1 Million Dollar Baby proves again the lean poetry that director Clint Eastwood brings to his work. As with Eastwood’s last film Mystic River, there are no wasted moments in this melancholic tale of a grizzled boxing manager and his eager pupil. Every scene provides what the story needs and nothing more. This kind of stripped-down filmmaking is increasingly rare as movies rely more and more on noisy spectacle. But Eastwood refuses to get in the way of Paul Haggis’ script (based on two short stories by F.X. Toole) or his actors, which include poignant turns by Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman. Yes, I know, points should be deducted because of Freeman’s overwrought narration that describes scenes his character never witnessed. Even so, it’s a Best Picture winner that truly deserved it.
2 The Incredibles, the, uh... incredible story of a dysfunctional superhero family that bands together to fight a supervillain, is a whole lot of fun. This is a film packed to the rim with suspenseful, candy-color action that rivals any Bruce Willis movie; satirical riffs on superhero stereotypes; amusing insights into suburban dissatisfaction, both at a chaotic home and a boring office; a deliciously mod-retro sense of style that includes a jazzy spy movie score; and some unexpected thematic depth, looking not only at the power of family, but also asking hard questions about whether making everyone feel special diminishes true achievement. Once again, Pixar (and writer-director Brad Bird) proves the value of a smart, fully-developed story.
3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind serves as another showcase for the wonderland imagination of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. This time around the story isn’t so self-consciously quirky and look-at-me clever as Adaptation or even Being John Malkovich. Here the narrative curlicues fit nicely with the story of a heartbroken man (a subdued Jim Carrey) using technology to erase painful memories of his ex-girlfriend (a rather too-exuberant Kate Winslet). Engrossed by the confusing, non-linear structure exploring the subjectivity of memory and the ugly dissolution of a once-perfect romance, you won’t realize until the film’s final moments that this story is really about the inescapably eternal and fated nature of true love.
4 Hero has echoes of the popular 2000 martial arts saga Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but it’s a far more powerful film if only because it eschews Crouching Tiger’s convoluted soap opera plotline. Hero, by contrast, is a study in poetic simplicity. Yes, the film toys with the nature of subjective viewpoints, debating how much of protagonist Jet Li’s kung-fu adventures really happened. But that element feels like a grace note to the epic film’s real purpose: spectacular action set pieces of swordplay. Director Zhang Yimou, who previously spent much of his time on smaller, more intimate dramas, really cuts loose with this one. It may be the most beautifully photographed film of the year. Every shot belongs on an art museum wall.
5 Collateral allows director Michael Mann, after biographies like The Insider and Ali, to return to the urban back alleys where he belongs. Into this familiar movie-world of grizzled cops and cold-blooded crooks comes a curveball: introverted cabbie Max (a startling good Jamie Foxx). Max is kidnapped by hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) to serve as chauffeur. What this means is that while the film delivers the expected genre twists and turns (cops close in on Vincent, someone Max knows is on Vincent’s hit list, a violent shootout, et al.), it also explores the mentorship go-getter Vincent provides passive Max. It’s Max’s transformation from victim to hero that gives the film its power and smooths over some egregious moments of illogic that mar the movie’s climax.
6 Spiderman 2 suggests there may be something cosmic at work with superhero sequels ending in “2.” As with superior sequels Superman II and X2 (note that the wretched Batman Returns didn’t employ a “2”), this sequel far exceeds its predecessor in both character depth and popcorn thrills. It’s got to be liberating for filmmakers to no longer have to spend time on a superhero’s origins (which we all know anyway). Thus, this sequel – written by Alvin Sargent - can be devoted to having fun with the Spiderman character, whether he’s balancing superhero duties with the needs of his girlfriend or single-handedly stopping a runaway subway (the movie’s best sequence). Director Sam Raimi is clearly having a blast here and his enthusiasm is infectious.
7 Sideways isn’t the cinematic masterpiece snob film critics would have you believe, but it is pretty good. It’s a story of mid-life crises, shameful truths, and quiet desperation as two old friends (a solid Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) realize that, for entirely different reasons, their lives are dead-end disasters. The script – written by director Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from a novel by Rex Pickett – sparkles and crackles in a way that brings out the best in the cast. This is perhaps most notable in the now-famous porch scene between Giamatti and Virgina Madsen in which they seem to be talking about wine, but are actually talking about themselves. That single scene is why Madsen was nominated for an Oscar.
8 Dawn of the Dead irritated a lot of horror purists for daring to remake the 1978 zombie classic by George Romero. But they really should get a life. This movie, part of a new “Zombie Movie Renaissance” along with last year’s 28 Days Later, shows what a fresh coat of paint can do to an old title. True, the original used its premise – people escape zombie hordes by hiding in a shopping mall - to slyly criticize consumer culture (shoppers are like zombies, get it?) while nothing here comes close to that kind of thematic depth. But for those looking for visceral horror and edge-of-the-seat scares, look no further. This is a loud, violent, suspenseful exercise in sweaty survival. Not everyone will make it and those who don’t will not die easy deaths. What more do you want in a zombie horror movie?
9 Passion of the Christ is a case study for the value of a single maverick cinematic artistic vision, rather than a committee of executives, marketing experts, and serial writers working to come up with some kind of compromise to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The famous/infamous behind-the-scenes drama of this film (director Mel Gibson’s determination to get it made, the risky gamble distributors took in releasing it, the accusations of anti-Semitism, its shocking box office success) in addition to sidebar religo-political debates often hijacks any discussion about its ultimate merits. Aside from all of that baggage, one cannot deny that this is a tragic story told in a way that skillfully and vividly conveys that tragedy.
10 Napoleon Dynamite is without question an acquired taste as its polarized cult status will attest. Some love it, some hate it. It’s a deadbeat, goofball movie that relies more on its extremely quirky characters to provide the humor rather than outrageous situations or witty one-liners (unless you think “Dang!” or “Sweet!” is witty in and of itself). Think of it as comedy of the mundane. For those in the right frame of mind, though, there’s nothing else quite like writer-director Jared Hess’s tale of a singularly outcast high school student (perfectly cast Jon Heder in the title role) and his efforts to both woo a girl and help a friend become student council president, although neither effort is really what the movie’s about.
Honorable mentions: 13 Going On 30, The Aviator, The Bourne Supremacy, Fahrenheit 9/11, Friday Night Lights, Garden State, The Girl Next Door, Kill Bill Volume 2, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Maria Full of Grace, Miracle, Starsky and Hutch, Super Size Me, A Very Long Engagement.