Son of Rambow

Slumdog Millionaire came up at year-end to steal the feel good movie crown, but I still love this boyhood story. Imaginative, earnest and honest without being cloying, I’ve seen few other films that grasp the big wonders and horrors of childhood like this one. Add to that a bold love for movies and a playfully impish look at the way kids interact with them, and this becomes a unique and beautiful little picture. Only two years after his mushy adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, director Garth Jennings is redeemed.

Current rating: 8.3 out of 10

Contributing factors: An eye for movies that I can very well respect; the understanding that children are the most terrible things on earth; a more intuitive grasp of young friendship than most movies even glance at.

Performance to savor: Will Poulter as Lee Carter, the tough, wounded bully/best friend to end them all. pull quote: “Rambo ruled, but it’s time for his son to take over!”

Let the Right One In

Freezing frost, the slow glistening drip of congealing blood, distant screams. The year’s most atmospheric movie was also the best vampire movie in recent memory. Even better, this cold Swedish tale of a child and his childlike vampire companion appears to be a love story, but as with some of the best romances is actually a tale of coercion, manipulation and control. Not only does Tomas Alfredson’s film refuse to elevate and romanticize the vampire’s inhuman behavior; he implies a cycle of destruction that cuts back to the heart of true horror.

Current rating: 8.3 out of 10

Contributing factors: Brilliantly frozen cinematography to rival Werner Herzog’s trip to Antarctica; the many faces of Lina Leandersson; Alfredson’s willingness to let the story breathe; that last-ditch scene of violence before the real horror comes home.

Performance to savor: Lina Leandersson, the vampire implied in the title, whose face can be innocent, knowing and bestial in a sequence of three frames. She’s otherwordly and frightening. pull quote: “Sharp and cold as a sliver of frozen blood!”

Paranoid Park

The last year and change was a good time for Gus Van Sant. While Milk (which you’ll find later in this list) is grand mainstream filmmaking, Paranoid Park is the culmination of his experimental quartet that includes Gerry (a movie I really like), Elephant and Last Days. This is the most grounded of the four, though it uses a similar sense of dreamlike unreality to describe how a teen skater’s life starts to fracture as he tries to accept the consequences of an unintentional horrible act. Van Sant’s use of non-actors doesn’t always work. But I was drawn into the persistently revised confessional of Gabe Nevins’s slumped skater Alex, and couldn’t look away as his life became a nightmare.

Current rating: 8.4 out of 10

Contributing factors: Gabe Nevins’s natural performance; imaginative sound editing; Van Sant’s deft touch with the lives of fringe kids.

Performance to savor: Christopher Doyle (who also cameos as Alex’s uncle) who lends just the right touch of unreality to the movie’s images. pull quote: “Hey Larry Clark, how’d this one feel?”

Burn After Reading

This is hardly the first Coen Brothers movie to put down roots that penetrate deep into memory and my estimation of their considerable abilities. But it might be their meanest and most savage. No Country For Old Men? A walk compared to this teardown of our current national character. And yet Burn is wildly, eccentrically funny, and clever without being as self-aware as other Coen films. Right now, this feels like a scathing indictment of the Bush era but I know that in twenty years, after a couple more administrations have come and gone, we’ll be able to see it as a much more broad and consistently accurate screed about how selfish and pointless we can all be when left to our own devices.

Current rating: 8.4 out of 10

Contributing factors: George Clooney’s obsession with floors; that terrifying sequence between Malkovich and his father; Coming Up Daisy; Manolo; the inner workings of the CIA.

Performance to savor: Brad Pitt, who internalizes every William Shatner joke in the book before spitting them back out as a real character. pull quote: “The Coen Brothers didn’t give us the comedy we wanted; they gave us the one we deserve.”

Synecdoche, New York

I’m still not quite as comfortable with Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut as I’d like to be, but I suspect that’s part of the point. I’m also OK with one of the common questions about the movie: is it truly banal, or a depiction of the full nothingness of a misguided life? Kaufman’s movie is a titanic puzzle, and a thing very much like the weird, creative life it seeks to chronicle. So, yeah, it’s tough and sometimes dull, but it’s also sharp and able to get to the point, even if it’s got to walk the long way around to get there. There’s a life and vitality here, but it takes a little settling into in order to see. There are very few movies like this, and for that I celebrate and appreciate Charlie Kaufman’s creation.

Current rating: 8.8 out of 10

Contributing factors: A big, wild and ambitious script; the casting coup that has Samantha Morton and Emily Watson playing two halves of one character; Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dedicated, damaged acting; Kaufman’s willingness to go as far as he must to make this one work.

Performance to savor: In a movie full of great big satisfying performance, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s small character work that gave me a few blissed-out laughs and kept me focused on the ridiculousness of it all. Her German accent still kills me. lyric snippit: “Be you/or be me/it’s all the same to Charlie/down in Synecdoche!”