1 of 25
'Reversal of Fortune' (1990)
"Without a doubt, the crowning achievement of this movie is Jeremy Irons' masterfully droll performance as Claus von Bulow, the ghoulish aristocrat who may or may not have attempted to murder his rich, depressed, socialite wife (Glenn Close). Irons does something far more perverse than getting you to "care" about Claus -he gets you to like him. Yet what finally makes Barbet Schroeder's reenactment of the Von Bulow affair a truly great movie is the spine-tingling ambiguity with which it views Claus' conduct. Ushering us behind the mausoleum-like walls of the Von Bulows' Newport estate, the film offers many contrasting versions of the events, holding contradictory bits of evidence up to the light with a Rashomon-like dexterity. By the end, it almost doesn't matter whether Von Bulow actually tried to kill his wife or simply stood by and watched her sink into suicidal despair. The real question is whether there's any difference." – Owen Gleiberman
2 of 25
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
"After years of schlock horror movies, the word nightmare has been devalued-we hear it and think, thrills and chills. A true nightmare movie, though, does more than just scare us or give us the cold creeps. It can also be a dark fairy tale for adults, a vehicle for recapturing our childlike wonder in the face of the primal unknown. So it is with Jonathan Demme's great thriller, the most magical act of storytelling I saw all year. Adapting Thomas Harris' best-seller about a rookie FBI investigator on the trail of a serial killer, Demme spins a shimmering web of dread and suspense. Jodie Foster plays Agent Starling as a brave, exploratory, life-size heroine: It's her desperate need to know-to uncover the true face of evil-that propels the movie forward. And Anthony Hopkins' Dr. Lecter is that face in all its disturbing, seductive glory. As the glittery-eyed genius psychopath whose malevolence is a direct extension of his intelligence, Hopkins-witty, charming, monstrous-gives the most memorable performance of the year, creating a timeless portrait of the demonic made human." – Owen Gleiberman
3 of 25
The Player (1992)
"Long after it seemed his creative juices had run dry, director Robert Altman returned to greatness with this hypnotic Tinseltown satire. Altman has great fun skewering the rituals of today's moviemaking elite: the pitches and power breakfasts, the mud baths and mineral water, the insular celebrity chic (incarnated by a dazzling galaxy of star cameos). At the same time, he recognizes that modern Hollywood is a place at once vacuous and infinitely mysterious-a fantasyland that is fast running out of dreams, a metaphysical hall of mirrors in which the movies that get made are mere reflections of the status-mad, superstar-crazed culture that surrounds them. Tim Robbins, as the production-executive hero, isn't just a sleek, murderous cad; he's a likable cad. As his life is transformed into a "movie" far more gripping than any of the trash he produces, The Player becomes sublime entertainment, a deadpan comic thriller that, in its ingenious design, its delicate ripples of nastiness and joy, embodies the very moviemaking magic it says has leaked out of Hollywood." – Owen Gleiberman
4 of 25
The Piano (1993)
"Is it a coincidence that the filmmaker who spoke this year with the most passionate and hypnotic voice chose as her heroine someone without a – a Victorian Scotswoman who remains mute because she believes that no man will hear he anyway? In this haunting drama of love and revenge, director Jane Campion merges the brooding romantic grandeur of a Wuthering Heights with a sexual and emotional nakedness that is bracingly contemporary. As the silent, piano-playing Ada, who journeys to the misty wilderness of colonial New Zealand to join in an arranged marriage, Holly Hunter gives a performance of transporting purity, her looks and gestures expressing a fire-bright will that words could only hint at. For all of Campion's jagged visual poetry, what's timeless about The Piano is the way it cuts to the torn heart of women's experience – the boundless desire for romantic consummation in a world where true love hinges on the power to be heard." – Owen Gleiberman
5 of 25
Pulp Fiction (1994)
"From its opening frames, Quentin Tarantino's wild, shocking, impassioned, zigzaggy, rudely hilarious crime thriller is more sheer fun than a great movie has any right to be. It's as packed with pleasures as a toy store for adults, and the pleasures are right there on the surface. Just think of Uma Thurman's gimlet-eyed moll doing a coked-up dance of eternal-adolescent rapture to "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"; of Bruce Willis' scruffy-noble palooka escaping an S&M torture den, and then pausing to pick the perfect weapon (the chainsaw no, the samurai sword!) so that he can go back and save the man who'd sworn to kill him; of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, as the two most eloquent hit men in history, transforming their workaday discussions of foot massages and Parisian Big Macs into goofily irreverent moral debates-mental cross fire for the age of pop. For two and a half hours, Tarantino dedicates all his energies as a filmmaker to keeping you blissfully entertained. Yet it's his instincts as an artist that make Pulp Fiction take up permanent residence in your imagination. In a brilliant act of cinematic time juggling, Tarantino kills off one of his main characters, only to confront us, in the end, with the stubborn reality of his existence-a structural coup that becomes a kind of sleight-of-hand resurrection. In Pulp Fiction, what Tarantino has resurrected is the primal joy of American moviemaking." – Owen Gleiberman
