6. BEST NON-IRAQ IRAQ MOVIE
Grace Is Gone
James Strouse’s film creates a small frame and fills it to bursting. The title character doesn’t appear in the movie; she’s a sergeant in Iraq who dies in action. It falls to her husband (John Cusack) to tell their two daughters, ages 8 and 12. Anguished, scared, loving, he stalls … and stalls … and spontaneously drives them to a theme park in Florida. In the first few minutes, I felt like Captain Kirk at the approach of an enemy starship: “Shields up, Mr. Sulu.” The movie disarmed me, though, not with torpedoes but with so many revelatory moments that it was impossible to remain walled-off. Observe the wariness of Shélan O’Keefe as the daughter who knows but doesn’t want to know, the touching childishness of Gracie Bednarczyk as her younger sister, and Cusack’s affecting imbalance. Grace Is Gone suggests that denial can be an act of faith and love—although not a design for living. Alessandro Nivola as Cusack’s antiwar brother adds the perfect anti-grace note.
7. BEST SEX SCENES THAT POSE NO RISK TO YOUR HEALTH
I had to discount the sex in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which was scissored by the Chinese government out of apparent safety concerns. In my review I noted “a kind of pretzel-y thing [the couple does] I’d like to see diagrammed.” So would others, apparently. In China’s Information Times, a gynecologist warns, “Most of the sexual manoeuvres in Lust, Caution are abnormal body positions. Only women with comparatively flexible bodies that have gymnastics or yoga experience are able to perform them. For average people to blindly copy them could lead to unnecessary physical harm.” There goes that then. The sex scenes in Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley are thrilling and risk-free. Each is different—the lovemaking evolves as the lovers learn to communicate. It’s all so easy and natural that when the heroine (Marina Hands) regards her lover’s shriveled penis after sex and remarks how small it has become, you’re not even embarrassed for the character (or the actor). It’s up, it’s down, it’s big, it’s small. It’s au naturel.
8. BEST ACTOR
Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening
Why haven’t we prized this actor until now? As a neglected old white-male novelist, Langella uses his huge frame and heavy features—which are practically immobile—to achieve an astounding degree of vulnerability: The man lives so deep inside himself that you fear what will happen when a sexy, reckless graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) blasts into his life and coaxes him to the surface. After his Nixon in Frost/Nixon (soon to be a movie) and his William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck, Langella is now the most exciting prospect in movies.
9. BEST EXCUSE TO CLIMB INTO BED AND PULL THE COVERS OVER YOUR HEAD
No Country for Old Men
It’s not a crowd-pleaser—the ending is a whimper of despair. But Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak–even–for–Cormac McCarthy novel is a devastating portrait of a malignant universe presided over by an indifferent God. Its hood ornament is Javier Bardem, whose freaky stare puts him on par with the scariest psychos in cinema.
10. BEST UNREAL MOVIES THAT MADE YOU RETHINK REALITY
Ratatouille and Persepolis
In breaks from all the eye-popping chases in Ratatouille, director Brad Bird had you wondering if that Village KFC swarming with rats could have become, with proper marketing, the chain’s flagship restaurant. Bird has Ayn Rand–ian leanings: He makes the case for gifted individuals whose genius is being stifled, be they rodents who belong in kitchens or kids who are forced to conform by suppressing their superpowers. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis, based on Satrapi’s graphic novels, touches on similar themes in a radically different style. Here, the protagonist is a girl swept up in Iran’s Islamic Revolution, whose identity hovers between two worlds—making her the perfect (forlorn, acid) narrator for the ongoing story of a nation at war with itself. As you marvel at the expressionist black-and-white drawing, the chronological leaps both sudden and fluid, and the vast and penetrating view of the history, you realize how much animation can achieve that other forms can’t.
11. BEST METAPHOR FOR THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX’S MANHANDLING OF THE ECOSYSTEM
The Giant Marauding Catfish on Legs in Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, a.k.a. Little Miss Sunshine Meets Godzilla
A distant but admirable second was the procession of giant horrors (squids, spiders, flies, mantises, and Marcia Gay Harden spouting Old Testament verses) in The Mist—sadly lost in the mist of the box office.
You’ll notice my ten-best list goes to eleven. It’s one louder, innit? It even overflows into my blog at nymag.com, “The Projectionist,” where I just can’t stop spreading the love—for runners-up and overlooked performers like Ashley Judd, Steve Buscemi, Sienna Miller, Joaquin Phoenix, and Fiona Gordon of L’Iceberg. Oh, and there’s a right proper ten-best movies list, which also goes to eleven.