Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Oscar Nominees Wish List

As I’ve said before, I don’t make predictions. It’s a lot more fun to invent the perfect world. So, that is what follows here. This is my dream list of Oscar nominees. Some of these are not possible under Academy rules, but here, we play by my rules, of which there is only one-- if I saw it last year, it is fair game.

In alphabetical order…


In Bruges; Let the Right One In; Rachel Getting Married; Synecdoche, NY; The Visitor


Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire); Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight); Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married); Martin McDonagh (In Bruges); Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road)


Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Synecdoche, NY); Richard Jenkins (The Visitor); Sean Penn (Milk); Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)


Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married); Angelina Jolie (Changeling); Kristin Scott Thomas (I’ve Loved You So Longed); Meryl Streep (Doubt); Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road)

Supporting Actor:

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt); Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight); Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire); Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road)

Supporting Actress:

Hiam Abbass (The Visitor); Amy Adams (Doubt); Rosemarie Dewitt (Rachel Getting Married); Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Samantha Morton (Synecdoche, NY)

Original Screenplay:

Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, NY); Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married); Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor); Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)

Adapted Screenplay:

Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire); Andrew Davies (Brideshead Revisited); John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In); Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight); John Patrick Shanley (Doubt)


Blindness; The Dark Knight; Let the Right One In; Revolutionary Road; Slumdog Millionaire


The Dark Knight; Frost/Nixon; In Bruges; Milk; Slumdog Millionaire

Art Direction:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Doubt; Milk; Revolutionary Road; Synecdoche, NY

Sound Editing:

Australia; The Dark Knight; Iron Man; Slumdog Millionaire; Wall-E

Sound Mixing:

The Dark Knight; Iron Man; Rachel Getting Married; Slumdog Millionaire; Wall-E

Costume Design:

Brideshead Revisited; Changeling; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Other Boleyn Girl; Revolutionary Road


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Let the Right One In; Synecdoche, NY

Original Score:

Changeling; In Bruges; Revolutionary Road; Slumdog Millionaire; Synecdoche, NY

Original Song:

“Jai-ho” (Slumdog Millionaire); “Little Person” (Synecdoche, NY); “The Wrestler” (The Wrestler)

Visual Effects:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Speed Racer

Animated Feature:

Kung Fu Panda; Wall-E; Waltz with Bashir


Man on Wire; Trouble the Water; Pray the Devil Back to Hell; Standard Operating Procedure; Encounters at the End of the World

Foreign Language Film:

City of Men; The Class; I’ve Loved You So Long; Let the Right One In; Waltz with Bashir

For your consideration (Or: Too Little, Too Late)

Academy Award nominations come out early tomorrow morning, and I’ll have some reactions up soon after that, but before, I thought I might take the opportunity to highlight some movies that will not be recognized by the Academy for various taste and political reasons. However, in a different world, these films would be in contention just as readily as some of the more “awards-bait” fare.

For Best Picture:

Blindness- Fernando Mereilles’ beautifully conceived and gorgeously executed allegory in which the world is suddenly struck blind. Julianne Moore is as solid as ever playing the only person in the world who can see. This film performed badly at the Cannes film festival and never gained many fans, but for style with substance, there were few better films in 2008

For Best Director:

Chris Carter for The X-Files: I Want to Believe- It may sound silly, but chances are that the only reason it sounds silly is because of the words “X-Files.” If you can get past the cult-science fiction nature of the show and movie, then Carter’s direction jumps to the forefront immediately. The way he slowly reveals the machinery behind the mystery in this film ranks up there with some of the best of film noir. This is a science fiction movie, but it succeeds at being more, and that is thanks to Carter.

Best Actress:

Naomi Watts for Funny Games- This Michael Haneke remake of a Michael Haneke film was pretty much universally hated. I am in the small minority of people who rather liked and appreciated the movie. And, at the center of everything, Watts explores the same emotional range of many of this year’s most lauded performances and does it with as much skill.

Best Supporting Actor:

Jason Butler Harner for Changeling- Angelina Jolie is getting some well-deserved attention for her performance, but as the captured serial killer, Harner plays the kind of ambivalent, maniacal character that is so hard to pull off but, when done right, is astonishing. Jason Butler Harner is astonishing in this movie. His final scene is absolutely gut-wrenching.

