2008 - a so-so year. But enough about that. Let's look at the ten best films.
1) Man on Wire - In four years of reviewing film, I have twice awarded the number one slot on my yearly top ten list to a documentary. I've been known to say that if I had to show aliens one film as a slice of humanity, I might choose Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Now I think that's a touch cynical; I would give them a two-fer with Man on Wire. I want them to see the best of us, as well.
The film captures all the details and the breathtaking accomplishment of Philippe Petit, a French daredevil, who illegally sneaked up the World Trade Center towers in 1974 and crossed the space between on a steel wire. The word artist is overused. And yet it's hard to say this stunt doesn't qualify. And director James Marsh brings it to full artistic fruition with energetic cinema.
For certain, Man on Wire is the year's best documentary. It's also the year's best heist film (my apologies to the very satisfying The Bank Job); the best human spirit story; the best New Wave film; and it uses Petit's eerie resemblance to Malcolm McDowell to recall an era when he was a primal, youthful force of nature. The film is a celebration of youth, an enconium for innocence, a song of memory and loss, and an ode to humanity.
2) Rachel Getting Married - "It's about sisterhood." Surely, this isn't true. You know it. Rachel knows it. Kym must knows it, too, even as it passes from her ever-moving mouth. And yet when the former family superstar turned career drug rehabber tries to swipe the maid of honor role at her studious sister's wedding, it might surprise you that Rachel gives in.
You won't understand it. Nor will I. Nor most of all will Emma, the deposed maid. And yet that is the beauty of Rachel Getting Married - the Buchman family relations field a current of the unexplained, the weight of an indefinable, unseen history beyond the page or the print. When I seek to praise Rachel Getting Married, I note that I can think seriously and easily about these lives, the pasts and the futures that technically do not exist.
History tells Rachel that Kym's coup comes from her neverending selfishness and need for attention. Yet it will slip past her, and perhaps you, that it stems from something more and deeper than vanity. For deep in her heart, Kym feels the desire to love and be loved, and the fear of being cast out, for a sin for which she cannot ever fully atone.
This is a film that makes it easy to hand out the praise. To an electric Anne Hathaway and the perfect bookend in Rosemarie DeWitt. To Jonathan Demme and Declan Quinn, for giving cinematic zest to a story that could settle for a normal outing; to Bill Irwin for his belief that hot dogs can save the world; to Debra Winger for being there. And to Jenny Lumet, for giving us a script of three complete women with distinct voices and desires. If she were a former stripper who wrote in blogspeak, we would be hearing more about the emergence of an exciting new screenwriter.
3) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days - This year, I found myself with nine films for 10 spots. So in choosing the tenth from a list of slightly problematic possibilities, I decided to go with a film with a pinky toe (a one week run) in 2007. If you're going to break the rules, you might as well break the rules for the best film.
And among those contenders, 4 Months is clearly that. Reduced too often to the phrase "the Romanian abortion movie," director Christian Mungiu's Cannes winner is a jolt of unyielding realism crafted as a horror story. Every run-in for the terrifically earthy Anamaria Marinca smolders with understated tension, as she helps her roommate seek the services of a shady abortionist in Communist-era Romania. You expect the secret police at any second. And rarely have nighttime walks seemed like such life-and-death propositions.
4) The Dark Knight - Who said, "I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy."
So no, it's not Batman. At least not technically. The quote comes from President George W. Bush. That the statement recalls the final choice that Batman makes - to accept villification by society in order to save it - is a credit to the film's creators - the writer-director team of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Whether or not the film is a paean to the Bush presidency or a scathing critique remains an open question.
The Dark Knight is not only this year's box office champ. It's the best film of its genre. It's a meditation on heroism, the heros we want versus the heroes we need. It's an examination of vigilantism. And it's one of the few Hollywood films this year of real scale and ambition.
Through the pretense of its comic book masquerade, The Dark Knight asks the most important question of our time - how far can a civilized society go in fighting the most destructive threats and still consider itself civilized? A Dirty Harry for our times, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
5) The Wrestler - It would be enough for The Wrestler to be an interesting character study about a down-and-out professional wrestler scratching out a meager post-fame existence. Yet Darren Aronofsky makes Randy "The Ram" Robinson a martyr for the modern world. All that and Quiet Riot, too.
6) Entre Les Murs - Never would I think that going back to school would be as riveting as in this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner. French director Laurent Cantet squeezes human drama from every sliver of school life, from routine staff discussions to raw-nerve teacher-student confrontations. Written and acted by Francois Beaugadeau, a longtime Parisian teacher, this near-documentary speaks clearly and closely to the truth.
7) Let the Right One In - Is Tomas Alfredsson's snowbound vampire flick a horror film or a dark comedy? Well, I laughed, anyway. Thank goodness for vampires who do suck. Blood, that is.
8) Speed Racer - I'd love to be able to tell you that the candy-colored Speed Racer is a devastating intellectual landmark about the relationship among men, machines, and monkeys. But it isn't. It's simply a flashy, exuberant cornucopia of the visceral joys of watching a movie. But if you need some artsy meat to let you sing its praises at a dinner party, I've got this for you: it radicalizes visual space and liberates the viewer from the camera to a degree rarely seen in a popular film. That should make the forks return to the fondue.
9) In Search of a Midnight Kiss - In a rebound year for indie filmmaking, this is the moment I'm supposed to salute a minimalist micro-movie, like Wendy and Lucy or Chop Shop. Nah. I'm going with Alex Holdridge's splashy little New Year's Eve Internet dating romance. Why this one? Because it embodies the best values of indie filmmaking - spunk and drive and creativity and energy.
10) Snow Angels - It's been a big year for David Gordon Green. The box office success of his Judd Apatow collaboration The Pineapple Express means the longtime indie auteur can now pick up the check at dinner. Meanwhile, his domestic indie examining the thrills and torments of love was a (dis)comforting winter blast in early spring. Sam Rockwell is King of the Indies for a reason, and people forget that Kate Beckinsale arrived as an indie critics darling.