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Dan Webster’s 10 best film moments of 2008

Top 10 lists are, by definition, subjective exercises. Yet in some years, when it comes to movies at least, there’s usually some sort of collective agreement on what deserves to be classified as the very best. In 2007, for example, few film fans would have argued against the inclusion of the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” or Joe Wright’s “Atonement.” Not so for 2008. This past year has critics falling all over themselves to list movies that many of us have never heard of, much less had the chance to see.

Sorry, but there’s just no way such films as the Swedish production “Låt den rätte komma in” or the Italian-made “Buck ai confini del cielo” are going to play locally unless they come to, say, the Spokane International Film Festival

Oh, 2008 did feature stories that most of us are familiar with. Who didn’t hear of Heath Ledger’s passing (on Jan. 22) and the presumed effect that sad event had on the box-office performance of “The Dark Knight”?

Same with the success that “The Dark Knight” and other superhero flicks – “Iron Man,” for example, and “Hancock” – enjoyed with mainstream audiences. Taken together, the trio grossed more than $1 billion.

Then there was the revival of the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg “Indiana Jones” franchise, and the cougarmania inspired by the big-screen adaptation of HBO’s “Sex and the City” and the “Mamma Mia!” juggernaut.

On the local level, we witnessed the filming of Wayne Wang’s poignant “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” plus the success of SpIFF’s 10th-annual event, contrasted with the ongoing problems involving the on-again/off-again Magic Lantern Theater.

Add in the death of Paul Newman, a troublesome writer’s strike and the ever-growing popularity of animated movies (four of the 10 top-grossing films were animated) and you have what passes for 2008 in film.

What, though, deserves to be classified as the year’s best? Well, first of all you have to establish criteria.

For one, we can’t list any of the top films from 2007 that didn’t play in Spokane until early 2008 – among others, “There Will Be Blood,” “Juno” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

For another, we have to eliminate those likely candidates from 2008 that have yet to play here – including Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” Darren Aranofsky’s “The Wrestler,” “Waltz with Bashir, “Revolutionary Road,” “Defiance,” the Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The Class” and, until today, the Holocaust study “The Reader.”

And even though they didn’t play here until 2008, we shouldn’t include such worthy SpIFF presentations as “Manda Bala,” “Songs from the Second Floor” and “El Violin” because they were released pre-2007.

Finally, there are those films that played in Spokane but we simply – maybe because they played here for seemingly five minutes – didn’t get around to seeing. These include “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “U2 3D.”

All of which leaves us with an eclectic list, one that at times pays no attention to box-office performance, ignores the barbs of other critics and maybe even, at times, defies the dictates of good sense.

But then, to what kind of sense has personal opinion ever played tribute?

So here goes – one critic’s list of his favorite films of 2008:

1. “The Dark Knight”

This can’t be a surprise. While what Christopher Nolan put on the screen may not be the best superhero film ever made, the performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker – even removing the drama of Ledger’s sudden death at age 28 – raises the film’s quality appreciably.

2. “Slumdog Millionaire”

Part Hollywood, part Bollywood, this story of a young man’s quest to rise from his poverty-stricken roots by winning India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” offers up a fantasy in a realistic/imaginative setting that is well acted and boasts a welcome message about the power and enduring nature of love.

3. “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) seems, at first, to be a bubble-headed English primary teacher, the kind of person who can’t seem to shut up or endure the slightest dark mood. But as Mike Leigh’s movie plays out, we come to see that she’s anything but silly and is, instead, a realist who is well aware of the darkness but who chooses to go the other way.

4. “Rachel Getting Married”

Best known for big-screen efforts such as “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” Jonathan Demme started as an art-house guy. And this powerful little family drama, with “Princess Diaries” star Anne Hathaway at its center, shows that he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

5. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

Speaking of filmmakers who are aging gracefully, Woody Allen continues to explore the nature of love and lust by opening up his traditional New York point of view. Here he moves to Barcelona and benefits from the presence of Spanish talents Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

6. “Milk”

Gus Van Sant works hard – maybe too hard – not to glamorize Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated by a colleague in 1978. But Sean Penn’s Oscar-worthy performance lends a poignant authenticity to Milk’s movie story.

7. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”

OK, I’m making an exception here. This Romanian film, which won the 2007 Cannes Palme d’Or, played in Spokane in April. And while it isn’t for everybody, offering up a determinedly dark view of reality, it deserves – no, it demands – to be mentioned here.

8. “The Band’s Visit”

This little film explores what happens when a police band from Egypt arrives in Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. But when the musicians end up in the wrong town, the expectations – not to mention prejudices – of everyone, visitor and visited, are put to the test.

9. “Doubt”

John Patrick Shanley adapted his own stage play into this problem-drama that seems to center on issues that, over the past decade, have earned negative headlines for the Catholic Church. But in the hands of such talented actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, nothing comes across as easy and simplistic.

10. “WALL-E”

Disney-Pixar proves as capable as ever of bringing objects to life, in this case a lonely little robot left behind to clean up a ruined Earth. Even though this is no “Toy Story,” it is the best animated feature of 2008 and as such warrants inclusion on a Top 10 list.

Others of interest: “Iron Man,” “American Teen,” “Frozen River,” “Standard Operating Procedure,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “Cloverfield,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Shine a Light,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.”

The year’s worst: I could fill this category with dozens of worthy candidates, but I’ll limit it to merely three – “The Love Guru,” “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” and “Babylon A.D.”

There might be films that rank worse in terms of acting, directing and overall production values. But given the relative amount of talent involved, these three films are, I believe the correct term is, godawful.

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