searing images, striking a sobering balance between horror and doubt, shock and exasperation. Morris resists finger-wagging, permitting the men and women involved to speak for themselves even as he sculpts a furious aura of menace and moral free-fall. Full review here.

Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains - Gonzalo Arijon - France


Stranded is a marvel of a documentary, a one-two punch of superb historical storytelling and soaring ecstatic wonder. Gonzalo Arijon lends the tale of the Andean flight disaster the detailed, moving treatment it deserves, layering it with graceful recreations and priceless first-hand accounts from the survivors. However, Stranded's achievement rests on more than the uniqueness of the Andean story. Arijon uncovers the profound, almost rapturous themes of life and death within his narrative of astounding endurance. Stranded summons an otherworldly aura around the survivors, exhibiting a generous appreciation for the confluence of unthinkable trials and universal love. Impressions from SLIFF here.

Synecdoche, New York - Charlie Kaufman - USA


Charlie Kaufman takes us deep into the bowels of his (and our) mortal fears and existential longings, chuckling dryly all the way down. Spellbinding, devastating, and deliciously, hideously funny, Synecdoche, New York is a brazen roundhouse to reason and the senses. Kaufman conjures an uncanny dream world around miserable theater director Caden Cotard, stretching locales, identities, and time like so much Silly Putty. Synecdoche duels with itself, parrying despair with charm, revelation with silliness. This is a mindfuck with a heart, a haunting, baffling plunge into the secret terrors and vanities that crouch on humanity's collective chest. Full review here.

Trouble the Water - Carl Deal and Tia Lessin - USA


Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's outstanding documentary on Hurricane Katrina is both stark and uplifting, a work of astonishing density and spirit. Trouble the Water follows Kimberley Roberts, a hustler and aspiring hip-hop artist with a thousand yards of charisma, as she weathers the storm and its aftermath. Deal and Lessin step aside, permitting Roberts' hand-held footage and commentary to claim the spotlight, while still maintaining an elegant control over the pacing and structure of this remarkable woman's story. Together they create a stirring and poignant ground view of American values, aspirations, and endurance. Full review here.

WALL•E - Andrew Stanton - USA


Andrew Stanton's WALL•E is a versatile treasure, as gorgeous and insightful at it is pitch-perfect hilarious. The film's post-apocalyptic landscapes and sterile corporate environs pop with curious majesty. The titular automaton's charms—a small miracle of character design, this WALL•E—lend his struggles allegorical heft and startling resonance. Stanton creates something more ambitious and memorable than an endearing fable, layering on science fiction motifs and themes to create a remarkably rich and prickly story that tackles consumer culture, sustainability, and utopianism. Easily Pixar's boldest and most complex film to date, WALL•E soars above the expectations and constraints of both medium and genre. Full review here.

Wendy and Lucy - Kelly Reichardt - USA


Exhibiting an enviable sensitivity for agonies of the everyday sort, Kelly Reichardt spins an unassuming, painfully intimate story of two days in the bleak, wobbling lives of a drifter and her mutt. Wendy and Lucy mates pointed, politically-conscious realism with universal sentiments about loyalty and sacrifice, resulting in a powerful, uncompromising work that rubs the heart raw. Michelle Williams astounds as Wendy, and together she and Reichardt boldly craft an impoverished heroine who evokes sympathy without benefit of saintly virtue. In Wendy, this moving film finds an avatar to scrutinize the small tragedies that sprout like dandelions in hard times. Impressions from SLIFF here.

The Next Best of 2008

The Band's Visit - Eran Kolirin - Israel


Within an appealing fish-out-of-water fable, Eran Kolirin and his magnificent cast discover sparkling comedic moments and a rich tapestry of contradictions and conflicts. Full review here.

Blind Mountain - Yang Li - China


Yang Li's unforgiving, cthonic ordeal pulverizes modern illusions of safety, dignity, and liberty. Mesmerizing and disturbing, Blind Mountain plays out (and ends) like a nightmare. Impressions from SLIFF here.

Chris & Don: A Love Story - Tina Mascara and Guido Santi - USA


Tackling a personal tale with sensitivity and canniness, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi's study of an unlikely love bursts with affection and sublime humanity. Full review here.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father - Kurt Kuenne - USA


Kurt Kuenne pours his heart into a documentary that is part memorial and part righteous howl of anguish. A naked slice of profoundly personalized—and riveting—film-making. Impressions from SLIFF here.

