Just about everyone needs a year-end, 10-best list, although I'm hard-pressed to say why. The temptation, of course, is to review the year, say a few grandiose things about the state of ... well ... things. "Movies never have been worse." "They're not as bad as you might have thought". "There's hope." "No, there's not." The occasion seems to encourage critics to say something that attempts to sum up the state of the art while indulging the peculiarities of their own varied tastes.
One is supposed to reiterate matters such as one's reluctance to go along with the critical embrace of Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Or perhaps one could reminisce about the documentaries that made a strong impression, "Man on Wire" or "Encounters at the End of the World." Or one could join the chorus of celebration that has risen around "Wall-E," a movie that struck a nerve with critics who saw something that transcended the boundaries of animation and catapulted the movie into the rarefied spheres of art.
Or -- and this is where I fall -- one could simply offer 10 movies (an arbitrary number that honors tradition) that one actually might want to see again, although I must confess that there is no movie on my list that attained anything like perfection.
1. Synecdoche, New York." I'm one of those people who usually sees the other side of the story, whether I want to or not. I understand why many rejected writer/director Charlie Kaufman's overly long, somewhat abstract look at the futile creative life of a deeply troubled theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman). At times the movie seemed confusing. And, yes, at times it even seemed to lose touch with itself. But Kaufman bravely led the charge into cinema's valley of death, engaging a subject that definitely puts you off your popcorn. You will age. You will accomplish little. You will die. You will be forgotten. Happy New Year!
2. "The Class." Ah the French. Just when you've given up on them, they come up with something surprising and fresh. Director Laurent Cantet took his cameras inside a French school where multi-ethnic haggling seemed to be the main course of study. François Bégaudeau, who had actually spent time in classrooms, played a teacher trying to get through a year in a Parisian school with a diverse population. This realistic look at the life of a school preferred honesty to inspiration and made me wish for an American equivalent.
3. "Slumdog Millionaire." Some criticized director Danny Boyle's efforts to use slum life in Mumbai as a springboard for the year's most aggressively energetic feel-good ending. But, damn, if he didn't succeed. He also captured a sense of what makes contemporary India tick, its mixture of insane materialism, religious conflict, abiding poverty and irrepressible energy. At first blush, the movie's energy may seem like so much cinematic gimmickry, but it also may be an accurate reflection of a city's overflowing soul.
4. "Frost/Nixon." Ron Howard kept Peter Morgan's play from feeling stage bound and captured a towering, overstated and brilliantly dour performance from Frank Langella as Richard M. Nixon. Some thought Langella went over the top. Others may have been put off by the fact that Langella doesn't really look like the Tricky Dick of memory. But he gave Nixon something he may not have deserved: A sense of tragedy that was nearly Shakespearean in its mixture of venality, arrogance, fallibility and unquenchable resentment.
5. "The Order of Myths." Director Margaret Brown made a documentary about Mardi Gras. No, not that Mardi Gras, but the one that takes place in Mobile, Ala. In examining this highly ritualized annual event, Brown's documentary revealed the abiding (if not always virulent) racism of a city that's at once impressed by its one gentility and just maybe ready to move beyond it -- at least a little. By stepping totally inside this strangely insulated world, Brown revealed its pleasures, peculiarities and contradictions.
6. "Milk." Director Gus Van Sant's big-screen biography of Harvey Milk brought out something we haven't seen much in characters played by Sean Penn, a strain of fundamental decency. Penn excelled as Milk, and Josh Brolin was equally good as Dan White, the man who murdered Milk. Van Sant fans may have found the movie a trifle prosaic (I know I did), but "Milk" showed that there are rare instances when politics do make strange bedfellows, Milk and the San Francisco teamsters, for example. I'd call that really reaching across the aisle.
7. "The Edge of Heaven." Director Fatih Akin again explores the relationship between Turkey and the rest of Europe, particularly Germany, in a multi-layered story about characters who move between two worlds. "The Edge of Heaven'' continued the interest that Akin expressed in his shattering 2004 movie "Against the Wall," and ratified his status as one of the few filmmakers working today who's able to deal with topical issues in entirely human and non-didactic ways.
8. "A Christmas Tale." Director Arnaud Desplechin made a family drama unlike any we've seen before, packing the screen with difficulties that ranged from terminal illness to lost children to intra-family rivalry. I know, it all sounds familiar, but the result felt fresh and exciting. Like many others this year, Desplechin allowed his movie to go on far too long, but for much of it, I felt an exhilaration I hadn't experienced in a long time, the excitement that derives from being unable to wait for the arrival of the next shot.
9. "Let The Right One In." Swedish director Tomas Alfredson made the most original vampire movie in a long time. But the real trick about making a vampire movie is to ensure that it's about other things. Set in a cold, unforgiving world, "Let The Right One In," tells the story of a lonely, alienated boy who meets a neighbor girl who turns out to be a vampire. Alfredson's movie proves emotionally and intellectually chilling right up to an ending that invites us to look ahead and imagine something as horrible as anything we've already witnessed.
10. "Woman on the Beach." Korean director Hong Sang-hoo told the story of a fictional writer/director who visits a Korean beach resort during the off- season. The director travels to this lonely spot with his favorite production designer, a young man who insists on bringing his girlfriend. This quiet exploration of relationships and the role ego plays in love and art makes the list because it hardly played in American theaters. I spotted it as a film of interest at a recent Toronto Film Festival where many other movies received far more -- and less deserved -- attention.