You won’t find 300 or Beowulf here — they’d be on my “worst list” if I made one — so let’s get that out of the way. Nor will you see No Country for Old Men or American Gangster; I liked those but found them terribly overrated. The following scored big with me.
1. Juno. 5 stars. I never thought I’d take to a light comedy like this, let alone award it the top slot. But it’s so arresting and honest in its simplicity, about a teen who contemplates abortion but wants to have the baby and give it to a wealthy couple. Ellen Page is easily the best young actor on the scene these days, and I agree, literally, with every sentence written by Roger Ebert in his review. You can watch the film so many times; there’s none of the cheesy sentimentality that mars most stories like this. And no, it doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy or serve an anti-abortionist agenda. It’s about a particular girl’s choice, clearly established in the film, and how that choice affects others, for better and worse in equal measures.
2. Sunshine. 5 stars. I can’t say enough about this film. It postulates a near future in which the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire. Captain Kaneda’s death is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any film, and from that early point the mission becomes one calamity after the next. Crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. It soon becomes clear that it’s a suicide mission. On top of all this, there is the terrifying subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The visuals are stunning.
3. There Will Be Blood. 5 stars. Here’s a well-deserved Oscar for best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis as a ruthless oil man at the turn of the 20th century, who gets tangled up in the town-politics of a fundamentalist church. The narrative and moral scope of this film is amazing — but hardly surprising coming from the director of Magnolia — dealing with the power of charisma, hypocrisy, exploitation (of land and children), and inevitable alienation from society.
4. Bug. 5 stars. This is Friedkin’s raging comeback. After The Exorcist and remake of Twelve Angry Men, he had a lot of passable efforts, but Bug is as psychologically searing as the former and claustrophobic as the latter. It’s about deranged paranoia, and contains some of the most convincing performances I’ve seen in a while. (Yes, Ashley Judd proves she can act for a change.) The narrative crescendo builds and builds until your nerves are screaming, and the sudden horrific ending leaves you wondering what the hell you just watched for the last two hours.
5. Inside. 4 ½ stars. An instant horror classic that gives new meaning to gore. A story about relentless obsession, as a woman traumatized by miscarriage stalks the woman who caused her car accident — and who was also pregnant during the crash but didn’t lose her baby. The stalker has decided the woman owes her that baby, and so invades her house, viciously terrorizing her (and massacring all who come calling) until finally performing a hideous “caesarean section” with a pair of scissors on the stairs.
6. 3:10 to Yuma. 4 ½ stars. Of all the oldie Westerns to remake, 3:10 to Yuma is an excellent choice. In the 1880s an Arizona rancher (played by Christian Bale) volunteers to escort Ben Wade (played by Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention, where a train will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma. Along the way, Wade is able to kill two of his escorts; another is lost to Indians; yet another falls to people who want to kill Wade out of revenge for past grievances. By the end of the road, Wade and the rancher have formed a strange respect for each other. As the train is about to arrive, Wade’s outlaw group descend on the town to rescue their boss, and even after many viewings I’m always shocked by Wade’s last-minute turn and slaughter of his own gang.
7. Eastern Promises. 4 ½ stars. Like A History of Violence it’s a crime drama starring Viggo Mortenson, but this time less as a superhero and more like a real-life figure out of a Scorsese film. Cronenberg was apparently inspired by watching some old Miami Vice, which like his film, examined the criminal world on its own terms. Come to think of it, the undercover Mortenson does remind of Crockett and Tubbs, living and breathing the mob underworld that he forgets who he is.
8. 30 Days of Night. 4 ½ stars. With lame crowd-pleasers like Blade and Underworld in recent years, I wondered if the vampire would ever be scary again. Leave it to David Slade to dish up this nightmare: a violently barbaric invasion of an Alaskan town during the month when the sun don’t shine. These vamps go for the jugular without any aristocratic fanfare, much like those in Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn. It was perfect timing when this hit the theaters around Halloween.
9. Pontypool. 4 stars. This is about one of the most bizarre and terrifying ideas I’ve come across: a pandemic that spreads literally by word of mouth; a quantum virus (born of “perception”) that has infected the English language (only English), and hearing certain words dissolves your mind and turns you into a cannibal. Seriously, this is one messed up idea: that you obsess language and become so scrambled by it that the only relief you can obtain is by chewing your way through the mouth of someone.
10. Planet Terror/Deathproof. 4 stars. Rodriguez and Tarantino team up in an over-the-top double-feature of gore and raucous mayhem, and it’s the latter’s I especially liked. The first group of women are killed in the death-drive so that we can experience the true horror of this homicidal maniac. The second group are the heroes for whom we constantly fear based on what happened to their predecessors. They turn the tables on this son-of-a-bitch with awesome ingenuity. The image of Zoe Bell clinging for dear life to the top of the car racing at 70 mph is one of those scenes that stays in mind forever.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018.)