1. Casino Royale
It’s admittedly a little jarring: Could the best movie of the year actually be the most entertaining movie of the year? Scandalous! How old-fashioned and obvious and déclassé! The beauty of Casino Royale is that it does more than just restore the lustrous excitement of the James Bond series. By reimagining 007 as a volatile human being who confronts every new pleasure and danger — high-flying chases and high-stakes card games; dry-ice flirtation and deadly torture; hell, even ordering a martini — as if it were happening to him for the first time, the film reconnected audiences to the very soul of movie escapism, reviving the primal enjoyment of what action, suspense, and romance feel like when there is something at stake. As 007, Daniel Craig floods the screen with personality the way the old stars did, using his saturnine sexiness, his implosive intelligence, and the silent lone-wolf hunger at his core to turn James Bond into a superagent for our time, a man who’s still discovering what his license can win him. Many have asked: Is Casino Royale the greatest Bond film ever? Let’s put it this way: It will never be quite as quintessential as, say, Dr. No, the first and (to me) still the finest moment of Bond’s Connery/Cold War/Playboy heyday. Yet if Casino Royale isn’t a greater Bond film than that, it’s a greater movie, period.
2. United 93
In its scary and lacerating way, a revelation: For most of Paul Greengrass’ amazing, hair-trigger 9/11 vérité thriller, we’re not just sitting back and watching a terrorist attack — we’re right on that plane, along with the passengers, living their fear, imagining what we would do, experiencing the shuddery charge of their bravery as they try to seize control of the plane from suicidal Islamic hijackers and, in a moment, alter the destiny of a world that has opened into an abyss beneath them. The bogus question turned into a mantra by the media — is it ”too soon” for a movie like United 93? — really translates as: Do American audiences want to feel this close to this actual a tragedy when they go to the movies? Maybe not. Maybe it’s about time they did.
3. The Good Shepherd
If you claim to long for movies like the ones they made in the ’70s, Robert De Niro’s heady and intoxicating inquiry into the early decades of the CIA is what you’ve been waiting for. It transcends the espionage thriller in much the same way that The Godfather transcended the gangster genre, though be warned: As written by Eric Roth, this is a spy film of hints and shadows, of barely glimpsed connections, of the murk that’s stirred by human ghosts. It’s a movie that perches you on the edge of your brain. As a reined-in golden boy who rises from the Skull and Bones society of Yale in the late ’30s to join a more potent secret sect, that of America’s burgeoning counterintelligence wing, Matt Damon gives a quiet, haunted performance that holds you with its recessive stealth; he’s the spook as invisible-man functionary. As you track this cipher patriot through a paranoid world of rickety identity, wondering as much as he does who to trust, what emerges is a vision of the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a duel of mutually destructive mirages.
The finest acting I saw all year was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fearless performance as a dilapidated good-time girl and former junkie who emerges from prison and tries to reconnect with her daughter, even though she hasn’t a clue as to what that entails. The film’s daring is the way it puts the character’s blowsy narcissism right out there: Sherry, a skank-trash loser, believes in almost nothing beyond the power of her body, and Gyllenhaal, guided by the flawless eye and ear of first-time writer-director Laurie Collyer, turns what might have been another grimly uplifting saga of recovery into the story of a soul discovering itself.
5. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
The era of the great concert film is over, a casualty of the indifference bred by MTV, but that didn’t stop emcee and guiding light Dave Chappelle, director Michel Gondry, and a slate of ferociously impassioned hip-hop and R&B artists from collaborating on the most nimble, accomplished, and blazingly alive concert film since Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. Chappelle’s hilariously tossed-off, into-the-camera insouciance sets the tone for a movie that presents, and celebrates, the groove of belief over the nihilism of a generation of bling-and-blam rap. Gondry, a whimsical washout when he dives into his own head (e.g., The Science of Sleep), needs the balance of a strong collaborator, and he finds it in Chappelle the merry prankster. Block Party weaves music and comedy, stars and audience members, into a funky and delirious vaudeville.