#1. Michael ClaytonThe title figure, wonderfully played by George Clooney, is the chief fixer for a white shoe law firm — the go-to guy when its powerful clients’ divorces or tax returns get messy. This time he’s dealing with the meltdown of the firm’s chief litigator, determined to cross over from the dark side (a vast American corporation, one of whose products is killing its users) to the light (class action plaintiffs). It’s a morally alert, persuasively realistic and increasingly suspenseful melodrama, impeccably acted and handsomely staged by Tony Gilroy.#2. No Country for Old Men(listed in the previous Top 10 Movies by Richard Corliss)
#3. Before the Devil Knows You’re DeadIt’s the year of Philip Seymour Hoffman — three great and wildly disparate performances in the widest imaginable variety of contexts (see #7). In Sidney Lumet’s darkly comic film he plans the heist of his own Mom and Pop’s jewelry store, which turns out not to be quite the masterstroke he had in mind. At one level the movie is a wonderfully intricate exploration of family dysfunction. At another, it’s a coolly controlled examination of increasingly insane criminal ineptitude. Either way you look at, this is a hypnotizing film from one of our great masters.
#4. After the Wedding In Susan Bier’s dark, richly mounted film an idealist, running an orphanage in India, is invited to return to his native Denmark where a rich businessman is offering him the funding he needs to rescue his impoverished institution. He is, however, obliged to attend the wedding of his benefactor’s stepdaughter — at which point the movie turns into something like a multilayered 19th century novel, full of unsuspected coincidences and connections, unfinished emotional business, dark rages and even darker reflections on mortality. It may be old-fashioned stylistically, and rather manipulative in its plotting, but there is something deeply satisfying in the way it works out the fates of its troubled, yet believable characters.
#5. Black BookPaul Verhoeven is in full melodramatic cry in this dark, morally ambivalent story of the anti-Nazi underground in World War II in his native Holland. Most of the critics reviewed the director’s reputation (for sexy trash like Basic Instinct and Showgirls) instead of the more sober intentions of this movie, which was to highlight the dark underside of heroisim. The man cannot help himself — he’s a great, sexually charged-up action director, and the picture plays like gangbusters — but he also wants to penetrate the myths that have accreted around the wartime underground and in this he is astonishingly successful.
#6. Breach Robert Hanssen was arguably the greatest mole in CIA history, a guy who burrowed his way into its most secret files and sold their contents to the Soviet Union for over a decade before he was caught. He’s brilliantly played by Chris Cooper in Billy Ray’s trim and nicely understated film as a brilliant, angry wing-nut, at once a devout religious fanatic, a porn user-creator and a fuming, but neatly-pressed, bureaucrat. If you set aside the fact that this man cost the lives of many American agents in the USSR, his might have been a Dilbert-like tale of the agony in a bureaucrat’s cubicle and this movie makes us well aware of that deadly irony. You don’t emerge from Breach “liking” Hanssen, but you do come to understand him: He’s the troublemaker in every office, the big talent who deserved the corner office, and will have his revenge for being sidetracked.
#7. The SavagesRavaged by dementia, Dad must be institutionalized. His adult children, obscurely damaged (largely by him, we are led to believe), must see to his needs. It’s not a job either of them is up for. He (Philip Seymour Hoffman again) is an emotionally withdrawn college professor. She (Laura Linney) is an unproduced playwright pretending — all right, lying about — her needs and her achievements. These actors are unimprovable as, somehow, they find a certain decency under the pressure of their grinding familial chore, a reason to hope that slightly better days may be ahead for them once their duty has been done. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins is less interested in heroically inspiring us than she is in showing us the values to be found in the more modest forms of dutifulness.
#8. In the Valley of Elah
(listed in the previous Top 10 Movies by Richard Corliss)
#9. There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, loosely based on an old Upton Sinclair novel, which was, in turn, loosely based on the life of Edwin Doheney, who made a vast and not entirely honorable fortune wildcatting for oil, is a slow-rolling American epic. At once a celebration of and an assault on unfettered enterprise and, curiously enough, a no-holds-barred attack on religious fundamentalism, it is unquestionably the oddest movie of the year. Yet thanks mainly to a truly astonishing performance by Daniel Day Lewis — cannily reserved for most of the picture, toweringly rageful at its conclusion — it is also a mesmerizing meditation on the American spirit in all its maddening ambiguities: mean and noble, angry and secretive, hypocritical and more than a little insane in its aspirations.
#10. Dan in Real LifeEvery list of this kind requires a sweet, yet tangy dessert, and director Peter Hedges’ movie is just the thing to cleanse your palate. The wonderful Steve Carell plays the eponymous hero, a man burdened by rue, who finds a restorative love (the divine Juliette Binoche) at a family holiday gathering somewhere on the picturesque New England coast. She is believably forbidden to him. But with a little help from his relatives — by current movie standards an uncommonly witty and well-spoken crowd — Dan amusingly arrives at a happy, but not Hollywoodish, ending to his romantic yearnings without once violating the perfect comic-romantic pitch of the movie. As anyone who has spent much time at the movies this year, all right, any recent year, this is not a matter easily or routinely achieved. Two cheers, at least, for a movie that plays well and easily within itself.