The Ten Best Movies of 2008 

In the Year of the Rat, ten good movies (and a few stabs) that helped us get through it.

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Cut-rate gladiator Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an over-the-hill pro wrestler played by Mickey Rourke in a remarkably frank comeback role, exists by engaging in bloody combat with other muscle-bound meatheads in nondescript halls, and when that fails, by unloading freight and dishing out German potato salad to old ladies at a deli counter. If The Wrestler mirrors one or two earlier movies of pugs on the ropes (Fat City, The Set-Up, etc.), that takes nothing away from Rourke's Randy the Ram, a role he has been preparing for all his fantastically bumpy life. High marks to director Darren Aronofsky for pushing the notoriously volatile actor into unheard-of realms of introspection.

To be poor, gifted, attacked by Hurricane Katrina, and African American — that's the predicament of Kimberly "Black Kold Madina" Roberts, whose digital video first-hand account of being trapped in her Ninth Ward New Orleans house as the waters rose is the excuse for an ambitious investigation into what it meant to be an outsider in George W. Bush's USA. Trouble the Water was directed by Michael Moore veterans Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, but the star of the show is the indomitable Kim, who with her husband, family, and friends is flooded out, shunted around, and generally disrespected by everyone from National Guardsmen to FEMA bureaucrats — but she doesn't let that stop her. If you can watch her story without gasping when she launches into her rap "Amazin'," you're made of steel wool. Kim's aunt might as well be speaking for Ray, Lila, Randy the Ram, and the residents of France Street in the Lower Ninth when she proclaims in dismay: "If you don't have money and don't have status, you don't have the government." It doesn't get any plainer than that.

Not only is Slumdog Millionaire the year's most exciting human interest story, it also vindicates filmmaker Danny Boyle. Boyle, you'll remember, made the transcendent Trainspotting in 1996, then went into a twelve-year, eight-film sophomore slump before finally clicking with a scenario truly worthy of his jumpy, underdog-loving talents (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup's novel). Ostensibly the tale of a scuffling, hustling young Muslim man from the slums of Mumbai named Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) and his unlikely success on a TV quiz show, Slumdog is really about the criminalization of the poor in contemporary India — with marvelous location cinematography to help take the pain away. Loveleen Tandan, co-director with Boyle, is responsible for much of the astounding mosaic portrait of Mumbai. Here's a film worth seeing multiple times. It takes on new meaning from each different angle.

Much has been written, with many claims made, about Gus Van Sant's winning biography of civil rights martyr Harvey Milk, champion of gay liberation in specific and human potential in general. Sean Penn's portrayal of Milk is one the mercurial actor's very best, a complete chameleon job. And yet there's still one more dimension to the film. It marks a rare foray into the public sector for the basically introspective Van Sant, whose recondite, ultra-personal stories of marginalized young men, many of them from the filmmaker's beloved Pacific Northwest and most of them gay (Mala Noche, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), have coexisted uneasily in Van Sant's filmography with such mainstream "breakout" titles as To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester. Milk dares to splash the life and times of a politician across a historical canvas in bold, broad strokes, and succeeds memorably.

Even a so-so year at the movies has its rewards, as long as a certain pair of old French masters are still kicking. Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais opened at Landmark movie houses in March; Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two received its local debut at the SF International Film Festival on May Day. Let's be frank — neither represents the very finest work of its respective director. But even a lesser effort from a Rivette or a Chabrol contains facets of meaning and glimmers of performance that most directors have given up hope of ever achieving.

Duchess' French title, taken from the original story by Balzac, is Ne touchez pas la hache — literally "Don't touch the axe," as in, "Please, Mr. Executioner, spare the life of this haughty but misled noblewoman. She knows not what she does." But of course the coquettish duchess (languorous Jeanne Balibar) understands exactly what she is doing to the stiff-but-love-smitten general who lives in the palm of her hand (the late Guillaume Depardieu). He chases her all the way to a convent. Her "feminine coup d'état" becomes a sort of Votive of the Vanities, with both characters paying dearly for the privilege of unrestrained romanticism conducted at a funereal pace (compare to the Catherine Breillat-Asia Argento femme-fatale costumer The Last Mistress). That pace, the subject matter, and the dreaded subtitles consigned the eighty-year-old Rivette once more to art cinemas, which is where he belongs, among the espressos and Dutch chocolates.

