1) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik) It may be set more than 100 years ago, but Andrew Dominik's western about celebrity mythology and obsession was the year's most relevant film. The fan/star relationship between the kid, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), and outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) addresses criminal glorification, combining machismo with emo idolatry. The Terrence Malick comparisons that accompanied its release were wrong: The Assassination of Jesse James has a gripping vibrancy all its own.
2) No Country For Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)Another modern spin on the Western, this time with the Coen Brothers considering a shift in American values. Old men vie for a past that may not exist. There are bad guys, and very bad guys. Everyone's placed along a spectrum of morality. The Coens adapt Cormac McCarthy's novel, supplanting his dense writing style with precise imagery. For long stretches, it's a silent film.
3)Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)A Nazi movie from the satirist behind Showgirls and Robocop is just asking for it. But when Paul Verhoeven has his heroine literally dumped in feces, the feeling of degradation is absolutely sincere. Verhoeven balances glamour and sleaze in '40s-style melodrama. His genre leanings make for a war film that's easy to watch and tough to process in hindsight. The adventure tropes give the injustices an unprecedented sting.
4)Stuck (Stuart Gordon)A young, cornrow-haired nurse (Mena Suvari) hits a homeless man (Stephen Rea) with her car, leaving him stuck in her windshield for days. Director Stewart Gordon of Re-Animator shot Stuck in New Brunswick, yet it only played at a late-night Atlantic Film Fest screening and is still pending release. That's too bad: Gordon takes his B-movies seriously. None of the "important" stuff this year had Stuck's clarity about economic and racial difference.
5) Hairspray (Adam Shankman)John Waters' cult touchstone and the Broadway hit now become a lively teen movie. Hairspray brings ampathy and a populist connection to its outsider values.
6) Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)The dramatic narrative remake of Herzog's own documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly has no shortage of reality—Herzog and his actors go through many of the survivalist feats of the characters just to get them on film. This naturalism separates Rescue Dawn's POW escape tale among action films.
7) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)The way bio movies are celebrated for exhibiting celebrities is sickening. But the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby—the former editor of French Elle magazine—really is extraordinary. Paralyzed from head to toe after a stroke, Bauby only moves his left eye. He communicates through blinking. The film is stylishly seen through Bauby's mind's eye, lifting it above bio-formula.
8) Ratatouille (Brad Bird)After Pixar stalled with Cars, the surprise of Ratatouille's Cyrano de Bergerac-story was its sensibility about excitement for new artistic creation. Rat-hero Remy is an unlikely chef in Ratatouille's visions of Paris.
9) Hot Rod (Akiva Schaffer)The triumph of Andy Samberg's semi-spoof of 1980s underdog sports movies is that it's semi-sincere. In Walk Hard, Judd Apatow doesn't care about Walk the Line, but Samberg and Akiva Schaffer love Rad and The Karate Kid. Through stuntman Rod Kimble, Hot Rod sees eye-to-eye with the '80s suburban kids whose comic sensibilities now dominate YouTube.
10)Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton)The Burton/Sondheim combo is dreary as hell—so much so that when sunshine appears in one sequence, it's as a joke. This commitment makes it such an obscure movie musical. The coal-like textures of Sweeney Todd come close to capturing big-screen Edward Gorey drawings.