The Dark Knight
Wally Pfister
Most cinematographers have a certain baseline of framing, camera angle, and camera distance to which they most often revert, and from which their most suggestive or contrastive departures can be measured—just like a painter has a favorite stroke and hue, or a poet a preferred meter and rhythm, from which meaningful exceptions can be isolated. Pfister, in Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and now here, has demonstrated how much power he's able to summon by opting for lots of wide-angle lenses and adopting a subtly but nonetheless palpably low angle, often tracking sideways so that the grounds and the skies, the ceilings and the floors in Christopher Nolan's movies always have a kind of broad majesty, frequently dwarfing the characters and whatever it is that they're up to. At times, the world seems to have them gripped in a kind of rectilinear vise, either in line with their more obviously dramatized problems or as a creepy counter-tone to the more relaxed or atmospherically neutral scenes. This pattern also, I think, explains why we often feel in our bones that Nolan's characters are up to more than they're admitting, maybe more than they're even aware of—why, in short, there's a solemnity to the films even as the camera movements, the plunging dives, the romantic gaslamps and cityscapes, and the handsome color palettes give the movies intrigue, excitement, and seductive appeal. Duplicating Batman Begins's affinity for strong, dramatic compositions and sticking largely within the same blue-black spectrum, The Dark Knight nonetheless does a fuller job of making the urban locations a forceful character within the mise-en-scène. Pfister seizes on all the stony perpendiculars of Chicago, making them seem as sleek as the lines on Batman's own uniform. By contrast, the mayhem unleashed by the Joker seems all the more dangerously insurrectionist, capsizing image after image that would otherwise be a snapshot of perfect, almost tense geometric precision. In general, Pfister is an ace accomplice for Ledger's, the costumers', the designers', and the makeup artists' attempts to endow the Joker with uncanny, virulent potency. Though I miss the way he heightened the chiseled looks of the male cast of Batman Begins into their own spooky array of stylized, almost sinister handsomeness, and even if The Dark Knight evinces a bit more Wagnerian grandiosity and self-fascination than it necessarily needs, the combination of elegance, resourcefulness, tautness, and tastefulness in the cinematography is a tremendous pleasure in itself. Pfister's lensing is also an indispensable prompt, I'm sure, for why so many people experience the film not just as a well-made movie but as some kind of epochal, Earth-in-the-balance event.
Hunger
Sean Bobbitt
Mister Foe
Giles Nuttgens
If Wally Pfister just can't get enough flat rectilinear planes, anywhere from a Chicago skyscraper to a really well-cut cheekbone, then Giles Nuttgens just can't be talked out of the wet. After lensing the second-unit stuff on The Beach and then taking head duties on The Deep End, Swimfan, Deepa Mehta's Water, and David Mackenzie's Young Adam, Nuttgens re-enlists for a sixth tour in the life aquatic on Mackenzie's Mister Foe, née Hallam Foe. Here, Nuttgens accomplishes the very neat trick of reviving that old Gothic stereotype of Something Nasty Getting Dredged Out of the Lake and using camera placement, angle, a chilled gray palette, a generous depth of field, and the strong, hard line of a tugging rope to make the water-logged revelation a truly unnerving moment. This is the image on which I always alight first when I think of Hallam Mister Foe. That I still think of the film so regularly comes down almost entirely to an invigorating song score, to Mackenzie's peculiar addiction to florid filmmaking built around improbable male ciphers, and to Nuttgens's inspired lensing. That dastardly tarn notwithstanding, Hallam Mister Foe has got a whole, calico array of locations to bring to life: a treehouse, a hotel, a bar, the inside of clocktower, a series of rooftops. Nuttgens lends visual excitement and vibration to all of them, merging his electric knack for color with his penchant for tense, crowded frames that preserve their restive energy despite all the visual and narrative clutter. He doesn't fall for the temptation to shoot the garret-like spaces of the treehouse and the clocktower in quite the same way. Even as the film becomes a kind of nutty but surprisingly effective riff on creepy and confused teenaged voyeurism, Nuttgens thrills to the task of super-charging his images with erotic danger and fetishistic scopophilia but resists the temptation to make the kind of movie that a graduate film-studies class would scour for a theory of The Gaze. There's too much else going on to bog anybody down in that one idea. Indeed, Hallam Mister Foe works through so many kaleidoscopic colors and vertiginous angles, and it makes the actors look fascinating and portentous even when their characters make barely a lick of sense, that Hallam's squirrely spying on most of the other characters works as part of a larger portrait of hyperactive, arrested, hormonal, and mind-wrecked adolescence, rather than just an austere investigation into Subjects and Objects. It's an irrecuperably strange piece, but Nuttgens ensures that it's never less than vital, and his vacillating relation to Hallam himself, all the way from squirmingly intimate to pityingly remote, makes the uncertain tonal pitch of the movie and the overall question of disordered perceptions all the more palpable in the piece.
Savage Grace
Juan Miguel Azpiroz
The Wrestler
Maryse Alberti
 
Honorable Mentions:
The Class Alexandra Ballast Still Life The Edge of Heaven The Reader Rachel Getting Married





Jeanne Balibar
The Duchess of Langeais
If it's predictably arresting when Meryl Streep finally blurts out a long-postponed, vainly stifled expression of misgiving in Doubt, it's cathartic, abrupt, and more than a little scary when Jeanne Balibar, in the framing-device prologue to The Duchess of Langeais, transforms in a sudden instant from a cloistered nun making the cool reacquaintance of a lover from many years ago to a shrill, convulsive, desperately panicked vessel of resurgent desire. Her Mother Superior wrestles her forcibly back into that damp and adumbrated cavern in which she's been wasting away, but the secret's out: Balibar's grief and her wanton's soul, terrifying to her and terrifying to us, have been let loose like some winged malentity from Pandora's box, and the movie never fully bottles her back up. It's the first moment in six years of movies that has reminded me of what it felt like to watch Isabelle Huppert stab herself in the shoulder in the lobby of a Viennese concert hall, and it says everything about the relative merits of The Duchess of Langeais to Doubt that the former cuts deeper and raises more goosebumps in its opening movement than Doubt pulls off in its entirety. Even more surprising after this blazing opener? Balibar isn't playing a hellion but a languid, treacherous skulker around the velvety and brocaded salons and drawing rooms so familiar from so many costume dramas. What's new here is that, whereas so many actresses in parts like this sell their obstinacy, their sensuousness, their treacherous intent so forcefully that you rarely believe that their "repressive" scenes and societies would ever for a moment have tolerated them, Balibar looks and feels the part, even as she embodies its destructive limit-case and paradox. She conjures a convincing, obsidian force of self-interest and erotic amorality while acing the kind of exquisite physical control that Maggie Cheung brought to In the Mood for Love: it's hard to pin down just why she's so much more evocative than a baker's dozen of other actresses going through similar "period" motions, but in her gazes, her brazen indolence, her fingering of fabrics, her jutting forward of her Katrin Cartlidge-ish nose and chin, Balibar seems utterly of this world and helplessly destined to upset it. If her navigation of the character's disintegration into reckless, ecstatic masochism isn't always as detailed or as memorable, that's less a blemish on the performance than a tribute to the remarkable force and individuality with which she has slithered, coiled, stretched, and succeeded where so many other actresses have limned the edges of cliché and overstatement.

Juliette Binoche
Flight of the Red Balloon
We all know the axiom that actresses are loath to start playing mothers, and though this nervousness is usually ascribed to an anxiety about aging, I can't help wondering if any character type is more ruthlessly partitioned in Hollywood movies than mothers are into Good Ones and Bad Ones. In this context, Juliette Binoche's Suzanne in Flight of the Red Balloon seems to hail not just from another country but from a different galaxy, even without the patina of other-worldliness that already accrues to her on first impression, her voice fluting upward and barreling downward as she furnishes several voices for Master Ah Zhong's Parisian puppet show. I've never seen Juliette Binoche have this much fun in a movie, smiling broadly as she plays, luxuriously, with these fanciful sounds and lines, and she seems the picture of calm professionalism as she absorbs the notes from her director, penciling them into her copy of the script. But "calm professionalism" is hardly what Suzanne calls to mind through the rest of the film. Her dyed-blonde hair dry and unkempt, Suzanne is a constant source of centrifugal energy, darting around her apartment, throwing little tantrums, munching on biscuits and offering them around, making half-interested and half-distracted small talk, tunneling through her disorganized scads of papers to find an elusive lease agreement, fuming loudly about everything she's been left to manage on her own, despite having just hired a personal assistant to monitor her son Simon for hours every day. Suzanne clearly dotes on Simon and has filled his life with color and imagination, if only because she refuses to cut those things out of her own life, even when they seem to take her away from her son, or curtail her attention span, or confound any attempt at cool thinking and organization. Forgetting where she is and what she's looking for, rattling her bracelets and passive-aggressively arching her brows at neighbors she increasingly resents, Suzanne seems to mislay everything, including the chip on her own shoulder, which comes and goes. She pays earnest, interested compliments to the nanny she has hired but doesn't seem to track everything the woman says in response. It's impossible to predict whether Simon will grow up adoring this woman or wishing he'd been raised by less of a flapping bird. But even as full-hipped, heavy-gaited Suzanne hunkers and stomps around her pad, weeping, smiling, raging, and cooling, Binoche never puts a foot wrong. It's one thing to find oneself agog at seeing this actress, assigned in vehicle after vehicle to project the same lunar serenity, suddenly whipping up such a frenzied stir. It's quite another thing to see her do it with such moment-to-moment precision, comic without reaching for laughs, affecting without hiding what an emotional glutton Suzanne can be. She endows the character with clear under-currents of voluptuous love, and with just as many competing cross-winds of self-pity, tunnel-vision, and occasional pettiness. "Il n'y a personne à côté de moi!" she barks into a cellphone to her faraway lover, imprecating him for leaving her without help or succor or solace, but the line makes just as much sense in relation to Binoche herself. In the context of 2008, she rose to heights that no other actress equaled.

Penélope Cruz
Elegy
The last of Elegy's four citations (surely enough to alienate its many detractors?) arrives with yet another statement of frank surprise. I still can't believe this story sidesteps the loamiest, smelliest banalities of the older man/younger sexpot dynamic. I delight that Ben Kingsley can be led so far down the Rothian path of febrile masculine archetype without letting loose with an overworked hurricane of mercurial macho. And I relish the fact that Penélope Cruz, working so far afield from Almodóvarian fluorescence, has so swiftly become the kind of astute character actress who can endow Consuela with such personality and so many layers of intellect, wisdom, youthfulness, and lingering ambivalence—and all without delivering the kind of turn that labors overtime to suppress or distract from her physical beauty. Consuela's piquancy as a character and our sense of her razor-sharp mental life, key both to understanding David's attraction to her as more than sexual and to making sense of her fifth-act behavior as more than damp Rothian conceit, depend inordinately on Cruz's ability to do something interesting with her lines. Good as these lines are, the overarching peril to her performance from the very beginning is that she'll look or sound like a placeholder for a kind of character, rather than giving unique life to Consuela. That's why it's so important that Cruz rushes her delivery of the key line "I'm happy," weighted in context but reshaped by the grinning shrug, insouciant and annoyed, that Cruz throws on top of it; that her eyes probe around Kingsley's face for a few beats to understand what he means, how much or how little he means, when he praises the beauty of her body and her breasts; that she manages to be curt and yet somehow soft as she sends Kingsley packing from the dance club where he has so obviously followed her; that she articulates, so thoughtfully and reflectively, her profound sense of affront and injury later in the movie when Kingsley's character disappoints her most brutally, though she hardly skimps on the feeling of the moment. In short, Cruz works hard to make sure that Elegy neither sentimentalizes Consuela nor gives in to a musty duality of male thought and feminine feeling. She's a thinking, discerning, attentive presence throughout, a student in a real way, not just as a narrative alibi for introducing her to an older lover. She remains just as thoughtful and just as emotionally rich in the surprising finale, giving weight to the sense of what David has lost, in so many senses, by losing her. She forbids a reading of Elegy where Consuela embodies a passionate paradise from which David recklessly expels himself. Instead, she enables one where Consuela exists as a complex, multifaceted person whom David, whatever his reasons and compensating gestures, rudely handicapped himself from fully getting to know.

