Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reactions to 2009 Oscar Nominations

“Reactions to 2009 Oscar Nominations”

So the Academy Award nominations are now finally out and there were some surprises and even greater disappointments. Here are the comparisons between my predictions and the actual nominations as well as my personal reactions to the latter by category. The titles and/or names that differ between my predictions and the actual nominations are noted in red. For the five that I did not predict: Best Foreign Language Film, Feature Documentary, Documentary Short, Live Action Short Film and Animated Short Film, I have simply listed the actual nominees in the end.


Predicted: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Frost/Nixon; Milk; Slumdog Millionaire.

Actual: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Frost/Nixon; Milk; The Reader; Slumdog Millionaire.

I did not predict the Academy to get past their bias against animated films to nominate the best film of the year, Pixar’s WALL·E but I thought they would at least honor a distinguished summer blockbuster for the first time with The Dark Knight. I was wrong and very disappointed. When is the Academy going to wake up and get over their recurrent condescension towards great summer entertainments? Do they think that movies like Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins and now The Dark Knight are not worthy because they create pyrotechnic fury on top of a strong beating heart and manage to become accessible to mass audiences? Well, I think the low ceremony viewership within the last few years might go even lower because of this unfair snub (except to perhaps watch the tribute to Heath Ledger who is sure to win Supporting Actor).

Passing over that movie, the Academy caved into their inclination towards Holocaust-themed movies and gave a nod to The Reader. The nod may also partly be a sentimental vote for the movie’s late producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella (interestingly, as of now, they are still yet determining the actual people to nominate). Milk and Frost/Nixon, of course, got in as the political issue films, as did the Oscar®-friendly The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the likely frontrunner, Slumdog Millionaire. Seriously though, considering how stellar Pixar movies have been getting lately, I think the Academy should think about explicitly changing this Best Picture to Best Live Action Picture if they are going to continue ignoring animated films for general competition.


Predicted: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire; David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon; Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight; Gus Van Sant, Milk.

Actual: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire; Stephen Daldry, The Reader; David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon; Gus Van Sant, Milk.

The nominated movies are the same as Best Picture here and so my complaints from Best Picture spill over here more or less. Or maybe they are actually a little stronger because Christopher Nolan has had such a consistent track of efficiently directing good to great, small to big films and he really should have gotten recognition for pouring his visionary artistic and commercial sensibilities with The Dark Knight. That is more than you can say for David Fincher who, even though I predicted it, should not be nominated over Nolan for a technically superb but emotionally hollow film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And I guess the Academy really loves nominating Stephen Daldry because he is 3/3 including his past films from Billy Elliot and The Hours. Well, at least it is nice that directors of usually “smaller” gems like Danny Boyle and Gus Van Sant are up there. It would have been really something if, besides Nolan, the Academy had shown some reach to nominate Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler.


Predicted: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor; Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon; Sean Penn, Milk; Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler.

Actual: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor; Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon; Sean Penn, Milk; Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler.

No surprises here, even if I thought Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road should have been nominated over Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sean Penn is deservedly up here, too, again for giving a performance unlike any other he has given, which the Academy always loves. But it is really the work of Richard Jenkins, Frank Langella and, of course, Mickey Rourke that turns this into the underdog category that I will be paying closest attention to.


Predicted: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married; Angelina Jolie, Changeling; Melissa Leo, Frozen River; Meryl Streep, Doubt; Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road.

Actual: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married; Angelina Jolie, Changeling; Melissa Leo, Frozen River; Meryl Streep, Doubt; Kate Winslet, The Reader.

Despite that I still do not like the fact that Anne Hathaway was nominated over Sally Hawkins or Kristin Scott-Thomas (even though I saw it coming as the Academy always tries to boost at least one young actress’ career with a nomination), this is a category for which I am happier with the actual lineup as opposed to my predicted one. Kate Winslet indeed gave a leading performance in The Reader and since the performance she gave in The Reader was more memorable than the one she delivered in Revolutionary Road, I think it has become a more worthwhile race. I am also happy to see Melissa Leo get her nod for her heart-wrenching work in Frozen River while Meryl Streep surpassed her own record with a 15th nod for Doubt. It also looks like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will now finally be able to walk down the red carpet together as fellow nominees this year.