6 of 25
"Oliver Stone pushes his hell-bent propulsive sensibility into a new realm of manic truth-telling. In his brilliant, kaleidoscopic dramatization of the life of Richard Nixon, he shows us the Nixon we all know in our bones – the sweaty, stiff-backed paranoiac, his heart black with self-pity – and then lays bare how Nixon's pathology, his belief that deliverance was attainable through lies, served and finally extended a sinister shadow government. Using the vertiginous multimedia style he developed in JFK and Natural Born Killers, Stone layers 50 years of images into Nixon's snakelike voyage through the corridors of power. He turns history itself into a hypnotic Black Mass, anatomizing the space between public perception and backroom reality, until the notion of "cover-up" takes on dimensions of mystical unease. And Anthony Hopkins, in a towering performance, puts us right inside Nixon's skin. His squirmy masochistic righteousness becomes the stuff of high tragedy, as he locks himself off, Kane-like, from the world and turns an entire nation into the mirror of his self-annihilating disgrace. Oliver Stone has become the most exciting filmmaker of his time, and Nixon is the movie he was born to make, a soul-cleansing vision of the corruption of America." – Owen Gleiberman
7 of 25
Breaking the Waves (1996)
"Some movies are like fairy tales – they don't just tell stories, they cast spells – and Lars von Trier's lyrically transfixing epic of love, madness, martyrdom, and faith works that kind of magic. The moment we meet Bess, who enters into a marriage of erotic and spiritual bliss, becomes crazed with grief when her husband goes away, and is reunited with him through an act of God that would test Job, von Trier dips us into rivers of emotion that run deep beneath the surface of his story. The eerie power of Breaking the Waves derives from the way it combines portents and miracles with a dazzlingly "secular" documentary surface, mirroring a world in which mysticism is hidden within the everyday. Emily Watson, in a fearless, spooky, bewitching performance, is as spontaneous as a child at play, yet there's a grave enchantment to the way her trust is transmuted into open-eyed self-sacrifice. For Bess, love and religious fervor are inseparable. She doesn't take action so much as she simply believes. Years from now, I think Breaking the Waves will be remembered as the first great movie to tap the passions of the millennium – a hunger for utopia on earth, a yearning for transcendence that's a whisper away from doom." – Owen Gleiberman
8 of 25
Boogie Nights (1997)
"Paul Thomas Anderson's delirious porn-world epic is the most sheerly pleasurable movie I saw all year, and what makes it such a kicky and resonant experience is that its very subject is pleasure. Tracing the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, a triple-X superstar who rides the waves of post-counterculture hedonism until he can't stand up anymore, Anderson roots his movie in a definitive re-creation of the funky, bedazzled, cocaine-and-disco '70s, an era that is only just beginning to enter the realm of pop mythology because it now seems like the last moment in American life when people simply did what they wanted. Anderson embodies that ecstatic, shoot-the-works spirit in the gleeful freedom of his filmmaking. You feel, at every moment, that he's in love with what he's showing you, whether it's Mark Wahlberg, as Dirk, flashing his beautiful gaze of macho innocence as he dreams of becoming a "big bright shining star"; the high comedy of on-set porn shoots that play like Ed Wood without clothes; the cocky desperation of Burt Reynolds' fleshpot auteur saying "sexy!" in the back of a limo as he "directs" a gruesomely unerotic hardcore video; the ferocity of Heather Graham's Rollergirl removing her cheerleader mask to reveal the scary rage beneath; or – the year's most indelible scene – the thrill-happy dementia of Alfred Molina's motormouth addict merging himself with the chorus of "Sister Christian," a song that, in Boogie Nights, becomes a heavy metal requiem, a shrine to the eternal, unholy American quest for the next high." – Owen Gleiberman
9 of 25
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