Anne Hathaway
Rachel Getting Married
Anne Hathaway's huge, expressive eyes and mouth almost certainly lubricated her path into the movies, but they also pose something of a problem. It's not that they are too dramatic for her roles, as the astonishing sensuality of Angelina Jolie's face often is; if anything, Hathaway is a gifted second-banana, proving in The Devil Wears Prada that she can hold down the fort of the ostensible lead while not one but three formidable scene-stealers make big grabs for the movie. She still comes off plucky, curious, funny, and mentally lively, without taking the bait and pushing back too hard at Streep, Tucci, and Blunt. She wears this extraordinary face as though it really is no big deal, and it's almost the very tension between her remarkable features and the disarming frankness of her gaze and her voice that make her so enticing in her best roles. What's new and wonderful about her work in Rachel is that Jonathan Demme and Jenny Lumet have given Hathaway a chance to be as keyed-up, as kooky, as diagonal, as dark, and as deep as are the pools and planes of her face. Her febrile, purposely relentless energy as Kym—slouching and gesticulating through that exquisitely awful wedding toast, hopping among the guests, crashing on her sister's bed, flinging her bike down after an irritating ride, or loudly taking up her station in the family hammock—proves just how easily Hathaway could have pulled all the focus in Prada if she'd wanted to. Hathaway pushes Kym's theatrics in almost every scene while stopping short of being as grandiose as her character. For instance, she could have hyper-exerted herself for laughs in the salon scene, as she's faced with awkward and finally inflammatory reminders of her own reckless past, or she could have shown us a Kym who simply loves to seize the spotlight from her sister, no matter the circumstances, while only pretending to be irritated at this unbidden confession. But Hathaway knows just when Kym "acts out" (which is usually) and when she dials it back (if only for reasons of embarrassment or self-protection). Her vocal hold on every beat of the character is even more potent than her facial and bodily expressivity: she can make her lines sound tart, careless, empty, thoughtful, ironic, or deeply naïve, often hopping those registers from word to word, but without losing the quick pace of Kym's thought process. I don't mean that Hathaway nails every line. She perhaps over-sells the sturm-and-drang of a few episodes and exchanges, as in her Oscar-clip passage about relinquishing her right to love, and as she recounts her last day with Ethan for an AA meeting. It's nonetheless exciting to see Hathaway wrangling for the first time with high drama (I don't count Brokeback, where I frankly found her a little wanting). And I love watching her grow in these ways even as she exudes that clear-voiced, off-the-cuff plausibility that she's always been so good at, which is the best thing anyone could have furnished to this mannered and overbearing character. The bonuses arrive toward the end of the film, which not only makes Kym less central than we might have expected for long stretches, but pushes her into the background (where Hathaway capably, even miraculously retreats) and confronts both character and actress with new challenges: for example, that soft, flummoxed, blank-faced shock Kym experiences in the face of her mother's passive-aggressive aloofness at the end of the wedding night, or the wordless glimpses of Kym dancing by herself, getting lost or pretending to get lost in the music. She's a proud addition to Demme's enviable portfolio of vivid, headstrong, but credible and vulnerable female leads, whether she's pitching a fit of righteous anger about not being maid of honor, or confronting her parents with their respective failures of role-modeling, or just lazing on that hammock, reminding everyone with unfussy comic brio how much Grandma still hates her for whatever the hell happened all those years ago at Rite Aid.

Tarra Riggs
Ballast
Ballast takes such quiet, generous time to establish its cast and fundamental scenario that Tarra Riggs's Marlee doesn't register right away as a pivotal character. My early guess was that she'd be one of those evocative sideline characters like Karen Chilton's in Half Nelson who fills in key colors of a lonely kid's home life without ever drawing the full focus of the film. As Marlee became more central to more and more scenes, and as Riggs patiently unveiled what a persuasive, tough, and compassionate synthesis she has crafted among Marlee's anger, her grief, her fragility, and her resilience, I wondered whether, Julia Ormond-style, the mother in the film, while still second-tier, might turn out to hold more of the film's attention than I had first suspected, frankly surpassing the emotional claims and clarity of the foregrounded action (though Ballast as a whole is certainly a more feeling and gripping experience than Kit Kittredge). But then the best of all possible scenarios plays out. As Marlee molts her way out of reclusive mourning and, by personality as much as necessity, starts taking sturdy if slightly dazed charge of her own life, she turns out to be as strong a point of focus in this elliptical film as are her shell-shocked brother-in-law and her dangerously vulnerable son. Riggs, without for a moment standing away from Marlee, nonetheless guides her through the acts of opening up a store, of closing her arms around her boy, of balancing ledgers and paying off debts, of learning new protocols, of schooling her child and seeking help where she can't do the schooling, of testing just how much she's willing to know her dead husband's twin brother on terms less fully mediated by the life-partner they've both lost. The actress is a warm and stabilizing envelope around the character, protecting her from looking too innocent or too remote, underscoring the savvy instincts and fundamental intelligence that Marlee brings to a life that nonetheless risks overwhelming her, in all of its outward smallness. I sound grouchy in my review when I discuss the scene where Marlee uncorks some of her bottled fury about her husband, her neighboring in-law, and her entirely revised and unfairly transformed life. My reservations about the scripting of this moment, though, involve no reservations whatsoever about how Riggs plays it: honestly, strongly, succinctly. The qualities of her performance that up to that point have called to mind Cicely Tyson's role in Sounder, the tacit but steely fortitude of the deprived but profoundly capable mother-wife, erupt not as Tyson's does into voluptuous, passionate relief but into righteous, muscular bitterness, even though a hallmark of Riggs' work is that no one tone ever becomes predominant—least of all the warm, almost effervescent openness I observed when she spoke about Ballast following the festival screening where I first saw it. The evident contrast between the moonish, introverted, minutely expressive character and the bashful but gregarious and obviously younger actress standing before us only underlined how fully she had transformed herself for a role that doesn't scream "transformation," doesn't scream "acting," doesn't scream at all, even when Marlee is shouting. It's a jewel of acting as quiet, complex, controlled being.
 
Honorable Mentions: Not the richest field this year, especially since the prodigious Tilda Swinton in
Julia won't count until 2009. Two of the most vivid impressions made on me by lead actresses in the last year—in some ways the most vivid, after Swinton's and Binoche's—nonetheless seem not quite suited for this list, though I already wonder if I'll kick myself for leaving them off. Catinca Untaru is so precociously, almost preternaturally expressive in front of the camera that, against all odds, she is even harder to ignore than the most grandiloquent visual displays in The Fall. Still, it doesn't feel quite right to group her restless but contemplative, beautifully showcased naturalism as an "acting" performance. Alfre Woodard nailed the single loveliest moment of on-screen emoting that I saw all year, while putting a brave face on some unwelcome news from a good friend in Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys, a movie that benefits often and enormously from Woodard's punchy understatements and subtle flickerings of expression. Still, the part is a bit stock and Perry is no enemy of broad comedy, so the demands on Woodard, despite how superbly she answers and enriches them, don't seem quite commensurate with those so wonderfully and carefully shouldered by my Final Five. Still, I hope you all will rent The Fall and The Family that Preys (granted, possibly not on the same night) and marvel at what these monumentally different performers are able to put over. Worth holding onto as well, among more distant runners-up, are the most persuasively lived-in yet still inevitably luminous performance that Emma Thompson has ever given, in the deceptively unassuming Last Chance Harvey; Sally Hawkins's merry but nuanced construction of character in Happy-Go-Lucky; Vera Farmiga's desperate blend of arrogant élitism and heedless romantic impulse in Never Forever; the enigmatic Nina Hoss in Yella; and Famke Janssen's flinty, unexpected, and proudly flawed poolshark in Turn the River, in many ways an even richer portrait of lower-class crisis and stoicism than Melissa Leo's strong, resolute anchoring of a homonymous film, Courtney Hunt's Frozen River.






François Bégaudeau
The Class
Yes, Entre les murs scribe François Bégaudeau is "playing himself," and not in that flamboyantly hire-wire way that John Malkovich once did. True, he's never acted before and Laurent Cantet's vérité shooting style could be credited with some of the pristine observational acuity with which François Marin, Bégaudeau's alter ego, comes to life on the screen. But Bégaudeau himself is a verbally, facially, and physicallly articulate marvel in the part. In some scenes, his gesticulating hands and flexible posture endow his classroom with the earnest expressivity of the committed, lively teacher, whether or not his students respond in kind. In others, his physicality is cramped and a bit weighed-down, and sometimes he hunches or freezes entirely, as in his aggravated standoff with Rachel Régulier over her character's carnet. His face, which he sometimes juts forward in bullish arrogance, and his mouth, a kaleidoscopic telegraph of grimaces, hesitations, smiles, snarls, contemplations, and pursed courtier's smirks, inscribe a whole second screenplay's worth of subtexts and shifting moods within every scene. He plants the seeds of his character's rigidities and biases early enough that the narrativizing crises of the film's last act don't leap out of nowhere, and his different modes of cajoling male and female students, gifted and impermeable students, gregarious and laconic students, are all crystallized in nuance, inflection, comportment, and cadence. A master-class to humble almost any paid practitioner.

Josh Brolin
W.
The biggest doofus of Awards Season '08 has got to be whatever exec at Lionsgate insisted that W. is a drama and not a risky, engaging, sometimes foolhardy comedy. Classified appropriately, Brolin would have waltzed off with an easily garnered and richly deserved Golden Globe, partly but not only due to the limp competition in that category this year. If Brolin's own agent is partly to blame for barring him from this shiny and influential accolade, you've gotta hand it to him or her for leading him consistently to roles for which nothing in Brolin's prior portfolio has prepared us to accept him, and where this actor—unfolding more excitingly than almost anyone else in Hollywood right now—demonstrates new chops and complex sympathies. Rightly or wrongly, I feel confident at constructing the performance that the originally-cast Christian Bale would have delivered here, all chiseled impenetrability and laboriously studied dimwittedness. As glad as I am to have missed on that prospect, I had no idea I'd be so dazzled by the understudy. Brolin's got the externals and the vocal and physical idioms down to a tee, but I'm more impressed with the strapping, gamboling, and witty way he throws himself through the frat-hazing and rig-working and beer-swilling and Laura-courting scenes—not as though he's building up to some major events still looming, but as though this George fully believes at every moment that he's already reached his destiny. Thus, he's as surpised as everyone else when he lands a new opportunity or leaps through a new loophole in fate's perverse and fraying thread. Brolin doesn't condescend to W.'s intelligence in scenes of calculation or of throwing his weight around (memorably chastising Cheney, for example), but he's not too scared to show us the moronic haze that grips this man so heavily, or the boisterous, babyish longing for approval that this script perceives as the baseline of W.'s emotional deficiencies, and of his brutishly overcompensating demonstrations of power. W. doesn't always find the right, compressed, and eloquent balance of burlesque and critique, but Brolin never flags, and he outdoes even Frank Langella for plumbing unexpected depths of a president who easily could have been a cartoonist's villain. Here's one actor I'm done (mis)underestimating.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Synecdoche, New York
Could I be any happier to have watched Hoffman rescue himself from that loud, sometimes crude track in his period, circa Along Came Polly and Punch-Drunk Love and Cold Mountain, when he seemed on the precipice of a John C. Reilly career, basically misunderstanding and overestimating his own appeal, and stooging away when he might have been thesping? This strain in Hoffman's work was also limned with Flawlesses and Owning Mahownys that were probably indispensable to his apprenticeship in character-acting techniques for the screen but which, in and of themselves, were pretty hard to tolerate. His Capote was a heroic feat of necessarily going Big without losing the character or the audience, but even more rewarding have been his turns in movies like Magnolia and 25th Hour and The Savages, where he has sharpened his gifts at parsing scripts with precision but has still delivered his performances with lightness, modulation, moments of calm, and subtly adroit comedy. After all that backstory, and taking into account that I only recently became a real fan, the literally shape-shifting lead in Synecdoche was both a real test-case for my admiration and a Sisyphean task for this interpreter: the part invites overstatement, understatement, sadsack self-pity, narcissism, inertia, theatrical mannerism, and self-aggrandizement. I was worried about getting too many Hoffmans for the price of one, some of which I'd been eager to leave behind, but he's tremendous in the movie, especially because he eschews the opportunities to show us how spryly or flamboyantly he can Act. Instead, Hoffman has obviously connected with the dull but also the profound ache in the middle of Caden, and he works outward from there. The scene-work is incredibly specific, and given how much the writing oscillates and spins—some scenes require heroic sincerity, some depend on wry humor, some depend on a single line or a post-production effect or a silent exchange of looks if they're going to work at all, much less in the context of all the other scenes—it's a virtually athletic accomplishment to keep pace with all of these demands and shifting rhythms. Hoffman nails the whole decathlon and doesn't ever show us that he's sweating or awaiting his medal—even though it's often the kind of hunched, quiet, sad-eyed performance that you have to believe has taken a tremendous toll on the performer. After the movie, I couldn't believe his stamina; while it was happening, I wasn't thinking that at all, or even thinking about Hoffman: I only ever saw the character.

Ben Kingsley
Elegy
Surely the great overlooked performance of 2008, and I can't help feeling that the release date sealed its fate as such; release Elegy in November rather than August and we might have been talking nominations and ticket sales. Then again, I do appreciate seeing the timetable of grown-up entertainment stretched out from the final two months of the year. And even thener againer, I don't care when it bows or who throws a trophy at it, I'll always be gratified to watch acting like this, a dissection of late-middle-aged male narcissism as it stares down its own bullet-shaped head in the alternating mirrors of lovers, colleagues, students, and children, the living and the dying and the dead. I'm sure there are plenty of people who didn't see Elegy because they've lost patience with the generic template of the May-December affair; I tossed aside the source novel, Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, right around the time David Kepesh was savoring the sight of his student Consuela's voluminous breasts inside her expensive former-paralegal blouse. It would only take one artist in a key position on a project like this—the director, the screenwriter, the stars, the cinematographer, the editor—to turn against the character and thus ruin the movie by presenting David as obnoxiously trivial, or to fetishize him into the same damp-eyed and wet-loined chauvinistic clichés we've seen a million times. I therefore extend credit to all the makers of Elegy for working in tandem to characterize David without such easy editorializing in either direction. But highest credit is surely due to Sir Ben, who does what almost no one does anymore and even fewer people are praised for: giving a subtle performance that is not a particularly soft or understated one. Kingsley is a pianist not of suppressed passions and quiet gestures but of bold emotional tones that are nonetheless not the same tones, nor are they arbitrary or repetitive in their potency. His lust, his self-contempt, his bonhomie with the Dennis Hopper character, his regrets toward his adult son and his bridling exasperation with him, his interest in his mistress and also his tacit boredom with her, his fear of death, his respect for ideas, his epicurean tastes, his pride in being smart, his susceptibility to lying and to headstrong, faithless impulse: Kingsley doesn't duck from any of these traits of David's or from the challenge of making them tough, muscular, intractable without letting himself turn into a wallower or into a sideshow. He swivels that hard, tumescent head of his, cocks his brows, burns in the eyes, flexes his body, sighs through his eyelashes, exhales his disappointments, inhales his pleasures. The embodied work of the performance is as vivid as its dexterity with language and its facility with complex and telegraphed motivation. He never acts The Star against his consummate scene-partners, yet it's never in doubt that the movie is his. I used to despair of watching stories like this because I'm so tired of seeing them come out so banal; now I'm hesitatnt to see them because I don't see how anyone else's portrait could measure up.