The Flight of the Red Balloon - Hsiao-hsien Hou - France


Featuring Juliette Binoche in a stunning performance, Hsiao-Hsien Hou's unconventional wonderwork of a family drama is as emotionally rewarding as it is artistically ambitious. Full review here.

Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh - UK


The seductive confluence of a stellar performance from Sally Hawkins and perceptive direction from Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky is dramatic comedy as nimble social lesson. Full review here.

Let the Right One In - Tomas Alfredson - Sweden


Tomas Alfredson delivers the best vampire film in over a decade, a moody melange of camp horror, pre-teen angst, and provocative sexual subtext. Full review here.

Man on Wire - James Marsh - UK


James Marsh's compelling documentary of death-defiance plays like a witty caper at first, then discovers a tingling transcendence, ripe with reverent awe. Full review here.

Rachel Getting Married - Johanthan Demme - USA


Capped with a marvelous turn from Anne Hathaway, Jonathan Demme's paradoxical slice-of-life drama is a crackling study of family dynamics, utterly joyous and rotten. Full review here.

Shotgun Stories - Jeff Nichols - USA


Brimming with authentic, small-town lethargy and biblical ferocity, Shotgun Stories is a searing parable of revenge, amusingly pathetic and fearlessly poignant in equal measure.

Waltz With Bashir - Ari Folman - Israel


Haunting and visually compelling, Ari Folman's animated documentary expounds with obsessive, sweaty enthusiasm on memory, guilt, and the uncanniness of war. Full review here.

Wonderful Town - Aditya Assarat - Thailand


Aditya Assarat's placid, achingly observed story of ordinary love revels in both the sheer process of romance and the cold cruelty of an indifferent world. Impressions from SLIFF here.

The Wrestler - Darren Aronofsky - USA


With Mickey Rourke commanding the viewer's gaze in a miracle performance, Darren Aronofsky discovers familiar themes and delicate sensitivity within an archetypal sports film. Full review here.

Best Film the U.S. Is Still Waiting For

The Minder - Rodrigo Moreno - Argentina


Rodrigo Moreno's minimalist socio-political fable is constructed from a cascade of canny observations. The Minder is meticulous film-making that demands patience, but it's also a hypnotic and grueling glimpse of repressed resentments. In the U.S. it appeared only on the film festival circuit. Catch it when it surfaces on DVD. Impressions from tLIFF here.

Most Underrated Surprise

Speed Racer - Andy and Larry Wachowski - USA


What is Speed Racer? A madcap decathlon of color and motion. An earnest fairy tale about the power of awe and family. An intricate, kid-friendly rumination on athletics and fair play. A film more humane and snappy than the Matrix trilogy. A glorious mess of contradictions. Full review here.

Overrated, Slightly or Highly

The Counterfeiters, Doubt, The Duchess of Langeais, Frost/Nixon, Horton Hears a Who!, A Girl Cut in Two, Milk, Mongol, Roman de Gare, Slumdog Millionaire, Tell No One, Transsiberian, Vicky Christina Barcelona


The Best Films of 2008 - Second Opinion

The Best of 2008: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Dark Knight, Doubt, The Fall, Iron Man, Man on Wire, Slumdog Millionaire, Trouble the Water, Waltz With Bashir, The Wrestler

The Next Best of 2008: Dear Zachary, The Edge of Heaven, Paranoid Park, Quantum of Solace, Speed Racer, Tropic Thunder, WALL•E

The Worst of 2008:

Alvin and the Chipmunks: "Woof. More here."

Burn After Reading: "A rare Coen fail. If their intention was to make me sick to my stomach and squirm uncomfortably in my seat, they achieved what they set out to do. It just didn't speak to me in any memorable way, certainly a far cry from the masterful grace of most of their other films. Brad Pitt was hilarious, but there wasn't enough of him to make it worthwhile."

A Girl Cut in Two: "A story about stupid and miserable people doing stupid and miserable things with their stupid and miserable friends. They are good-looking, well-read, rich, and sophisticated, so we're supposed to enjoy their pain or something. Craptacular. If people like this really exist, we must find them, end them, and get it over with."

AuthorAndrew Wyatt
CategoriesYear in Review

Here we go. 2007 is officially over, and while we of course didn't get to see all the films we wanted from this year, the Cinephiles have cobbled together their Best of 2007 lists. To qualify for these lists, a film must have been released in American theaters between January 1 and December 31, 2007. Only wide, limited, or select city releases qualify. Films released on the film festival circuit or in other nations only in 2007 do not qualify. Participating Cinephiles submitted five unranked films selected as their favorites from 2007. Within each individual's list, the films are presented in alphabetical order.

