TOP TENS Charles Cassady Jr.
1. Iron Ma:n I freely admit that I never saw Iron Man. But all year I heard from people who did. People who hated comic books told me they loved Iron Man. People who hated movies loved Iron Man. People who loathed and despised all form of human expression and every aspect of life on this planet loved Iron Man. So I'm just going along with it and taking a safe out.
2. Cloverfield: You just had to admire the finesse with which J. J. Abrams and his team took one of the dumbest wheezes in the drive-in cliché compost heap (a big monster attacking a city) and reinvented and re-energized the Godzilla playbook by showing the mayhem unfolding solely through the limited POV of a camera-toting spectator's viewfinder.
3. Bab'Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul Hypnotic, total-immersion experience in the gentle, trance-inducing Sufi brand of Islamic mysticism, making the most (even more than Star Wars ever did) of the undulating landscapes of Tunisia.
4. Young@Heart/Shine a Light: Two fabulous nonfiction films on the staying power and durability of rock 'n' roll. First is a profile of a New England chorus of seniors (ages 70s to 90s) who deliver slam-dunk renditions of James Brown, the Ramones, the Clash, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth and more. Just as good in its own way is Martin Scorsese's canned Rolling Stones concert film, with Mick Jagger and band plus guest artists in electrifying form throughout.
5. Sangre de mi sangre: Oberlin graduate Christopher Zalla made this barrio parable, an American movie shot mainly in Spanish, presenting a nearly unrecognizable view of N.Y.C. from the gritty vantage point of poor Mexican illegal laborers dwelling in street and ghetto enclaves among the lower classes in the multi-ethnic metropolis.
6. Standard Operating Procedure: Documentarian Errol Morris took on a scandal of the U.S. occupation of Iraq that even the AM-radio talk-show hosts and Fox News couldn't spin into a good thing.
7. The Bank Job: As entertaining in its crinkum-crankum twists as Ben Jonson's venerable Volpone, Roger Donaldson's heist thriller, allegedly based on fact, follows a gang of safecrackers in 1970s London set up by the British secret service to pull off a robbery that actually covers some politically explosive sex scandals in Parliament and Buckingham Palace. 8. Constantine's Sword Documentary starring ex-Catholic priest and activist James Carroll (based on his book of the same title). Using new interviews, archival clips and some of the juiciest skeletons in the church's closet since The DaVinci Code, the scholar looks into how Christianity went from an ostensibly nonviolent religion to one that justified bloody wars (the medieval crusades paralleled the current "war on terror"), anti-Jewish massacres and the Holocaust.
9. Wall-E: Yet another winner from Pixar. Not the virtual studio's best movie but certainly it's the most eye-filling and imaginative of the 2008 digital-generated features. Pixar always endeared itself by realizing early on it didn't need song-and-dance numbers to enthrall and entertain.
10. Kenny: Mockumentary-style comedy from Australia that was a sleeper hit Down Under and insinuates some nice blue-collar insights using the same sort of comic techniques employed in The Office.
1. Synechdoche, New York: Yeah, it's weird and definitely not for everyone, but Charlie Kaufman's latest journey into the human mind is his most poignant and insightful yet.
2. Burn After Reading: Bad things happen in the world, not because of any secret cabal manipulating events, but due to basic human greed and stupidity. All we can do is laugh through the horror, something this Coen Brothers movie makes painfully clear.
3. The Reader: How do you react when you learn that someone you love may have done something terrible? Kate Winslet reminds us what an amazing and brave actress she is in this gripping drama about post-war Germans coming to terms with their elders.
4. The Dark Knigh:t Christopher Nolan delivers the first Oscar-worthy superhero movie. And yeah, the late Heath Ledger is pretty good in it too.
5. Wall-E: A perfect blend of intelligent sci-fi, silent comedy and social satire, with a love story to boot. Not what you expect from an animated family film, but there you have it.
6. My Winnipeg Guy: Maddin's beautiful black-and-white dream of a pseudo-documentary proves there's still life left in the art film.
7. Encounters at the End of the World: Werner Herzog cast his unsentimental gaze on a group of scientists in Antarctica and came back with this fascinating documentary.
8. Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle's highly entertaining film about a poor boy trying to win true love by winning a game show almost makes me want to say something cornball like "You'll stand up and cheer."
9. Let the Right One: In Cold, dark and disturbing, this is what a vampire movie is supposed to be.
10. Boy: A Is a child who commits murder forever doomed to be evil, or can he or she be salvaged? It's an issue this film poignantly addresses.
1. A Christmas Tale: Arnaud Desplechin's talky two-and-a-half hour French movie about a family dealing with its matriarch's diagnosis of possibly terminal liver cancer, at Christmas no less, brims with grand, messy, bulging-at-the-seams life.
