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Before You Forget

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Stephen Berkman/Roadside Attractions

The annual ritual of best-of lists can seem arbitrary, obsessive-compulsive or even narcissistic. When any aspiring critic can set up a blog or a Flixter account to get his or her two cents in, do readers even care if a critic has credentials or expertise? Do people even read movie reviews anymore, when they’ve become reliant on listicles or quotables that appear in ad copies and on Rottentomatoes? As publications around the country rush to meet the bottom line to appease shareholders, some of the most brilliant and erudite voices have become orphaned in the process. Those who are serious about a career in film criticism have probably all paused to ask whether this is still honest work or just a frivolous pursuit.

My own journey in film criticism began in 1989, when Hou Hsiao-hsien put my native Taiwan on the map with “A City of Sadness.” In 1995, I’d begun reading J. Hoberman religiously and dreaming of one day writing for the Village Voice. With my eyes on the prize, I studied with James Naremore and Peter Bondanella at Indiana University and rose through the ranks at the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. Upon graduation, a few professional detours got in the way before I landed a regular movie-reviewing gig at Vancouver’s WestEnder. When that opportunity abruptly ended under the paper’s new editorship, I enrolled in the Cinema Studies program at Tisch School of the Arts in hopes of better positioning myself for something more than a freelance arrangement. Luckily, everything came together and I found myself thriving as a critic at the New York Sun. It is especially bittersweet, then, to reflect on the Sun’s shutdown this past October. My byline finally appeared in the Village Voice as a result, although I am no longer certain if film criticism will ever be a viable livelihood.

So here I’ve resolved to do two best-of lists dedicated to my friends and anyone who has read me, commissioned me, taught me or encouraged me along the way. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has helped make my dream come true: my parents, Mr. Naremore, Mr. Bondanella, Christopher Anderson, Ben French, Reid Cox, Jonathan Cohen, Troy Carpenter, Ken Eisner, Mary Frances Hill, Elaine Corden, Fiona Morrow, Mark Peranson, Cindy Lucia, Gary Crowdus, John Anderson, Brian Miller, John Wrathall, Emanuel Levy, Annie Wagner, Aaron Mesh, David Wildman, Moya Luckett, Bill Simon, Robert Sklar, Matt Oshinsky, Mr. Hoberman, Michael Atkinson, Scott Foundas and J. T. Simonetti Jr.

Martin Tsai's Top Movies of 2008

THE FALL Critics were quick to dismiss this because Tarsem’s feature-length debut “The Cell” was such an abysmal mess. Still, this celebration of imagination and innocence is miraculously powerful. Besides, every frame is perfection.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK Although not nearly as well executed as “The Fall,” Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is every bit as outlandishly ambitious, unprecedented and unlikely to be duplicated.

FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON Mr. Hou delivers another fascinating meditation on modernity, this time setting his sights on France. It’s unlike any other French film, yet the universal truth it speaks is undeniable.

DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER Perhaps the most devastating documentary ever made, Kurt Kuenne’s tribute to his late best friend is a cautionary tale that calls for reform of the red tape-laden Canadian legal system.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Even just from a pure technical standpoint, this adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s “Q & A” has earned its place on the list. Danny Boyle has pulled out all the stops to make it a breathtaking rollercoaster ride.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS Cristian Mungiu assuredly explores the murky moral and political quandary that was communist Romania, and its ramifications are haunting for 21st century America.

THE BETRAYAL (NERAKHOON) Last year saw a slew of immigration-themed fictional films designed to strike viewers with liberal guilt, but none of them approached Ellen Kuras’s documentary in terms of articulating the complexity and hardship derived from an immigrant’s dual existence.

HAROLD & KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY The first one was significant for reimagining and redefining a singular, unified Asian-American identity. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg’s extremely worthy follow-up even boasts political relevance.

FROZEN RIVER Courtney Hunt’s directorial debut is a thought-provoking examination of national borders and citizenship. Through the eyes of a desperate trailer-park mom and a disenfranchised native woman, the film renews our faith in friendship, forgotten American values and the American dream we’ve all taken for granted.

DAYS AND CLOUDS Silvio Soldini’s film about an affluent middle-class couple’s descent into hardship hits close to home particularly amid our current recession. Antonio Albanese is mesmerizing as a man finally coming to terms with being laid off and swallowing his pride to make ends meet.

Martin Tsai's Top Singles of 2008

SHUCHISHIN “Nakanaide” (Flight Master/Pony Canyon). The best 1980s boy-band song actually came from 2008. The song is faithfully authentic to an air of yesteryear, yet boasts its own originality and a little je ne sais quoi that can best be described as magical.

LIL’ WAYNE “Lollipop” (Cash Money/Universal). The self-proclaimed best rapper alive puts out the first single of his long-awaited masterpiece and doesn’t rap a damned word on it. Jim Jonsin proves he’s the hottest producer around, bar none.

DANITY KANE “Damaged” (Bad Boy/Atlantic). “Do, do you got a first-aid kit handy?” This is the catchiest song of the year, but it came out so early that most had forgotten all about it when filling their lists with M.I.A. and that fauxmosexual Katy Perry.

LIL’ WAYNE “A Milli” (Cash Money/Universal). Bangledash’s beat is so hot that everyone who’s anyone has done a remix of it. Wayne’s version still boggles the mind, but Cory Gunz is one to watch.

SHUCHISHIN “Shuchishin” (Flight Master/Pony Canyon). A novelty song nearly becomes Japan’s national anthem.

NAS “Be a Nigger Too” (promo only). It’s a relentlessly ironic examination of our morbid fascination with hip-hop culture, and how its ability to empower the underprivileged has given way to commerce. Too bad the untitling of the album prompted Nas to switch its lead single.

N.E.R.D. “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom)” (Star Trak/Interscope). Infectious and trippy, N.E.R.D. was oh so close to having its first mainstream hit. But as usual, it’s way too cool for mass consumption.

JERO “Umiyuki” (Victor Entertainment). With a shattering first single, a young black man from Pittsburgh single-handedly revives the Japanese tradition of enka.

SHU (TAKESHI TSURUNO) “Nanimokamo ga Kimi Datta” (Flight Master/Pony Canyon). This guy is like the male version of Mary J. Blige, with his voice cracking up in all the right places.

KARINA “Slow Motion” (Def Jam). She’s 16 @ war, and everyone slept on her! This song is so sweet and pretty that it makes you forget Alicia Keys, Jazmine Sullivan, et al., even if momentarily.

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