In relative terms, I may not buy a ton of albums or read a ton of books, but one thing I do do is see a ton of movies. 49 last year. It took me a long time to count that many and a longer time to decide which ones I liked the best. Here are the ones that were better than the 39 worst of them:

10. Shrek 2. It’s unfortunate that this was the #1 movie of the year at the box office yet it still got overshadowed by The Incredibles on most critics’ lists. The Incredibles is also a great movie, but all its gimmicky characters and noisy set pieces made me think it was just as interested in selling toys as in entertaining its audience. Maybe because every kid in America already owns a Princess Fiona doll, Shrek concentrated more its story and filling itself with tons of funny jokes. It proved once again that the best comedy writing going on today is happening in animated feature films. And that nobody does cartoon animal voices better than Eddie Murphy.

9. Million Dollar Baby. (Mild Spoiler Warning) This isn’t going to sound like praise at first, but I promise, it is. What sucks about the first two-thirds of this movie is that Clint Eastwood’s narrative style is so sparse that it’s hard to care about his characters. One of the reasons Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Clint himself are getting so much well-deserved attention for their acting is that their characters here are so thinly-drawn that they had to do a lot of work to make them seem three-dimensional. I can’t think of the last halfway-decent movie I’ve seen that paid so little attention to its main characters’ backstory. (Why did Hilary Swank get such a late start at boxing? There’s barely even a hint.) It’s clearly an intentional artistic choice, but it’s an offputting one. Even worse, some major story elements, like how Hilary Swank goes from such an underdog (she’s over the hill and has no real training) to such a powerhouse (undefeated against girls much bigger and more experienced than she is) in just one year’s time, are also omitted. And isn’t that sort of central to what this movie’s about? Well, no, as it turns out. And that’s why it works. What saves the movie and makes those flaws matter less is the late-in-the-film revelation that there’s a bigger, deeper story here that it seemed at first. And from that moment on, it almost doesn’t matter who these people are or what came before. Suddenly, we feel like we know them, and the drama that plays out in the third act is heartbreaking and all the more emotional for being so unexpected.

8. Kinsey. The movie’s a 10. I’m a 6.

7. Maria Full of Grace. Maria was full of a lot more than grace in this movie, but I guess “Maria Full of Cocaine Wrapped in Shoddily Fastened Latex Pouches” just isn’t as catchy. I avoided this for a long time, because I’m so sick of drug movies, which seem to exist solely so that some punk-ass showoff director can slap together some effed-up tripping effects, showcase his favorite techno music and ultimately say nothing more than, “Drugs are bad”. Been there, done that, got the message loud and clear. Snore, snore. Well, here’s something that’ll really scare you kids straight: when you do cocaine, you’re snorting something that came out of a woman’s ass! Can you still enjoy your buzz now, you doody-sniffing exploiter of the poor? As for poor Maria, besides grace and cocaine, she was full of bad decisions, and her movie was full of suspense, drama and, thankfully, a message about the drug trade that you don’t hear every day.

6. 13 Going on 30. Quite possibly the dumbest movie I’ve ever loved. Come on, magic wishing dust?! The spontaneous “Thriller” dance that saved the big party?! And that yearbook-themed presentation that won everyone at “Poise” magazine over?! Absolutely idiotic, right? Right. And I ate up every second of it. I’ll give 99% of the credit for that to Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo, who are adorable and charming and who, if they’re not going to fall in love in real life, should at least fall in love in one movie a year. The other 1% of the credit goes to the fact that it was sweet and innocent and full of 80s music and that, honestly, sometimes dumb is simply more fun.

5. I’m Not Scared. It’s hard to describe this movie. It’s like a thriller treated as a subtle character piece. Or a coming-of-age drama with some scary bits. All I can say is it so perfectly captures that moment in a kid’s life when he’s learning that the world isn’t always good and his parents can’t always be counted on to protect him that it should immediately become the textbook example of the loss-of-innocence movie in film schools across the country. In other words, it’s a foreign film. Plus, it has cute kids talking in a foreign language, which is probably my favorite thing in the world.