"When I went to see Steven Spielberg's cataclysmic World War II masterpiece on opening weekend (it was my second viewing), most of the audience sat right through to the end of the closing credits. Few of us moved, or even spoke. We were too thunderstruck. Any movie that can create in its viewers this hushed and staggering a contemplation of the defining military conflict of the 20th century is nothing less than a seismic work of art. Yet such is the nature of our myopic media culture that I now feel compelled to defend Spielberg against the charge that he has filmed two extraordinary battle sequences and sandwiched some Hollywood combat cliches in between. I could go on about the performances (Tom Hanks' authority and clandestine turmoil, Jeremy Davies' terror), but the ultimate brilliance of Saving Private Ryan is the way it depicts the horror of World War II right alongside its heroism – indeed, the two are organically intertwined. As a vision of hell, the opening D-Day massacre may, in movie terms, rank with Picasso's Guernica, but when it's over, the spectre of war doesn't disappear. It haunts the soldiers' every breath. The final battle is wrenching in a less existential, more clear-eyed way. That's because the men now know each other, and they understand why they're fighting: not to save Private Ryan but to save what he stands for – the belief that another man's life is really your own." – Owen Gleiberman
10 of 25
Man on the Moon (1999)
"Comedian, mass-media joker, walking personality crisis: Andy Kaufman was all of these things, and the joy of Man on the Moon is the way that screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and director Milos Forman transform Kaufman's dance of life and performance into a dizzying and maniacally funny celebration of American showbiz. Jim Carrey's eerie, virtuosic impersonation doesn't tell us who Kaufman was inside, exactly, yet it captures the delirious thrill he took in making every moment a charade, perpetually playing someone else in order to play with your head. He was Latka Gravas and Elvis Presley, wanton woman wrestler and man on the moon – a sweet, spectral nerd forever split off from his scabrous, lounge-demon id, Tony Clifton. With a couple of decades' hindsight, the movie reassembles Kaufman into a cracked prophet of the Entertainment Age, a wild-man prankster who created his own form of hocus-pocus guerrilla theater. The teasing upshot is that only someone who was this disconnected, this much of a stranger even to himself, could have gone to such fearless and demented lengths to connect with an audience. In its celebration of Andy Kaufman's obsessive desire to burst the fourth wall, to leave you laughing with your jaw on the floor, Man on the Moon, more than The Truman Show or Being John Malkovich, emerges as a great, exhilarating fable for the era of virtual identity." – Owen Gleiberman
11 of 25
Chuck & Buck and Dancer in the Dark (2000)
"Chuck & Buck is a movie about a gawky 27-year-old arrested-development case who sucks on Blow Pops, talks like the dazed nerd who sat in the back of the class in sixth grade, and decides to stalk his boyhood best friend, whom he still obsessively adores. No one makes a movie like that without inviting people to call it "creepy." Yet Chuck & Buck, as written by its star, Mike White, and directed, with seamless video-shot intimacy, by Miguel Arteta, is the movie I saw this year that took me deepest inside the twisty minds and hearts of its characters, that made me laugh with the riskiest sensation of delight. Buck, portrayed by White in the year's most overlooked great performance, may be a sick joke of a hero, but he's so stuck in his stunted romantic dreams of "oodly-oodly oodly-oodly fun fun fun" that he attains a debauched innocence; he's like the squirmy id of a generation that clings to everything it's supposed to have outgrown. The sublime irony of Chuck & Buck, not unlike the one that powers Ed Wood or Boogie Nights, is that the film understands what a cringe-worthy loser Buck is, even as it inspires us to identify with the perverse purity of this pale, stricken mess of a man. The shock of it all is that Buck's past, a mystical memory garden of childhood, ends up coming alive for us as hauntingly as it does for him." – Owen Gleiberman
"Nervy, mesmerizing, and unlike anything we've ever seen before, Dancer in the Dark is one of those exceptional works of cinema that polarize for the best of reasons: because Lars von Trier's astonishing "Hollywood musical" is truly revolutionary. A blend of very old melodramatic elements and very new filmmaking techniques, it defies expectations every step of the way. And in the end, von Trier triumphs with a thrilling work of art that expands the vocabulary of the medium for a technologically liberated future. At its simplest Dancer depicts the operatic tragedy of a martyred mother, a Czech immigrant in 1960s rural America who is failed by the justice system of her adopted country. But the director explodes conventions even as he indulges in them: He creates music out of ambient noise, captures spiky, Busby Berkeley-busy choreography with an arsenal of video cameras, and casts the Icelandic pop star Bjork in the starring role, surrounding her with a probing international cast and encouraging the nonactress not to act but to be. Von Trier, who has never set foot in America, surfs such an unbreaking wave of American dreams that it's easy to succumb to Dancer in the Dark's power: Just sit in the dark and watch the light. The filmmaker will always be there to catch you when you fall." – Lisa Schwarzbaum
12 of 25
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Memento (2001)
