OK, I know we're almost at the end of this year, but then I wasn't passing off my opinion as fact in January, and I've had this list since then.
10. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Sidney Lumet is one of the all-time greatest directors, and he's still churning out hits like this in his 80s. No director has ever handled such a wide variety of topics and still make them all so great. In this darkly funny heist film, two down-on-their-luck brothers decide to rip off their parents' jewelry store, with disastrous results. It doubles as a study of a dysfunctional family and a thriller about criminal ineptitude so vast it's a surprise to see it outside of a Coen brothers film. The more that the results of their failed heist unfolds the more Andy and Hank sink into almost crippling guilt. It's one of the most emotional crime films made in recent years, maybe since classic film noir. There aren't many deaths, but when they occur they shock and leave a resonance like ripples on the story. Bodies aren't used to move the story forward, but to compound the characters. This may not be on the level of Lumet's masterpieces like Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and 12 Angry Men, but it can hold its own against his finest films, and it's a superb late-career effort by any standard.
Who knew a film about a rat cooking for humans would be not only not disgusting, but mesmerizing? Pixar, of course. Their standard of excellence can put just about any other production company- animated or no- to shame. Patton Oswalt seems an odd choice to voice the lead in a children's film, especially since he got the job for a foul-mouthed, near-poetic tirade against fast food, but he pulls it off marvelously. His voice, along with Pixar's knack for putting a wide range of human face and body language into non-human things, makes Remy come alive. Like all great Pixar films, the inanimate or the animal world is juxtaposed against the human one. Remy's father (voiced by the incomparable character actor and one of Oswalt's heroes Brian Dennehy) tells his son that a rat can't be a human, yet the humans display little nobility. They are greedy, lustful, deceitful, and only at the end do any of them display any moral fortitude. Yet this is a sweet film, as are all of Pixar's (they're for kids after all), and if the plot wasn't enough, you've got a masterful dig at critics from Peter O'Toole.
8. Into the Wild
Sean Penn is far too ostentatious an actor for my tastes, but this directorial effort is superb. Emile Hirsch's performance is one of those rare times when someone transcends acting and simply is the person. I'm not one for wilderness survival stories or anything where the focus of the film is on nature, because I can watch the Discovery Channel for that. But this is more; it's not about a man at one with nature, or trying to survive, it's about a man trying to find himself. Granted, that's cliché as well, but Hirsch is so watchable, and the book adapted so well that the twists and turns of his life keep you rooted in your seat. He travels some of the most beautiful landscapes you'll see, but Penn does not focus on nature, because it's not the point. Eddie Vedder's marvelous soundtrack is just icing on the cake.
7. Michael Clayton
Expertly written, nicely paced, and perfectly acted, Tony Gilroy's legal thriller manages to craft a darkly funny, inventive tale that even keeps its suspense despite giving away a big detail at the beginning. It had the terrible misfortune of coming out in a year in which Daniel Day-Lewis acted, Diablo Cody wrote Juno, and the Coens made No Country For Old Men, because in any other year it would have been almost a shoo-in for Best Actor, Original Screenplay, and Picture. George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Tilda Swinton all earned their nominations by putting in some of their finest work, while Gilroy proves to be a competent, if not incredible, director his first time out, but his script is the best he's ever written.
I have a theory on romantic comedies: the simpler the better. Most have some sort of quirk, but the more it keeps things grounded and the less it becomes some over the top slapstick the more emotionally involving it is. Once is the kind of film that unfolds so naturally by the time it's over you're left amazed that it lead somewhere. The music is soft and sweet, but without the cloying, annoying, cookie-cutter quality of so much indie acoustic pop (see: Juno). Not many films can make you leave the theater alternately uplifted and borderline depressed, and Once should be placed on the short list of great romantic comedy.
