10. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Pure bizarro fun. The great, über-eccentric Werner Herzog teams up with the sometimes great, über-eccentric Nicolas Cage to craft this absurdist work of art. Cage plays a cop so void of morals that it initially makes your jaw drop in disgust. Then the shift happens. Somewhere along the way, you start to accept Herzog’s vision and his complete disregard of continuity. By the time Cage’s accent changes for the third time, you’re either hooked, or have walked out of the theatre. Consider me hooked. Oh yeah. (available on DVD April 6)
9. The Girlfriend Experience
I may be one of 10 people that saw this movie, but that’s beside the point. Steven Soderbergh (with his pure, raw talent) made this film on a shoestring budget in just 16 days during the height of our economic collapse. In a ballsy bit of casting, real life porn star Sasha Grey is electric playing a confident, yet damaged high-class escort. The film, bathed in striking blue hues, scored to addicting music and cut with jumpy editing, is pure Soderberghian bliss. What other director would make a movie about a prostitute, starring a porn star, and not have a single sex scene? Soderbergh is all about the tease. Amen to that. (now available on DVD)
8. Inglourious Basterds
Let me put it this way: if you don’t like Tarantino, you will hate this film. Tarantino, a director of pure pulp style, delivered his best, most successful film since Pulp Fiction with this witty, suspenseful war revenge flick. How was this movie such a success? It’s in four different languages, stars no one you’ve heard of (accept Mr. Pitt, of course, who’s barely in the movie), and has some of the longest conversations ever filmed? I’m not sure, but damn if QT didn’t nail it. Christoph Waltz, in the greatest, most demonic performance of the year, should take home the Oscar without looking back. Honestly, did you have more fun at the movies this year? I think not. (now available on DVD)
Again, probably one of a dozen people that actually saw this movie. In fact, this is a bit of a cheat. This indie, about the bathing and hunger strikes by Irish prisoners during the IRA revolution, was released in 2008. But because of its slim budget and limited release, I had virtually no way of seeing it until it was available via Comcast OnDemand. Here’s the thing: I started this movie at 2:30 a.m. one sleepless Saturday night. After a while I looked at my watch; and hour and a half had passed and I hadn’t moved an inch. Its shockingly violent content is undeniably compelling. There’s hardly any dialogue and virtually no character development, you’re just… there. The long shots of the prison brutality are impressive, but nothing beats IRA leader Bobby Sands talking with a priest in a bravado, 17-minute single shot scene. As the two moral men battle with words, the camera doesn’t dare move. And believe me, neither will you. (available on Criterion DVD Feb. 16)
6. An Education
A true delight of a film. Newcomer Carey Mulligan is ravishingly charming as a young girl who falls for an amiable older man. This movie, like so many this year, didn’t concern itself with a three-act structure, instead acting as a genuine experience. The quickly developing romance between Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard is subtly addictive. Watching this movie is witnessing a girl become a woman, better than any film in recent memory. Great fun, but will hook you with its authentic, heartbreaking emotion. (DVD release date TBD)
5. A Single Man
The best late-in-the-game surprise of the year. Rom-com staple Colin Firth is flawless in the role of George, a homosexual British professor conflicted after the death of his longtime partner. The film, directed by former fashion designer Tom Ford, is as meticulous as an exquisitely designed outfit. Every frame is staged out, every word pronounced with thought, ever string of score plucked with delicate precision. An experimental film that bridges the gap between surrealism and mainstream. Mr. Firth… your Oscar is waiting. (currently in indie theatres)
4. Up in the Air
This is a tough one to describe. Jason Reitman’s third, and very best, film is being marketed as a witty adult comedy. But it isn’t. There are scenes of gut-busting humor, sure, but they are embedded in a serious, adult drama. Either way, Up in the Air is successful in multiple genres. It’s funny, sad, poetic, and remarkably romantic as is evident by the dynamic chemistry between a career-best George Clooney and a sultry Vera Farmiga. This film says a lot about our culture and general attitude toward the thoughts and feelings of others. But, more importantly, it proves that no matter how shallow the person, a tender heart is aching to come out. (now in theatres)
3. The Hurt Locker
Take you pick: best action film in years, best war film in years, most suspenseful film in years; anyway you put it, The Hurt Locker is dynamite. From its first heart pounding scene to its final heavy-metal finale, the tension never subsides. Jeremy Renner is a revelation in the lead role, humanizing his precise, yet death-wish prone, soldier. This is the only film made so far that has portrayed the Iraq War with such effortless conviction. You’ve heard nothing but good things about it, so it’s time for you to see it. Kathryn Bigelow... your Best Director Oscar is waiting. (now available on DVD)
2. The Cove
The best documentary I’ve seen in years. It does what any good exposé doc should: discovers an issue, explains it, then blows it wide open. What begins as an eco-friendly movie about a dude who goes around saving dolphins, quickly turns into a heartbreaking tragedy as we learn of the pointless annual slaughter of 23,000 dolphins in Japan. It doesn’t take long for The Cove to hit its stride, and the Ocean’s 11-style placement of hidden cameras is as suspenseful as anything in The Hurt Locker. The final scene of this film, as activist Ric O’Barry stands in the middle of the International Whaling Commission conference with a television strapped to his chest, is the single best scene from any film released in 2008. It gives me chills just thinking about it. (now available on DVD)
1. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
For over a year, I’ve hailed Precious as a mini masterpiece. Lee Daniels’ miracle of a film makes you feel its characters, its setting, its… life. Why the hell do I like this film so much? I have nothing in common with any of the characters. I’m not an abused, overweight, illiterate, black female teenager in Harlem with serious anger issues. But therein lies the beauty. You don’t just watch Precious, you live in it. So no matter you’re background, you understand Precious’ pain. It’s hard to articulate, and much better explained in the film’s gut-wrenching 110 minutes. Watching this for the first time on DVD, you may be tempted to turn the film off. Don’t. Stick with it. This isn’t a movie about how shitty life can be. It’s a story of hope. Insurmountable hope. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique… your Oscars are waiting. (on DVD March 9)
And 10 tied for 11th:
(500) Days of Summer was the best romantic comedy in decades.
Avatar lived up to the hype, beyond my wildest expectations.
Away We Go was a little-seen but memorable young-adult love story.
Crazy Heart will get Jeff Bridges his first Oscar, rightly so.
Fantastic Mr. Fox was the best animated film of the year, in a year filled with great ones.
Gomorra was a brilliant, one-act film about the Italian mafia.
The Informant! offered another fresh dose of Soderbergh, with an excellent Matt Damon.
Invictus continues Clint Eastwood’s remarkable streak as a director.
Paranormal Activity scared the shit out of you. Admit it.
Public Enemies was pure, Michael Mann heaven. The cast is great and the action pops.
A Serious Man is everything you expect from the Coen brothers. Weird, hilarious, genuine.
Best Movie Only I Saw:
Read my full review here. But this is a great one that fell through the cracks.