Heath Ledger
The Dark Knight
How do you lick your lips all the way through a performance and never once look or feel like a ham? The key to that trick is obviously conviction, and though one can certainly ham with conviction, I don't think that's what Ledger's doing in The Dark Knight, and I don't know anyone else who does. The offbeat, shivery line readings and the hair-combing, the bitchy taunts, the absurd costume, the diabolical humor, the persistent cackle even when he's hanging upside down over a burning city: it's clear in all sorts of ways that the Joker takes magnificent pleasure in his own sordid flamboyance. Yet there's a lockdown at the dark center of Ledger's eyes in this performance, even when the whites are flashing, that never stops signaling the profundity of the Joker's fury. At what, we're never entirely sure, though the angry geyser that wells up almost every time he recites one of his own origin myths is as awfully persuasive as the accounts themselves are contradictory and improbable. There's an arthritic quality to Ledger's joints, too, locking his elbows as he stalks away laughing from a gutted hospital, or "making a pencil disappear" in his lightning-swift but somehow herky-jerky way, that never lets us forget that this character is a sort of walking corpse. The zombies don't have to outnumber the humans to set them against each other and their entire world on fire, and though the Joker rarely stops cackling at the vastness and also the precision of the chaos he unleashes, he never whittles himself to a simple strutter, a dandy, standing blithely apart from what he upends and detests. He's palpably bubonic; he's almost hieroglyphic, his legs splayed out at unnaturally 2-D angles while he applauds inside his jail cell; Ledger has spring and leaping energy, but they're the strength and spring of a virus, not of a snake or a tiger or a spider. He isn't nimble; he doesn't slink; he reminds you less of muscle than of tough, wiry, infected tissue; his vowels are the vowels of someone fighting back a bilious stomach; he looks and moves like a scarecrow only recently freed from his pylon, after a small murder of peckish birds had already gotten to him; he doesn't take or wear his animosity lightly, even though it sometimes makes him laugh.

Sean Penn
Milk
My loyalties to My Sean Penn are well-known to most people who have checked in with this site even a handful of times, but the general adulation for his performance as Harvey Milk makes fairly clear that my own enthusiasm about his work isn't just a compulsory gesture of general fandom. Milk offers the first Penn performance that has prompted so many people in my life to say, "I finally understand the Sean thing...," and if anything, those can be estranging moments for the longtime devotée. For example, though I recognize that for lots of viewers Milk is an intro to Sensitive Sean, I'm less bowled over than some to see him tapping such vulnerability on screen, which he does in ragged-edged form all over She's So Lovely (and in the heartbreaking final confession in Dead Man Walking). And though I barely liked All the King's Men more than other people did, the evidence of Sean's gift for flamboyance and demagoguery in his Willie Stark makes his self-reinvention as a physical actor in Milk a tad more familiar. Perhaps, just as Julianne Moore moved at lightning speed from a reputation for galvanizing eclecticism to being popularly typed as the "50s housewife" after Far from Heaven and The Hours, My Sean Penn needs to go even further now than he once did to prove he isn't just the glowering, taciturn heavy of Mystic River and 21 Grams. All of this is to say, I love him in Milk, even if I'm maybe a smidge less surprised than other people I've talked to that he's so compelling and utterly unlike "himself" in it. But let's not overstate the case: I'm as stumped as anyone else to think of a Penn performance that works outward from such a reservoir of joy and gleeful limpidity. And though Sweet and Lowdown gave hints that Sean could do marvels with tetchy physicality, the slightly storky way Harvey hunches his shoulders or ramrods his posture, or bends sideways at the waist or cocks his jaw, or stuffs his fists into the pockets of his slim-hipped and sloppily belted jeans, offers a touching, palpable, and human-sized portrait of the shopfront and street-corner and city-hall activist who's only recently recuperated himself from lifelong marginality and dorkdom. And I love the dexterous way he not only plays disparate meanings simultaneously—selling young Cleve Jones on his political platforms, gently chastising him for his youthful narcissism, and responding to this impetuous kid with tacit but visibly eroticized wistfulness—but manages to integrate these character-points as coeval strands of who Harvey is, no matter what hat (or haircut) he is wearing at a given moment.

Ryan Phillippe
Stop-Loss
Up until a year ago, "Ryan Phillippe, Acting Genius" fell about as far outside my Roadmap of the Possible as did "Mickey Rourke, Oscar Nominee" or "Unembarrassed and Unembarrassing Intellectual, U.S. President." But that's part of the charge of movies: not just perforating one's own impressions and assumptions but seeing the sparks that fly when someone who has toiled under earlier limitations of talent, typecasting, or available opportunity suddenly hits a sweet spot. They suddenly disclose that they have something to say, operating through a matured set of skills, and with the proper support of castmates and colleagues. Phillippe really knocked my socks off in Stop-Loss, a movie that deserves only some of its reputation as a discursive exploration in search of greater coherence. The movie is better and more muscular than you may have heard. Its visual textures are tactile and sharp in that reliable Chris Menges way, and it finds ample opportunities to take advantage of its divergent flavors and generic structures, even when it occasionally gets a bit too erratic or rhetorical for its own good. Best of all, Phillippe's earnest, grounded, and emotionally colorful rendering of stop-lossed deserter SSgt. Brandon King braces the whole movie together and lays a convincing context for its formal and tonal restlessness, its poignant failures at total self-mastery. Phillippe isn't the sequoia of virility that co-stars Channing Tatum and Ciarán Hinds (playing his father) are, yet at the same time, frankly for the first time, he doesn't emanate the lingering whiffs of smooth, awkward youth that Victor Rasuk and Abbie Cornish evince in this film, largely to good effect. Phillippe is somewhere between a youth and a man, and if that's a hard demographic to play with conviction and authority, it's even harder to do it when your character has to emerge as the natural and charismatic but also self-effacing leader of this whole crew... and then has to survive several refusals of martial and emotional duty on his quest toward personal truth, without losing his onscreen friends or the audience along the way. Phillippe bristles with the heat-curdled disappointment of the betrayed idealist who never thought the world was perfect but who believed, at least, that it was fundamentally sound, and he gives off a fusion of energy and intelligence that strongly recalls what Kimberly Peirce pulled so famously out of her Boys Don't Cry troupe. Somehow she gets her actors to feel things with their minds and to think through their hormones, rather than only the other way around. Phillippe, marshaling reserves of righteousness, bonhomie, anger, fatigue, sensitivity, swagger, and frustrated entrapment, gives a strong-minded and full-bodied performance of a conscientious rebel-crusader without ever showing us that he has "typed" the character that narrowly in his mind, and without broadcasting at almost any moment that he knows he is headlining a Noble Drama. For the first time, I'm truly convinced that he's in the right line of work and am fascinated to see what he does next, and who else might use him this well.

Mickey Rourke
The Wrestler
"You got a lot of ability"—I think that line-reading, spoken with such parental sweetness and half-articulate sincerity to a sweetly up-and-coming rival, is when I knew that I was in love with Rourke's performance, and that I was prepared to follow it anywhere the actor and the rest of the movie were prepared to push it. Push it, they do: despite anything we've heard or have said to each other about the evident fact that Rourke has his own bruised persona and disconsolate past to draw on in this part, both that persona and that past are so prickly and rough that they're hardly the sort of thing an actor "falls back on" with any automatic ease or comfort. Plus, the grandest achievements in this performance don't always pertain directly to Randy the Ram's Rourkish rage against the dying of the light, or his poignant, imploring knocks on long-closed doors. They also encompass more than the profound physical challenges of this part, which include all the preparatory and, um, chemical work required to look like this. Much more astonishing are Rourke's movements in the wrestling ring, by which he necessarily demonstrates Randy's athletic prowess and his mad fortitude, and also must indicate to us—but rarely to the onscreen audience—what a consummate showman he is at exaggerating the pains and exhaustions, the sudden resurgences and the skeleton-shaking body-blows, any of which might be more or less "real" than they appear. All of this astonishes; quite frankly, to revisit any of the wrestling scenes in this picture is to comb one's mind for the last acting role, to include dancing roles and stunt-heavy roles, that leaned so monumentally on the performer's physical commitment and resilience. But I relish Rourke's work just as much for the endearing, emblematically middle-aged way he puts on his wire-rims to read, and almost instinctively looks over his shoulder to see if anyone's catching him, even as he telegraphs that Randy makes this motion time and again every day. I love that the actor balks at opportunities to overplay his resentment of his gender-baiting, contemptuous boss at the supermarket, and that he engages his deli-counter customers with such bravado and yet such a gentlemanly touch, and that he openly enjoys Cassidy's displays of flesh and grace on the stage while signaling just the slightest reservations, now that he knows her even better and covets the idea of confiding in her, of being jealously closer to her. He doesn't play the post-bypass scenes as though they only impact this character as a deterrent from future matches; he's in a movie called The Wrestler but he also plays the scared, tired, aging, and embarrassed human being. The tears when he tells his daughter that he just doesn't want her to hate him don't come across as a cheat or a manipulation: there's so much that his face is simultaneously holding back, even amid the overwhelming heat and hurt that pour out from all of his scenes, big and small. I suspect Rourke will offer a whale of a good time in the Iron Man sequel, and I haven't forgotten that I liked him enough in Sin City to make him an Honoree in '05, but I still hope that he'll have an opportunity to go this deep and be this good again. And soon, at that. Keep your fingers crossed that he gets the chance; he's obviously got a lot, a lot, a lot of ability.
 
Honorable Mentions: If you're finding it hard to deal with the exceptional abundance of Honorees in this category, the five-wide field would have been Hoffman, Kingsley, Ledger, Penn, and Rourke. If you must construe Bégaudeau, Brolin, and Phillippe as runners-up then you must, but I'm going Globes on this one: when the field is solid, I get as many as I want. Even better, you can tell yourself that I'm swiping the three slots I took away from
Original Score and awarding them here. These fellas deserve it. Sue me. And even at that, I'm not finding sufficient space to recognize Sam Rockwell, an actor I usually dislike, who contributed to Snow Angels an exciting, surprising, and totally plausible screw-up dad and guided him capably through the script's surprising directions; or Richard Jenkins, an actor I almost always love, going deeper, lighter, and fuller with his trademark slow burn all through The Visitor. Among as-yet unreleased American indies, JR Bourne brought a charismatic, highly caffeinated, and troubled Alaskan cab driver to vivid, film-elevating life in Tom Hines's Chronic Town, and Val Lauren spun charming, seductive, irritating, powerful, witty, and wounded variations on a charismatic huckster in Henry Barrial's True Love. These last two deserve their shots at national attention, and all four of these guys would have been easy Honorees in most other years, just as Karl Markovics in The Counterfeiters and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt would have been proud Honorable Mentions. But this race is dizzyingly rich this year. (And still the Academy went for The Curious Case of Brad's Bovinity. Whatever.)





Alexandra
Russia

Aleksandr Sokurov,
director
I recently met a filmmaker who complained about the perhaps too-consistent virtuosity of filmmakers like Aleksandr Sokurov (his other example was Theo Angelopoulos) who essentially employ the same forms of montage and mise-en-scène in almost all of their movies and adopt subjects that are either handily accommodated or opportunistically revised to suit this monolithic style. I see his point, but I find it hard to feel anything but gratitude for virtuosity as potent as Sokurov's, whose preferred discourse on film as a series of "breaths" rather than shots is more than borne out by his diaphanous, patient, subtly contracting and releasing style. And though I indeed exprienced the first 20 or 30 minutes of Alexandra wondering skeptically whether Sokurov had anything new to extract from this particular aesthetic well of his, by the halfway point of Alexandra, I already found the film's estranged, out-of-body counterpoints between its martial subjects and its dreamlike atmosphere of aging, uneasy, sepia semi-consciousness to be an affecting, unusual riposte to the brute realism of most war films and the more disengaged abstractions of some Sokurov pictures. Watching that formidable axiom Galina Vishnevskaya clambering into an artillery tank or fondling a rocket-launcher is arresting at the pure level of impression: is this a visual oxymoron, or is she an embodied, possibly outmoded ideal of the "Russia" that all these soldiers imagine they are defending? Her tetchy interactions with the grandson she visits at the front lines and with a local woman irascibly lamenting the conflict are more textured and insinuating than I expected, and I left the theater feeling challenged, hypnotized, elated, and upset by this deceptively simple, only qualifiedly "familiar" exercise.
A Christmas Tale
or Un Conte de Noël
France

Arnaud Desplechin,
director
The Class, France's other newly-minted festival hit of the year, was the one based on a book, but A Christmas Tale had me thinking about novels all the way through, not just because of the copious characters and sprawling storylines but because of the evident glee Desplechin takes in alternating perspectives and voices, in parsing his films up into differently-sized morsels and chapters with their own shapes, flavors, and cadences. He can't stop swooping in with song fragments or spontaneous moments of fantasy or other cinematographic embellishments that keep the film's heart beating and blood flowing through all the cross-cuts and across all the act and scene divisions. A Christmas Tale is a Gallic Corrections for the movie screen, with blood-marrow tests instead of Latvian misadventures, and if not everything works as well as it could—the Poupaud-Mastroianni plot never struck me as belonging to the same movie, even the same recursively loosey-goosey movie—Desplechin & Co. nonetheless offer a pretty unbeatable feast to audiences hungry for stylization, eccentricity, curiosity, personality, handsomeness, surfeit, and unpredictability.
The Edge of Heaven
or Auf der anderen Seite
Germany

