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2008 was a banner year for movies , as filmakers shelved their usual cynicism in favor of intelligent optimism , and moviegoers were the ultimate winners

December 26, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

Taken in its totality, 2008 was a very good year for movies - and not just because it boasted more excellent films than could be contained on a 10-best list. When movie columnists and media pundits weren't looking, there was a surprising mood-shift on the part of many of the best Anglo-American filmmakers. Undiluted despair was out. Intelligent optimism was in.

David Fincher, the man who gave us Se7en and Panic Room, achieved a state of bittersweet exultation in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Although it became chic to regard Pixar's WALL-E as a dystopian screed in goofy computer-animated clothing, it was actually a testament of faith that the same technology that numbs us can ultimately save us.

Danny Boyle, who broke into the top ranks with Trainspotting, pulled off the best kind of rags-to-riches story in Slumdog Millionaire: The ragamuffin hero found riches because of what he learned from hard experience - and the riches were emotional and spiritual as well as material.

The great British filmmaker Mike Leigh, who last directed a film about a hyper-verbal character with the bleak Naked, made a comedy called Happy-Go-Lucky - and it really was happy-go-lucky in its portrait of a woman holding on to her openhearted embrace of life without ignoring reality.

Cynicism can be invigorating to moviemakers, but not in a steady diet. This year's best movies showed how healthy aesthetic diversity can be.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: At its core churns a wonderful Jack London-esque adventure story about a young man shipping out to see the world. On either end of his journey, the director, David Fincher, the writer, Eric Roth, and the star, Brad Pitt, turn a slender F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a fellow born old who ages backward into a stirring tale of innocence, experience and life lived to the hilt (if the wrong way around). It's a thrilling, funny, at times heart-rending fusion of authentic feeling and movie magic. Pitt turns a character who could have been a blank sheet into a panoramic mirror of emotion, and Cate Blanchett, as his true love, is enchanting - a sylphlike muse for Button, the filmmakers and the audience.


WALL-E: Despite its nightmare vision of an Earth overrun with trash and humans grown ovine and ovoid, Andrew Stanton's sci-fi adventure is a lilting daydream of a movie. He and his collaborators at Pixar breathe the spirit of Charlie Chaplin into a squat trash-compacting robot. The result is comic poetry - and one "green" movie that is evergreen in spirit. WALL-E and his beautiful oval robot lover, EVE, help humans rediscover the beauty of real land, real growth and real moviemaking.


Slumdog Millionaire: Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy follow a Mumbai slum urchin who pours everything he's learned on the streets into winning the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? This film puts to shame the fleeting sensations of reality TV. It uses a structure based on the game show's escalating rounds of questioning to open up the volatile world of the Indian underclass. In the process, it conjures a dynamic parable about the power of romantic constancy and the ability of every man to plot his own destiny.


Happy-Go-Lucky: In an era when close-to-the-ground public servants have often been made figures of mockery, no director has done more to celebrate their selflessness than Mike Leigh. In this film he and his star, Sally Hawkins, create a portrait of a primary school teacher who expresses all the creativity, joy and observation needed to stimulate young lives - and to keep up the high spirits and open-ended outlook of a woman who runs on audacity and hope.


The Edge of Heaven: For me, the jigsaw-puzzle, time-hopping storytelling of movies from Pulp Fiction to 21 Grams fulfilled itself at last in director Fatih Akin's splendid film about the eternal pull of family. Akin sets a tale of mothers and daughters, a father and a son against contemporary turmoil in Turkey and Germany. It's about the spaces people need to travel, and to live in, to find out what they want and who they are.


What Just Happened: Barry Levinson created the year's best American comedy with this tale of a Hollywood producer (Robert De Niro) struggling to get one movie in shape for Cannes despite a temperamental, way-out director (Michael Wincott); to roll the cameras on another film despite the insistence of its leading man (Bruce Willis) on wearing a Mosaic beard; and to win back his most-loved ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) despite their enrollment in divorce therapy. Although pegged unfairly as an "insider" movie, it's actually about the fractured and distracted way many of us live. And it features De Niro's subtlest and funniest acting since he appeared in Levinson's Wag the Dog (1997).


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