It's the end of the year again, when all good critics come up with their top-10 lists. My list is in alphabetical order. Let's get to it:The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—Westerns made a resurgence, but none of them are like The Assassination, a 19th-century look at celebrity worship through the eyes of the guy who shot poor Jesse down. Brad Pitt turns the outlaw into something of a sociopath, but it's Casey Affleck as poor Bob Ford who delivers one of the year's most complex performances. Writer/director Andrew Dominik somehow managed to bring a $30 million film to the art houses.
Atonement—Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's terrific 2001 novel is leaps and bounds ahead of its marketing, which makes it look like a diabetes-inducing period romance. But Atonement is crisply directed, with an awe-inspiring six-minute shot on the beaches of Dunkirk and sizzling chemistry between Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. This one's all about 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan), whom you shouldn't always believe. It's beautiful, passionate, heartbreaking and sincere.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—Julian Schnabel dramatized the locked-in condition, telling the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle who dictated his entire memoir by blinking his left eyelid after a stroke left the rest of him paralyzed. It's a great film, anchored by a fabulous performance by Mathieu Amalric.Juno—Yep, it's hip and cool, homeskillet. There's something irresistible about the unwed pregnant teenager Juno (Ellen Page). She's just a quirky chick who gets knocked up by her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) and decides to give the baby to a yuppie couple she finds in the Penny Saver. Some love it, some hate it—strange that the controversy around it has nothing to do with a pregnant teenager.Knocked Up—Purile, profane and ultimately sweet, Knocked Up is really about how much we give up to become parents. Seth Rogen is Ben, a stoner who plants his seed in Alison (Katherine Heigl), a fledgling reporter for the E! network. She keeps the baby, and the two are stuck with each other. And themselves. And their friends. Writer/director Judd Apatow hits all the right notes of the ridiculousness of parenthood, and his real-life wife Leslie Mann steals the show as Alison's married-with-children sister.
No Country for Old Men—It's been a long time since Joel and Ethan Coen made a great film, but man, did they come back with a vengeance. My favorite film of the year is a brutal crime drama based on Cormac McCarthey's sparse novel. Josh Brolin is the good ol' boy who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad and a satchel of money, Tommy Lee Jones is the county sheriff trying to sort out a spate of violence and Javier Bardem is terrifying as the psychopath you don't want to run into. This is a complex, challenging film, one that just gets better with repeat viewings.
Once—Is there a sweeter, simpler film? Glen Hansard is an Irish busker, and Markéta Irglová is the Czech immigrant he meets while playing the streets. John Carney's film follows them through the effect they have on one another, and most of all, the music they play together. In a year of big-budget musicals, none of them have the same beauty and impact as Once.
Ratatouille—Just when you think you can't take another cute-animal animated movie, Pixar comes along and changes the way you think about rats. And food. And Paris. Brad Bird's Ratatouille is perfect in so many ways, the quintessential reason the Oscars feature a Best Animated Film award these days. The very best part of all might just be Peter O'Toole as the loathsome food critic who finds a new lease on life on the plate in front of him.
The Savages—Both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney had higher-profile roles this year, but neither of them had better performances than in writer/director Tamara Jenkins' stressful and simple family drama. The two play siblings, forced to put their father (Phillip Bosco) in a nursing home when dementia sets in. He's a drama professor, she's an unproduced playwright, neither was well-parented and each is just trying to deal with how stressful life is. One of these days, Linney will get that Oscar—don't be shocked if it's for The Savages.
There Will be Blood—Even though it won't come out in San Diego until January, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic turn-of-the-century oil drama is a mighty 2007 release, featuring a towering performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, an oil man driven by an insatiable need for success. Anderson, who hadn't made a movie in half a decade, delivers his most mature film to date, beautifully shot and plotted, but it's all Day-Lewis, who gets downright Kubrickian in his rage. This is a goddamned monster of a movie, a living, breathing testament to the greed and corruption that goes hand-in-hand with black gold.