Andrew's Top Five of 2007


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominnik's profound, majestic revisionist Western is one of those films that unexpectedly came together in all the right ways for me. The success of The Assassination lies in its innovative approach to the genre, daringly embraced and deftly executed. Dominnik reinvents the Western as a despairing, post-modern ballad, its breathtaking beauty lacerated with artifice and fatalistic, removed scrutiny. The result is a stimulating, marvelously effective work. Who would have thought that 160 lingering minutes of Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck swapping ominous dialogue would be the Western of the year? Full review here.


Death Proof

While Rodriguez gave us gleefully puerile thrills, Quentin Tarantino crafted his most mature film to date. More so that Jackie Brown or Kill Bill, Death Proof is a gloriously harrowing feminist fable. Sexual politics seen through a male funhouse prism, Death Proof is as socially conscious as any work from a mainstream director this year. Tarantino pulls off a spellbinding feat, blending wrenching suspense, hypnotic dialogue, and obsessive references, and then adding layers upon layers of provocative subtext. Death Proof is further confirmation that Tarantino is no slick, insincere appropriator, but a cunning commentator, a performance artist whose medium is all of film history.


No Country For Old Men

The debate over No Country rages, but I stand firmly in the camp that it is a new American classic. Joel and Ethan Coen have delivered a bold, mutinous contemporary Western that showcases their mastery of the medium. No Country wears the garb of a sharp, terrifying thriller, but this conceals something more ambitious. The moral terror of McCarthy's novel—which I have since devoured—comes bubbling through like a force of nature. Surrounded by superb actors, Tommy Lee Jones is the harrowed center of No Country, delivering one of the most affecting performances of his career. Full review here.



Brad Bird spins a high concept for the Food Network enthusiast—"He's a rat, but he loves to cook!"—into endearing comedic gold. Ratatouille, Bird's third and best feature, testifies to his remarkable hybrid talent, fusing dazzling visual design, madcap spectacle, and astute storytelling. Cunningly inverting the Disney formula (here an animal protagonist and human comic ensemble, Ratatouille's sheer artistry hearkens back to the company's earliest animation shorts and features, a superb accomplishment in itself. And yet it also hits the humane comedy sweet spot by uncovering the touching and the truthful in outrageous situations.



With Zodiac, David Fincher not only creates a stark, remorseless thriller—possibly the best of the past decade—but reveals a mature command in his direction. Zodiac is both an arduous, time-lapse portrait of obsession, and an unequivocal rejoinder to every trite, tidily resolved police procedural. It's deliciously unconventional where it has every right not to be, and bristles with moments of dizzying terror. Mark Ruffalo as the shrewd, compelling Detective Toschi stands out amid several engrossing performances. Sweeping in scope but invested with clear-eyed focus, Zodiac delivers an unflinching rumination on mystery and violence in modern America.

Honorable Mentions: 12:08 East of Bucharest, Blame It on Fidel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, God Grew Tired of Us, Into Great Silence, Juno, Once, Persepolis

Andrew's Best Actors and Director of 2007

Best Performance by an Actor Tommy Lee Jones - No Country For Old Men

There were several top-tier lead performances by male actors this year, but none of them has haunted me like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is such a comfortable role for Jones that it's tempting to dismiss his performance as natural typecasting and select a more revelatory turn (Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James) or a seductive low-key portrayal (Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac). Fundamentally, however, I come back to how Jones utilizes every speck of his formidable acting talent in each of Ed Tom's gestures and words, and how the result is at once completely believable and profoundly moving. I actually tear up just remembering the way that Jones delivers his closing monologue. It's a devastating performance from an American marvel.

Best Performance by an Actor (Runner-Up) Mircea Andreescu - 12:08 East of Bucharest

12:08 East to Bucharest was an unexpected delight, a stunningly shot and wonderfully acted Romanian satire. Although the more textured political commentary likely sailed over my American head, nearly all the laugh-out-loud moments in this film can be laid at the feet of Mircea Andreescu, who gives a luminous comedic performance as the dour yet childlike Emanoil Piscoci. Andreescu channels influences as diverse as Charles Chaplin and Paul Reubens, and absolutely steals the show. It's to his credit, then, that his presence is never distracting, but rather highlights the film's wry observations on revolution, memory, and self-aggrandizement.

