aming the best films of the past ten months is even harder than naming the best films of the millennium thus far. Here’s 13 suggestions from Stylus—again, with more recommendations in the individual writer lists below. In the months and years to come, you’ll have to rely on other (doubtlessly inferior) sources, or follow our writers to their new homes.
[Stylus at the Movies]
01. Once (John Carney)
The best thing about Once
is how effortlessly it fulfills its ambitions. It seeks to achieve something modest and unassuming, unfolding a simple tale of Guy and Girl who share a connection through music. This passionate tale would have likely given way to slightness or saccharine under the direction of a more experienced filmmaker and more flexible financial restraints. Instead, the film is handled with an extraordinarily low budget and a simple but raw approach that allows Once
to spread its “all you need is love and music” message to even the most cynical viewers. The environment and characters are presented with a pure, untouched kind of reverie as director John Carney captures a truly romantic lifestyle amidst the cold soggy gray of urban Dublin. Even with the song-breaks, the film’s hyper-realistic style lends the story more truthful resonance than you’re likely to find in most documentaries, let alone musicals.
is a rare naturalistic love story with realism that works because, not in spite of, the film’s glorious romanticism. So gentlemen, put down that Sharpie, quit downloading all those Bright Eyes tracks, and instead take your crush to see Once
. Just remember to thank me when you’re rounding third base.
02. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach)
A solidly traditional drama of political passion with the familiarity of historical recurrence, Ken Loach’s tragedy of a young medical scholar (Cillian Murphy) and his man-of-action brother (Padraic Delaney) engaged in the IRA’s insurgency against British occupation in the early 1920s drew the standard objections of being talky or “didactic.” As if politics, especially at such a crux in a country’s history, is not essentially people arguing ideals between bouts of shooting at each other. Each brother’s integrity is never seriously in question, but Paul Laverty's script tersely denies the sentimentality some might find implicit in even a guerrilla war set in the lush hills of Eire; circumstances of their soldiering turn both men into reluctant executioners who are told by mourning women, “I never want to see you again.” The distant civil war between Irish Free Staters and republicans over the best means to a peaceful end might seem rhetorically familiar to contemporary Americans whose five or six "electable" presidential candidates have all promised to continue occupying Iraq through 2012.
03. The Host (Bong Joon-ho)
’s derision of the America military-industrial complex may be knee-jerk, but that doesn’t make it less true. Its dissing of the Korean government’s acquiescence is bolder, and surely a more crucial factor in the movie’s tremendous Korean box office success. As the monster, a Yankee-Korean co-production, rampages along the banks of the Han, the authorities claim the creature hosts a virus; when they find out it doesn’t, under American pressure, they decide to spray the river with “Agent Yellow” anyway (just as Korean troops sprayed their own country with Agent Orange in the 60s). Amidst demonstrations, three siblings—armed with flaming arrows and Molotov cocktails—fight the final fight. They’ve been searching for days for a lost child, and there’s no guarantee they’ll save her. Earlier, in one scene where the family is eating together, the kid shows up, and they acknowledge her only by adding food to her bowl. It’s a wish, of course, and as moving as anything in Spielberg.
04. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
The idea of a traditionally rendered, thoroughly polished David Cronenberg movie seems to contradict the big, flawed, flowingly perverse legacy that has made the filmmaker a fascination for so long. Can the guy who made Shivers
and The Fly
and 1996’s Crash
really have been leading up to this
? Certainly there are glimpses of the old director buried in his electric London mob tragedy—the near-surgical interest in the violence that undoes his characters is lost on no one—but it still doesn’t really make sense. Neither does it that the most traditional film he’s ever made may be his best. As he smoothly works his way through the mysteries of Eastern Promises
, Cronenberg crafts an instant touchstone of the genre in Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) as well as a model for its storytelling. The movie seeks a heightened emotional and even spiritual experience alongside unashamed plot gimmicks and sequences of outrageously graphic violence, and through texture and restraint, it achieves it.
05. Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
I don’t like to admit it, but a part of me would buy tickets to watch Julie Christie read the phone book. That is the problem in casting her in a lead role anymore and may be one reason she doesn’t take them often. In Canadian actor Sarah Polley’s first feature-length writing and directing effort—the story of an older north Ontario couple whose seemingly idyllic life by a wooded lake unravels when the wife develops Alzheimer’s and enters a nursing home, only to take up with another patient whom she may have known years ago—Polley implicitly deals with her star’s iconic notoriety before the title even gets on the screen. Driving through a winter day with an address on a slip of paper, Grant Andersson (Gordon Pinsent) recalls the day Fiona proposed marriage 44 years ago. In voiceover, he describes their exchange, and we see young Fiona mouthing the words, her hair blowing besides a windy lake in Grant’s grainy memory.
