1 - Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino’s supposedly unmarketable World War II Jewish revenge fantasy surpassed expectations. Not only is it a certifiable blockbuster and Tarantno’s first film to gross over $100 million, it also marked Tarantino’s return as an auteur. Basterds, whose script was in the works for eight years, rewrote some history and became a wet dream of sorts for Jews everywhere. Grounded by a wonderfully charismatic performance from Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as the deliciously effeminate Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, Basterds is Tarantino’s most self-reflexive work: an ode to the magic of the cinema that also examines the role of violence in film.
2 - Away We Go
Sam Mendes’s little summer indie is all kinds of things: heartwarming, heartbreaking, adorable, brash, clever, absurd, mature, and hilarious. Featuring earnest, lived-in performances from John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as an expecting 30-something couple in search of an American city to set up home in, Away We Go was a pleasant surprise that stirred up a whole range of feelings. Screenwriting husband-and-wife team David Eggers and Vendela Vida eschew pathos for moments of soulful contemplation and play black comedy to the hilt.
3 - The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Jerky, absurd stop-motion animation compliments Wes Anderson’s directing style, well, fantastically. With spellbinding visuals and a charming voice cast including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Gambon, Anderson has made an adorable composite of understated humor, environmentalism, and existential crisis. Is a fox without a tail still a fox? There is typical Anderson, with his close-ups, pans, and an impromptu song performance by a character named Petey, voiced by former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker—but this is a lighthearted Anderson having fun in a kids’ movie playground.
4- Up in the Air
Jason Reitman is preoccupied with growing up. With Up in the Air, he posits that maybe we never do. George Clooney faces a mirror as Ryan Bingham, a man disinterested in marriage who lives by the seat of his pants, collecting frequent flier miles and VIP upgrades as he travels the world firing people for a living. Up in the Air is Reitman’s arrival at mature directing, gracefully mixing a road trip buddy comedy with unbridled pathos and a sprinkling of politically relevant undertones.
5 - Star Trek
There is no other way to say this: This film really friggin’ rocked. Star Trek was the joyride gem of the summer movie season. A fine film by JJ Abrams, it boasts explosive effects, eye-popping action set pieces, a delightful cast led by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, and a clever storytelling compromise, allowing Abrams and his writing team to play around within the Star Trek canon without ever stepping on the toes of protective fans. Who cares if it’s not high art; it was the most fun I’ve had in a theater all year.