Top Ten 2017

In order to accommodate the films I liked, I’ve cleverly divided them into three categories: domestic, foreign and documentary. The bigger issue was weighing movies I enjoyed against movies I admired. For once, my choices and the taste of the award-givers weren’t far apart.
1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Every line of Martin McDonagh’s dialogue is fraught and measured, delivered to perfection by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and an equally adept supporting cast. Like a good Coen Bros. movie it is funny and serious, real and surreal, all at once.
2. LadyBird
The oft-told story of a misfit high school senior is lovingly and sensitively told and portrayed, respectively, by Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan.
3. Detroit
You are there in the 1967 race riot, then in the motel as white policemen terrorize their black suspects. Kathryn Bigelow’s meditation on race (one of three, or maybe five, on this list) is not easy to watch, but masterfully made.
4. Get Out
The racially charged setup – white girl bringing black boyfriend home for the weekend – adds a bit of misdirection to a totally fun horror movie with a wonderful ending.
5. Mudbound
Remarkably balanced parallel stories of a white family and a black family, coping, struggling in 1940s Mississippi. Another hard-to-watch reminder that for many, life is hard, often unfair and a matter of endurance.
6. Wind River
The Indian reservation is topographically, economically and psychologically bleak, but in the snowy depth of winter bleak is beautiful – the most visually stunning movie of the year.
7. The Shape of Water
Masterfully directed by Guillermo del Toro, this fantasy set in 1950s America seemed as real and alive as it was charming.
8. The Post
Spielberg takes no chances and it’s reassuring to see the good guys win; but this is no Spotlight or All the President’s Men.
9. The Big Sick
Every year deserves a feel-good romantic comedy, and the Pakistani connection spiced up this pleasant but predictable confection.
10. Battle of the Sexes
A funny and teary, thoroughly enjoyable battle in which almost everyone is a winner, and love in tennis is not a bad thing.
Documentaries
Of the 15 documentaries listed for Academy consideration, I saw five, none of which made the final short list. I can understand the exclusion of four of them, but not the following, which was my highest-rated movie of the year:
Jane
What was best: the modest and beautiful Jane Goodall, the endlessly fascinating chimps, the story of the amateur woman being accepted and feted by the scientific community, or the quiet love affair between the ethologist and the photographer? All of them were here, beautifully photographed and cleverly edited.
Foreign Film
This is admittedly a hodgepodge of movies that were released in 2016, or were seen at film festivals, or might not have made the Top Ten but deserve mentioning:
The Salesman
Julieta
The Distinguished Citizen
Darkest Hour
Their Finest

Top Ten – 2016

By my rating standards, 2016 was the worst year yet for new movie releases. Perhaps as a reflection, dinner party discussion tended more toward what TV series are you watching/have you seen, than what’s your favorite movie of the moment. While there were movies I admired, there was only one – Hell or High Water – that I felt I could unequivocally recommend to anyone who asked, and that paled in comparison to top movies of yesteryear, specifically No Country for Old Men. Nevertheless, if for no other reason than to reveal my taste and proclivities, I feel compelled to  designate a Top Ten, subject to amendment as other 2016 releases get shown in Santa Barbara.

1. Eye in the Sky. This film about a drone strike in the Mideast gave me more to think and write about than any other and courageously tackled a controversial matter of foreign policy. (Kudos, also, to the similarly overlooked Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

2. Hell or High Water. Not rated high upon viewing because of its derivative nature, but it was charming and accomplished everything it set out to. I still get thirsty thinking about its West Texas setting and enjoy any time I spend with Jeff Bridges.

3. Elle. A taut, if kinky, thriller, in which all the pieces fit together and warrant a second thought, if not psychoanalysis.

4. Sully. Corny, in a Tom Hanks way, but heartwarming to watch regular people saving lives by doing their jobs. (More credible, by far, than the also heartwarming Deepwater Horizon.)

5. Manchester by the Sea. I could smell the New England air and feel the palpable heartbreak of the Casey Affleck character. I like “real.”

