Ten best lists are often ranked, but I prefer to avoid that misery if I can. It’s like ranking your children: Even if you could do it with a degree of accuracy, the very act spreads more unhappiness than joy.
But while slots two to 10 will be listed alphabetically, I’m going to depart from my usual practice and name a clear No. 1 film: Danny Boyle’s exhilarating “Slumdog Millionaire.”
I’m naming it No. 1 because of the effect it had on me as well as almost everyone I’ve talked to. Watching it was like seeing an old friend long presumed dead suddenly walking around town as healthy as you please. “Slumdog” is a modern version of an old-fashioned Hollywood-style audience picture, an updated romantic melodrama whose outlines the Warner brothers themselves would have embraced. If you think this kind of thing is easy to do, you haven’t been going to the movies lately.
As for the rest of my list, I have doubled-up films on occasion to make it easier to acknowledge deserving work. As the playwright said, attention must be paid. Here goes:
“A Christmas Tale” and “The Class.” You could say 2008 was an especially good year for French film, but then every year seems that way. These two were standouts at Cannes, with “The Class” deservedly winning the Palme d’Or. Also worth mentioning were “I’ve Loved You for So Long” and “A Girl Cut in Two.”
“Frost/Nixon.” The most mature work Ron Howard has done, a sterling example of how to transform a prime literary property into something that works on-screen.
“Frozen River” and “Ballast.” This pair of Sundance award winners show not only that independent film is alive and well but also the variety of styles that keep the movement vital.
“Gomorrah” and “Happy Go Lucky.” Joining these wildly different foreign films, the first a bleak look at Italy’s mafiaesque Camorra, the other the happiest film British director Mike Leigh has ever made, qualifies as an act of critical perversity. Only their quality and overseas origins unite them, and that might be enough.
“Rachel Getting Married.” A return to top storytelling form for director Jonathan Demme and a breakthrough for star Anne Hathaway, who’ve combined with a Jenny Lumet script and a resourceful ensemble to bring the texture of edgy reality -- reality intensified and captured on the fly -- to the proceedings.
Sundance documentaries. Four exceptional docs -- “Man on Wire,” “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” “Stranded” and “Trouble the Water” -- all appeared in Park City, Utah, in January. A word should also be said for the year’s other great docs: “Blindsight,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” “Standard Operating Procedure” and the too-little-seen “A Walk to Beautiful.” What a group.
“Tell No One.” A space all its own for the little French thriller that could. The film no one wanted went on to become 2008’s top-grossing foreign-language movie.
“Wall-E.” The latest wonder from Pixar is daring and traditional, groundbreaking and familiar, apocalyptic and sentimental. How often do you see that?
“Waltz With Bashir.” Provocative, hallucinatory, incendiary, this animated personal documentary about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is unlike any Israeli film you’ve seen. Mention should also be made of two other excellent works from that country: “Jellyfish” and “Beaufort.”
As for a low point, it is once again depressingly easy to pick: The continued inability of SAG and the studios to agree on a contract. Both sides would do well to ponder the thoughts of bruiser Moose Malloy from “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler: “Some guys has got wrong ideas about when to get tough.” Words to live by.