After agonising over the perfect balance between solid entertainment, sound human values and artistic merit, the staff of MercatorNet settled on the following films which screened over the past year. To be honest, the pickings were rather slim this year – which suggests that 2009 will have to be a bumper harvest to compensate. Post a comment on our selection. Or nominate your own favourites!

The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Starring Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Sergio Castellitto, Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson

There’s more blood and guts and less theology in the second instalment of The Chronicles of Narnia. A year after their first adventure the four Pevensie children are summoned by a horn blast which transports them from the London Underground to Narnia. They emerge on a sunny beach. It transpires that 1,300 years have elapsed in Narnian time. A race of men, called Telmarines, now rule the land, led by the wicked Miraz, who has usurped the throne of his nephew Prince Caspian. The four children, now kings and queens, come to the rescue and marshal all the creatures of Narnia to support Caspian. The climactic battle scene, complete with monsters, catapults, and a duel to the death with the usurper, is not for the littlies. Finally, with the help of trees and a river god summoned by Aslan, the Narnians defeat the Telmarines and the children return to England. 

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

This stunning film about Batman has been amazingly popular and is chasing Titanic as the highest grossing film ever. Much hype was generated by Heath Ledger’s sudden death from an overdose. As the sinister Joker he was mesmerising, revelling in manic evil, and dominates the film. Even though it is bloodless and contains no steamy scenes, The Dark Knight is a sombre depiction of a corrupt Gotham City riddled with crime. The photography and special effects are very impressive.

Frost/Nixon
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Michael Sheen, Frank Langella

Electrifying acting and skilled direction have made Frost/Nixon an improbable success with the critics. Originally a play about a real encounter between the British interviewer David Frost and Richard Nixon, the film preserves the wit and intensity of the stage dialogue, becoming a verbal boxing match between the playboy talk show host and the powerful and menacing but disgraced President. Although it is sometimes crude and profane, this is rivetting cinema.

Grace Is Gone
Directed by James C. Strouse
Starring: John Cusack, Alessandro Nivola, Gracie Bednarczyk, Shélan O’Keefe

Is there no end to the talent of Clint Eastwood? He didn’t star in Grace is Gone or direct it, but he composed its soundtrack. However, this hardly overshadows the narrative and excellent acting in this tender and affecting film about the Iraq War. Most Hollywood interpretations of the war have focused on the brutality of combat or the injustice of the War on Terror. But this simply shows an ordinary dad caring for two daughters, aged 8 and 12, while his wife is serving in Iraq. Suddenly there’s a knock on the door and he learns that she is dead.

Happy-Go-Lucky
Directed by Mike Leigh
Starring Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marsan

It must be hard to make a film about cheerfulness, especially for Mike Leigh, a British director who seems to specialise in lugubrious social realism. But he succeeds. The lead is Poppy, a happy-go-lucky young teacher whose bubbling cheerfulness and optimism overflow and transform the morose lives of those around her, even her caustic and embittered driving instructor. It’s nearly plotless, the language is occasionally a bit rough and the offscreen sexual morality is less than ideal. But the humanity and compassion of this film makes it well worthwhile.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss

Any attempt to relate the the plot of this entertaining superhero romp would be utterly superfluous. As in any comic, the main thing is mayhem, monsters, explosions and snappy dialogue. But just to hint at Hellboy II’s inventiveness, it’s something about saving the world from destruction by a Golden Army of mechanical soldiers. The demon hero, his flamethrower girlfriend and a myriad of monsters are great fun. The visuals of the grotesque worlds beneath the surface of ordinary life – did you know that Troll Market, an enormous merchant city, is hidden beneath Brooklyn Bridge? – are splendidly imaginative.

I.O.U.S.A.
Directed by Patrick Creadon
Starring David Walker, William Bonner, Warren Buffett, Ron Paul

A documentary about the US national debt seems about as engaging as last week’s salad sandwich. But this energetic film holds you rivetted with figures and an impassioned message: that the American economy is going down the gurgler because everyone, from the Federal government to schoolkids, spends too much. It was made before the the US went into financial meltdown. After watching it, you’ll understand why.

