This year will be remembered as the year that in-theater experiences went mainstream. Not only did James Cameron’s much-hyped IMAX 3D spectacular “Avatar” open to $77 million this past weekend, but movies in these formats were coming out on a consistent basis all year long and doing great business. Hopefully, filmmakers will continue to use 3D to enhance storytelling like “Coraline,” and not just use it as a gimmick. That said, the movies that made my list this year that were released in 3D or IMAX (#8 and #1) work just as well without them. Nothing beats a well-told story.
Runners-up: “The Road,” “A Serious Man,” “The Messenger,” “Coraline,” “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Bruno,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Star Trek,” “District 9,” Drag Me to Hell.”
10. The Hurt Locker
Anchored by a quiet and commanding Jeremy Renner (as an Iraq War bomb diffuser), Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting movie works as both a suspense film and a character study. As Renner’s confident but dangerous veteran joins a new bomb squad, his conflicts with his new teammates begin to reveal the true nature of the man who must lead them. Bigelow is no stranger to men with adrenaline fetishes (she directed “Point Break” and “Strange Days”), but this movie is in a whole different ballpark. It’s a serious examination of what makes a man like him (no pun intended) tick.
9. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Nicolas Cage is delightfully unhinged in this bizarre movie from iconoclast Werner Herzog that, despite its title, is not a remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara film. Instead, it’s a noirish thriller that disregards the tenets of the genre about halfway through and heads down its own twisted, irresistible path. Cage hasn’t been this funny or riveting in years, and Herzog regards his protagonist with way more sympathy than one might expect for a guy who abuses hard narcotics and regularly hallucinates about lizards and breakdancing souls.
The seven-minute montage of a married couple’s entire life together in this latest triumph from Pixar is the most moving short film in recent memory. What follows is a story about loss and learning to live that could have felt awfully familiar in lesser hands. Co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, however, combine expert storytelling with a crisply rendered animation style and enough clever ideas to fill three movies. Only Pixar would be able to make a movie where a man literally carries around his all of burdens—in the form of his house, elevated by balloons—on his back.
7. Sin Nombre
Cary Fukunaga’s powerful directorial debut tells the story of a wary Mexican gang member and a teenage Honduran girl stowing away on a train bound for the American border. The beautiful outdoor cinematography is a stark contrast to the hellish situations they find themselves in, while the naturalistic acting style lends more authenticity to the characters. It is an assured piece of work for a first feature film, and Fukunaga has a bright future ahead of him.
6. The Brothers Bloom
Doing a 360-degree turn from his minimalist teenage noir “Brick,” writer/director Rian Johnson turns to the con-man genre for this mischievous treat. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody are artists—crooks who treat the long con like a literary work. In the middle of carrying out their masterpiece, one brother gets cold feet and falls in love with the intended victim (an eccentric heiress played by Rachel Weisz). Johnson mixes slapstick comedy, old-world European locations, and a surprising amount of danger into a clever and layered concoction that always keeps you guessing.
5. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
The best documentary of the year is a moving tale of determination, friendship, and courage—and it’s about a Canadian heavy metal band still plugging away at their career in their fifties. Director Sacha Gervasi was blessed not only with an infinitely charming main character (lead singer/guitarist “Lips”), but because he roadied for the band in his teens, he had their trust. This resulted in loads of revelatory interviews and fly-on-the-wall scenes that paint a fascinating picture of a band that refused to give up.
4. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
It may be a realistic portrait of an illiterate Harlem teenager, but director Lee Daniels’ “Precious” is also surprisingly impressionistic, getting inside the head of the title character (played so convincingly by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe). Mo’Nique is unflinchingly ferocious as Precious’ abusive welfare mother and Daniels coaches gritty performances out of an unrecognizable Mariah Carey and charming Lenny Kravitz as well. The movie is a disturbing yet somehow hopeful cry for help that suggests there may be a larger population of “precious” girls out there than anyone would care to admit.
Although it was marketed as a raunchy teenage comedy a la “Superbad,” this subtle film is actually a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story from writer/director Greg Mottola. The movie doesn’t break new ground, but it captures all the apprehension and awkwardness of impending adulthood perfectly. A dialed-down cast (including Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, and Ryan Reynolds) hits all the right notes, as does its time-specific soundtrack. “Adventureland” is set in the pre-digital 80s, when personal connections were made face to face and, as such it retains a kind of nostalgia for those times.
2. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino combines his love for spaghetti westerns and exploitation films to create a World War II film like none you’ve ever seen. More than a Jewish revenge fantasy, “Inglourious Basterds” is a love letter to the cinema that’s all about storytelling and the power of myth. Characters live and die by their reputation. Almost every scene is an interrogation of sorts with unforgettable performances from Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt that go from menacing to hilarious in the same moment. In Tarantino’s world, the movies are always better than real life, and “Basterds” is no exception, with movies garnering the ultimate win.
1. Where the Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze’s movie of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book is a shining example of the perfect adaptation. Parents were up in arms this year about how scary the film was and how it encouraged kids to act out—the same things that parents said about the book 46 years ago. What better compliment could there be? The film itself may be the most honest representation ever put to film of what it’s like to grow up. It doesn’t pander to kids. Rather, it takes those confusing and conflicting emotions very seriously. In the end, runaway Max (in an astonishingly naturalistic performance by newcomer Max Records) reconciles himself and—in the wordless closing scene—his relieved mother falls asleep watching her son eat. Beautiful.