It’s that time of year again, but I can’t come up with my usual ten without being liberal. Only eight are so worthy. The top three are masterpieces.
1. Doubt. 5 stars. The film of the year is tightly directed, flawlessly acted, relentlessly ambiguous… it’s hard to heap too many accolades on something that earns its keep in every sentence. Based on the Broadway play by the same name, about a liberal priest in the ’60s who is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys. The harrowing scene between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller is already a classic, and for my money one of the best film scenes of the decade. Reviewed here.
2. The Dark Knight. 5 stars. The Godfather of superhero films (even superhero-haters like me love it), using Batman as a mythical icon to show how heroes escalate terror in the name of combating it. And if you thought no one could rival Jack Nicholson’s act as the Joker, think again. Nicholson is campy next to Ledger’s cold-blooded serial killer. What more really needs to be said at this point? If you haven’t seen the movie by now, you don’t have your priorities straight. Reviewed here.
3. Let the Right One In. 5 stars. It’s hard to do right by the vampire, but leave it to the Swedes. Here we have a vampire girl who bonds with a 12-year old boy bullied by his classmates, a love story at heart, and the opposite in every way of the atrocious Twilight. Ironic that both came out at the same time. I still say that Near Dark is the best vampire film of all time, but this one isn’t far behind.
4. Eden Lake. 4 ½ stars. Just when you’d given up on horror, out comes this piece of terror harking back to the ’70s. A couple camping in the countryside get tortured and killed by a pack of 12-year olds. I was so unprepared to get slammed by something this authentic that I had trouble picking myself out of my chair when it was over. Nihilistic and thought-provoking, it has a miserably unhappy (but perfect) ending; no third acts of cheap righteous payback.
5. Prince Caspian. 4 ½ stars. Superior to the first film, and probably for that reason so unsuccessful at the box office. (Never underestimate the dangers of quality film making.) It’s too bad Adamson won’t continue helming the series given how much he’s grown, and let’s hope the third and fourth films don’t suffer too much for his departure. Reviewed here.
6. Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. 4 stars. I almost never watch teen comedies, let alone enjoy them, but this one’s an exceptional gem. While on a hunt across New York for an indie rock concert, two kids unwittingly fall in love. Great music, fabulous night shots of the city, and some quirky humor to watch for: “The 12 Gays of Christmas” performed by men in drag, and an omnipresent piece of bubble-gum shared by four characters — even after being vomited by an endearing drunk.
7. Martyrs. 4 stars. One of the nastiest films I’ve ever seen, yet surprisingly transcendent, about a woman’s transfiguration to the great beyond by becoming one with pain. The charge of torture porn is unjust, for unlike the Hostel films, Martyrs isn’t titillating, and Laugier’s purpose is to put us through a truly emotional ordeal, and share in the victims’ hopes (however futile) for mental and physical liberty. The premise behind the cult fascinating, as is the idea that only women are receptive to transfiguration.
8. Appaloosa. 3 ½ stars. Two marshals are hired by the officials of a New Mexico town (in 1882) being terrorized by a renegade rancher. The marshals lose; their moral compasses can’t prevail against a tyrant who happens to be friends with the 21st U.S. President Chester Arthur, who pardons the rancher after being convicted in court to hang. It deteriorates to the point of tragedy when the rancher sets up business in town and actually becomes friends with the city officials who first hired the marshals to bring him to justice. It’s a solid story with impressive gun fights and just enough spin on the classic Western.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, 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.)