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Ten brilliant films
Ten brilliant films
by Scott Rice - SGN A&E Writer

This is not a Top Ten Films of 2008 article. This is a list of films released in the United States in 2008 that I think are brilliant. These are films that surprised and beguiled me, films that exceeded expectation at every turn. For this reason, you'll find some of the best films of 2008 missing on my list. That's because I expect Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes, and David Fincher to make good films. I'm surprised when they make bad ones.

Though a couple of the pictures premiered outside the United States in 2007, regular folks like you and me here in the U.S. of A. couldn't see them outside of the festival circuit until 2008.

I make no apologies as these 10 films speak for themselves. Feel free to write exacerbated letters lamenting my exclusion of your favorite movie; I'll read them while I eat fish sticks slathered in tartar sauce and knock back a couple of PBRs.

Here they are in alphabetical order:

The Dark Knight
Sure, it's a bloated example of Hollywood excess, but it's also great fun. I'd give my left nut to take a spin on that motorcycle. And you have to love what Heath Ledger did with The Joker; he made him real, real scary. I've forgotten all about Jack Nicholson's cartoon-like take in Tim Burton's 1989 reinvention of the franchise. Ledger's Joker is sauce-your-jeans scary because he reminds us that some folks just enjoy being bad and the most frightening are those that aren't afraid of a little anarchy on the side. Great films tap the local zeitgeist and between bomb-happy religious zealots of various stripes and unregulated greedy scions of unbridled capitalism wrecking our economy; anarchy is on many minds. The Bat toys are outrageously fun, the special effects are seamless, Christian Bale is hot, Heath Ledger is nuts, and Katie Holmes is nowhere to be found. Perfect.

Encounters at the End of the World
It's there in the title: the world. But this landscape looks nothing like the world I know. Werner Herzog literally goes to the end of the earth - Antarctica - to film this awe-inducing documentary. It's not surprising that Herzog makes a terrific documentary; he's already gifted us with the likes of My Best Fiend and Grizzly Man. What is surprising is how epically powerful this film is. Whether interviewing the displaced intelligentsia that populates the McMurdo Research Station 3500 km due south of New Zealand or filming the eerie images of sea life beneath the ice, I couldn't help pondering the insignificance and power of humanity. As Herzog says from the start, this is a film about Antarctica, but don't expect a film about anthropomorphic penguins.

Full Battle Rattle
Full Battle Rattle documents the U.S. Army's billion dollar 100 square mile virtual Iraq built in the Mohave Desert forty miles from Barstow, California. The training complex includes 13 villages, two television news networks, a military support city of 15,000 and employs hundreds of Iraqi American actors. The narrative follows Lt. Col. Robert McLaughlin and the battalion he commands as they work to bring peace and stability to the ersatz Iraqi village of Medina Wasl. The lines between reality and theater become blurred and defined at the same time as this superb documentary forced me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about the reality of war and serves as a poignant reminder that creating a war is not that difficult after all.

The real fun here is in the self-referential cinematic devices, the genre skewering dialogue and music, and darkly comedic genius that kept me entertained from the start. Jean-Claude Van Damme, real life aging action star, plays a burnt-out version of himself in this well written film. The non-linear narrative unfolds through a number of different perspectives packed tightly with satisfying surprises at every turn. This is brilliant satire and expert filmmaking that should not be missed.

Let the Right One In
Young love never looked so creepy or Swedish or vampire-ish. Oskar and Eli will charm their way into your heart and make you want to barf at the same time. Let the Right One In is a nicely turned-out tweaking of the genre that never takes itself too seriously yet never lets you off the hook, either. This little gem is firing on all cylinders: the story is tight, the cinematography is beautiful, the special effects are fun, and the atmosphere is delightfully creepy to the end.

Mamma Mia
I won't belabor this point. I love Mamma Mia, the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical inspired by the music of the '70s Swedish music sensation, ABBA. I won't apologize, either. It's sappy and absurd and I don't care. Meryl Streep mugs her way through this joyous mess with the same unapologetic zeal as millions of us who watched. Pierce Brosnan is a crack-up as he grunts out the weirdest take on ABBA's S.O.S. ever. Newcomer Amanda Seyfried is beautiful and she sings like a Broadway star. I like ABBA and I like this movie and I'm prepared for all the ribbing I'll take for saying so.

Mongol was submitted for Oscar consideration last year, but didn't get real distribution in the United States until June of 2008 (even then you had to look for it). I don't know why this film doesn't get more props. Baz Luhrmann made a valiant effort at epic film with his beautifully flawed adventure Australia, but Mongol is the epic masterpiece of the year as far as I'm concerned. The first in a planned trilogy on the life of Genghis Kahn, this international effort was filmed in Kazakhstan by a Russian director with a largely Mongolian cast. The beautifully photographed landscape is vast and breathtaking and the brutal story of the boy who would rule an empire is fascinating from the start. Some describe the pacing as slow; I would say meticulous in the vein of some of the great Chinese films like Kaige Chen's Yellow Earth.

Paranoid Park
Yeah, Milk got all the press, but this forgotten little flick, darling of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, but not released here until March of 2008, is the Gus I love. Dark teen angst, slow steady pacing, and beautiful photography combine perfectly in this tale of a life-changing moment for Alex (Gabe Nevins), a teenager whose life has barely started and is irrevocably altered in an instant. Things seem fairly simple for him until Van Sant starts to peel back the layers and suddenly we realize everything really can turn on a dime. Some feel Nevins gives a flat performance, but I bought every second (I won't go on to defend young master Nevins as that would spoil things for you). Paranoid Park is proof once more that solid cinematic technique in the service of a good story produces excellent film.

The Pool
This film is unlike any of Chris Smith's previous efforts (American Movie and The Yes Men). While these are excellent films in their own right, you'd never believe the same guy directed The Pool. Venketesh and Jhangir are poor boys living in the coastal city of Panjim , a city just south of Mumbai on the Indian Ocean. The Pool is a story about their friendship and how deeply humans can feel non-erotic love. It's also expert storytelling with a wonderful twist. The Pool won the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival but also wasn't seen in American theaters until 2008.

Slumdog Millionaire
This is the dark horse Oscar bet of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire is co-directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later among other good work) and Loveleen Tandan (her first directing effort). It's a gritty story of orphaned street urchins making their way through life amid India's recent epic economic growth. Jamal (Dev Patel) finds himself on the Hindu version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. But he's not there for the money; he's there because he knows his lost love Latika (Freida Pinto) never misses an episode. This movie satisfies and surprises to the end so be prepared to stay right through the ending credits. Unflinching, but with a cinematic heart that believes humanity can withstand crushing poverty and perverse cruelty; this movie gets everything right.
movies, top: Dexter
middle: Paranoid Park
bottom: Slumdog Millionaire

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