"Hollywood can put men on Mars and dinosaurs in theme parks. But for all the technical alchemy available today, the ability to convey mythological grandeur is a gift not granted to many; it takes wizards to make art, in a business where the majority of us are Muggles at worst, hobbits at best. And in such a kingdom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring rules. This is how a great movie can tell a great story – when all involved are confident enough (and talented enough, and blessed with enough gold in the corporate coffers) to embrace the classic literature on which it's based as lifeblood, but not life support. Purists can rest assured that director Peter Jackson's beautiful adaptation is devoted to the richness of narrative and density of detail in J.R.R. Tolkien's towering fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the text on which the film is built. But movie lovers can also celebrate this first of three Rings installments because it's so clearly, joyfully true to its artistic vision as a movie – a vision grounded in cinema-epic tradition – which, in turn, compliments the intelligence of its audience, both the scholars as well as the uninitiated. As its own universe, Fellowship is complete and enchanting. It's also inspiring: Just as the Ring's heroic quest falls to that most gentle and unassuming of hobbits, young Frodo Baggins, so the thrill and majesty of Tolkien's resonant modern-day myth is enhanced by the steady devotion with which the filmmakers have worked their wonders." – Lisa Schwarzbaum
"Thriller is a word that long ago lost its thrill. This year, though, a fascinating evolutionary zigzag in movie culture took place: The thriller became the prestige enthrallment of choice. Sexy Beast, The Deep End, even In the Bedroom, with its domestic fusion of torment and firearms – these, in their disparate ways, were the new art thrillers. The greatest of them all, and the most cathartic and haunting movie experience I had this year, was Memento. For 113 spellbinding minutes, Christopher Nolan's visionary film noir places us directly inside the furiously revolving tape-loop brain of a man who has lost his short-term memory, his identity, maybe even his sanity, and who therefore clutches at every waking moment as if it held the answer to life itself. The audience clutches right along with him. Structured not so much backwards as sideways, so that the past and the future appear to be crashing, with atomic fury, from both ends into the present, Memento turns the very process of watching a movie into an investigation of how a splintered modern soul assembles itself into being. Guy Pearce, in the performance of the year, invests each tentative, do-or-die encounter with a volcanic desperation made flesh. The billboard of clues tattooed on his body – the ultimate To Do list – suggests nothing less than a crucible of the information age. Memento was scary, hypnotic, and profound. In a word, thrilling." – Owen Gleiberman
13 of 25
Far From Heaven and About Schmidt (2002)
"From the earliest days of Hollywood, moviemakers have tried to re-create the past on film. The beauty, and genius, of Todd Haynes' daydream of a 1950s Hollywood soap opera is the way that it re-creates the synthetic glories of the movie past, only to transform them into a universal canvas of hidden romantic longing. Haynes, in an act of technical and imaginative audacity, conjures the domestic hothouse world of director Douglas Sirk down to the last exquisitely too-perfect autumn leaf and cocktail-noir camera angle. Yet it isn't just the candied retro look of Far From Heaven that is brought off with such nimble virtuosity; so is its rapturous atmosphere of retro passion. Playing characters who are trapped, without knowing it, in a world that insists on straightening every last kink of romantic craving, Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haysbert turn their wholesome dialogue into pure poetry, a conduit for emotions too forbidden to be expressed. Haynes embraces the fakery of old Hollywood, but he loves its sincerity, too. As you watch Far From Heaven, the movie seems to keep asking whether this lavishly repressed landscape of '50s suburban artifice could possibly be our world as well. The answer, of course, is that it is and always will be – as long as decorum fights desire, and as long as our dreams of fulfillment remain inseparable from the movies that helped shape them." – Owen Gleiberman
"Of all the good movies that unspooled this year, the one that moved me most celebrated the constricted life of an average Midwestern retired insurance actuary. Although About Schmidt is, in its way, a social satire, and in some places even a comedy, at its core it's a bracing paean to a certain kind of American Everyman resilient enough to deserve a parade. Warren Schmidt isn't a hero; no member of the Greatest Generation ever looked so indistinguishable from the knickknacks and wallpaper around him. "Don't dillydally!" Schmidt is admonished by his up-and-at-'em wife – and Jack Nicholson, in one of the best roles of his career – doesn't have to be told twice. The actor, in his 60s, plays a man in his 60s with a weary dignity that, like Schmidt's astonishing comb-over, doesn't get dislodged even when he is splayed and jiggling hilariously on a water bed. And as the pensioner takes to the open roads, driving his Winnebago from Omaha to Denver to visit his resentful grown daughter, Nicholson never lets us forget Schmidt's basic, bewildered decency. Alexander Payne's great handmade American beauty, a comedy of national character assembled from hundreds of acutely observed details of national mannerisms, expands into something much bigger and more important than a quirky follow-up to Election from a bard of Omaha: It becomes a specimen of personal moviemaking at its most accomplished.” – Lisa Schwarzbaum
