As Gloucester noted in King Lear, "We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves." Accordingly, the best of the films I've viewed in 2008 often dealt with the vilest aspects of humanity and how a few brave souls strived to comprehend and possibly survive these man-made obstacles to a happy existence.
Lance Hammer's feature debut is a brilliant trek into the Mississippi Delta, where three impoverished souls -- both financially and spiritually -- are able to rebuild their lives when reluctantly thrown together by a suicide.
With a title that clearly is not viewer friendly, this delicious look at David Frost's infamous interview with Richard Nixon turns out to be one of the most entertaining films of the year thanks to Ron Howard's tight direction, Peter Morgan's witty screenplay, and the solid performances of Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, and Sam Rockwell. Tricky Dicky's fearful fascination with Italian shoes is worth the price of admission.
Artist Steve McQueen turns to celluloid for his latest medium, and the result is an instant, gut-wrenching, political classic. Detailing the final six weeks of the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, along with his fellow members of the IRA, this brutal paean to those who will die for their beliefs is an unforgettable experience.
4. 4 Month, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Cristian Mungiu's letter-perfect movie follows two Bucharest-based university roommates, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), as they arrange for an abortion while living under a regime where that very act is outlawed. An astounding tour-de-force.
It's hard not get teary eyed over Gus Van Sant's valentine to Saint Harvey and to gays and lesbians throughout the land. Of course, you don't have to be queer to appreciate this bio-pic about a man with balls who fights to overturn America's deepest prejudice. Uptight straight boys can just squint their eyes and imagine this as an RKO western with the good guy (Sean Penn) having a rather bloody shootout with the bad guy (Josh Brolin) on the wild, wild plains of the Castro.
6. Slumdog Millionaire
Having caught Danny Boyle's human-rights thriller on the very same day Mumbai was attacked only added to the seesawing effect of bliss and horror this surprise box-office hit elicits. Plot: poor, young Jamal wins top prize on the Regis-Philbin-free, Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal's journey to the show and the aftermath he confronts makes for one of modern cinema's most heart-wrenching love stories. (Warning: Stay for the end credits.)
7. Standard Operating Procedure
Does anyone still remember Abu Ghraib? Americans torturing and sexually abusing innocent Iraqis certainly fell out of the collective memory during the 2008 election. Don't blame Errol Morris, whose detailed documentary re-ignites the horrors of the atrocities thanks to the shocking confessions he garnered from the soldiers who posed for snapshots of their government "sanctioned" activities.
In Jerusalem, when a father disappears from his automobile after a minor car accident, two boys must contend with how their clashing secular mother and Orthodox Jewish grandfather contend with the loss and its accompanying mystery. Raphael Nadjari's minimalist journey through love and prayer is mesmerizing.
9. The Wrecking Crew
The happiest film of 2008 is Denny Tedesco's tuneful documentary. This sing-along, joyful pic unearths a group of studio musicians who actually played all the music on LPs by The Byrds, Cher, Nancy and Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, and Captain and Tennille. A must to see and listen to.
10. Waltz with Bashir
Like last year's Persepolis, Waltz is an astonishing visual work of art while having the content of a first-rate documentary. Helmer Ari Folman, utilizing surreal and Freudian imagery, illustrates the angst-ridden memories of Israeli soldiers who fought in Lebanon and who now are trying comprehend their battle experiences. One of the great anti-war films. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.