10. Howl—This hallucinatory biopic touching on the life and artistic obscenity trial of 1950s Beat Generation poet icon Allen Ginsberg deserves a shout-out in turn for best animation and best hybrid amalgam feature, even though it may be too narrow in scope in its narrative interludes, delivered by James Franco as Ginsberg. Most grounded in this vividly realized screen tapestry is a recreation of the outlandish pronouncements about the definition of art taking place at the historic 1957 Howl obscenity proceedings, along with an impressive Franco reading the poem to enthralled spectators in coffee houses.
9. Holy Rollers—The movie that should be grabbing awards for Jesse Eisenberg instead of you-know-what, Holy Rollers solemnly depicts the real-life Brooklyn Hasidic youth who were lured into an international Ecstasy drug-smuggling ring a decade ago, with their religious garb as a useful foil. Eisenberg surprises and impresses, conveying with remarkable compassion the emotional complexity of a character caught between a repressive, isolating orthodox religion, and the decadent forbidden temptations of the larger society.
8. The Agony and the Ecstacy of Phil Spector—One of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the human psyche is how enormously creative minds can do really bad things. And this face-to-face documentary about the musical genius, madman and murderer Phil Spector—whose productions from soul to rock have defined contemporary music—doesn’t disappoint, though it never quite penetrates that psychological enigma of the artistic imagination. But it is without a doubt a musical treasure trove of the withdrawn eccentric’s immense, innovative creative outpouring, and a landmark documentary chronicling the breadth and depth of popular music in the 20th century.
7. Women Without Men—This melancholy and poetically crafted drama about political struggle in Iran by Iranian-born, NYC-based female artist-turned-filmmaker Shirin Neshat, conceives of radio as a hypnotic call to arms against mid-20th century oppression and colonialism in what was then the major oil producer on the planet. She links that past to current anti-Western sentiments that have swept across the Middle East, as originating in the British and American 1953 coup in Iran against Iran’s first democratically elected Mossadegh government. Events unfold through the disparate lives of four culturally oppressed women, one of them a ghost liberated from her grave.
6. Jonah Hex—Ok, so lots of critics lined up to take potshots at this movie, but they were most likely western genre and comic book purists who tend to balk when their beloved original sources are tampered with. But as with Machete, this subversive jaunt is for those who prefer their movies dark, no sugar, and is likewise a singularly unique tackling of a long taboo subject: the post-traumatic stress link between dirt-poor Confederate grunts and Vietnam veterans.
5. The Perfect Game—The most thoughtful and inspiring children’s movie and sports flick this year. Based on real events that played out in 1957 when a ragtag Little League team from Mexico beat enormous odds to prevail in that year’s U.S. Little League World Series taking place across the Jim Crow South, The Perfect Game is as much about trophies as it is a triumph over the rampant racism and sexism of the time. The story is steeped in touching moments, including Lou Gosset Jr. as a baseball racial outcast who knows what it’s like to have a gift but live in the shadows.
4. Machete—Turning all known manifestations of the classic western on their heads, Machete detonates the battle around immigration like no Tea Party rally ever could. Sauntering under the INS radar as an undocumented day laborer in a Texas border town, Danny Trejo’s weathered, sulking title character finds himself improbably juggling three radically sensuous rebel women, including Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan. Similarly turning up for off-the-charts comedic mischief is Cheech Marin, as an armed-to-the-teeth parish priest.
3. 127 Hours—Though not exactly qualifying as entertainment, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle’s grueling recreation of wilderness wanderer Aron Ralston’s canyon ordeal—as he finally resorts to cutting off his own arm pinned under a rock to save his life—is strangely mesmerizing. This is because, while James Franco as Ralston beats himself up without mercy for his art, the breathlessly striking images inventively upstage the horror as they unreel as a vibrant lifeline from inside the forlorn hiker’s head.
2. Conviction—Hilary Swank lives and breathes with a singular fury the role of real-life superhero Betty Anne Waters, a high school dropout raised in foster homes who put herself through law school to legally free her innocent brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), from a life sentence for murder. And though far from a complete presentation of what transpired in this both terrible and infuriating instance of small town police corruption, the film is a thoroughly disturbing and stunningly conceived legal thriller.
1. The Company Men—You don’t have to be a suit to feel the immense pain, humiliation and rage visited upon these devoted drudges unceremoniously axed during the financial crisis. West Wing and ER television producer-turned-filmmaker John Wells elicits moving performances from this top-notch cast including Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones. The exhilarating sense of collective blue collar pride, in contrast to ex-corporate blues, could not feel more genuine.