21. Royal Tenenbaums/Shaun of the Dead—Wes Anderson’s last good movie for a while, or perhaps the movie where things begin to go wrong. Bold colors, beautiful designs, eccentric characters and a killer soundtrack, yes, but also mannered acting, offbeat (and off-putting) storytelling and a smugness that feels petulant and unearned. Gene Hackman plays Royal, a sneaky scoundrel exiled from his family of former child prodigies. In an attempt to win them back, he pretends to be dying of cancer. Hackman is superb, a feisty end of career performance, and Angelica Huston is excellent, but it is Alec Baldwin’s narration that is the real wonder. Anderson’s skills are on full display, but it his design acumen that gets him into trouble; the emphasis on style has diminished his storytelling abilities. All of Anderson’s films are interesting, but it isn’t until The Fantastic Mr. Fox that he would fully regain his footing.
Shaun of the Dead—Inspired horror comedy that limps along with a slacker’s gait. An underemployed Brit loses his girlfriend due to his inability to grow up. Then a zombie apocalypse hits, and he must try to stay alive, win her back, and lead his ragtag group of friends across a city bloated with the undead. His plan is to hole up in his favorite pub and eke out their survival until the cavalry arrives. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost co-star, and their comic on-screen chemistry is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Hot Fuzz, their second film together, is equally funny, a send-up of action films in the Naked Gun mold (although the movie wears out its welcome about two-thirds of the way through). An effortless first movie from a very talented bunch of comedians.
22. The Good Shepherd/Inglorious Basterds/Punch Drunk Love—Robert DeNiro’s epic character study about one of America’s first spies. Matt Damon plays the title role, a quiet, intelligent spy in the George Smiley mold. The characters are loosely based on real OSS, and later CIA, operatives. Damon is there at the beginning of the American spy apparatus, just at the end of World War II, and the movie follows his moral decline as the job demands more and more compromise. He becomes increasingly paranoid as the job gets nastier and nastier. With his first directorial debut, DeNiro borrowed from Scorsese in the very fine A Bronx Tale. Here, fittingly, he pulls from Coppola, and the feel and sweep of this exquisite spy movie is reminiscent of The Godfather, Part II. (Coppola was originally signed on as the director.) The movie divided critics; some, unaccountably, found it boring. Shaggy and full of ideas.
Inglorious Basterds—Tarantino had a hell of a decade, first with the Kill Bill movies, followed by Grindhouse, and then this, his war movie about war movies. The Kill Bill movies have a lot going for them, with exceptional fighting sequences and an intriguing mythology of female globe-trotting assassins. But it’s excessively self-involved, a kind of Moebius strip of self-references, and the second movie is too damn long. Grindhouse was a novel concept, two B-movies shown together with a stock set of actors, but the real problem was the budget. Tarantino and Rodriguez should have limited themselves to the same budgetary constraints as the movies they were aping. Instead, you have enormously expensive trash. (The fake previews were great, though, and to be fair, the car chase scenes in Deathproof, Tarantino’s half of the movie, were incredible.) But with Basterds, Tarantino continues to defy—and strangely fulfill—expectations with this fantastical re-imagining of World War II. He sets a crew of tough, special forces Jews into the treacherous world of occupied France. Their enemies are the Nazi high command, in Tarantino’s hands an urbane, swishy and deranged group of dandy killers, embodied in Hans Landa’s performance as the multi-lingual Nazi officer who uses words as the most basic of weapons. A smashing tour through a counterfactual history.
Punch-Drunk-Love—Paul Thomas Anderson’s lightest movie, a romantic comedy-drama stretched through a strange cosmic distortion field. He pulls the arrested man-child character out of Adam Sandler into a more complex personality, adding damaged layers of sadness to the raging core. His is a short fuse. He comes to loggerheads with an unscrupulous businessman with anger management issues of his own, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman sends some goons to beat up Sandler, Sandler tries to woo Emily Watson, and the whole thing watches somewhere between a farce and a tragicomic episode of the Twilight Zone.
