1. "The Dark Knight" (Christopher Nolan)
I'm not sure what else can be said at this point. I've written extensively about exactly how and why this follow-up to 2005's franchise reboot "Batman Begins" is such a thorough subversion of the super hero framework that it hardly deserves to be labeled as a "comic book" movie at all. I've droned on about Heath Ledger's final great performance as The Joker and Aaron Eckhart's equally important and impressive turn as the key character of Harvey Dent. I've ranted to anyone who will listen about how "The Dark Knight" may well be the defining Zeitgeist movie of our times. So I will let it be, and simply relate the joy I felt while watching the film a second time on DVD. It was an intoxicating experience that showed me no matter how much you can enjoy and admire a movie during a first viewing, it is often subsequent screenings that provide the basis for a true appreciation of a great film. There are so many details packed into Nolan's endlessly ambitious crime epic that even if I see the movie another 10 times (and I no doubt will), I probably won't even come close to perceiving all there is to behold in this magnificently crafted and wholly unique motion picture.
2. "The Wrestler" (Darren Aronofsky)
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and a less talented star, this tale of a broken down former pro wrestler would have been just another sappy "hero's comeback" story, indistinguishable from any number of other falsely inspirational sports movies we're subjected to year after year. However, due to the skill with which it was made, this is one film that earns every one of its emotional moments. There isn't a single frame that rings hollow in this story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke in an astoundingly true, lived-in portrayal), a washed up '80s sports icon who must face retirement after suffering a debilitating heart attack. Randy's professional life doesn't seem worth preserving; he takes some awful, bloody beatings for next to no pay, and then must man autograph tables where he hocks cheap T-shirts and videotapes in a depressing spectacle of performative dehumanization. But considering his miserable personal life, this clinging to his past glory is all that keeps Randy going, and he decides to go for broke with one last re-match fight against an old nemesis. Though it's never "sweet" or fanciful, it is the stuff of grand movie dreams, and I've never seen such a story come so vitally, urgently to life.
3. "Let the Right One In" (Tomas Alfredson)
The biggest surprise of the year. I never would have thought that a drab Swedish film about vampires and homosexual preteens would immediately establish itself as the most hauntingly beautiful movie of the year, but this richly detailed look at childhood angst demonstrates that no matter how funky a movie sounds, we should always keep an open mind. The film (adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel) chronicles the troubled friendship of Oskar and Eli, two 12-year-olds who form a codependent relationship while existing in the margins of a cold, unforgiving world. Their already unusual friendship is further complicated by the fact that Eli is a vampire, but Oskar is never in any danger. Rather, the secretive Eli serves as a kind of protector of Oskar, who is bullied at school and ignored at home. These two characters need each other more than they know, and by the end, the film reveals itself as not only a superb analysis of the bonds between two lonely people, but also as the most complete look at the vampire/helper dynamic that I've ever seen.
4. "Return to Sleepaway Camp" (Robert Hiltzik)
The film is clearly a stroke of genius, but I can't in good conscience recommend it without some major caveats. First of all, it's impossible to appreciate this sequel to the infamous '80s teen slasher flick without first being a huge fan of the first film. (Which itself is asking a lot, as one must harbor a dual fascination with cheesy horror movies and Freudian sexual psychology in order to admire the original 1983 film on any level.) And even if you do dig on some "Sleepaway Camp," you must also be down with the idea of self-aware meta-filmmaking if you wish to glean any satisfaction from this ostensibly "bad" sequel/remake, which is actually a cleverly concealed celebration of the very act of moviemaking. This direct sequel (the only one written and directed by Hiltzik, following two horrible spin-offs in the mid-'80s) is nothing less than the joyous reunion of a cast and crew who, 25 years ago, came together to accidentally create a compelling horror mythos that has endured in the minds of adoring fans, allowing them the capital to come back and make a brilliant, lovingly rendered companion piece that is far more sophisticated than others will give it credit for. Yes, it's a slasher film, and yes, most people will probably hate it. But it reached me, and I must be honest: This cardboard box thriller about grisly murders at a summer camp is one of the most entertaining and fascinating movies I saw all year.
5. "Tell No One" (Guillaume Canet)
It clocks in at a mere two hours, but it is not an insult to say that this highly literary French thriller seems like a much longer film. I felt like I was sitting there for three or four hours watching this incredible story unfold, and it felt like such a long sit not because the movie is ever boring, but because so much plot is packed into the dizzyingly complex story. The premise is simple and titillating: Eight years after his wife was brutally murdered and he was left in a coma from the attack, a man begins receiving e-mail messages from someone who can only be his wife. That's all I knew going into writer/director Canet's labyrinthine puzzle box of a movie (adapted from Harlan Coben's popular novel), and I'm glad I never had more spoiled. This is a rich, rewarding work whose many secrets are impossible to anticipate because they are only gradually discovered through an understanding of character histories, and as such they are worthy of being kept under wraps. Think of it as a French "Gone Baby Gone" directed by the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock. See it now, and thank me later.
6. "Gran Torino" (Clint Eastwood)
Another film that takes clichés and makes them seem fresh. Honestly, what could be more played out than the image of a grizzled, racist old war vet snarling at a bunch of punk youths to, "Get the hell off my lawn!"? Yet Clint Eastwood (starring as well as directing) uses such tired iconography to his advantage in this old-fashioned tale of male bonding and vengeance on the gangland streets of suburban Detroit. We've seen this all before (the plot is more or less "Death Wish" meets "Tuesdays With Morrie," with Eastwood's widower befriending a troubled Hmong kid who tried to steal his car), but in re-exploring themes and images from his past films, Eastwood has managed to make one big, comprehensive collage of his career as a whole. "Unforgiven" will probably always be regarded as his greatest movie, but "Gran Torino" may well be his most defining work. The dialogue is unimaginative (but realistic) and the performances by the amateur cast are not particularly impressive, yet under Eastwood's careful direction these less-than-stellar elements cease to matter much in the face of such an earnest story filled with such organic characterizations. A small film that nonetheless towers over other larger, flashier movies.
