Ten reasons to appreciate film in 2008

Ben Raymond

Compiling a Top-10 list is many things for film critics. Having endured Will Ferrell, half-baked graphic novel adaptations and “Twilight,” we relish the opportunity to celebrate the year’s best in decalogue.

2008 was a year for the underdog: the quiz kid from the slums, the Swedish horror flick, the insolent Oregonian indy-filmer.

With the Oscars just over a week away, it’s time for this Villanovan film critic to roll out his top 10 for 2008.

10. “Hunger”

First-time director Steve McQueen won the Caméra D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his visceral, painstakingly intimate lensing of “Hunger,” the unflinching portrait of the final months of imprisoned IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands.

McQueen bravely captures the agony, the silence and the sweaty and sanguine rot of Sands’ harrowing 66-day suicide. His direction, augmented by astounding photography from Sean Bobbitt, makes “Hunger” one of the best, albeit most hidden, offerings of last year.

9. “Doubt”

John Patrick Shanley adapts and directs the screen adaptation of his thematically luxuriant stage play about a Catholic priest suspected of molesting a student and the defiant nun determined to bring him down.

The patent piss-and-vinegar turn from Meryl Streep and the always impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman have made all the headlines (not undeservedly), but the film’s finest performance comes from Amy Adams, whose endearing and embattled portrayal highlights the already stellar ensemble.

8. “Wendy and Lucy”

Michelle Williams’ eviscerating performance in Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” ranks among the greatest in this or any decade.

Disappearing into the heartbreak of her doleful character, Williams establishes herself as one of the most capable actors in film today.

A lasting meditation on the selflessness inherent in the human condition, “Wendy and Lucy” is a harrowing yet redemptive modern drama, a lacerating portrait of internal dystopia and a testament to the immeasurable value of independent cinema.

7. “Let the Right One In”

As outlandish as it sounds, Sweden’s “Let the Right One In,” a filmic bildungsroman about a bullied young boy befriended by a girl-vampire living next door, is one of the most affecting screen romances in recent memory.

Always endearing and inexplicably believable, there is an inviting authenticity to Oskar and Eli’s improbable kinship.

Expertly directed and photographed, the hushed and baleful “Let the Right One In” delivers all the thrills of any well-crafted horror film, but with atenderness and poignancy otherwise unachieved by the genre.

6. “Milk”

Chronicling the remarkable life of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly homosexual public official, Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” is a rousing portrait of one of the country’s foremost civil rights leaders.

Sean Penn steps beyond mere caricature of his subject to deliver an energized, soulful performance.

Released only weeks after the catastrophic passing of Proposition 8, the film has become almost painfully relevant.

“Milk” is that rare marriage of politics and art which inspires both the spirit and the compassion of the viewer.

5. “The Wrestler”

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” is filmmaking at its rawest – a ballsy, brass-knuckles picture with the capacity to caress or torment the heart on a whim.

Mickey Rourke plays the titular anti-hero, an aging, down-on-his-luck wrestler who is forced to weigh his last chance at a comeback against a newfound love, a final chance with estranged daughter and his very survival.

A few years ago Rourke sat on the Hollywood scrapheap of typecast misfits and wannabe has-beens. Now, he could be looking at an Oscar.

“The Wrestler” is a scourging, emotionally barbaric picture which cements its place among contemporary greats due in large part to Rourke’s harrowing performance.

4. “The Dark Knight”

“How about a magic trick?” Christopher Nolan does just that, conjuring up “The Dark Knight,” a haunted and brooding picture.

Among its many achievements, Heath Ledger’s now-iconic turn is certainly at the apex. He is, in a word, unrecognizable – a spectral, utterly possessed performance forever stitched in memory.

“TDK” looked like a safe bet for an Oscar nod: a powerhouse ensemble, accomplished director, a No. 2 ranking among critics and $532 million at the box office. What does the Academy do? It passes.

The reasons for this are many, but none of them exonerating.

No matter how frustrating the snub from the Academy, nothing stands in the way of “The Dark Knight” taking its rightful place in cinema history. Nothing.

3. “WALL-E”

“WALL-E” was the highest-rated film of 2008 among critics nationally. Pixar’s delightful, superbly fun picture about robots in love is indeed one of the top films of the year.

Writer/director Andrew Stanton and his fellow wizards at Pixar demonstrate with “WALL-E” that animated films are more than capable of becoming some of the year’s best films of any kind. Period.

2. “Slumdog Millionaire”

Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” has swept nearly every award this winter. From the Golden Globe to the DGA, from the BAFTA to the SAG and the PGA, everyone is screaming for the little feel-good film that could.

And it deserves each and every accolade – an expertly-crafted, all-around brilliant picture with a nearly universal appeal.

Once poised for a straight-to-DVD release, “Slumdog Millionaire” now stands but a fortnight from Oscar. Now that, my friends, is an underdog story.

Impeccable cinematography, electric direction and a raucous, life-affirming tale of fate and redemption make “Slumdog Millionaire” a genuine triumph.

1. “Rachel Getting Married”

“Rachel Getting Married” is devastating. There’s no other word for it. Devastating in its tragedy, devastating in its humanity, devastating in its quality as a work of art.

Fresh out of rehab, Kym (Anne Hathaway) travels home for the wedding of her older sister Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) only to find the same animosity, isolation and impassioned guilt resisting her attempts to make peace with her family and herself.

Bolstered by the audacious performances of Hathaway and DeWitt and a fearless, pitch-perfect screenplay from Jenny Lumet, “Rachel Getting Married” is a sharp, brutally human story of internal suffering and redemption-among the most earnest filmic portraits I ever remember experiencing.

“Rachel Getting Married” is a ferocious, deeply personal film and my unlikely selection for the best picture.