roundup (as in cattle)

I don’t really do best-of lists anymore, because I don’t even see all the mainstream movies that come out, let alone all the odd little gems. This year was worse than most, because I was in Iraq until June. So I didn’t see some of 2007’s big hits (No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood) until early 2008, and I missed a number of this year’s most-recommended films altogether. (I’m particularly bummed that I still haven’t seen Man On Wire or The Wrestler.) But here’s an incomplete list of movies I loved:

The Dark Knight: For all its very real flaws, it’s maybe the only big-screen comic book adaptation with any actual moral heft. And, yeah, okay, I’ll be the millionth customer: The Joker is the creepiest screen villain in a dog’s age — not least because his nihilism is surprisingly well-reasoned….

Synecdoche, New York: Not for the impatient, Charlie Kaufman’s first outing as director is a sprawling, difficult, passionate exploration of how we slip through time without realizing that everything we love is vanishing, and how we try to fix our lives in time through storytelling. It suggests that the stories we tell will take on lives of their own and will eventually take over, teaching us how to let go of life and pass on. Brooding, funny, intellectually tricky, and full of bizarre, unexplainable images (one woman moves into, and lives her whole life in, a house that’s on fire), Synecdoche astonished me from beginning to end. Even if you feel it doesn’t all fit together, it’s hard not be excited by its overblown ambition to tell us everything about life.

Milk: Biopics are often marred by a sense of their own historical inevitability, but Gus van Sant manages to keep things surprising, partly by giving gay life in the Castro a little space to breathe and to seem human and normal even to straight Southerners like me, but mostly by making Milk so utterly fascinating. Even if he’d never existed, even if his death hadn’t come to be seen as a martyrdom in the cause of gay rights, this guy would remain a riveting figure — charming, earnest, but also merciless in both public and private life, Harvey Milk is too complicated to be a comfortable saint, and the film surprisingly calls into question the idea that his shooting was a true political “assassination.”

Be Kind, Rewind: Mos Def and Jack Black accidentally erase all the tapes in Danny Glover’s independent video store, and to keep the customers happy they start making their own homemade versions of Hollywood hits. The “Sweded” version become a huge hit, and when the video store is threatened by a corporate competitor with dirty legal tricks up its sleeve, the boys decide to make a faux documentary about Fats Waller to raise money. It’s a loving tribute to the optimism and irrepressible spirit of independent filmmakers everywhere.

Let The Right One In: Speaking of “Sweded,” the dismal teen vampire genre gets a nasty jolt with this tale of a 12-year-old Stockholm boy falling in love with an ancient vampire who looks like a 12-year-old girl. She teaches him how to stand up for himself, but the ending suggests she may exact a truly terrible fee for her help.

The Strangers: Bryan Bertino’s cold, meticulous home invasion film has a preposterous moment or two (never split up!), but its villains’ approach is so patient and gradually overwhelming that you imagine these characters would be done for even if they didn’t make stupid mistakes. Its imagery, especially its use of deep space within a scene, is suitably dread-inducing, and its sound design is absolutely nerve-jangling.

The Lucky Ones: A road comedy about Iraq vets may sound like a doomed premise, and indeed this little film died a quick, undeserved death at the box office. But it’s entirely worth finding on video. Tim Robbins, Michael Peña, and Rachael McAdams star as soldiers home on leave from the fight; when their flight is cancelled, they decide to rent a van together and drive cross-country. Each one has a secret quixotic mission to find normalcy again, and though they all fail in those missions, the process is hilarious and wonderful. This is the first film I’ve seen that approximates my own experiences as a vet trying to re-integrate into a largely indifferent society, and it towers over the hated Stop-Loss.

Tell No One: This French thriller based on a novel by american pulp writer Harlan Coben was actually released in 2006, but since I saw it in a mainstream art theater in 2008, I’m letting it slide in. The premise is so high-concept you don’t need anything else: a doctor whose wife is murdered by a serial killer lives in silent, lonely grief until one day, eight years later, when he gets an anonymous email with a video of his wife that appears to have been taken that day. You wouldn’t think the Frogs could outdo us in average-joe-is-forced-to-become-an-avenging-badass pulse-pounders, but can you think of a decent Hollywood thriller this year?

My Winnipeg: A black-and-white pseudodocumentary about a midsized Canadian city? Sign me up! Entertaining, goofy, brilliant, this fascinating walking tour with a devoted native seems to be mostly a way for the narrator to work out his mother issues, but it’s also full of history and trivia so wild it must be made up. Except sometimes it isn’t.

Mongol: Okay, granted, it’s slow, and there’s not that much pillaging. But it is absolutely gorgeous from beginning to end, and I was fascinated by the story, which revolves around a nice young Genghis Khan who suffers betrayal after betrayal at the hands of asshole tribesmen who don’t respect Mongol tradition. (They get theirs.)

Wall-E: Just because something’s overrated doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. The first half hour, which follows the titular sentient trash compactor as he goes about his work, cleaning up the ruined Earth and, in his spare time, trying to make sense of the detritus of human invention, is absolutely wonderful. And it’s not too bad after that, either.

Slumdog Millionaire: Again, just because something’s overrated…. Danny Boyle’s sweet fantasy about love conquering all is less interesting than his garish, tasteless exploration of India’s poverty and sectarian hatred, as well as its spectacular and dangerous economic growth.

Hamlet 2: This is basically one long joke, building up to the climactic high school musical. There’s some nice work by Steve Coogan as a drama teacher who’s just smart enough to sense his own failure at life without being quite smart enough to do anything about it, but really, you’re just waiting to hear “Rock Me Sexy Jesus!” No shame in that.

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