23. The Motorcycle Diaries/Pulse—Before he was Che, he was Ernesto, an earnest medical student with the wanderlust bug. The year is 1952, and with his best friend Alberto, Che rides a junker motorcycle on a 3,000-mile trip through South America. That was the plan, anyway, but when the bike breaks down, the two men hitchhike their way through labor camps, copper mines, and a leper colony, picking up odd jobs along the way. They drink, they fight, they woo. Che keeps a diary, and slowly starts to realize the immense inequality, and suffering, of the various South American peoples. The episodes hang together by Che’s burgeoning revolutionary consciousness and the excellent performances from its two leads. A faithful dramatization and a stirring movie. Beautiful stuff.
Pulse—A new, peculiarly Japanese mental illness appeared in the late 90s, where young people would lock themselves into their rooms and refuse to come out. Pulse takes this very real social problem and turns on the scares. Japanese horror—nicknamed J-horror—starting in the 90s, took on dark new dimensions, combining elements of social decay, Buddhist religious notions, mass communication and Lovecraftian cosmic horror. The horror often stems from social isolation, loneliness. A whole batch of these appeared, kick-started by Ringu, and they operate with a disturbing techno-occultic language. Ghosts inhabit televisions, videos, telephones, and the world wide web. They don’t kill you; they destroy your capacity to live. They cause suicidal loneliness, they turn your heart to ice. Pulse is the scariest of the lot, a terrifying vision of the pointlessness of the universe, a kind of 21st century The King in Yellow. Terrifying stuff.
24. Bridget Jones’s Diary/All About Lily Chou-Chou/Munich—The lightest of movie confections, held together by a strong cast, a witty script, and on-point, unfussy direction. Renee Zellwegger, prone to over-acting, is excellent as an always-out-of-love British working woman tripping through a variety of romantic misadventures. She’s a self-involved, neurotic bumbler, infatuating with detailing her own physical shortcomings. Two men vie for her affections, Daniel Cleaver, played by the rakish Hugh Grant, and Mark Darcy, by the stalwart Colin Firth. Daniel is playful and witty, Mark serious and dour. Far from the riots, the social unrest, the brutal bullying and the soccer hooligans, London here is a type of upscale restaurant and shopping scene. A very funny, pleasant and quaint movie.
All About Lily Chou-Chou—Japan has a thriving film culture, but it can be unwelcoming to outsiders. They have their own genres, and an acting style influenced by Kabuki. The result is a film culture that is, at times, insulated and strange. I often feel that I’m missing the context when I watch Japanese movies; I often feel I’m watching a sequel to a movie I’ve never seen. There’s a perverse undercurrent to their cinema, which gives their movies an edge. I’ve seen boatloads of these—I went through a Japanese period in the mid-2000s—but I think Lily Chou-Chou is the best, better even than Battle Royale—itself a very influential Lord of the Flies murderous romp. (While Departures, the best foreign film of 2008, is diverting treacle.) Chou-Chou is about a group of young boys obsessed with a pop star Lily Chou-Chou. The boys exist in a dreary twilight, half-child and half-adult. Hoshino is a popular, handsome student, who outside of school pimps out his classmates and humiliates his friends. Yuichi is a decent, if disaffected outsider who falls under Hoshino’s influence, and must endure a series of increasingly cruel tribulations. Told in a disjointed, intentionally confusing style, the film is equal parts genius and blowhard, a riveting yet strange meditation that like a complicated mandala disappears and withers into nothingness when examined too closely. Still, we must look, and upon looking, weep for the future. Kids these days, they be scary.