Ah, Chabrol. The greatest living French filmmaker — there, we might as well say it — is in a relaxed, playful mood in La fille coupée en deux, the story of a cute Lyonnaise TV weather girl (Ludivine Sagnier) who probably doesn't deserve to have to choose between the two cads who crave her: rich, corrupt novelist François Berléand and rich, spoiled heir Benoît Magimel. Chabrol wrote it with his stepdaughter Cécile Maistre, and if it somehow lacks the precise, clockwork malevolence of the master's finest films, it still has Magimel's acting as the insufferable rich kid and the conspiratorial appearance of everyone's favorite lustful muse, Mathilda May.

A dark year calls for an intelligent horror film, and Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson can provide. The threads of his bone-chillingly creepy Let the Right One In (screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his novel) are as ancient as the European vampire legend and yet as contemporary as an account of a shy victim of bullies finding a special friend who sympathizes with his pain. Kudos to young actors Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, the towhead seeker, and Lina Leandersson as Eli, the omni-gendered, coldly compassionate finder, whose justice is swift and merciless. Guaranteed to keep you awake on a cold winter night.

Reviewers and audiences coming out of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky have gotten into spirited debates over Poppy, actor Sally Hawkins' crazily cheerful lead character. Some are so offended by her insistent chirping and giddy optimism they dismiss the film as an exercise in irritation. Others choose to look past Poppy's wisecracks and silly costumes at a woman who may indeed be terrified of life and its obstacles, and yet puts up the bravest of happy-go-lucky fronts in an effort to hold back her own panic.

As conceived through writer-director Leigh's patented "devised" method of constructing screenplays through improvisational rehearsals with the actors, Poppy may indeed have been one of the darkest characters on the big screen this year, deep down inside. Her fears range from the obvious (angry driving instructor Eddie Marsan, one of 2008's finest supporting perfs) to the hidden, as in her impulse to seek out a demented homeless loner, howling and growling to no one in particular, and connecting with him late one night in a scary part of the city. Perhaps the raving man (played by Stanley Townsend) is Poppy's mirror, a way to glimpse herself. Or maybe she takes the same sort of care-giving interest in this nameless individual that she would with a disturbed boy like Nick, an unruly student at the primary school where she teaches. Poppy is the year's most interesting character in the year's very best film.

The San Francisco Film Critics' Circle gave out awards in a number of categories this December. I agreed with most of the choices in spirit, but as usual wished the critics would have paid more attention to the less heavily advertised films. Here's my list of some memorable cinematic achievements of 2008, in no particular order:

Best actors: Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Sean Penn in Milk, Josh Brolin in W., Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon.

Best actresses: Melissa Leo in Frozen River, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Joan Chen in The Home Song Stories, Kate Winslet in The Reader, Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long, Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy, Meryl Streep in Doubt, Mena Suvari in Stuck, Angelina Jolie in Changeling, Asia Argento in The Last Mistress, and Kat Dennings in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Best supporting actors: Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky, Stephen Rea in Stuck, Josh Brolin in Milk, Benoît Magimel in A Girl Cut in Two, Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Columbus Short in Cadillac Records, Mathieu Amalric in A Christmas Tale, Michael Pitt in Funny Games, and Michael Peña in The Lucky Ones.

Best supporting actresses: Debra Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt in Rachel Getting Married, Misty Upham in Frozen River, Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Amy Adams and Viola Davis in Doubt, Olivia Thirlby in The Wackness, Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, and Emma Thompson in Brideshead Revisited.

Best documentaries: Trouble the Water, Meeting Resistance, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Up the Yangtze, Man on Wire, Taxi to the Dark Side, I.O.U.S.A., Shine a Light, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Stealing America: Vote by Vote, Neshoba, Encounters at the End of the World, and Argentina Latente.

A nondescript year in the aisle seat still has its little stabs of happiness: Steven Soderbergh's quixotic, two-part "backpack epic" on the 20th century's most misunderstood revolutionary, Che; Martin Scorsese's worshipful (and rightly so) Rolling Stones performance doc, Shine a Light; Stuart Gordon's shocker Stuck, a hard-times American fable about what happens when a homeless man collides with a working woman who would rather play; the wry Mongolian slice of life Tuya's Marriage, co-written and directed by Quan An Wang; two despairing views of rural Chinese life: Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life and Li Yang's Blind Mountain; the LA indie we've been waiting for: Alex Holdridge's In Search of a Midnight Kiss; Rodger Grossman's dramatization of the life and death of punk rocker Darby Crash, What We Do Is Secret; The Pool, Chris Smith's quietly seductive fable of working-class dreams in India (would make a great double feature with Slumdog Millionaire); The Duchess, guilty pleasure time for 18th-century junkies; The Tale of Despereaux, best animated film of the year; and Fear(s) of the Dark, the animated runner-up, more penetratingly frightening than any movie outside of Let the Right One In.

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