I’m telling you I caught the sun creeping up behind my shoulder

When you’re devoted to evaluating film from a geographic locale that’s well-distant from any established centers of cinema, the timing of a year-end top ten list and corresponding ruminations is fairly detached from the actual calendar. It’s more like calling time of death in the back of the ambulance. You work and work, but eventually you just know it’s time.

It’s time.

To be completely accurate, my decision-making is impacted by the timing of Hollywood’s annual company picnic and trophy ceremony. As has been the case the past three years, I’d like to have the countdown wrapped up before the Academy Awards unveils their list of secret names. That’s two weeks from Sunday, so it’s about time to begin. It’s always a little tough to launch into this, because there’s inevitably a significant array of promising films that I haven’t gotten to see by the time I symbolically shut the book on a year. Waltz with Bashir, The Class, Wendy and Lucy…I could go on and on. Hell, The Edge of Heaven has been sitting untouched and unloved in its red envelope for a couple of weeks now.

This is always the case, but I don’t usually feel compelled to offer up this sort of caveat. There’s something about this year in movies that makes an explanation feel compulsory. While I happily classify each film I’ll list from ten to one as an excellent piece of cinema, I feel less passionate about the films here than I have in prior years. I don’t necessarily think that 2008 was a bad year for movies, but as I surveyed everything I’d seen that reasonably bears that date (one film on my list can be designated a 2007 release with equal authority) the year seemed soft. There was a small fleet of films that had solid foundations, even exemplary elements, and yet failed to find a deeper inspiration. Following previous years’ audacious triumphs by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and the Coen brothers, the plodding solidity of Doubt or The Changeling or The Visitor starts to look a little wan. Or maybe these films simply are wanting.

It’s probably foolhardy to put forth the following notion after resoundingly good film years in 2006 and 2007, but it’s worrisome just how bland this year’s collection of prestige pictures are. Could we be entering an era where excellence in film gives way completely to coldly engineered prefabrication, with the films that theoretically have more artistic aspirations as cynically assembled as the most eager blockbuster wannabe? Worse yet, does the apparent evaporation of the box office boosting powers of an Oscar nomination eliminate much of the incentive for investing in films without name recognition established by bygone toy lines? Will we reach a point where something like Iron Man starts to look like high art because it inadvertently lets some wit slip in amidst the bombast?

Despite my worries, the ten films I’ll write about provide the potent counter-argument. As pleased as I am with the list, it’s an odd one, with at least a couple films that turned up only rarely on other year-closing tallies. And some of the films that have the clearest consensus of acclaim among film-lovers–like a certain taciturn robot–are unrepresented here. I’m not one to find the through line in my lists. Lucky for me, since the unifying characteristic among these ten is especially perplexing. The one thing they clearly have in common is that these films all individually testify to why I spend so much of my time in darkened theaters. In each film there is a thrill of discovery, a strident sense of purpose, a fervent commitment to injecting something meaningful into those frames flickering by.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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