Fatih Akin,
director
I'm not sure to which of two audiences The Edge of Heaven constitutes a trickier sell. Is it to subtitle-phobic viewers who wonder how they'll relate to the multiply overlapping trajectories of a sozzled German paterfamilias, his bookish son, a Turkish émigré working as a prostitute, the petulant-looking daughter to whom she's lied about her labor and her whereabouts, the nascent radical who falls hard and forever for this girl, or the skeptical mother of this second girl, who sees only danger and frustration in store for her daughter's new love? Or is to regular arthouse denizens who wonder how many more multi-strand meditations on the tangled web of the world we can possibly be forced to digest, endowed with how many different multi-culti slants? I wish no one needed any persuading, since the film makes so sturdy a case for itself. The Edge of Heaven is so emotionally generous and so confidently helmed, shooting up on sonic and visual textures without overdosing, and palpably connecting with its characters, that it's tough to imagine an audience who fundamentally wouldn't connect with the movie. The actors are affecting but restrained, and the screenplay avoids most of the pitfalls of gratuitous crossover and coincidence. Even better, and compensating for the occasional indulgence in the script or structure, the film manages a heartfelt connection to the young without making itself aloof from the aches and memories of the old, and its restive political sympathies for the dispossessed are filtered not through the hectoring schematics of a Dirty Pretty Things but through evocative, uncynical brushstrokes of human loneliness, longing, solace, and desire.
Up the Yangtze
China/Canada

Yung Chang,
director
I've been reading and hearing a lot about China in recent years but I haven't been seeing much of it, and when the movies have shown it to me, what I've mostly witnessed are longstanding tropes for the ancientness of its culture or gaudy, color-blocked operas of movement and rivalry and emotional conflict. American newspapers have lamented the accumulating fallout of the Three Gorges Dam project, often from an ecological and economic point of view that implicates the whole world, but occasionally from the local-cultural point of view of aggressive human and cultural displacement. In those moments, all I've been able to think about are abstract hundreds of millions of reluctant migrants... sweeping like a tide toward the cities? climbing to higher elevations? building new domiciles? surging into neighboring provinces? essentially staying put, their lack of resources allowing only superficial movements, and hoping for the best? What do they look like? What do they wear and eat? More than that, how do they feel, and how do they express it? Up the Yangtze helped me see more than the rising river and its capitalist appropriation as a simultaneously nostalgic and Western-minded venue for carefully packaged tourism. Whatever my failings as a more careful follower of global trends—I wonder what people more conversant in Chinese politics and landscape and demography have made of this film—I felt profoundly indebted to Yangtze's early and honest admissions that the Chinas in my head were outdated by centuries or else never quite existed, and that the movement of millions of people almost never takes shape as some human tide you could spot from a satellite, like some imaginary crescent of bodies pushing over the land with common purpose and destination. It looks like this: case-by-case, confused, upset, hopeful, humid, inquisitive, introspective, inadequate, destructive, fascinating, uncertain, human-sized. I'm sure the film is full of its own generalizations and lacunae, but to everyone I know who watched the Beijing Olympics and wondered what we weren't seeing, or who balked at the grandiloquent Opening Ceremonies and wondered what life looked and felt like for so many of the Chinese, a provocative answer (if only, inevitably, a partial answer) lay waiting right here on the movie screen.
Yella
Germany

Christian Petzold,
director
My third laurel for Yella, which finally receives its DVD debut in the U.S. this winter, so more of you can take the plunge with Petzold's remix of reliable recipes from Herk Harvey and David Lynch. What I admire especially about Yella is how engrossed it allows itself to become in the minutiae of its mundane reality, so that this central body of the film doesn't feel like an arbitrary placeholder for the errata in time-space and the conceptual abstractions that many viewers will expect. The key nuggets of plot and characterization are effectively unsettling despite an economy of means: our early introduction to Yella's relationship with her family and then with her dependent, haranguing, and dangerous former lover orient us quickly into Petzold's facility for evoking backstory and internal landscape in swift, bold strokes, a gift that he shares with his actors and key crew members. Not groundbreaking, by its own implicit admission, but more challenging to and distinctive from its evident inspirations than it first appears—and, over twelve months on, I find myself more preoccupied by Petzold's disquieting mood piece and his head for money and cunning and loneliness in the modern-day E.U. than I am by Hou Hsaio-hsien's gossamer impressions of Paris or Jia Zhangke's peripherally surreal portrait of a sinking, expectant Chinese countryside. That may not be a permanent judgment, but it's a telling encapsulation of Yella's spindly power.
 
Honorable Mentions: Cannes champ
The Class just misses the spot claimed by A Christmas Tale, a compatriot film that numbered among those that Cantet's movie beat for that Palme d'or. Maybe I just can't help rooting for the underdog. From there, the most serious bids for inclusion were made by Jia Zhangke's Venice champion Still Life, the constrained delirium of Jacques Rivette's Balzac adaptation The Duchess of Langeais, and the simple, fragile, but still lived-in luminosity of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon. In truth, my level of enthusiasm for these four titles was so closely comparable to how I felt about my honorees that, with the exception of Up the Yangtze, you could almost swap any of the films I've written up more fully for one of these Honorable Mentions.




Burn After Reading
"Roderick Jaynes"
Sure, the Coens still love to cut amongst mid-shots and close-ups that pin the characters relentlessly against each other and nail them into their shots like bugs pinned to a wall. But our beloved "Roderick," whom we really will have to get around to meeting one day, has such delicious fun with these essentially spare editing patterns that we wouldn't want them altered. Burn After Reading is in many ways as tautly compressed as Blood Simple but its off-rhythms let the comedy out: holding on Brad Pitt's high hair and nose-bleed as Malkovich lays into him; Swinton gaping at her husband's clueless "plans" or at her piddling mortal of a divorce lawyer. The dropping in of pure-jolt farce does wonders for the movie: Pitt on the treadmill, apropos of nothing; Clooney with his masturbatory Nautilus, and then clubbing it to mechanical death later on; "Olson," inexplicably present at Malkovich's firing, and hilariously blank in an insert reaction shot; Swinton hammering away at a recalcitrant patient (which is to say, a child terrified of Tilda Swinton). The non-sequitur lead-ins, like that portentous shot on Malkovich that takes us into the Princeton Club, are just as priceless. These are the symptoms of merriment and pranksterism that keep the script from being too plot-bound and the film from being too cruel and controlled. Jaynes isn't always a paragon of good taste, but he serves up the goodies, sharp and hot.
The Class
Robin Campillo
Can you imagine how much footage Campillo must have had to sort through, and how daunting it must have been to show all the semi- and non-professionals to advatange, and release and contract the various tensions prevailing inside the classroom, and manage the sense of connection but also of estrangement prevailing between Monsieur Marin and his class as a whole, much less with each of the individual members? Editing is certainly crucial to how adeptly the film conjures the strained, dully paralyzed atmosphere that suddenly prevails when one teacher starts wracking with the bottled-up frustration that surely many of them feel but don't usually express (don't even want expressed), and to how quickly a few gruff exchanges and surly exits transpire near the end of The Class, furnishing a palpable climax to the film without violating the consistency of its tone or the essential realism of its aesthetics.
Rachel Getting Married
Tim Squyres
Maybe you hated the rehearsal dinner sequence. I loved it; didn't almost anyone who would spend their time reading verbose websites about popular film probably love the rehearsal dinner sequence? Squyres has his Sense and Sensibility task all over again—how to balance our competing attentions to and curiosities about all of these lovers and relatives and other strangers, but this time he's got a few more agendas to worry about, and a much less carefully coded, rule-driven society to use as a template for who should be speaking and who should be listening, and who is a "crucial" character and who is "second-tier." Rachel obviously wants to sprawl itself all over traditional boundaries like those, implying perpetually that the movie might fly off and follow another character entirely or drop a subplot or back away from a pivotal figure, all of which Rachel occasionally does, and Squyres keeps the film humming even as it jettisons these threads and throws these curveballs. Sure some of the musical footage feels a little indulgent, and a few of the familial combats wear on a bit, or pitch themselves a bit too high. Lots of yelling. But even more truth-telling, and a shrewd editor bracing it all together and helping us detect the pulses underneath all these stunts, these spats, these apologies, these confrontations, these ententes, these disappointments.
Savage Grace
John F. Lyons
Savage Grace has its own fair share of uncomfortable encounters, and from the outset, editor John F. Lyons plays a crucial role in keeping the audience, if anything, even more uncomfortable than the characters. We've experienced thousands of scenes where some gauche would-be hostess or aspiring society star is actually making herself unbearable to her company, but Lyons doesn't hold on Julianne Moore long enough to sell her out as an oppressive narcissist, and he doesn't pull a lot of reaction shots to stabilize the feeling or meaning of a scene. Instead, he reinforces at the level of editing what director Tom Kalin seems to be getting at, which is a series of unwieldy, insensitive, and heedless effusions and provocations, peppered with seductions and malapropisms, without any clear sense of who's responding to whose bad taste or good intentions or cruel impulses or ameliorating instincts. Is anyone on screen judging any of this? Is anyone going to help us evaluate what we're seeing and hearing? Would we even want cues from these people? The edits throughout Savage Grace are aggressive and rhythmically unpredictable, slashing into one scene to abruptly introduce another, adopting multiple angles on a quasi-flirtation that never quite teases itself out, holding an overhead shot over what Shakespeare called an "enseamed bed" for so long that we can't wait for one of the characters to wake up and react, even if it's only by laughing. It's amazing how few shots in Savage Grace imply any clear sense of feeling or import, and even fewer of them embody the particular tones and resonances that they wind up having in the larger context of their strange, uneasy scenes. That this is so speaks to counter-intuitive, creative, meaning-making, unusual, and unforgettable editing.
Trouble the Water
Todd Woody Richman
The tasks: integrate one couple's handheld Camcorder footage with a documentary crew's investigative footage as they follow that couple around that city. Strike a balance between the extreme conflicts and pathos of the scenes chronicling the evacuation of neighbors, the storm, the floods, and the desperate quests to hang on, and the later scenes chronicling the returns to key sites and the move outward to new locales. Introduce new characters steadily, some of them fleetingly but some for quite a while, without broadcasting too clumsily who is a "major" character and who isn't. Withhold some key information about our two hero-protagonists such that we don't even think much about how many questions we actually have, and we don't react in too simplified a manner as they start to reveal more of themselves. Avoid TV-news rhythms and tabloid sensationalism. Avoid the laziness of simply broadcasting someone else's direct footage without giving it shape. Condense your scenes so that even without constructing as grand a survey as Spike Lee's New Orleans film, we still absorb a generous and constantly shifting cross-section of the region, its people, and the emotional highs and lows of these people's stamina and homelessness and resilience. That's a lot to do, but Trouble the Water aces all those tasks, with style and force and even some humor and some musical catharsis along the way.
 
Honorable Mentions: A whole host of them, so I'm going to splice them together in a quick montage: the immediacy and almost tragic momentum of The Wrestler; the interwoven registers and the vivid shaping of archival footage in Chicago 10; the creative flux and flow of Reprise; the uncanny out-of-bodyness of Yella; the nimbly handled scale and intelligent humanism of Up the Yangtze; the balance of aging and staying stuck and growing to gargantuan proportions in Synecdoche, New York; the lucid marshaling of information and affect throughout Taxi to the Dark Side; the coherently sustained vignettes and stylized impressions in Hunger; the boisterous family drama of Surfwise; the political energies and personal passions of Milk, keyed against heavy but adroit incorporations of documentary footage; the panoramic dysfunction and oscillating modes of A Christmas Tale; the accumulated sublimity of Man on Wire; and the meaningful, affecting criss-crosses and coincidences of The Edge of Heaven, which works so senstivitely and persuasively in a dramatic and narrative mode that so many films have attempted and few have sustained so poignantly.