One humorous footnote: There was an episode in the TV series, Extras (starring Ricky Gervais) in which Winslet played herself and was starring in a Holocaust movie within the show because she felt that it was the only way she could finally get the Oscar® she badly wants. I wonder if she will make a reference to that in her speech if she wins.


Predicted: Josh Brolin, Milk; Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt; Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight; Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire.

Actual: Josh Brolin, Milk; Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt; Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight; Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road.

Somehow I feel I should have seen this coming. The supporting categories tend to throw in their curveball by choosing a small, scene-stealing performance and there was no one who fit the bill more than Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road. Well, they had to give that movie at least one acting nomination, right? Anyways, it is nice to see Robert Downey Jr. back for Tropic Thunder and see Josh Brolin finally get his due. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is becoming a regular at the Oscars® but, of course, this category is the late, great Heath Ledger’s to lose.


Predicted: Amy Adams, Doubt; Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Viola Davis, Doubt; Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler; Kate Winslet, The Reader.

Actual: Amy Adams, Doubt; Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Viola Davis, Doubt; Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler;

It looks like Kate Winslet’s appropriate vacating left room open for Taraji P. Henson to sneak in for her surrogate motherly role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It also might leave Penelope Cruz as the front-runner, although I really would like to see the attention shift to some of the other performers who play greater emotional notes. As expected, there are two nominations from Doubt for two performances from Amy Adams and Viola Davis that could not be more different. Marisa Tomei’s role was also crucial to the power and meaning of The Wrestler so it is nice to see the Academy saw that.


Predicted: Dustin Lance Black, Milk; Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Tom McCarthy, The Visitor; Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Jim Reardon, WALL·E; Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler.

Actual: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River; Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky; Martin McDonagh, In Bruges; Dustin Lance Black, Milk; Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Jim Reardon, WALL·E.

This is the category that was most wide open and I did not do so well in predicting. I am a little bummed that the strength of Mickey Rourke’s or Richard Jenkins’ performances has strayed the attention away from how great the screenplays for The Wrestler and The Visitor were to respectively give them such memorable roles. But at least the Academy chose to nominate far worthier nominees than Woody Allen such as first-time writers, Courtney Hunt for Frozen River and Martin McDonagh for In Bruges. Of course, WALL-E­ had to get a nomination here and a screenplay honor almost always goes hand in hand with the Best Picture nod for Milk.


Predicted: Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; John Patrick Shanley, Doubt; Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon; David Hare, The Reader; Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire.

Actual: Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; John Patrick Shanley, Doubt; Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon; David Hare, The Reader; Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire.

No left-field nominations here, although I almost guessed that The Dark Knight might sneak in here, too, but then decided at the last minute they would go for the period novel adaptation, The Reader. Four of the five nominees are also Best Picture nominees so no surprises that they received screenplay nominations, too (although, of course, almost no one expected The Reader to turn up so big). I would have been happy and relieved to be wrong in my prediction of Eric Roth and Robin Swicord getting recognized for their screenplay, which was the core problem with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.


Predicted: Kung Fu Panda; WALL·E; Waltz with Bashir.

Actual: Bolt; Kung Fu Panda; WALL·E.

This year was a particularly good year for animation, although this category would have been even stronger with the inclusion of Waltz with Bashir, which is really a very close second to WALL·E. I should have suspected that they would think the Best Foreign Language category would suffice. In any case, this one has a triple-lock padded door for WALL·E to enter the winner circle and no one else, I would say.


Predicted: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Lee Smith, The Dark Knight; Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill, Frost/Nixon; Elliot Graham, Milk; Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire.

Actual: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Lee Smith, The Dark Knight; Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill, Frost/Nixon; Elliot Graham, Milk; Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire.


Predicted: Mandy Walker, Australia; Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight; Roger Deakins, Revolutionary Road; Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire.

Actual: Tom Stern, Changeling; Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight; Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, The Reader; Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire.


Predicted: Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, The Dark Knight; Danny Elfman, Milk; A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire; Thomas Newman, WALL·E.

Actual: Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, James Newton Howard, Defiance; Danny Elfman, Milk; Thomas Newman, WALL·E; A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire.