4. Fahrenheit 9/11. Just about the only place Democrats won anything this year was at the box office. It’s hard for me even to judge this on a filmmaking level, because for me and millions like me, there was a great comfort in seeing this in a theater full of people who were equally as horrified, amused and outraged as I was, and in all the right places. We were tired of seeing the media treat Bush with kid gloves, so there was nothing better than seeing Michael Moore go at him bareknuckled. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up being the knockout blow we were hoping for. Instead, it was a movie that lost on a decision a few months after its release. Well, we may not have the White House, but we do have wit, ingenuity and justice on our side. Okay, so I’d trade that in a second for the White House, but until we have it, I’m just going to lock myself in a room and watch this movie over and over again and pretend that the whole country is on my side.

3. Sideways. Ho-hum. I know. It’s on everybody’s best-of-the-year list. Well, it’s only my #3, which, in relative terms, is a pretty harsh smackdown. Take that, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor and Paul Giamatti, you geniuses you! Honestly, though, I know it’s not perfect. The first two-thirds of the movie are pretty slow. And there’s a scene in the middle where Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen are discussing wines that strains its extremely obvious metaphor waaaaaaaay too far. But it’s a movie that never compromises its characters for the sake of a joke, never cheats its plot developments and always respects the audience’s intelligence. The third act is so full of brilliance – hilarious comic set pieces, heartbreaking character moments, and well-earned emotion – that it validates everything that came before it. It also joins my short list of movies whose final shot is absolutely 100% perfect. (See also “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”. )

2. Spider-Man 2. Why wasn’t this abysmal? It was a comic book movie — a sequel no less. And it was rushed into theaters just two years after the first installment. I’ve spent so many years developing my cynicism reflex, just to have it obliterated by two hours of film about a guy who shoots webs from his wrists. I really think what’s ruined blockbusters of recent years is a lack of attention to characters (see Independence Day – or better yet, don’t see it; it stinks). But this movie was all about character. Sure, it still had loud action set pieces, but you know what? When we cared about the characters, those set pieces actually worked. Spider-Man, you are my hero!

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better pairing of screenwriter and director than Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. Granted, they also teamed on “Human Nature”, but this film should effectively wipe that misfire from everyone’s memory. Seeing this movie is like the exact opposite of getting the memory-erasing surgery depicted in the film. You’re watching scenes so incredible, so original and so deeply emotional that you can feel them getting permanently etched into your brain as the movie plays out. There’s a bit of unnecessary silliness thrown in, too, but I’m not going to complain too much about the sight of Mark Ruffalo dancing around in his underwear. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are terrific, and it’s great to see special effects put to such good use. It’s an obvious joke, but there’s really no better way to describe this or no greater compliment I can pay than to say it’s a movie I’ll never, ever forget.


Friday Night Lights. Yes, a sports movie! Really!

Open Water. The scariest shark movie ever! Oh, wait. Nevermind. I forgot one.

The Incredibles. Forget what I said before. I want those toys!

Finding Neverland. Cute kids, but I couldn’t get past the feeling that between the Peter Pan theme and Johnny Depp defending the purity of man-boy bonding, this is sure to be Michael Jackson’s favorite movie ever.

A Very Long Engagement. Like Amelie, only less so.

Everything else I saw:

Latter Days. 50 First Dates. Goodbye, Lenin! Dawn of the Dead. The Ladykillers. Kill Bill: Volume 2. Mean Girls. Super Size Me. The Day After Tomorrow. Saved! Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Napoleon Dynamite. The Stepford Wives. The Terminal. Anchorman. The Bourne Supremacy. Garden State. The Village. The Manchurian Candidate. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Collateral. We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Mean Creek. A Dirty Shame. Shaun of the Dead. I Heart Huckabees. Team America: World Police. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Closer. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Spanglish. Sleepover. Meet the Fockers.

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