Unexpectedly startling, that youthful image is not some clip from an earlier Christie film. Instead, Grant sees another pretty young blond woman. This simple casting decision makes room for some rich flowerings in what follows. Fiona has space to develop as a character rather than a mere star vehicle. Her Alzheimer’s is ostensibly the story’s crisis, but Grant’s own memory has its deep fissures, evasions and regrets. Then there are Aubrey’s drawings of Fiona, clearly as she once was, lovely and astonishing—for a woman who fears she’s “disappearing,” these drawings and this man literally give her back an outline. Away From Her
is a film replete with such choices, made out of loyalty to the story at hand rather than obviously easier paths. In turn, it’s a film replete with the generosity of its entire ensemble cast, who answer that loyalty on-screen with their performances. Watching this unfold makes you grateful for movies.
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
06. Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino)
Normally when I write about movies, I do it in terms of what I was thinking while watching them. With Death Proof
it’s different, because I just don’t think while it’s on. There is only pure emotion, a mix of joy and terror not unlike what plays over Rosario Dawson’s face in one beautiful shot as she watches Zoë Bell dangling by a pair of belts on the hood of a 1970 Dodge Charger.
Some people complain that the movie is too talky, a complaint that strikes me as odd considering how wonderful Tarantino’s dialogue is and how charming all of the women are. I could have listened to them talk for days. And without the extensive dialogue, the action sequences, impressively staged as they are, would have felt flat. My favorite aspect of the movie is the way the characters like
one another, particularly in the frenetic sequence that makes up the movie’s final twenty minutes. That’s their friend that Kurt Russell is trying to kill up there on the hood—they’re worried
about her. And because we know them so well, and like them so much, we share their worry, and, later, their joy.
07. Zodiac (David Fincher)
A near perfect thriller in the Lumet mode: a murder flick with no certain killer, with no official detective, with no ultimate resolution. Fincher was in danger of slipping into insignificance before Zodiac
, a movie just too damn compelling to ignore, too consummately staged, structured and paced to deny. Few films today give due service to the fundamentals of storytelling. However, Fincher’s allegiance to detail and procedure are brilliantly represented in the body of the film by Robert Graysmith’s own obsessive service to logic and reason—the principles of constructing success. This is a tale of frustration and failure that finds no release. The film traps the real-life tension of the case in a fictional loop with the resulting feedback to be forever replayed. Zodiac
is at the very peak of the genre, offering a textual pleasure in the very processes of understanding. Graysmith, the cinematic figure at least, continues in the footsteps of John Klute, Joe Frady and, indeed, Detective David Mills in discovering that such investigations, within the immutable logic of the genre, demand an inward pursuit that causes irreparable damage to the investigator. Small pleasures such as the delicious period detail and the flirtatious relationship between Graysmith and Toschi increase the ease with which the film slips from gear to gear. This is unabashed A-List Hollywood film making in full pomp. On a Saturday night, there’s nothing better.
08. Superbad (Greg Mottola)
, besides one of the funniest movies in years, is the kind of creatively harmonious film that can rewrite a genre. And there aren’t many genres right now as tired as mass American comedy, in which the Frat Pack have long established that crass, fleeting gags that play shamelessly on the same social anxieties can pass as definitive. That sounds really pompous, but Superbad
’s sweet, sometimes painful sincerity highlights how probing and revealing a comedy can be, even one in which a character continually refers to a childhood fixation with drawing dicks. (Think of how that gag would have been handled in a Will Ferrell movie.) The film’s loose, improvisational style and introspective writing—no review went without mention that the movie’s two head characters share names with the team who wrote them—will hopefully precede a new tradition of mainstream American comedy with respect not only for the audience but for the characters.
09. Exiled (Johnny To)
If you'd read any reviews of Exiled
when it was released in late August, you most likely noticed comparisons to Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah for their classically beautiful and intensely violent depictions of outlaws with too many guns. If you then saw the film, such expectations were fulfilled, but hopefully you'd also have picked up on the delicious camaraderie between the five awkwardly allied killers who head the cast.
It's that mix of flashy violence and domestic humility that distinguishes this and many other To films from your garden-variety shoot-em-up. He even brings something of a feminist focus to the grand finale, where a couple of mostly innocent, beleaguered women mixed up with these mobsters gaze over the bodies strewn across the floor. Perhaps the most memorable image of the movie comes from a scene, very similar to one in 2004's Breaking News
, where amid the detritus of the gunfight that opens the film, gangsters and family sit down to a jointly prepared, home-cooked meal when everyone becomes nervously aware of a bullet-hole in the teapot, eventually bursting into laughter.
10. Inland Empire (David Lynch)
sees David Lynch playing with all the same material he’s been playing with at least since Blue Velvet
, and to a lesser extent before that, particularly his obsessive deconstruction and reconstruction of the startling resurrections and reassignments of identity in Hitchcock’s Vertigo
and Preminger’s Laura
. He reuses some familiar actors (particularly Laura Dern, but others as well), and even several specific images. But something is different now.