6. Fences. A dramatic tour de force that barely made it off the stage, but its power builds to a final knockout.

7. Little Men. Real people grappling with a real situation, parents on one page, kids on another. (Maggie’s Plan deserves mention here, too.)

8. Cafe Society. This was my favorite love story, with my favorite actress, Kristen Stewart, and lots of good costumes. (Hail, Caesar was also better than the similarly set, similarly plotted La La Land.)

9. Love and Friendship. Can’t go far wrong with Jane Austen and Kate Beckinsale – may there always be an England!

10. Loving. Realistic and de-dramatized, the movie spoke of hope despite our hopeless times.

Outside the main studio releases, I found much satisfaction in three other movie categories this year:

Documentaries

1. Vegas Baby (f/k/a Haveababy). I rated this as high as any of the ten above, and it was the only film that made me cry (twice).

2. Weiner. For sheer audacity, and subsequent relevance, this couldn’t be beat.

Revivals

1. Elevator to the GallowsSo French, so 1958, so Jeanne Moreau, so noir.

2. Niagara. Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten in Henry Hathaway’s 1953 take on Alfred Hitchcock.

Festival Films

1. The Unknown Girl. A psychological thriller from the Dardennes brothers.

2. VivaA drag queen, or princess, in Cuba, against all odds.

Oscar Choices (limited to actual Oscar nominees)

Best Picture: Hell or High Water

Best Actor: Casey Affleck

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert

Featured Actor: Mahershala Ali

Featured Actress: Viola Davis

 

Top Ten 2015

My Top Ten this year is a bit of a cop-out, although not without precedent among major film critics: with no clear standout movie I will list my favorites in alphabetical order. Spotlight was the closest to a flawless movie, but it didn’t have the emotional power of Brooklyn, which was almost indistinguishable from Carol as the sensitive portrait of a young woman discovering herself. Phoenix was the best foreign film, edging out Number One Fan, but not as good as Barbara, the director’s previous effort. Straight Outta Compton captured a music scene new to me in documentary fashion, but so did Amy, which was an actual documentary. Timbuktu and Theeb were equally powerful and enlightening depictions of Muslim and Arab cultures. While I’m comparing apples and oranges, I can add Tangerine, also satisfying my diversity goals. I may be overrating Trumbo and The End of the Tour compared to other critics, but both caught me at a good time and, if the list is sufficiently flexible, are worth honoring. So, again, here’s the list:

Amy. I went in knowing nothing about Amy Winehouse or her music and departed with a sad appreciation of both. This documentary was so intrusive it made the viewer feel complicit.

 Brooklyn, the season’s softest, sweetest film with an award-worthy performance by Saoirse Ronan, a beautiful script by Nick Hornby out of Colm Toibin and impeccable supporting actors. The feel-good film of the year.

Carol was another novel-based film with built-in depth that constantly churned under the glossy surface of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s silky performances. It was also the best (American) period piece of the year.

The End of the Tour taught me everything I sort of wanted to know about David Foster Wallace in the form of an ego struggle between a writer and a reporter, skillfully portrayed by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.

Number One Fan (Elle L’Adore) restored my faith in French cinema, as everyday-but-slightly-loopy people with everyday problems get caught in a murder investigation, a cleverly delightful detective thriller.

Phoenix was the movie we all talked about and, perhaps, wanted to see again. It required a leap of faith that left some behind, but as a psychological mystery it was the year’s most intense cinema.

Spotlight was not quite All the President’s Men but it was the next best thing, a rare “true story” that played out as drama. I loved its depictions of journalism, Boston and the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, with telling end credits the coup de grace.

Straight Outta Compton. For joyous musical fun, this was the year’s best treat, although Love And Mercy was not far behind. The story was full of cliché, but Gangsta Rap was enough original to carry the day.

Tangerine was raw, gritty and thoroughly engaging, a view of LA I never want to see, populated by characters I’d just as soon avoid, as well; but the whole thing was oozing with enough energy and humanity to fascinate.

Theeb was a plain story, told with the sparseness of the desert it inhabited, a pared-down spaghetti Western or Lawrence of Arabia. It had a perfect young male lead, it captured the Arab character and it brought back memories.

