It’s hard to believe but I’m putting together my top ten even later than last year. Again I had hoped to catch up on some movies I missed, but yet again that barely happened. But truthfully this time there weren’t that many I feel like I missed the boat on by skipping.

2008 wasn’t a great year. I’d say it continues a trend starting in 2006, the year Brian and Jared started this project and the early first discussions among the four of us. 2006 had a strong crop of great movies (The Departed, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth). 2007 had a handful of great films (Knocked Up, Hairspray) but a much larger group of very good films (Once, Mr. Brooks). 2008 had few great or very good films, but a huge chunk of merely good films. My top five were easy to pick. The next three became fairly obvious. But literally two dozen films vied for those final two slots. On the one hand, that’s a nice group of films in contention. On the other hand, all are flawed and wouldn’t have come close to my top ten in previous years.

Enough rambling, on with the list!

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1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  A rare film that left me feeling like I had experienced something, although it wasn’t a very pleasant something. Writer/director Christian Mungiu explores abortion in 1980s Romania, where the procedure, along with many other freedoms, are restricted under a Communist regime. Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu play college roommates Otilia and Gabita. When the latter becomes pregnant, the former helps her find a doctor to perform an abortion and sets up the particulars. It’s a night full of unsavory characters and dirty hotel rooms. Otilia also must balance her duties caring for her friend with commitments to her boyfriend (where “I need to help Gabita get an abortion” will not suffice as an excuse).

The subject matter is tough and bleak. Mungiu’s stylistic choices are always fascinating but never distracting. His shots run for minutes at a time, often with the camera remaining still and the subjects moving throughout the frame. One scene where Gabita sits down to dine with her boyfriend’s family lasts a very uncomfortable, unbroken ten minutes. It’s a technique nearly identical to the one used in the only other recent Romanian film I’ve seen, 12:08 East of Bucharest. Romanian cinema is said to be undergoing a renaissance; can a reader let me know if this is part of the new Romanian style?

The abortion scenes are extraordinarily graphic and brutally realist although not needlessly lurid. I wouldn’t say it contains any politics and I suspect most viewers will feel the movie supports whatever abortion views they had going in. I know that months later I find several images from this film deeply affecting.

4 Months won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007 but failed to make even the Foreign Language shortlist. The outcry surely factored into the Academy’s decision to alter that category’s nomination procedures for 2008. A short qualifying run made it eligible for the 2007 Oscars – and both Marinca and Vasiliu would have been very deserving nominees in the Lead and Supporting categories, respectively – but didn’t get a real commercial US release until 2008. It is a true masterpiece, but one I have no intent of viewing again soon.

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2. The Dark Knight. We’ve discussed this movie a lot around here, but I keep coming back to the same thought: The Dark Knight is like someone wrote a superhero movie just for me. It has the genre’s requisite action sequences, humorous sidekicks, sleek gadgets, and scheming villains but with a complexity and dark edge that one rarely sees in films, let alone in a genre flick. This truly got to me in parts, helped of course by Heath Ledger’s legendary performance, and made it gave me points to ponder leaving the theater. Those are qualities I love to find in any film of any genre.

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3. The Wrestler. I fully enjoyed this film when I saw it initially but I’ve found it has risen in my esteem even further over subsequent months. At its heart it’s such a simple story so well told of people whose peaks are far behind them and whose only glories will never be achieved again. Mickey Rourke’s baring performance is incredible (and I remind you that the dude cut himself for real in those wrestling scenes and that is bad ass) while Marisa Tomei is her usual sparkling self. And nomination snub be damned, can you think of a song that so perfectly encapsulated its film like Bruce Springsteen’s title song over the credits? The fade to black and the first strums of that song are just so perfect.

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4. Milk. Who knew a formulaic Oscar-bait genre pic could be so good? It tells the story a remarkable subject and does so incredibly well. Milk manages to be a message movie without becoming overly preachy and it maintains an over-arching narrative without straying too far into the classic biopic “tick the box” feel. Director Gus Van Sant gives it an intense feel of time and place, transporting the viewer into the middle of tumultuous 1970s San Francisco. And perhaps most notably it is full of terrific performances, not just from the incomparable Oscar winner Sean Penn but also supporting players Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch.

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5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The last few years have seen some incredible documentaries where filmmakers happened to be filming what would have been a rather pedestrian film just to capture an incredible turn of events (think King of Kong). Here, when his friend Dr Andrew Bagby was murdered in 2001, director Kurt Kuenne decided to make a film about his deceased friend. A noble subject to be sure, but probably one that results in an intensely personal and not widely-seen final product. But Andrew’s ex-girlfriend and suspected killer, Shirley Turner, fled to her native Newfoundland where she announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne’s film turned into a film for Andrew’s son, Zachary, to tell him about his father.

Andrew’s parents David and Kathleen move to Newfoundland to battle Shirley for custody of Zachary while the wheels of justice turn unbearably slow. The Bagbys must maintain a friendly relationship with their son’s murderer in order to see their grandson, an unthinkably painful prospect. The twists and turns continue as the courts make rulings and Shirley’s sanity appears unstable. I will not come close to revealing the film’s resolution. David and Kathleen end up becoming the main characters in this incredible story; their resolve is truly remarkable.

Dear Zachary did the festival circuit and had a short theatrical run in 2008, but I saw it on MSNBC. It may have future airings there and I would recommend checking it out if it does.

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6. Slumdog Millionaire. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the points Slumdog backlash devotees make. It feels mildly exploitative, the acting isn’t particularly great, and the plot strains credibility. I think for the most part it doesn’t really matter. The way the story advances through incredible chance does bother me to some extent, but I accept it as a modern fairy tale. Most fairy tales take outlandish turns. And I don’t really know how you can make a film about extreme poverty without it feeling at least somewhat exploitative unless it dwells on only the most negative aspects of human existence. The life of the poor isn’t horrible for every second of every day and it’s not necessarily glamorizing poverty to show that in a film.

