NPR

When 10 Won't Do: David Edelstein's Top 13 Films

1. Summer Hours The premise is simple: A matriarch who inherited the estate and collection of her artist uncle dies, and two of her three children vote to sell it all instead of keeping the house and work in the family. The next hour is mostly about inventory, pricing, discussions of tax deductions, and an auction. But director Olivier Assayas evokes the sadness of the passing of the Old World and its indigenous forms of culture, the rise of globalization, and the weakening of family ties.

2. Everlasting Moments Jan Troell's entrancingly beautiful drama centers on a turn-of-the-century woman who finds an old camera in a cabinet and discovers that she has what another character calls "a gift for seeing." Troell uses surfaces — light, texture, faces — to hint at another world, a shadow realm.

3. Brothers Jim Sheridan's melancholy drama (with superlative performances by Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Sam Shepard), explores not just the horror of the "war on terror," but the chemistry of families — the connections that shape our actions even when separated from loved ones by continents.

4. The Fantastic Mr. Fox In this stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's book, Wes Anderson's ultra-composed frames are magically, mischievously alive.

5. Tyson James Toback's documentary is one of the most intimate celebrity portraits ever made, a revelatory weave of confession and footage of the scary fights and contentious press conferences of controversial boxing champion Mike Tyson.

6.A Serious Man A Jewish joke with a sting, Joel and Ethan Coen lampoon traditions and folklore, along with the sanctified notion of moral "seriousness." Underneath, another note creeps in — existential dislocation and dread, and the impossibility of discerning divine motives.

7. Coraline Director Henry Selick makes some big boo-boos in adapting Neil Gaiman's novel for kids, but the images are so exquisite and otherworldly that you'll feel as if you're floating through his dollhouse world along with the heroine.

8. In the Loop A ribald, obscenity-laden British political satire that fictionalizes the days leading up to the U.N. resolution in support of the invasion of Iraq. Did it actually go down like this? It's terrifying to think so.

9. Food, Inc. In a year of stunning activist docs, Robert Kenner's film has the kick of The Matrix — a movie where humans find out they're living in a simulacrum, a virtual world of fake food (and farms) they mistake for reality. If we are what we eat, we're in deep trouble.

10. The Hurt Locker Director Kathryn Bigelow's adrenaline-soaked Iraq film evokes both the charge and the terrifying disorientation of a war in which death can come from any direction at anytime from anyone.

11. Of Time and the City Terence Davies' acid yet tender threnody for the Liverpool of his youth in the decades after World War II. It's found footage woven into an exquisite tone poem.

12. Where the Wild Things Are With some computer work but largely with live action, Spike Jonze brings Maurice Sendak's wondrous world of giant beasts and bestial little boys to life — with all its rage and longing and even depression intact.

13. Avatar With the help of a brontosaurian budget, James Cameron creates a pantheistic virtual world with such thrilling, vertigo-inducing depth that as you watch you barely notice it's a dumb, guilt-assuaging parable in which Native Americans and their living ecosystem best their capitalist-imperialist invaders.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to take a look back on the year in pop culture with three of our critics. Later, rock critic Ken Tucker will be here with his 10-best list, and critic-at-large John Powers will talk about the big media stories of the year.

First, the best movies of the year with our film critic David Edelstein, who is also film critic for New York Magazine.

Hi, David. Well, we've asked you to bring your 10-best list with you. So I'll start by asking you to run through it for us.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: OK. Well, as usual, you know, I'm not going to limit myself to 10. I think in honor of the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" and "The Bar Mitzvah," I'm going to go with the lucky 13. So here they are.

"Summer Hours," the Olivier Assayas film, is my number one film of the year, followed by "Brothers," directed by Jim Sheridan. "Everlasting Moments," Jan Troell's entrancingly beautiful Swedish film. Then a tie. "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Coraline," because why choose among such stop-motion riches?

Then we're following that with "A Serious Man," Joel and Ethan Coen's Jewish joke with a sting, James Toback's documentary "Tyson," and another doc, "Food, Inc.," followed by another doc - actually, really, a tone poem by Terence Davies called "Of Time in the City."

Then the great political satire "In The Loop," followed by Spike Jonze's magical "Where the Wild Things Are," Kathryn Bigelow's great adrenaline war movie "The Hurt Locker," and finally, "Avatar."

GROSS: All right, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: We're so lenient in allowing you more than 10.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, I bet a lot of our listeners have not seen your number one movie, "Summer Hours." So just tell us briefly why you chose it.

