To commemorate the ninth anniversary of Roger Ebert's passing this month, we are publishing some of his invaluable lists ranking the Top Ten films from particular years over the past half-century. Click on the title of each film, and you will be directed to the full review...
"A Simple Life" paints portraits of two good people in gentle humanist terms. It filled me with an unreasonable affection for both of them. Here is a film with the clarity of fresh stream water, flowing without turmoil to shared destiny. No plot gimmicks. No twists and turns. Just a simple life. The life is that of Ah Tao, who was orphaned during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, spent her entire life in the service of four generations of a Chinese family, and is now the servant of the only family member still living in China. He is Roger, a movie producer. They have a settled routine: During a meal, he puts out his hand, knowing she will be standing behind him with a bowl of rice. No words. But this meal, which opens Ann Hui's film, doesn't contain the full truth of their relationship. That is something we discover at the same time they do, when Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) suffers a stroke, and Roger (Andy Lau) takes charge of her care.
"Oslo, August 31st" is quietly, profoundly, one of the most observant and sympathetic films I've seen. Director Joachim Trier and actor Anders Danielsen Lie, working together for the second time, understand something fundamental about their character. He believes the ship has sailed without him. He screwed up. He lost years in addiction and recovery. Life has moved on. His old friends like Thomas have stayed on board the ship, and Anders feels adrift. Even the much-loved city that surrounds him is an affront, a reminder of the days not lived, the experiences missed. How can he begin again? Above all, Anders is angry with himself and in despair, although he's so inward as he tries to conceal that.
You can make "Beasts of the Southern Wild" into an allegory of anything you want. It is far too detailed and specific to fit easily into general terms. The Bathtub is this place in this time, and how can it "stand for" anything else? This film is a remarkable creation, imagining a self-reliant community without the safety nets of the industrialized world. Someday they will run out of gasoline for their outboard motors, and then they will do — well, whatever people did before they needed gasoline. I met Dwight Henry, who plays Wink. He owns his own pastry shop, and the casting people had to visit him in the middle of the night because he bakes all night. He said he's not interested in an acting career. His life is centered on his wife and five children. They are his bedrock, and that is the conviction he brings to the role of Hushpuppy's daddy. This movie is a fantasy in many ways, but the authenticity and directness of the untrained actors make it effortlessly convincing. Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you've never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius.
Perhaps there is a higher good, one that involves mercy and compassion. Father Brendan knows all about Mark and his case, and comforts Mark with a sublime line of dialogue: "I know in my heart that God will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it." If that line isn't directly from Mark O'Brien's original magazine article, it should be. At first, Mark has inevitable episodes of premature ejaculation. He is a bomb waiting years to explode. Kindly, gently, Cheryl guides him through their sessions, while at the same time we get glimpses of her own imperfect private life. "The Sessions" isn't really about sex at all. It is about two people who can be of comfort to each other, and about the kindness that forms between them. This film rebukes and corrects countless brainless and cheap sex scenes in other movies. It's a reminder that we must be kind to one another.
Denzel Washington is one of the most sympathetic and rock-solid of actors, and it's effective here how his performance never goes over the top but instead is grounded on obsessive control. There are many scenes inviting emotional displays. A lesser actor might have wanted to act them out. Washington depends on his eyes, his manner and a gift for projecting inner emotion. In the way it meets every requirement of a tricky plot, this is an ideal performance. Among the supporting performances, Don Cheadle projects guarded motivations, Greenwood is a loyal friend, Goodman seems like a handy medic, and Brian Geraghty's panic in the co-pilot's seat underlines the horror."Flight," a title with more than one meaning, is strangely the first live-action feature in 12 years by Robert Zemeckis, who seemed committed to stop-motion animation ("Beowulf," "The Polar Express," "Disney's A Christmas Carol"). It is nearly flawless.
We may have seen elements of this scenario before, but the young writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, making his first feature, proves himself a master craftsman with a core of moral indignation. He knows how to make a gripping thriller, so well-constructed I felt urgently involved. "Arbitrage" is an example of good writing and sound construction at the service of plausible characters. It tells a story rather than relying on third-act action. It is in a classic tradition. Hitchcock called his most familiar subject "The Innocent Man Wrongly Accused." Jarecki pumps up the pressure here by giving us a Guilty Man Accurately Accused, and that's what makes the film so ingeniously involving. We can't help identifying with the protagonist. It's coded in our moviegoing DNA. Yet we watch in horror as Miller is willing to betray anyone — Jimmy Grant, his daughter, his wife — to win at any price. This film, especially its ending, literally could not have been released under the old Production Code.
"End of Watch" is one of the best police movies in recent years, a virtuoso fusion of performances and often startling action. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are Taylor and Zavala, two Los Angeles street cops who bend a few rules but must be acknowledged as heroes. After too many police movies about officers who essentially use their badges as licenses to run wild, it's inspiring to realize that these men take their mission — to serve and protect — with such seriousness they're willing to risk their lives. Taylor and Zavala fit the template of the "cop buddy movie," but "End of Watch" goes so much deeper than that. They've been partners for years and are so close that Zavala's wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez), and Taylor's girlfriend, Janet (Anna Kendrick), have become like sisters. The two cops are transferred to a tough, largely Mexican-American district, where their persistence leads them across the scent of a Mexican cartel operating in Los Angeles. This is really an assignment for a detective, but they don't avoid risk, and eventually become so dangerous to the cartel that a hit is ordered against them.
I've rarely been more aware than during Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" that Abraham Lincoln was a plain-spoken, practical, down-to-earth man from the farmlands of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. He had less than a year of formal education and taught himself through his hungry reading of great books. I still recall from a childhood book the image of him taking a piece of charcoal and working out mathematics by writing on the back of a shovel. Lincoln lacked social polish but he had great intelligence and knowledge of human nature. The hallmark of the man, performed so powerfully by Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln," is calm self-confidence, patience and a willingness to play politics in a realistic way. The film focuses on the final months of Lincoln's life, including the passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, the surrender of the Confederacy and his assassination. Rarely has a film attended more carefully to the details of politics.
Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery. Inspired by a worldwide best-seller that many readers must have assumed was unfilmable, it is a triumph over its difficulties. It is also a moving spiritual achievement, a movie whose title could have been shortened to "life." The story involves the 227 days that its teenage hero spends drifting across the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. They find themselves in the same boat after an amusing and colorful prologue, which in itself could have been enlarged into an exciting family film. Then it expands into a parable of survival, acceptance and adaptation. I imagine even Yann Martel, the novel's French-Canadian author, must be delighted to see how the usual kind of Hollywood manhandling has been sidestepped by Lee's poetic idealism.
Ben Affleck not only stars in but also directs, and "Argo," the real movie about the fake movie, is both spellbinding and surprisingly funny. Many of the laughs come from the Hollywood guys played by Goodman and Arkin, although to be sure, as they set up a fake production office and hold meetings poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, they aren't in danger like their "crew members" in Iran. Key supporting roles are filled by Bryan Cranston, as the CIA chief who green-lights the scheme, and Victor Garber, as the Canadian ambassador who at great risk opens his embassy's doors to the secret guests. Affleck is brilliant at choreographing the step-by-step risks that the team take in exiting Tehran, and "Argo" has cliff-hanging moments when the whole delicate plan seems likely to split at the seams. The craft in this film is rare. It is so easy to manufacture a thriller from chases and gunfire, and so very hard to fine-tune it out of exquisite timing and a plot that's so clear to us we wonder why it isn't obvious to the Iranians. After all, who in their right mind would believe a space opera was being filmed in Iran during the hostage crisis? Just about everyone, it turns out. Hooray for Hollywood.