Timbuktu had more story, more characters and more beautiful scenery than Theeb, but they both put you in a world we so little understand, from Mali here to Jordan there. For haunting images, this film led the way.

Trumbo was Hollywood history – always a lark – and knowing the outcome didn’t diminish my pleasure in getting there. Trumbo pinballed against a dozen similarly vibrant characters; he didn’t change, but each interaction had its fascination.

 

Individual Awards, with Oscar nominees in bold, my other choices in regular:

Best Actor: Bryan Cranston, Paul Dano (Love and Mercy)

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss (Phoenix), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck)

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance

Best Supporting Actress: Rachel McAdams, Rooney Mara, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mickey O’Hagan (Tangerine)

Notes: Obviously, the women stood out for me more than the men. I chose Stallone over Rylance only because Stallone was such a surprise and Rylance could have performed his role in his sleep. I don’t know why Blanchett is considered the lead while Mara, who has more screen time, is supporting (the film’s title, maybe?), but both are equally deserving, as are Segel and Eisenberg in End of the Tour, which hurt my selection of either. There really isn’t a strong male lead in any of my Top Ten – hence the choice of Cranston, who hogs the screen without being off-putting.

Top Ten 2014

Four of my ten highest-rated movies in 2014 were actually 2013 releases. This has caused me to add a PS to my last year’s Top Ten (see below) and acknowledge what a bad year 2014 was for movies. There is a chance that there will be 2014 releases still to come my way that will improve the list – A Most Violent Year and Two Days, One Night come to mind – but I suspect that this year will go down as one of the weaker in history. The fact that 7 of my 10 are Oscar nominees reflects a lack of depth: I don’t think I’ve ever been so short of idiosyncratic choices. So, with apologies for being so unoriginal, here is my list:

1. Boyhood – Far and away the best movie “experience” of the year as well as the most innovative moviemaking. It was more real than reality TV, with situations that everyone could identify with. The plot was life itself, only with better actors.
2. Selma – An important story, skillfully told. Perhaps the best thing is that the movie didn’t try to do too much. It left me curious, and hungry for more.
3. A Most Wanted Man – Just as Selma was filmed in brown, this was filmed in gray, a bleak, smoke-filled tone that encapsulated the spirit of this Cold War spy thriller, a worthy ending to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s great career.
4. The Imitation Game – Two stories on parallel tracks probably shortchanged each other, but both had impact and both came with delightful period attire and a great cast.
5. American Sniper – I read this as a strong, if subtle, anti-Iraq War statement, but more to the point a probing character study of what it takes to be a soldier, or what being a soldier takes from you.
6. Ida – Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography matched the purity of nun Ida’s faith and reminded me of Eastern European New Wave cinema of the ’60s.
7. Grand Budapest Hotel – The cleverest film of the year, from our most idiosyncratic director, held together by Ralph Fiennes and the spirit of a Charlie Chaplin silent movie.
8. The Theory of Everything – Two of the year’s best performances made this a story about a relationship, more than “a crippling disease and super-difficult math,” although that did add a dimension of importance.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy – Maybe nothing original here, but every scene was rollicking fun and nobody took themselves too seriously (cf. Interstellar).
10. The Drop – The year’s best straight action film, with a good story, gritty setting, unusual lead character adroitly played by Tom Hardy and the usual fine work from, RIP, James Gandolfini.
Acting Awards: Without seeing Julianne Moore or Marion Cotillard, my nod goes to Patricia Arquette, who gave life to Boyhood. She is Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress instead (for which she’s a shoo-in). I have seen all the Actor nominees, and while Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper are totally deserving, I vote for Eddie Redmayne, who acted with his eyes when his body couldn’t move anymore. In addition, I liked the score of The Imitation Game, and I thought The Homesman was the most beautiful movie I saw, although it’s not nominated for anything.