EDELSTEIN: Well, "Summer Hours" is a film that I think encapsulates a lot of things that have happened over the last decade. It uses the device of the selling-off of a dead woman's estate and a lot of precious artworks. And it captures, as no other film I've seen, the passing of the old world, with its indigenous forms of culture, the rise of globalization, the weakening of traditional family ties.

I mean, it's very French. It has, you know, a predictable whiff of xenophobia. But at the same time, I think it really does capture this sense of loss that we all have as we come together as a global community.

GROSS: Did you have any favorite performances this year?

EDELSTEIN: Oh, I had many. I think there is nothing to compare this year with Colin Firth in "A Single Man." I found the movie a little over-designed - no surprise from Tom Ford, who is a great fashion designer. But Colin Firth is shockingly vivid as a gay man who, in 1962, can't begin to reconcile his private self with his public self and who suffers in ways that I think are unbearably moving.

Meryl Streep, of course, as Julia Child, one of the most soulful impersonations in the history of movies. God, she's funny. Jeff Bridges is amazing in a rather small film as an alcoholic country-Western singer in "Crazy Heart." What I found stunning about this performance is how he totters around backstage blind drunk, but then when he gets in front of the mic, he kind of leans back from his guitar and uses the weight of it to center him and keep him upright in front of the microphone, which is the perfect metaphor for what music means to his life.

I should also mention Christian McKay as Orson Welles in the film "Me and Orson Welles," if of no other reason that it seems as if Welles has been reincarnated in front of your eyes. It's absolutely stunning. You can go back and look at "Citizen Kane" and go: That's the guy.

GROSS: If you don't mind, I'd like to just interject one of my favorite performances of the year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: Please, please.

GROSS: I don't even remember the actor's name. He's a German actor, and I probably wouldn't pronounce it right even if I could remember it, but he's the star of Quentin Tarantino's film.

EDELSTEIN: Christoph Waltz.

GROSS: Yes.

EDELSTEIN: A wonderful, insinuating, sadistic - I mean, he takes all of the sadism Tarantino puts into that role of this Jew hunter and adds this sort of kick of humor and this sort of mordent irony to it. And, I mean, you'd never dream the man is married to a Jewish woman in real life. It's an absolutely stunning performance. And I think it gives a film that I like very much but is a kind of pastiche, a very at times cartoony pastiche, it gives it an edge of psychological realism that I think is one of the things that puts it over. He might well win an Academy Award for that performance.

GROSS: Yeah, well, he was great, and the film is "Inglourious Basterds," and we're going to be re-running our interview with Quentin Tarantino in the week between Christmas and New Year's.

Well, David, in addition to this being the end of the year, it's the end of the decade. So I'm wondering if you had any thoughts about how movies have changed during this decade, which I still don't know what to call, the zeros, the naughts.

EDELSTEIN: The aughts.

GROSS: The aughts?

EDELSTEIN: The naughty aughts.

GROSS: OK.

EDELSTEIN: Yes. Well, it's funny. I was thinking of my - what was my favorite movie of the decade? It was "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry. And I was trying to think what that film thematically says about the naughty aughts, and I think that the idea of the tension between reality and fantasy has gotten more pronounced in the last decade, and the ways in which - the movie is sort of like a Philip K. Dick paranoid fever-dream wedded to a screwball romance. And there's no way it could happened, the technology wouldn't have allowed it, and the sensibility wouldn't have allowed it in any other decade.

And it also made me think that at the end of the last decade came "The Matrix," and "The Matrix" sort of played on this sense that we all have that maybe reality isn't real, that maybe we're living in a vast simulacrum, and so much of the movies of the '90s, say, were about managing to break through into real life, break through from this illusory life into what is real and tactile.

And now we come to the end of this decade, and there's this wonderful movie out called "Avatar" in which it's only by going into this make-believe word a man can truly fulfill his potential, can rewrite history. It's sort of a Native-American parable in which we actually go back and save the Native Americans from the imperialist, capitalist forces that would wipe them out.

And I just thought it was really striking that we've come about-face, and now we sort of hunger for our virtual selves, our avatars to take on, you know, the final frontier, which is maybe in our own minds.

GROSS: When you look back on the decade, do you think there's a big change in what's considered bankable? I mean, we started the decade in a state of more prosperity than we're in now. Like, what has happened to the movie studios with the financial crisis?

EDELSTEIN: Well, it's horribly depressing. The most depressing thing is that this is a boffo year for Hollywood. They have actually made a ton of money, but they've made all their money with what they call event films, which are giant movies like "Avatar," 3-D, IMAX, movies, "The Dark Knight," movies that everybody has to see and they line up for. They go at midnight the day before opening, and they get their tickets online way in advance, the "Twilight" movies.

