The end of the year is the time that critics assemble "Best of" lists, usually in the form of a top ten. So here's mine. It's not the most original presentation, I realize, but some things endure simply because they continue to work - like happy endings, pie fights and the presumed-bisexuality of all female characters in genre fiction.
In any case, this will cover what I'd like to think of as the middle ground between "stuff I liked best" and "stuff that objectively was the best." In addition, I've elected to not limit the list only to films that were covered on "Escape to The Movies," though you'll find links to the ones that were: So, for example, while I probably had more fun at Drag Me To Hell than I did at anything else this year ... no, it's not a "year's best." On the other hand, while I'd consider Up In The Air one of the highest-caliber films of the year (and a near-lock for a Best Picture nomination) it's a movie I admired more than outright enjoyed, so it doesn't really rate ahead of any of the ten on the final list.
So, anyway, in order of last to first ...
10.) Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson and a crack stop-motion animation team take the deliriously-dreamlike "It's-not-supposed-to-look-even-remotely-real" dollhouse aesthetic he previously applied to backgrounds and technology in The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited and spread it out over an entire film in this oddly beautiful adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic about woodland critters on a comedic burglary spree - think Ocean's 11 meets Shaun the Sheep. It may take a little time to acclimate to how purposefully handmade everything looks (including the animation), but give it a chance and the final effect is like spending an afternoon browsing the back shelves in some magical turn-of-the-century toy store.
9.) The Informant!
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon, in one of the great underappreciated turns of his career) seems to be either bipolar, a pathological liar or both. Only a lack of darker ambition seems to keep him from full-on psychopathy. A corporate executive, he narc'd on his company for a massive price-fixing scheme and became an invaluable FBI double agent ... until they found out he'd been pulling shenanigans of his own, double- and triple-crossing his superiors and the agency for reasons that didn't even make logical sense to him. It's a hilarious (and strangely touching) fact-based portrait of a man who's making his entire life up moment to moment, trying to convince even himself that his randomness is just cleverness in disguise.
What's left to say? Spike Jonze transforms a classic children's story that's the definition of a slim narrative into a sprawling mini-epic without actually having to change all that much. One of the purest renderings of the surreal experience of childhood - and of energetic, emotionally-confused little boys in particular - ever committed to film, punctuated by some of the most mind-blowing creature creations ever to come out of the Jim Henson crew.
7.) The Brothers Bloom
Between this and Fantastic Mr. Fox, it was a great year for quirky, character-driven crime comedies. Rian Johnson, director of the magnificent Brick, goes big and bouncy with this globe-hopping drama/farce about a pair of con-man brothers (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo) going for the "big score" with an eccentric heiress (Rachel Weisz) and an enigmatic demolitions expert (Rinko Kikuichi. Otaku: Meet your new goddess) in tow. It's hard to classify - something like a mashup of Mark Twain, Tintin and '60s caper-comedies - but even harder not to enjoy.
Sam Rockwell has been one of the best actors who just hasn't "hit" with audiences yet for over a decade now. Go ahead, look him up and marvel at how many movies you suddenly remember him from. Hopefully his upcoming role as bad guy Justin Hammer in a little movie called Iron Man 2 will help him finally break through, but until then, don't miss his career-best (so far) performance here as the lone technician on a lunar mining base who just ... might ... be ... losing ... his ... mind in what may well be the best "pure" science fiction film of the last few years. The only frustrating thing about this movie is that I can't tell you why it's so good, or especially why Rockwell's performance should - in a just world - guarantee him the Best Actor Oscar; but I can tell you that it's a must-see.