6. United 93 | United 93 treads the line between catharsis and exploitation, between the manipulation of an agenda and the illusion of objectivity, and achieves the most faithful memorial to 9/11 that commercial cinema is capable of. Paul Greengrass employs real-time cinéma-vérité to re-create the confusion, the horror, and the resolve. His camera serves as a participant, thrusting you into the point of view, as much as can be imagined, of those involved. If only to honor their heroism, and inspire our own, this film must be seen.
7. El Labarinto del Fauno|Pan’s Labyrinth | Guillermo Del Toro tells fairy tales the way they were intended, not the G-rated way — which means lots of blood, pain, death, bugs, monsters, and all of it experienced from the point of view of a tormented innocent child. Here it’s 12-year-old Ofelia, who has the misfortune to be the stepdaughter of a sadistic Fascist officer assigned to mop up Republican guerrillas in the Spanish hinterlands in 1944. Ofelia’s fantasy life is grim, though it does offer a refuge: the maze of the title, where she meets a sinister faun and learns her true identity as Princess of the Underworld. Complex, but unfolded in astounding and limpid images. (Opens in Boston January 12.)
Watch the trailer for Pan's Labyrinth (QuickTime)
8. Children of Men | Here’s a different Doomsday scenario: women simply stop giving birth. Such is the premise of the P.D. James novel, and Alfonso Cuarón adapts it into the most disturbing vision of the future since Blade Runner. It’s 2027, not a child has been born for 18 years, and the world has disintegrated into chaos, cults, civil war, and tyranny. Not much different from today, come to think of it. A boozy journalist (Clive Owen) accompanies a mysteriously pregnant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to dubious safety from warring interests ranging from a neo-Fascist regime to a terrorist organization of immigrants. The politics are never simplistic, but the emotion and the excitement pack primal power. (Opens in Boston December 29.)
Watch the trailer for Children of Men (QuickTime)
9. Letters From Iwo Jima | Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers regarded war and heroism without sentiment, but the film suffered from the glibness of Paul Haggis’s script. Not so this parallel version from the Japanese side, which presents the battle, the courage, and the carnage with the stark grit of the ashy island on which it was fought. Ken Watanabe brings a Gregory Peck–like purity to his role as the commander of the doomed Japanese garrison. In scenes of extremity and horror evoking Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain, Letters illustrates the truism of war’s inhumanity. (Opens in Boston January 5.)
Watch the trailer for Letters From Iwo Jima (QuickTime)
10. Superman Returns | Does the world need Superman? As a savior, he’s a bore. Fortunately, Bryan Singer didn’t let the Jesus business get the upper hand. As in his X-Men movies, his images and editing not only tell a compelling tale but also touch on our need for salvation and the inadequacy of those we turn to for it. Brandon Routh brings to the superhero a humble humanity as he listens to the cacophony of those who suffer and finds he can never do quite enough to save them.