Lots of great movies this year. As usual, I tried over the last frantic week to watch all the stuff that came out right at the end of the year, but it turned out that most of the really good ones weren't the 12/26-release-in-NY-and-LA-only Oscars fodder.
So here's my list:
Happy-Go-Lucky. The sunshiny, effervescent Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins, gets dropped in the middle of your typical Mike Leigh movie, shocking everyone who was used to the usual misanthropes, miserable teens, and misguided abortionists from his other movies. Her series of driving lessons with the World's Worst Driving Instructor, Eddie Marsan, shows Poppy is not a mindless dingbat wandering through life with rose-tinted blinders, but an insightful person who understands what people are really like and chooses to bring kindness and positivity to everyone she meets. This movie kind of changed the way I think about everything and was my favorite of the year. Also I could have watched an entire movie about Poppy and her friends sitting around bullshitting after their girls' night out.
Rachel Getting Married. Like Happy-Go-Lucky, Rachel Getting Married felt so natural that watching the group and party scenes felt like being at a real family's house. An insane family that might be exhausting to be around sometimes, but a believable one. Anne Hathaway was great in a totally unflattering role, playing a girl I could empathize with even though I didn't like her, and the supporting cast is the best ensemble of the year. Stephen Holden has a good dissection of the awkward rehearsal dinner speech that Kym makes while everyone cringes. I can't wait for Rosemarie DeWitt to become a big star.
The Wrestler. A moving and emotional movie about Mickey Rourke/Randy "The Ram" finding his way in a world that's moved on without him, and getting his pecs shot with a staple gun. I really cared about this guy, probably more than any other character this year. The writing was a little rocky sometimes, but Mickey Rourke made it better than it actually was. Can't wait to see him in 13!
The Edge of Heaven. Turks in Germany and Germans in Turkey--the latest movie from Fatih Akin, who also made the excellent Head-On. This movie is about the complicated and seemingly fated intersections of three families. Love, crime, death, politics--all heavy stuff, but it unrolls so easily that it never feels contrived or tragic.
Let the Right One In. The life of a lonely Swedish tween and his vampire almost-girlfriend. I especially liked the sweet, tentative, sort of creepy early scenes between the boy and girl as they figure out how to relate to each other ("Will you be my girlfriend?" "Oskar, I'm not a girl.") and the scenes that matter-of-factly reveal the gruesome realities of maintaining a supply of fresh blood. Both of the kids were first-time actors in this movie--incredible.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days. AKA The Romanian abortion movie. Watching this movie from the safe distance of my American living room in 2008, I was still filled with a sense of powerless dread. It was so tense and deliberately paced that it felt like it was playing out in real time. Anamaria Marinca is especially good as the main character Otilia, a helpful friend who, as Roger Ebert says, does everything but have the abortion herself. (She's going to star in Julie Delpy's next movie, so that's good news.) I especially like the nightmare of a family party scene that breaks up the main action, and gives Otilia the opportunity to lay into her clueless boyfriend for all the injustices that women face when they risk unwanted pregnancy. I loved this movie and never want to watch it again.
Paranoid Park. Gus Van Sant's dreamy story about a skater boy in Portland trying to cope with the confusion of teenage life and the fallout of a bad accident. This one is more about style than the story--all hazy, indistinct camera work and a disjointed structure that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Synecdoche, NY. I think it's best to just let this movie wash over you and not try to figure out what's happening every single minute. Here's what I got: a man spends his whole life trying to capture or recreate his life in a play, then it turns out that the play actually is his life. But it seems like the only time he finds any happiness is when he's living his life, not turning it into the play. Anyway, you know how amazing the supporting cast is? Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh. My favorite scenes were the ones with the notes between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as his ex-wife Adele (didn't she also play an Adele in Out of Sight?) who thinks he's her maid. It didn't quite resonate with me like Eternal Sunshine did, but it's still a good one.
Waltz With Bashir. Israeli men think back to their experiences as soldiers in the Lebanon War in 1982, as one of them tries to recall the memories he's blocked out. I just saw this last night and at first I didn't like it much. Sure, the animation of real-life interviews is cool, the music is really good, and I liked the repetition of key scenes as the characters try to make sense of their role in the war. But the ending about the reality of the massacre of thousands of Palestinian refugees made the earlier musings of some ex-soldiers seem insignificant in comparison. Then I realized that, as they say in Synecdoche, NY, we're all the leads in our own stories. And I listened to the Studio 360 interview with filmmaker and main character Ari Folman, where he says it's an anti-war movie and his decision about the ending was an ideological decision, not an artistic one. So when I thought about it that way, I liked it. Plus, playing "Enola Gay" by OMD as the soldiers are sailing into Beirut was pure morbid genius [movie clip].
Wall-E and Man on Wire. If this is going to be a Top 10 list, then these are tied. Both movies transcend their genres (Pixar family movie and historical documentary) and made their seemingly mundane subject material way more engaging and meaningful than I expected. I definitely didn't think these would be the movies that made me get a little teary, but they were.
There are a few other movies this year that I haven't seen yet or just missed at the theater that I really wish I had seen. A Christmas Tale looks great, but that 2-1/2 hour running time put me off. Frozen River looks so good I was tempted to just put it on my list even though I'm not going to see it until later this week when MoMA is showing it again; same deal with My Winnipeg, by Guy Maddin, a director I just found out about recently but like a lot. MoMA screening schedule is here.
Other movies I liked: The Reader. Kate Winslet is really great in this, and I love its examination of the worst generation gap in the history of the world: German kids born post-WWII who grew up realizing their parents were Nazis. But those fake German accents that everyone uses bugged me.
Role Models, maybe the funniest movie of the year. Also Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, all good.
Milk was just about perfect as a by-the-book biopic about a charismatic and inspiring figure, but it was completely conventional, and I wanted more. Doubt was great (go Viola Davis!), but sort of blows it at the end, and Hamlet 2 was like an out of control genius that doesn't quite hit it every time, but when it does, look out.
Worst movies: Religulous, which was a good effort ruined by Bill Maher's irritating demeanor and glaring favoritism of Jews and Catholics; and The Spirit, which I accidentally ended up watching the third time I attempted to see Slumdog Millionaire.
Here's the 2007 list.