1) The Orphanage
2) La Vie en Rose
3) The Savages
4) Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
Honorable Mention: 'The Orphanage'
The Orphanage | Probably the most effective horror flick this year is a film where you don't get to see as much as the film is putting you on. That shouldn't be a big surprise to many who watch horror for the implications and not for the showmanship/gore factor. And like many of the best horror films to me, the real horror lies in the meanings behind the story's darkest images. A woman, that has recently moved back to the orphanage she once grew up in, loses her son to the apparent spirits of her long dead childhood friends (obviously something happened to them she luckily escaped from at that young age) and the only way to communicate with them is to play their childhood games. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, apparently a close friend of Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) who produced and presented this film to international audiences from Spain, this fairly new director enjoys toying with our minds with what is fate and what can be done by choice.
Honorable Mention: 'La Vie en Rose'
La Vie en Rose | Also known as La môme, this film paints a very dynamic portrait of tragic French singer (there we go with the French again, I swear it's a coincidence-- take note of all the films I listed that don't take place in France) Edith Piaf played to an absolute devilish form of banality and absurdity by Marion Cotillard who won the Oscar for Best Actress this year. Filmmakers seem to have begun an obsession starting from Milos Forman's 1984 masterpiece Amadeus to make films about extremely talented people with extremely terrible or crazed personalities. Edith Piaf is no exception praising certain people in her life with great love while spitting at others for not understanding who she is. The most beautiful element to this movie besides the excellent music which is all original Edith Piaf recordings is the cinematography (by Japanese cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata) literally downplaying Piaf's grotesque parts of her life while highlighting her very glamorous aspects to her career which is what most people remember her for. The camera work is also top notch citing a very Orson Welles ala Citizen Kane approach to telling the story through seamless transitions giving it a very surreal point of view.
Honorable Mention: 'The Savages'
The Savages | This film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay as well as a Best Actress nod to Laura Linney playing the sister to Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in this quirky and witty comedy drama about siblings trying to figure out how to take care of their ailing father reaching his final days... and happens to be a man who never cared about his children. The film takes a rather subdued look at the hilarity that can ensue over a brother and sister squabbling to make things work while attempting to establish a relationship with their father quickly losing touch with their world. Hoffman, Linney, and Philip Bosco who plays their callous father are all in top form in a story that very simply and clearly studies love coming from the most unlikely places whether it is from orderlies representing muses or the characters' unfinished affairs representing missions.
Honorable Mention: 'Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium'
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium | A children's film has never been so laden with so many intelligent aphorisms to classic literature by the likes of Shakespeare while echoing the sadness and hope of Walt Disney and Roald Dahl's fairy tales in a long time. This film is so completely bombastic that I think many critics were too distracted to notice. Dustin Hoffman plays a 243 year old seemingly eccentric toy maker (as the title alludes to) who bequeaths his magical toy store and all its otherworldly contents to musical prodigy Natalie Portman who is unwillingly to take the responsibility. However, she has no choice as Magorium has decided that it is his time to die now that his supply of shoes that were meant to last a lifetime are now down to his last pair (other more practical reasons are given humorously enough). The film on a whole represents transition after death and how much the contemporaries rely so much on their inspiration to carry them forward in their world whether you are comparing this story to the life and death and the world after Walt Disney and what it meant for Disneyland or to compare it to any other aspect of life. Zach Helm, writer of the just as magical Stranger than Fiction, writes and directs this fantasy children's film that, although to some critics may have proved too sad or weird for kids to fully understand, is like many fairy tales that become more understandable with age.