Looking back I noticed there was no list for 2008 so I'm combining - don't think there was one for 2007 either but that will just be left alone. As always, best films I saw for the first time from January 1, 2008 through December 31, 2009.
1. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo 1966) - I avoided this for a long time, expecting heavy-handed preaching. Instead it's one of the most ambiguous but clear-minded films about violence, politics and personal responsibility that I've ever encountered; a film where everybody is caught in a hopeless situation and struggles to get out, often with uncertain results, sometimes with worse. It must have been something in the water but from the mid-60s to the end of the 70s Italy produced possibly the greatest run of political cinema ever (just think of the names: Bertolucci, Rosi, Olmi, Leone, Corbucci, Monicelli, Ferreri, Pasolini, the Tavianis).
2. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes 2007) - Another one where I had low expectations - multiple actors portraying Dylan? Yawn. But it's actually different actors playing different characters based on aspects of Dylan, a tiny but crucial difference that allows the film to move from the historical Dylan while it also cleaves closely to him. (An astonishing amount of dialogue comes from actual Dylan interviews.) At times a sarcastic attack on celebrity culture, at others an intimate family struggle, the film is far more than a clever trick and repays multiple viewings. Plus Richard Gere's calmly haunted performance is one for the ages.
3. The Curse of the Cat People (Robert Wise 1944) - Despite the lurid title, this is one of the most beautiful films ever made, a sharply imagined quilt of childhood, memory and redemption.
4. Il Generale Della Rovere (Roberto Rossellini 1959) - Yeah it's also about redemption which normally means Sunday school lessons but Rossellini is just as interested in what that might actually mean and what kind of compromises might even raise the issue. He's tied this to a character that seems almost like the genial crook (not a real criminal surely) who inhabits so many stories until the mask starts slipping as he realizes the same thing as Homer Simpson: "D'oh, why do my actions have consequences?"
5. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969) - Talk about compromise, this unsettling portrait of the French resistance borders on despair and may be one of the least heroic films about people who were genuinely heroic. It's not a cheap dichotomy since that confusion and suffocation drive the film. That Melville felt this way a quarter century later showed how some things never heal.
6. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell 1944) - Probably nobody made better propaganda films than Powell & Pressburger (unless you're counting Eisenstein). This one was intended to boost British morale during the war but is far more than that. Its small-town England with an offskilter sense of humor, comfortable (though flexible) tradition and sheer humane feeling (not to mention a dash of mysticism) is perhaps utopian but one that we would all like to see.
7. Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch 1943) - Starts like a comedy - after he dies a guy shows up at The Celestial Accountant to see if he's going up or down for the rest of eternity. And yes his misadventures through life are mostly comic but as they accumulate you slowly realize how disconnected this man is, how giving but self-centered, how cheerful but not entirely happy. The film is either beyond category or it's nearly all of them.
8. Crime Wave (Andre de Toth 1954) - One of the most noirest noir I've seen, it almost feels carved from shadows, at least when it's not acting like a pitiless documentary of trapped people.
9. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur 1943) - Another Val Lewton masterpiece but not as recognized as the others. It uses a violent death in a New Mexican border town to build a complex portrait of class differences and folkways; that it does so in a smidgen over an hour is a harsh rebuke to nearly every Hollywood director who can barely even tell a coherent story in twice that time.
10. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson 1966) - I've never understood people who claim Bresson is a deeply emotional director. The end of Pickpocket seems like a joke to me and it's a testament that the film works just as well that way as if it was completely serious. The much-acclaimed ending here is clearly no joke but neither is it a bang nor a whimper - it simply is. That's Bresson's strength - focusing on moments that would be lost in a more conventionally told story and pretty much ignoring the rest.
11. Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch 1933) - Lubitsch's pre-code exploration of a love triangle is both hilarious and heartbreaking even if it exists in a never-never land of starving artist garrets and swanky penthouses.
12. Pigs and Battleships (Shohei Imamura 1961) - It starts as a look at a bottom-of-the-barrel yakuza flunky trapped (or maybe he likes it) in a port town with his long-suffering girlfriend but slowly reveals that "long-suffering" doesn't fit her as she slowly becomes the real hero of the story.
13. The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci 1968) - Snow, Mormons, a bounty hunter smarter than the "hero", more snow, a lead role without a single line of dialogue, small-town politics and a jaw-dropping but utterly believable ending that kept the film out of English-speaking countries for almost three decades.
14. Burn After Reading (Coen Bros 2008) - No Country for Old Men is too arch, too underlined but this is what the Coens are best at - darkly comic stories of losers who just aren't as smart as they think they are.
15. Exiled (Johnny To 2006) - Opening with what I'm convinced is an homage to Once Upon a Time in the West this pushes the conventions of heroic bloodshed films in ways that Woo wouldn't have imagined when he made A Better Tomorrow.
16. American Zombie (Grace Lee 2007) - Yet another fake documentary but this time made by real documentarians. This appears to be an examination of race with socialized zombies filling in as a minority but slowly undermines any kind of easy identification, any sort of yes/no politics. Maybe that's in part because the documentary form isn't used here for simple storytelling purposes but as a way to show just how we can or can't know what we think we do, to the point that viewers never find out what happened in perhaps the film's key event.
17. Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson 1945) - Maybe I should have just included the entire Lewton box set but this stark, haunted tale set during a plague in the middle of the Greek civil war is certainly not what you'd expect to come out of a studio at any time in Hollywood's history. Karloff's portrayal of a general who may be slowly going insane is one of his best.
Honorable: Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry 2008), Bedlam (Mark Robson 1946), The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima 1966), Black Test Car (Yasuzo Masumura 1962), Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin 2006), Cloverfield (Matt Reeves 2008), The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel 2006), Diary of the Dead (George Romero), District 9 (Neill Blomkamp 2009), Election (Johnny To 2005), Enchanted (Kevin Lima 2007), The Ghost Ship (Mark Robson 1943), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro 2008), Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog 2005), Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter 1941), Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino 2009), Inside (Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury 2007), Justice League: The New Frontier (Dave Bullock 2008), Keoma (Enzo G. Castellari 1976), Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava 1974), Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston 1978), Made in USA (Jean-Luc Godard 1966), Martyrs (Pascal Laugier 2008), Mr. Freedom (William Klein 1969), Murder My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk 1944), Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul 2000), No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros 2007), Observe and Report (Jody Hill 2009), Puppetmaster (Hou Hsiao-Hsien 1993), Putney Swope (Robert Downey 1969), Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster 2008), Star Trek (JJ Abrams 2009), The Stolen Airship (Karel Zeman 1967), Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton 2008), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini 1966), Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch 1932), Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson 2009), WALL-E (Andrew Stanton 2008), Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov 2008), The World (Jia Zhang-ke 2004).
Crimes: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Celestial Subway Line (Ken Jacobs), D-War: Dragon Wars, The Heartbreak Kid, Hostel II, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Juno, King Kong (Jackson), Watchmen, Leatherheads, Mamma Mia!, Once, Land of the Lost, The Spirit, Throne of Blood, 300, The Whole Ten Yards, Zack and Miri Make a Porno.