Love And Honor
Directed by Yôji Yamada
Starring Takuya Kimura, Rei Dan, Takashi Sasano

Shinnojo Mimura is a lowly young samurai with a beautiful wife, Kayo. His tedious job in the local nobility is to taste food before it is served to his master to ensure that it has not been poisoned. One day disaster strikes: he is blinded by tainted shellfish and his life seems senseless. But when his wife is dishonoured by a high-ranking official, Shinnojo has to defend his honour in an amazing duel. This is the third of a brilliant trilogy about feudal Japan. A slow but very moving melodrama about fidelity and married love.

Mongol
Directed by Sergei Bodruv
Starring Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren

In Mongolia, Genghis Khan, pillager of countless nations, a veritable demon of cruelty, a byword for senseless destruction, is revered as the national hero. This Mongolian film shows the man behind the legend: a vulnerable and abused child, a loving father, an affectionate husband, a wise lawgiver, a generous leader, and a brilliant strategist – just the sort of guy you’d love your sister to marry. And it almost convinces: surely this military genius must have had some good qualities. If you don’t believe me, the Washington Post says Mongol is “a wallow in old movie pleasures, full of battles, flying dust, thousands of men on horseback, beautiful women, treachery, slaughter, really cool hats and even more slaughter”. Exotic, absorbing and drenched with blood, but, hey, this is not Francis of Assisi we’re talking about. A wonderful spectacle.

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Directed by Mark Water
Starring Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright

Here’s some great family entertainment – except for the littlies, who might be scared out of their wits by the goblins, spirits, hobgoblins, ogres, trolls and griffins of various shapes and sizes lurking in the grounds of the Spiderwick estate somewhere in New England. A recently-divorced mum has taken up residence there with her twin sons and sword-wielding daughter. Jared, the mischievous one, discovers that the spooky Gothic mansion conceals a secret and dangerous world. This film has some great character acting and terrific special effects.

A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers
Directed by Wayne Wang
Faye Yu, Henry O, Vida Ghahremani, Pasha Lychnikoff

Hong Kong director Wayne Wang has a wonderful ability to evoke compassion and reconciliation. These are not themes which go ching-a-ling at the box office, so this film about a retired widower from Beijing who moves to the US to be closer to his daughter did not make a big splash. She is a recently-divorced librarian who keeps her father at a distance because she has lost touch with Chinese culture and because she does not want him to know that she plans to marry a Russian. A very moving film about family relationships, cultural conflicts, and the burden of materialism.

The Visitor
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
Starring Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira

A dried-up economics lecturer returns to his Greenwich Village apartment and discovers squatters — a young unmarried couple, Tarek, a Syrian, and Zainab, a Senegalese woman, both illegal aliens. He allows them to stay and gradually they become friends. But then Tarek is arrested and tossed into a soulless detention centre for illegal immigrants. The professor discovers that he has a heart after all and engages a lawyer to keep him from being deported. This is a film with strong political messages about post-9/11 America, its attitudes towards immigration and the inhumanity of petty bureaucracy, but it makes its point with compassion and subtle humour.

Wall-E
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Starring Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, Ben Burtt, Sigourney Weaver

More than a few critics have described this Pixar animation as an instant classic. About 800 years in the future, a robot Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class (WALL-E to his friends) is picking through mountains of garbage on Earth, which has become so polluted that it has been uninhabitable for hundreds of years. Earthlings live in space ships and have grown so reliant on machines that they are obese and immobile. WALL-E collects human trinkets and is fascinated by a videotape of the 1969 film “Hello, Dolly”. And then romance enters his life in the person of an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (EVA to her friends)… Brilliant scenes of a desolate earth and a strong environmental message.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.