Predicted: Miley Cyrus – “I Thought I Lost You,” Bolt; Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Michael Stevens and Kyle Eastwood – “Gran Torino,” A.R. Rahman and Gulzar – “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire; Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman – “Down to Earth,” WALL·E; Gran Torino; Bruce Springsteen – “The Wrestler,” The Wrestler.

Actual: A.R. Rahman and Gulzar – “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire; Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman – “Down to Earth,” WALL·E; A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam – “O Saya,” Slumdog Millionaire.

The Academy only chose three nominees this year and two of them went to Slumdog Millionaire. The third went deservedly to WALL·E for the song, “Down to Earth” but I wonder why they decided to shut out Bruce Springsteen’s title song, “The Wrestler” and Clint Eastwood et al.’s “Gran Torino” though, as both songs were rather crucial to the final effect of the respective movies. Well, maybe they only chose three this time around so as to lower the chance of Miley Cyrus would sneak in.


Predicted: Australia; Changeling; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Duchess; Revolutionary Road;

Actual: Australia; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Duchess; Milk; Revolutionary Road.


Predicted: Changeling; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; The Duchess; Revolutionary Road.

Actual: Changeling, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; The Duchess; Revolutionary Road.


Predicted: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Hellboy II: The Golden Army; The Reader.

Actual: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Hellboy II: The Golden Army.


Predicted: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Iron Man; Slumdog Millionaire; WALL·E.

Actual: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Slumdog Millionaire; WALL·E; Wanted.


Predicted: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Iron Man; Quantum of Solace; WALL·E;

Actual: The Dark Knight; Iron Man; Slumdog Millionaire; WALL·E; Wanted.


Predicted: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Iron Man.

Actual: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Dark Knight; Iron Man.

Actual nominees of categories I did not predict:

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: The Baader-Meinhof Complex; The Class; Departures; Revanche; Waltz with Bashir.

BEST DOCUMENTARY, FEATURES: The Betrayal – Nerakhoon; Encounters at the End of the World; The Garden; Man on Wire; Trouble the Water.

BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECTS: The Conscience of Nhem En; The Final Inch; Smile Pinki; The Witness from the Balcony of Room 386.

BEST SHORT FILM, ANIMATED: La Maison en Petits Cubes; Ubornaya istoriya – lyubovnaya istoriya; Oktapodi; Presto; This Way Up.

BEST SHORT FILM, LIVE ACTION: Auf der Strecke; Manon sur le bitumen; New Boy; Grisen; Spielzeugland.

All in all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button got the most number of nominations at 13 followed by Slumdog Millionaire with 10. The Dark Knight took eight just with the technical nods and Heath Ledger’s for Supporting Actor, which could have meant that the Academy did not want to have two movies vying for the major AND technical categories so they picked the one friendlier to them. Milk is also up for eight nominations, WALL·E received six and Frost/Nixon, The Reader and Doubt each received five.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Predictions for Oscars 2009 Nominations

"Predictions for Oscars 2009 Nominations"

2008 overall had fewer standout American films than a rich year like 2007 and thus did not offer quite as much diversity. As a result, the Oscars® may perhaps be a little easier to predict this time around compared to last year’s. Slumdog Millionaire seems to be the front runner right now for Best Picture and other major categories, perhaps because the Academy might be looking to honor a bit more of a crowd pleaser as opposed to more downbeat or even nihilistic films like the last two year’s Best Picture winners, The Departed and No Country for Old Men. The Dark Knight also seems to have gained just enough momentum from the DGA and PGA nods to secure nominations and become the first comic book movie nominated for Best Picture (and also Director for Christopher Nolan). And having the most popular film of the year as one of the nominees will probably help increase viewership of the ceremony telecast this year compared to recent years.

Another major player will likely be the Oscar-friendly The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which will pick up numerous technical award nominations in addition to Picture and Director for David Fincher (although I think it really deserves only the technical nominations). Then, filling the politically themed movies in the Best Picture category will be Gus Van Sant's Milk and Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon and I am guessing that this year all of the directors of the movies nominated for Best Picture will be identically nominated as well.

The acting categories, however, will probably be more interesting to watch this year than Best Picture or Director. There will, of course, be well-known A-list stars like Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslet (who will likely receive a double nod for Revolutionary Road and The Reader in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, respectively). But there will also be several character actors competing in the lead roles, a couple of others who will make great comeback stories and, of course, a bittersweet one around a late accomplished actor.