Chicago 10
Paul Urmson,
Jac Rubinstein,
Bob Chefalas
The baseline formal effectiveness of the sound mix in Chicago 10 is the stark, recurring contrast between the rousing, enervated hubbub of the streets and the parks and the racquetball-court aridity of the animated courtroom, amidst which the taut, frequently outraged voices of the attorneys, judge, and witnesses (all smartly cast) violently collide with each other. Still more arresting is the variegated and not always era-specific song score that not only plays with our sense of the historical scale and relevance of these events but manages to wash over the mise-en-scène and then recede from it at wisely judged moments, particularly when this means clearing space for the archival soundscapes of Grnat Park and Michigan Avenue. The sound designers marshal the power and the most pointed, edifying testimonies and background noises from this footage while also keeping watch over an ebb, flow, and momentum of volume that keeps your interest surging, but not hyperactively keyed-up, as this imaginative documentary unfolds.
Mister Foe
Douglas MacDougall,
Peter Brill,
Kahl Henderson,
Chris Sinclair
Mister Foe's sound design and its expressive, saturated photography are just about all we get as access-points into the protagonist's confused, hormonally restless, and, shall we say, sympathetically psychotic personality. Thank God they both open up the character so potently and so polychromatically; the soundtrack for Mister Foe is eclectic but idiomatically coherent, and it seems at all times to characterize Hallam and his nervous, urban, exaggerated world rather than just flattering or trumpeting the director's own tastes, as such heavily song-scored movies tend to do. The design and mixing teams are adept at scaling and pitching the volume of the tracks and at doling out more music than we "need" (emotional and social evocation is its own end) but still stopping short of over-weening. You could say the same of their sound work in some of the movie's key locations—the treehouse, the lake, the hotel, the attic. For more, read last year's citation in the Song Score category, which doesn't exist this year for lack of strong candidates; Mister Foe would have swept it, no problem.
The Strangers
Scott Hecker,
Jeffree Bloomer,
Marti D. Humphrey,
Chris M. Jacobson
I always feel incredibly satisfied when a seemingly limited genre entertainment bespeaks such inordinate creativity and finesse in at least one register of craftsmanship that I cannot help feeling that the filmmakers are gearing up for grander and better experiments, or at least that they perked up one day in film school when too many of their fellow students were snoozing or semi-listening. Such is the case with The Strangers, a well-shot but manifestly front-loaded horror film from the early summer. The best stuff is all in the first hour, before the film gets stuck in a rut of protracted terrorizing and repetitive flights and pursuits; but the best stuff is pretty good stuff, and the best of the best is a wicked sound design, aggressive in its claims on the audience without renouncing its subtlety, and as effective with incongruous, vinylly swaths of folk and bluegrass as with a whole gamut of raps, knocks, and poundings on the cottage's front door. Cooperating beautifully with the director's and the cinematographer's penchants for burying key visual details at the very back or just off the edge of a frame, this is top-flight sound work and a reason to watch for the next efforts of everyone responsible.
WALL•E
Ben Burtt,
Matthew Wood,
Tom Myers,
Michael Semanick
You would think that a move that has virtually no dialogue for the first 45 minutes, save the occasional "WAAAALL•E" and "eeeEEEEEVVVaaa," would depend upon a big glut of instrumental music to keep the audience going, especially if the audience includes at least 80% of the nation's children. But WALL•E, whose studio made sure that everyone, especially the critics, knew how "brave" the filmmakers were to withhold so much chatter, gives textured, restrained, creative integrity to a structuring choice that might otherwise have felt as show-offy as I felt it was in Cast Away. Starting with Michael Crawford belting Jerry Herman, keying the song so loud and mastering the mix so perfectly, make for a grabber opening, and it's thus all the more impoverishing when the sound drains into muffled breezes and gravelly shifts. You can always hear that tiny cockroach, pinging and puttering, even when you can't see him, and even when there's a lot else happening on top of him in the sound world. WALL•E still sounds like a machine, sometimes a very belabored one, even as the script and the images keep nudging him into being E.T. or Pinocchio, a "thing" made "real" by love. Skipping ahead, the sonic pandemonium of the final act is more artful and joyful than the slighty hectic visuals, and the spectrum of human, machinic, and pre-recorded voices is expansive and universally well-rendered.
Yella
Dirk Jacob,
Andreas Mücke-Niesytka
Almost everything that Dirk Jacob's sound team offers to Yella seems rather baldly nicked from the David Lynch Playbook, but if you're going to play copycat, is there a better working director to emulate? A few of Yella's fans have conceded that the central enigma is a bit too easy to see through, but I'm not sure I agree. What I think instead is that the sound design, in league with the taut performances and edits and the manipulations of depth and perspective, is expert at feeding several layers of discomfort and irreality into the film, even if it means troubling the border between what is "really" happening and what may not be. Portentous, non-diegetic sounds, many of them related to water, are at least as arresting as the diegetic sound effects (i.e., stuff the characters hear as clearly as we do), and the unraveling aural coherence as we advance toward the movie's end is well-judged and disconcerting. Extra points for those haunting, majestic, serial samplings of Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger's "Road to Cairo."
 
Honorable Mentions:
The Dark Knight has sonic thrills and terrors and thrums to spare, but perhaps a little modulation would have been welcome from this unremittingly intense affair. Conversely, I love how Fatih Akin, a professed enthusiast of so many musical idioms, spices The Edge of Heaven with some flavorful song and local color, and I might have given it Yella's spot if the work were just a bit more distinctive or adventurous. More good work: the action landscapes of Quantum of Solace, with at least a few quiet spells to serve this rebooted franchise's interest in character; the deep, stark sensuousness of music and mood in Savage Grace; the blend of naturalism and of mythic 80s guitar-rock in The Wrestler; the flamboyant world-music cornucopia that is the Rachel Getting Married wedding, rounded out by some memorably mixed and overlapped bouts of family repartee; and, continuing that theme, the layers of squabbling and murmuring and non-diegetic embellishment in A Christmas Tale.

If You Were Wondering About... Paranoid Park, I'm all for Leslie Shatz, whose sound design for Van Sant's Last Days was a stunning achievement and a special prizewinner at Cannes, but in Park, the sounds feel so conspicuous and sort of over-mic'd that I felt like the work was playing aggressively to Shatz's reputation more than it was serving the world of the film or the experience of the audience. But then, I would say the same about Paranoid Park's cinematography, its direction, and almost everything else about it. I'm sure the reasons for which it's many people's new favorite Van Sant film are similar to the reasons I felt it was trying too hard, illuminating too little, and winding up too cold.




Chicago 10
Brett Morgen,
director

Graydon Carter,
Brett Morgen,
producers
From my report on the Top Ten films of 2008: "One wouldn't call the flat, often stiff rotoscope animation of the jury-trial sequences a major technical advance, but these scenes do have the vivid, sharp feel of a graphic novel, plus the fizzy humor and compulsive watchability that precious few graphic-novel adaptations have actually managed. That the disorderly squabbling of lawyers, the vicious pronouncements from the bench, and the outraged jokester antics of the famous defendants are all drawn from actual court transcripts makes these sequences historically informative, rather than simply a punchy way of retelling history, and of doing so in a populist, frankly reductionist mode that Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and their comrades probably would have relished. A major strength of Chicago 10 is that, in willfully disavowing a fuller picture of the DNC convention or the wider, global contexts of 1968 protest movements, it wonderfully evokes the mix of righteousness, idealism, and myopic insolence that typified the protesters. But even that achievement is nothing compared to the eye-opening archival footage of the sit-ins, concerts, marches, protests, and police attacks in Grant Park, Lincoln Park, and Michigan Avenue, making Chicago 10 the rare American movie to remind us that concerted, principled, and dangerous political protest has taken many forms in recent American history, under-taught and poorly remembered though they are. Morgen edits and scores his movie fabulously, keeping a firm hold on color, motion, and tension in his frames and his sequence-structures, and mixing 60s-era music with modern influences (Rage Against the Machine, Eminem) that resonate uncannily well with what we're seeing—some of us for the first time."
Man on Wire
James Marsh,
director

Simon Chinn,
producer
During the first sequences of Man on Wire, rapt as I was by the fundamental weirdness of a man wanting to traverse the distance between the World Trade Center towers with nothing but a steel filament to support him, I harbored doubts about whether the film would be able to enlarge our notion of the scope or stakes of this event. That it happened is crazy, but what did it mean? And exactly how long were those men hiding under that tarp to make sure the guards hadn't noticed them? If you've seen the film, you'll know why that last bit had me flummoxed, and I still can't say I really know; director James Marsh may fairly be accused of trying to "hook" us into the story a little too early and then stalling on his own device. But the first question is moot, because Man on Wire does such a thrilling, cheeky, dignified job of making Philippe Petit's aerial exploit not "mean" anything except itself. The onlookers were thrilled by the sheer, inexplicable, ecstatic bravura of the thing, and so, by the end of the film, if not much earlier, are we. I'm not liable to forget Petit's particular forms of exuberance and irreverence; give or take one hilarious moment of libidinous distraction, he's as insistently focused on his rapturously idiosyncratic goal as the Grizzly Man was, but the ending here is much happier, and the edits and scoring, including a lovely incorporation of Satie's Gymnopédie, escalate our pleasure in this one-of-a-kind yarn. (Dear Hollywood: resist the urge to remake it as a biopic.)
Taxi to the Dark Side
Alex Gibney,
director

Alex Gibney,
Eva Orner,
Susannah Shipman,
producers
Another of those films that I considered for last year's awards because I first screened it at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 2007, but that I'm now revisiting for this year's awards because I've decided to reclassify this feature according to U.S. release dates. Happily for Taxi, which barely got edged out by last year's sterling field of five, this year's competition was just a tad less week. No need to keep drowning those sorrows in your Best Documentary Feature Oscar, Alex Gibney: you're finally in with Nick's Flick Picks! Like Man on Wire, Taxi is occasionally hamstrung on narrative schemes: it's hard for the movie to admit that the essential tragedy of the titular taxi driver, tortured to death in a U.S. military prison, is that he remains inherently unknowable to us, despite all the film's gestures at pretending or aspiring otherwise. But in most ways, Taxi to the Dark Side is uncommonly elegant at presenting an unusual depth of information about its sprawling subject of torture policy in and around Iraq and Afghanistan, before but especially after the 9/11 events and the U.S. military strikes. The on-screen captions that act as visual footnotes, emending false or obscure statements by the interview subjects, or postdating their testimonies all the way to the film's final moment of completion, are an unusually scrupulous and easily digestible strategy, and the film leaves both an intellectual and an emotional trace of having tackled its projects with depth, conviction, and fairness.
Trouble the Water
Tia Lessin,
Carl Deal,
producer/directors
Kimberly Rivers Roberts don't need you to tell her that she's amazin', "Because I know what I am / And what I am that I be's is amazin'." She and her husband Scott also know with equal confidence, in Trouble the Water's opening sequence, that the footage they have of rising waters and human-scaled nightmares in the 9th Ward of New Orleans is something the offscreen filmmakers, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, won't have seen the match of, and they're right. Handheld high angles of the ceiling beams on which refugees from the surging flood are precariously trying to cross through their attics. Neighborhood vagabonds glimpsed off-handedly and later remembered as folks who may not have made it, and later confirmed as such in grisly, heartbreaking ways. The confusion of knowing where to go after surviving the flood, and a memorably cruel encounter with an obstinate, frankly racist and classist military checkpoint squad that imagines itself collectively as doing its job, and by its own rules probably is, and is later given a prize for it (that is, for denying entry to a troop of now-homeless wanderers who have already survived some unspeakable threats and scares). All of this is arresting, but Lessin and Deal aren't just capitalizing on a bounty of found footage to which they've secured exclusive rights; as I'll cover in more detail further up, they bring an incisive, humane, capacious, and largely non-judgmental touch to their own chronicling of Kim and Scott's relationship, their leadership in finding havens, temporary and otherwise, for relatives as well as emergency acquaintances, their visits back to the ghosted places from which they fled and from which they were turned away, and their attempts to get back on their feet (and properly compensated) once they're finally back in clean clothes and dry shoes. Amazin'.
Up the Yangtze
Yung Chang,
director

Mila Aung-Thwin,
John Christou,
Germaine Wong,
producers
What do you say to the teenage, maybe even pre-teen peasant girl who has been told by her family with Dickensian frankness that they cannot support all of their children under prevailing conditions, and that she'll forced to drudge in the kitchen of a luxury riverboat in order to sustain herself as well as her parents? And what does she say to them when the boat docks near their home and they want to check with her boss about how obedient and teachable she has proven? And what do the other girls in her same situation say about her evident misery, and her slowness to rise to the enforced standards of her labor? This is just one thread among many that Up the Yangtze presents, but all the way from the abruptly emotional shopkeeper who knows that his store, his whole town will be sacrificed to the "greater good" of harvesting energy to the ubiquitous signage reminding the rural Chinese of how high the water of the Three Gorges Dam will eventually rise, Up the Yangtze is tactful, observant, and adroit in preserving both local and super-structural vantages on its subject. I learned and felt a great deal, and Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, who narrates the opening, is revealingly candid about how his own sense of his project evolved once he actually arrived in China and confronted the human narratives that his film commemorates so sensitively.
 
Honorable Mentions: I extend tremendous credit to Doug Pray's
Surfwise for being so colorful and lively in presentation, and for extending its kaleidoscopic surface aesthetic to the subtle, shifting, involving way in which it continually drew us into the peculiar history and fragile group dynamics among its highly unusual family. A great object lesson in doing something cinematically vivid with another family's story and not over-relying on dirty laundry to make its own case for why we're watching. But beyond Surfwise and the boundary-pushing documentary status of Waltz with Bashir, and acknowledging lots of aporia in my viewing (Dear Zachary, Must Read After My Death, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, I.O.U.S.A., Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, et al.) the above group of five stood head and shoulders above the other docs I saw.




