By Sam Watermeier
Although my colleague, Mitch Ringenberg and I compiled a list of the five best films of the year earlier this month, I’d like to present my own full Top 10 list as it represents a tradition withheld by all film critics.
I have yet to see some of the major contenders (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Wrestler,” “Revolutionary Road”). However, I didn’t have the patience to wait for those to come out before making my Top 10. So, without further ado…
With this biopic, Oliver Stone takes one of the most daring steps of this political fueled year: treating George W. Bush like a human being and seriously exploring his pressures and insecurities instead of solely satirizing his political follies, which is the more popular thing to do. “W.” works so well because it limits its scope to areas of Bush’s life that audiences can relate to and sympathize with: his estranged relationship with his father, his struggle in gaining respect from his peers, and the pressure he feels from both success and failure. In this sense, “W.” reminds me of “The Godfather” for that film also limited its scope to universally appealing themes (family, sacrifice, affliction) to allow audiences to sympathize with what are largely considered improbably sympathetic characters. I am by no means comparing the quality of “W.” to the quality of “The Godfather,” though. I admit that “W.” is far from perfect. Thandie Newton’s portrayal of Condoleezza Rice is silly and one-dimensional. Plus, some of the humor in the film does not work. “W.” is so effective as a straightforward drama and character study, though, that I was able to look past these flaws.
It would be morally remiss of me not to mention Josh Brolin’s excellent performance. As Bush, he creates a charismatic and tragic character. He brings a sad, pensive quality to the role making Bush seem like he is quietly judging himself at all times. This is one of those rare, immersive biographical portrayals that make you forget you are watching an actor.
I was strangely moved by this film. SPOILER ALERT: I have to mention the ending because it is the scene I found the most deeply affecting. Bush stands in an empty baseball stadium at night staring at the sky, dreaming of the life he never had and wondering what he did to deserve his present reality. More importantly, he is contemplating his place in the universe. That image has really stayed with me. It is one of those magical endings that send shivers up your spine. As corny as that sounds, it is true.
2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button- This is a film of amazing scope. It truly takes the viewer on a journey. It is also one of those rare spectacles that absorbs you so completely in the emotion of the story that you forget when you are watching CGI characters in CGI worlds. This movie is a refreshing change of direction for director David Fincher as it is his first truly tender film. It is also Brad Pitt’s most tender performance. Most importantly, this is an involving movie-going experience because it taps into desires and fears in life that everyone can relate to.
3. The Dark Knight- Since the comic books have gone through so many tonal evolutions, fans can’t decide whether they want Batman movies to be gothic and otherworldly or flashy and fun. Director Christopher Nolan solves this dilemma by bringing an authenticity to the material and placing the characters in a realistic setting to give “Batman” a wider appeal. He directs this film more in the vein of a gritty, credible crime drama like “Heat” or “Seven” than a typical comic book movie. The character portrayals are still accurate to the comics yet unlike other comic book films, their quirkiness does not interrupt the film’s verisimilitude. From Heath Ledger’s hauntingly sinister Joker to the brutally realistic violence, this film still shows that evil is real and the world is not a pretty picture.
4. Baghead- This is the most original film I’ve seen this year. It defies category in that it is not only a satire of independent filmmaking, but an effective horror film with awkwardly realistic violence, and a very funny comedy about desperate thirtysomethings. The dialogue is so natural that you feel like you are eavesdropping. The chemistry between the characters is natural as well and they genuinely seem like long-time friends.
5. The Reader- First and foremost, this is one of the most effective love stories I’ve seen in recent memory. It is very low-key and harshly realistic. The chemistry between Kate Winslet and David Kross feels completely genuine.
6. Standard Operating Procedure- This documentary raises many interesting and important questions about sensationalism and our perception of violence. Like with all his documentaries, Errol Morris also brings a great cinematic quality to this doc with his unique visual style. Most impressive is the way he makes Abu Ghraib prisoners look almost like aliens or strange creatures in reenactments to emphasize how inhumanly they were treated and how they were seen by the guards.
7. Milk- The most hopeful and inspiring movie of the year. Great performances across the board.
8. Religulous- This film is great because it allows you to essentially hang out with the hilarious Bill Maher for two hours. It provides insight on religion in a very funny and entertaining way. Maher’s passion on the topic really shines through.
9. Iron Man- Robert Downey, Jr. is so charismatic and witty as Tony Stark that you won’t mind if he doesn’t turn into Iron Man right away. This is one of those rare action films where the performances are more entertaining than the actual action scenes, which shows that style thankfully does not always triumph over substance when it comes to summer blockbusters.
10. In Bruges- The best, most thoughtful comedy of the year. I’ll leave it at that.
Honorable Mentions- Gonzo, Funny Games, WALL-E, Doubt, Man on Wire, Tropic Thunder, Redbelt, Choke, Cloverfield, Zack and Miri Make a Porno.