Into the Wild represented a directorial breakthrough for Sean Penn, who was working with extremely difficult material: Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction account of a free spirit whose disdain for compromised society led him to the pitiless wilderness of Alaska. Penn’s movies have been heavy affairs in the past, but this haunting, humane elegy for American idealism simply soars.
Oddball independent filmmaking brothers Michael and Mark Polish take on a mainstream project – about a Texas farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) who builds a rocket in his barn – and deliver a lovely fable that deserves to become a family classic. If you took your kids to see Alvin and the Chipmunks, rent this as penance.
Zombies have no place on top-ten lists, right? Wrong. This sequel, in which the U.S. military occupies England in an attempt to rid the island of undead insurgents, is not only terrifically scary – it also works as the best Iraq war movie of the year.
The abortion issue snuck into a handful of significant films this year – Knocked Up, Bella, Juno – yet this stark Romanian import tackled it head on. As it traces, with grim realism, a college student’s attempt to obtain an illegal abortion in communist Romania, the movie becomes a harrowing chronicle of the banal details of desperation.
Far lighter than 4 Months, yet far more serious than it initially seems. Screenwriter Diablo Cody’s triumph is not her knack for nailing the too-cool attitude of the knocked-up 16-year-old of the title (a dazzling Ellen Page), but rather in the way she expertly traces the girl’s maturation beyond that teen phase. This one wrung the year’s most honest tears.
Twentysomething indie actress Sarah Polley made an astoundingly accomplished writing-directing debut with this adaptation of an Alice Munro short story about a long-married couple (Julie Christie and Gordon Pinset) dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. It sounds like a drag, and there are certainly wrenching moments, but Polley’s sure hand turned what could have been a well-meaning drama about aging into a shattering romance.
Pixar’s most grown-up film, which is saying something. As writer-director Brad Bird follows a Parisian rat who loves to cook, he turns this ostensible kiddie movie into an ode to creativity, an ode to pushing boundaries – an ode, really, to the things Pixar does best. The picture’s biggest accomplishment? Computer animation that will make your mouth water.
Drain Joel and Ethan Coen of their senses of humor and you have the perfect interpreters of Cormac McCarthy’s spare, merciless novel. Javier Bardem is the chilly psycho killer in this contemporary Western, but Tommy Lee Jones, as a sheriff wistful for the days of black and white hats, is the reason the movie lingers.
I initially found this to be the least impressive of Wes Anderson’s efforts, yet the further I get from it the more it seems to offer. A trio of bickering American brothers (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody) stereotypically seek epiphany in India, and despite themselves they find it. Darjeeling is the film on this list I’m most eager to visit again.
Not just because they didn’t botch it, but because this is a delirious, definitive portrait of suburban American life at the turn of the 21st century. Who knew time-capsule material could be so hilarious?