Top Ten 2013 – Part II
1. Big Bad Wolves – Quentin Tarantino couldn’t’ve done it any better.
2. Omar – The agony of Palestine, personified.
3. Nebraska – Bruce Dern and June Squibb are wonderful, but it’s Will Forte’s son that caught my attention.
4. August Osage County – As good as the stage play, which is unusual, thanks to Streep and Roberts.
5. The Wind Rises – An animated look at the engineer who designed Japan’s WWII airplanes, sheer artistry.
6. The Past – Ambiguity, in people and relationships, kept us guessing, and thinking.

Top Ten – 2013

At one point, I thought I would use this year’s list to highlight the unconventional approaches to moviemaking that gave me so much enjoyment. The Great Beauty and Blue Is the Warmest Color both benefited from my seeing them while I was rereading Proust. Neither had a traditional story arc; one was a portrait of a love affair, the other an essay on art and memory – both Proustian subjects, neither for someone in a hurry. Post Tenebras Lux was the most innovative of all, a movie version of the magic realism we’ve seen in Latin American writing by Garcia Marquez and others. It was shown, fittingly, at the Walker Art Center and left behind a trail of stunning images. Caesar Must Die transported Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to an Italian prison, bringing to new life a centuries-old play, much like Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus did last year.The Place Beyond the Pines jerked me to attention when one movie seemed to end and another began; instead of seamlessly blending together, the two halves left the viewer to make the connections. Of course, for sheer bravura filmmaking, there was Gravity, but its refusal to care much about a plot and its absurd ending left it off my list.

But that plan for a top ten innovative films didn’t count on Captain Phillips, featuring the most traditional of movie stars, Tom Hanks. It wasn’t Hanks, though, that got me – quite the contrary. It was the movie’s daring presentation of Somali pirates as sympathetic characters and the U.S. as bullies who don’t keep their word. The movie was constantly thought-provoking and beautifully filmed. Enough Said and Mud were two more traditional American films, one a romantic comedy, the other a dramatic adventure. Both had some of my favorite acting of the year: James Gandolfini, ably abetted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was the most real lover, with the most real heartbreak, I saw this year; while the kid in Mud, abetted by his sidekick, was my favorite character for all of 2013. 12 Years A Slave stands as a cinematic landmark: it was hard watching, but it will define slavery for everyone who saw it. It illuminated history, unlike Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which shamelessly exploited it.

That only leaves Barbara, to which I have somewhat tentatively assigned the top spot on my list. It is not powerful, or surprising or innovative. But when I left the theater I felt I had seen an almost perfect movie. The bleak East German setting brought us face-to-face with the everyday moral decisions faced by real people, reminiscent of the similarly located The Lives of Others (2009). It was as thought-provoking as Captain Phillips, as historically acute as 12 Years A Slave, as personally emotional as Enough Said, and, finally, as dramatic as Mud or The Place Beyond the Pines. It was just a fine movie.
There were other fine movies in 2013, and the following make up my roster of Honorable Mention: Nebraska, Out of the Furnace, Don Jon, A Touch of Sin, World War Z, Fruitvale Station, and maybe American Hustle.

Making my selection of a top ten easier is the decision to have a separate category for Documentaries. Here there was a tie between The Gatekeepers, a politically amazing series of interviews of Shin Bet leaders, interspersed with archival footage; and Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, a remarkable translation of an artist’s work to the screen.

And finally, I acknowledge The Impossible, the story of the Thailand tsunami with Naomi Watts that I didn’t see in time to include on my 2012 Top Ten, where it surely belongs.

Top Ten 2012

1. A Separation and Amour. Every year, it seems, there is a critical favorite that avoids the smaller cities until the deadline for my list has passed. Last year it was A Separation, which opened in 2011 but was far and away the best film I saw in 2012. This year it is Amour, which topped numerous lists but which I have yet to see. I am, nevertheless, getting it out of the way so it won’t be out of place on next year’s Top Ten. As for the Iranian film, it had acting so good you didn’t think it was acting and posed moral dilemmas that echoed and echo still. There are no bad people in the story, but almost all do bad things, chiefly lying for what seem to be good reasons. How would each of us respond if put in their situations? I don’t know, but I see examples in the news literally every day.

