Top movies of 2008

Friday, December 26, 2008

1. "Happy-Go-Lucky": As good as Mike Leigh's films are, perhaps his greatest service to cinema is discovering wonderful performers, then workshopping stories tailored to their strengths. The result is the year's finest performance, with Sally Hawkins a lively, merry, inspiring sweetheart, a teacher whose unshakable optimism survives all the negative vibes, from trifling to grave, that the world hurls at her.

2. "WALL-E": If we all had this plucky little robot's work ethic, we wouldn't be in a recession. The animation masters at Pixar have delivered a true innovation, a robot love story tucked in a cautionary environmental tale wrapped in a sci-fi saga, with romantic leads who communicate adorably in mechanical beeps and squeals. The title character of Andrew Stanton's adventure is beyond endearing as he toils alone to clean up filthy old Earth after everybody else has left.

3. "Encounters at the End of the World": Werner Herzog went to Antarctica declaring he was NOT making another movie about penguins. His documentary presents a series of hypnotic vignettes about the researchers, wanderers and societal malcontents working at the South Pole. And representative of this motley lot, Herzog finds a penguin too fascinating to ignore — a loner striding purposefully away from his flock, into the mountains, toward certain death.

4. "Slumdog Millionaire": Danny Boyle masterfully applies his "Trainspotting" dichotomy — the humorous and horrific sharing equal screen time, occasionally at the same moment — with this story of a Mumbai orphan who perseveres like a Dickens hero amid police torture, fraternal betrayal and child mutilation. The film has a wickedly joyous heartbeat as fate carries a lowly "slumdog" to fame, fortune and a reunion with the lost love he's been seeking all his life.

5. "Frozen River": Writer-director Courtney Hunt's meticulous debut feature casts viewers into a winter wasteland so bleak you shiver from the cold, and a cross-cultural tale so authentic you'll shiver again as the chill thaws between its two seemingly intractable leads. Melissa Leo and Misty Upham are quietly transcendent as a white mom and a Mohawk Indian who embark on a smuggling partnership out of necessity, then find self-sacrificing friendship out of the decency they discover in each other.

6. "The Visitor": This year's sad-sack prize goes to Richard Jenkins, a character actor getting a rare chance to gleam in a lead role as a widowed academic with a life whose empty moments just seem to repeat themselves. Writer-director Tom McCarthy flings this dead man walking into a touching, reinvigorating relationship with an immigrant illegally living in his Manhattan flat, lending our hero a reason to fight not only for his new friend's life, but also his own.

7. "The Wrestler": Mickey Rourke's art imitates his life in Darren Aronofsky's inventive take on the usually hackneyed sports-comeback flick. After squandering his early promise, Rourke returns with a role tailor-made for him — yet one he had to fight for because of the bad-boy behavior that made him a Hollywood has-been. Even early on, when critics compared him to Brando, Rourke has never been better.

8. "Frost/Nixon": Frank Langella may not have Richard Nixon's jowls, but he's got the chops and then some to create a riveting portrait. Reprising roles they created in the stage play, Langella and Michael Sheen as David Frost engage in a fascinating battle of wills and wit amid the historic TV interviews from 1977. Without a trace of caricature, Langella is tragically grand in a drama that marks the best work ever from director Ron Howard.

9. "The Dark Knight": Christopher Nolan isn't kidding when he says he held nothing back from his Batman sequel, which raised the superhero genre from comic-book pages into the realm of highbrow literature. The scope is as grand as "The Godfather," the themes aspire to Shakespeare. Heath Ledger may steal the show with his maniacal Joker, but Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and cast mates form an ensemble as good as any on the big-screen this year.

10. "Wendy and Lucy": Michelle Williams is an utter heartbreaker in co-writer and director Kelly Reichardt's deceptively simple story of a down-and-out woman heading with her dog toward hopes of a better life in Alaska. Stranded in a small Northwest town where her pet goes missing, she finds mostly hardhearted indifference from the strangers she encounters — but also a glimmer or two of kindness to sustain the faltering faith that one day, things will get better.

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