Burn After Reading This category is usually a way for me to toss a bouquet to groups of actors who syncopated beautifully with each other and lent strength and flavor to the whole movie by doing so. Keep reading for four instances where that happened. In Burn After Reading, the actors pull the neater trick of elevating the movie and lavishly entertaining the audience in part because they're not in sync with each other. Brad Pitt's being a silly doofus, sometimes too broadly for my taste, but he's totally in control of it. Clooney's being a silly doofus but not conveying a whole lot of control or intention behind what he's doing. Jenkins is nursing his wounds just broadly enough to make them work as comedy. Swinton's eating everyone for breakfast between professional appointments. Malkovich acts as though he's obtuse to the whole idea of comedy: he gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie with his braying narcissism at the outset, though his relentless, aggressive earnestness sometimes carries that Malkovich risk of turning off the audience. J.K. Simmons and David Rasche know they're in an absurd espionage thriller-cum-skewering of Bush-era bureaucratic dunderheadedness. McDormand knows it, too, but she turns on her character and mugs to the back row of the theater, maybe even the back row of a theater down the hall, instead of what Simmons and Rasche do, manipulating their punchlines like they're juggling knives, and scoring every time. Jeffrey DeMunn is fantastically passive-aggressive as McDormand's cosmetic surgeon. Most of these choices work better in some scenes than in others; some of the turns I like better than others; a few of the wallflowers in my first viewing sprang to life the second time around, and vice versa. Add it all together, and it's a vibrant comic ensemble that lends variety, kookiness, and verve to a script that might otherwise have seemed too cold and plot-driven to allow for any joy, including the audience's. I didn't come close to nominating any of the individual performances, but added together, for better and for worse, they're gangbusters.
Elegy Who knew that Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper could make such credible pals, both of them finding their way to the cadence and mien of academic life, and so instantly suggestive of decades of a friendship that is and isn't intimate? Who knew that Penélope Cruz wouldn't look the least bit intimidated by her hard-driving and Oscar-winning costar, and that he'd relate to her from the outset with more than lustful attraction or sentimental projection (though, by necessity, both of those dynamics are present from the outset). Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard are the only two actors in the film who I can remember co-starring before and who seem like obvious candidates for the same kind of film, but I also don't remember them sharing any scenes together. Meanwhile, she finds the right vibe for relating to Kingsley, hyper-familiar but always on edge, and Sarsgaard, after curdlinig into the film with a (justifiably) histrionic chip on his shoulder, takes one huge lump after one especially ill-timed barb, from which point he and Kingsley evolve a father-son relationship that is more believably prickly than you tend to see in a whole year of movies. Aces all around, and with a quieter tip of the hat to an almost unrecognizable Deborah Harry as Hopper's seldom glimpsed but three-dimensional wife.
Rachel Getting Married You almost cannot toss enough bouquets at Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt for the sisterly bond they develop, complicate, undermine, and revise all the way through the story, or at Bill Irwin for all the added context and color he pours into his many, many scenes as their father or at Debra Winger for the comparable context and color she sneaks into her relatively few and perpetually tense scenes as their mother. If you're feeling uncomfortable with Irwin's sunny enabling or at Winger's serial shrinking from her daughters' questions and emotional demands, look how tough life is for their new significant others: Anna Deavere Smith, who watches everything but limits herself to one or two genuine interventions as Irwin's second wife, and Jerome Le Page as the companion who walks into the radioactive rehearsal dinner with Winger and allows her to lean against him all night while she tries to get critical, insulated distance on all these people, including the ones who came out of her body. Tunde Adebimpe doesn't add as much to the movie as DeWitt's fiancé but he does seem to understand and flow well with the project, and Mather Zickel works a spectacular, raffish leading-man vibe in several early scenes with Hathaway even though he knows, as we don't, that the film isn't going to pick up this Kym-Kieran thread to nearly the extent that we're guessing after the first 20 minutes. Rachel might also have the year's deepest ensemble of actors working the heck out of momentary appearances. Two of my favorites were Roslyn Ruff as Kym's designated rehab liaison, friendly and youthful but seen it all before, and Tamyra Gray, who sings at the rehearsal dinner in such a way that I thought "she's either jealous of Rachel or has actually dated the fiancé in the past," and wouldn't you know, her character name in the credits says "Sidney's Ex." I single those two out, but you could mention Kyrah Julian as Sidney's sister, any of the actors playing his family and friends, Anisa George as Rachel's officious friend Emma, and I would nod with the fond memory of their contributions to the film.
Snow Angels Lots of films take place in small American towns, but few of them convince you as quickly as Snow Angels does that these people all live together, they know their way around without thinking, they have known each other forever, and they still don't know everything about each other. Sparking to well-chosen locations and to a director whose intuitions are largely spot-on whenever he's not too focused on plot, Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell both contribute their best work in ages, if not ever. They've got a whole history of semi-amicable divorce down pat. Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby appear to have mapped every bit of their charming, slightly stuttering friendship-into-courtship, but they both act as though the material is entirely fresh and spontaneous. Nicky Katt, often too much the cut-up for my taste, orders up the Funny without the side of Ham, and Amy Sedaris, so imaginatively and smartly cast, is as zesty as you expect but just as proficient with the other sides of her character. Nice work from Jeanetta Arnette, too, and from Griffin Dunne in some shorter bits. A whole cast of people I've wanted to see more from, or by whom I've been waiting to be fully persuaded—and now we have, and now I am.
Synecdoche, New York This is one tough script, and if Philip Seymour Hoffman has by far the tallest order of hitting every scene-specific and thematic and hypothetical and metaphysical mark that Kaufman throws at him, and if Dianne Wiest has to track all of Hoffman's choices, so as to imitate him and also to inherit from him, it's not as though anyone else is allowed to coast. Particularly since they have to squish a separate film's worth of intimate, uncomfortable, and potentially unreliable backstory into a few quickly sliced scenes. Not all of them rise to the full level of these demands, but at least in those cases (I'm thinking of Hope Davis and Jennifer Jason Leigh), they show the audience a good time and sustain what Hoffman is doing in their scenes. Catherine Keener and Samantha Morton, hardening and softening the textures of the film in their respective scenes, do a little more of what they've done in other movies, but both performances, especially Morton's, are nuanced with lots of feeling, thought, and implication that feel unique to this movie. Tom Noonan plays in many ways the most pathetic figure in the movie but doesn't give in entirely to pathos or self-pity. In my favorites among the other showcased supporting roles, Emily Watson handles the joke of her own casting opposite Morton very well but scores even better with a pivotal scene where she coaxes Hoffman into bed, and Michelle Williams is the best I've ever seen her as a somewhat vapid actress who's still a substantial enough person that her character arc carries the emotional freight that it really needs to for the movie to work—and she's funny, too. Deirdre O'Connell has a heartstopping scene close to the picture's finish, and Robin Weigert, Peter Friedman, Josh Pais, Alice Drummond, Amy Wright, Lynn Cohen, Rosemary Murphy, Tim Guinee, and lots of other American indie and mini-major mainstays work small wonders in still more key moments of this intricate screenplay.
 
Honorable Mentions: Kimberly Peirce hasn't quite gone all the way with the
Stop-Loss ensemble the way she did with her Boys Don't Cry repertory in '99, but she still has quite a knack for snapping erratic performers to life and evoking a pungent sense of place and social idiom through her direction of actors. The ensemble of Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys seem just as committed to their roles and they serve them up to the audience with relish and modulation; I hope I see Rockmond Dunbar and Kaira Whitehead in something else soon, and I love how much looser, funnier, and more engaging Kathy Bates and Taraji P. Henson are here than they were in their big "prestige" pictures in December. The Christmas Tale cast stay committed to their characters in thoughtful, detailed ways while also visibly basking in the thrill of being given so much to do, and so many talented people to do it with. The backgrounded teachers and parents in The Class were at least as commanding as the raucous, interesting kids in the classroom. To make it a hat-trick for the French, I balked continually at the convoluted storytelling and the insane, excessive "explanations" that piled up at the end of Tell No One, but you cannot blame that exciting ensemble, headlined by the ardent François Cluzet and rounded out by talented thesps like Kristin Scott Thomas, Marina Hands, and Jean Rochefort. They knew just how much to give to this film, even if they're used to carrying more weight in other movies.

If You Were Wondering About... Happy-Go-Lucky, I often felt about the supporting performances that they seemed a little less like people than like characters created by actors who had seen and enjoyed the films of Mike Leigh (with respectful exception to Karina Fernandez's jewel of a flamenco teacher). And Eddie Marsan, whom I singled out as an Honoree in 2004 (catch up, people!), rather overdid it with Scott, at least for my taste.





Rosemarie DeWitt
Rachel Getting Married
I know some people view this as a co-leading role, and I understand that tack, but part of what I love about DeWitt's sharp, attentive, aggressive, mutable performance is that she constantly prevaricates about whether Rachel wants equal or even higher billing in relation to her shit-starting sister (and in some very memorable scenes, nothing could be clearer than this desire on Rachel's part) or whether she actually relishes the dual positions of nursing Kym through her inevitable crack-ups and of nursing her own resentment that she's once again overshadowed—railroaded into non-celebrity status within the family. But then frankly, it's not even clear that Rachel isn't a celebrity in this family, and DeWitt fleshes out that possibility, too, as part of the complex psychology she constructs for this layered, intelligent, vituperative character, who nonetheless remains somebody you could easily sit next to on the subway or in a doctoral class any day of the week. I like that DeWitt doesn't "unveil" any core to Rachel, whether of jealousy or beneficence or spite, but rather keeps all the possiblities in play. That may or may not make her a "star" of Rachel Getting Married, but it sure makes her a star for me.

Julia Ormond
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
Ormond blesses Kit Kittredge with the kind of performance from which you don't later remember many specific choices or moments, but you do savor a memory of amassed, perceptible, but largely checked emotion. She doesn't make a false spectacle of restraining her character's domestic and financial worries, nor of her adoration for her daughter and her generous, inclusive social sympathies, nor of her despair for her wandering and uncommunicative husband. Conversely, when the story allows a release valve on one of these storehouses of feeling, Ormond doesn't leap at the chance for a big explosion of pathos, though she hardly skimps on the might of these moments. It's a big deal to even invoke Cicely Tyson in Sounder, and certainly Ormond isn't operating at that level, but she's onto something similar—broadcasting a mother's emotions to the chaperoning adults in the Kit Kittredge audience but tactfully withholding them from the kids, both in the movie and in the theater. She thereby reminds us of how remote a mother's psychology almost always is when we're young (or especially when we're young), even if we're enjoying her unconditional love. Unfussy but invaluable to the film, and a great incentive for keeping Ormond around, Benjamin Button be damned.

Rachel Régulier
The Class
Let's engage in a public works project for just a second and let's work on getting Rachel Régulier an actual credit on the IMDb page for The Class and, by extension, a page under her own name. Rachel's Khoumba, the bright, charismatic, sometimes congenial, sometimes petulant African-French student enrolled under M. Marin, has emerged as one of the defining faces of the movie's advertising, and it's no wonder: amid a large crowd of semi- and non-professional student-age actors, she effortlessly manages to wrest our attention in the opening scenes, then defies our expectations by proving so able to fade into the ensemble once Khoumba, for whatever unstated reasons, has given up hope on M. Marin and his classroom (possibly on formal education altogether?). Then, she comes sliding back into a delicate entente with a teacher and a best friend whom she had earlier, quite unmistakably repudiated. With a vivacious face, gifted at high and low energies, capable of visible thought and of equally visible stonewalling and insolence, limber in her moment-to-moment responsiveness in character in a way that many Oscar nominees can only dream of, Régulier is for me the valedictorian in this very gifted class of new performers.

Marisa Tomei
The Wrestler
In all likelihood, at least a few of the trained actors who voted Marisa Tomei her unfairly notorious Oscar for My Cousin Vinny saw the potential for an even more interesting performer underneath her inspired comic schtick. But presented with such a willfully broad performance, can the rest of us possibly be blamed for not seeing the symptoms of the laidback, unpreoccupied, understated, and almost athletically graceful performer that Tomei has become, in movie after movie? Thank God Aronofsky (or whoever) thought of her for this part, which could have tempted any number of strong actors to compete with Mickey Rourke's showcase performance, to shake in their stilettos at the prospect of the nude dancing, to run in the other direction from the peripheral digs about how Cassidy isn't getting any younger. But Tomei doesn't even play the part as though any of this is what she's primarily thinking about (and Cassidy probably isn't either). She forestalls the Ram's flirtations like she's been doing it for years (she has, and not just with him), she moves in her daywear like a woman trained at off-hours self-concealment but who nonetheless feels good in her body. She dashes out for that pickup truck confession about the bypass surgery with succinct physical wit that lays a welcome countertone for the arresting candor and non-pretension, the serious and consummate tact of her responses to Randy throughout this scene, vocally and otherwise. The part is a little bit abbreviated, but Tomei doesn't treat it that way, either. She acts like she just knows in her bones what to do, even when Cassidy almost certainly doesn't (and "Pam," whoever that is, perhaps even less so).

Dianne Wiest
Synecdoche, New York
Who knows what we've done to earn so much more Wiest Time lately, on New York stages and on screens big and small, but her career is enjoying as welcome a revival as any I can imagine. And as listed below, she's got the tricky job in Synecdoche of slipping into the movie close to unnoticed (in, paradoxically, her most broadly played scene) and then inheriting not so much a "bigger" part as a more thematically central part. I'll come right out and say that I think the whole Synecdoche life-project is Millicent's—that is, Ellen's—the entire time, that Caden is a double of hers and not the other way around, and that his loves, desires, and despairs are "actually" hers, and that she finally emerges to own up to them and attempt, doubtlessly to late, to administrate them. Wiest reads her lines and holds her body so poignantly that I just feel that she's the source of the film's riverflow of sadness and middle-aged wisdom. Then again, Wiest is canny and skilled enough to simultaneously be playing a parallel to the Ed Harris figure in The Truman Show, which Millicent/Ellen more obviously seems to become, in her softer-spoken, strangely modest way. So, which is it? Who is Wiest playing? Is the play her play, the set her set, the movie her solar system? That we do not, maybe cannot know is not because Wiest plays vaguely or badly, but because she plays so evocatively and so well.
 
Honorable Mentions: Hanna Schygulla in
The Edge of Heaven gave Julia Ormond a good fight for the slot I reserved for delicately, beautifully underplayed mothers, just as Esméralda Ouertani almost edged out her Class co-star Régulier for her comparably zesty, layered, and proficient naturalism in front of the camera. But aside from these two cases, the five I've honored had a healthy lead over most of their competition. Evan Rachel Wood played a character and not just a series of temper tantrums in The Wrester, and I appreciated that she committed to the part and the project more than to her own self-scrutinizing image; I practically wanted to send flowers to Lena Olin for swatting Ralph Fiennes' character at the end of The Reader with the same, excusably severe questions I'd been wanting to hurl at the film for the preceding half-hour or so. But neither actress was really a threat for this list, and Penélope Cruz and Viola Davis, sturdy though they are, will simply have to content themselves with those inevitable Oscar nominations. I hope they'll call someone, perhaps each other, if their omissions here make it hard for them to sleep at night.





Josh Brolin
Milk
Brolin has such a conspicuously rigid, heavy-featured, sometimes dour form of handsomeness that I wasn't convinced even after his breakout performances of 2007 that he really had it in him to stretch far past the stolid, laconic alpha-male. That the part of Dan White is automatically the villain in Milk made me even more nervous for Brolin's prospects, but this performance excitingly shifted my perceptions of the actor as well as the part, excavating the very real pressures and inadequacies that White may have felt, and which must have been exacerbated by Harvey Milk's charisma, competence, and grandiosity. Brolin paints with a brush when I expected a heavy mallet, he's an ace at playing drunk without seeming to be drunk, and he's just as crafty at limning a subliminal attraction to Harvey that feels like a character point instead of what it easily could have been—a glib forensic hypothesis by artists (or for audiences) who somehow want White to have been motivated by subconscious desire.

