Disclaimer: as of this writing I have still not seen a handful of titles which could theoretically factor into a 10 Best List. A small sampling of these titles includes Ballast, Doubt, Frozen River and I've Loved You So Long. Should I see any of these in a timely fashion I will incorporate them into this list. That, however, would not take place in a timely fashion.
1. Wall*E (Andrew Stanton)
If 2008 truly was a cinematic wasteland then perhaps it's appropriate that its savior was a hopeless romantic running through mountains of trash, and no, I'm not talking about Slumdog Millionaire. Destined to be marginalized by history as merely a great animated film or simply yet another masterpiece from Pixar (is that a yawn I hear?), Wall*E is not only the most entertaining film I've seen all year (full disclosure I've already watched the film 4 times in the month since I bought the dvd) but the most stubbornly cinematic, creating breathtaking imagery out of ones and zeroes mostly devoid of dialogue, human characters and cookie cutter, Disney-plotting all while crafting a completely original and terrifyingly plausible sci-fi parable for our wasteful times. More than that though, the film is the most swoon-worthy romance of the year; a film keenly aware of the transformative power of intimacy and how the heart (even one made of circuit boards and microchips) can flutter simply by having someone hold your hand.
2. The Class (Laurent Cantent)
It's so simple it's almost deceptive. Present one teacher, instructing a class of combative teenagers over the course of a school year and nothing else. No ostentatious subplots involving the teacher's love life or rousing speeches or montages showing students prepping for the big exam. No Coolio either. Instead we get a war of attrition between one good intentioned but flawed man (François Bégaudeau, essentially playing himself and working from a script based on his own book) and a classroom filled with hormonal, bored Parisian youths who view school as a weigh-station on the road to adulthood. A battle for the minds of the youth of tomorrow writ small and clearly one that's being lost, The Class is both depressing in its perception and yet encouraging just for letting you know there are teachers like Bégaudeau's Mr. Marin who are still trying in the face of crushing institutional constraints and a world that seemingly doesn't care.
3. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Is this the first cinematic ambassador of the Obama administration? Observant, inclusive, slyly funny and at times utterly heartbreaking, Rachel Getting Married is a renascence from director Jonathan Demme. His hand-held cameras omnipresently capture every unmistakably human moment over the course of an emotional weekend while Jenny Lumet's screenplay possesses a rare gift for illustrating equal parts compassion and personal weakness without ever feeling forced. Featuring music and dance, casual multi-culturalism, larger than life guests (performed by the year's best ensemble cast), Rachel Getting Married is the sort of wedding you only wish you attended.
4. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
How appropriate that a film about confronting pre-conceived notions about a person is the one I dragged my feet on seeing for months because it sounded lousy. Featuring the performance of the year by Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky is often achingly funny in showing us a woman who's a perpetual bundle of nervous energy (think Gervais' David Brent from the BBC "The Office" only less self-agrandizing) whose positive outlook on life serves not only as a security blanket but truly an act of defiance against a caustic and indifferent world. Hilariously pitted against Eddie Marden's perpetually irate driving instructor, these scenes provide not just a foil for Hawkins' Poppy, but also a true test of her conscience. The film only deepens exactly when you expect it to falter.
5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne)
The feel bad film of the year and hands down the best documentary of same. A first person journey of self-discovery that finds its narrator experiencing each horrifying new development in much the same manner that we the audience do, this is a film that will send waves of rage pulsing through your body. Unfolding like a Dennis Lehane novel, Dear Zachary plumbs the trenches of human evil (if at all possible, avoid reading *anything* which describes the events depicted in this film prior to seeing it) yet somehow finds unlikely heroes to celebrate, shining through from the darkest of places.
6. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
What an awesomely vulgar, wonderful little film. Seemingly cobbled together from all the most annoying parts of mid 90's indie films, In Bruges is an inexplicable joy, coasting on the charms of perfectly matched stars Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell and, with all due respect to the late Heath Ledger, Ralph Fiennes who gives the most mesmerizing sociopathic performance of the year. Never going where you expect it to and overflowing with bracingly funny (and did I mention vulgar?) dialogue, In Bruges may soon replace The Ice Harvest as the film I put on when I stumble home drunk from the bar and want to watch people even worse behaved than myself.
7. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
The most divisive film of the year, Synecdoche, New York is a film by and for writers: a snake swallowing its own tail for two hours, attuned to the self-destructive habit of obsessive meddling and self-examening at the expense of fruition and life experience (he says while tapping away at 2am on a Friday, half written screenplay sitting a few feet away on his desk). Difficult to sit through at times, the film is however one that lends itself to countless interpretations and will hopefully reward repeat viewings, formally audacious and uncomfortably perceptive, the film announces Kaufman as a natural filmmaker.
8. The Promotion (Steven Conrad)
No one saw this film, but I feel confident it will find an audience and love down the road. A comedy of manners and class warfare where the smaller the stakes are the more vicious the fight is, the film continues on the promise of Conrad's screenplay for The Weatherman (another small gem that was largely overlooked) in writing genuinely funny characters grappling with day to day problems like paying a mortgage, negotiating office politics and keeping a relationship together. Is it any wonder the film made less than half a million dollars in its theatrical run?
9. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy)
Like The Promotion, this is another small gem of a film. Unlike The Promotion people went to see this one. God Bless McCarthy for giving this part to Richard Jenkins, a longtime character actor best know as playing the dead patriarch on "Six Feet Under." Understated and inward, registering change in a glacier-like crawl (something even the great Clint can't do in the superficially similar Gran Torino) The Visitor is a gentle, proudly liberal film about accepting change and opening your heart to new people and experiences. Every bit as good as Jenkins (and way less likely to be awarded for it) is Hiam Abbas as the mother of an illegal immigrant who also unexpectedly finds change and hopefulness welling up inside of her.
10. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
Is Milk a great film or merely a good one that feels especially relevant and vital during these sad, close-minded times? Ultimately we'll never know but one can't shake the feeling that this is exactly the film we need right now and that it's as entertaining and light on its feet and well constructed makes it almost too good to be true. Formulaic and old fashion in the best sense, The film allows Sean Penn to give the most impressive performance of his career in the role of slain gay leader Harvey Milk; a warm, strong willed, persuasive man of the people who understood the importance (and power) of working within the system. Van Sant's film pulses with real anger and affection for outsiders everywhere but remains, importantly, inclusive of those whose stomachs were turned by Brokeback Mountain (the film cleverly front-loads most of the man on man action instead of teasing it out; force your straight viewers to confront their prejudices then move past them). An awards contender that actually deserves to be one.