17. Thank You For Smoking – Jason Reitman
Nick Naylor is a tobacco lobbyist for a group studying the effects of tobacco and lung cancer. Unsurprisingly they are not convinced that there is any correlation.
Nick has plans to make cigarettes more profitable again, partly by making them product placements in movies, much to the ire of Senator Finistirre. He travels to Los Angeles with the son he has with his ex-wife, and explains to him how to successfully argue and win any debate.
The trick he reveals is not to be right but to prove the other person wrong. Nick gets into some hot water with an old tobacco spokesman and juggles a fling he is having with a reporter. She turns his life upside down and Nick slides into depression. Thank You For Smoking is both genuine and heartfelt but also a good look at lobbying and how we settle big issues today.
Ultimately Nick is the hero and his adversary is the Senator who wants to limit cigarettes, cleverly turning the expected narrative on its head. Along with his lobbyist buddies, he is both hero and villain, forcing you to root for and against him.
16. The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko
Another tale of modern love, the sperm donor son of a lesbian couple feels the need to find his biological father. He enlists the help of his older sister and their discovery leads to a connection with Paul, their biological father.
After trying to keep their discovery a secret, the truth comes out and Paul starts to become part of the family, spending more and more time with them. Nic, one of the mothers, is concerned that Paul is going to far and upsetting the balance of their family. As events progress, characters start to betray themselves and tension mounts between everyone.
A story about the difficulty of not knowing the truth and what it means to find out, The Kids Are All Right, looks at the complications of having sperm donor kids and the complications of trying to maintain order and freedom.
15. Up in the Air – Jason Reitman
In the down economy, Ryan Bingham is making money firing people. He travels all around the country, racking up lots of frequent flier miles, delivering the bad news wrapped in a package of hope. He is put off when young newcomer Natalie has an idea to start firing people via video call.
Ryan believes this undermines the very nature of what he is doing by talking to people face to face and is annoyed when Natalie is assigned to accompany him. She proves her inexperience by being unable to handle the tense and awkward situations of firing someone.
Ryan meets a woman on the road and Natalie has to confront her own relationship that has so far directed her to move to certain places. When these things come to a head, all the characters have to step back and reevaluate the decisions they have made and where they want to go. Capturing so perfectly the hotel business function culture and the mass depression of those being fired in a down economy, it’s easy to become another person behind that desk, harder to figure out which one.
Up in the Air asks why we make certain decisions and why we keep things from people. There’s a lot of manipulation but a plethora of honesty amidst the lives of people actually living out the turbulent economics of this decade.
14. Borat – Larry Charles
Through disgusting, offensive, and uproariously hilarious skits and ambushes, Borat ripped the veil of political correctness. A feet that could only be pulled once, the (at the time) relatively unknown Sacha Baron Cohen comes to America as the gullible bigoted Kazakh newsman: Borat Sagdiyev.
Visiting a Jewish B&B, a Southern dinner party, Pamela Anderson, and singing the supposed Kazakh national anthem to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner are just a few of the stunts pulled. Banned in many places and still controversial, Borat left an indelible mark on comedy.
13. United 93 – Paul Greengrass
For some it will be hard to even watch this film. United 93 is perhaps one of the most visceral and honest accounts of a world event. From the flight’s take off, the film uses real time to tell the story both on the ground and in the air. As events unfold, the government tries to get a hold on the situation while the passengers learn what is going on and begin plotting against their hijackers. The tension builds and builds even though the ending is no mystery.
Using mostly unknown actors, actual airline employees, and in a few instances people playing themselves, United 93 is simple in it’s execution but powerful in its effect. It uses handheld cameras to place the viewer in the scene and relied mostly on improvised dialogue.
12. Juno – Jason Reitman
Before 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody gave us the ironically named Juno.
After a one night stand with her friend Paulie Bleeker, Juno is pregnant and, scared away from the abortion clinic, decides to give up the baby for adoption and enlists the help of her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby). She meets Mark and Vanessa, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, and as she regularly visits them gets to know the dynamics of their marriage. At the same time she juggles school, her feelings for Paulie but still manages to keep an up but still offbeat attitude.
Popping with quirk, color, and a slanted but honest sense of humor, Juno looks at young love, the complications of teenage pregnancy, and how fragile marriages can be.
11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Michael Gondry
Charlie Kaufman blends science fiction, romance, and dramedy all into one. Joel Barish meets Clementine Kruczynski on a train and they hit it off.
At some point they break up. Clementine goes to a company to have her memory erased and when Joel learns this he decides to do the same. Joel experiences his memories being erased and tries desperately to hang on to them, hiding deep in his subconscious. But members of the company seem to be involved in their personal lives and their schemes start to unravel.
True to form Kaufman crafted a twisting and surreal experience that gets to the heart of human emotion. He asks the question of whether this memory erasing technology is worth using and whether it will have a difference in the end. As technology changes at such a rapid pace, it seems hard to know what kind of effect it will have.
10. A Separation – Asghar Farhadi
What is life in the 21st century for some is not the same for others. In A Separation Nader and Simin are in a failing marriage trying to raise their 11 year old daughter, Termeh, in Tehran. Their application for divorce is denied after they clash over moving out of the country and staying to take care of Nader’s father who is dying from alzheimers.
After hiring a poor cleaner, Razieh, they come home to find the father tied up and money stolen. Nader angrily confronts Razieh and forces her from the apartment. Later he is charged with causing her miscarriage. Throwing his life into chaos he starts to suspect that more is going on with Razieh.
A Separation does an extraordinary job of weaving a complex and layered story, studying each of its characters carefully and how the social, economic, and religious differences affect their actions.
9. Her – Spike Jonze
Like many introverts, Theodore finds it hard to connect with people and is in the process of getting divorced, something he is not happy about. He gets an operating system with artificial intelligence and chooses a female voice for it. The OS gives itself the name Samantha and the two start to have deep conversations and become attached to one another.
Theodore likes the fact that Samantha is constantly available and never seems to get bored of him, she is always interested in what he has to say. At Samantha’s prodding, Theodore goes on a date with Amy but it does not go well and he returns to Samantha. Amy and Theodore see each other again and it seems that they actually have a lot more in common.
At a time when technology is becoming so vital to our lives, it’s good to look at what the consequences might be if humans become deeply intimate. Also asking the question of what does it mean for a machine to experience emotion and what those implications are for human emotion. Scary, thought provoking, and touching, Her is a wonderful examination of how we become attached to our own creations.