I would first like to give special mention to:
The Dark Knight
A Girl Cut in Two
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
These are three films I enjoyed immensely, and if it were a top thirteen list, they'd be on it. But thirteen is an ugly number. I just wanted to recognize these films, which were each singular achievements, despite very different goals (obviously). And yes, this does mean that I liked The Reader better than The Dark Knight. Sorry, blogosphere.
And now without further ado...
10. (dir. Thomas McCarthy)
How do you follow-up a landmark achievement like 2003's poignant, introspective The Station Agent? You do it again. This film hit me on all levels. As a tale of friendship and the symbiotic nature of need in its first and second act, and as a frustrating indictment of immigration policy and a system that ensnares the unlucky. Jenkins harrowing and now Academy Award nominated lead performance carries the weight of this film, which never feels preachy, overblown or obvious. Beautiful and profound.
9. (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
This tale of a girl and her dog is more than meets the eye. Ushered and elevated by Michelle Williams subtle, heartbreaking and affecting lead performance, this is one of the year's best. Yes, it is a tale of a woman and her dog, but it is also a harrowing look at about 72 hours adrift in the seemingly endless sea that is middle America, with no way out. Wendy is trapped. Lucy is her only companion, something fate and mercy won't even allow her. And in the end, Wendy makes a choice. Right or wrong, it is a choice that will break your heart, if you have one. It broke mine (and I prefer cats, for the record).
8. (dir. Stephen Daldry)
It will forever be remembered as the film that stole the best picture slot from The Dark Knight. It will likely be hated by some for that reason, but if you're looking for a film that challenges, I recommend this one. I admire it for its valiant efforts to introduce nuance, romance and humanity into a genre that is often stripped of at least one (if not all) of these qualities. Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a former Auschwitz guard whose past is hidden, with a visceral intensity and longing. David Kross is appropriately doe-eyed as the young boy who has an affair with her, and heartbreakingly jaded as the young adult who witnesses her trial for Nazi war crimes. But this film is not about what it's about. It's not about what people tell you it's about. I'm so tired of hearing it being referred to as a "Holocaust movie" because it isn't, and it's emotional center draws not from emotions tied to the Holocaust. It's not an easy film. It's prickly and divisive, like Hanna herself. And in the end, the mystery is only half-revealed. There are still questions. You are still haunted as you leave the theater. And it evokes many emotions, one of which is sadness, yes. The film's beauty lies in its ability to understand and navigate these complex characters. The themes of guilt and guilty by association are universal, but so is love. Michael and Hanna know that.
7. (dir. Mike Leigh)
"Mike Leigh has created another piece of cinema that puts complex women on display in full force...Everyone has someone in their life like Poppy, and if you don't, you're probably her. Perpetually cheerful, always trying to put the best face on everything. I will preface everything by saying that Sally Hawkins truly gives one of the year's best performances. That she was able to stop me from hating this character is a testament to her power. Imagine this character, as played by say Cameron Diaz, directed by Nancy Myers. Actually don't. I just went to a really horrible place." (Read my full review of Happy-Go-Lucky here).
6. (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
The year's most divisive film. Beautiful, misanthropic and often tragic. It also has Philip Seymour Hoffman (don't let that detract you--he actually works here). My cup runneth over with great actors and performances in this tale of a playwright who is consumed by his work. Charlie Kaufman directs this tragicomedy with aplomb, never missteping. He is firing on all cylinders here, and although the concept is strange and sometimes off-putting in execution, Kaufman commits and never strays from his vision. Whether that is good or bad is up to you. Whichever you choose informs your view of the film. Here he is--Kaufman in full force. The world needs its Caden Cotards and Kaufman might be one of them.
Coming soon...the rest of my top ten list and a few tech awards for the 1st Annual (Knock on Wood) Pretentious Film Awards.