It was murder this year for filmmakers to get all mavericky. The economy squeezed our wallets and made us junkies for escapism. That yapping noise at the multiplex was more likely a Beverly Hills Chihuahua than audiences grappling with issues. But a few movies — some flying on a fat budget (The Dark Knight), some by the seat of their pants (Slumdog Millionaire) — raised hell and our dulled consciousness. Look, I loved Iron Man too, but my top-10 list takes it cue from our president-elect and honors audacity, not just of hope but of original thought and untamed ambition.
1. Milk Directed by Gus Van Sant: Here’s just the firestarter we need to kick off the Obama years. Milk is that rarest of free birds: a true political film. It finds its bristling purpose in humanity, not ideology. Sean Penn tops even himself for transformative acting as Harvey Milk, the gay social activist who fought for civil rights in San Francisco until he was assassinated in 1978. The recent victory in California for Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, shows that Harvey’s fight is far from over. Is there a more artful, impassioned, shockingly pertinent movie around this year? I don’t think so. Thrillingly directed by the invaluable, underrated Gus Van Sant from an original, Oscar-worthy script by Dustin Lance Black, Milk raises the bar on what a film biography can do. You can feel Harvey’s spirit alive in it.
2. Slumdog Millionaire Directed by Danny Boyle: Movie love fills every frame of this rowdy beauty from director Danny Boyle. An illiterate slum kid (Dev Patel) from India goes on the local TV version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire not to win rupees but to find his lost sweetheart. This love story laced with poverty, violence and sexual abuse somehow manages to offer nonstop cinematic excitement. Boyle makes Mumbai (the scene of recent terrorist attacks) a symbol of teeming life against the invading darkness. Slumdog defies glib comparisons — there’s simply nothing anywhere like it.
3. The Dark Knight Directed by Christopher Nolan: Don’t kid yourself that staggering visuals and the brilliance of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker are this comic-book film’s only claims to resonance. Director Christopher Nolan turns his follow-up to Batman Begins (with Christian Bale back as the Caped Crusader) into a haunting world of darkness all too recognizable as our own. Read it as a parable of the Bush-Cheney vigilantism post-9/11, and you get a Batman movie (second only to Titanic in all-time box-office grosses) that offers enough moral relativism to give you knightmares.
4. Frost/Nixon Directed by Ron Howard: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” That statement, uttered by disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) to TV interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) in 1977, should quiet fears that the film version of Peter Morgan’s play is musty history. Even better, director Ron Howard makes lively, provocative business of how public figures test their hubris before a camera. Howard hooks them and lets us watch them wiggle. All the actors excel, but Langella is transcendent, a lion roaring against a lonely winter.
5. WALL-E Directed by Andrew Stanton: Given my jones for audacity and darkness in the year’s best movies, what’s this G-rated animated thing from Pixar doing in the top five? I’ll tell you. The story of tiny robot WALL-E, scooting around a planet we humans have trashed, speaks volumes. The film’s chastening sadness cuts deep. And I’ll take the romance between WALL-E and iPod lookalike EVE iver the vampire lust in Twilight. Director Andrew Stanton and his crew have created a visionary masterpiece.
6. Revolutionary Road Directed by Sam Mendes: Not since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has a portrait of a marriage been this scalding and unforgiving. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are brilliant under the canny, caring direction of Sam Mendes.
7. The Visitor Directed by Tom McCarthy: The screwed-up politics of illegal immigration are potently skewered by writer-director Tom McCarthy and by a career performance from Richard Jenkins as a shy, 60-ish college prof finding a life outside himself.
8. Doubt Directed by John Patrick Shanley: A nun (Meryl Streep) and a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) battle over a charge of pedophilia. But the war raging in John Patrick Shanley’s stinging film of his play is about unreasonable certainty. How’s that for timely?
9. Rachel Getting Married Directed by Jonathan Demme: Director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Jenny Lumet and a sensational Anne Hathaway, as an emotional time bomb home from rehab for her sister’s wedding, dig deep into the joy and pain of being part of a family.
10. Man on Wire Directed by James Marsh: In 1974, when Harvey Milk was walking his own tightrope, daredevil Frenchman Philippe Petit defied law and gravity to wire-walk from one World Trade Center tower to another. James Marsh’s film isn’t just the documentary of the year, it’s a salute to human endeavor. Boy, do we need it now.
BEST OF THE REST Cheers to 10 more of the year’s risk-takers: Steven Soderbergh’s Che, with Benicio Del Toro as a rebel force of nature; Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, with a superlative Mickey Rourke; Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, with Melissa Leo redefining Mother Courage; Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, with a heartbreaking Sally Hawkins; Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, with the Coens’ tart wit; Ed Harris’ Appaloosa, with its new take on the Old West; Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, with Kristin Scott Thomas’ lesson in the art of acting; Lance Hammer’s Ballast, the year’s best debut film; and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling and Gran Torino, two works from a master of the game.
Quantum of Solace: What’s the use of picking sucky movies? It’s the ones that fall short of real potential that hurt. And to see Daniel Craig’s hard-case 007 follow hottie Casino Royale with this nottie — ouch!
Australia: Baz Luhrmann’s epic poem to his homeland shoots for the stars. No go.
Twilight: Twihards devour the book and keep feeding on the movie’s take on vamp love. But the dark magic is just not there. RIGHTEOUS KILL Robert De Niro and Al Pacino unite for the second time in their careers, and this is what they come up with?
Speed Racer: No movie this year looked more gorgeous on the road to nowhere.
Miracle at St. Anna: Spike Lee’s epic tribute to black solders in World War II had huge ambitions it kept stumbling over.
The Happening: Despite flashes of M. Night Shyamalan’s gifts, it never happened.
Indiana Jones 4: Spielberg couldn’t face facts: The third time was the charm.
Cloverfield: A digital revolution in monster-mashing? No, just shaky hype.
W.: Josh Brolin was great as Dubya, but Oliver Stone settled for a TV-movie muddle.