14 of 25
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and American Splendor (2003)
" 'Well, I'm back. That's Sam the hobbit speaking, succinctly marking his place at the end of The Return of the King. But it's also me speaking – and millions like me – back for one last time in thrall to the movie magic that mortals have conjured in The Lord of the Rings. Out of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary epic, New Zealand director Peter Jackson has fashioned a cinematic masterwork, a trilogy that has stood as a classic since our first glimpse of the bucolic Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring, back in 2001. And in his concluding chapter, Jackson has established a new template of grandeur for the Big Finish: a 200-minute saga that feels huge but scaled for humans, massive but urgent. The Return of the King is a visual spectacle, a state-of-the-art display of technical flair, and a showpiece of plot density and narrative rhythms. But even as the thousandth monstrous orc falls, what moves us more is our identification with the stakes these mythical characters are fighting for, men and elves and hobbits alike – notions of enslavement and freedom made powerfully relevant by the grace of the filmmaker's storytelling. The digitally created monsters are awesome; the organically created feeling of pertinence to our own embattled world is even more profound. It's why we feel we too have alighted from a transforming journey at the trilogy's end. And why we'll keep coming back to reexperience the voyage." – Lisa Schwarzbaum
"The way Hollywood works now, you could go to a different movie every day and see nothing but fantasy. On the other hand, there's the funny, grungy, desperate, moving catharsis of American Splendor, the tale of a lonely, badly dressed file clerk from the lower depths of Cleveland who turns his life into a comic book--not to escape reality but to redeem it. As a boy, Harvey Pekar goes out for Halloween costumed as himself; he doesn't see how you could want to be anyone but who you are. It's no wonder that he can't find his entrance into the America of plastic smiles and makeover dreams. Paul Giamatti, in a hilarious and touching performance, turns Pekar into the unlikeliest of movie heroes, a tubby, sputtering misfit grouch chained to his quirks, his questionable grooming habits, his nerds' convention of friends – to everything that makes him him. He's a beautiful loser who stumbles out from under a cloud of doom by embracing the grand, inglorious art of his ordinariness. Hope Davis, as the cutie-pie crank who marries him, plays her as the only woman on earth who would, making this a love story that feels as rare as a miracle. Reflecting Pekar's life, codirectors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have made a film that cracks open into a comic book that morphs into a documentary, only to snap back into the most boisterous, tender, and crazily exquisite movie of the year." – Owen Gleiberman
15 of 25
OWEN I guess it had to happen sooner or later, Lisa. You and I, as always, have made a variety of different choices on our 10-best lists, but for the first time in nine year-end issues we've picked the same movie as our favorite.
LISA I know — initially I thought, how unimaginative of us, and then I thought, how persuasive of Sideways.
OWEN I feel like the film chose me more than I chose it. It's such a humane, delectable comedy, yet what I also cherish about Sideways is how magically straightforward it is.
LISA Right: Guys go on trip, guys drink wine, guys come home and take baby steps toward change.
OWEN There's a lovely simplicity about it. Tracing the path of these two buddies, who really do come off as if they've been needling each other since their freshman year of college, director Alexander Payne works with a precision and wit and grace and craft that reminds me of what Hollywood used to do back in the glory days of the studio system. As rich as it is, the movie is effortless.
LISA Two good words there: "effortless" and "humane." I'll see you and raise you two more: "modest" (as in, modest about its own charm) and "compassionate." I don't think it's an accident that critics are ecstatic about such a chamber-size, indie-toned production in a year of such extreme political and cultural bombast.
OWEN You mean because so many critics look like Paul Giamatti?
LISA And pine for Virginia Madsen. Actually, I love Sideways as much for the pleasing proportions of Payne's offbeat classic of an American road picture (cast with less-than-famous actors riding to glory) as for the gentleness with which the film faces up to the dings that men and women accumulate over the years. The title turns out to describe not only how four characters blow through middle-class life, but also the seemingly (but only seemingly) casual path the filmmaker takes in dramatizing their intertwined plights.