Best Supporting Actress:

Emma Thompson for Brideshead Revisited- Does anyone remember this movie coming out this year? It was very good, and if you missed it, you should see it on DVD. Thompson is downright scary as the matriarch of a God-fearing family around whom she has a tight-fisted hold. When that control is challenged, the depth of Thompson’s performances allows the audience to both sympathize with and be reviled by her actions.

Best Original Screenplay:

Lakeview Terrace- Deeper and more nuanced than much of the revenge-flick dross that populates multiplexes, Lakeview Terrace is something very rare: an adult drama that plays its characters straight and never winks at the camera. It is intelligent and hard-hitting, while remaining a substantial entertainment.

Best Song:

“Inside of You” from Forgetting Sarah Marshall- It is crude and it is vulgar and it is absolutely hilarious. I mean both the movie and the song. As such, the song perfectly exemplifies this movie, and if I understand the award, isn’t that the point?

Best Score:

Synecdoche, NY and In Bruges- Both films feature very small chamber group music for the majority of the score, but the subtly provided by the small scale music perfectly underlines the human drama at the core of each film. Too often, the Academy falls victim to the thought that “bigger is better,” when often the opposite is true.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Golden Globes are tomorrow night, so...

I don’t make predictions-- not in the public square anyhow. If I made predictions, I could be wrong. However, by saying who should win, not only can I not be wrong, but I can be reasonably justified in my picks. I am not in the heads of the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the folks who hand out the Golden Globes), but I do know what I think. So, this is, what could best be described as, a wish list for tomorrow night’s awards (in the movie categories, anyway). You can find the nominees here.

Picture, Drama: Slumdog Millionaire- The most adventurous of the nominees, the best-told story, and flat out just the best-made picture

Picture, Comedy: In Bruges- My pick for the best film of the year overall; simply a perfect film

Actor, Drama: Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button- The most difficult part of the lot to play and Pitt succeeded wonderfully in it

Actor, Comedy: Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges- Colin Farrell is the star of the movie, and Ralph Fiennes is steals every scene he is in, but Gleeson holds everything together with a calm demeanor befitting the consummate professional that he is

Actress, Drama: Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married- In the most competitive (see they all deserve to win) category, Hathaway takes on all comers and dispenses them with all the fiery wrath of Shiva the destroyer

Actress, Comedy: Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona­- The straight-person in Woody Allen’s tale of artists and flakes is a thankless role, and Hall succeeds at making it indispensable to the film

Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt- In the ultimate of tête-à-têtes, Hoffman duels with Meryl Streep and proves once again why he is one of the best at what he does

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams in Doubt- The least showy of the roles in John Patrick Shanley’s magnificent ensemble piece but absolutely crucial, and Adams’ subtle play at innocence maintains the moral center, without which the film would fall apart

Director: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire- He went down into the depths of Mumbai and came out with one of the most innovative and stunning pictures of the year; Boyle is this movie

Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley for Doubt- It doesn’t hurt that the original play is magnificently written, but the ability to make the play work on screen is why Shanley deserves the award

Score: A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire- A wonderful blend of world music and traditional score, Rahman’s music best evoked the mood of the film for which it was written

Song: Bruce Springsteen for “The Wrestler” from The Wrestler- Like Rahman’s score for Slumdog, Springsteen’s song perfectly captures the heart and spirit of the film

Animated: Wall-E- It may be the most beautifully rendered computer-animated film ever, so best animated film of the year seems only fitting

Foreign Language: Il y a longtemps que je t’aime- Based on the strength of the performances alone, this movie deserves the award; never mind the subtle script and appropriately restrained direction

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Best Performances of the Year

I am not the Academy Awards and, as such, see no need to separate supporting performances from lead performances. A good performance is a good performance. In fact, my assessment of performance tends to skew more toward the supporting performances.

Leading performers have the benefit of screen time. Those in supporting roles have the task of creating a fully realized character in just a couple of scenes.

Also note that the majority of these performances take place in movies that made my list of the top ten films of the year, which only serves to show how important acting is in making a great film.

So, like everything else, the ten best performances of the year:

10. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

Ledger’s work in this movie only gets better upon repeat viewings. The subtle tics he adds to his character to fill out the more showy moments (the pencil trick comes to mind) lend just the right amount of malice to his menace. He creates the kind of character that the audience wonders where he is when he’s not on screen, and when he’s on screen, the audience can’t watch anyone else.

9. Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Brad Pitt is a tabloid star, and we sometimes forget that he used to be a movie star. But, even before that-- he was an actor. As Benjamin Button, he is an actor again. Truthfully, the old man Benjamin (who is paradoxically the young Benjamin) is a bit frightening, like a leprechaun who sat in the tub too long. But, with everything that he does, Pitt gives this outcast a soul and gives the audience a reason to care.

8. Kate Winslet as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road

Like I said yesterday, this movie is written on the faces of the actors, and nowhere is that more true than on the face of Kate Winslet. The director’s trust is not misplaced. There is no actor as aware of her facial expressions as Winslet, and she uses every muscle she has to tell the story of April’s bitterness and betrayal. And, in wide shots, she is capable of using her whole body to express the frustration of a trapped woman. This is the definition of a complete performance.

7. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn in Doubt

Hoffman has a habit of turning in very good performances and of making it look very easy. With three great performances last year and two more this year, he is quickly establishing himself as one of the best working actors in Hollywood. In Doubt, he matches Meryl Streep note for note and blow for blow in a battle of will and conscience. He is equal parts endearing and frightening, and it is because of Hoffman’s performance that audience never knows whether the terrible accusations against him are true.

6. Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale in The Visitor

Richard Jenkins was in Step Brothers this year with Will Ferrell. He was very good in that, and that was a not a good movie. A good actor is a good actor. So, given an intelligent script and a complete character, which he has in The Visitor, he gives one of the best performances of the year. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, he brings Professor Walter Vale out of his shell and into the world. He never goes for the big, flashy moment just because he can. He knows his character better than that and knows to stay within his character’s stilted emotional range, which is what makes his performance so good.

5. Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt

Ms. Streep is a very good actress. Can we all agree on that? Okay. Then, let’s move on to the specifics of this performance. As frightening as Hoffman’s Flynn is, he is redeemable. Streep’s Sister Aloysius is bloodless. She is a predator, relentless in the pursuit of her prey. Just watch her body language as she confronts Father Flynn. Whether she is right or not is of no concern to her. It is her dominance that matters, and the way she works over her adversaries is masterful. The way she stands is enough to shake doubters to the core, and in the end, it is only her own doubts that can defeat her.

4. Dev Patel as Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire

In a movie that is all about heart, the central performance must exude that same resiliency, determination, and love. Patel has all of these things. What is so interesting about the character, and Patel’s performance, is that he is almost entirely a reactionary character. Audiences are used to their main characters being proactive, but this movie is about fate. And, Patel has a great face for reactions. He exemplifies the ride that destiny takes his character on with the spontaneity necessary for such a role.

3. Rosemarie Dewitt as Rachel in Rachel Getting Married

It is Rachel’s wedding day, and it is being ruined by her sister, Kym. Rosemarie Dewitt plays it straight, as she must. As Rachel, she walks a very fine line between being sympathetic and being pathetic. She comes down on the right side by never going too far with the hysterics. It is, of course, her wedding, and the audience wouldn’t begrudge her a few moments of agony. But, Dewitt remains calm when she has to be, is forgiving when she needs to be, and stays strong when it hurts to do so. She weathers the storm with all the stability that an older sister must when the younger sister falls apart.

2. Anne Hathaway as Kym in Rachel Getting Married

Speaking of the younger sister, Anne Hathaway gives her first fully realized, fully human performance as Kym, the recovering addict out of rehab for her sister’s wedding. Kym does not, however, seem to realize that the event is not about her. There aren’t many young actresses in Hollywood capable of playing a role as naked and uncompromising as this one, but Hathaway is perfect for the part. As much as DiCaprio grew up in The Departed and Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, this film is Hathaway’s right of passage into serious acting, and she is a serious actress.

1. Brendan Gleeson as Ken in In Bruges

Perhaps best known as Professor Alastor Moody in the Harry Potter series, Brendan Gleeson has slowly, over the last twenty years, amassed an impressive resume of film roles. Finally, here, he gets just the right role, and he sinks his teeth in deep. As an actor, he seems to understand his character better than even the writer. The way that Gleeson chooses to emphasize his character’s pragmatism over all else allows the audience to get just close enough to care but not close enough to understand, which is perfect for the character of a hit man in existential crisis. As the agent of redemption for Ray (Colin Farrell), Gleeson’s Ken is the most complete portrait of a hit man ever put to celluloid.

