"1. The Departed
Martin Scorsese offers a smart, snappy, violent-as-all-get-out cops and robbers story about two moles, one working for the police, the other working for a mobster. Undercover cop, undercover robber. What a concept. Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg are all as good as you would expect. Wahlberg’s blistering performance is his best yet. The characters are compelling, the action scenes are always comprehensible and the suspense will make you fidget in your seat. This one is a corker. The film will be re-released theatrically after the Oscar nominations in January.
Highly entertaining adaptation of the 1981 musical about the rise to stardom of a Motown-style female trio that is not The Supremes. The songs range from good to applause-right-there-in-the-movie-theater worthy, the cast (especially Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson) is outstanding and Bill Condon’s swirling, shifting direction keeps the eye engaged while propelling the story along in a skittering fashion. A musical for people that don’t like musicals. In theaters now.
3. The Queen
Thoughtful, subdued, beautifully-acted examination of Britain’s royal family, as well as a captivating glimpse at the interactions between Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) during the traumatic week following the death of Princess Diana. You need not be interested in the royal family or British politics to enjoy the movie — it stands up quite well as a character study of some very unusual characters. In theaters now.
4. Thank You for Smoking
Hip, irreverent R-rated comedies that aren’t about overgrown frat boys trying to get laid do not come along very often, so please take note of this exceptional satire for grown-ups. The story of a charismatic lobbyist for the tobacco industry is focused and very funny. Aaron Eckhart shines as a master of the art of persuasion who truly loves his work. Available on DVD.
Peter O’Toole is at his best as an aged London actor who develops a relationship with a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) who is supposed to be taking care of one of his friends. Trying to figure out what each of them really wants from the other is just one of the treats in this erudite mix of comedy and drama. Opens locally in January.
Penélope Cruz (who is a much stronger and more appealing performer when speaking her native Spanish) grandly anchors the latest from Pedro Almodóvar, a colorful, invigorating story about the trials of a group of women in Madrid. At first their individual dramas seem random, but everything eventually comes together. Rich, wise and satisfying. Opens locally in January.
7. Little Miss Sunshine
Is the family in this road comedy too quirky for words? Yes. Does the film play like a big sit-com? Yes. Does it all get too sloppy at the end? Yes. Does any of that matter? Not a bit. That’s how funny and wonderfully acted the movie is. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin star. Available on DVD.
Two Mexican-American teens in L.A. find themselves displaced from their families for sexual behavior at odds with tradition. Sweet, sad and thoroughly entertaining, this is one of those movies where the story is so specific that it achieves a near-documentary feel. Adding to the sense of reality is a persuasive cast and characters that actually sound and act like people, not avatars for cheeky screenwriters. On DVD Jan. 9.
9. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Tommy Lee Jones plays a ranch foreman who, when he discovers that a bad-ass border patrolman has killed his friend, kidnaps the patrolman, makes him dig up the body and leads him deep into Mexico so the victim can be properly interred. The feature directorial debut of Jones fits his persona to a T: tough and ornery — it also has a heart, but doesn’t blather on about it. Brutal and grisly, with a streak of dark humor that kicks in at the damnedest times. Available on DVD.
10. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
I don’t like what Sasha Baron Cohen does — adopting bizarre personas and behaving outrageously in public and filming the reactions of people who don’t realize they are interacting with an actor is a cheap, mean way to get laughs. Still, the annoying practice draws stunning results here. Cohen uses his comic creation — a foreign journalist traveling across America to make a cultural documentary — to poke and prod at manners, prejudices, jingoism and ignorance in general. In theaters now.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order): 49 Up, Akeelah and the Bee, Hard Candy, An Inconvenient Truth, Lassie, A Scanner Darkly and United 93.