1. Waltz With Bashir If ever there was proof that psychic agonies are not always best represented by realism, it’s Ari Folman’s soulful animated documentary about the deferred torment of former Israeli soldiers, himself included, who witnessed the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian Phalangists in the Sabra-Shatila refugee camps in 1982. Gorgeously drawn and colored in livid yellows by a team of animators headed by Yoni Goodman, the surreal images that accompany the quietly traumatized voices captured on Folman’s tape recorder, bring back the horrors and the absurdity of a war without heroes and, as it turned out, without closure.
2. Milk As one who ordinarily finds Sean Penn insufferably pompous on or off screen, I was caught short and beguiled by his ardent take on slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. Critics who balked at Gus Van Sant’s conventional bio-pic filmmaking have it all wrong. The radiantly joyful Milk was a populist by temperament and conviction, so the aesthetic suits the man and his message right down to the ground on which he was finally felled. If Josh Brolin doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor for his twitchy turn as the Twinkie-fortified murderer Dan White, I’ll…I’ll…I’ll force myself to sit through the rest of my W. screener, which I abandoned in boredom after half an hour.
3. Still Life and Up the Yangtze Two radically different films with but a single thought: the human cost of Chinese progress, if that’s what you call the building of the Three Gorges Dam, which brings more electricity while casually displacing more than a million already impoverished citizens and a raft of traditional cultures. In both cases, the focus is tight and personal, the fallout historic. Yung Chang’s documentary Up the Yangtze focuses on a young woman who leaves her family home, a shack threatened by the rising water level, to work on a luxury cruise-liner. Jia Zhangke’s heartbreakingly beautiful, wistful drama follows a coal miner and a nurse with a slow-moving digital camera as they search for spouses who have disappeared into the man-made landscape. In their quiet, elegiac way, both films mark the speed and ruthlessness with which modern technology can sink a communal past in favor of a dubious future.
4. Wendy and Lucy Lyricism goes hand in hand with urgent timeliness in Kelly Reichardt’s radically understated drama about a homeless young woman (Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir calls her a slacker, thereby missing the point entirely) whose fierce spirit is depleted along with her material inventory as she passes through Oregon on her way, she hopes, to a job in the Alaska canneries. Michelle Williams is revelatory, while barely moving a muscle.
5. The Class and A Christmas Tale No, not because they’re both French, unless you count garrulousness as a national trait. Which it is, and a distinct asset in the case of these two, each in its artful way an ode to the power and the limits of the word. Laurent Cantet continues to take the pulse of rapid change in Western Europe with The Class, a pitched battle of wits between a gifted teacher and his mouthy, multi-culti high school students, whose ambiguous outcome underscores the fragility of a common culture in unequal societies inundated with immigrants. In the far more navel-gazing but no less nourishing A Christmas Tale, a queenly Catherine Deneuve presides over a family gathering of unruly offspring licking old wounds while waging verbal internecine warfare, leavened with a saving bout of extra-marital nookie that puts a spring in the step of the congenitally mischievous Chiara Mastroianni. if you liked writer-director Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, you’ll love this.
6. Wall-E By contrast, the year’s most touching animated picture has a screenplay so minimal, the only dialogue that remained in memory was the sound of two techno-critters, the last signs of life on an eco-scorched earth, crying out for one another as follows: “Eeeeva!” “Wall-Eeeeee!” If they hadn’t found one another and one tiny live sprig with which to re-green the planet and bring back love, I’d have cried myself to sleep over the little trash compactor who folds himself into a neat, lonely cube at bedtime.
7. Slumdog Millionaire Sunnier natures than mine may froth over Happy-Go-Lucky as their movie of the year. Personally I wanted to kill Poppy — but then, so did a lot of other long-faced Brits like me who found Eddie Marsan’s driving instructor more to their taste. Or at least true to their fond memories, in my case, of a driver’s ed teacher in London who, after an hour spent risking his scrawny neck on the road with me, screamed that the A41 was not a scenic railway and would I please make it back to the center to the best of my limited abilities. Anyway, back to optimism: Despite the terror that befell Mumbai right around the opening of Danny Boyle’s frenetic tale of a chai wallah’s rise to fame and fortune on an Indian game show, Slumdog Millionaire is my upbeat movie of the year. Watching it is like reading Dickens: For the destitute life gets brutal, and worse, and funnier, and more and more bizarre characters factor in, and a few people die on you, and then everything gets dizzyingly better all at once. The director of Trainspotting charming us with a Bollywood softshoe finale — now that’s cause for hope.
8. The Counterfeiters 2008 may go down as the year of tacky made-in-America Holocaust movies. Yet out of Austria, of all countries, came a strange but more or less true tale of an ignoble Jew, masterfully played by the hatchet-faced Karl Marcovics, who parlays his money-forging skills into saving his own skin, several others’ and the entire British currency system from the inside of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s filmmaking is more capable than distinguished, but alone of this year’s otherwise rubbishy World War II movies, The Counterfeiters is bold enough to consider the fuzzy line between altruism and self-interest in the camps.
9. Moving Midway and The Order of Myths Two docs, by Godfrey Cheshire and Margaret Brown respectively, chisel away delicately but with resolve at the ambiguities of race past and present in the American South. Moving Midway uncovers mixed emotions about mixed race in Cheshire’s own sprawling family as a cousin quite literally moves his North Carolina house. In The Order of Myths, a tradition of segregated Mardi Gras kings and queens in Alabama is tentatively, painfully brought into a more integrated future. In a year when we elected a President born of a white mother and a black father, we have earned the right, at last, to entertain such cautionary tales of hope.
10. $9.99 This has to be the first year that three animated movies make it into my top 10, but “animated” is an elastic definition that also covers the stop-go figures in Tatia Rosenthal’s feature debut, which transposes short stories by po-mo Israeli writer Etgar Keret into a Sydney apartment building filled with lost souls looking for fulfillment, parental attention or just sexual bliss with a smooth-skinned man. Like Keret’s stories, $9.99 hovers dangerously around whimsy, then veers into the depths of benighted souls, and bestows on them the moments of grace that may be the best we can hope for. Unless, of course, you’re Poppy.