Robert Downey, Jr.
Tropic Thunder
Tropic Thunder was about as big a turn-off as a movie can be, especially one that starts so deliciously, but Downey remained a touchstone of verve and inspiration, playing so nimbly with two specific caricatures—the prima-donna Hollywood star and the aggressively sage Person of Color familiar from so many action bonanzas—that he transcends the different (and unequal) kinds of offensiveness built into both stereotypes. He spryly, carefully, hilariously plays the part instead of seeming to "triumph" over it, though that's just as apt a description of what he's doing.

Bill Irwin
Rachel Getting Married
I carped to a few friends in the autumn that what I wanted to see was a movie called Rachel Getting Audited, so that I could start to understand where this outlandishly elaborate wedding came from, and who was paying for it, and how. As though I should still be baffled by the resources of the upper 1% of Americans. But even more than my crude knowledge of economic caste, Irwin's performance recuperated Demme's excesses: he plays the paterfamilias as someone so lavishly in love with his daughters and also with big moments (though he also, understandably, gets nervous and frightened about the kinds of big moments his daughters tend to occasion) that this ostentatious, narcissistic, highly diversionary affair suddenly made sense. You can practically read the accumulated neurosis and sadness and stress of this family in the static electricity that's always frizzing Irwin's flyaway hair, though of course it's even more eloquent in his agile face and his voluptuous, sometimes inappropriate emotions. A perplexing figure you keep wanting to learn more about, and yet he never usurps the center stage.

Columbus Short
Cadillac Records
As Little Walter, the dervish of a harmonica player who teamed with the blues guitarist Muddy Waters and rode to quick, hot, bright, and self-destructive glory with him, Columbus Short catches some of that same fire that Don Cheadle did in 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress, paired with an already-established leading man doing a slow burn, and blazing right past the semi-credible period dressings to connect vibrantly with the emotions, the nerve endings, and the social and historical underpinnings of the piece. We've seen this kind of wild-eyed Icarus character millions of times before, especially in biopics, and especially in biopics about artists, but Short estranges the role from its basic typologies and keeps a tight, unpredictable hold on our attention. When he arrives, it's palpable. When he blows up, it's real big. When he goes down, it feels like it matters.

Devid Striesow
Yella
I saw Yella almost fifteen months ago, and this performance still lingers with me after many less subtle, more mainstream, and closer-to-home performances have come and gone. This movie would stop working if the Lynchian menace totally overpowered the central mirage: that everything is perfectly right with the world, or at least perfectly "right" in that surreally cool, scarily detached, perpetually devious vein specific to high-level corporate negotations. Striesow embodies that idiom, endows his character with a unique and layered psychology, and he gives Nina Hoss an established presence to play against (so that her performance doesn't balloon off into the abstraction of the screenplay's conceits). He's sexy and perceptive, but not too much so; he never seizes more of the movie than belongs to him, and he managed the same self-discipline in The Counterfeiters. I can't tell if he's a major talent on the way or if he'll stick with the kinds of character parts that will never cross him over to a bigger global audience. Either way, if the work stays this good, he wins.
 
Honorable Mentions: An unexpectedly long and highly diverse list: Stephen Dillane's bitter and aloof daddy in
Savage Grace; Jaymie Dornan's stranded kid in Turn the River, if that isn't actually a lead; James Franco's careful avoidance of gay clichés, jealous-spouse clichés, sexy boyfriend clichés, and grieving widow clichés in Milk; an uncharacteristically assured and even less typically quiet Tyler Perry in his own The Famly that Preys; the cloudy and hilarious Thomas Haden Church in Smart People, raising his game from Sideways even though the movie's a sizeable step down; Ciarán Hinds in the Stephen Dillane role in Mister Foe; Demián Bichir as an arresting Fidel Castro without making a single grand gesture in the many hours of Che; Jean-Paul Roussilon as the squat, raspy, benevolent toad of a patriarch in A Christmas Tale; and Ralph Fiennes, breaking little new ground but excelling all the same with the precise and (you'll never guess) chilly emotional portraiture of the remote, aquiline husband/warden in The Duchess.




Ballast
Lance Hammer
Goes about as far as you'd want to go toward withholding central information about character relationships, regional markers, and contextualizing circumstances but yields up those details just when we can't stand their absence anymore—which also tends to mean that we glean this information when it resonates the most. Flavorful ear for local idioms, an encouraging patience for the pacing of picking up a new job or pushing past a long-gestating resentment. I know some viewers balked at the truncated subplots (what happened to those terrorizing thugs?) but I was okay with it, especially because Ballast concludes with the rare "open" ending that actually feels open instead of just non-committal or unduly pleased with itself.
Burn After Reading
Joel Coen,
Ethan Coen
Misanthropic this script undoubtedly is, but it's hit upon exactly the right moment to take a huge swath of Americans to task for our many-colored narcissisms and stupidities, and it grounds these bitter jokes in just the right city for absurd paranoia, for the mix of haughtiness and helplessness, and for the misguided notion that every damn thing that happens and every joker on a park bench could easily be a spy or a menace or a threshold of revelation. Believe me, I used to live there. The writing and placement of the Simmons/Rasche CIA scenes alone are worth a prize, as is the Coens' gift for milking so much out of small moments: the two dates to the movie theater, the scenes during and following the Swinton-Malkovich open house, the Pitt-McDormand exchanges leading up to the blackmailing telephone call (which is a thing of cruel beauty in and of itself).
A Christmas Tale
Arnaud Desplechin,
Emmanuel Bourdieu
More characters and plot-strands than there probably were presents under your tree, even if you're from an upper-bourgeois family like les Vuillard. Desplechin and Bourdieu are so deliciously willing to toss us a great big salad of different scene-types—montage exposition, snapshots of behavior and conversation, direct-to-camera address, flashbacks, conspicuous elisions. Plus, they engage the minutiae of their plots with such detailed zeal that you really feel immersed; compare how much more you learned about bone-marrow compatibility testing here than you did in Marvin's Room, even with so much else to keep track of in the Vuillards' house, and you see how economical the script manages to be while also being truly, madly, deeply excessive with narrative, backstory, conflict, and freestanding bits of characterization.
Rachel Getting Married
Jenny Lumet
A zestier New World spin on A Christmas Tale's domestic soap opera, with a ruder edge and a keen gift for cutting to the quick. If Desplechin and Bourdieu wrote what feels like a novel, with conceits like one sibling's legalized banishment of another, Jenny Lumet works more in the vein of a generously scaled short story, with keen observations about outsized figures and problems (rehab, black sheep, dead babies, U.N.-sponsored weddings) that rely for their plausibility and emotional force on scalpel-sharp dialogue and a thoughtful attention to detail (how does Kym get to and from her support-group meetings, especially amid all the matrimonial hubbub?). Extra points for the brilliant, tense suspension of the mother's arrival and for her ghostly comings and goings, even as both daughters beg in their different ways for her to stick around.
Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman
Treats his characters at times like Catherine Keener's Adele treats her idiosyncratic art, laboring over even the smallest roles so that they're full of distinguishing detail and shading, some of it visible only to Kaufman, or visible to the audience only if they're really paying attention. If you do that—pay attention—you might spot the moment when a joke character like Millicent Weems turns into a more earnestly resonant figure; and then into the soul of the piece, however marginal; and then quite possibly into the character that the whole movie has been about since it began. Or, you might not: Kaufman's Borgesian levels of pseudo-reality are so dizzying that there may be no definitive way of sounding them. Still, if you tried but failed (and can you fail, if the task is impossible?), you'd be left with those textured and carefully phrased speeches and with the elusive but palpable logic behind the scene transitions and with all the confident, instantaneous shifts of temporal and psychological perspective. I don't care if this script is packing a little extra weight, or if it can't stop looking at itself in the mirror. It's a dazzler.
 
Honorable Mentions: A near-miss for the enigmatic German drama
Yella, not just for its structural mysteries but for the insightful and detailed scenes of corporate gamesmanship and accumulating attraction that propel the movie as those mysteries subside and then swell back up. A bit less voice-over or just two or three fewer coincidences and repetitions might have done the trick for Milk or The Edge of Heaven respectively, and though The Wrestler might have thought twice about laying so many climactic disruptions on top of each other, I'd have been proud to write two lines of dialogue as direct but as subtly playable as "I'm just a broken-down piece of meat, and I deserve to be alone. I just don't want you to hate me." Yet more honorable mentions to Hunger, WALL•E, and The Visitor.




The Class
Laurent Cantet,
Robin Campillo,
François Bégaudeau
A classroom tale without almost any of the usual trajectories of student hostility into student effervescence, of teacherly naïveté into teacherly wisdom, of teacherly aplomb into teacherly disillusionment, of autumnal confusion and tribulation into springtime maturity and blooming potential. Instead of all of this, The Class zeroes in on moments of laughter, discord, pandemonium, hush, camaraderie, scandal, spirit, and sulk that speak so eloquently to larger experiences that you absolutely believe a full and very rich year has passed from the opening sequence to the last. You can feel the screenwriters forcing their characters through some climactic exaggerations and reversals in order to satiate the audience's projected desire for narrative, but if a few moments in the final acts ring subtly false, they're more than compensated by the dead-on realism and vitality of earlier scenes, ranging from electrifying student-teacher candor to the dead zone of faculty meetings about upping the price of coffee in the lounge.
Elegy
Nicholas Meyer
Elegy sidesteps our expectations for teacher-student mythologies in yet a different way. I put down Philip Roth's The Dying Animal after 20 or 30 pages because I was embarrassed by the anachronistic alacrity with which Roth was setting up the impossibly voluptuous and well-dressed Cuban student Consuela for a May-December affair with her lonely, surly hedonist of a professor, David Kepesh. But Elegy is more than a middle-aged man's masturbatory fantasy of a younger woman's idolization, and screenwriter Meyer makes the story work on screen without losing hold of some essential, angry Rothian emotions (jealousy, panic, carnality, recrimination). He endows all of the characters with believable dialogue, credible relationships, illustrative monologues, and strange but finally persuasive rationalizations for (most of) their self-indulgences and erratic behaviors. A huge leap forward from The Human Stain.
Jellyfish
Shira Geffen
Even if the movie never felt indigenously cinematic to me, and several scenes, subplots, and characters seemed abruptly sketched and insufficiently fleshed out, these same qualities of awkward, difficult, undigested experience give Jellyfish its distinctive flavor as a wry, eccentric piece of writing. A very writerly blend of fanciful conceits and observational human drama that, in the hands of a surer director, would probably have yielded a more savory evening's entertainment. Humorous, occasionally painful, and warm in unconventional ways...
Let the Right One In
John Ajvide Lindqvist
...as opposed to this film, which is humorous, occasionally painful, and frigid in unconventional ways. A dispassionate entrée into some familiar tropes of the vampire genre as well as some unfamiliar ones, such as a heavy premium on hospitality and invitation, a willingness to leave backstory and origin myths under-examined, and a facility for teasing out the charge of intimacy between the young boy and girl protagonists without inflaming the sexual metaphors all the way up. A few too many "come here, no get away" oscillations, as is often the wont of this genre, but the twists and detours of the script are often unexpected and fun to track, and the dialogue, the compression of action, and the pacing of characterization and suspense are all enriching to the overall storyline.
Savage Grace
Howard A. Rodman
Sets itself an obstacle course with some of the most mannered dialogue since Closer ("Landing, when it lands," "I am speaking of a cunt, half your age!"), the Moore character's aggressively disjointed appropriations of European phrases ("Mauvais!"), plot conceits that beg dramatic plausibility and the audience's patience for symbolism (the lost collar, the upwardly mobile girlfriend of the son and then the father), and scenes that rely entirely on impacted conversations or oblique exchanges of gazes rather than full narrative arcs. Who knows how much of this derives from Natalie Robins and Steven Aronson's book, but it takes courage, self-discipline, enormous trust, and not a little perversity to structure and style a screenplay this way.
 
Honorable Mentions: I had included
The Counterfeiters in this list until Reverse Shot's 11 Offenses of 2008 convinced me in one fell swoop to drop it, however much I'm suddenly in a rush to revisit the film and test my initial reaction. And Wendy and Lucy has some great moments, even if it scuttles itself occasionally with, for example, a phone call back home that we don't really need and a menacing monologue that outstays its point. Otherwise, these five finalists were easy to glean. The scripts for The Duchess of Langeais, Doubt, The Reader, and Mister Foe all have planes or moments that are easy to recommend, whether thanks to the original material or to the screenwriters' manipulations, but they all have considerable weaknesses, too, so they posed no real threat to this list of five.





The Duchess of Langeais
Emmanuel de Chauvigny
The kind of moody, detailed, almost tactilely satisfying literary adaptation that gives the genre a good name: brimming with fascinating objects and surfaces without shoving them in your face, evocative of prevailing moods in each sequence without overstating them. Equally sturdy with drawing rooms, boudoirs, courtyards, convents, and catacombs.
The Fall
Ged Clarke;
Riccardo Pugliese,
Cynthia Sleiter
Baraka on acid, cross-cut with a Richard Scarry hospital, paprika'd with M.C. Escher conundrums and backlot props, with memorable detours into glossy monochrome and grubby, found-footage fantasias. Avoids the temptation to take naps during the "real" episodes that give rise to the storybook phantasmagorias. Not exactly disciplined, but a whole buffet of desserts for the eye, and they hold together, however wide-ranging, as a sustained emotional experience.
Let the Right One In
Eva Norén
Sight-lines and structural relationships within that living complex occasionally perplexed me, but in dialogue with the cinematography, this oddest of vampire flicks found an engaging balance between the delicacy of a bedtime story, the plushness of an eiderdown blanket, the freezing softness of snow, and the crepuscular restlessness of Brood-era Cronenberg.
Synecdoche, New York
Mark Friedberg;
Lydia Marks
The tallest of tall orders for a production-design team, not just with respect to the expanding, gargantuan, multi-dimensional scale of the film's pivotal location but because even the shortest scenes and briefest dramatic intervals in Synecdoche often require very specific and very peculiar physical surroundings, none of which are allowed to violate the thready and mothballed feel of the whole piece, none of which could exceed the film's thrifty budget, but many of which contain things we've never seen before, from Catherine Keener's cubic-inch artworks to a moving-slash-ridiculous production of Death of a Salesman to a studio apartment that no one ever lives in but never gets clean enough. A parade of wonders that look believably and necessarily humdrum.
WALL•E
Ralph Eggleston
The luxury-liner or space-station or whatever it is never fully clicked for me, and in those latter passages, WALL•E looks unnecessarily cluttered. But the early sequences are a remarkable blend of warmth and severity, from the robot's mystifying but treasured belongings to the aridity of the surrounding landscape. From color to props to character design, WALL•E "hits" often enough that the "misses" aren't really a problem.
 