Best Performance by an Actress Ashley Judd - Bug

Lately I've been thinking fondly of veteran Bollywood actor Tabu's turn as Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake, if only because it is a pinnacle performance in a strangely underrated film. Given those criteria, however, then I absolutely have to go with Ashley Judd as Agnes White in Bug. I've never had much of an opinion on Judd's acting chops, but her performance in William Friedkin's paranoid-schizophrenia freefall is just incredible. It's like watching a star coalesce from cosmic dust, swell into a burning orb, and collapse into a black hole, all in the space of two hours. It's a career-high role, and I can't honestly name a performance by a female actor this year that was more memorable.

Best Performance by an Actress (Runner-Up) Kelly Macdonald - No Country For Old Men

Judd aside, if there was one female actor who stood head and shoulders above the rest this year, it was Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men. Surrounded by mythic performances from male actors, Macdonald carves out her own deep fissure in the bleak landscape of No Country, never less that utterly convincing as Carla Jean. Watching Macdonald, it's not just difficult to envision another actor in the role; it's damn near incomprehensible. Who knew that a Scottish actress could so perfectly embody the weariness and quivering resolve within a slip of Texan trailer trash?

Best Director David Fincher - Zodiac

It's tempting to pick Joel and Ethan Coen, given that No Country For Old Men is such an achievement, or Brad Bird, given that he needs more recognition for his brilliant storytelling. Yet even ten months after the release of Zodiac, 2007 was the year of David Fincher. Fincher has made some mediocre films and some great films, but Zodiac is his first brilliant film. Its success lies not just in Fincher's espresso-rich composition and legendary perfectionism, but in the plain fact that he takes what could have been a serviceable police procedural and elevates it into one of the finest American auteur films this year. Need proof that Fincher has emerged from the formidable, primal-scream shadows of Se7en and Fight Club? Witness how he conjures unbearable tension from nowhere during an interview in a breakroom, or how he makes the irrational fear of a dark basement so immediate and overpowering.

Libby's Top Five of 2007


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

This is a beautiful, touching film. Jean-Dominique Bauby's story should be dreadfully depressing, Diving Bell presents it not as a handicapped man's story, but simply as a man's story. The movie is slow, but not boring. It was like a long hike in the woods. It may take some time, but every moment seems worthwhile. Julian Schnabel's direction is reliant on imagery, but for a story about a man depending upon imagination to survive, it seems right. Mathieu Amalric's performance made the movie for me. It is lovely and quiet, even when he is playing the playboy, pre-stroke Bauby.



Deathproof is the superior film in my opinion. Critics were misguided when they regarded the dialogue as excessive. Tarantino is a dialogue master, and here he does not disappoint. The movie has an almost dangerous message about the power dynamics between women and men. Is it a healthy message? Not sure. Rodriguez's Planet Terror is pure cliché in the best sense. The bad guys and good guys are clearly drawn and do what you expect them to do, and yet the film still seems fresh and exciting. Rose McGowan as Cherry Darling is a fun heroine: deadpan, snarly, and courageous.



This movie is an inspiration. Marjane Satrapi's story is a fascinating one, not only due to the political struggles in Iran, but because she so beautifully intercuts those politics with her personal struggles. In Satrapi's story, the struggles of the Iranian people seem just as significant as her struggles to discover love, independence, and her place in the Western world.



I kept thinking about this cute little cartoon about rats that cook. Ratatouille was just... lovely. Brad Bird's flair for animation is something I've loved since his early days with The Simpsons, so I knew it would be beautiful to watch. Here it is masterful. The artistry is astounding! The voice acting was superb, with Brad Garrett as Gusteau being my favorite performance. The humor was authentic without being juvenile, and the music was beautiful. This movie was just joyous to watch.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Watching Johnny Depp sing a ballad about regret while slicing throats open to a deluge of candy-red blood was a singularly satisfying sight, and a great way to begin my Christmas holiday. It's not just the Burton-Depp combo that makes this movie great, but it's all the gory details. The muted palate brightened by blood, the searing look in Depp's eyes throughout, Sascha Baron-Cohen's snake Pirelli, and Helena Bonham-Carter's chirpy-yet-dangerous Mrs. Lovett. There were moments that were hilarious, but so vile you wonder if you should laugh. I laughed, and frequently. Burton wins again.

Honorable Mentions: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hot Fuzz, Knocked Up, No Country For Old Men, Waitress

Stephanie's Top Five of 2007

300GrindhouseHarry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixPirates of the Caribbean: At World's EndSweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Teresa's Top Five of 2007

Black Snake MoanEastern PromisesI Am LegendPirates of the Caribbean: At World's EndSweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

AuthorAndrew Wyatt
CategoriesYear in Review