Thrillers, killers and Joan Rivers top the year's best films

Every other one of this year's dramas automatically falls a notch in the wake of Winter's Bone, one of the most hauntingly powerful films I've seen in ages. You will not enjoy watching this story, but don't let that discourage you from seeing it, because this film is riveting. So raw and realistic are the portrayals that at times I felt sure I was watching a documentary about life in Missouri's rural Ozarks. (DL)

As pure action, Inception delivers crunching chases, snowmobile pursuits and one gravity-defying fistfight that becomes the final smackdown to every other pretender to the Matrix throne. As imaginative visual showpiece, it gives you a world where stairways bend in Escher-esque directions. As an exercise in multi-level storytelling, it should become one for the film-studies textbooks. That should be enough for any movie-lover to ask for—but director Christopher Nolan gives us more. The emotional weight he adds to the main character's tale pushes the film to balance questions about the way we shape our reality with pure adrenaline excitement. (SR)

click to enlarge Inception
  • Inception

Only long after leaving A Single Man did I try thinking in lists as a way to fix some tentative coordinates on the movie, on the shimmery feeling it left me with. I grasped for a list of other movies that elicited that same vibrating response the first time I saw them, like a gong ringing without a mighty whap or a snare drumhead rattling to a special frequency in the room. I could think of other movies with characters going about their final days on earth before suicides or other potentially life-ending events planned beforehand, but nothing that seemed to whack exactly the same giant tuning fork. (AS)

Though no one person is responsible for causing the catastrophic worldwide financial crisis of 2008, many of those who appear on camera in Inside Job were complicit in either creating the conditions that caused it, ignoring the many warning signs years in advance and/or failing to properly penalize the responsible parties. Inside Job is an education. Until now only National Public Radio has dared to try and explain the crisis from beginning to end using more than the standard four-minute news clip. (DL)

The Ghost Writer is a somber-looking movie, all November gray and rain, with the interiors of a beach house not much warmer than the slate-gray scenery outside. It's brilliantly set on an island, the isolation of which is repeatedly underscored to the viewer, and that has a wonderful multiplier effect on director Roman Polanski's customary foreboding. Although The Ghost Writer was in the can before his arrest, so clearly does the former prime minister's predicament at the heart of the story reflect Polanski's troubles that it's hard not to read the movie as eerily prescient allegory. And that's a shame, because this is the work of a master and deserves better than to be tainted by Polanski's past purely because of its weird timing. (AS)

click to enlarge Shutter Island
  • Shutter Island

Exit Through The Gift Shop is a mocking film. It mocks how our society defines modern art, how it's possible to create a superstar artist overnight despite a lack of any discernible talent, and how we the sheep will pay exorbitant amounts of money for that art on the basis of an invented reputation. However you want to define it—hoax or not—this is a wonderfully entertaining film. (DL)

Here's why I'm prepared to call the Coen brothers the greatest living American filmmakers: After 25 years, they not only continue to make great movies, but they keep finding new ways to surprise me. In taking on the second adaptation of Charles Portis' novel True Grit it might have seemed as though the Coens just wanted to add "vintage Western" to the list of genre roads they've traveled. Instead, they've subtly crafted what may be their most deeply felt movie yet. (SR)

Doug Hawes-Davis' Facing the Storm may be the most comprehensively concise examination of how and why we managed to nearly eradicate 30 million animals from the Great Plains in less than 50 years, and what's being done today to ensure the survival of the wild herds. Hawes-Davis manages to instill a familiar tale with freshness, thanks to some fantastic archival footage. Even more powerful is the eerie and beautiful stop-motion silhouette animation created by Missoula filmmaker and artist Andy Smetanka. (DL)

In The Town, Ben Affleck has a keen sense for the crime thriller genre. There were plenty of effectively tense moments in Gone Baby Gone, and he nails that tension again here, particularly during the climactic robbery of Fenway Park. But he's also surprisingly terrific at action set pieces, including a thrilling extended car chase through the narrow streets, and a cops-and-robbers gunfight that's edited with surgical precision. (SR)

Right down to the last detail, North Face is an homage to the mountain film. The horsing around in lighter scenes seems practically scripted for the silent camera, so easy is it to imagine the intertitles. But all this changes abruptly when the climbers start up the mountain: You are there on that North Face of the Eiger, and how. For me it was like two amazing experiences in one: a retro fantasia and a killer action-suspense movie. (AS)

It would be hard to argue that the aging comedienne Joan Rivers doesn't make a fascinating documentary subject. And while it's one thing to be a good subject, it's another to craft an engaging narrative when that subject is already an overexposed celebrity. By capturing those moments of reinvention with an honest eye and avoiding the traps that could easily have turned this into a sycophantic puff piece, directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sunberg have done something remarkable in A Piece of Work: They've managed to turn a caricature back into a person. (DL)

click to enlarge A Piece of Work
  • A Piece of Work

What director Martin Scorcese achieves in Shutter Island is a dark and labyrinthine tale built with a narrative foundation strong enough to corral even the most skeptical viewer, yet peppered with enough subtle cracks to support the surreal twists that ultimately take this movie into rarefied air. It is a film that burrows like a worm through your eyeballs and into your brain for days after you view it, in the best way possible. (ND)

click to enlarge The Ghost Writer
  • The Ghost Writer

Film reviews by Dave Loos, Andy Smetanka, Scott Renshaw and Nick Davis.

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