1. Michael Clayton. A successful litigator who has defended the bad guys his whole career suddenly gets a conscience. Unfortunately, he takes his clothes off at a deposition, so everyone thinks he’s gone mad, although he’s just off his meds. He’s actually seeing clearly for the first time. George Clooney plays the title character – the firm’s “fixer” sent to hush up the reformed defense attorney. His multilayered character is a joy to watch. Lots of plot twists – but none are too complex to keep track of. Tilda Swinton makes a great bad guy.
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The life of a large-living playboy – the successful editor of the French Elle magazine – changes in an instant. After a stroke, he is left with the rare “locked-in syndrome.” He’s paralyzed from head to toe, except he has the ability to blink one eye. The film doesn’t make a hero of the Jean-Dominique Bauby; we see his failings, including one particularly callous act toward the mother of his children. But, it’s miraculous to watch him fashion a life for himself given his severe physical limitations: He still has his imagination and a way with words. So, he dictates his memoir – one blink of an eye at a time.
3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. My boyfriend, Philip Seymour Hoffman, again proves he’s the bravest actor working today. There’s nothing he won’t do. This storyline and the acting are so good that not even Ethan Hawke could ruin it for me. Actually, I should give him props for keeping it real as Hoffman’s also-ran brother in this desperate family. Greed, child support payments and a heroin habit force these brothers to do the unthinkable. Robbing their parents’ jewelry store seems like a victimless crime (insurance will cover the losses, the brothers think) until something goes horribly awry.
4. The Savages. Two siblings, scarred from a childhood spent with a brutal father, must deal with their estranged dad when he begins to suffer from dementia. Laura Linney and my man, Phil Hoffman, play the brother and sister who are each battling their own demons as they try to do right by the father who never did right by them. The cinematography perfectly matches the mood of the film. Buffalo, N.Y., is as gray and wet as you’d imagine. But, typically sunny Arizona looks washed out. Bleak, depressing and beautifully acted.
5. In the Shadow of the Moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins gave Americans hope at a time we needed it. Seeing this documentary about the men who have walked on the moon makes you long for modern-day heroes like those first fearless, hunky astronauts.
6. There Will be Blood. Yes, there will be a bit of blood, but first there will be fire (and fire and brimstone), betrayal, greed and dirty dealing. Epic in scope and length (both of time elapsed on screen and – at 2 hours, 40 minutes, in real time), this film marks Daniel Day-Lewis’s fiery return to film after an extended absence. He’s perfect as the misanthropic oilman who’s out only for himself.
7. Juno. Ellen Page as the title character is clearly a star-in-the-making. A funny, bittersweet, if unrealistic, story with dialogue that’s at times too hip for its own good. A strong supporting cast (Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, Jennifer Garner) and a great soundtrack are bonuses.
8. Away from Her. Heartbreaking portrayal by the still-gorgeous Julie Christie of a woman fading away from her husband and herself from Alzheimer's. It’s painful to watch as her loving spouse witnesses the decline.
9. Atonement. A beautiful-to-watch adaptation of an amazing story-within-a-story. The first half of the movie, which takes place on one hot summer afternoon, isn’t matched by its sometimes dragging second half. The young actress who plays Briony was awarded an Oscar™ nomination. It’s a shame the casting director couldn’t find someone as good to play Briony at 19. And, who thought you could give three very different looking actresses (at the approximate ages of 12, 20 and 75) the same blond bob wig and call it a day? The kid Briony, the teen Briony and the old Briony look nothing alike. Any girl as theatrical as the young Briony would surely have changed her hairstyle over the course of 60 years.
10. 2 Days in Paris. As wonderful as Woody Allen at his best, and remarkable because Julie Delpy wrote, directs and stars. A couple, together for two years, bicker their way through two days in the world's most romantic city.
But, wait! There’s more!
11. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Johnny Depp is creepily good as the title character – a man seeking revenge after having his wife and daughter taken from him and being unjustly sent to prison. Revenge comes in the form of slitting unsuspecting people’s throats while they sit in his barber chair. Oh, and it’s a musical.