As for the rest:

Best performance in a bad movie:

Tropic Thunder may have been a big, offensive mess, but Robert Downey Jr. showed up to play and out-acted everybody on the screen, out-acted the material, and out-acted the film.

Worst performance in a good movie:

Diego Luna, as the preening lover in Milk, wanders around the screen wondering what to do with himself. He is outmatched in every scene, and it doesn’t help that most of his scenes are with likely Oscar-nominee Sean Penn.

Best young actor:

Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire in a race that wasn’t even close.

Worst young actor:

Anton Yelchin in Charlie Bartlett. Does anyone even remember this movie? If not, sorry for reminding you. After turning in a performance as the least sympathetic kidnap and murder victim ever (last year’s Alpha Dog), Yelchin gets worse and gives a terrible performance in a bad movie. (note: Robert Downey Jr. gave a pretty good performance in this bad movie, too)

The “I know who that is, but I don’t know his name” award goes to:

Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, Burn After Reading, and Step Brothers. Hopefully, you remember his name now, and hopefully, he gets the kind of roles where you want to remember his name.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Top Ten Films of 2008

It was a curious year for movies. As always, studios saved their Oscar-bait films for the end of the year with late-November and December release dates. But, four of my top ten were released in the summer or earlier, including my number one pick, which was the best of the year when I saw it and remained in that spot for nearly nine months.

Then, among the most recent releases, there has been much with which to be disappointed. But, we can dwell on those films later. This space is dedicated to the best of the year. So, with no further introduction, the best of 2008:

10. Changeling

Clint Eastwood directed two films this year: this one and Gran Torino. And, if there were a #11 spot on my list, Gran Torino would likely occupy it. But, Changeling is a superior script and features the superior performances (although Eastwood’s acting has almost never been better than in his other film).

Filmed in Eastwood’s usual desaturated colors, the 30s are depicted with nearly every spot-on detail intact. The costume design and art direction are wonderful here in that they add to the story rather than distract from it.

Angelina Jolie is remarkable as Christine Collins, a woman whose son is kidnapped only to be replaced by an impostor. Jolie’s performance reminds me of Faye Dunaway’s performance in Chinatown. She is subdued and reserved until it is time to not be subdued and reserved, and when that time comes, her subduers had best watch out.

Eastwood was known as only an actor for so long that it is easy to forget that he has been directing films for nearly 40 years. His experience pays off in his steady and sure-handed camera work, and when the screenplay wanders briefly, the audience remains confident that Eastwood will get back to the story. Because that is what he does, he finishes things.

9. Revolutionary Road

The film is based on a classic 1961 novel by Richard Yates. It is all but inadaptable, and this shows in how the screenwriter, Justin Haythe, and director, Sam Mendes, choose to portray certain events. What they, and Mendes in particular, have done is much more difficult than adapting a novel-- they have adapted the essence of a novel.

As we have grown accustomed to with Mendes’ films, there are shots in this movie that would be beautiful stills, and watching them in motion simply makes them more admirable. When Frank Wheeler gets off the train, he is not Frank Wheeler. He is a faceless hat and coat. He is lost in the rest of the nameless hoard. That is Mendes’ feat-- depicting isolation, loneliness, and despair with solitary fleeting images.

The feat of the actors is as remarkable. Kate Winslet, as April Wheeler, lives in the skin of her character, and at times, it seems like the actress may lose herself and the character will be all that is left. She is that convincing. And, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank so close to the bone that it hurts.

The film is missing that which the novel spends most of its length on: the characters’ inner monologues. However, those monologues are written on the faces of the actors in this film, and even without the exposition, no action seems unmotivated and no moment seems out of place. And, despite this flaw in the screenplay, or perhaps because of it, Revolutionary Road approaches near perfection.

8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Woody Allen’s latest is proof of just how far a good script can carry a film. Along with Billy Wilder in his prime, Woody Allen is one of the great screenwriters in Hollywood history.

