There really is no such thing as a “Best Movie of the Year,” especially this year. There have been some great pictures, of course; there’s just no way to compare them. (Which is part of what makes them great — they’re incomparable.) My top, oh, six, let’s say, in alphabetical order:
1. “Apocalypto”: Debuted at number one, then quickly slid down the box-office chart. Not a holiday movie, apparently. And the subtitles and absence of star actors didn’t help. Still, Mel Gibson’s action fantasia is a one-of-a-kind head-rush, and it’s beautiful to look at. A classic in the dictionary sense: “definitive in its field.” At the moment, a field of one.
2. “Dreamgirls”: For those who can’t stand musicals, a musical worth standing in line for. Has overnight sensation Jennifer Hudson, among several other things. Although just having Jennifer Hudson would be enough.
3. “The Fountain”: Darren Aronofsky’s third feature — a thousand-year love story that stretches from Renaissance Spain to the far reaches of outer space — is the most radiantly imaginative sci-fi film since “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Shows what wonders are possible after a director’s had his budget cut in half. Actually, shows what wonders are possible, period.
4. “Happy Feet”: George Miller’s first movie since the 1998 “Babe: Pig in the City” is a mo-cap take on “March of the Penguins,” and it’s irresistible. Also illuminates an important environmental issue — the over-fishing of the world’s oceans — without getting windy about it. (Al Gore resembles a penguin in some ways, but can he dance?)
5. “Little Miss Sunshine”: The little indie that could, and did. First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt provided a family of road-tripping neurotics rich in human detail; a dream-ensemble cast brought them to life; and a smart, slow roll-out allowed the film to build an audience through word of mouth, earning back its $8-million production budget, times 10, in just five months. The freshness of the film’s comic invention is intoxicating. The directors — music-vid vets Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — are first-timers, too; and little Abigail Breslin was only 9 years old when the movie was shot. (It’s her seventh film, but she’s clearly just getting started.) The picture would be all sparkle and heart — not necessarily a great thing — if it weren’t for Steve Carell’s glum gay lit scholar, Paul Dano’s furiously hostile teen brother and Alan Arkin’s crusty Grandpa, who corks the syrup every time he puts in an appearance.
6. “United 93″: What Oliver Stone failed to do with “World Trade Center” — give imaginative resonance to the awful events of 9/11 — British director Paul Greengrass accomplished unforgettably with this extraordinary film, made for less than a quarter of the budget Stone had to work with. United Airlines’ Flight 93 was the only one of the four aircraft hijacked by Islamic terrorists that day not to reach its intended target (in this case, Washington, D.C.). The passengers onboard rallied together to abort the mission, but no one knows exactly how. Greengrass, relying on extensive background interviews and panicked phone-call transcripts, arrived at what he considered “a plausible truth”; and to convey it, he used little-known actors (and many non-actors) and a tense, restless hand-held camera style. You don’t want what happens to happen, but it still does, and it breaks your heart all over again.
You see the problem here. Is “United 93″ a better movie than “Dreamgirls”? Must someone who prefers “Apocalypto” to “Happy Feet” necessarily have an anti-penguin agenda? There’s no point in setting these movies up against one another; they stand stubbornly on their own in any context. And determining “winners” in the other traditional best-of categories is a similarly pointless exercise, although I’m willing to play along. With some reservations.
Best Actor: Forest Whittaker, “The Last King of Scotland”
This seems like a clear-cut win to me: Whittaker’s built-in cuddliness makes his portrayal of Idi Amin, the murderously mercurial Ugandan dictator, extra-frightening — the actor makes you feel how dangerous this man could be. Also deserving of notice in this category is Michael Sheen, for his delectable turn as Tony Blair in “The Queen” (Sheen plays the British prime minister as an aggressively modern man who discovers, to his own surprise, that there are some traditions he’d rather not trash.) And Ray Winstone was memorable in “The Proposition,” playing a British lawman in the 19th century Australian Outback who’s tormented by an inarticulate longing for the civilized world he’s left behind. I also liked the year’s two dueling magic acts — Edward Norton in “The Illusionist,” and Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in “The Prestige” — and I think we must offer a nod to Hugo Weaving’s man-behind-the-mask performance in “V for Vendetta.” (He’s really good.)
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, “The Devil Wears Prada”
Helen Mirren’s marvelously flinty performance in “The Queen” would be a worthy winner in this category, as would 17-year-old Ellen Page’s ferocious portrayal of an angry teen pedophile-stalker in “Hard Candy.” But a small textbook could be written about Streep’s masterful underplaying of the boss-from-hell fashion editrix Miranda Priestly in “Prada.” Using the most minimal resources — a devastatingly arched brow, a chilly pursing of lips — she creates a character so blithely indifferent to everything outside of her tight little couture world that you can’t wait to see who she’ll needlessly humiliate next. Streep also manages to invest Miranda with heart and dignity, which couldn’t have been easy. The movie wastes a little too much time on a whatever-whatever love story involving Miranda’s new assistant (Anne Hathaway), but that limp plot element slinks away in shame every time Streep glides onto the screen.
Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy, “Dreamgirls”
After years spent squandering his brilliance in big-screen drivel like “Harlem Nights,” “Dr. Dolittle” and the abysmal “Adventures of Pluto Nash,” Murphy returns in triumph as James “Thunder” Early, a show-stopping R&B star of the 1960s whose fortunes are waning as his drug habit grows and grows. Murphy plays Early as a force-of-nature performer, which probably wasn’t a huge stretch, Murphy being a force of nature himself. But it’s nice to be reminded.