OWEN Okay, but it's not as if those of us who love Sideways are taking refuge in the comfortableness of its pleasures. There's an extraordinary subtlety to the movie that isn't always talked about. Take, for instance, the whole midlife conundrum of Paul Giamatti's Miles: Sure, he's got to get over his divorce and realize that he should hook up with Virginia Madsen's oenophile waitress — but considering how much she obviously likes him, that's not really his dilemma. His problem is that once he finally admits to himself that he's a failed novelist, what's he going to do? In a way that's never quite stated outright, Miles stands in for an entire generation (or two) of earnest "creative" pipe dreamers who put off for years, or even decades, coming to grips with the real world. The irony — the grand joke — of his insanely descriptive wine patter is that when it comes to what he does for a living, he's a man who hasn't been following his bliss, even though it's literally right under his nose.
LISA Well, to clarify your clarification, no one's talking about refuge here. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Payne's triumph as a filmmaker, I think, is to demonstrate that the problems of four little people can amount to much more than a hill of beans in this crazy world, etc. — and that sometimes the finest filmmaking is also the simplest. About the fanciest special effect the picture employs is a jaunty, retro sequence of perfectly chosen split-screen travelogue images as the buddies tootle down verdant vineyard roads — including the cinema's best use of a SoCal fancy-farm ostrich in movie-star close-up...
OWEN Which, incidentally, sets up the funniest line of the year: Thomas Haden Church's throwaway reference to getting caught on an ostrich farm—nude. To me, Lisa, Sideways, in that simple and direct way you're talking about, is so hilarious and intimate, so perfect in its vision of a loser who tries to transcend his neuroses, that I think it may come closer than any film of the indie era to rivaling the glow of Annie Hall.
LISA In honor of Sideways, I'll refrain from making any further wine-soaked references except this toast to our mutual favorite: Cheers!
– Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman
16 of 25
"The word suspense has a fanciful, only-in-the-movies aura. Steven Spielberg's brilliant political thriller is a work of spectacular and unsettling excitement, but it's driven, in every frame, by the heightened suspense of reality. Taking off, with jittery media urgency, from the 1972 Olympics hostage crisis, which ended with the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, Spielberg plunges the audience into Israel's legendary shadow mission of reprisal. Eric Bana, as the leader of a clandestine hit squad of furious, quibbling, at times comically earnest Jewish journeyman-soldiers, creates a hero of naive and wrenching nobility: a deadly mensch. As he and his fellow operatives navigate a world of jerry-rigged explosives, sleazy Continental information peddlers, and split-second getaways through the labyrinth of urban Europe, their trek of vengeance teeters between the holy and the unholy, and Spielberg, mixing fact and speculation, stages the mission as it might actually have occurred — the victories, the cataclysmic mistakes, the raw nerve colliding with anxiety. Munich demands to be viewed as a statement on our world of terror, but not because Spielberg or co-screenwriter Tony Kushner take any incendiary stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, it's because the movie, in the mesmerizing hair-trigger truths of its action, reveals how political murder, even when it's justified, is less a solution than a virus, one that infects the attackers as much as the enemy." – Owen Gleiberman
17 of 25
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
"Clint Eastwood announced from the start that he intended to tell the story of the terrible Battle of Iwo Jima twice, first from the American point of view and then from the Japanese. It was impossible to do justice to so big and complicated a story otherwise, he said. And so he made Flags of Our Fathers, which was a good, if earthbound, portrait of GI bravery overtaken by wartime hype — an earnest think piece about image and reality in the service of patriotism. Then he made Letters From Iwo Jima, which is an austere, radiant stunner — a soaring achievement, as Eastern in its appreciation of group discipline as Flags is Western in its contemplation of individual responsibility. In this year of disastrous war when American soldiers are again fighting a culture so confounding to our own, the elemental gravity and dignity of Letters — spoken almost entirely in Japanese, played out by Japanese actors all but one of whom are virtually unknown to a Stateside audience — is all the more resonant and meaningful. With calm control and utmost respect, a quintessentially American director has made a war picture that honors every soldier (and soldier's mother) everywhere, with the superb care of an old moviemaking pro who continues to grow as an artist." – Lisa Schwarzbaum
18 of 25
I'm Not There (2007)