7. "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (Guillermo del Toro)
As a moviegoer, one of the things that I appreciate most is bold acts of original vision. And it doesn't get much bolder or more original than this sequel to 2004's entertaining but unremarkable super hero movie. This time around, del Toro lets loose with a newly invigorated artistic vision that manifests itself in some of the most incredibly detailed images I've seen at the movies in years. The fantasy mythos is serviceable but secondary to the film's visual splendor and unbridled comic energy. Honestly, I'm shocked that del Toro was able to get away with as much as he does here; at times the film is just plum strange, and by the time the hulking red Hellboy (Ron Perlman) shares a drunken duet with an amphibious hero cohort to the tune of "Can't Smile Without You," I was just grateful that I was seeing something so strikingly… new. Viewers expecting more of the same old Hellboy will likely be confused or disappointed, but if the prospect of a surrealist super hero comedy appeals to you in the slightest, I guarantee that "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" will give you more bang for your buck than almost any other comic book adaptation we've seen some along in the past few years.
8. "Frost/Nixon" (Ron Howard)
I'm not too concerned that "Frost/Nixon" plays fast and loose with the facts surrounding British journalist David Frost's famous post-Watergate interviews with former president Richard Nixon. Based on the Tony-Award-winning play, the film uses artistic license to get at the heart of the story, and if it stuck to "just the facts," it wouldn't be nearly as compelling. If you want a sterile educational experience, then just watch the actual interviews. But if it's an arresting examination of the clashing of two mammoth egos that you seek, then this is the ticket. It's fascinating to watch Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella) spar over the course of the film, and their verbal joustings culminate in a showdown that is as satisfying as it is feverishly anticipated. The movie's centerpiece scene - a private midnight phone call between a nervous Frost and an increasingly intimidating Nixon - probably never actually happened in real life, but cinematically, it brings these people and their unique personal dynamic to life with verve and an amazing dramatic flair.
9. "Vicky Christina Barcelona" (Woody Allen)
My unusual pick for the best Woody Allen film is 1992's "Husbands and Wives," a viciously funny and quietly devastating look at relationships gone awry. After making that final masterpiece, Allen kind of burned out and dabbled in mediocrity for many years. He saw a brief reawakening with 2005's "Match Point," but he had yet to make another truly great film until now. "Vicky Christina Barcelona" is the funniest traditional comedy of the year, and a welcome return to Allen's more gentle, moralistic sensibilities. Javier Bardem makes a surprising comic turn as Juan Antonio, a worldly artist who uses his Latin lover charm to convince two vacationing American girls (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) to accompany him on a weekend tryst in Spain. The resulting shenanigans are hilarious and, perhaps more importantly, unpredictable. Most notable among the cast is Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena, Juan's slightly unbalanced ex-wife. The real-life couple share great chemistry, and their last scene together is a moment of pure, frenzied comic madness.
10. "Iron Man" (Jon Favreau)
Robert Downey, Jr.'s comeback vehicle was overshadowed by the more meaty and ambitious "The Dark Knight," but "Iron Man" deserves to be remembered as an impeccably assembled, no-nonsense example of how by-the-numbers filmmaking can sometimes result in a product that rises to the level of artistry simply by virtue of being so technically flawless. This is popcorn entertainment done right, aided by a lead performance that goes to show how much fun filmmakers could be having with simple genre films if only they would just cast actual talent more often. As weapons manufacturer turned super hero Tony Stark, Downey, Jr. brings his own unique charisma to a role that is perfectly suited to his dry, sardonic brand of humor. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with Gwyneth Paltrow standing out as our hero's sweet and reliable love interest/secretary, Pepper Potts. This franchise is begging for two or three quality sequels, and with this talented a cast and crew, the sky's the limit in terms of potential butt-kicking awesomeness.
Best of …
Most intense scene: Richard Nixon's late-night
phone-call/confessional with David Frost in "Frost/Nixon." The
entire film distilled down to one fierce, provocative scene that
left me shaken.
Most unexpectedly funny scene in an otherwise serious movie: The "fireman party" scene in "The Wrestler." If you've seen it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't seen it, an explanation wouldn't help matters. It's Zen.
Best use of a song: Gun N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" in "The Wrestler" (again), played as Randy "The Ram" Robinson makes his final walk to the wrestling ring. A strange choice of song at first glance, but for some reason it works perfectly, and I now can't imagine any other song doing the sequence justice.
Best line: "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain, spoken by a pre-transformation Harvey "Two-Face" Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in "The Dark Knight." Obvious, perhaps, but nicely put.
Best documentary: Errol Morris' "Standard Operating Procedure." An exceptional exanimation of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, yes, but also a meticulous essay on the very act of fetishized documentation. One of the few films from last year that truly qualifies as mind-blowing.
Best animated film: Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir." One man's tortured remembrances (or lack thereof) of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, made into a probing, eye-popping, universal statement on the elusive nature of trauma and memory. Timely, too.
Best performances in a bad movie: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road." The movie is complete BS, but these amazing talents do impossible things with very little material. Oh, what a missed opportunity for Sam Mendes. There were worse movies released in 2008 ("Eagle Eye," anyone?), but none made me more angry.
Watch the 66th Golden Globe Awards live on Sunday.
Time: 5 p.m.
Nominees for best motion picture: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Frost/Nixon," "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road" and "Slumdog Millionaire."
The Academy Awards will be presented live on Feb. 22.
Time: 5 p.m.
Nominees to be announced.