Top Ten Films of 2008

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 [Waltz with Bashir]

No top ten film list is really worth one thin dime if it does not grapple with comedy versus drama, animation vs. live action, documentary vs. narrative, studio vs. independent and yes, American versus the rest of the film world. Support these films in their video life and they might just cut back on making lame, bloated superhero cookie cutter epics. Unless you like that sort of thing. In which case, what are you doing reading this?

1. Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman) Director-screenwriter Ari Folman has created a one-of-a-kind film, with his animated, documentary-style feature. An Israeli soldier has blocked memories of his involvement in the 80s Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the Phalangist massacre of the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. He visits others, trying to piece together his past, intermingled with fantasy sequences that startle and fascinate the viewer. Folman punctuates the search for a solution to Middle East peace with a startling, last-minute transition to live action, made all the more powerful by the recent Hamas-Israeli eruption of seemingly never-ending violence.

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2. The Girl Cut in Two (dir. Claude Chabrol) Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this brilliant work.

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3. Mister Foe (dir. David Mackenzie) Also known as Hallam Foe, played by Jamie Bell, a 17-year-old who suspects his father of killing his mother, sleeps with his stepmother, runs off to Edinburgh and lives on the street and rooftops, until he spots a woman who is the spitting image of his mother in her late 20s. Kate (Sophia Myles) hires him at the hotel where she is in charge of human resources and finds herself drawn to him, even as she is involved with a married man. Mackenzie’s script captures a young man’s obsession, charm and, inevitably, a surprising twist on his sexuality to boot. Add a terrific UK indie soundtrack that shifts perfectly with the moods of the film—and won an award at Berlin—and you have a coming-of-age story that breaks new ground…and one’s heart.

4. Mongol (dir. Sergei Bodrov) Nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar for Kazhakstan, a winner with the National Board of Review, Mongol is all that an historical epic should be: lushly shot, powerful in its action sequences yet not so oversized that it does not connect to human emotions. Bodrov manages all this in telling the story of the persecution and ascendancy of no less than Genghis Khan, not generally associated with the woebegone. In the process of his conquering half the known world in the 13th century, we see this freed slave in action sequences that are not so much loud and large as thrilling, abetted by the remarkable scenery of Mongolia, at times in places where roads had to be built during production.

5. The Counterfeiters (dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky) Is there anything more treacherous, more deserving of easy condemnation than another Holocaust film that breaks no new ground, but merely elicits simple tears? Ruzowitzky’s unique yet nerve-wracking film of the largest counterfeiting ring in history, run from a concentration camp, is based on fact. Karl Markovics plays the Jewish counterfeiter who must fake UK, then US currency or die at the hands of the Nazis, and he is always engrossing. August Diehl is his equal, as the lone member of the team who would rather die—and jeopardize the lives of all the counterfeiters—than cooperate with the Reich. The film poses a do-or-die dilemma that made other harrowing Holocaust films, like the adaptation of Sophie’s Choice, so excruciatingly memorable.

6. Wall-E (dir. Andrew Stanton) By now, we have all come to acknowledge the artistry—both visually and in storytelling, that Pixar has brought to the moviedoing public. But with Wall-E, they have gone a few steps farther. Not only does the film open with no dialogue and the establishment of a robot, a cockroach and an earth besmirched, but it winds up, astoundingly yet workably, in outer space, lambasting humans who have grown fat, lazy and driven around by technology. Its unique structure, typically gorgeous art design and welcome social commentary all combine to make this a very special jewel in the Pixar crown.

7. Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris) No one expects Morris to top his Oscar-winning feature documentary on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, but with this fascinating examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, as well its manipulation and coverup, he has again done something both profound and mesmerizing with the form. Not only will those searching for demons find them in the film, but Morris’ “visual analogies” and a tremendous score by Danny Elfman highlight a doc that does so many things: It exposes how widespread the military knowledge was about prisoner abuse, how inadequately run the prison was and, most importantly, how the framing of a photo or an issue determines the guilt or innocence of those involved.

8. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard) Howard should be roundly commended and future filmmakers should take note that successful stage plays, like Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon will likely do better adapted by the playwright and featuring the same leads, in this case, living legend Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, who has gone from nailing Tony Blair to capturing talk show host David Frost with great acumen. Not only does Langella capture the egotism of Nixon but something more, the sense, inevitably, of failing his mission as a president, and it makes the denouement of this sharply paced and observed film, with great help from Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones and others, strike a deep chord of wounded memory, befitting a film about the legacy of the Watergate break-in.

9. Choke (dir. Clark Gregg) Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and marvelous Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

10. Adam Resurrected (, dir.Paul Schrader) Jeff Goldblum turns in the performance of his career in this powerful adaptation of Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk’s novel, directed by Paul Schrader (Autofocus). Goldblum shows a haunted, controlled desperation as German comedian Adam Steiner, who is taken to a concentration camp in WWII but kept alive by a commandant (Willem Dafoe) who makes him act like a dog. After the War, Steiner’s mental and physical states crumble at an Israeli institute where mentally unstable Holocaust survivors live together. Add a perverse, sexual relationship between Steiner and a nurse, bleakly humorous dialogue and an attempt to help a boy who thinks himself an animal and you have a film that will stay in the mind long after the final images fade onscreen.

(Honorable Mention: Elegy, In Bruges, Kabluey, Madagascar 2, Milk)

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