This year saw the resurrection of the western in forms both classical (3:10 to Yuma) and revisionist (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), a comeback that speaks to the genre’s enduring power, but also, perhaps, to a desire for conflicts more traditional and allegorical in nature than those provided by the literal-minded present-day war films that arrived in cineplexes to general indifference. With Hollywood finally jumping wholeheartedly on the Iraq bandwagon, only to prove itself incapable of mounting anything more than simplistic moralizing and trite melodrama, the heavy lifting was once again left to documentaries like Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight. Whereas the administration’s ongoing campaign made little conclusive progress, many filmmakers took a quantum leap forward artistically, none more so than Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher, while the Coens triumphantly returned to their stark, ragged roots with No Country for Old Men. Animation similarly reached innovative heights, whether it was the CG agility of Ratatouille, the rich black-and-white eloquence of Persepolis, or the avant-garde insanity of Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters, all of which pushed their medium to daring new places in a manner almost as extreme as Eli Roth’s continued desecration of the horror genre with Hostel: Part II. Judd Apatow established an endearing crude-and-cuddly comedic template, in the process counteracting the insufferable too-cool-for-school indie quirk dispensed by Rocket Science and Juno. Grindhouse’s B-movie regurgitations were met with shrugs, 300’s computerized mayhem struck an adolescent nerve, and Michael Moore’s Sicko, surprisingly, barely riled anyone. Instead, like the year’s heralded westerns, it was a blast from the past that incited the most ardent critical passion: Charles Burnett’s long-unreleased, universally acclaimed 1977 gem Killer of Sheep. Nick Schager
1. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
For three decades, Killer of Sheep was sending us signs of life via bootleg video and the occasional festival screening. Now the yeti has scurried out into the open, claiming its rightful place in film history and reminding us that there was and still is nothing like Charles Burnett’s hard-knock humanism, which gets to the root of man’s being and a community’s cultural riches and social deprivation.
2. Offside (Jafar Panahi)
Offside is another cyclically crafted jewel in the spectacular crown of Iran’s national cinema. Through incisive wit and drama, this allegory of resilience illuminates the absurdity of how women are locked into suffocating social strata, stressing the ease with which communication melts the barriers between genders. This has always been Jafar Panahi’s stock-in-trade: tragedy spectacularly laced with hope.
3. Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning)
The documentary of the year, Into Great Silence is a total immersion. Philip Gröning treks high up into the French Alps to peer at the lives of a Carthusian order of monks and returns with an object of great mystery—a weirdly mesmerizing essay about a people’s faith in the stimulating sound of silence that also functions as rumination on artistic creation.
4. Golden Door (Emanuele Crialese)
With great wryness and mind-boggling shifts in tone, Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door absorbs us into a superstitious emigrant people’s sojourn to the new world. A masterpiece of aesthetic and humane nerve, it confirms that Agnès Godard is the finest cinematographer alive and that Nina Simone’s voice is the sweetest shortcut to ecstasy.
5. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog)
A war film that is only political on a very personal level, Rescue Dawn locks the beauty and danger of the world in a breathtaking tango. Dieter Dengler needed to fly, and in the man’s escape from a Laos prison camp during the Vietnam War, Werner Herzog celebrates a fearless man’s understanding of the essence, power and need for human camaraderie.