2. Django Unchained. The year’s most enjoyable film, it captured the aura of an old-time Western, was simultaneously funny and violent as only a Tarantino work can be, yet presented the serious subtext of slavery’s evil inescapably and unrelentingly. The performances of Christoph Waltz and Samuel Jackson were supporting-Oscar-worthy, and it is only my antipathy toward the miscast Leonardo DiCaprio that tempers my praise.

3. Argo. A rare mainstream movie that hit on all cylinders. It was fair, I thought, to the Iranians without lessening our fear for the hostages. It balanced the humor and absurdity of Hollywood with the grime and terror of Tehran. Ben Affleck led the ensemble cast without needing to raise himself above it. The airport chase at the end cost the movie credibility points and was unnecessary; the historical postscript was heartwarming enough.

4. Well-Digger’s Daughter. Were we back in the ‘60s or the ‘40s for this sweet, innocent adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol story? Daniel Auteuil is the father (and movie director) who struggles to reconcile his love for his wonderful but knocked-up daughter with the need to protect the honor of his family. Scenes of the French countryside and a simpler time left all irony behind and let us know a happy ending would come along.

5. Ted. At the spectrum’s other end we find this gagfest starring an animated bear that has more personality, and better lines, than any of the live humans around him. I laughed till I cried, then I cried some more at the heartwarming story. In any anthology of Boston movies, this will have to be included.

6. Queen of Versailles. A documentarian’s dream: to have a story you’re already filming become bigger, more interesting and, ultimately, more important, as it reflects America’s financial meltdown. Another plus is a lead character who is easy on the eyes, remarkably open and equally worthy of sympathy and scorn.

7. Farewell, My Queen. A highly original costume drama, behind the scenes at Versailles as the Bastille falls, made us feel “you are there.” By telling the tale through the eyes of Marie Antoinette’s personal reader, we saw the court as a collection of people, not historical figures, although the quotient of pulchritude and fashion remained high.

8. Where Do We Go Now? This hit my sweet spot from Peace Corps days: a true-to-life but very comic depiction of village life in the Arab world. The movie smartly looks at eternal, universal themes like man v. woman, love v. hate, life v. death and offers an optimistic ending that is refreshing, if not so realistic.

9. Last Ride. A doomed father running from the law raising his son with tough love to prepare him for the world was the entire story in this projectile of a film. Hugo Weaving was the father and the Australian outback was the co-star.

10. Coriolanus. This was an eloquent answer to my general scorn for updated Shakespeare. Ralph Fiennes seamlessly mixed modern with historical to make the point that the play’s plot is timeless: the politics of Rome resemble nothing so much as the politics of Washington or Athens or Jerusalem.

Honorable Mention: Silver Linings Playbook, 7 Psychopaths, Five-Year Engagement, Bullhead, Rust and Bone, Dark Knight Rises, Elena, Skyfall, Darling Companion, Pelotero.

Biggest Disappointments: Intouchables, Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Cabin in the Woods, Moonrise Kingdom.

Oscar Choices (from official nominees):

Best Picture: Django Unchained

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams

That said, I won’t be upset if awards go, instead, to Argo, Joaquin Phoenix, Tommy Lee Jones or Anne Hathaway

Top Ten – 2010

This year for the first time I am offering three Top Ten movie lists, and the first, for reasons of pre-Oscar urgency, will merely be my capitulation of the ten nominees for best film. For detailed explanation of why I prefer one to another, go to the Alphabetical Listings for 2010 and click on the relevant movie title. In order, my choices are:
1. Winter’s Bone. The most authentic, least Hollywood of the bunch, with acting that didn’t seem like acting (compare Jennifer Lawrence to Hailee Steinfeld) and a gripping, unpredictable story.
2. Black Swan. Even more intense than Winter’s Bone, the sheen of Hollywood and melodrama is all that made its horror bearable (if not always watchable). Wonderfully psychological and ambiguous.
3. The King’s Speech. Wonderful acting but small story.
4. The Fighter. Wonderful acting but cliched story.
5. Social Network. Fascinating character study, but for a “true story” a lot rang false.
6. True Grit. (Dropoff starts here) Formulaic story enlivened by precociously formal young heroine, but that was not enough to carry the film.
7. 127 Hours. Not much suspense or point, a how-to for something you don’t want to do, or see.
8. The Kids Are All Right. The relationship between Annette and Julianne left me cold.
9. Inception. Bold moviemaking, but it could have been just as groundbreaking with a more comprehensible plot and better casting.
10. Toy Story 3. Good pre-adult animated film, but it remained a pre-adult animated film.

