#1. No Country for Old Men The good guy (Josh Brolin) steals $2 million in drug money. The implacably, mesmerizingly, astonishingly bad guy (Javier Bardem) tries to get it back. And a West Texas sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) tracks their discursive trails. Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Joel and Ethan Coen have fashioned a nearly mainstream action movie that is dry, funny, beautifully acted, thrillingly cinematic. After two decades of being brilliant on the movie margins, the Coens are ready for their closeup, and maybe their Oscar.#2. The Lives of OthersIn a Communist dictatorship, the government spies on its own citizens. An East German official (the late, great Ulrich Mü) is assigned to bug the home of some theater people and in the process gets a dose of conscience. In February, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s poignant, unsettling thriller won an Oscar as the Motion Picture Academy’s Best Foreign Language Film. Now it’s my favorite foreign language film too.
#3. Killer of Sheep Completed in 1977 and virtually unseen since, Charles Burnett’s poetic document of family life in a Los Angeles ghetto finally got a decent release, and is now out on DVD. In sympathetic, unsentimental vignettes, we meet a slaughterhouse worker (Henry Gayle Sanders), his wife (Kaycee Jones) and two kids. As the children play games in the post-apocalyptic rubble of Watts, the man’s emotional exhaustion abrades against the woman’s sexual yearning. This is surely the finest, most uncompromising film by a black director. More than that, it’s an aching testament to the persistence of dreams amid desolation.
#4. AtonementPoaching in Merchant-Ivory territory, director Joe Wright did right by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice two years ago. He reunites with leading lady Keira Knightley in this Ian McEwan story about the naive perniciousness of youth. Saoirse Ronan is terrific as the confused 12-year-old, and as the tale twists over the decades, the mood shifts from beguiling to devastating.
#5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Adapting the 1979 musical about a barber driven mad by lost love and revenge, Tim Burton finds a pulsing, mournful heart inside Stephen Sondheim’s cold-steel lyrics — and then he rips it out. He applies the desaturated color scheme of Sleepy Hollow to the streets of 18th century London, where virtually everyone’s motives are venal and verminous. Cheers to Johnny Depp, who incarnates this Edward Razorhands with a dark, post-mortem passion. Depp’s a powerful singer, too.
#6. PersepolisMarjane Satrapi grew up in Iran, first under the Shah, then in the more repressive shadow of the Ayatollah. She moved to Paris and sketched her early life into a graphic-novel memoir. Now, with co-director Vincent Paronnaud (known in comics circles as Winshluss), Satrapi has created something unusual: an autobiographical animated feature. The visual style is simple, almost monochromatic. But Persepolis is a legitimate descendant of the Disney classics: a coming-of-age tale, that manages to be both harrowing and exuberant.
#7. No End in Sight In a strong year for political docs, Charles Ferguson’s study of the Iraq morass stands out for its comprehensive take on how we got there, why we can’t get out. Stubbornness is one reason, lack of intellectual curiosity another. As one ex-Bush official notes, when the President was presented with an analysis of the Iraq occupation, he didn’t even read the one-page summary. So Dubya probably won’t see this movie. Everyone else should, though. It’s the perfect stocking-stuffer for holiday enlightenment.
#8. In the Valley of ElahA soldier back from Iraq is found dead, his body hacked to pieces. His father (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to know what happens, and enlists the help of a smart police detective (Charlize Theron). Paul Haggis’ drama, based on a true case, is a big improvement on his Oscar-winning Crash: strong in the sleuthing, sobering in its political conclusions. Jones’ dogged, drained humanity anchors this excellent drama about the war brought home — a potent requiem for our best intentions.
#9. Waitress Nothing makes a critic feel worse than the emotional badgering of self-styled “feel-good” comedies. But this one I found pretty darned lovable. Keri Russell is the pregnant piemaker who is abused by her husband and attracted to her McDreamy OB-GYN. Writer-director Adrienne Shelly (who was randomly murdered before the film’s release) mixes the comic and social ingredients to make a film that’s bumptious, scrumptious fun.
#10. BeowulfRobert Zemeckis’ version of the old saga announces the instant maturity of motion-capture animation (where actors perform their scenes and computer whizzes basically paint over them). Writers Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman have given the story a weird twist about halfbreed offspring and the need to kill them, but the film is still zesty, sexy fun. P.S.: While Beowulf is still in theaters, see it in the IMAX format. It’s 3-Delirious.