1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)Buttressed by terrific performances from Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt, Dominik fashions a lyrical meditation on celebrity and the concept of hero-worship, a longing gaze on the sepia-soaked days of yesteryear refracted into a piercing commentary on contemporary culture. The clear-cut choice for the year’s best motion picture.
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)This mesmerizing account of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffers a stroke leaving him totally paralyzed save his left eye, is a technically adroit achievement that puts you inside Bauby’s head for an emotionally wrenching experience.
3. There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson)Officially based upon Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, Anderson’s epic tour de force blends The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Citizen Kane, Giant and the structure of 2001 into a sweeping, occasionally bombastic dissection of greed, religion, family and capitalism. Equally brilliantand overheatedis Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as turn-of-the-century oil prospector who realizes his financial dreams at the expense of his soul.
4. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)This taut film has artistic and symbolic aspirations beyond the confines of a murder mystery or suspense thriller. The yuletide setting is no coincidencethis is Cronenberg’s Nativity story and as such is one of his most subversive works. It is the exploration of (mis)identity and self, central to so much of Cronenberg’s work, that provides the film with its multi-layered texture.
5. Into the Wild (Sean Penn)Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book frames the true story of the life and death of Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) and his trek to the Alaskan wilderness into a poignant struggle to break free of the social mores that permeate and control nearly every inch of our planet.
6. Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols)Nichols’ breezy drama-comedies have always carried more provocative social import than his dour melodramas, including this story of how an East Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) waged a political war to arm the Afghan mujahedeen in their 1980s guerrilla war against the Soviet Union. Credit Nichols’ deft touch and Aaron Sorkin’s staccato, West Wing-y vernacular for a narrative that is both incisive and uproarious.
7. The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass)A pointed indictment of Bush’s war, this sequel depicts the metastasizing of the covert Bush-era intelligence apparatus. That themes this weighty could fit within the confines of what is essentially an extended adrenaline rush bears continuing testament to the talent of Greengrass.
8. The Lookout (Scott Frank)Frank, a career screenwriter, makes his directorial debut with a heist flick that doubles as a neo-noir about a victim of life’s circumstances tempted to place greed ahead of his most precious priorities, in the fashion of a Coen Brothers film or certain of David Mamet’s morality plays.
9. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)Bird offers a luminous third act on the heels of his equally superb Iron Giant and The Incredibles. As seen through the eyes of a rat/ wannabe chef named Remy, this animated film underscores the human capacity for both creativity and cataclysm, and it accentuates the themes of personal achievement and nurturing one’s talents in the face of cultural impediments.
10. Juno (Jason Reitman)Imbued with a rapid-fire, Gen-Y argot, Diablo Cody’s script not only tackles touchy life lessons without sanctimony but also finds hilarity in the tale of a pregnant teenager (Ellen Page, stellar) who must come to grips with the notion that maturity is not merely a reluctant acceptance of responsibility, but instead the reclassification of cool.