Saving Private Ryan

The two standard-setting depictions of warfare at beginning and end would define this film, were it not that every aspect of the dire but hopeful quest in between reaches the same high plateau.  Aside from an ending that falls slightly short, a perfectly shot, scripted and directed war film.

True Grit

Love the performances (Bridges is amazing and Damon’s transformation is almost equally impressive), love the pseudo-Shakespearean Wild-West dialogue, love the thematic musical score and love the quirky extra touches (hello, Bear Man). Fantastic film.

500 Days of Summer

A love story but not; combines modern realism with cinematic charm in a way that few movies manage.

Almost Famous

A loving tribute to classic rock, wrapped within a coming of age story. In a refreshing change for a band movie, it hits both the highs and the lows of life on the road without delving into excess for either, staying clever and real from start to finish. Likely to go down as one of the classic films about rock and roll.

Avatar

Along with Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings, this is indeed the Star Wars of this generation in visual-effects-based storytelling. Thankfully it’s not just glitz – the story is respectable, the characters believable (including the CG ones), and the fantasy world fascinating. And when it comes time to blow stuff up, James Cameron does it as well as ever.

I wasn’t impressed with the 3D my first time around, but a second viewing in a good theater with decent seating made all the difference – it really does add another dimension to the film.

Braveheart

Say what you will about Mel Gibson – and there’s a lot you could say about Mel Gibson – but he crafted a beautiful movie in Braveheart. Even factoring out its much-imitated technical achievement (the melee battle scenes), you’ve still got beautiful imagery set against a luscious Scottish landscape, a rich story that even with a good dozen prominent characters and three-hour runtime neither convolutes nor lags, an emblematic musical score, and a finale edited with an artistry closer to poetry than cinema. It’s not perfect – in his effort to mythify William Wallace, Gibson lingers too lovingly on the close-ups, and it’s hard not to notice signs of less savory things to come from the director – but still it’s close enough.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Minute for minute the best Marvel movie yet. At its best it’s right up there with Iron Man 1 and The Avengers, but while Iron Man faltered a bit at the end and The Avengers required some amount of indulgence, this one is rock solid from start to finish and even a comic book cynic could enjoy it. The pacing is perfect, the action has a bit of everything and is seriously impressive, and there’s hardly a line of cheesy dialog to be heard.

If you had to nitpick you could say the grand scheme doesn’t live up to the intrigue that precedes it (granted there’s a lot of early intrigue) and, well, the makeup artist goes overboard on Chris Evans in a couple scenes. Yeah, that’s the worst of it. As far as action movies go it’s about as good as it gets.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

A surprisingly great romcom with a multitiered story, likeable characters, and a steady stream of laughs, culminating in a perfect storm of unlikely (and funny) circumstances at its peak.

Django Unchained

Everything great about a Quentin Tarantino movie – the cinematography, the wit, the irreverence, and that scene or two of crazy high tension – without as much of the excess as some of his other films. Even the ’70s meets spaghetti western meets hip-hop soundtrack somehow works.

Life of Pi was beautiful and Argo was extremely solid filmmaking, but this is where we’re talking movie of the year.

Gravity

“127 Hours” in space. Both films focus almost exclusively on a single character in life-threatening circumstance; both would have never worked without a talented actor in front of the camera and a great director behind it. In place of the orange desert hues of the former movie we get the deep blacks of space, immersive special effects (with excellent 3D) and the trademark long, extended shots of director Alfonso Cuarón. Absolutely see it in a theater, and give good consideration to 3D or even Imax.

Hero

The slightly fantastical fighting gets a bit silly at times and doesn’t match the sheer artistry of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but the landscapes, colors, and music surrounding them are gorgeous. Though the “this is what happened… no, this is what happened” plot device is off-putting at first, it allows the main characters’ relationship ways to develop that get more heart-wrenching each time.

Iron Man

The best comic book movie to come out in several years, and perhaps the best opening episode of the whole lot. The story is nicely grounded in reality while not taking itself too seriously, with a sharp performance by Robert Downey Jr. keeping things lively throughout. And damn that suit is cool. Some bad guy monologuing at the end is a bit of a damper, but everything else is gold… and hot-rod red.