One of the things you’ll notice is that I have a number of ties on my list. Each of them is, I think, a fair grouping of films that either work in similar ways or that tackle similar ideas from different directions or that are in some other way related. A good example…
#20 / TIE / “Coraline” and “A Town Called Panic”
Stop-motion animation has always struck me as one of the most miraculous types of filmmaking. It’s handmade in a digital world, in the best sense of it. Stop-motion guys are performers as much as hand-animators are. They all have to understand acting if they’re any good at their craft, and when they’re drawing a performance, doing all the key work, in some cases as a full 24 frames per second, they’re performing. The same is true of the great stop motion guys, and Henry Selick proved this year that he is the current master of stop-motion animation, pulling off this gorgeous, creepy, sad little magic trick that glows and shimmers and, in the best use of 3D this year (yes, the best), Selick plays with depth perception and set decoration and the layout of rooms depending on which reality Coraline is in, and it’s such a brain-bending game that the theatrical experience really isn’t what you’ll see at home. The 2D version, thank god, is a great film in its own right. Make no mistake, though, Selick is part of the game-changing if anyone is.
On the opposite end of the aesthetic scale is the crazy Belgian stop-motion film based on a crazy Belgian stop-motion TV show about a Cowboy, an Indian, and a Horse who live together. They are toys, crudely animated, but the choice is so deliberate, and the style of comedy so dependent on the animation looking the way it does, that the low-budget becomes a style, not a burden. “A Town Called Panic” is wall-to-wall funny, strange and silly in a way that movies and TV for kids often try to accomplish, but which so few ever do. It’s not talking down to kids and it’s not occasional knowing winks to the adults, but it’s genuinely strange and unique humor that anyone can laugh at. It’s just slapstick chaos theory, bouncing out the craziest jazz riffs for the full 80 minutes or so. If “Coraline” is a vision of just how beautiful and technically sly stop-motion can be on the cutting edge, “A Town Called Panic” is proof that all a great animator ever needs is a camera and something to say.
#19 / “Drag Me To Hell”
Sam Raimi brought it. It’s that simple. Sam Raimi threw a great haunted house, and he invited everyone, and if you went, then you know… it was groovy. It’s a beautiful BluRay disc, so if you haven’t seen it, just take the plunge. Pick it up. Crank it up. Give it a chance. It will surprise you.
Allison Lohman is as good as she’s ever been in her role here as a young woman who wants to get ahead in a competitive culture at a bank, and when she makes a tough decision to impress her boss, she ends up crossing paths with an old gypsy woman who decides to fight back. Even if that means doing so from beyond the grave. It’s a nasty little morality tale that is as specific to our national psyche at this moment as “Up In The Air” is, but with far less joy in its heart. Great stuff, and honestly… this movie makes me wish Sam Raimi would let someone else start making “Spider-Man” films. I want more new movies from this guy, because his joy at being cut loose on this material is palpable in every frame of this daffy, dark-hearted downer.
#18 / “Anvil! The Story Of Anvil”
Sacha Gervasi picked the right subject, and he told the story the right way. Anvil deserves their exclamation point, their victory lap, the “Rocky II” ending to their story, and thanks to this movie, it seems like it’s finally happening. Steve “Lips” Kudrow and Robb Reiner are the ultimate example of the showbiz survivors, and the moments in the film when you see the emotional toll it takes on them to keep moving forward are some of the most brutal of the year. It’s a film I would show to anyone who thinks they want a career in any aspect of entertainment. Yes, there’s a very small chance you will succeed wildly and become a star, but there’s a far greater chance you’ll be Anvil, and that reality is one that many people love to ignore. After seeing this, I doubt anyone will ignore Anvil again.
#17 / “Watchmen” and “Fish Story”
What is it about the notion of “saving the world” that so many artists are drawn to?
I think it’s, frankly, an absurd ticking clock to throw on a film, but it’s such a convention that I almost don’t notice it anymore. There’s an arrogance to the very notion that I think appeals to people. In reality, very few of us will ever made a decision that will literally affect the entire world, but on film, it seems to happen at least once a week. How often do we actually feel the weight of those choices on the character who are involved? In “Watchmen,” Zack Snyder’s much-debated adaptation of the beloved Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic book, these characters all move through their lives as if they are being crushed by the weight of those choices every single day. And in the delirious Japanese punk rock epic “Fish Story,” one band’s recording of a song has a ripple effect that literally saves us all. In both films, it feels not only personal, but possible, and it is the idea that any one of us could have that much importance and influence at the right time, in the right circumstance, that suddenly turns this lame cliche of a movie trope into something urgent and even essential again. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film is just as gorgeous as Zack Snyder’s but on a different scale entirely. And like Snyder, Nakamura’s working from source material that could have crushed another filmmaker, and in that challenge, seems to have found something more akin to a dare. Both of these films seem to shrug off the yoke of genre with ease, and neither one can be easily summed up. Both are worth returning to. Both deserve their spot on this list.
#16 / “Bronson” and “An Education”
Sometimes when a critic recommends a movie, what they’re really recommending is some particular part of that movie. That’s why I don’t understand the whole binary “sucks”/”rules” culture that exists online now. It’s pretty rare that I think a movie is either unmitigated trash or flawlessly perfect. Frequently, I decide where I come down on a film based on the cumulative good and bad. In some cases, there is a performance that elevates a good film into greatness, and my recommendation is because I feel like you need to see the performance, even if the film itself doesn’t completely work. I think Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” is ferocious and impressive, and a huge part of that is because Thomas Hardy’s work is maybe the most dedicated male performance of the year. He is a wild animal who decides he loves the challenge of being caged, a wrecking machine in search of something to wreck. It is amazing work, fearless and crazy, and tone-wise, it’s about 180-degrees from what Carey Mulligan does in “An Education.” She plays a young woman who is torn between what her father wants and what she thinks she wants. It nicely evokes both time and place, and the supporting cast including Alfred Molina and Peter Sarsgaard all do nice work, but it’s really Mulligan’s show. She perfectly captures that moment when a young woman stops belonging to her parents and starts belonging to the world, to the great discomfort of her family. Mulligan suggests the balance between child and adult that is still so present in so many people in their teens, but she never oversells it. It’s a very wise performance, as intuitive as Hardy’s is instinctual, and with both, I get the feeling we’re looking at actors who deserve to work constantly, actors who are in complete control of their individual instruments.
We’ll have runners-up #15-#11 for you next.
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