The bittersweet one, of course, belongs to Heath Ledger who, at this point, seems to pretty much have a straight shot to winning Best Supporting Actor this year. As for the character actors, look for Richard Jenkins in The Visitor and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon for nominations in the Best Actor category and Melissa Leo in Frozen River in the Best Actress category. Then there is Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler whom everybody seems to be rooting to complete his comeback in the Best Actor category and people should also look for Robert Downey Jr. to earn his first nomination in 16 years for his comedic turn critiquing and lampooning method acting in Tropic Thunder.

So, taking all of that into consideration, here is my complete list of predictions for the nominations in select categories as well as my personal preferences of who I predict will be left out but would like to see mentioned in each category. (Note: As much as I would like to, I am not making predictions for the Best Foreign Language Film and Documentary categories, as I feel I have sadly not seen enough of the films on the Academy Awards short list on either category.)

Best Picture:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

Would like to see:
– It certainly may have a chance at getting a nod but I think the fact that there is the separate Animated Category will likely hinder this, which, considering the increasing quality of Pixar films, may instead be a solid argument to turn the Best Picture category to one strictly as Best Live Action Picture if they do not want to choose animated films.
The Wrestler

Best Director:
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Would like to see:
Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
Andrew Stanton, WALL·E – Yes, people should start recognizing that animated films are directed, too.

Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Would like to see:
Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road

Best Actress in a Leading Role:
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Would like to see:
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Kristin Scott-Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

Would like to see:
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Would like to see:
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married

Best Original Screenplay:
Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Tom McCarthy, The Visitor
Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Jim Reardon, WALL·E
Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler

Would like to see:
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Ari Folman, Waltz with Bashir

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
David Hare, The Reader
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Would like to see:
Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, The Dark Knight
John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In

Best Animated Feature:
Waltz with Bashir
Kung Fu Panda

Best Film Editing:
Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Lee Smith, The Dark Knight
Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill, Frost/Nixon
Elliot Graham, Milk
Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire

Would like to see:
Stephen Schaeffer, WALL·E

Best Cinematography:
Roger Deakins, Revolutionary Road
Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
Mandy Walker, Australia

Best Original Score:
Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Danny Elfman, Milk
James Newton Howard & Hans Zimmer, The Dark Knight
Thomas Newman, WALL·E
A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Original Song:
Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Michael Stevens and Kyle Eastwood – “Gran Torino,” Gran Torino
Thomas Newman and Peter Gabriel –“Down to Earth,” WALL·E
Miley Cyrus – “I Thought I Lost You,” Bolt
A.R. Rahman and Gulzar – “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire
Bruce Springsteen – “The Wrestler,” The Wrestler

Best Costume Design:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road

Best Art Direction:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road

Best Makeup:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The Reader

Best Sound Mixing:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Sound Editing:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace

Best Visual Effects:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2008

“The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2008”

It has been true for quite a number of years now, but more than any other year, the best films of 2008 had the pervasive trend of flying “under the radar.” Contrary to popular opinion, there were actually a good lot of movies to write home about (so many of them foreign films), which is why I compiled more than 10 extra movies as memorable runner-ups in addition to my best 10 list. But how many people have actually seen or even heard about some of them? This is probably not that surprising, as the economic downturn made the American studios even more timid than usual to widely release the cinematic treasures from abroad to the audiences and, in any other year, movies like Let the Right One In and Waltz with Bashir might have had a chance to get more exposure and notice.

And yet, two of the year’s best movies managed to buck that trend from Hollywood by delivering terrific blends of the commercial and the artistic. One was, of course, The Dark Knight, which, upon subsequent viewings, shows its few weaknesses more clearly (namely in the final act where the characterization is not completely credible psychologically) but nevertheless still stands out as a riveting, towering achievement. The other is WALL·E, which used to be the type of movie that stayed “under the radar” in Pixar’s animation studios until they established their name with great family entertainments like the Toy Story movies and Finding Nemo. Many of those previous films were among the best of past years but with a greater leap of creative daring and ambition than before, they created an entertainment that hearkened back to the classic mantra of Walt Disney himself who did not make movies for children, as some assume, but for everyone. It was the summit achievement of the year.

