It was a year for superheroes. It was a year for some riveting documentaries. It was a year for pictures distinguished by truly memorable acting. It was a vintage year at the movies. For my money, the best of the best for 2008 were:
1. "The Dark Knight" The top-grossing movie of the year (at $530 million-plus) was also the best picture of the year. Dark, stirring and with Heath Ledger giving the performance of a too-short lifetime as The Joker, "Knight" proved once and for all that, done right, a movie based on a comic book can be a grand, provocative and powerful movie experience.
2. "Wall-E" Pixar scored yet another triumph, blending whimsy, pathos and a cautionary message about the consequences of despoiling the environment into a seamless whole. The story of the lonely robot yearning for love and companionship on a trashed and abandoned Earth was visually stunning and very affecting.
3. "The Visitor" This small-scale indie drama was a personal triumph for longtime character actor Richard Jenkins who turned his first leading-man role into an unforgettable portrait of a lonely man whose encounter with an illegal-immigrant couple taps a wellspring of quiet compassion he never suspected existed within himself.
4. "Man on Wire" A feat of incredible audacity, the high-wire walk between the brand-new Twin Towers by French aerialist Philippe Petit in 1974, inspired an incredibly moving documentary by filmmaker James Marsh. Up there, 1,350 ft. in the sky, Petit turned himself into a work of art and became his own masterpiece. With evocative music, well-staged re-enactments and revealing interviews, Marsh turned "Man on Wire" into a masterpiece of the filmmaker’s art.
5. "Iron Man" It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a man in a flying can! It’s Robert Downey Jr. soaring to heights unequaled in his checkered career, having the time of his life playing the brash genius Marvel comic hero. Of this year’s two super-fine superhero movies, "The Dark Knight" has gravitas, but "Iron Man" is almost more fun that a fan can stand, from start to finish.
6. "American Teen" I can’t think of any movie, be it a documentary or a fictional feature, that captures the overwhelming intensity of the emotional lives of adolescents with the powerful immediacy than this documentary by filmmaker Nanette Burstein. Granted a level of access to the kids that is quite astonishing, she came as close to becoming a fly on the wall as it’s possible for a human being with a camera to be and was able to record personal moments of shattering intensity in the lives of a select group of small-town Indiana teens.
7. "Doubt" Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman remind the world, if such a reminder is needed, why they are regarded as among the top screen actors of our time. As a hair-raisingly strict nun-principal at a Bronx parochial school and a charismatic parish priest suspected of having an unhealthy interest in an altar boy, Streep and Hoffman are formidable adversaries engaged in an ethical battle royal in filmmaker John Patrick Shanley’s superlative adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning 2004 stage play.
8. "Rachel Getting Married" Jonathan Demme’s story of a black-sheep daughter who throws her family into chaos when she returns home for her sister’s wedding is so raw and real and painful and intimate in its depiction of people in crisis that it seems less like a movie and more like real life. When it’s over you don’t feel like you’ve seen a picture, more like you’ve actually lived it. Expect star Anne Hathaway to be competing with Streep for a best actress Oscar when the nominations are announced next month.
9. "The Wrestler" By now you have surely heard the hype about "The Wrestler" being Mickey Rourke’s comeback vehicle, the picture that will re-establish his reputation as an actor of tremendous ability. Believe it. As an over-the-hill professional wrestler with a bad heart, Rourke is heart-breakingly good. The movie will be opening in Tacoma after the first of the year.
10. "In Bruges" For a thriller, "Bruges" is uncommonly low-key. But it’s extraordinarily well-acted by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, starring as a couple of Irish hit men cooling their heels in the scenic Belgian city of the title, and by Ralph Fiennes, who plays their mad-dog boss. Sightseeing and mayhem, along with a goodly dose of droll humor, are artfully melded by writer-director Martin McDonagh.