Ten best films: Biopics and classroom acts score high

The Monitor's critic sorts through what he sat through this year.

courtesy of martin Spelda/Sony Pictures Classics
Ambition: Hotel staff gets it straight in 'I Served the King of England,' a Czech tragicomedy that stars Ivan Barnev (at left).
simon mein/miramax films/ap
'Happy-go-lucky': Sally Hawkins plays a resilient schoolteacher in this melancholy comedy from director Mike Leigh.

More than 600 movies opened in theaters in 2008, of which your faithful critic saw about 300. Thank you very much. Among those I did not see: "The Hottie & the Nottie," "Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie," and "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead." Believe me, I saw plenty just as bad.

As usual, patterns prevailed. The early part of the year was a dumping ground for third-rate rejects. Summertime was Superhero Central. The fall/winter season remains ground zero for Oscar bait.

Although Iraq-themed dramas and documentaries – among them "Stop-Loss" and "Standard Operating Procedure" – continued their slog through the mostly unattended multiplexes, it was the Holocaust that, more than any other historical catastrophe, got the prestige-picture treatment this year from Hollywood. Within the space of three months we've had "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Adam Resurrected," "The Reader," and, coming soon nationwide, "Good," "Valkyrie," and "Defiance." Why the pileup? Maybe filmmakers and audiences find it easier to confront the moral issues of wartime guilt and survival in a context that is not contemporaneous.

There were also more biopics than usual, many of them focusing on politicians and historical figures, and most of them hagiographic. "Milk," despite dazzling work from Sean Penn and Josh Brolin, was mostly agitprop posturing. Even more so was Steven Soderbergh's four-hour-and-20-minute "Che," a movie that came equipped with its own halo. "Frost/Nixon," thanks to Frank Langella's practiced hamminess, transformed Tricky Dick into Not-Such-A-Bad-Guy Dick. In Oliver Stone's "W." – heavy on the Oedipus complex – Josh Brolin's Dubya was jockish and heartfelt – a wronged son vainly trying to impress his impossibly demanding dad.

Even Russia got into the revisionist biopic spirit: The epic "Mongol" gave us a Genghis Khan, humane and principled, that most of us never read about in the history books. Despite in actual fact having a score of wives, the movie's Khan opts for a single true love. What a guy. Next up: "Sex and the City and the Steppes."

Most of the big movie franchises were ill-served. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was about as exciting as a cash register. In the thuggish, sluggish "Quantum of Solace," Mr. Bond seems to have been taken over, pod-person-style, by Mr. Bourne. And don't even ask me about "Star Wars: The Clone Wars."

Good family-entertainment movies were in relatively short supply. I loved the first half-hour of "Wall-E," before it shucked its neo-Chaplinesque whimsy and turned into a discombobulated eco-fantasia. A nice surprise was "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," which just goes to show that you can't judge a film by its pedigree – in this case, a marketing empire of books and dolls and whatnot that could give even Hannah Montana the willies.

Documentaries (see picks in Top 10 list below) remained some of the best reasons to go to the movies this year. Since non-fiction filmmakers, usually for low pay and few financial rewards, often make movies about subjects they feel impassioned about, it's a safe bet their movies will be more interesting than the usual bloated studio concoctions.

In 2008 we welcomed back two of our most incendiary actors. I'm no fan of the hokey, derivative "The Wrestler" – along with "Slumdog Millionaire," it's the most overrated movie out there – but it's terrific having Mickey Rourke in a lead role for a change. I'm not real big on "Rachel Getting Married" either, but Debra Winger is amazing in a supporting role that one hopes will be a prelude to bigger things once again.

Enough carping. This is the time when it behooves critics to put on their party hats and boost the good over the bad. So let the superlatives begin! In alphabetical order, here's my list of the 10 best movies, plus an addendum of worthy runners-up. In some cases, the films have not yet been reviewed by me and will open nationwide in 2009.

'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas'

A Jewish boy in a concentration camp is befriended by a German boy whose father (played by David Thewlis) runs the camp. Devastatingly simple and, in the end, emotionally wrenching beyond measure. Written and directed by Mark Herman, from the novel by John Boyne.

'The Class'

The great French director Laurent Cantet's invigorating examination of a year in a multiracial Parisian junior high school in a tough neighborhood. Worked up through improvisations with the nonprofessional cast and real-life schoolteacher François Bégaudeau, it's one of the rare movies to really nail the classroom experience.

'The Dark Knight'

It's dark all right, and overlong, but director Christopher Nolan's epic is such an operatically sinister piece of work that at times it's as if Richard Wagner and Hieronymus Bosch coalesced.

'Encounters at the End of the World'

Werner Herzog's documentary about the Antarctic brings you up close to creatures (human and otherwise) both above ice and below. No matter where his camera takes him, Herzog's way of seeing – intensely lyrical and ineffably creepy – is always his own.


Mike Leigh's melancholy comedy, one of his best, stars the marvelous Sally Hawkins as an irrepressibly vital London elementary school teacher who refuses, against all odds, to be brought down by life.

'I Served the King of England'

This one-of-a-kind tragicomedy from the Czech Republic's Jirí Menzel chronicles the quicksilver fortunes of a blithely ambitious young man, wonderfully played by Ivan Barnev, as he endures the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.

'Man on Wire'

Philippe Petit's famed 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center is the centerpiece for James Marsh's extraordinary documentary meditation on a bygone era and the strangeness of heroism.

'Still Life'

Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke is probably the finest talent to emerge on the world scene in recent years, and this film about two people seeking out lost loves in a ruined city is his best.

'Waltz With Bashir'

In this animated documentary, Israeli writer-director Ari Folman, who was a 19-year-old soldier in the 1982 war in Lebanon, goes back over the events leading up to the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A harrowing personal odyssey that, finally and unforgettably, breaks into actual footage of the devastation.

'Wendy and Lucy'

Kelly Reichardt's road picture about a vagabond and her dog making their way to Alaska may not sound like much in the telling. Don't be fooled: It's one of the most quietly resonant movies of the year, with a performance by Michelle Williams that is, like the film itself, a model of grace and economy.

Other films, among many, that I liked: "Mongol," "Hunger," Gomorra," "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," "What Just Happened?" and "Trouble the Water."

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