Being critical of so many of the Academy’s choice, I must next offer my own list of 2010 movies, which I admit to being more idiosyncratic, if not offbeat.
1. Cell 211. A good, suspenseful and original story, which was rare, and powerful acting by some scary Romanians.
2. Winter’s Bone. See above.
3. Black Swan. Ditto.
4. Women Without Men. An artwork by Shirin Neshat that grabbed the emotions as well as the eyes.
5. Bluebeard. A feminist fable that brought a myth to life.
6. Get Him to the Greek. Raunchy good fun, a smile-a-minute, with music to boot.
7. Buried. One person in a coffin but oh-so-connected to the world.
8. Love and Other Drugs. My favorite romance of the year.
9. Fair Game. Politics, Sean Penn and a story I cared about.
10. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. An adaptation that did justice to the book.
Runners-Up: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; The King’s Speech; The Fighter; The Social Network.
Finally, for reasons of completeness, I add a third Top Ten, based on movies I saw in 2010. Several were released in 2009 but didn’t make that list because I had not yet viewed them when the list was published. There are, obviously, overlaps.
1. Cell 211.
2. The White Ribbon. So much for German culture.
3. Black Swan.
4. The Secret in Their Eyes. Spanish passion, good storytelling.
5. Winter’s Bone.
6. Women Without Men.
7. A Serious Man. Coen Brothers at their best.
8. Bluebeard.
9. Still Walking. Japanese family saga.
10. Buried.
If I can add one comment that perhaps makes some sense of my choices. What I rewarded this year was edgy or unusual film, works that used the cinema form in a novel way: Bluebeard, Buried, Women Without Men, even Black Swan. Cell 211 and Winter’s Bone, coincidentally my top two picks, are the only films that tell a straightforward story building to a suspenseful climax. Maybe next year there will be more, but for 2010 it was a more experimental cinema that caught my attention.

Top Ten Movies 2009

“Gritty” is the word that comes to mind when I think of the movies that made the greatest impact on 2009 for me. I can still feel the Iraqi sand coating my body when I think of The Hurt Locker, the only film in my top 5 that is also garnering critics’ awards, but then again it is the only American film in this group. Gomorrah, from Italy, was even rawer, and South Africa’s District 9 gave us a science-fiction future ten times more realistic, and therefore more brutal, than Avatar. The Class, from France, was, in its own way, even more visceral, because it was easier to imagine oneself in that situation, and the acting, if it was even acting, was so unvarnished. Yngve, from Norway, would seem the odd-film-out, with its story of love and music; but unlike a Hollywood film there was no happy ending here. Not gritty, perhaps, but serious, and lasting.

            Most years I fear the list is incomplete because of all the major films that get released around Christmas. This year I’m still waiting on one or two – White Ribbon and Crazy Heart, in particular – but the year-end crop was unusually light, and I found better films in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

1. The Man Who Loved Yngve. A Norwegian coming-of-age story, a study, much like Juno, of that age when teenage rebellion and angst run up against real-world consequences. There was the dorky friend, the sexy girlfriend, the divorced parents, the loner bandmate, and in the middle Carlje, trying to live with the conflicting emotions that were tearing him up inside. Good rock music and the slightly different culture contributed to my most enjoyable movie experience of the year.

2. The Hurt Locker. I saw this, like Avatar, as an indictment of the U.S. presence in Iraq, while recognizing that one of this film’s strengths was its apolitical nature. Dismantling bombs is a job, someone’s got to do it, and this guy (played remarkably by Jeremy Renner) is just crazy enough to be good at it. Powerful and suspenseful, beautifully directed and acted, this film kept you on edge while making you ponder: Who is the enemy– the man with the cell phone in the butcher shop? The boy who is hawking bootleg DVDs? How can anyone tell? And when will the next bomb go off?