His Vicky Cristina Barcelona marks another milestone in an already distinguished career. It’s a comedy but not in any conventional sense. It bears no resemblance to his “early, funny films” nor does it feel like his more cerebral comedies like Annie Hall and Deconstructing Harry. No. This is something different. There is a fluidity and a passion to Barcelona, which serve to make it the most enjoyable Allen film in years.

The gorgeous Spanish locations lend much to the storytelling, but as always, it is the characters and particularly their dialogue that make the movie work. Penelope Cruz has garnered much attention and praise for her work in the film, and she deserves all the accolades she receives. It is a fine performance. But, the real standout here is Rebecca Hall.

As Vicky, Hall portrays a woman who has only observed passion in the life of her friend, Cristina (Scarlet Johansson) but never experienced it herself until this trip. Watching her desperately try to grasp at the flicker of romance that enters her life but remains elusive is heartbreaking, and it is her character that best represents the film. Let the artists have their dysfunctional romance and whimsy and let the rest of us dream of being artists.

7. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle never ceases to amaze me. He has spent a career making genre pieces without confining himself to the conventions of genre. His 28 Days Later may be the best modern horror movie this side of Romero, and his last film was the underappreciated sci-fi masterpiece Sunshine. But, this year, he has made a film so versatile and impressive that it defies genre and categorization.

The story is a relatively simple one: the life of the ultimate underdog is told in flashbacks related to his participation in a game show. The conceit is interesting enough to carry the film through and simple enough to grab the audience from the beginning. But, if the film were just an idea, it would fail. What makes Slumdog Millionaire work are the performances of the young cast and the all-seeing eye of Danny Boyle.

First-- the performances: The whole movie rests on the performance of Dev Patel as the oldest incarnation of the titular slumdog, and the success or failure of the films rises and falls with how well the audience can sympathize with him. It is to Patel’s credit that he makes his character instantly lovable without being cloying.

But, like I said, this is the director’s movie through and through, and without Danny Boyle’s guiding presence, it would be an average movie with a good story and good performances. Instead, Boyle puts the solid story and steady performances in the context of a great film.

6. Doubt

Meryl Streep. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Amy Adams. Viola Davis. And, that’s the movie. Except for the child actors, who may as well be part of the set design, these are, essentially, the only performances in the film. The script comes from a play by John Patrick Shanley, the film’s director and adapter. Being very aware of Frost/Nixon, Shanley’s Doubt is the best play-turned-movie of the year.

Like Frost/Nixon, the movie is mostly a sparring match between two strong-willed individuals, but the key difference is that there is no right side in this film. The audience knows going in that Richard Nixon is a criminal and that David Frost wins the fight. Here, we don’t know and will never know if Streep’s Sister Aloysius or Hoffman’s Father Flynn is right, and in truth, both could be wrong.

What is most fascinating is watching Aloysius and Flynn fight, not so much for the soul but, for the heart of Sister James, played with a beautifully subtle touch by Amy Adams in a career-best performance. Adams conveys just the right amount of innocence in her suspicions, and it is through her that audience experiences its catharsis.

Really, though, the film is not about catharsis. It is about the lengths to which one will go in the throes of righteousness, misplaced or not.

5. The Visitor

The Visitor is a low-key film from a subtly brilliant screenplay featuring three of the best supporting performances of the year from unknowns-- Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass. But, it is Richard Jenkins’ show, and he is great in it.

Watching Jenkins’ character transform from a buttoned-up, shut away professor to an emotionally available and empathetic “musician” is magical. This is not because his transformation is so vast but because it is so small. The change is almost all internal, but Jenkins is so good in this role that the internal changes become outward displays of subtle characterization.

This is Thomas McCarthy’s second film as writer-director after the equally understated The Station Agent. Here, he broadens his scope into a portrait of America at a crossroads. The film is a not a cheap liberal picture by any means; it goes beyond the political and aims for the human.

As Professor Walter Vale, Jenkins represents the average American who must come to terms with the changing global cultural landscape. He responds to the challenge in the way that we all should and wish we could: by taking the time to understand those around us and to truly listen to our own humanity.

4. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for schlocky horror movies. They are goofy and predictable and cheap and a hell of a lot of fun. This is not one of those movies. This film is the way horror movies should be.

