5. Eastern Promises
Eastern Promises begins with uncanny images of birth and death, equally raw and bloody. As in A History of Violence, the plot is tightly wrapped and full of surprises, and David Cronenberg unfolds it with the resignation, efficiency, and grace of Viggo Mortensen’s performance as an enigmatic and ruthless member of the Russian mob in London. The film slashes a fraction as many throats as does Sweeney Todd, but the payoff is many times greater. Like the tattoos, the beauty and the terror are more than skin deep.
6. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
Sidney Lumet may be 83, but his latest film makes Quentin Tarantino look geriatric. In fact, Lumet beats Tarantino at his own game, devising a Rubik’s Cube of intersecting, backtracking, reverse-angled story lines. Moreover, he and his actors have created characters of monumental moral feebleness and ineffectual rapacity who are engaged in folly as old as the family unit. The climax of Devil unrolls with the inescapable majesty of a building collapse, but most of the pleasure lies in watching Lumet set the pieces up only to knock them down.
David Fincher cuts out the flash of his previous movies (Fight Club, for one) and reduces this one to the basics of a grimy character surrounded by clues scratching his head. The Zodiac killer terrorized the San Francisco area through the ‘60s and ‘70s, taunting the police with coded notes — but Zodiac is interested less in him than in the people who’re determined to track him down. The film isn’t about killing so much as it is about time: how time passes while we try to make sense of past time.
8. 12:08 East of Bucharest
It’s December 22, 16 years to the day after Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled the Romanian revolution. To mark the event, Virgil, the owner of the local TV station, invites locals to his talk show to discuss whether there actually was a “revolution” in their home town. Revolution or not, the guests and Virgil himself lead lives of discontent and failure. The show makes for disastrous television and brilliant filmmaking, careering from comedy to atrocity. In 12:08: East of Bucharest, history replays as both tragedy and farce.
Brad Bird’s animated masterpiece serves up ingredients abhorrent to most Americans: rats, the French, a refined palate, and an unpronounceable title. The rat, Rémy, loves to cook, and he’s fortunate enough to live in Paris — where, it seems, even vermin are permitted to become all they can be, especially when aided by lucid, witty physical comedy and the subtle acting of Bird’s CGI figments. Can mass audiences enjoy a film that’s subtle, complex, and even good for them as opposed to cinematic fast food? Ratatouille restores hope in America’s good taste.
10. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
On the one hand, Andrew Dominik’s visually lush tone poem perpetuates the pop-cultural idolization of one of history’s biggest scumbags. On the other hand, he’s made one of the best Westerns since Unforgiven. Brad Pitt portrays Jesse as a cross between Joe Pesci in GoodFellas and Jesus Christ. As his assassin, Casey Affleck combines the traits of a puppy dog and a snake. Ford hoped to be lauded for his deed, and if people knew the truth about Jesse James instead of believing the Hollywood legend, maybe he would have been.