#1. The Hurt Locker
There was no better action film this year than Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. By far the best Iraq war movie to date, it follows an elite team of soldiers whose sole job is to diffuse IED's on the streets of Baghdad. There's no easing in to this movie. Your nerves are shot after the opening sequence and you're watching the rest of the movie shell-shocked. Hand-held camera and eye-level p.o.v's make the audience an embedded member of the squad, feeling the stress and tension alongside their fellow soldiers. Each mission is more horrific than the last and it's no wonder some of these soldiers are starting to crack. Every character is disposable, so don't get too attached to anyone - yet that's exactly what Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) does when he befriends a young Iraqi boy. A triumphant return to the big screen for Bigelow and long overdue recognition for Renner.
#2. A Serious Man
Funny, weird, bizarre, odd, mystical, tragic and completely original. For a couple of hours, you're given a slice of American Jewish life in the 1960s - authentically and personally viewed through the eyes of Joel and Ethan Cohen. You never know what's next around the corner for poor Larry Gopnik. Will it be disaster or comedy? This constant gearshift keeps viewer on their toes and completely engrossed. There doesn't appear to be any pay off for any of the characters and the movie comes to an end rather abruptly - kind of like life itself sometimes. Still, one can't help but wonder if Larry dodged some major bullets, or if he's just a guy who happens to have the worst luck of any human being. You'll enjoy figuring it out.
#3. A Single Man
Tom Ford's directorial debut is just as exquisite as his fashion designs. The film is impeccably shot and styled by someone who is confident and sure in his work. So confident, that he hired some of the best actors in this business and let them do what they do best: act. Colin Firth gives the best performance of his career as the title character, a gay man who loses the love of his life. Firth plays the reserved Brit as a man of very few words or emotions, yet we can see the agony and heartbreak that's screaming loudly inside. Set in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Firth's character is not even allowed attend his partner's funeral because the family doesn't consider him a spouse. The film couldn't be more topical - 40 years later Proposition 8 was passed in California, proving that we have not come as far as we should have.
#4. An Education
Newcomer Carey Mulligan in a breakout performance as Jenny, a teenage girl in the 1960s who is romanced by a mysterious man in his 30s, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Jenny is already wise beyond her years, yet not wise enough to see that David is too good to be true. She's simply too fixated on seeing him as a way out of her suburban life. He seduces Jenny, her parents and even the audience. Still, there is a beauty to Jenny's maturation and the heartbreak she goes through. At the end, she's back at square one leading the student life, but inside, she's grown exponentially. Life is cruel, life is not fair but life truly is beautiful. One of the best coming of age films of all time.
#5. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Most movies are a great form of escape, but this is not one of them. In fact, it takes you to a place that few would like to visit. Yet for some people, including the 16-year-old title character, this is the only life they know. Precious is an obese, illiterate teen who is pregnant by her father for the second time. She is also verbally, physically and sexually abused by her own mother. This is not a Lifetime movie of the week, but a gritty indie film that makes you feel like you're watching real people rather than actors. Precious' life is not something you'd want to wish on anyone, yet her resilience amazes even the strongest. Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the title role, gives a performance that touches even the coldest heart. Comedian Mo'Nique is so frightening as her mother, her verbal slings and arrows are enough to leave you psychologically wrecked.
To read the rest of the list at The California Literary Review, click here.