Munich—Steven Spielberg is a dynamo, a one-man moviemaking machine. He produces, develops his own projects, and directs an astonishing output of films. His technical abilities are superior, as is his understanding of how stories play out on screen. He only occasionally missteps, and even his weaker movies are well made. He operates in the old studio mold; he makes lots of movies and there’s quality control in the product. In the oughts, he made Catch Me if You Can; Minority Report; A.I.; War of the Worlds; The Terminal; and this, the best of the lot. Munich tells the truish story of a group of Mossad agents who are sent to assassinate those responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The five assassins travel all over the world in their quest, falling into a complex web of international spies from all over the world. Eric Bana is very good as the leader of the group, grappling with the moral consequences of his increasingly immoral actions. A sinister feeling that very bad people run the world begins to sink in. Paranoia and confusion, misinformation and deceit, the band of loyal Israelis are soon immersed in the impossibility of their quest; they cannot murder their way to any kind of peace or safety. Bana carries the weight of the movie in his face, and the supporting cast, including Geoffrey Rush and Claran Hinds, are also very good. The visuals are excellent, but it’s a different, rougher Spielberg, coming to terms with the two American wars in the only way he knows how, on celluloid. Tony Kushner wrote the script. The movie would be much higher on my list, save for a snaking sideplot that is implausible and distracting. Like A History of Violence, Munich is interested in cause and effect, how violence spirals out of control. In a way it’s interrogating itself, pondering the morality of its own message.
25. Goodbye Lenin/Pan’s Labyrinth/Moscow, Belgium —A young man’s mother—a dedicated East German revolutionary—falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall. To protect her fragile heart from the shock of the enormous changes taking place in her beloved city, her son attempts to recreate the Soviet-era world. This very funny, and ultimately very touching, movie has great set pieces, such as how he explains an enormous Coke billboard outside her window, and the amount of work he must put in to maintain the illusion exhausts him. The very talented Daniel Bruhl plays the son, and he had a great decade with parts in The Edukators and Inglorious Basterds, among others. One of those great, effortless movies, where everything sort of clicks and unfolds, and a pleasure to watch over and over again.
Pan’s Labyrinth—Guillermo Del Toro is a talented director in love with old school special effects. He also loves monsters, Victorian-era horror novels, ghosts and ghouls and goblins and adventure stories. He’s a pulp scholar, a well-read connoisseur of weird fiction. His first film, The Devil’s Backbone, is a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. The key to the movie is that the ghosts are murdered young boys, whereas the actual villain is a fascist sympathizer. Del Toro’s message is clear: all the phantasms in the world are less dangerous than one evil man. Hellboy is very good, a funny, faithful adaptation of the comic. (Hellboy II is bad; Del Toro let his love of fantastic pageantry and monster building interfere with a good idea.) But Pan’s Labyrinth is a continuation of Backbone’s theme, and Del Toro’s best movie. A young girl’s mother marries a fascist commander of a Spanish prison camp. The bookish little girl, dropped into a wretched existence, escapes into a dark inner world of mythological creatures, quests and spells. In that world, she must complete three gruesome tasks to become princess. The best sequence in the movie involves the little girl fleeing an eyeless, bleached white creature in a baroque chamber beneath the earth. The movie stays focused on the all-too-human cruelties of the girl’s stepfather, however. By the movie’s end, the flesh-eating creatures feel harmless in contrast. Del Toro makes argument with cleverness and panache: We are infinitely worse than our worst nightmares.
Moscow, Belgium—A little gem of a little movie, the story of love found in the unlikeliest of places. Matty, a sour-faced, bitter woman raising two children while her husband has an affair with a much younger woman, begins to re-engage with life when she meets a bullish, younger truck driver named Johnny. Improbably, the two begin a love affair, and soon are in something akin to love. Barbara Sarafian, the actress playing Matty, gives an incredible performance of a woman slowly remembering how to feel. A very fine comic drama filmed in Belgium of all places. A warm, open-hearted movie made with skill and plenty of funny lines, this is the type of romantic comedy Hollywood used to be able to produce all the time. A Flemish Two for the Seesaw.
Honorable mention: Sexy Beast; Memento; The Wrestler; Love, Actually; The Pianist; Almost Famous; High Fidelity; Chicago; Million Dollar Baby; Grindhouse; Revanche; Half Nelson; Battle Royale; Nicholas Nickleby; Sweet Sixteen; The Battle for Algiers; Adventureland