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River Deep, Mountain High, Life Goes On and So Does Death

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Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures

The introductions to these lists – meant to summarize a year at the movies – tend to adopt one of two perspectives: They either bemoan the disappointments of the past 12 months of cinematic fare or they celebrate the proof that, against all odds, great movies still exist. Both seem like obvious ways out, so by way of a preface I’ll simply say that these were my 10 favorite films of the year, and I hope I’ve made a good case for why each meant something special to me.

Robert Levin's Top Movies of 2008

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie unafraid of old-fashioned emotion, unabashed melodrama and ecstatic, lively kinesis proves a perfect antidote to the cynicism too often festering in modern cinema. It’s an expert fusion of the disparate aesthetics of Hollywood and Bollywood, a deeply moving, exciting film simultaneously about the fulfillment of one’s destiny and the vibrant, chaotic character of life in modern Mumbai.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD Werner Herzog’s reputation as the cinematic poet of the natural world has already been well established, but “Encounters at the End of the World” serves as one of the most hauntingly beautiful works of his long and illustrious career. The filmmaker traveled to Antarctica’s McMurdo Research Base unsure of what he would find, and emerged with a film that uses the forlorn, alien surfaces of the continent to powerfully reflect on mankind’s tenuous future.

YOUNG@HEART Stephen Walker’s documentary, which follows the Young@Heart senior citizens’ chorus of Northampton, Mass., defies our cultural preconceptions of the aging process by showing us elderly men and women singing rock songs, playing big concerts and loving life in spite of the onset of disease and death. Few recent films have been as painstakingly good-hearted and upbeat, and so full of faith in the potential for transcendence in everyday life.

GRAN TORINO With the slightest awareness of the trajectory of Clint Eastwood’s career, particularly the transition he’s undergone from gung-ho action star to elderly, introspective auteur, it becomes apparent that “Gran Torino” is as much about the man reconsidering his Dirty Harry cinematic persona as anything. In seriously deconstructing the ramifications of the racist attitudes brazenly displayed by Harry and his ilk, and doing so amid the blighted Americana of Detroit, the filmmaker frames tolerance and understanding as the key to a better future for us all.

HAMLET 2 Hands down the funniest movie of the year, Andrew Fleming’s “Hamlet 2” found itself roped into the most undesirable of categories: the Sundance hit. A huge success in Park City, it failed to earn similar adoration from critics or audiences upon its August release, but one suspects time will be kind to the hilarious story of a failed actor (Steve Coogan) turned high-school drama teacher mounting a controversial play.

THE DARK KNIGHT One of the great superhero movies of all time, every bit worthy of the hype, Christopher Nolan’s film strips away Batman’s mythology, revealing the wounded, tortured soul perversely driven to occupy the Batsuit. Heath Ledger, in his penultimate performance, crafts a terrifyingly nihilistic Joker.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED Jonathan Demme uses a stripped down, hand-held style foreign to him to tell a story rife with uncompromised pain. A family gathers for a wedding, old wounds are reopened, and sisters confront their shared animosity. Compellingly scripted, performed and enacted with a welcome naturalistic spirit, “Rachel Getting Married” is the year’s most unhesitatingly honest movie.

BE KIND REWIND A lightness of being permeates “Be Kind Rewind,” Michel Gondry’s valentine to cinephilia. The affectionate, quirky spirit of Mr. Gondry’s craft recalls Frank Capra, and the picture’s tribute to VHS proves timely and affecting as the medium disappears into history.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS A movie of unembellished dramatic power, Cristian Mungiu documents the perils of seeking an abortion in 1980s Romania with the unique style, which finds the nightmarish qualities in spare, realistic existence, that he and countryman Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) have perfected.

THEATER OF WAR A remarkable documentary that celebrates the life and legacy of Bertolt Brecht in a fashion of which he would surely have approved, while providing riveting insight into Meryl Streep’s rehearsal process as she prepares to play Mother Courage.

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