One day I’ll post my year-end list during the actual calendar year. This time I have a halfway decent excuse for the delay: I wasn’t able to see The Wrestler until December 30, and I’d no sooner make a ‘best of ’08’ list without seeing that than buy a subway token so I could lick the third rail.

Aronofsky’s movie was an instant hit in my book, but I wanted to sleep on it for a couple days. You leave a movie like The Wrestler wholly infatuated with the experience, and I didn’t want to propose after the first date. There were too many other worthy contenders. (Some of which I still haven’t been able to see, such as Dear Zachary and Silent Light.)

The balance of the problem is that this was a lousy year for great movies. It was a perfect breeding ground for decent films. I saw a lot that I liked, and as you’ll see below, my estimation of more than a few mutated quite a bit over time. But when it comes down to stacking and ranking, there aren’t many that deserve a spot on the list. Coming up with fifteen I believe in took more work than I’d like to admit.

The Dark Knight

I had little intention of listing this movie based only on my one summer viewing. But going back to Gotham City on DVD, I reconfirmed that Heath Ledger’s performance was just as striking as I remembered. More than that, what made the experience stick out was the cinematography, which is so calm and clear. (Ironically, while I saw the film projected at the Arclight, I’ve been far more visually taken with it on Blu-Ray.) I still dislike several things about Christopher Nolan’s second take on Batman, but those two aspects, combined with the simple but ideal use of score, is enough to make this one of the definitive film versions of a comic book world.

Current rating: 8 out of 10

Contributing factors: The camera, which glides at ease through the troubled, awful city of Gotham; that keening, droning and perfect Joker theme; Gary Oldman’s increased presence as Jim Gordon; the hospital scene, which stands as one of the best supervillain encounters on film.

Performance to savor: Ledger, with his lolling animal tongue, and forceful sense of movement that drives an increasingly broken body. pull quote: “Set down your Killing Jokes, geek nation; there’s a new Joker in town!”

The Visitor

This movie comes on quiet with a remote, almost frightened performance from Richard Jenkins and a filmmaking style free of pretense. When Jenkins’ aging, bored professor encounters two illegal immigrants living in his New York apartment, it seems like the story might veer into forgettable ‘midlife awakening’ territory. Instead it takes a weird but uncomfortably realistic turn and quickly hits stride as a minor-key rant against shadowy immigration policies. I can’t get behind all of Thomas McCarthy’s most insistent images and editing, which stand in contrast to the understated Jenkins. Yet I love what his movie tries to do, and that it accomplishes so much without grasping at gimmicks.

Current rating: 8 out of 10

Contributing factors: An increasingly oppressive sense of bureaucratic weight; the reliable Jenkins in a rare leading role; the first drum circle (on film or in real life) I haven’t wanted to destroy.

Performance to savor: Hiam Abbass, who captures refinement, composure and despair in a single glance. I can’t wait to see her in the new Jarmusch film later this year. pull quote: “So…I get to hang out with Richard Jenkins, but I have to go to jail? Good deal. Sign me up!”

In Bruges

The first time I saw In Bruges, I was distracted by some of the resolutely silly plotting and hammer-driven themes and symbols. But six months later I checked it out again (spurred by our Kid Kills list) and I turned around completely. Since then I’ve watched the film a couple more times, and each viewing leaves me thrilled with the three fantastic core performances: Colin Farrell, looking vulnerable and having fun doing it, Brendan Gleeson, worldly and sad as he comes to the realization that he’s in his last days, and Ralph Fiennes, as principled as he is quick to anger. I have a great time watching the intersection of these actors, and this turned out to be the escapist entertainment I hoped for from Iron Man, The Dark Knight and other big movies.

Current rating: 8.1 out of 10

Contributing factors: A scripting/directorial one-two from Martin McDonagh, which keeps the film out of the realm of Tarantino-lite; Eric, the poncy skinhead; and yeah, fucking Bruges, which is a little like a dream.

Performance to savor: Ray Fiennes, who comes on all Sexy Beast before showing some human tenderness. And because he’s kind of a cock. pull quote: “I love fucking (In) Bruges!”

Slumdog Millionaire

It’s the movie to love this year, but I found that I couldn’t love Danny Boyle’s trip to India as thoroughly as other people did. The structure, which felt so archly built, keeps this out of the top 10. But the saving grace is a host of performances that all feel just right, and Danny Boyle’s infectious directorial energy. (Aided by Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan.) All make the film feel genuinely a part of the place it inhabits. Even before we get to the final dance scene, Slumdog feels as brash, crowded and insistent as the slums of Mumbai. It is infinitely more uplifting to be a part of, however, which makes the faults easy to overlook in favor of the buoyant lift you’ll have when leaving the theater.

Current rating: 8.2 out of 10

Contributing factors: Tandan’s sharp eye for casting, which helps keep characters on track through different ages; Chris Dickens’s editing, both fluid and wild; the tone changes which breathe life into the story without sending it off balance.

Performance to savor: Anil Kapoor, as the smarmy, defiantly selfish host of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? pull quote: “What, only one dance sequence?”

Standard Operating Procedure

than usual, this year-end review is highlighting how films can evolve
and change over time. This Errol Morris documentary had a lot of
ingredients I loved: revealing interviews, the ability to
explain complex scenarios in detail without confusion, and an
investigator’s patience to piece together a single reality from many
fractured accounts. But on first viewing I also found the film
sprawling and unfocused. I still think the final edit could me more
powerful, along the lines of The Fog Of War,
but I can’t deny the lingering effect Morris had on me, thanks to this
film. His methods and insight made me question once more the way I look
at media and the world, and even how I do my terribly unimportant job.

Current rating: 8.2 out of 10

Contributing factors: Morris’s
ever-fluid touch with presenting information and recreations; the
sequences where photographs create a timeline, which is visualized in a
way I haven’t seen in documentary before; the many honest and horrific
first-hand accounts of Abu Ghraib.

Performance to savor: Lynndie
England, whose confessional interviews highlight how the media can
paint an overly simplistic portrait of public figures. pull quote: “Military malfeasance magic!”