Slumdog is always fascinating. The adjective that still comes into my head all these months later is “vibrant” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I think that’s too positive a word. It is vibrant, but also brutal and nasty and dirty and raw. Maybe “pulsating” is a better word, helped with by the Oscar-winning camera work and score. I do love films where the settings feel like a major character; this was the case with my 2007 love affair with The Assassination of Jesse James and the same holds for the bustling slums of Mumbai even tough they couldn’t be further from the emptiness of the Great Plains in Jesse James. In a way I felt like I had spent two hours experiencing India. Truthfully I’m not sure Slumdog will hold up well as a Best Picture winner but it’s a pretty fantastic immersive experience with a crowd-pleasing ending.

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7. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I always knew this would make my list, but a reviewing several months ago surprised me with how good it truly is. I think with films that depend on humor and shock value subsequent viewings will necessarily lose some of the impact. And that happened here, but by not guffawing so hard I caught how well-crafted it is. The characters are interesting, well-developed, and amusing. The jokes are taut and clever; the plot engaging. Plus it has some moments that could be considered truly classic (think Dracula musical and YOU SHALL NOT PASS!).

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8. In Bruges. I like a movie that can get to me a little and this very, very dark comedy did. Much like Sarah Marshall it depends to some extent on shock value, but even if you know what’s coming it’s still deeply engrossing and the ruminations on fate only get more fascinating. Great performances and fully-developed characters make the subject matter and strange twists and turns seem natural. The concept is a little insane (odd couple hitmen hiding in Belgium!) but the execution is spot-on to the point that it doesn’t really seem that insane.

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9. Tropic Thunder. Does this clever and funny film make writer/director Ben Stiller respectable? I mean, Zoolander was quite good too. Like the previous two films on my list I’m surprised how well it held up on a second viewing; here you take out the shock value and it’s still damn funny. Maybe even funnier. The Hollywood mockery is clever and the fake trailers that begin the movie are hilarious. The Golden Globe nod for Tom Cruise is kind of a joke, but Robert Downey Jr’s recognition surely is not. He’s an actor in blackface acting as an actor in blackface acting in a movie. And he does the DVD commentary as his character’s character. Heady!

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10. Let the Right One In. What an interesting mixture of genres. It’s a vampire movie and does have some genuinely creepy moments straight out of a good horror film. But the film’s wide appeal is clearly due to the very sweet tween romance between protagonists Oskar and Elli (the vampire). I haven’t seen Twilight but I think I can safely say that Let the Right One In beats it at its own game. The DVD subtitle controversy may have the internet up in arms, but this is a real winner no matter what subtitles you get. In fact, I’ve read comparisons of the two sets of subtitles and the new set has a few sections that are superior to the theatrical set. I think it’s rare to see a vampire movie that’s so cute.

And there were plenty of other good films this year that did something special. Most of these were in the running for the last two spots on my list. In no particular order:

I like a raunchy Apatow-style comedy with a helping of depth and insight. Or you can take something like Role Models, eschew the depth and insight, and just make it extra balls-out funny. Paul Rudd can definitely lead a film… For a great double feature of very clever and entertaining con movies, pick up The Bank Job and RockNRolla. Both are some of the most fun movies I’ve seen in some time with plots that withstand scrutiny… Speaking of fun films, Gran Torino is not what I would call a good movie by any stretch but hell if it isn’t ridiculously entertaining. It thrives on Clint Eastwood’s hilariously fun and over-the-top performance.

Don’t listen to the rest of these fools on this site, Frozen River is terrific. It’s a quiet film but it kept me tense in its portrayal of desperate poverty… Or for another wintry film to cool you down this summer, turn to David Gordon Green’s bleak but affecting drama Snow Angels, featuring good performances from Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale… For something completely different, Green’s other 2008 film was the hilarious stoner comedy Pineapple Express. I think maybe the last scene was the best ending of the year… Another place to look for laughs is Get Smart, which blew my low expectations away. It’s fairly mainstream comedy but very well-done.

Is it sacrilege for me to admit Kung Fu Panda was my favorite animated film of the year? DreamWorks rose above their usual crutch of pop culture jokes to create something that’s timelessly funny and entertaining while the animation is strikingly gorgeous… HBO’s Recount dramatizes the 2000 Presidential recount farce in a way that didn’t seem too obnoxiously political. Many of the characterizations are campy fun but Laura Dern as Katherine Harris takes the cake… The Fench thriller Tell No One takes the usual genre elements and gives them a curious French stylistic twist… Have I mentioned recently how great Richard Jenkins is in The Visitor? He’s near perfection in a good film, though it lags a bit whenever he is offscreen.

And one final commendation to the first two-thirds of Hancock. It’s rare indeed for me to be so onboard with a movie so quickly and so completely. I mean, what a concept: a boozing superhero who needs a PR campaign to repair his image. Brilliant! The plot and every little story touch is so clever and entertaining while Will Smith and Jason Bateman turn in their usual terrific performances. Too bad the last third is so putrid that it irreparably damages the film. Everything that is so right about the first hour goes spectacularly wrong, as if an entirely differenent set of people made it. I don’t understand how something can be so well-crafted at the beginning and so hapharzardly awful at the end. And I’m not even talking about the big twist, which the DVD box basically spells out. It’s the resolution with its out-of-leftfield plot points and absurd logic. Without that unfortunate turn of events Hancock would have surely been near the top of this list.

On to a better 2009!

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