1. The Maid Blank-faced, bone-tired, and implacable, Catalina Saavedra delivers a wonderful, slow-brewing performance as a 41-year-old Chilean maid, loveless and childless, who’s served one haute bourgeois family her entire working life. When her employers suggest she share her duties, a battle of wills ensues. Writer-director Sebastián Silva cites two maids from his own childhood home in the dedication to this powerful character study of delayed self-realization.
2. The Hurt Locker Top pick in the national Village Voice critics’ poll (The Maid came in 49th), Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War drama forgoes politics in favor of process: How men defuse bombs. The movie is a career best for Bigelow: tense, compressed, and often wordless for page after page of script. A sudden, extended sniper attack, coming midway through the movie, is also the best action sequence of the year. My bet for Best Picture winner at the Oscars.
3. Revanche Austrian writer-director Götz Spielmann concentrates on the slow buildup to a bank job and its simmering moral aftermath. Johannes Krisch plays the laconic, vengeful robber without concession; he’s a hard man who can only express himself physically, most eloquent with an axe. Yet new thoughts gradually crease his brow, like water cutting through stone.
4. A Serious Man Some critics hated the Coen brothers’ fanciful return to the late ’60s Minnesota suburbs of their youth. Full of anti-Semitic stereotypes? I don’t think so. Selfishness, ugliness, and betrayal exist in every community. It’s a serious comedy: As a cuckolded math professor contemplates taking a bribe, an angry, capricious Old Testament God prepares to pass judgment.
5. In the Loop A hyperbolic transatlantic political farce that opened SIFF in May, this spinoff from the BBC’s The Thick of It stars that show’s Peter Capaldi. We’ve all heard of the Boss From Hell, but Capaldi’s foul-mouthed and thoroughly frightening Scotsman is the boss to whom all the underling Bosses From Hell report. He bullies underlings, rewrites intelligence reports, and collaborates with American neocons to orchestrate a war that—though never named—is a comic analogue to our invasion of Iraq.
6. Duplicity What is so wrong about using big movie stars to their maximum charm? Clive Owen and Julia Roberts play corporate spies—and distrustful lovers—in Tony Gilroy’s elegantly serpentine tale. After In the Loop, it’s the most word-drunk and written picture of the year.
7. The Informant! Certainly the best film about corn this year. And, like the underrated Duplicity, a timely, twisty indictment of boardroom ethics. Steven Soderbergh deploys a doughy Matt Damon as an unreliable agribusiness exec providing dubious help to his FBI handlers. With Up in the Air, it’s among a trio of superior films this year to collapse the corporate house of cards.
8. Up Your children undoubtedly loved the talking dogs and balloon adventure ride to South America. But what sticks, for adults, is the near-wordless portrayal of a marriage, from puppy love to grumpy old widower, rendered in exquisite montage—it’s my second favorite sequence of the year (after Locker‘s sniper attack).
9. Up in the Air More timely than it is great, Jason Reitman’s loose adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel updates that 2001 book to our current recession era. George Clooney is excellent as the corporate axeman who prefers flying solo and unencumbered to the comforts of home. But the film is most memorable for the opening and closing testimonials of real American workers who lost their jobs.
10. Avatar Yes, its warrior-goes-native plot is familiar, but all myths are familiar. And James Cameron is plainly aiming for the mythic in his eco-epic. His script contains many groaners and silly names (unobtanium? the planet Pandora?), and Avatar‘s long middle section begs a popcorn break. But the film is a marvel of imagination, a fully created world. No wonder that Avatar‘s crippled mercenary hero wants to stay on Pandora. And stay inside his borrowed blue body.
Honorable mention: The Hangover, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Moon, Zombieland, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, The Messenger, The Cove, and the Julia half of Julie & Julia.
Other critics’ favorites coming soon: The Sun (Jan. 8), Crazy Heart (Jan. 8), Police, Adjective, and The White Ribbon (Jan. 29), Fish Tank (Feb. 26), A Prophet (March 19).