I have been compiling my Top Ten films for long enough to know that there are certain patterns at work. I am moved by a variety of work and look for films that in some way expand or redefine their genre, explore a new approach, have the feel of newness.
I don’t want to bash anyone but Hollywood studio films are historically minimal on my list and usually around numbers 8, 9 or 10. I cannot expect major TV and newspaper and magazine film critics to have my taste but I am constantly surprised (and not a little bit disgusted) that the shapers of public opinion regarding cinema generally assume that foreign films, truly daring indies, non-studio animation and documentaries not made by Michael Moore do not deserve much mention.
Whether this myopia is engendered by the media conglomerates for whom the critics work or by the critics themselves, caught up in the frenzy of Hollywood speculation on what is going to win a Golden Globe or Oscar, it does not really matter. What does is this: a pundit supposedly analyzes the times in which we live. A critic explores the entirety of an art form, and serves to teach, as well as provide judgment.
It’s mystifying to me that while filmmakers as talented as the Coen Brothers, who made in my opinion a complete masterpiece in Barton Fink, can get a pass from critics on No Country for Old Men, a bloodfest that flaunts its willingness to throw narrative logic out the window and kills off a main character as an afterthought, while having a quasi-mystical hitman (Javier Bardem) inexplicably appear and disappear with a kind of infantile, voyeuristic ease.
And yet, one of most successful action movies of recent years, The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass’ swan song in the trilogy, is a masterful work that includes phenomenal camerawork, great performances and appears nowhere on most “serious” film critics lists. Hey, it’s not on mine either, but it was far more engaging than many of those top ten pronunciations.
I even want to reject the idea that the numbering below is definitive. If I can do anything of service to those who are not swept up in Oscar races, critics’ lists and cumulative box office, please consider investigating some of these titles via home video.
1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Not only is it remarkable that Jean-Dominique Bauby, with locked-in syndrome, dictated a beautiful memoir by merely blinking one eye, the only movement he could manage, but director Julian Schnabel has directed Ronald Harwood’s script with the visual power and verisimilitude to encapsulate the hardest kind of life to capture on film—the life inside the mind.
2. Perfume: the Story of a Murderer
Germany’s Tom Tykwer proved himself a great visual artist and director with Run, Lola, Run but here, he has adapted Patrick Susskind’s book of a psychopath obsessed with the variety of scents in a darkly disturbing but gorgeously shot fable that disturbs yet sweeps you away simultaneously.
This Australian version of the Scottish play has no bad luck about it. Sam Worthington and Victoria Hill are stunning as Shakespeare’s murderous power couple, set among the gangsters of Melbourne. The cast is consistently impressive with their delivery of the Bard’s work and Geoffrey Wright manages to be both gritty and elegant in his direction.
This lovely Swiss fable, about a boy whose parents nearly ruin his life with their expectations for his piano virtuosity is gorgeous, funny, touching and has Bruno Ganz as a charming grandfather who undermines his children so his grandchild can find his own way in life.
5. My Kid Could Paint That
Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary is as fascinating as any great mystery film, as it delves into the question of whether young Marla Olmstead is actually painting awe-inspiring abstract paintings—which lead her and her parents to financial success—or whether there is fraud afoot.
6. The Lookout
Scott Frank’s directorial debut has so many unique twists on the good-kid-falls-in-with-bad-guys template and shows himself to capture menace on screen with an unerring aplomb. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the inside young man on a heist with a wavy mental faculty leads a terrific cast and makes one hungry for another Frank-directed film.
7. Michael Clayton
Okay, it’s a studio film but in a way, it’s a throwback to the great American films of the 70s. Tony Gilroy, another exceptional screenwriter who takes over at the helm, has fashioned a hypnotic thriller slamming Big Pharma and corporate corruption with great turns by George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and, stealing the film, Tom Wilkinson, as a corporate attorney destroyed by his own conscience.
8. The Hoax
Leave it to director Lasse Halstrom to take a more character-based approach to Clifford Irving’s phony Howard Hughes autobiography, giving a marvelous psychological depth and even a surprising political revelation at film’s end as the coup de grace.
David Fincher is a true auteur but here, what is most remarkable is how he captured years of paranoia, funneled through San Francisco political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, as played by Jake Gyllenhaal, researching the serial killer known as the Zodiac. Look out for Robert Downey Jr. doing a great meltdown and a chilling turn by John Carroll Lynch as, possibly, you know who.
10. Charlie Wilson’s War
Yes, another big studio film but with Aaron Sorkin’s excoriating wit in dialogue and condemnation of American foreign policy, this one is a very unique hybrid. Mike Nichols makes you comfortable with the Tom-and-Julia show, then slams you with our failure to really support the Taliban, confronting us with what we may have wrought in the alleged “war on terrorism.”
Honorable Mention in No Particular Order:
- Air Guitar Nation
- In the Valley of Elah
- The Method
- Elizabeth: The Golden Age.