3. Gomorrah. Not for the fainthearted, but remarkable moviemaking. At first I dismissed this as a Sicilian version of The Sopranos without plot, humor, recognizable characters or professional camerawork. By the end, though, the stories had coalesced into a bleak, violent and scary world of Italian crime. We started with a young boy delivering groceries, watched how he was inexorably drawn into the gang, and ended with the world of the bosses, which made the child’s play along the way seem just that. This was fiction that told an ugly truth.

4. The Class. Provocative, haunting and utterly realistic, this movie was a Gomorrah of the classroom. I walked away not rating the movie so much as judging the individual students, the teachers, the French school system, education in general and even our contemporary society. The teacher appeared a saint, but time and again his pedagogic techniques caused me to squirm. The student who caused the most damage appeared a good sort. Nothing was black and white in this mess of a world. As I said, it was more life than cinema.

5. District 9. Who are the bad guys here? Is it the “prawns” from outer space? The Nigerian hoodlums?  The profit-driven corporate chieftains at MNU? Or the trigger-happy South African Defense Force?  This film is brilliant in its moral ambiguity, its documentary style is oh-so-clever, and its pacing is perfect. And despite the inclusion of a million creatures from a space ship, I found the movie quite realistic, perhaps because Johannesburg was itself an alien backdrop.

6. Whatever Works.  With Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona and now this, Woody Allen has returned as my favorite American director, especially with the recent three of four flat efforts from Clint Eastwood. The first half hour and the exchanges between Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood were the comedic high point of the year. The warm and fuzzy ending is a letdown from the welcome view of cynical New Yorkers at the start, but we don’t love Woody for his heft.

7. Julie and Julia. A totally charmant film. I had tears of pleasure streaming down my face from the first TV impersonation of Julia Child by Meryl Streep until the end. Contrary to most reviewers, I thought Amy Adams held her own, and both husbands were admirable anchors for their flighty spouses. How often do you see a film in which everyone is nice, everyone achieves their goal, and the audience just has fun all along the way?

8. In the Loop. Hysterically funny, at least the half I was able to catch. The performances were uniformly over-the-top, but the whole fit seamlessly together, like fingers in a glove. An especially deft and novel leitmotif was the role of 20-somethings, pulling and being hit by levers in the power corridors of Washington and London. The story of how British “intel” facilitated America’s rush into a nameless war might have seemed absurd had not every event in the movie echoed reality as we now know it.

9. Il Divo. The flip side of Gomorrah, equally daring as moviemaking and equally depressing as a picture of Italy.  All those marbled floors, high ceilings and columned terrazzos, heavily made-up women and men with deep tans and coiffed hair, who would kiss you and murder you equally without expression. There was no hint of what P.M. Andreotti’s public appeal must have been – it surely wasn’t the turned-down ears – but I take his affectless character to be a symbol of sorts that one must be Italian to decipher.

10. Adventureland. The oft-told love tale of the geeky guy and the gorgeous girl, this time set, amusingly, in an amusement park run by Bill Hader and a bunch of slacker employees. Kristen Stewart portrays the heartthrob, perfect on the outside, troubled and insecure on the inside, while Ryan Reynolds and Jesse Eisenberg are just as good as the men in her life. A great rock music soundtrack from 1987 provides an overglow of nostalgia, through which we recognize the sincerity and authenticity of the film.

Also Worth Noting: A Single Man; (500) Days of Summer; Easy Virtue; Departures; No One Said It Would Be Easy; It’s Complicated; Sin Nombre; Food, Inc.; Damn United; Three Monkeys

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker)

Best Actress: Kristen Stewart (Adventureland); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia); Carey Mulligan (An Education)

Best Actor: Jeremy Renner (Hurt Locker); Colin Firth (A Single Man)

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Supporting Actress: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart); Zoe Saldana (Avatar); Anna Kendrick (Up In the Air)

Biggest Disappointments: Whip It, Grand Torino, Valentino, Seraphine, Inglourious Basterds, Duplicity