"It's a biopic, an essay, a folk-rock opera, and a dream, all rolled into the headiest musical ever made. It's also the year's most daring vision, though the obsessive head-tickling sprawl of Todd Haynes' sublime meditation on the music and mystery of Bob Dylan wouldn't amount to a hill of guitar picks if the film weren't also so intimate and reverent and moving. The glory of I'm Not There is the way Haynes invites us not just to watch, but to enter the movie and wander around inside it; to fuse with Dylan's quest for something uncanny — a beauty that could save us all. Haynes divides Dylan into six different actors, riffing on the mythological trickery of his image as a folk singer/rock star/outlaw, but the reason for this gambit isn't that Dylan was actually such a chameleon. (As a cultural shape-shifter, he paled next to the Beatles, David Bowie, or Madonna.) Rather, what the actors project is how he kept changing inside as he searched and burned his light out from within, only to restore that light with each new "self." You touch Dylan's rapture, and the sadness on the other side of it, when Richard Gere, as a Western wanderer, comes across a bandstand ensemble playing "Goin' to Acapulco"; when Heath Ledger, as a sullen superstar, his marriage in tatters, gazes into the abyss that opened after the '60s; and whenever Cate Blanchett is on screen in her blithely spectacular performance as a drugged-out pop idol who crucifies himself with the media's lies. When "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" mists its way across the soundtrack, and Blanchett-as-Dylan fixes the audience with a Mona Lisa smile, it's the most gorgeous moment in any movie this year: an image of transcendence lost and found." – Owen Gleiberman
19 of 25
"Years from now — yea, unto eternity — all who love movies will rank WALL•E among the medium's most profound, subtle, sophisticated, and gorgeously inventive specimens, ever. Never before have robots, Twinkies, a cockroach, and a lone, tenacious plant seedling intertwined so elegantly to tell a story of endurance, optimism, love at first sight, courtship, ecological destruction, postapocalyptic redemption, and...well, eternity. In fact, the scope of this epic often defies the limitations of words — and WALL•E pays homage with great wordless stretches during which the goggle-eyed robot walks the walk rather than talks the talk. This tale of honest interspecies love in an age of corpulent, sedentary humans also defies the limitations of the photographic image—and that's what makes WALL•E a perfect fit for Pixar's CGI animation genius. We live in a thrilling moment when stunning technological innovation is reshaping the contours of moviemaking and, indeed, the structure of storytelling. WALL•E brilliantly seizes those opportunities with a thoughtful joy that speaks to both animation-savvy kids and cartoon-suspicious grown-ups. And out of the bond between a machine built for compacting trash and his egg-shaped, futuristic cohort, a modern masterpiece is hatched." – Lisa Schwarzbaum
20 of 25
Up in the Air (2009)
"What do you call a movie that's at once a lighter-than-air screwball comedy; a timely-as-today snapshot of an America torn and frayed by economic terror; and a fly-the-friendly-skies portrait of a lonely-rogue charmer who believes that his roving corporate lifestyle is the new secret of life? I call it the most originally enchanting movie of the year — and, just maybe, a new classic. As Ryan Bingham, a carefree professional downsizer who leaps from airport to airport, carving out his own cookie-cutter pleasure zone, George Clooney gives the most finely honed, deeply etched performance of his life, mingling the effortless old-school-movie-star charisma of an idol like Clark Gable with a quietly contemporary, self-questioning melancholy that grows richer and more haunting as the film goes on. Vera Farmiga, as his sexy fellow traveler, and Anna Kendrick, as a perky bottom-line office chipmunk, bring an up-to-the-minute feminine vivacity to the screen, and director Jason Reitman, far more than he did in either Thank You for Smoking or Juno, proves a master of tone, blithely juggling romance and comedy, hope and despair. In Up in the Air, Reitman catches the mood of a new America, a place where everything, from travel to romance to firing people, is mediated through the seductive detachment of technology. The movie is finally a portrait of loss: of careers in free fall, of a man who comes to see that his "happy" existence, as he soars over the heaviness of life, is really a mirage. But the loss stings only because the film's embrace of what really matters is so moving and true." – Owen Gleiberman
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The Social Network (2010)
"Because of the artistic, technological, and financial challenges involved, movies are not built for a speedy response to cultural headlines. For that, there's the television, the Internet, and the tweet. What movies can do, though — if they're willing to take the risk — is use the lag time as an asset to synthesize, reflect on, and dramatize those headlines with an authority and perspective unique to the medium. No film did that better this year, or with more enthralling results, than The Social Network. The project tells a version of the creation of Facebook, the globe-changing online social media site that continues to expand even this minute. But with Aaron Sorkin spinning the words, the zippy-smart story encompasses a sharp meditation on the intersection of intellectual genius, business ruthlessness, male geekdom, and the sexual insecurities that drive everyone to do everything. With Jesse Eisenberg in the starring role in a performance class all his own, the movie imagines a riveting version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who represents a phenomenally powerful new breed of young entrepreneurs. And with David Fincher in full control of his visually potent cinematic talents, The Social Network is the rare movie whose form exactly matches and, indeed, deepens its content. Lisa Schwarzbaum likes this." – Lisa Schwarzbaum