5. Gone Baby Gone
Ben Affleck gets a lot of unfair hate, with people mistaking his poor choice in roles for a lack of acting talent. But few can argue his directorial skill in this fantastic adaptation of Lehane's novel. Putting little brother Casey Affleck in the lead smacks of mass nepotism, but 2007 was the year Casey decided to break out of Ben's shadow. He puts in a superb performance here, and his Oscar-nominated work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was the best part of that movie. He plays Patrick Kenzie who, along with his girlfriend Angie (played by the lovely Michelle Monaghan) works as a private detective. After a child goes missing, the two seek her out, and stumble into a seedy underworld and an increasingly complex kidnapping scheme. By the time they uncover the truth, you need a good shower. A fantastic supporting cast helps move things along nicely, with Amy Ryan's performance earning that nomination. The acting isn't on the same level as that other big Lehane adaptation Mystic River, but this captures the tone much better and the story proves much better suited for film.
Yes, teenagers don't really talk like that. But then Juno isn't your average teenager. Diablo Cody's teen-pregnancy fantasy is full of surprising genre subversion, pretentious teen "irony," and some of the best performances ever put forth in a film focusing on teenagers. Ellen Page keeps Juno from going over the edge of tongue-in-cheek to blatant self-parody, adding layers of sadness and vulnerability to her gruff outer shell that seems natural rather than arbitrary. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney play the nicest parents you'll ever meet in a high school film, while Jennifer Garner shines as the yuppie, achieving wife who wants to adopt Juno's baby. Jason Bateman is likewise superb as the frustrated wannabe rocker who sees Juno as a window to his glory days. Michael Cera is again the lovable nerd, but there's a much higher level of sadness in his role, as Juno sleeps with him purely on a whim, complicated the feelings he already felt for her. Ultimately, it's one of the most emotionally rewarding high school movies made in recent years, maybe even since Say Anything. It's initial over-the-top teen ironic speak gives way to a smart, sweet comedy that hopefully will re-establish itself as a great movie after the Oscar backlash fully dies away.
3. Zodiac - Director's Cut
David Fincher manages to make a hell of thriller out of nothing with this film. There are no real chases, no big action scenes, no crime-solving climax; instead we nearly get lost in labyrinthine red tape and character development. In many ways it's more about Graysmith, Toschi, and Avery than it is about the case. Gyllenhaal gives his best performance, and Ruffalo and Downey offer up great character work. All three imbibe their characters, and Avery's slide into alcoholism eerily reflects Downey's own life. Some may of considered the film overlong, but this Director's Cut, which is actually longer, adds material in such a way that it not only deserves to be put back in but enhances the footage in the theatrical cut. This might be Fincher's best-crafted film.
2. There Will Be Blood
I don't even know why they bother with the Best Actor category in years where Daniel Day-Lewis makes a film. Sure, he's only won two, but really, nobody else goes as all out as he does, which I would say makes him the best actor. Paul Thomas Anderson rebounds after the mixed Punch-Drunk Love with this sweeping epic that allows him to flaunt his visual style without it consuming the film, as it did with the terrible, masturbatory Magnolia. The story concerns Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil entrepreneur who loves only winning. Even money has little value to Plainview, besides allowing him to expand his empire. He is not your average monster; he doesn't have people killed, doesn't sit twirling his moustache as he uses thugs to drive out townspeople. Rather, he simply slowly takes over the town; what good is owning the place if no one's around to let you know it? His decades-long battle of wits with a young preacher (Paul Dano) is a slow-burning, brilliant display, culminating in a shocking end that cements Daniel as one of the finer villains of recent years.
1. No Country For Old Men
Stark, spacious, and haunting, the Coen brothers fantastic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's allegorical thriller is perhaps the truest adaptation of a novel since Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange. Their films are always about the inept versus the professional, or just the inept versus the inept, but here they present us with balanced opponents. On the one hand is Moss, a war hero who stumbles across the remains of a bad drug deal and walks away with $2 million and the smarts to know someone's gonna come after it. On the other is Anton Chigurh, a mysterious hitman who seemingly acts of his own volition. But really, it's not about the chase, it's about man's inability to defeat evil in the world and the cruel impassiveness of chance. Brolin, Jones, and Bardem never really interact with one another; even as Chigurh and Moss have a little shootout outside a hotel, they never speak to one another, and when they do it is over a telephone. Their spacing reflects the vast openness of the desert around them. Sheriff Bell's book-ending, wandering mind narration both calls to mind a similar opening and closing (albeit more comical) in the Coens' own The Big Lebowski as well as cementing the hopelessness of man's situation. Quite possibly the best film of the decade so far.