12. In the Valley of Elah. Tommy Lee Jones's grief is palpable. As a retired military man himself, his Hank is certain that his missing son, just back in the U.S. after a tour in Iraq, couldn't have been murdered by the men who fought alongside him. And yet, this war turns out to be very different from previous ones.
13. No Country for Old Men. It’s not nearly as great as the Coens’ “Fargo,” but – mercifully – their latest effort isn’t as awful as their “The Big Lebowksi.” Javier Bardem plays a psychopath who calmly goes about the business of killing people. Javier may have more screen time, but the movie belongs to Tommy Lee Jones. A less-than-satisfying ending keeps this otherwise brilliant movie from being higher on my list.
14. No End in Sight. To the Iraq War, that is. Former administration officials and military officers tell the story of how things went from bad to worse in this disturbing documentary.
15. The Heartbreak Kid. Ben Stiller comes unglued after hastily marrying a hot woman he mistakenly believes is a chaste environmental researcher. She turns out to be possibly the most annoying person on the planet. Her environmental job is actually an unpaid volunteer gig, and she’s hilariously far from chaste. Stiller’s Eddie meets his dream girl while honeymooning with Ms. Wrong, and he’s forced to juggle time with his bride and time with the woman of his dreams. Fortunately, his real-life dad plays his on-screen dad, and he’s filled with grossly inappropriate advice. Plenty of gross-out humor, so not for everyone. How fabulous to hear one of my favorite little bands, The Weepies, on the great soundtrack.
16. The Breech. Edge-of-your seat thriller. That it is based on a true story of a conflicted religious zealot makes it all the more enjoyable.
17. The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. The protagonist of this documentary is a likable, smart, down-on-his-luck fellow searching for something at which he can excel after he's laid off. The villain is a loser with a mullet. Never mind that their battle is over who's best at … Donkey Kong. (Yes, the ‘80s video game.) The ultimate underdog story.
18. Year of the Dog. A complete original. Molly Shannon shows she has more dimensions than her previous one-note characters have let on.
19. Sicko. Michael Moore points out that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are the only people on U.S. soil with guaranteed, paid-for health care.
20. Ratatouille. Sweet, animated story with a message: You CAN do anything you set out to do.
21. Hairspray. A toe-tapping, sing-along, good time. You really can't stop the beat.
22. Superbad. Raunchy and sophomoric. Not for everyone (my parents, for instance), but if you don't mind frat boy humor, you'll enjoy it.
23. A Man named Pearl. A documentary about a small-town man with an extraordinary talent. Tiny Bishopville, S.C. has embraced its local treasure, Pearl Fryars, and is leveraging his fame (mentions in the New York Times and Washington Post, feature on CBS Sunday Morning) to try to save itself.
24. Death at a Funeral. Everything that can go wrong at a funeral, does go wrong -- and to hilarious results.
25. Enchanted. It’s hard to imagine who could’ve been more princess-like than Amy Adams. A delight from animated start to happily-ever-after ending.
And, then there was …
Charlie Wilson’s War. Let’s see … Legendary director? Check. A-list, Oscar-winning stars? Check. A truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story that few Americans are aware of? Got it. A famous screenwriter to adapt the story for the movies? Check.
An effective dialect coach to teach the big-name stars how to sound like authentic Texans? Ooooops, there’s one important thing that was overlooked … and boy, was it ever distracting to listen to Julia Roberts – a native Georgian, for Pete’s sake! – say “Chaah-lie” as if she were from … Georgia.
My Phil (3 for 3!) saves the day by being such fun to watch as the wily, volatile, underappreciated CIA operative who helps Charlie with his secret mission in Afghanistan.
Into the Wild. When I want to see eagles soaring (and it is a majestic sight), I’ll watch the National Geographic channel. Proof that an absolutely riveting book can sometimes make for a dull movie.