If Murphy weren’t in contention, Mark Wahlberg would be a top pick in this category for his hard-boiled Boston detective in “The Departed.” Also in the running would be Adam Beach (“Flags of Our Fathers”), Michael Peña (“World Trade Center”), Steve Carell (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and — especially — Stanley Tucci (for his flamboyant fashionisto in “The Devil Wears Prada”).
Best Supporting Actress: Emily Blunt, “The Devil Wears Prada”
Standing out in a movie that’s pretty much owned by Meryl Streep at her most inspired isn’t easy, but this 23-year-old Londoner bites into her every scene with a delightfully frazzled élan, and she runs away with most of them. She’s so good you almost want to see her character — a fashion-crazed office slave — spun off into a franchise. No doubt she has much bigger things in mind, though.
Runners-up here would be Rinko Kikuchi (for her fearless performance in “Babel”), the quietly superb Toni Collette (for two very different performances, in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Night Listener”), Diane Lane (as the aging wife in “Hollywoodland”), Sandra Bullock (excellent once again in that second Capote biopic, “Infamous”) and Juliette Binoche (effortlessly affecting in “Breaking and Entering”).
Best Director: Darren Aronofsky, “The Fountain”
It was a year of directors with very personal visions, and if I weren’t going with Aronofsky, I’d pick Mel Gibson, for “Apocalypto.” Paul Greengrass made dread almost tangible in “United 93.” And Stephen Freers (with invaluable help from Helen Mirren and writer Peter Morgan) managed to make the dowdiest of reigning monarchs a mesmerizing presence in “The Queen.”
In a category all his own (and not for the first time) is Clint Eastwood, whose companion-piece World War II movies, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” are emblems of this director’s artistic independence and commitment. They’re very different pictures. I preferred “Letters,” if only for the serenely commanding performance of Ken Watanabe, as the Japanese general who knows he and his men will die on Iwo, but who doesn’t even contemplate not doing his duty. For all that’s admirable about both pictures, though, their wan, color-starved imagery wore me down. A minority opinion.
Best Documentary: “The Bridge”
First-time director Eric Steel’s one-year chronicle of desperate people leaping to their deaths from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge has an eerie, disturbing power. This carefully structured movie is only an hour and a half long, but its darkness lingers after the lights come up.
Runners-up: “Deliver Us From Evil,” “Jesus Camp” and “Cocaine Cowboys.”
Best Score: “The Fountain,” Clint Mansell
This soundtrack stands on its own as a gorgeous blend of lush strings and stately electronics. The music is impeccably rendered by the Kronos Quartet and the trippy Glaswegians of Mogwai, and it even has hooks — which makes sense: Mansell was once a member of the Brit band Pop Will Eat Itself.
I could just as easily go with the “Little Miss Sunshine” soundtrack, a warm bath of gentle, melancholy melodies, courtesy of the Denver group DeVotchKa. (May their fanbase increase.) Also fine are the Philip Glass score for “The Illusionist” and the wonderful Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack for “Babel.”
And, finally, a few categories that just cried out to be created:
Breakthrough Performance: Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls”
Because she’s an instant star, and deserves a slot all her own.
Best Horror Flick: “Hostel”
“Silent Hill” was creepy but incoherent (big surprise: it’s based on a video game). “Night Watch” was a nice try, but it did lumber on. And “The Omen” and “The Hills Have Eyes” were unnecessary remakes. Which leaves Eli Roth’s exercise in stylish torture exotica — a pretty unsettling experience. Will there be a Part Two? Coming right up.
Best Foreign Language Fantasy Film: “Pan’s Labyrinth”
Okay, there’s no competition, and the qualification is probably unfair. But I still go back and forth on whether the two worlds of Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tale really work together, and I don’t think it’s as rapturously seductive as “The Fountain.” But Ivana Baquero, as the preteen heroine, and Sergi López, as the nasty stepfather, are top-notch. And there’s no denying the director’s bold imagery. Possibly some new kind of classic.
Best Mad Mayan High Priest: Fernando Hernández Pérez
In “Apocalypto” and “The Fountain.” Jobs may be sparse from here on out, but in his small, savage domain, the man’s a master.
Best Whatchamacallit: “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”
Can filmed comedy material be a real movie if it doesn’t have a script — if it’s just a riot of strange behavior? As long as it’s funny, I guess. And there are parts of this picture that are funnier than anything else seen onscreen last year. I found the sucker-punching manipulation of some of the setups kind of contemptible, but I’m probably a minority of one on that count. Sacha Baron Cohen is a true star in any case.
Most Over-Hyped Movies
» “Babel”: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett really are good in this — but not Oscar-good, come on. And the rest of the movie wanders. And it’s too long (142 minutes).
» “The Departed”: Will Martin Scorsese finally win an Academy Award for his least-genius mob film? The rodent at the end should be an automatic disqualifier — that, and Jack Nicholson’s astoundingly self-indulgent performance. Also too long (151 minutes).
» “World Trade Center”: A listless dud — who wants to see Oliver Stone play it safe? Not too long, technically (129 minutes), but it feels that way.
What Were They Thinking?
» “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” (Steven Shainberg)
» “The Science of Sleep” (Michel Gondry)
» “Lady in the Water” (M. Night Shyamalan)
» “A Scanner Darkly” (Richard Linklater — enough with the rotoscoping!)
» “The Lake House” (Alejandro Agresti — no more Keanu-and-Sandy reunions, please.)
» “Snakes on a Plane” (David R. Ellis — we know what he was thinking, but he was wrong.)
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