Flights of Fantasy

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

My year-end top-10-film lists tend tovary greatly from those of others, this year in particular: With the upheaval of moving to a new home and a new job, plus family medical issues, I was most grateful this year for cinematic comfort food, movies whose primary goal was entertainment rather than enlightenment. But the serious films were good, too, and I'll let my colleagues tell you why. Even the season's most overrated offerings—get an editor, P.T. Anderson; silencio, Brook "Diablo Cody" Busey!—weren't bad, just too swiftly anointed with a greatness they don't quite possess. So it's hard to find fault in most critical lists this year, even those very different from my own, except for the ones that suggest casting Paul Dano as identical twins in There Will Be Blood was a good idea.

10.300. At first, I wasn't as blown away by this near frame-by-frame comic-book adaptation, wishing it had more plot; but then, on a transatlantic flight, I kept watching it over and over again. I still wish David Wenham weren't the narrator, but everything else about the movie is a brutal kind of hypnotic that keeps me coming back.

9. Shoot 'Em Up. This was arguably the best-directed movie of the year. It was hard to find a giddier, goofier thrill. The scene in which Clive Owen takes out all the killers in the room while continuing to penetrate Monica Bellucci and the climactic moment when an unarmed Owen holds the bullets between his fingers and heats them in the fire till they blow will go down as the most memorable screen scenes of this or any recent year.

8.Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. No film came more fully loaded with groovy monsters, exciting sea battles (the first well-directed ship battles in the entire trilogy, for my money), endless complications and some astonishing bits of surrealism that only a sure-fire franchise hit could get away with. I prefer to pretend the post-credits coda doesn't exist, though.

7.Zodiac. David Fincher got serious and realistic, and it paid off. It has to be tough to take an unsolved case and turn it into a story that doesn't fundamentally unsatisfy, but Fincher found a way to bring closure to the material without betraying the character-based dramas within. Interesting also to see the '70s get "Fincher-ized"—can't wait to see what he'll do if he ever dramatizes a '60s or '80s tale.

6. Wristcutters: A Love Story. Rare is the tale set in another, mysterious world that doesn't feel like a cop-out when the mystery is revealed, but Goran Dukic's vision of purgatory sets up a wonderfully realized parallel realm for suicide victims where everything sucks just a little bit more than here. Also: Tom Waits, y'all!

5.Grindhouse. Not Planet Terror, not Death Proof, no goddamn "extended" cuts—just plain Grindhouse, the way I saw it in the theater and hope to have on DVD one day, with fake ads, trailers and intermission. Quentin, Robert and friends captured the old-school feel perfectly.

4.Hot Rod. I know I'll take heat for picking an Andy Samberg comedy, but it made me laugh till I hurt, and that's enough.

3.Paprika. An exhilarating leap in and out of dreams that plays like a more female-friendly version of The Matrix from anime master Satoshi Kon, whose films love to blur fantasy and reality. The soundtrack is far and away my favorite album of the year, as much of an instant antidepressant as the movie's spunky, redheaded virtual-reality heroine.

2.Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. In a cinematic field in which empty pastiche seems to have become our default form of so-called cinematic satire (the Shrek sequels, say, or the abominable Epic Movie), it's a shame this sly and smart subversion of slasher movies missed the audience it deserved. Director/co-writer Scott Glosserman and co-writer David Stieve lampoon the hallmarks of the genre without undermining their own original tale, and star Nathan Baesel makes the year's most impressive breakthrough performance as the grinning, charismatic Leslie, who's a real charmer right up until the point he starts turning the clichés back on themselves and revealing himself as a stone-cold slayer.

1.No Country for Old Men. Yeah, pretty much what everyone else says. But one aspect I particularly like is the way the Coen brothers take the Clint Eastwood-style archetype of the weather-beaten sheriff who comes back for one last confrontation with a brand-new villain, and then turns it on its head by having him completely fail. As he likely would in real life.

Honorable mentions, alphabetically: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Breach, Brand Upon the Brain!, Captivity, Charlie Wilson's War, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, DOA: Dead or Alive, Gone Baby Gone, Great World of Sound, The Heartbreak Kid, Hostel Part II, Killer of Sheep, The King of Kong, Knocked Up, Lake of Fire, The Mist, Once, Persepolis, Romance & Cigarettes, The Savages, Sicko, Talk to Me, TMNT, Transformers, Vacancy.

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