22 February 2007

Maybe I just got lucky. Or maybe I had a lot of free time, which meant that I ended up seeing good movies that I otherwise would have missed. Whatever the reason, after a slow start, this was the best year for movies of my adult life. There were great movies of seemingly every genre, with no apparent theme or connection, except for the prevalence of extraordinarily graphic violence. (Sometimes it seemed as if every good movie this year included a scene in which someone was shot in the head.) Anyway, here they are:

1. Children of Men. I had forgotten what it was like to love a movie this much. Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece is one of those rare movies, like The Red Shoes and Citizen Kane, that is so generous and beneficent that I'm tempted to list each of its wonders, its hundred discrete moments of agony and joy. If I could keep only one movie from this decade, this would be the one.

2. The Departed. Watching it again recently, it struck me that this movie plays like two hours of highlights from the best television series ever. I mean this as a compliment. I only wish that I had twenty more hours to spend in its seductive aura of intelligence and danger. A sequel is apparently on its way, but what we really need, of course, is an interquel.

3. Pan's Labyrinth. Whenever people ask me to describe this movie, I've learned to reply, "It's like The Dark Crystal, intercut with Schindler's List." In a year of violent movies, this was the most unbearable, the most suspenseful, and the most poetic. It has singlehandedly restored fantasy to its rightful place as the most essential and compelling genre in the movies.

4. The Illusionist. It's easy to overlook the enormous amount of skill involved in a film like this, which carries the viewer on a wave of pleasure and excitement for one hundred minutes without quick cuts, flashy camera movements, or facile displays of virtuosity—without anything, in fact, except for its grace, craft and ingenuity, which are everywhere. It has also left me with strong feelings for both Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel. I'm not sure what to do about this.

5. Inland Empire. David Lynch's strangest movie is a triumph of process, an improvised, intuitive epic that works better than it should, thanks to Laura Dern's incredible performance. The monologue by the homeless Japanese woman, as Dern lies dying on the sidewalk (which isn't a spoiler, by the way), ranks with the best things that Lynch, or anyone, has ever done. This is why digital video was invented.

6. Volver. A movie about life, rather than death, in spite of its apparently supernatural premise. This is Almodovar's best movie, a film that I would have no trouble recommending to anyone, including, or especially, my mom. As I've probably mentioned before, it also contains the best overhead shot of all time, and serves as a frightening reminder of how badly Penelope Cruz has been wasted in American movies.

7. The Lives of Others. To flesh out an earlier comparison, this movie reminds me of my favorite scenes in Casablanca, the early ones, in which the viewer is eased into a world of teeming, seething intrigue, and yet immediately feels at home. Here, Rick is crossed with Renault, Strasser forces Ilsa into his bed, and Laszlo occasionally assumes the role of Sam, but the ending, like Casablanca's, makes optimism seem like a convincing stance. What were the odds of that happening?

8. A Prairie Home Companion. I'm not sure how I would have felt about this film if Robert Altman were still alive, but as it stands, it feels like the capstone to the most interesting career in American movies. Like a few other movies on this list, it displays a craft that runs the risk of being undervalued, because it's close to invisible. Time will only reveal how much we all lost when this man died.

9. Letters from Iwo Jima. This is Clint Eastwood's best film, a war movie in which the audience is aware from the beginning that nothing good can happen. After a slow opening, it plunges into unrelieved horror, rescued only by the director's compassion and the presence of Ken Watanabe, who is one of the best five or six actors alive today. A transcendent, incandescent downer.

10. Miami Vice. One of the strangest, most beautiful movies ever made for $150 million. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, not to mention Gong Li, are little more than filmed surfaces in this wild, gorgeous hymn to electronica, bloodshed, and digital video. Watching it, one feels that the genre's aesthetic limits, and limitations, have been reached for good.

And we also have Marie Antoinette, The Last King of Scotland (directed by Emeric Pressburger's grandson!), Casino Royale, The Queen, The Life of Reilly, Stranger Than Fiction, Wordplay, Inside Man, V for Vendetta, United 93, Happy Feet, The Descent, Thank You for Smoking, parts of Blood Diamond, Babel, and Borat, and others that I've forgotten or haven't seen, any ten of which would make for a perfectly remarkable year. It's more than enough, I guess, to make up for Superman Returns.

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