1. "Gone Baby Gone" (Ben Affleck)
Last year saw superb efforts from my three favorite junior filmmakers - Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson - but, quite inexplicably, the debut feature of A-list has-been Ben Affleck was the film that left the most profound impression on me. There's so much to praise in this Boston-based kidnapping drama that I'm not sure where to begin: Affleck's astonishingly assured direction; the uniformly exceptional cast; a screenplay that challenges viewers' worldviews just as readily as it envelops them in an old-fashioned crime yarn. This was not only the finest film of the year, but the greatest movie-going experience I've had since 2000's "Requiem for a Dream." Three months and three viewings later, I'm still haunted by it.
2. "Death Proof" (Quentin Tarantino)
I don't get all the hate. When I first saw it, my companion and I both stumbled out of the theater, completely drunk on Tarantino's wholly unique film-geek energy. This loving tribute to '70s exploitation films and gear-head flicks (paired with Robert Rodriguez's more acclaimed but clearly inferior zombie opus "Planet Terror" as part of a double feature called "Grindhouse") was the most fun I've had at the movies since "Sin City," thanks in part to the filmmaker's enthralling signature dialogue, but mostly due to that wondrous extended chase sequence that makes up the movie's final half-hour. It's one for the ages.
3. "Eastern Promises" (David Cronenberg)
When the credits rolled on this subversive mob tale, I was somewhat deflated - not because Cronenberg's film is anything less than stellar, but because it intrigued me so thoroughly that I wished it had gone on for another two hours. The central character -- a morally conflicted "driver," played by Viggo Mortensen, who is intent on moving up in the ranks of the Russian mafia - is so complex and layered that he could easily be the subject of several prequels and sequels. Extending his characters' stories beyond one film isn't exactly Cronenberg's style, but a guy can dream …
4. "Zodiac" (David Fincher)
This chronicle of the infamous Zodiac murder spree was a change of pace for Fincher, who made a name for himself with the flashy editing and complicated kinetics of films like "Fight Club" and "Panic Room." Based on the writings of political cartoonist turned amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith (portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose awkward gawkiness serves him well, for once), the film is primarily a police procedural. Fincher does reins in his more visceral filmmaking impulses, but he never sacrifices tension in the service of solemnity. I've seen the movie twice - once on the big screen and again on DVD -- and found that it plays better the second time, when you're familiar with the details of the case and can focus on the more subtle aspects of Graysmith's quest to identify and confront the face of evil.
5. "There Will Be Blood" (Paul Thomas Anderson)
No film last year was more alive with fire and venom, or less afraid to present an almost comically bleak view of humanity's failings. Those failings are embodied by oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance that absolutely neuters the rest of the year's acting efforts), whose ambition and greed is so complete that nothing else matters - not his son, not his partners, and certainly not the landowners he ruthlessly exploits. Anderson's movie provides fascinating insight into the early days of the oil business, but is at its best when focusing on the rivalry between Plainview and young preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, best known as the teenage son in "Little Miss Sunshine"), whose false piety clashes with Plainview's avarice, triggering one of cinema's most memorable showdowns.
6. "The Mist" (Frank Darabont)
I realize this is not the most traditional choice for such high placement on a top 10 list, but I'll defend this endlessly entertaining adaptation of Stephen King's novella 'til my dying breath. Yes, it's a genre piece, and yes, it features a bunch of bloodthirsty, other-worldly bugs terrorizing people barricaded in a grocery store. But as Roger Ebert has said, it's not what a film is about that's important, but how it is about it. Darabont proves this adage true by taking an inherently silly story and turning it into something approaching art. This creature feature operates like a well-oiled machine, and closes with a valiantly downbeat departure from King's original story that imparts an important moral lesson for these perilous times: Never, ever lose hope.
7. "Knocked Up" (Judd Apatow)
Apatow's sophomore effort (following "The 40-Year-Old Virgin") was the year's funniest raunchy comedy and, simultaneously, one of its most earnestly heartfelt romances. There's plenty of sex jokes and drug humor to go around, but the film - starring Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl as two people trying to make it work after a one-night stand results in pregnancy -- also has a big heart beating beneath all those layers of filth. "Juno" was the pregnancy comedy that got most of the acclaim, but Apatow's work is infinitely superior and genuinely hip, as opposed to self-consciously mod. And if there's any semblance of justice left in Hollywood, Rogen will become a star.
8. "Once" (John Carney)
I wasn't expecting to like this bare-bones romance as much as I did, but it's difficult to resist the film's simplistic charms. There's no story to speak of; just two people meeting, connecting and expressing that connection through their music. Stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova lend the unnamed protagonists an affable magnetism, and the viewer instantly becomes invested in their situation despite the fact that their backgrounds are only vaguely defined. The soft-rock soundtrack, featuring such beautiful ballads as "Falling Slowly" and "When Your Mind's Made Up," is a definite plus.
9. "After the Wedding" (Susanne Bier)
Like "The Mist," this Danish import works far better than it should. Normally, such a melodramatic soap opera could be written off as false and shameless, but a high caliber of acting and a screenplay that dodges genre trappings help the film rise above its station to become a truly affecting family drama. Mads Mikkelsen (seen recently as a Bond villain in "Casino Royale") headlines, but it's Rolf Lassgard, as a secretive business tycoon and family man, who gives the movie its emotional punch. It's an understated performance for the most part, save for a scene near the end that broke my heart like nothing else last year.
10. "Superbad" (Greg Mottola)
Most of my praise for "Knocked Up" can also be applied to this teen sex comedy, which was produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Seth Rogen. Tracking 24 hours in the lives of three high school seniors (including the priceless Michael Cera) as they scheme for sex and booze, the film is a sort of reinvention of the genre. It's more "Dazed and Confused" than "Porky's," and deviates from the traditional sex comedy framework just enough to be called revolutionary. With any luck, it will inspire a new breed of teen comedies that are just as fresh, funny and sincere.
The Next 10
11. "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" (Seth Gordon)
12. "Michael Clayton" (Tony Gilroy)
13. "No Country for Old Men" (Joel and Ethan Coen)
14. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Tim Burton)
15. "The Host" (Joon-ho Bong)
16. "No End in Sight" (Charles Ferguson)
17. "300" (Zack Snyder)
18. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (Sidney Lumet)
19. "The Kingdom" (Peter Berg)
20. "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (Ken Loach)
1. Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"
2. Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton"
3. Rolf Lassgard in "After the Wedding"
4. Ed Harris in "Gone Baby Gone"
5. Marcia Gay Harden in "The Mist"
6. Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton"
7. Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"
8. Paul Dano in "There Will Be Blood"
9. Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone"
10. Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
1. Ship's Mast ("Death Proof")
2. Remy's robbery ("Gone Baby Gone")
3. The false prophet ("There Will Be Blood")
4. Lumbering harbinger of doom ("The Mist")
5. Bathhouse brawl ("Eastern Promises")
6. Jorgen's breakdown ("After the Wedding")
7. Murder at Lake Berryessa ("Zodiac")
8. Hotel shootout ("No Country for Old Men")
9. Davy Jones' Locker ("Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End")
10. "Falling Slowly" ("Once")
Most Promising Movies I Didn't See
1. "Into the Wild" (Sean Penn)
2. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Julian Schnabel)
3. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
4. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (Cristian Mungiu)
5. "In the Valley of Elah" (Paul Haggis)