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The Tree of Life (2011)
"There's been so much talk about the cosmic dimension of Terrence Malick's visionary and transporting movie (that astro-evolutionary prologue! scenes set in — God forbid — the afterlife!) that the whole debate, in many ways, has overshadowed the stirring intimacy of Malick's achievement. He has made the rare mystical drama that's planted in the everyday — a slice of 1950s life and death told with such startling, off-center vividness that it's like the movie James Joyce might have made if only he'd had a handheld camera. True, not every Hollywood drama opens with a 17-minute sequence depicting the formation of the earth. Yet that prelude, which marries evolution and creationism, is so stunning — and, if watched with open eyes, so accessible — that it reduced this critic to a 10-year-old staring awestruck at a planetarium. Malick lures us into viewing the earth, and its inhabitants, as clashing natural forces, so that when we leap ahead to a pastoral Texas suburb and the troubled family that lives there, we don't just see the American postwar trappings. We see the characters, through Malick's God's-eye-view camera, as touchingly vulnerable creatures. Chief among them is Brad Pitt, magnificent as a strict, loving, raging, and deeply reverent father. The Tree of Life is a great film, because it cues us to the transcendence of every moment." – Owen Gleiberman
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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
"In Zero Dark Thirty, a decade of post- 9/11 pain is distilled into a rigorously reported drama about the controversial, shadowy work of countless Americans to find the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Which is then distilled into the fact-based story of one of them, an obsessed CIA analyst. (It so happens she's a woman.) Who, played with pale fire by Jessica Chastain, becomes the human fuse that ignites the SEAL Team Six raid that, in the movie's heart-pounding climax, accomplishes the mission that signified so much to so many. Go ahead, see the picture, and argue about the uses of torture, the mining of secrets, the place of America today. This outstanding second collaboration, following The Hurt Locker, between journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow is built powerfully enough to absorb all outpourings of emotion. There's not a moment wasted, and not a scene without a purpose. Chastain's Maya is determined, driven, anguished, and ardent; so too is Zero Dark Thirty. That's its power, and that's why it's the best and most important movie of the year." – Lisa Schwarzbaum
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12 Years a Slave (2013)
“Steve McQueen's agonizing masterpiece is the first movie to dramatize the experience of slavery in all its fear, madness, and horror — that is, in the terrifying intimacy of its brutality. As Solomon Northup, a free black man who is ripped away from his family and sold into slavery, Chiwetel Ejiofor lets his emotions breathe right through his skin. The film never lets you forget that Solomon is really a free man; its brilliant strategy is to use that fact to heighten the unnaturalness of slavery. Solomon is trapped on a plantation run by a master (Michael Fassbender) who senses, on some level, that this is not the natural order. That's why he's driven to enforce it with such inhumanity and terror. 12 Years a Slave is a suspensefully unsparing vision, with a violence that scalds (Lupita Nyong'o is staggering as a slave girl subjected to the torments of the damned). Yet the film balances despair and perseverance, pain and transcendence. As such, it is a true reckoning with history. To watch 12 Years a Slave is to know the primal sin of America in a way you didn't know it before the movie began.” – Owen Gleiberman
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"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job. Such is the philosophy of J.K. Simmons' monstrous music instructor Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle's thrillingly brutal masterpiece Whiplash. With his bullet-shaped bald head, mad-dog eyes, and bite that's every bit as bad as his bark, Fletcher is like a vicious Marine drill sergeant at Parris Island. His latest recruit is Andrew Neiman (brilliantly played by Miles Teller), a cocky jazz-drummer prodigy whom he puts through a meat grinder of physical and verbal abuse. We've all seen movies like this before: A naive kid is beaten down only to then be built back up. But Chazelle has more on his mind than 106 minutes of bebop, bleeding palms, and bluster. He's grappling with Big Ideas — ambition, alienation, and the psychological toll of pursuing perfection — via two actors who boil over with bare-knuckle intensity. Whiplash is a film that electrifies you with its live-wire beat." – Chris Nashawaty