1. Letters From Iwo Jima
Clint Eastwood announced from the start that he intended to tell the story of the terrible Battle of Iwo Jima twice, first from the American point of view and then from the Japanese. It was impossible to do justice to so big and complicated a story otherwise, he said. And so he made Flags of Our Fathers, which was a good, if earthbound, portrait of GI bravery overtaken by wartime hype an earnest think piece about image and reality in the service of patriotism. Then he made Letters From Iwo Jima, which is an austere, radiant stunner a soaring achievement, as Eastern in its appreciation of group discipline as Flags is Western in its contemplation of individual responsibility. In this year of disastrous war when American soldiers are again fighting a culture so confounding to our own, the elemental gravity and dignity of Letters spoken almost entirely in Japanese, played out by Japanese actors all but one of whom are virtually unknown to a Stateside audience is all the more resonant and meaningful. With calm control and utmost respect, a quintessentially American director has made a war picture that honors every soldier (and soldier's mother) everywhere, with the superb care of an old moviemaking pro who continues to grow as an artist.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that lifts the spirit by demonstrating the open-mindedness of the American character and the comfort that can be found in the communal balm of a gentle laugh. This is not that movie. And that's the sting and thrill of fearless British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's raucous road trip across the ''US and A.'' As a self-styled journalist from Kazakhstan in a cheery cheap suit and a great mustache, Baron Cohen is so genial a bigot, racist, and boob that polite strangers recognize him as one of their own. Have guileless folks been duped? Oh, please, save the sympathy for those who bought tickets to Failure to Launch. Borat is nothing less than brilliant avant-garde political art disguised in the cheery cheap suit of accessible mainstream comedy.
3. Pan's Labyrinth
The boldly inventive Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro he of Hellboy fame is inspired by the porous wall between fantasy and reality that exists in the imagination of children. Here, he uses enchantment to make intuitive sense of real-life beastliness in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and the result is the year's most beautiful production, a supple mix of magical realism and surreal movie-technique magic. The showdown between a scared but brave young girl and the walking nightmare known as Pale Man, who sees the world he tyrannizes through eyeballs in the palms of his hands, is as jolting, and as hard to shake off, as any horror epic made entirely of human flesh.
4. Half Nelson
As a caring public school teacher rapidly anesthetizing himself into a kind of half-death with crack cocaine, Ryan Gosling gives a performance of shattering intensity. Yet he never appears to be performing; neither does tough, dignified young Shareeka Epps as the student who's got her teacher's number. And that's the power of filmmaker Ryan Fleck's sad/hopeful, hauntingly open-ended study in the rise and fall of middle-class social idealism. Unlike a conservative educator with a traditional lesson plan, the filmmaker absolutely refuses to draw a neat conclusion. For which his honest, deep, personal movie deserves a term grade of A.
5. The Departed
Martin Scorsese had the benefit of the top-notch Hong Kong action saga Infernal Affairs as a plot foundation, but this retold beaut boasts Scorsese's own muscular, home-team style. Taking to Boston with the silky skill of a North End politician, the master filmmaker has made the year's great American city movie, all about rats and moles and cops and gangs. William Monahan's screenplay snaps and pops with smarts; the screen itself pulses to the beat of urban vitality. And the performances, jeez, Scorsese's got the best of men (Damon, DiCaprio, Nicholson, Baldwin, Wahlberg) at the tops of their games. The Departed is the year's meatiest movie diversion.