13 February 2008

Are movies simply better now than ever before? A year ago, I was blogging about Children of Men, The Departed, and Pan's Labyrinth, and the latest crop of great films certainly suggests that something remarkable is happening. A glance at last year's box office reveals that there will always be room for pandering and mediocity, but the best movies of last year demonstrate a willingness to pair big stars and budgets with equally vast ambitions:

1. Zodiac. The most technically accomplished and comprehensively organized film of the year is also the best serial killer movie, the best newspaper movie, and the best San Francisco movie I've ever seen. It's so scary, funny, and fascinating, so rammed with life, that I actually forgive David Fincher for Fight Club.

2. There Will Be Blood. "The more books we read," Cyril Connolly writes, "the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence." Alone among directors of his generation, Paul Thomas Anderson has kept his eye on the long game. This amazing, aggravating movie is the enduring result.

3. Once. Even more than the insanely ambitious films mentioned above, this slight, magical story cuts to the heart of the mystery of movies. How can a few good songs and a handful of perfect moments, apparently captured on the fly, become a permanent part of a moviegoer's inner life?

4. No Country For Old Men. I've always had mixed feelings about the Coen Brothers, especially their comedies, but this movie demonstrates how design, suspense, and narrative ingenuity can result in their own kind of mordant wit. I have a feeling that this is one of those terrifying movies, like The Shining, that will become weirdly funny with time.

5. Michael Clayton. Screenwriters rarely make great directors, but Tony Gilroy has fashioned a beautiful centaur, a big commercial movie with the heart of an indie film. My favorite image, aside from the final shot, is Tom Wilkinson's penultimate scene, a nod to a timeless movie cliché: "Every shopping bag contains at least one baguette."

6. Grindhouse. In time, a lot of people are going to regret not seeing this encyclopedic, immersive, overwrought sensation on the big screen. Both halves are brilliant, but it's the ending of Death Proof, and that amazing car chase, that sticks with me the most. This movie's failure, and the unlikelihood of future sequels, is a loss for the entire culture.

7. Eastern Promises. This perfectly conceived and executed gangster movie features, of course, the greatest fight scene in years, the sort of brawl that you can closely track, with your eyes closed, by listening to the screams of the audience. After—and perhaps because of—three decades of anatomical creepiness, David Cronenberg has emerged, inexplicably, as one of the best genre directors in the world.

8. American Gangster. This may be Ridley Scott's best movie, terrific in ways both big and small, an epic of seamless momentum, intelligence, and taste. The grace with which it assembles its huge cast and detailed story is comparable, on all levels, to L.A. Confidential. Higher praise is not required.

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In its own quiet way, this is one of the most beautifully composed movies of the year, with a suspenseful, involving story told in fewer than seventy separate shots. Every frame radiates intelligence—especially in the dinner party scene, which is a real tour de force. The fact that it wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Film is one of the year's biggest scandals.

10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. A consummate artist with a huge ego, Julian Schnabel lavished all of his skills on this exquisitely conceived movie, with considerable help, one assumes, from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. At times, it resembles a bottomless bag of tricks, but the acting and soundtrack allow the emotion of the story to permeate what is, at heart, a brilliant excuse for showing off.

If anything is missing from this list, it's an animated movie, since Ratatouille, Persepolis, The Simpsons Movie, and even Enchanted served, in highly diverse ways, as a reminder of how vital the medium can be. As for the worst movie of the year, it's hard for me to say anything good about 300, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. That's the mark of a great year for cinema—when even its lowest point is some kind of classic.

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