- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

This wasn’t a great year for great films - but it was a great year for good ones. The year’s last couple of months usually are the best in the film critic’s calendar, as studios screen their Oscar contenders just before award deadlines. This season, though, I found myself disappointed in almost every big competitor. Film after film seemed very competently made but somehow lacking in soul. Luckily, plenty of great movies were released earlier in the year, as this list should attest.

1. The Visitor - This moving but never maudlin film might seem at first glance to be one of those ripped-from-the-headlines pictures no one will care to watch a few years from now. The plot isn’t the point, though. Thomas McCarthy has, with the greatest subtlety, made a finely wrought character study disguised as a political drama. Richard Jenkins’ performance isn’t as flashy as those of Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”) and Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”), but it’s every bit as good as he brings to affecting life a man who learns to connect again with another human being through the transcendent power of music.

2. Frost/Nixon - This masterful film is perhaps the most tension-filled of the year - even though we know going in how it ends. Peter Morgan, adapting his own stage play, has proved himself an indispensable screenwriter with this, the culmination of a group of intelligent docudramas exploring politics, psychology and the media. Ron Howard’s sure hand makes the play cinematic, while Michael Sheen and Mr. Langella are simply gripping as the title sparring partners.

3. Choke - A dirty, black comedy about a sex addict who bilks the wealthy by pretending to be choking in restaurants that manages, between the frequent laughs, to be mature and moving? “Choke” was one of the cinematic wonders of the year and an entertaining and essential look at modern manhood.

4. Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh’s picture, slice-of-life filmmaking at its best, might be the year’s wisest film. Sally Hawkins’ star-making turn as the effervescent Poppy is pure joy, and this beautiful film is a convincing argument for the idea that happiness is created, not given.

5. In Bruges - You might think it takes a veteran director to make a successful movie that manages to be comedy, drama, thriller, farce and gangster flick all at once. London-born Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has done it with his very first film. There was nothing else quite like it in theaters this year - and not just because it had midgets. Like some of this year’s other best films, though, it manages to be gloriously silly and stirring at the same time.

6. Wall•E - No film this year said so much without words. The adorable little robot WallcE expressed a lot of emotion just by the different ways he said the name of his beloved: “Eve.” This lovely film was a charming and gentle dystopia for the whole family.

7. Reprise - The most universal film of the year happens to be the work of a Norwegian working in the French new-wave style. In telling this funny, touching tale of two friends who are writers - one a success, the other not - the young Joachim Trier somehow captures all of friendship, all of art, all of life.

8. I’ve Loved You So Long - Actually, I’m going to cheat here. The French always produce a number of great films that make it to our shores - which makes me wonder how many more great ones don’t make it - but 2008 saw a particularly powerful bunch. Novelist Philippe Claudel’s directorial debut, starring Kristin Scott Thomas in the role of a lifetime as a woman sprung from the slammer and reunited with her sister, put veteran Jonathan Demme’s similarly themed but rather trite “Rachel Getting Married” to shame. About as good were the moving thriller Tell No One, the Audrey Tautou comedic sparkler Priceless, Claude Chabrol’s psychosexual thriller A Girl Cut in Two and Claude Lelouche’s twisty Roman de gare.

9. Funny Games - The people who most needed to see Michael Haneke’s brilliant film were those least likely to see it. Perhaps the public didn’t realize that this shot-for-shot remake of the Austrian director’s German-language film - which was aimed at Americans in the first place - at least entertained at the same time it provoked. The cerebral thriller, with gut-wrenching performances from Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, is a clever condemnation of the way Hollywood treats violence as well as a perfect example of what it condemns.

10. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - This was, without a doubt, the most unfairly maligned movie of the year. A number of big-name critics - one of whom gave away the ending of the film in her review - implied that this movie was immoral because it told the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of a little German boy. Why should we care about a concentration camp commandant’s son, they asked? Because he’s as human as the little boy he meets who is trapped in that camp. This beautiful piece of work, in which the humor highlights the horror, asks the audience to question its own troubling assumptions about what it wants from such a film.

Feel-good movie of the year: Slumdog Millionaire - “What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?” asks a cop trying to figure out how an uneducated boy from the slums of Mumbai won millions on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” An awful lot, as this crowd-pleasing, heartwarming film with the clever conceit showed.

Auteur of the year: Guy Maddin - “Quirky” doesn’t seem quite the right word for this Canadian filmmaker. His stylized look at his humble hometown, “My Winnipeg,” busts all boundaries as a documentary he prefers to call a “docu-fantasia.” Few filmmakers even allow themselves to be as uncompromising as Mr. Maddin. Like his work or not, the film world needs more artists like him.

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