1. MAN ON WIRE (Philippe Petit) – The act of walking on a tightrope suspended between the towers of the World Trade Center might seem like a pointless stunt, but in this documentary, it comes to feel like an amazing achievement, a strange testament to what people can accomplish when they put their hearts and minds into a task. It’s thrilling and oddly moving to watch this story unfold through archival film, photos and interviews.
2. HUNGER (Steve McQueen) – A brutal and painful viewing experience, this is the true story of Irish political prisoners refusing to give in to the rules set by their British captors – a contest of wills that resembles an unstoppable force colliding an unmovable object. The film, which showed at the Chicago International Film Festival, is unflinching and powerful, a masterpiece of editing and minimalist storytelling.
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4. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) – The first half is a terrific silent movie of sorts, without any dialogue to guide us, just the pictures and sounds of a robot on a deserted junk heap of a planet. And the second half is a biting satire on the fat, lazy habits of the human race.
5. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Charlie Kaufman) – A big, confusing riddle of a movie that will baffle anyone who gets too hung up on trying to figure out every detail of what’s happening. Don’t get too hung up on all that. This is a self-reflexive work of art about the creation of itself, reminiscent of 8½, the original Singing Detective, Alain Resnais’ neglected Providence and, of course, all those other films with Charlie Kaufman scripts. There’s some wonderful humor and pathos in this fantastic phantasmagoria.
6. PARANOID PARK (Gus Van Sant) – Along with his galvanizing biopic Milk, Van Sant directed this superb film in 2008, working in a more experimental and personal style. At times, the sounds and images wash over you in a stream of consciousness. The protagonist is something of a blank, but that’s the way he’s supposed to be. It all culminates with a shocking scene that I can’t get out of my head.
7. THE EDGE OF HEAVEN/Auf der Anderen Seite (Fateh Akin) – As this film’s interconnected stories crisscross Germany and Turkey, we see the ties that bind the subplots together – but the characters themselves just miss making the connections. After showing two tragedies, the film ends with a slight sense of hope that good people of different cultures might connect after all.
8. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (David Fincher) – It looks like a storybook come to life. The concept of this parable is simple, but it has depths beyond the story of a man who ages in reverse; it’s a meditation on the many ways people feel out of place in the world around them.
9. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (Errol Morris) – A riveting inquiry into the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Morris’ documentary does not arrive at definitive conclusions about who was responsible for these reprehensible deeds but it asks all the right questions.
10. THE SKY, THE EARTH AND THE RAIN/El Cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia (Jose Luis Torres Leiva) – This enigmatic drama from Chile, which played at the Chicago International Film Festival, moves at the languorous pace of a Bela Tarr or Andrei Tarkovksy film. Most people will probably find it too slow, in other words, but it has a beautiful sense of tranquility. The mysterious and mostly unspoken relationships among the various characters eventually emerge out of the mist.
11. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
12. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
13. Alexandra (Aleksandr Sokurov)
14. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
15. Rain of the Children (Vincent Ward)
16. Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs)
17. Terribly Happy/Frygtelig Lykkelig (Henrik Ruben Genz)
18. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
19. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-hsien Hou)
20. Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig)
21. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy)
22. Wellness (Jake Mahaffy)
23. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
24. At the Death House Door (Peter Gilbert and Steve James)
25. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
26. Everlasting Moments/Maria Larssons Eviga Ögonblick (Jan Troell)
27. Tell No One (Guilliame Canet)
28. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
29. Cadillac Records (Daniel Martin)
30. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)