Also, of note, I have not had the chance to fully review all the films that I had seen due to time constraints in the past year and I will try to catch up with them as best as I can in the upcoming months. So, without further ado, here is my list of the best films of 2008:

1. WALL·E – I had said before that the word, “wondrous” was created for movies like this one and now that I have watched it again with the sound off, that has become even truer. Not that the sound effects are not just as stellar as well but the first third in particular is simply a masterpiece of pure visual storytelling. Beyond the subtly effective environmental message and social commentary, you can simply look at the picture in this film by Andrew Stanton (who also directed Finding Nemo) and follow the awe of curiosity that the adorable robot, WALL·E possesses in his eyes with the joy of re-watching silent comedy. Then, there is the love story between him and the female robot, EVE, which generates far more honest emotions than any other human romance with just a series of electronic purrs (although, again, the visual details are enough to express everything needed). Did I also mention that it is just a great science fiction story? Indeed, no other film throughout the year, animated or live-action, offered more versatile riches than this one.

2. Silent Light – A true one-of-a-kind masterwork if you are willing to meet it halfway. Set in the Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico, this immersive and languidly paced film recalls the best work of Carl Theodor Dreyer. It is a movie that requires patience with dialogue almost as sparse as WALL·E and its unhurried storytelling of a family man who faces a crisis of faith as he falls in love with another woman. Like Dreyer’s silent film classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet, the rewards are literally that of a miraculous leap, as it embodies and gives us emotional access to understand the values and beliefs of the community. In doing so, like any great film, it immerses us completely in another world with rare and resolute confidence. A great jump up for the Mexican artist turned filmmaker, Carlos Reygadas. This movie was originally actually released in Mexico back in late 2007 but I am including it this year, as I did not see it in time before picking that year’s list of the best movies. It is now finally playing in select theaters across the US this January.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Another movie that is technically a 2007 release (it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year) but gained a stateside release in early 2008. If WALL·E and Silent Light immersed us in new worlds that we hardly knew about, this one directed by Cristian Mungju redefined the aesthetic of realism. With the pure filmmaking prowess of composing and shooting just one shot per scene, the movie paints an unforgettable, unsparing look at the severe cruelty women faced in the dictatorial Romanian regime and the difficult, moral debate and reality of abortion. It also has two of the most naturalistic performances in a long time in Anamaria Marinca as the brave, resourceful Otilia and Laura Vasiliu as the ungrateful best friend, Gabita, who makes Otilia go through every kind of suffering in arranging the backdoor abortion other than actually carrying the baby herself.

4. Let the Right One In – Offering a refreshing, original take on the vampire legend (based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist who also wrote the screenplay), this movie from Sweden is the one that, if there was justice in the world, would have grossed ten or even twenty times more money than the terribly mediocre and watered-down vampire flick, Twilight did. Combining the moody introspections of Nosferatu with the grim harshness of childhood cruelty, this grave yet surprisingly warm-hearted tale presents a most empathetic and captivating friendship between a troubled 12-year old boy and a 12-year old girl vampire (played without a hint of artifice by Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson) who form a strong bond together beyond their natures because of need, loneliness and desperation. This is also one of the most visually stunning works of the year, as director, Tomas Alfredson uses the key color of red to not only make the violence bleaker and more subtly unsettling but also to enhance the emotions the two characters feel in their growing bond.

5. Waltz with Bashir – A movie that uses animation to expand the possibilities of the documentary genre, Ari Folman’s self-critical account of the Israeli involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War makes an even more hallucinogenic companion piece to the great Apocalypse Now. The animated medium plays with and stretches perspective and accurately reflects the psychological concept of selective memory in wartime. Then, after the interviewees’ memory dances around the central tragedy in the film, the final two-minute archival footage of the real-life massacre is like a cold reality slap to the face. Alongside WALL·E, which could not be more different than this movie, as well as other lighter but skillful films such as Kung Fu Panda, this year was a truly remarkable one for the animated field.

