I'll have the requisite top 10 list of this year's movies in Las Vegas Weekly this coming week, and will probably do a post here elaborating a bit on it. But in the meantime I thought I'd steal an idea from an AV Club commenter and make an alternate list, of the top 10 movies from other years that I saw for the first time this year.
1. Quiet City (Aaron Katz, 2007) Okay, so this is only from last year, but I didn't get around to it in time to put it on my 2007 top 10, where it certainly would have found a place. I haven't seen that many mumblecore movies (and the Duplass brothers' 2008 effort, Baghead, disappointed me), but this is easily my favorite of the movement, a lovely, touching story of emotional connection in New York City. More thoughts in my original post.
2. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) As I noted in my post about this movie, I sometimes have a tough time with the ingrained sexism of old screwball comedies, even more so than melodramas or musicals or various other genres. I think it's easier to view outdated moral codes as interesting curiosities when you're not meant to be laughing along with them. It didn't bother me much in this film, or at least it was greatly outweighed by the wonderful writing and acting, which make things go down much easier.
3. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007) Yes, another one from last year, but damn there were so many good movies last year, and I just didn't get to all of them in time. This is such a lovely coming-of-age story, a beautifully animated film that preserves the look of the graphic novel it's based on while also carving out its own identity. I love seeing a story about conflicts in the Middle East filtered through one person's specific experiences, which somehow makes it all seem more real than a meticulously researched journalistic documentary.
4. Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) This is the rare movie that almost constantly surprised me from start to finish; even though it was fairly obvious where it was all going to end up, the road getting there was not at all what I expected. It's sort of amazing that Sturges was able to get this kind of multi-level satire into a Hollywood movie in the 1940s. He brilliantly has it both ways by making a movie about how social realism is worthless, and filmmakers should just make comedies instead, and then filling the movie with plenty of unflinching social realism amidst the comedy. Veronica Lake is mesmerizing as the love interest/sidekick, and the writing is constantly razor-sharp. It's no surprise that the Coen brothers used an allusion to this movie as the title to O Brother, Where Art Thou?; it's exactly the kind of audacious genre mash-up that they're known for making.
5. Original Sin (Michael Cristofer, 2001) "The Wild Things of 19th-century Cuba," I called this movie when I posted about it, and you should know that Wild Things is one of my very favorite movies. Angelina Jolie tried for sexy and dangerous again this year in Wanted (before going back to dour and serious for Changeling), but she lacked the verve and abandon she exhibits in this movie, a luxuriously lurid and campy tale of sex and betrayal. It's gloriously over-the-top and start-to-finish entertaining, and seriously deserves to build a cult following.
6. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) I watched this just after writing up my post on the two versions of Cat People for the Val Lewton blogathon; this is another Lewton movie directed by Jacques Tourneur, who made Cat People, and like Cat People, it's a subtle, atmospheric take on a familiar horror idea. What we think of as zombies are not exactly what show up in this movie; this is more about voodoo priests taking control of people, as in the underrated Wes Craven movie The Serpent and the Rainbow. Tourneur uses zombification as a way to explore colonialism and white guilt, and manages a number of understated and unsettling moments along the way.
7. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944) I'm working on gaining a better appreciation of old musicals, and I think Judy Garland may just singlehandedly bring me around. I watched the entirely superfluous Garland musical The Harvey Girls a year or two ago, and had plenty of fun with it even though it was consistently mediocre, thanks to Garland's radiant charisma and lovely singing (also Angela Lansbury as an evil showgirl). And I liked the spectacle of Minnelli's Gigi, even if I didn't really connect with it. But this one works on all levels, as a colorful spectacle and as a showcase for Garland's singing and as a melancholy story of growing up and apart. It's a movie that envelops you and sometimes even overwhelms you, and I imagine it's a magical experience on a big screen.
8. Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) A sort of anti-Western, with Spencer Tracy as the lone-gunman hero, only he's past middle age and crippled and more interested in legal documents than gunfights. He walks into a typically corrupt frontier town and for most of the movie just has a lot of tense conversations with people. Sturges builds suspense over these exchanges and the mystery of what horrible secret the townspeople are hiding, and even though the reveal hinges on a bit of clumsy social commentary, the final showdown manages to be both exciting and a bit hollow, leaving you with as much bitterness as hope.
9. Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) I had this sitting around for months and finally got up the motivation to watch it after seeing Wright's Atonement, a marvelously directed, visually stunning movie whose parts don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. Pride is less visually showy than Atonement, but it still looks wonderful, and it's not as gauzy and fluttery as some Jane Austen adaptations. A former college classmate of mine who is an Austen scholar absolutely hates this movie, I think partially for the way it adds excessive "grit" to the novel's story, but it's been so long since I read the book that I doubt I noticed the differences or the similarities. I can only compare it to other movies that come from similar source material, and in that sense I appreciated the bit of grit, the way that the story is about country life during that time period and not just about romance. Romance is key, too, but it's the intersection of love and the practical demands of life that this movie really highlights.
10. The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930) I did a freelance project that required me to watch a bunch of pre-Hays Code melodramas, and this was the best of the lot, a vehicle for the underrated Norma Shearer (of whom Dan Callahan wrote an excellent appreciation). Shearer plays a refreshingly independent (y'know, for the 1930s) woman who divorces her cheating husband and then goes on to live it up on her own terms. There's quite a bit of racy material here (which of course seems pretty tame from our perspective), and Shearer gives an assured, saucy performance, radiating confidence both socially and sexually. Of course, even a pre-Code movie puts the independent woman back in her place by the end, but until then this movie is progressive and exciting.