2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The year's most bravura technical achievement, David Fincher's anti-Forrest Gump is so mesmerizing and profoundly moving you almost forget that its primary subject is death. 3. Wall-E The best American movie of the year? Possibly. The greatest Pixar toon ever? You betcha.
4. Revolutionary Road: Hollywood movies don't get much better than this pitch-perfect adaptation of Richard Yates' epochal 1961 novel. Personal bests for director Sam Mendes and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
5. Changeling: It's incredible that nobody ever bothered bringing this true-life 1920s L.A. crime story to the screen until now. Or maybe everyone was just waiting for Clint Eastwood, America's last remaining classicist, to do it justice.
6. Synecdoche, New York: The love-it-or-loathe-it movie of the year, Charlie Kaufman's homegrown variant on Fellini's hallucinatory "artist-through-a-looking-glass" masterpiece 8 1/2 is as exhilarating as it is spectacularly entertaining. No American film this year took as many creative risks or reached so many dizzying heights.
7. Milk: The Proposition 8 brouhaha gave Gus Van Sant's superb docudrama about gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk (brilliantly played by Sean Penn) additional relevance. Not that it needed any.
8. Che: At four hours-plus, Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara biopic is, admittedly, a long haul. Yet Soderbergh's artistry and rigor -- and the genius of Benicio del Toro's lead performance -- ensured it was enthralling every step of the way.
9. Gran Torino: Only the second best Clint Eastwood movie of the year. Not that anyone's keeping score.
10. Ashes of Time Redux/As Tears Go By/My Blueberry Nights: Wong Kar-wai times three: a spiffed-up re-release of a seminal early work (Ashes); the long-delayed "official" U.S. release of Wong's debut effort (Tears); and the most recent triumph by the world's greatest living filmmaker (the sumptuously, intoxicatingly romantic Blueberry Nights).
1. Changeling: Clint Eastwood's period thriller, based on a true 1928 California case about the mother of a missing boy who battles corrupt L.A. police, is notable for its old-fashioned virtues: fine acting by a cast headed by Angelina Jolie and a suspenseful story told in a somber tone that is respectful of its sad, brave characters.
2. Religulous: Bill Maher's sardonic anti-religionist documentary, directed by Borat's Larry Charles, may have been a little unfair in focusing on only the most extreme zealots, but it was great, cathartic fun to watch Maher take on the hegemons of religiosity.
3. Man on Wire: A breathtaking documentary by James Marsh about Philippe Petit, the audacious French acrobat who was arrested in 1974 for performing the unimaginable feat of walking on a wire between the newly built World Trade Center Twin Towers. The movie portrays one man's obsession as a thing of beauty.
4. American Teen: Skillfully distilled from more than 1,000 hours of footage, Nanette Burstein's documentary is an absorbing portrait of life among seniors at a small-town Indiana high school. Burstein spent 10 months with the teens, recording their adolescent cruelties, social hierarchies, crushes, dreams, hopes and triumphs.
5. Chicago 10: The animated sequences are awkward, but they don't lessen the excitement of Brett Morgan's documentary about the 1968 "Chicago 8" trial of antiwar activists Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale (Morgan added defense lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who were convicted of contempt). The movie captures the essence of the times: the rage, the absurdist comedy and the radicals' indelible personalities.
6. Frozen River: A somber, deeply felt independent by Courtney Hunt about a tough single mother (Melissa Leo) in upstate New York who gets involved with a Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) in a dangerous scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Canadian border in her car trunk. The film illuminated the desperation of lives lived on the margins and the peculiar cultural conflicts between whites and Native Americans.
7. Tropic Thunder: Ben Stiller's gleefully offensive comedy about a cast of vain Hollywood actors stranded in the jungles of Vietnam made me laugh more than anything else this year - from its fake pre-film trailers to Tom Cruise's manic cameo as the explosive studio boss.
8. Trouble the Water: Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's documentary about the drowning of New Orleans, seen through the eyes and amateur footage of a talented aspiring rap artist and her husband who survive the flood that kills their friends and relatives and then try to rebuild their lives. Emotionally searing, and a testament to faith and hope.
9. Slumdog Millionaire: Bollywood as reinterpreted by Trainspotting auteur Danny Boyle, who tells the episodic story of a young man's improbable rise from the slums of Mumbai to multimillion-rupee winner on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with grit, brutality and outrageous beauty.
10. Milk: Sean Penn is perfectly cast in Gus Van Sant's uneven but worthy portrait of activist Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay city supervisor, who was murdered in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone, by ex-Supervisor Dan White (splendidly played by Josh Brolin). The documentary-style film traces Milk's political rise without much personal insight into Milk, a more colorful man than the script suggests. But its history of the gay rights movement is valuable and timely, especially after the passage of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.