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16 (tie). The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Chodolenko)
Chodolenko and her uniformly excellent cast find endless shades of subtlety and subtext in broad situational comedy. Each fully realized performance would be an achievement unto itself, but Chodolenko's ability to juggle four or five of them during the film's several sustained dinner scenes is a revelation worthy of Mike Leigh. (If you want to appreciate just how much work those seemingly simple meal sequences are doing, try keeping your eye on a character who's not the focal point of a given shot.) Building on her past studies of post-sexual-revolution mores in High Art and Laurel Canyon, Chodolenko's character-driven portrait of a post-nuclear family is as personally generous and ethically demanding as ever—but this time around, the drama is far better sustained. Visually, Kids is a wet dream of the West Coast: as breezy as an afternoon motorcycle ride, as mellow as a downtempo electropop lounge, as warm and social as a SoCal summer night.
16 (tie). Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright)
In a year littered with disposable-at-best, toxic-at-worst romantic comedies, Wright made a buoyant one by one-upping into the heart and brain of an eight-bit videogame via an anime-inspired graphic novel series—exactly the kind of branding that studio movies thrive upon and that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World transcends with its deadpan humor/surprising emotion combination punch.
18. Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong)
A sublimely materialist, suggestively transcendental study of ineffable sadness and religious faith (the less plot you know going in, the better). Though Lee's work as a director ranks alongside that of East Asia's great art-house auteurs, he is usually dismissed (or begrudgingly praised) as a "literary" director. Chalk it up to his background in novels and screenwriting, as well as his increasingly rigorous refusal of self-conscious stylistic mannerism or button-pushing technique—but the style in Secret Sunshine is hardly functional. Lee offers attentive viewers the sublimely visual experience of Bazinian realism, where every element of the frame interacts with every other in a ballet of micro gestures. There are tonal nuances in this film so subtle I didn't appreciate them until the third screening. So please, don't ever call it "un-cinematic."
19. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Blue is an overused tint in modern movies, but Polanski seemed to discover new shades of the color here. The mood of dreamy dread is more considered and nuanced than the movie's political implications, but it's indelible—and various German islands serve eerily and brilliantly as stand-ins for Martha's Vineyard.
20. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
Winter's Bone is so chockablock with indie cliches that it's a wonder the film still proves an authentic, condescension-free portrait of rural familial struggle and sacrifice. Credit that triumph to writer/director Granik's rugged, resignation-infused depiction of her tale's backwoods Missouri Ozarks setting, as well as to artless performances by Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes that radiate bone-deep determination and sorrow.