1. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
The 20,000-plus soldiers who defended the island against the ferocious American assault were ordered to die rather than surrender, and most did. It's a tragic epic that director Clint Eastwood personifies by focusing mainly on two stories: the dutiful, civilized general (Ken Watanabe) and a common soldier (Kazunari Ninomiya) who is clumsily, almost comically, determined to live. The dialogue is in Japanese, but this account of war madness --intense and compassionate--carries a universal and heart-breaking message.
2. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN
Not since De Toqueville, perhaps, has a visitor to the U.S. uncovered so much about the strange folkways of the natives. The cheerful curiosity of Sacha Baron Cohen's blithely ignorant foreigner is mostly matched by the friendly, if often deranged, behavior of the people he ropes into being themselves. Thus, this happy, hurtful comedy--the gut-bustingly funniest since the South Park movie--is also one of the year's most revealing doc(not just mock)umentaries.
3. THE DEPARTED
The cops put an undercover man in the gang, the gang has an informer among the cops, and Jack Nicholson gives a grand, snarling, nutsy performance as this film's presiding force of evil. Director Martin Scorsese--appalled, yet curiously joyful--has often explored the lives of the criminal class, but this tangle of tormented loyalties brings out the bloody best in him.
4. UNITED 93
No horror movie could have scared so many people away from seeing it as this first major 9/11 film--a meticulous reimagining of the hijacking of one of the planes and the passengers' heroic improvisations to stop it. Paul Greengrass's grueling, ultimately inspiring drama is hard to watch but imperative to see.
5. THE QUEEN
Her Majesty (Helen Mirren in a great performance) does not understand why the public expects a show of official sorrow over the passing of Princess Di, whom QE2 never much cared for. Prime Minister Tony Blair instructs her in media manipulation, and director Stephen Frears makes a high, dry comedy of manners out of the mess--while enlisting our sympathy for the beleaguered sovereign.
6. PAN'S LABYRINTH
A girl in Franco's Spain seeks refuge from her vicious militarist stepfather by retreating into a woodland wonderland. Guillermo del Toro mixes the airiest fantasy with the harshest social realism to prove that fascism is a fairy tale of power and a nightmare of terror.
7. THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Maybe, as the famous Whiffenpoof Song would have it, the sons of Wasp privilege are just lost little lambs. But since some of them spent their postgraduate years founding the CIA, Robert De Niro's finely tuned film wonders if their arrogant sense of entitlement subverted this nation's best, most idealistic impulses. Good question, good movie: very dark, very well written and acted--and very, very worrying.