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Film has always been a passion of mine, and in now-traditional fashion I’d like to present the 15 best films of the year, in my humble opinion. First, a couple of disclaimers. Although I make an effort to see most of the movies which I think have a chance of making this list, I can’t see every movie. So, it’s certainly possible that a couple of films slipped through the cracks and deserve to be on this list, but aren’t. If you think something deserves to be here, please tell me!

Next, this list will be subject to change. I’ve been known to expand it to the top 20 films, and I reserve the right to edit this list frequently as I see the movies a second time, or just have second thoughts.

Now, the list.

If you click the links, you can view the film trailers…

15. Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In)

An entirely original take on the vampire/horror genre, this genre-bending Swedish film (a Swedish vampire movie?) is an isolationist coming-of-age story with loads more heart than creepiness and gore. Definitely worth seeing even if you’re not usually a fan of vampires.

14. Wendy and Lucy

There’s nothing minimal about this minimalist film– filmed locally right here in Oregon. Its extremely low budget gave this film some real limits, but its subtle tones and implicit emotional underpinnings make this lonely character study particularly poignant for our economic times.

13. Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh, usually known for his cynicism, makes his commentary on optimism here. Loaded with irony and tongue-in-cheek looks at its ceaselessly cheerful (and terribly annoying) main character, Poppy, this film is ultimately about how far she’ll go to maintain that optimism. The film’s real magic comes out during Poppy’s interactions with her driving instructor, Scott, who offers the biggest challenge to her optimism– and ultimately brings out the worst in her cheer.

12. In Bruges

Clever, witty, entertaining– I was surprised by how tightly well written this script was. As a cynical comedy, it was bested this year by only ‘Burn After Reading’.

11. Milk

Sean Penn is brilliant in his portrayal of Harvey Milk in this true story of the first openly gay man elected to public office, a Gus Van Sant film. This movie isn’t breaking any new ground as a film, but it’s a well-acted and an inspirational tribute, not just to Milk, but to the power of political will and activism.

10. Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard directed, this film is best as a character study of Richard Nixon, played brilliantly by Frank Langella. Frost’s story is mostly a banal backdrop to Nixon’s personal and intellectual motivations. Nixon is portrayed as an intellectual mastermind, though deeply troubled and disconnected. Don’t be mistaken, this is a character study before it is a political commentary, but it’s difficult to avoid making comparisons to current political environments.

9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Perhaps more a criticism of passion than an endorsement for it, this Woody Allen film is endlessly witty and cleverly woven together. This is easily the most gripping film from Allen in the last decade, and I’m definitely digging the Johansson/Allen match– a chemistry which was missing in the horrible ‘Match Point’. These Allen-designed characters, always biting, complex and explicit, have the potential to bring out the best in actresses, and the best performance here comes unexpectedly from Penelope Cruz.

8. The Visitor

Richard Jenkins is stellar in this role, of a bored and uninspired old professor, who discovers himself again when he becomes open to seeing life anew through the eyes of others. A touching, relatable film that at times alludes to larger, cultural commentary without losing its heart as a simple character story.

7. Frozen River

A gripping, real film which subtly touches on struggles at so many different levels, whether institutional, cross-cultural, racial, educational, economic, familial or personal. A wonderful performance from Melissa Leo here caps off one of the better scripts of the year.

6. Burn After Reading

The Cohen Brothers do it again, this time more playfully than in last year’s ‘No Country for Old Men’, but equally as poignant and entertaining. This is easily the best assembled cast of the year– an intricate cultural commentary, alight with confusion, stupidity and conflict which ultimately results in a shallow, simple woman getting a boob job to help inspire her self-esteem. Brilliant.

5. Synecdoche, New York

If I had to pick one movie from last year ahead of time as my favorite to be the best of the year, it was this one. As many know, I’m a huge, huge, huge Charlie Kaufman fan and I’ve been waiting for this film for around 4 years. While it was brilliant– in the scene with the priest giving a speech, Kaufman may have had his ‘Hamlet moment’– it had its flaws too. This was Kaufman’s first directorial attempt, and in parts we’re reminded that every great writer still needs an editor. Still, this film is an all-encompassing masterpiece which continues Kaufman’s march into legendary screenwriting status. You can read a fuller review I wrote on this movie at my blog here.

4. Slumdog Millionaire

Every once in a while there’s a movie that, despite its absurdities, hovers in a realm of otherworldly scrutiny; a film that romances you with its ideals and heart, which touches you on such an inscrutable level that you become utterly hypnotized by the world it posits. That’s the idea behind Slumdog Millionaire. Can you believe a lowly slumdog could win one million dollars? Ultimately, this is a film about what’s really important– and its main character never lost sight of that, no matter what kind of shit he had to crawl through (literally). What made Jamal truly rich was something inside of him which he refused to lose sight of, even when everyone else around him floundered or sold out. Indeed, it was written.

3. The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke is pretty much a shoe-in for best actor of the year for this role. An astonishing real, touching, remarkable character study which never lost site of its subject. This might be the ‘truest’ film of the year.

2. Doubt

Doubt vs. Faith. Orthodoxy vs. Liberalism. Sternness vs. Compassion. This film ultimately settles in the gray area that muddles these false catholic dichotomies; it settles among ambiguity, the realm where all our defining choices are really made. It is perhaps particularly poignant for those who, like me, grew up surrounded by the Catholic institution. The acting all around is superb, and the script– based upon the pulitzer prize winning play– is the best script of the year.

1. Revolutionary Road

Despite some directorial wrinkles, this was easily the most poignant film of the year. And I’m happy to admit a thematic bias here, too. Kate Winslett was shafted by being nominated best actress for ‘The Reader’ instead of her role here– she was stunning in this film. The best performance of her career, easily. This criticism of the American Dream and suburban psychology brutally challenges its squeamish, escaptist American audience. Pure delight for me, but probably gritty torture for them.

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There’s no secret about my love for Charlie Kaufman movies, so needless to say I’ve been waiting for this one all year long. Usually reserved to screenwriting duties, Kaufman went a step further with Synecdoche, New York, and made his directorial debut. Perhaps for this reason, this film peers even deeper into the absurdities and recursions of Kaufman’s mind than we’ve seen in the past. The film also features what may be the perfect marriage to Kaufman’s characters, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing the lead.

If Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tiptoed the surrealistic line, Synecdoche, New York tumbles right over the edge. Unlike his previous films, Synecdoche also largely abandons a cohesive narrative flow. Although we do grow older with the character, each snippet of the character’s life is so stock full of recursion and self-reference that aging does little to offer narrative structure to the viewer.

“Synecdoche” is a literary term which refers to a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part. And likewise, the film as a whole can potentially be either praised or criticized scene for scene. It has moments of sheer brilliance, perhaps most notably during a funeral scene where a priest gives a breathtaking speech, which might just be Kaufman’s “Hamlet moment”. Unfortunately, the film has many scenes and symbols which are also extremely frustrating, definitely a reminder that every great writer still needs an editor.

Overall, this is a film that needs to be seen multiple times– really, it should be viewed multiple times. To be praised for its ambition and profundity, I find it difficult to ultimately fault Kaufman for slipping up on occasion within a film that’s trying to say everything.

The only real question left is: Where does Kaufman go from here? Can he return to writing more accessible films, or will Kaufman go completely David Lynch and get even more recursive? Kaufman has left his career in a precarious place: Does he continue to recycle the same grand ambition? After making a film which attempts to say it all, perhaps the most mysterious thing about Synecdoche, New York is wondering about what its intellectual sequel could possibly be.

Hopefully we won’t have to wait another 4 years to find out.