The first time watching the movie feels like a cruel endurance test, as we wait and wait for Lynch to wrap things up, if only in the non-traditional way he tends to do. We wait in vain. Even his most nonlinear previous movies are vastly more structured and accessible than this one. And yet there is much beauty here, beauty that reveals itself in greater depth upon a second viewing, where we know (better, at least) what to expect and can just let it happen.
Lynch fans often develop theories to explain his movies, to attempt to make sense of them, and while there is much to be said for this approach (and I take part in it myself), part of me finds it bizarre. Am I to believe that there is some underlying reality beyond what’s on the screen? Should I need the movie to “make sense,” when it so manifestly resists understanding? At some point in Inland Empire
, we give up sense and meaning whether we want to or not. There is freedom in this.
11. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Corneliu Porumboiu’s savvy first feature is a bleak political hangover comedy that surveys the aftermath of the Eastern European thaw of 1989—the one that Jesus Jones mega-single fatuously described as the world “waking up from history.” Neatly bisected, 12:08
first observes three doggedly unextraordinary men stirring in the blue December morning of a contemporary Romanian town. The 16th anniversary of Ceausescu’s toppling isn’t being visibly marked, certainly not by kids perpetually setting off firecrackers in apartment buildings or a guy trying to unload a used car with “chrome rims and heated seats.” The comparably static second half finds one of the three bleary knockabouts, a Heraclitus-quoting textile engineer turned threadbare TV host, engaging the other two in a stilted on-air discussion of whether the local mob rushed the square before or after the news from Bucharest. Challenging and profane audience phone calls and fidgety televised babble follow, with the drunken academic shamed as a wannabe rebel, and the paper-boat-folding retiree declaring “Everybody makes what revolution they can, each in their own way.” Porumboiu finds little residual effect in the defeat of Communism when his small-minded “journalist” tells a Chinese immigrant that the events of ’89 “aren’t your business.”
12. Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin)
Visual master and narrative novice Guy Maddin finally proves himself capable of sustaining a feature-length story. Not that the plot in itself is substantial—Young Guy and Sis live in a lighthouse; teen detectives Wendy and Chance (both played by Katherine E. Scharhon, who makes them eerily distinctive) show up to snoop on domineering Mother and furtive Father. Maddin presents his usual camped-up silent movie devices: exclamatory intertitles, seemingly aleatoric montage, and sweetest melodrama. But unlike, say, The Saddest Music in the World
is, well, sad. The story of love found and lost is told as a flashback of Grown-Up Guy, and thus (it’s implied none too subtly) by the director himself, with irony as wicked as in Joyce’s “Araby”. If you missed the shows featuring live performances from foley artists and a castrato, the version with a pre-recorded soundtrack may well be less distracting.
13. Knocked Up (Judd Apatow)
There’s something intangible about Seth Rogen that we haven’t seen in a comic in years. His face is that of a devious trickster, softened by a kind of chubby innocence that reminds us of John Belushi or a young Bill Murray. In his first starring role, Rogen lives up to the promise he showed as one of Steve Carrell’s sexual abettors in The 40-Year Old Virgin
, displaying both the comedic and dramatic chops necessary to pull off another one of Judd Apatow’s hilarious celebrations of male insecurity. Here, as Apatow shifts from sexual impotence to emotional impotence, the director is able to navigate more complex regions of the male psyche, surpassing even his best work (which is a huge endorsement itself). Rogen is there with him every step of the way, and it’s hard not to look at his character’s baptism by fire through paternal anxiety without thinking of Rogen’s own rite of passage as an actor. With Knocked Up
, Seth Rogen has officially arrived, and not a moment too soon for fans of smart, riotous comedy.
01. Eastern Promises
02. The Wind That Shakes the Barley
03. The Last Winter
04. A Mighty Heart
08. Into the Wild
09. Away From Her
02. Tell No One
04. Seraphim Falls
06. The Golden Door
07. The Lives of Others
08. The Walker
09. Rocky Balboa
10. The Fountain
02. Eastern Promises
03. The Host
04. Rescue Dawn
05. Away From Her
06. Knocked Up
07. Darjeeling Limited
10. King of Kong
01. The Host
02. Brand Upon the Brain
04. Syndromes and a Century
07. Tears of the Black Tiger
08. Music and Lyrics
09. No End in Sight
10. Ocean's 13
Nancy Keefe Rhodes
3.10 to Yuma
Away From Her
The Brave One
Into Great Silence
Into the Wild
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
01. Death Proof
02. The Host
05. Hot Fuzz
06. Inland Empire
08. Shoot 'em Up
10. 28 Weeks Later
02. The Boss of It All
03. 12:08 East of Bucharest
05. Eastern Promises
07. Syndromes and a Century
08. The Great World of Sound
10. Hannah Takes the Stairs
01.The Wind That Shakes the Barley
02. I'm Not There
03. Away from Her
04. The Simpsons Movie
07. 12:08 East of Bucharest
09. Brand Upon the Brain!
10. Summer ‘04