Often referred to as “that Swedish vampire movie,” Let the Right One In is all mood, and that mood, established early and maintained throughout by director Tomas Alfredson, is pitch perfect. This starts as a dark film and sinks into blackness.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie is frightening and contains some genuine thrills, which is a higher compliment than it sounds. With the blood and gore of the Saw films and the emptiness of B-movies like The Strangers, real thrills are hard to come by, and Alfredson’s film provides them.

Ultimately, though, the film is a love story in the same way that last year’s Once is a love story. It is about two lonely souls who need each other, find each other, and do everything in their power to stay together. The fact that the kids are twelve and one of them is a vampire is almost beside the point-- until its feeding time. Then, all bets are off.

3. Rachel Getting Married

It has been nearly two decades since director Jonathan Demme gave the world The Silence of the Lambs, which won five Academy Awards, including best picture. His Rachel Getting Married could not be more different, and it is a far better film.

From a screenplay by Jenny Lumet (yes, of those Lumets; she is Sidney’s daughter), the film is an honest and heartfelt evocation of family, pain, loss, and culture that never goes for easy sentiment but, instead, earns every tragic and beautiful moment.

When you see the film, as you certainly should, if you can watch the dishwasher scene without getting a lump in your throat and a twinge of pain in your heart, then you have never experienced true loss. Those who have will recognize the bitter heartbreak that the scene evokes.

Similarly, the principle actors in this film give everything they have and strike every right note. Anne Hathaway finally grows up and gives the performance she was always capable of, and Rosemarie DeWitt is brilliant at the titular sister who must share her big day with a firestorm known as sisterhood.

With a handheld camera and a magnificent ensemble of unknown actors, Demme is an invited guest at this wedding and the audience is his “plus one.” As a result of this intimacy, every moment of the film rings true and affects us way that more movies should.

2. Synecdoche, NY

This is the most complex and beautiful portrait of the artist’s mind since Adaptation, which is no surprise since both films share the common thread of a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. This film is also Kaufman’s directorial debut, which allowed him to explore exactly what he saw in his mind.

What he saw in his mind was a sprawling epic of misanthropy that is truly funny. In fact, it is probably the funniest film ever made about the imminence of death, the impotence of art, and the ignorance of artists.

Surrounded by one of the most talented female ensembles ever put together (Samantha Morton, Diane Wiest, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, et al), Phillip Seymour Hoffman stands in for Kaufman and should win the award for best performance in a deathly somber role. I reiterate: this is a comedy.

Hoffman trudges around, dying from the inside out while the rest of the world dies from the outside in. His performance is the glue that holds Kaufman’s ambition together and when the playwright wanders around his empty, deserted life within a life, no matter how lost we may think we are, something inside us knows the whole truth.

1. In Bruges

The greatness of this film starts and stops with Martin McDonagh’s screenplay. From the patient, sure-handed storytelling to the whip-quick dialogue that is as vulgar as it is intelligently observational. As a director, he allows his actors room to breathe, even in claustrophobic hotel rooms and churches.

The city of Bruges becomes a character, informing nearly every part of the story. The architecture provides a beautiful yet haunting backdrop for the most comic tragedy about hit men yet committed to film. Or, perhaps, it is a tragic comedy.

Colin Farrell gives a blistering and volatile performance as a first-time hit man who doubts his qualifications for the job. But the standout in this film is Brendan Gleeson. His sobering, world-weary contract killer perfectly displays the depth, warmth, and internal conflict inside the man who earns his living with death: he has no qualms about murder, but whom he can murder is of the utmost importance. And, this is all on Gleeson’s face.

The music is great, the camerawork is luscious and self-assured, and lightening-fast editing moves the story along at a brisker pace than at first it seems. Everything coalesces in a necessarily abstract and viciously haunting ending sequence. For a first feature, McDonagh’s film feels remarkably confident, and it is to his credit that his ambitions never out step his limitations. What’s more: he has made a perfect film.

In List Form:

10. Changeling
9. Revolutionary Road
8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
7. Slumdog Millionaire
6. Doubt
5. The Visitor
4. Let the Right One In
3. Rachel Getting Married
2. Synecdoche, NY
1. In Bruges

Check in tomorrow for a review of the best acting performances of the year.