Meanwhile, specialty divisions are closing left and right, the ones that distribute indie films and foreign films. People aren't spending as much money to go to those kind of movies. They're not breaking through. Most people are seeing them on DVD.

At the same time, two of the movies on my list this year, "Summer Hours" and "Everlasting Moments," one of the reasons I reviewed them on FRESH AIR was that they were available to rent for a price the same day they opened in New York and Los Angeles, all over the country.

Now, of course, I'd rather people see them on a big screen, but I'm realistic to know that all but a handful of indie or foreign films these days make it beyond the bigger cities.

So I guess that's the silver lining, that you can see these films for the first time. And I suppose it's great that the prices of these gigantic, ginormous, big, wide, HD screens is coming down and that everybody can see them. But something is lost.

GROSS: So you mentioned that big event movies are where Hollywood is making the profits, and a lot of the smaller movies, in most cities, you only get to see them on DVD. How do you think this is going to play out in the next decade in terms of what films even get made?

EDELSTEIN: Well, don't forget, I mean, the cost of making a movie has gone down. I mean, I can pick up a movie camera and make a feature by tomorrow. God knows nobody would want to watch it, but - and you see a film like "Paranormal Activity," which thanks to a very shrewd marketing campaign and the fact that it was actually really scary, used a single point of view, essentially somebody's home video camera that the character sets up in order to monitor supernatural activity.

So that's a movie that cost - I forget the exact number, but it was in the tens of thousands, and yet it made $70, $80, $90 million. It became, technically, the most profitable film ever made.

So we can all go out and make movies on high definition video. The question is: Is anyone going to pick them up for distribution? Is anyone going to put them in theaters?

Well, a lot of them maybe not, but everybody can have their own Web site, and everyone can offer them for download. And I have a feeling that a lot of smaller movies increasingly will be niche-marketed to people who find them -horror movies or documentaries. And we'll be able to go online, and we'll be able to download them, some of them for free, some of them for a price.

GROSS: We're going through such a kind of difficult, for many people, transition period now because popular culture as we know it in books, movies, music, has been so transformed by digital technology, and so many things we love seem to be dying or struggling, and you know, you can trust that new things will take their place and are taking their place. But in the meantime, it's kind of difficult.

EDELSTEIN: We don't know how this is all going to shake out in terms of how we absorb culture. I know my wife is a book editor, and everybody's worried about the fact that many books are going to be downloaded into little tablets.

On one hand, you're spared the cost of actually printing them. On the other hand, the margin of profit is going to go way, way down. It's just going to change the culture in a way that - we don't know what the rippling effects of this are going to be.

Now, there's no question that in the last decade, maybe too many movies were put in theaters and not all of them very good, but I would hate to see us limited to the Internet in order to access the most interesting things. Even if they do go viral, as some of them will, inevitably there will be a lot of them that will be lost.

GROSS: David, is there any film you'd like to recommend for the holidays?

EDELSTEIN: Well, other than "Avatar," which I suggest everybody line up for, and "Brothers," which I've already reviewed, I am drawing an absolute and total blank on that because I can't really recommend "The Lovely Bones." I like what "Invictus" is doing, what the Clint Eastwood Mandela biopic "Invictus" is doing. I love that it makes a sterling example of Mandela's non-violent approach to reconciling his benighted country when it could theoretically have broken out into a civil war. But there's really nothing coming out this Christmas that has captured my imagination, certainly not "Nine," the musical, the star-studded musical that everybody's waiting for. I, along with you, I think, loved Rob Marshall's "Chicago."

GROSS: Yes.

EDELSTEIN: But here, that kind of - his choppy editing doesn't fit the music at all. It's just a hash, and there's a lot of butt-wiggling and a lot of sort of women posing sultrily in lingerie, but there's very little in the way of dance, which is one of the things I like in a musical. And even though the singing is very good, the downside of that is that you actually hear the lyrics, which is, in this case, not so good.

GROSS: Well, David, thank you so much for sharing your 10-best list with us, or your 13-best list, and some of your thoughts about the year and the decade. Always good to talk with you, and I wish you a happy holidays and a very good new year.

EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you, Terry, and happy holidays, and have a good time at the movies to all our listeners.

GROSS: David Edelstein is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York Magazine. And I want to remind our listeners that David's 10-best list, 13-best list will be on our Web site at freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers talks about the big media stories of the year. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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