As a cinematic marker, the year 2008 was not without distinction. We saw arguably the two best superhero movies of the decade - "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" - battle it out for box office supremacy. We witnessed the return, however anticlimactic, of a certain fedora-wearing archaeologist. We saw a Ryan Reynolds movie - "Definitely, Maybe" - that didn't feel like railroad spikes being driven into our ears.
So what was lacking? A drop-dead American classic, I would say. I loved taking sides with "There Will Be Blood" against "No Country for Old Men" last year, but I don't see a similar rivalry shaping up for 2008. This was a box office year, a recovery year, and maybe the following Top 10 list reflects that.
1 "The Visitor": What starts as a swell little slice-of-life about a grief-worn widower (Oscar hopeful Richard Jenkins) who learns to play the drums from a friendly Arab (Haaz Sleiman) ultimately becomes something else - a white-hot polemic that aims to change or enhance your feelings about immigration. (Oh, is THAT all?) But like a shrewd salesman who keeps his suitcase out of view, writer-director Thomas McCarthy doesn't start with the hard sell. He seduces us with a beautifully written story of friendship, revealing the embedded deportation drama only when we're nice and disarmed. Sneaky! Ultimately, we're obliged to accept the director's vision of immigration - not as a question of politics, but a fact of interpersonal America necessity. And he does it with breathtaking conviction.
2 "The Dark Knight": Dreadful, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Gambling the resurgent "Batman" franchise on what essentially amounts to a political horror story, director Christopher Nolan sets the action (and what righteous action it is!) in an ailing American metropolis pushed to the brink of social cannibalism by an "agent of chaos" (Heath Ledger's grotesquely charismatic Joker) whose anarchic convictions swallow up one hero (Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent) and marginalize another (Christian Bale's terrifically conflicted Batman). And then there's the sad postscript of Ledger's death, which leaves us with the nagging suspicion that the Joker might have prevailed, after all. Dread? Oh, yeah. And then some.
3 "The Wrestler": If Albert Camus was born in late 20th century New Jersey and grew up watching the WWF, would he still populate his existentialist novels with plagues and dead Arabs? Or would he write about Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke, regurgitating his own life-story), a broken-down pro wrestler who tries to tap-out after decades of fast-living and absentee parenting? Director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel dare us to look soberly at the character, revealing - without a hint of irony, but with much riveting artistry - the soul behind the spandex.
4 "Slumdog Millionaire": Movies should move, a fact rarely lost on filmmaker Danny Boyle. Here, the director of "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later" winds up and delivers his most footloose, rambunctious effort to date - a quiz show thriller set in the slums of India. With a journalist's eye and a varied source book that includes "The Usual Suspects," "Salaam Bombay!" and "Run Lola Run," Boyle proves that he can curry favor with critics and audiences alike.
5 "Rachel Getting Married": Maybe you have to know a few addictive genius narcissists to get it, but wasn't Anne Hathaway eerily convincing in this movie? As Kym, a messed-up middle child who gets a weekend furlough from rehab so she can attend her sister's wedding, the "Devil Wears Prada" starlet paints a brave, exacting portrait of manic self-absorption (say hello to your Oscar front-runner). Moreover, it's good to see director Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs") try new things - with its obsessive minimalist aesthetic, "Rachel" out-dogmas even the Dogme 95 films of Lars von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark").
6 "Religulous": In 2008, the funniest movie wasn't even a comedy - it was Bill Maher's globe-girdling crusade against organized religion in this Larry Charles-directed documentary. Fair and balanced it was not, but Maher's hypocrisy-piercing wit and pointed interrogations of mullahs, priests, Jewish Holocaust deniers and "saved" ex-gay Evangelicals was a nonstop hoot. So, for that matter, is his rather astounding, self-announced candidacy to lead a new atheist voting bloc. Meet the new prophet, same as the old.
7 "U23D": Frame for dazzling frame, the most revolutionary film of 2008. Culling 3D footage from seven different U2 concerts around the globe, directors Mark Pellington and Catherine Owens create an illusion of live musical performance so convincing that I occasionally fought the urge to reach up and slap Bono on his leather-clad buttocks. (The production company, 3ality Digital Entertainment, recently employed the same technique on NFL games.) It might sound trite, but this is literally the next best thing (in terms of sheer visceral enjoyment) to an actual concert. The only drawback: You have to sit down while watching it.
8 "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button": It seems useful to pair David Fincher's epic circle-of-life drama with another near masterpiece, Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York." Both distort the aging process. Both capture an awesomely vast spectrum of human experience. And both seem to travel on a hidden rail - one not governed by plot expectations but mortality itself. If I were pressed to declare a winner (and isn't that what we're doing?), I'd pick "Button." It's simply more cinematic. And it pairs Brad Pitt with a computer-youthened Cate Blanchett. And vice versa. And that's hot.
9 "Roman de Gare": I've had a secret Fanny Ardant fetish since "Ridicule" (1996), so my chances of resisting her performance in this superb Claude Lelouch-directed thriller were next to nil. As a best-selling authoress accused of murder, Ardant finds the perfect vessel for her sly, vulpine wiles, and old pro Lelouch ("A Man and a Woman") nimbly manages the film's many secrets, keeping us guessing until the film's explosive finale.
10 "Frost/Nixon": Demonizing Richard Nixon? That's easy. The real trick with Tricky Dick is to put the man - and his actions - into some kind of relatable human context. To that end, Ron Howard's post-Watergate drama may stand as the final, definitive portrait of the human Nixon. As the disgraced ex-prez, Frank Langella locks in on the man's soul like a cruise missile, revealing a political cripple whose lifelong disdain of entitlement led him to secretly embrace it in his own presidency. Langella's "You can't handle the truth!" moment with co-star Michael Sheen, playing TV dandy David Frost, is the year's top money shot.