Top 10 Movies of 2008

May I have the envelope please …

I must have the opposite of Asperger’s syndrome: I’m allergic to hierarchies, lists, and ranking. But like a hippie schoolteacher when report-card time rolls around, I have to haul out the red pen and mark the ledger this time of year—and if nothing else, it’s an opportunity to kvell over the accomplishments of a few beloved pupils.

So, unranked and in alphabetical order, here are 10 of this year’s best:

A Christmas Tale: Arnaud Desplechin makes films about intellectuals that thrum with emotional (and cinematic) life. The story of a matriarch with a rare blood disease (Catherine Deneuve) seeking a transfusion from one of her three angry, resentful grown children (the craziest of whom is played by Mathieu Amalric), A Christmas Tale is a glorious feast of a movie, with the bitter served right next to the sweet.

The Class:I said it all last week, but here’s a recap: See this whip-smart vérité film about a Parisian teacher and his multiracial high-school class only if you happen to be interested in love, loyalty, race, class, language, or life.

The Edge of Heaven:Director Fatih Akin, a German of Turkish descent, made this little-seen movie that’s everything Crash and Babel should have been. Yes, it’s an interlocking series of stories about globalization and its discontents, but this time, the characters are beautifully realized individuals, not symbolic pegs on an international game board. A little poky getting going, but give this movie an hour, and it will give you the world.

Encounters at the End of the World:Though it lacks the conceptual purity of his masterpiece Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s account of his visit to the McMurdo research station at the South Pole is an invaluable tour of one of the weirdest spots on earth, as seen through the eyes of our weirdest and wisest documentary filmmaker. 

Frozen River:The astonishingly mature debut film of directorCourtney Hunt is as uncompromising as the work of those Belgian masters of social realism, the Dardenne brothers. Yet Hunt’s subject matter—the straitened circumstances that compel two very dissimilar women to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Canadian border—is uniquely, and bleakly, American.

Man on Wire:One morning in 1974, Philippe Petit, a French acrobat, walked a tightrope strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center. The stunt was simple and yet breathtaking—just like this documentary from British director James Marsh. 

Milk:Many of the films we think of as landmark depictions of gay life (Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain) suffer from a deficiency of joy. Gus Van Sant takes care of that in the giddy first 10 minutes of his sexy, buoyant biopic of slain activist Harvey Milk—and then goes on to break our hearts.

Wall-E:In this postapocalyptic Pixar fable, a battered VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! is the only thing that sustains the titular robot through centuries of loneliness as the sole sentient being on Earth. If Al Gore’s nightmares do come true and you find yourself alone on the planet, your best bet for keeping hope alive may be a battered DVD of Wall-E. 

Wendy and Lucy: The year’s most haunting soundtrack may be the six-bar theme (composed by Will Oldham) that Michelle Williams hums throughout this quiet marvel of a film from director Kelly Reichardt. A transient young woman in the Pacific Northwest loses her dog: It sounds like a skimpy premise to hang a movie on, but then, you could say the same thing about Bicycle Thieves.

The Wrestler: It seems to have become de rigueur, when talking about Darren Aronofsky’s latest, to praise Mickey Rourke’s performance while expressing grave doubts about the movie as a whole. I intend to do nothing of the kind: I loved it all, from Marisa Tomei’s sad-eyed pole dances to the bit parts played by nonprofessional actors to the graceful handheld camerawork by Maryse Alberti. Go ahead and try to make me say something bad about The Wrestler. But be warned: I have a stapler, and I will use it.