10. "Mad Hot Ballroom." This film was certainly flawed and even emotionally manipulative at times. What earns this a place on my list is not brilliance of film-making, but the subject matter itself: public school kids, many disadvantaged, learning to love ballroom dancing. It was a combination of two of my passions, what can I say?
9. "Zoolander." There are parts of this movie that make me laugh harder with each viewing: the entire WHAM! music/video sequence with male models culminating in a gas station explosion, the very idea of Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller as male models, the "MerMAN! MerMAN!" advertisement playing inopportunely in the mining town bar. . . . hilarious, for all its flaws.
8. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" George Clooney plays a hair-obsessed redneck on the run in the depression era south in a remake of the Odyssey. What's not to love?
7. "Spirited Away." Too often, filmmakers seem to forget what a visual medium they are working with. Not so with the animated "Spirited Away, " which was utterly bizarre and original. Most certainly NOT predictable, and most definitely beautiful.
6. "The Incredibles." This one was sheer enjoyment from start to finish. I loved the mysterious island with its super high-tech gadgetry, the interaction with Bob and his family and boss, but mostly how fun and imaginative it all was. My favorite moment occurs when Dash, the little boy with super-human speed, discovers that he can actually run across the water as he is being pursued by dangerous bad guys trying to kill him. The surprised delight on his face is priceless.
5. "Dark Knight." So I confess that I didn't totally enjoy this the first time I watched it--I was so tense, so terrified of the unpredictable horrors . The story-telling was so effective that even knowing that it was only a movie, I almost couldn't bear the suspense. And then the moral message was beautifully complex: does no a no-compromises approach always result in an escalation? Do the ends justify the means? How do good people become corrupt? Riveting, beautifully written, refreshingly unpredictable. And then there's the added bonus that Maggie Gyllenhall brought intelligence and believability to a role that Katie Holmes botched so severely in the first one.
4. "Up." Like "The Incredibles", had moments that were pure delight: Dug's collar vocalizing his thoughts, including the random interjection of "squirrel!", Kevin's uncanny imitation of crotchety Karl, Russell's lovable clumsiness. But then there was also the way it so tastefully and subtly treated topics as serious as childlessness, death, and divorce, somehow managing to be both real and retain its lightness.
3. "The Lord of the Rings" Trilogy. Super-long, virtually unwatchable in its stretched-out DVD format, nerdy to the extreme, but nevertheless a superhuman feat of film-making. Scene after scene I was gasping at the precision of detail not only in special effects and costuming, but even in atmosphere. Watching it made me think of the movie you'd dream of making as a ten-year old kid, before reality and cynicism had caught up with you: you'd want tens of thousands of disgustingly ugly villains engaging in elaborate battle sequences, mythical flying monsters, gigantic elephants, extended battle scenes of astounding athleticism, epic music, sweeping landscapes, and a beautiful cast. Somehow, Peter Jackson achieved the unimaginable and accomplished everything the ten year-old could dream.
2. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon": again, a visual feast! I saw this movie when it first reached the mainstream theater without really knowing what to expect, and I still remember the audience's collective gasp of disbelief the first time Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi skimmed across the roofs. Aside from the compelling story-telling and the ground-breaking martial-arts sequences, there were breathtaking shots of the Gobi desert and Beijing's Forbidden City, and I reveled in the way the two female characters defied every stereotype while maintaining their very potent femininity. One of my favorite movies from any decade.
1. "Whale Rider": I loved this movie. Besides being visually breath-taking, it managed to walk the tight-rope between extremes: heart-wrenching without being sentimental or manipulative, questioning of tribal traditions while still holding them in profound respect, and mystical and even supernatural without being cartoonish. The scene towards the end of the movie when Pai actually RIDES A WHALE was one of the most delightful and moving surprises a movie has given me.