1. Rocky Balboa: what a splendid farewell to the ultra-resilient fighter from South Philly. Sylvester Stallone has gone the distance one final and majestic time with the American icon he introduced in 1976. Outstandingly engaging and well written (the dialogue is heartfelt, spirited and resonant), Rocky Balboa is much more than a boxing movie: it’s a stirring film about the passage of time, the deeply felt need to address the fire still burning within and also the nursing of old wounds. Always dignified and often very moving, the film beautifully caps the cinematic odyssey of a truly classic American character.
2. Flicka: a family film of rare quality, beautifully depicting the wide open spaces of the American West within a touching story about a girl and her horse. Every character is well defined and portrayed in this glowing example of family entertainment that lovingly puts forward the virtues of freedom and following your heart.
3. Hostel: a masterful horror film, with a heavy subtext that was overlooked by many of its detractors. There are many shots and scenes of tremendous impact, like the extended sequence where Paxton passes out at the club or the standoff between Paxton and Natalya at the abandoned factory. Eli Roth’s latest initially seems to be an extreme version of the Hell that awaits the sinner, but it’s also a haunting look at far-from-home anxiety and a ruthless indictment of American bullying, arrogance and imperialism. Roth uses xenophobia, desperate poverty in certain countries and the creepiest possible extent of human exploitation to create a powerful horror masterpiece.
4. Hollywoodland: a superior script, in-depth character studies and amazing performances from Ben Affleck and Adrien Brody, among others, carry this meticulously paced, always captivating film about the life and death of George Reeves.
5. The Descent: a brutally efficient horror movie. Six women on a caving trip have to fight terrifying humanoid predators deep within an uncharted system, with disastrous results. Neil Marshall’s bleak but inspired film makes us feel the despair-and fighting spirit- of the characters with non-stop intensity right up to the shocking finale, whichever one you prefer.
6. Down in the Valley: this is a mesmerizing film that constantly keeps you on the edge with its underlying sense of looming danger. David Jacobson’s contemporary western has a fine balance of visual poetry, deadly violence, emotional turmoil and understated nostalgia.
7. The Painted Veil: a very elegant love story set in 1920s China, the film carefully develops and reveals the emotional complexity of its characters, resulting in a timeless romantic tale full of tenderness and humanity. With magnificent scenery and wonderful performances from Naomi Watts and Ed Norton.
8. Ils: a nerve-wracking experience that at times awakens the same kind of paralyzing fear as the Blair Witch Project, with a brilliantly misleading touch of the haunted house subgenre and a chilling revelation based on true events.
9. Bobby: a poignant film that pays great respect to the values of fairness and equality espoused by Robert Kennedy. Emilio Estevez paints a heartfelt, if achingly idealistic, portrait of a time and place in American history, with well-chosen newsreel footage and stirring Kennedy speeches contributing greatly to the film’s impact.
10. United 93: Paul Greengrass forgoes sensationalism to create a profoundly respectful memorial to the victims of the flight, and by extension to all the victims of 9/11. Even though we know the outcome, the film is incredibly tense, powerful and heartbreaking as we realize we’re watching the final moments of these people’s lives.
1. The Benchwarmers Hollywood turns out a lot of depressingly stupid discount bin filler, but this was truly awful.
2. La vie secrète des gens heureux: starts off very interesting but turns out to be depressing, cynical, bitter and extremely shallow.
3 (tie). Saw III and Black Christmas: two of the absolute worst horror films I’ve ever seen. Saw III is a disgusting, tasteless and grotesque film, while Black Christmas is a major misfire on basically every level.
4. Turistas: There’s nothing scary, suspenseful or surprising about this inept and tedious horror thriller, as pale a comparison as there can be to Hostel.
5. Ultraviolet: an emotionally impenetrable mess, with vacuous dialogue, lifeless action scenes and a thoroughly disjointed plot.