6. Flight of the Red Balloon – Now this is the way to honor a classic. The director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien does not stop at paying homage to Albert Lamorisse's children’s classic, The Red Balloon but also makes a simultaneously light yet truly larger portrait of youth, theatrical artistry and how we utilize film and photography as our limited tools to “freeze” time and take snapshots like visual time capsules. Yet another film that has a leisurely pace and rhythm but it touches straight for the gentle, peaceful side in all of us. And still the red balloon metaphorically “watches” through the busy hustle of life to remind us that we need to step back from some of its pretenses.

7. The Dark Knight – The most popular movie of the year and it was a worthy one. The director, Christopher Nolan surprised everybody with his 2005 reboot, Batman Begins but it turned out to be a warm-up compared to this great sequel that expands on the comic book movie genre in character, philosophy and sheer epic scope. That is in no small part due to the late, great Heath Ledger’s wholly distinct and scary interpretation of The Joker, which leaves the audiences with sadness at the loss of a great actor, much like James Dean half a century ago. His character’s new breed of villainy challenges the will of the good in Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon and D.A. Harvey Dent, as they are forced to make complex moral choices and deal with the inexorable consequences of tragedy. The terrific, more improved action sequences shot on IMAX, namely with the Batpod, of course, provide some nice, extra icing on the cake.

8. The Wrestler – Featuring the performance of the year and the greatest comeback story from Mickey Rourke, Darren Aronofsky’s film unflinchingly and poignantly shows the duality of the wrestling sport between play-acting and brutality, fame and the injurious price for it. The story also has an important counterpoint in Marisa Tomei’s character who is a stripper, which provides a savage commentary on how both the professions of wrestling and pole dancing involve selling one’s own body as a product targeted towards the juvenile nature of men (whether physical violence or sex). The real-life baggage that surrounds Rourke no doubt helps in completely blurring the line between actor and character but the sublime nature of his acting is what really surprises and engages us.

9. The Visitor – This year also turned out to be a really shining one for great character actors getting their shots at lead roles and, along with Melissa Leo’s great work in Frozen River, Richard Jenkins (who should really score an Oscar® nomination) got to hold the screen like a vice for a whole movie as a buttoned-down college professor whose life and generosity are opened up when he meets a couple of illegal immigrants who change his world in ways he did not expect. It is no huge surprise that the director, Thomas McCarthy is also a character actor and, with 2003's The Station Agent (in which he gave Peter Dinklage his first leading role) and now this one, he is proving to become a real master of telling believable, humanistic stories in the lowest and subtlest key. With its international cast including accomplished Israeli-Arab actress, Hiam Abbass, this is one of the rare gems (and the second one by McCarthy alone) that wisely chooses valuable talent and heart over star power. A movie that brings some humanity to a serious political issue.

10. Slumdog Millionaire – The “crowd-pleasing” movie of the year, as it is labeled by ads and most audiences, although the best quality of the film is director Danny Boyle’s refusal to shy away from the drab conditions of the slums of India in the first half so that the underdog or "slumdog" story of Jamal (played wonderfully by Dev Patel) really means something. Boyle’s trademark, speedy visual flair is put to great use in seamlessly combining the Indian culture with a classically entertaining and romantic story in the tradition of Charles Dickens. Because of that and the dazzling cinematography, more people will discover the little known Indian culture, perhaps for the first time.

Runners-up (in alphabetical order):

· The Chaser – An uncommonly effective Korean thriller that builds suspense and an angry social attack on its own police system while breaking practically every rule in the genre book. Also containing a remarkable performance from Kim Yoon-seok that breathes new meaning to the word, “doggedness,” the movie has yet to get a release in the US and the rights have been bought for a remake but I hope this original work gets a release for the audiences to discover first.

· A Christmas Tale – An engaging story of a Christmas family reunion fraught with troubled histories but one that is at turns honestly heartwarming and unpredictably facetious in its examination of the problems of mental illness, disease and dysfunction thanks in great part to the performance of veteran actress Catherine Deneuve that exudes an amazingly calm presence despite her character suffering from cancer.

· Doubt – John Patrick Shanley successfully adapts his own play that provocatively mauls over its titular concept. All the actors, Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are exceptionally well-cast to bring to life a philosophical and spiritual morality tale of rare complexity.