Honorable Mentions: Another category that didn't exactly bathe me with astonishments this year, but I did consider
Flight of the Red Balloon, The Counterfeiters, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Hunger, Che, and the dueling period pastiches of Savage Grace and Married Life at one time or another.





The Duchess
Michael O'Connor
The kind of movie that feels vaguely embarrassing to single out for this prize, because it's so desperate to have its clothing admired, it barely seems to exist for any other purpose. But, admire the clothing I did. Keira's gowns both flattered and compensated for her very un-period thin-as-a-rail'ness, and as a straightforward fashion show, it was even more fun than Sex and the City.
The Duchess of Langeais
Maira Ramedhan Lévy
More 18th-century porn, but even more detailed and intricately textured than the ensembles in The Duchess. Watching Jeanne Balibar manipulate various items and stages of dress allowed for just the kind of silent but articulate expression of inner desire (and devious agendas) that clothes should provide in this kind of fussily-appointed heritage film.
The Fall
Eiko Ishioka
I wonder what would happen if Ishioka (Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Cell, passages of The Pillow Book) ever had to work within historical or stylistic or even basic narrative constraints. The Fall allows her another chance to splash her imagination all over the place, and she's caught repeating herself a time or two. But one constraint Ishioka has repeatedly been forced to obey is the budgetary kind, and she's a genius at getting around it. Bold colors, bizarre cuts and garment coordinations, alien accessories, with just a splash of migrant-worker realism. The Princess Bride remade as a Björk video, moving in and out of the California deserts, and in and out of known reality. What could be more fun than that?
Milk
Danny Glicker
Believably thrift-store, unostentiously 70s, creative and detailed with cotton and denim, but the real coup are those politician's suits. When Harvey gets dressed up for work, you can feel him zippering himself into straight-arrow politics but also pushing those politics into new directions. And when Dan White wears a suit, even a very similar suit, you can feel his discomfort inside his own skin.
Savage Grace
Gabriela Salaverri
Ensembles for wealthy carnivores. Nightgowns and evening gowns that are barely distinguishable from each other, not least because they're all so ravishing. An aggressive explosion of caftans and shifts. Climate-appropriate and runway-friendly. Colors so vibrant and saturated that they drive you crazy with lust, even for your own mother.
 
Honorable Mentions: The Joker's tailored gloves and tacky fabrics and—moving over to his extreme psychological antithesis—Poppy's playschool outfits, an 8-year-old's daydream of what a 30-year-old might wear (and very happily, thank you, including those clomping boots) almost garnered spots for
The Dark Knight and Happy-Go-Lucky. Another unlikely pair that passed through my mind until I thought of even better options: Sex and the City and Mongol. Put them together and you have a) a perfect double-feature for the bipolar-disorder ward, and b) a creative inspiration for some really outlandish J.Mendel or Vivienne Westwood or Isaac Mizrahi clothes: bridesmaids dresses for the steppes of Kathmandu!





Burn After Reading
Carter Burwell
A stentorian, high-velocity parody of conspiratorial spy-genre music that takes full advantage of Burwell's simultaneous facilities with camp, dread, drama, and farce. The music is so consistently funny that it keeps the script and the performances on track even when they slip. A total hit from the opening credits sequence onward, and a welcome recuperation from the uncharacteristically maudlin passages in his otherwise comparable work for In Bruges.
The Dark Knight
James Newton Howard,
Hans Zimmer
They've gotten some flack for scoring by committee and culling the best stuff from several composers under the auspices of their own, more famous names, but whoever wrote it, the music in The Dark Knight is compellingly dark, dramatic, and condensed. I'd call it "Wagnerian" if I were confident that I know what that word means. Like the Burn score, it braces several sequences together that otherwise might fall prey to their incoherencies in other registers (in this case, due to the vagaries of editing and plot).
 
If You Were Wondering About... why I only have two nominees, I'm following suit with Oscar's occasional habit of paring down the categories when there's not enough meritorious work to go around.
Savage Grace came awfully close by toeing the line between intense feeling and smoking-jacket kitsch, but it's mostly the same theme over and over. I thought about The Reader, but the sober, elegant melodies are none too memorable or too distinctive from other minor-key scores for other Prestige Dramas in recent years. I get why people like the Slumdog Millionaire themes, but they strike me as colorful without being too creative, and they repeat endlessly through the film. Conversely, the WALL•E music is sparse and simple, and the Benjamin Button music is a pallid retread of ideas and chords that Alexandre Desplat has executed with more feeling and complexity in other films. In a generally bum year for a lot of the below-the-fold categories, Original Score is perhaps the bleakest of the lot. Feel free to e-mail and convince me otherwise. (And I'm not even bothering with Original Song, so let this be my moment to salute the compassionate sublimity and grace of The Wrestler's title track, even if a "one-legged dog" is an image that's at least one and probably two legs shy of real coherence.)




The Dark Knight
Hamilton Sterling,
Michael Babcock
For gunshots and other artillery exchanges that are upsettingly low and loud. For the precise and suspenseful timing of the noise that a semi trailer makes when you upend it in the middle of a city street using a reverberating series of steel cables. For the sound a pencil makes when you "disappear" it into someone's head, and the sound an ignition switch makes when it's on the fritz, and therefore failing to detonate an entire hospital. But only momentarily.
Flight of the Red Balloon
Shih Yi Chu
Let's clear this up now: 2007 was my first year seeing a lot of movies at festivals or otherwise in pre-release, and a few of those movies earned headline or runner-up spots among last year's Honorees (which I realize are still incomplete!). But for the purposes of comparison with other people's lists, I'm re-drawing my own rules so that the Honorees commemorate U.S. releases of a given year, which is also how the rest of the site is organized. And that allows Flight of the Red Balloon, a Sound Effects runner-up last year, to win a spot in this year's race, partially for the wonderfully specific acoustics of Juliette Binoche's cramped and chaotic apartment, but mostly for those wondrous and fanciful puppet shows and kiddie theaters in which her character participates. The sounds themselves are delightful, but they have to be edited and incorporated properly for us to feel so charmed, so involved in the magic of the productions—and so fleetingly, too, since these are not extended moments. I found the sound world of Red Balloon even more scrumptious than the images.
WALL•E
Ben Burtt,
Dustin Cawood,
Teresa Eckton,
Al Nelson
Almost indisputably the high-water mark of the year. From the moment we heard WALL•E trundling along on his careworn treads and wheels, and then after he upgraded to a smoother set he nicks from a broken-down replica of himself, I was as entranced as you were by the trundles, echoes, beeps, chatters, twitters, revs, squeaks, breezes, sprays, glides, rubs, bubs, heaves, alarms, and coos that bubble forth from this movie. Super work, too, with the "voices" of WALL•E and Eve, and with all the detritus he's stored up in his barracks for all of these eons, from bubble-wrap to sporks to egg-beaters to Hello, Dolly.
 
Honorable Mentions: If I was going to mention
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Quantum of Solace anywhere, it would have been here, especially since I'm scaling back from Oscar's recently expanded field of five nominees in this category to the traditional number of three. Benjamin Button sometimes uses sharp foley work to redeem a flat score, heavy metaphors (clocks, buttons), or questionable visual effects (ballistic fire from a World War II submarine that look like flying sabers), but I wasn't impressed enough to bump it into the main roster, nor was I with the proficient but not truly exciting action soundscapes of Solace. I also considered Australia for its martial, animal, and natural effects and Encounters at the End of the World for those crazy, wholly improbable Atari sounds shooting out of Antarctic marine life, but for one reason or another, I backed away from all of them. The best argument I've heard for inclusion is on behalf of the thrilling sound elements in Bryan Bertino's horror film The Strangers; I didn't find the actual elements as interesting or as scary as the overall sound mix, but I may be thinking wrongly about the Sound/Sound Effects category distinction, or wrongly about exactly what I responded to in the movie. Count on a mention further up when we get to Best Sound, but you're welcome to project a phantom nomination here if you think this is where it belongs.




Cloverfield
Kevin Blank,
Michael Bruce Ellis,
Eric Leven
Caveat: that Statue of Liberty head sure travels far, and quickly, and though the actual film is more persuasive than the trailer, I still kept thinking about an invisible army of BadRobot PhotoShoppers struggling to pull this off. But I loved the glimpses of the monster, retro and anatomically confusing as it was, and I admired lots of the ballistic effects and pyrotechnic sequences, as in that delirious final "gotcha" when the rescue helicopter doesn't get quite as far as we were hoping.
The Dark Knight
Nick Davis
Caveat: nobody, not Christopher Nolan, not the screenwriters, not the editors, not the art directors, and not the effects team have really wrapped their minds around that sonar-interface technology that's supposed to help Lucius Fox monitor the movements of everyone in Gotham, particularly through that horribly confusing climax with all the SWAT teams converging on the hostages in the skyscraper. (I think that's what was happening?) But Nick Davis, who has an absolutely splendid name, overcomes the chintziness that has occasionally plagued his work in projects like the early Harry Potters and The Avengers, especially with the back-to-basics force and tension he brings to the vehicular chases, the Batmobile and its various offshoots, and the swooping shots of the caped crusader. And while not everyone agreed, I thought Two-Face was at least as well-realized as he needed to be.
Synecdoche, New York
Mark Russell,
Parker Chehak
Caveat: like almost everything in Synecdoche, New York, the visual effects occasionally stoked the viewer's desire for a more generous budget or a more stylistically adroit auteur. But in single, showcased, but momentary effects like the magical petal dropping from a tattoo, or set-piece laughs like Samantha Morton's blazing building, or the digital expansions of Mark Friedberg's colossal and intimidating set, these effects balance wit, humility, and a lingering poignancy, just as the script and the performances do.
 
If You Were Wondering About...
Iron Man or Quantum of Solace, I just couldn't find much to get excited about in this department. If Let the Right One In had scrounged up a few more moments like that scarifying bit where, failing an invitation to cross a threshold, the tiny she-vampire starts sweating black blood, I might have pushed it up past one of these. Not a thrilling category this year—or maybe you think I missed some of the best stuff because I stayed away from The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Hellboy II, etc.?




The Dark Knight
John Caglione, Jr.,
Latrice Edwards,
Lisa Jelic,
Vicki Vacca
Fair enough: this is one of those single-character nominations that overlooks how entire casts of films as disparately demanding as Synecdoche, New York, Milk, and Happy-Go-Lucky required and elicited character-specific cosmetics, while most of The Dark Knight's characters got the kind of easy, casual comic-book sheen that a competent makeup crew can execute in its sleep. But not only did Caglione & Co. come up with a bold, visceral, truly disquieting look for Ledger's Joker, I love that they added to the character's terrible mystery by applying their makeup so obviously as makeup—clotting around the roots of his hair, smearing away from the furrows of his forehead and lips, and mostly absent during his incognito participation in the assassination attempt on the mayor. Why is the Joker slathering all this makeup on, when and how does he apply it, and what are his "real" disfigurements beneath all the shock-white warpaint, the rare-burger mouth, the tarred eye sockets, and the emerald tresses? Fabulous, quietly evoked questions.
Hunger
Jackie Fowler,
Alison Rainey,
Sian Wilson,
Paul Hyett
Another movie with an indelible central figure: Bobby Sands' gradual emaciation, blistering, puckering, sloughing, and scarring is a terror to watch, but the makeup team imbues drama into his angry wounds without sensationalizing Hunger into a horror picture. The emphasis remains on the political impetus and the inward spiritual predicament. Don't overlook, though, how convincingly the other prisoners age and harden in their cells, and how indelibly the guards are harrowed and coarsened by their experiences—not just on their knuckles but in their cheeks, under their eyes, around their mouths.
The Wrestler
Judy Chin,
Marjorie Durand,
Mandy Lyons
The marquee makeup effects are the bruises, the staples in the muscles, the flesh-wounds (not all of them simulated), the Gothic accents on Evan Rachel Wood, the gorgeously full hair on Marisa Tomei. But the film is so concerned with aging that it would lose its own plot if "Cassidy" didn't look so specifically similar-but-different by daylight but outside the club, and if the worries, the wrinkles, and also the fighting spirit weren't blushed, etched, and ruddied all over Randy's body.
 
Honorable Mentions: The ensemble aging in
Synecdoche, which has a narrative reason for looking a bit pancakey and stagy; the informative and variegated ensemble work in Milk and Happy-Go-Lucky; the tweenie vampire chic in Let the Right One In; the florid imaginations of The Fall; the evocative if inconsistent Depression-era looks in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl; the period-specific biopic work in Cadillac Records, in keeping with the film's blurred line between how things were and how they might or should have gone; the glamorous, Americanized Wong Kar-wai'isms of My Blueberry Nights; and the action-movie accents, alternately sincere and parodistic, in Iron Man and Tropic Thunder.

If You Were Wondering About... The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The Reader, I sort of think that if your movie is about aging and characters getting re-acquainted at very specific stages of their lives, you might want to age them credibly in each individual case and consistently with each other. As for Hellboy II: The Golden Army, I didn't see it.


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