What started out to be perhaps the most dreadful year of the decade for films ended up, as these things have a way of doing, with some very fine end-of-the-year selections, plus a few that hung around since last spring or summer to be considered. They're all reviewed separately in the year's listings. Here are my choices, and without apology I've cranked the list up to 11:
11. 13 Tzameti - The Georgian filmmaker Gela Babluani, now working in Paris, has concocted a fascinating noir about a man who takes a chance on what he thinks may be a ticket to riches, and ends up - well, the journey, not the end, is what's important. And what a journey! Not for the queasy or tender-hearted.
10. The Illusionist - A marvelous piece of misdirection by Neil Burger from a short story by Steven Millhouser, about a magician in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna who charms the crowds but attracts the enmity of the prince and his police chief. Edward Norton finally has a role that fits him perfectly as the magician, and Jessica Biel is fine as the love of his life.
9. The Prestige - Two magicians this time, dueling over the rights to a masterful illusion: charming, crafty Hugh Jackman and stolid, Cockney Christian Bale. One lives, one dies in a very richly textured film by Christopher Nolan. As in "The Illusionist," plenty of magic tricks to see and enjoy. Both films are entertainment raised to the level of art.
8. United 93 - A plausible supposition of what happened on board the airliner that crashed in Pennsylvania, but even more wrenching is the footage of the air traffic controllers who could not wrap their minds around the idea that assassins would want to turn planes into guided missiles, and then their helplessness to stop it from happening. Brilliant, understated direction and acting, by professionals and the actual controllers re-enacting their traumas.
7. Borat - Raucous, shameless, blatant and best of all a piece of much-needed irony in this portrait of the United States by the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, as he makes his way across America by ice-cream van. Not a moment is wasted on plot or explication, nor is any needed. You and I and everyone we know may laugh ourselves sick, but can we be sure that Baron Cohen hasn't gotten us right?
6. Casino Royale - A return to first principles: 007 is a thug, and Daniel Craig is exactly the right actor to portray him. The script is tight, the direction by Martin Campbell is fine, the film even lets us suspend our disbelief for whole minutes at a time - what more could you ask of a Bond movie than to take it even a bit seriously? A little long but lots of good fun.
5. The Departed - Martin Scorsese's best film in years, with a cast that gives him everything and more. A remake of the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs," in which the cops put a mole inside the mob and the mob puts a mole inside the cops, the film's tension builds unbearably as the two come nearer and nearer to each other. "The Departed" has particularly rich performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, and Jack Nicholson as the mob leader is just over the top enough to be enjoyable.
4. Flags of our Fathers - This, and Eastwood's companion piece "Letters From Iwo Jima," are convincing evidence that he is now working on a plateau far above anyone else. He has grasped the irony of warfare as only an old man can, and lets us see for ourselves the neverending cost in lives and souls that we insist on charging up and paying for. If ever there was a rebuke to the adolescent, cowboy mentality of George W. Bush, these are the films to do it.
3. Infamous - Two films about magicians, two films (released a year apart) about Truman Capote and his book "In Cold Blood." All four are amazingly good, and each has its own validity. I doubt that's ever happened before. "Infamous" covers the same ground as last year's "Capote," but works from a different source and postulates a different relationship between Capote (played to perfection here by Toby Jones) and Perry Smith (played as an unrepentant predator by Daniel Craig). The film paid a great price in admission grosses and critical notice by coming out second, but it is every bit as good as the first, and in some ways more perceptive.
2. The Queen - In an ordinary year this would have been my choice as film of the year, with one of film history's great performances by Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. She transforms herself, effortlessly it seems, into a seventy-year-old matron who has come to seem more and more like her earlier namesake. The week encompassed by the film - the death of Diana - takes her through a healing transformation that both enriches her and cements the loyalty and love of her subjects. You might want to bookend this performance with that of Cate Blanchett as the young Elizabeth I in "Elizabeth." They are both supreme achievements.
1. Volver - Pedro Almodóvar is at once the wittiest and most profound filmmaker working today, and "Volver" (to return) perhaps his most perfect film. We are in a world of women, living with them as they confront problems and crises both frightening and deliciously ludicrous, ranging from that of disposing of her dead husband to that of coming to terms with the reappearance of her long-dead mother. Penelope Cruz finally has a role to play and a director to guide her, in a language she is comfortable in, to give the performance of her career. In an age when every worthwhile experience comes and goes too quickly, "Volver" is a treat that demands to be seen more than once.
Some films that didn't quite make the list:
Blood Diamond - A powerful story with a great performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, marred by director Edward Zwick's insistence of teaching us more about diamonds than we really want to know.
Happy Feet - Delicious, lots of fun, and Savion Glover's amazing dancing will have you tapping your feet as well.
An Inconvenient Truth - Al Gore's Powerpoint lecture on global warming and its causes (us) and cures (also us); essential but a little tiring to watch.
Little Miss Sunshine - Please tell me why everyone is so enchanted by this film; it's about five movies in one, with every cast member doing his or her own thing.
Lucky Number Slevin - A sleeper of a noir that's also a delicious comedy that snuck in under everyone's radar. Be sure to get the DVD.
The Matador - Pierce Brosnan as an aging international assassin, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis as an innocent couple he helps out of a jam. Lots of fun.
Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles - Zhang Yimou's politically correct study of an ancient Chinese folk opera, as seen through the eyes of an aging Japanese man trying to reconnect with his dying son.
Shortbus - Can a film that is franker than porn be really sweet and charming? John Cameron Mitchell's look at demystifying sex for the benefit of the middle class does exactly that, without ever even being erotic. Not for everyone, but check out the DVD.
Stranger Than Fiction - A great idea that somehow got twisted into a vehicle for Will Ferrell. Still, all the others - Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman - are great.
Thank You For Smoking - Aaron Eckhart as a Merchant of Death for the tobacco industry, confronting many challenges but letting us in on some beautifully ironic moments, all of which he gets as well. Another sleeper of a comedy.