· Encounters at the End of the World – Werner Herzog journeys to Antarctica in this documentary to offer his own eccentric perspective on the extremes of nature. His poetically oddball, flatly ironic curiosity to explore peculiar environments (which always ends up becoming a perfect fit), his observations in his narration provide unique perspective and enthrallment on an already unique environment.

· Frozen River – With an organically searing performance from the always dependable character actress, Melissa Leo, this heartbreaking drama from Courtney Hunt is a timely and stark examination of how economic desperation forces two mothers (one played by Leo and the other also played confidently by Misty Upham) to cooperate in the illegal smuggling of aliens across the U.S.-Canadian border.

· Happy-Go-Lucky – British filmmaker, Mike Leigh’s movies always combine keen observation of social class with the spontaneity of everyday life and his latest turned his perceptiveness into the concept of bubbly happiness. The film is not a “feel-good” movie in the conventional sense but a deeper, more reassuring one in how even the most good-natured, upbeat person like Poppy (played with such infectious joy and zest by Sally Hawkins) may not be able to make everyone around her happy but can learn to take comfort in how she does not necessarily have to.

· In Bruges – The kind of black comedy and thriller mix that only the British and Irish can pull off so effortlessly. Playwright turned filmmaker, Martin McDonagh (who won an Oscar® for his short, Six Shooter) starts his movie as a politically incorrect buddy-travel comedy between Colin Farrell’s hothead assassin and Brendan Gleeson’s more soulful hit man and gradually sneaks up and builds a more serious, philosophical core around the concept of Catholic guilt.

· Iron Man – A more traditional superhero movie compared to The Dark Knight but one revivified by the light-footed performance from Robert Downey, Jr. His work here, along with his role in Tropic Thunder, made the other memorable comeback story (alongside Rourke’s) and Jon Favreau used it as the bedrock to surround his film with pointed Catch-22-style satire, impressive but never overbearing visual effects and a nice romantic chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow.

· I’ve Loved You So Long – A true showcase for British actress, Kristin Scott Thomas who delivers the performance of her career in a foreign language (which is certainly worthy of an Oscar® nomination though I fear not enough people will have seen it). Playing a woman coming back home to re-adjust to family life after being apart from them for 15 years, this French film is even better than the similarly themed and decent Rachel Getting Married because it relies on greater silences and pools of reserve.

· Man on Wire – A documentary constructed like a nail-biter, this true account of Phillippe Petit’s wire act atop the World Trade Center fills us with marvel at his daring. The view of the buildings may sadden some but this film invites the audience to serenely recollect the buildings’ majestic qualities through what is called the “artistic crime of the century.”

· Revolutionary Road – Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet re-unite for Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel that peers through the empty conformist culture of 1950s suburbia. Their chemistry is much more abrasive this time than in Titanic and there is no happy ending to be had, but the movie serves as a powerful, cautionary warning on how a marriage should not be founded only on the whims of the idealistic romance that we easily fall for in other movies.

· Tell No One – One of the most engrossing “puzzle” movies in some time, Guillaume Canet’s adaptation of the American crime novel by Harlan Coben lays out its labyrinthine plot with razor-sharp logical sense and precision. The flipside of the Korean thriller, The Chaser (which lays out all its clues in plain sight and just builds on mood and frustration to create suspense) but it is no less accomplished in keeping a tight rein on its complex story.

There were additionally some nice surprises: Cloverfield, Definitely, Maybe, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (as I have not been the biggest fan of the Apatow school of comedy), JCVD (with none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme delivering a real, full-blooded performance for the first time in a self-parodying role), Taken (a cool action thriller starring Liam Neeson that will be released in the US on January 30) and Tropic Thunder.

Then there were the year's most disappointing movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (please stop turning to George Lucas for any more creative direction), Quantum of Solace, Righteous Kill, Blindness, Get Smart, Doomsday, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The worst movies of the year (in order of putridity): Rambo (a most hypocritically and sanctimoniously sadistic film and the sight of people cheering on the violence here really disturbs me), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, 10,000 B.C., The Love Guru, Fly Me to the Moon, 88 Minutes, The House Bunny, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (again, stop Lucas!), What Happens in Vegas, and Eagle Eye.

And finally, the cinematic carnage that is not even worthy of being labeled a movie: The Hottie & the Nottie.