1. The New World, Terrence Malick
Malick is a strong but oft forgotten contender, along with Coppola, Scorcese, and Allen, for the title of “Best Director in the World.” What separates him from this discussion is the fact that Malick had only made three major films – all of them masterpieces (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line.) The New World is a fine example of what makes a Malick movie so magical: gorgeous locations, massive camera angles, a swelling score, and musingly beautiful landscapes. Many of the shots and scenes in The New World are so stunning that I found it difficult to breathe. In an age where most directors film in prose, Malick’s work is poetry.
2. Capote, Bennett Miller
All of this season’s talk concerning Capote has surrounded Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s dynamite portrayal of Truman Capote. Hoffman deserves all of the accolades he has received, and will certainly win this year’s Best Actor Oscar. But even though Hoffman carried Capote, and the movie would likely have fallen on its face without his even-tempered, rock-solid presence, I believe the credit rests equally on the shoulders of Bennett Miller. Capote is a delicate yet heartbreaking study into the deep waters of the writer/subject relationship. Never does the film fall from its steady pace and profound sentiment.
3. Sin City, Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Sin City is, quite simply, a revolution in filmmaking. For years, directors have used green screen special effects to fill their movies with phony effects and cartoon landscapes, with varying degrees of success (thank you, Mr. Lucas). Sin City, which was filmed entirely digitally, uses the technology to transform three of Frank Miller’s breathtaking Sin City graphic novels into a motion picture. The result is a living, talking, moving comic book. Scenes, dialog, and even camera angles were ripped directly from Miller’s books. Sin City, more than a technological marvel, is a sleekly rugged, gut-wrenching film. I can only rejoice in the fact that Rodriquez and Miller have two more Sin City movies in production, and hope more directors follow their lead.
4. Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee
Not since the late nineties has one of the year’s best movies actually won the Academy’s Best Picture award. Unless something ridiculous happens, Brokeback Mountain will end this streak a month from now. Although it has been swamped, both pre and post-release, in the muck of politics and cultural warfare, Brokeback Mountain is a legitimately great film, boasting the year’s best story and characters and a handful of great performances. What a pity for Heath Ledger, to give such a brilliant performance the same year Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who has long been an industry favorite, delivered the performance of a lifetime. But I have a hunch that when we look back in years to come, and compare Hoffman and Ledger’s acting, Ledger’s will better stand the test of time. Even more upsetting is the fact that the difficult questions raised by the film’s distinctly gay characters has been hidden behind platitudes describing it as, for example, “a deeply felt, emotional love story [where] the two lovers here just happen to be men.” (For more about this disappointing trend, and for a better place from which to view the film, read this exceptional review.)
5. The Constant Gardener, Fernando Meirelles
Yet another film from the past year which features great acting, gripping storytelling, and gorgeous cinematography. Director Fernando Meirelles exploded onto the scene three years ago with Cidade de Deus, which stands in my mind as one of the best films in recent memory. The Constant Gardener is a superb follow-up which confirms Meirelles greatness, once again demonstrating his poetic sensibility, and, what’s more impressive in my mind, his ability to maintain a breakneck pace while still filling the screen with beautiful compositions – a balance few directors are able to maintain. As an added bonus, The Constant Gardener gives viewers a fascinating glimpse into the horrifying practices of drug companies.
6. The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach
The year’s funniest movie, with a heartbreakingly earnest performance by Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale conjures unavoidable comparison’s to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Since the former two are among my favorite movies in the entire world, my reaction to The Squid and the Whale was predictable. Fortunately, the film itself squirms sufficiently, making it difficult to pin down, and possesses a delightful charm. Slightly more earnest that Anderson’s movies, The Squid and the Whale is consistently winsome, and leaves a lasting tint of pleasing remembrance in the viewer’s mind.
7. Good Night, and Good Luck., George Clooney
One of the most important tasks of scholastic philosophy, and Aquinas’s Summa Theologica in particular, was proving the perfection of God. In our slightly more heretical age, a more interesting proof for a philosopher might be the perfection of George Clooney. Granted, there was that Batman & Robin disaster, but the case could be made that Clooney’s recent willingness to straight-up mock this career choice proves that, while Clooney may not always have been perfect, he is well on his way to becoming so. Good Night, and Good Luck is the latest in a long line of examples: not only is the film’s black and white cinematography a sight to behold, but David Straithairn’s portrayal of Edward Murrow equals this year’s best. In a year rife with political, and made-out-to-be-political, films, Good Night, and Good Luck proves that a movie does not need to make a statement to be poignant.
8. Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle), Hayao Miyazaki
Anime is as hot as ever, but Hayao Miyazaki has been making great films for over twenty years. While Howl’s Moving Castle is not equal to his best output (c.f. Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away), it is a fine example of his style: magnificent, otherworldly anime with a touch of magical realism and cyberpunk. There are few moviemakers better than Miyazaki, and none who more consistently fill audiences with pure unadulterated awe. (Note: please, if you’re going to watch the movie, choose the subtitled version, not the Disneyfied dubbed disaster.)
9. No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese
The only non-fiction movie to make my list is also distinct in that it was not released in theaters, but instead debuted on PBS and on DVD in September. With two of media’s greatest living artists, Dylan and Scorcese, coming together, the result was predestined. Scorcese makes the excellent choice of focusing on the most fascinating part of Dylan’s career: the time between his arrival on the folk scene and his career-altering motorcycle accident. The result is a thought-provoking consideration of how a great artist becomes an icon, and why Dylan, by breaking out of the molds forced on him by others and concentrating solely on making great music, transcended the persona he helped to create. For a period of roughly two years, Dylan could do no wrong, and created three of the century’s best records. No Direction Home sheds great insight into how and why this happened.
10. Munich, Steven Spielberg
Even though he’s taken a serious beating from left and right as a result of making this film, it’s difficult to feel sorry for Steven Spielberg. Your best bet is to ignore the faux-controversy circling Munich, and enjoy it for what it is: a finely spun, deeply moving film made by a master. Munich, while not the most balanced of films, features a host of excellent dilemmas, conversations, and an steady, believable performance by Eric Bana. Bana carries the film with his magnetism, providing a point of focus and an excellent lens from which to view the film’s difficulties.