I enjoy doing a Top 10 films list, but ranking the films is something I try to avoid. This year, however, is different. While slots 2 to 10 will be listed alphabetically, I'm going to name a clear No. 1 film: Danny Boyle's exhilarating Slumdog Millionaire.
I'm departing from tradition and naming it No. 1 because watching this film was like seeing an old friend long presumed dead. Slumdog is an updated version of an old-fashioned Hollywood-style romantic melodrama. If you think this kind of thing is easy to do, you haven't been going to the movies lately.
As to the other nine slots, I have taken the liberty of doubling up films on occasion to make it easier to acknowledge deserving work. Here goes:
A Christmas Tale and The Class. The year 2008 was an especially good one for French film. These two were standouts at Cannes, where The Class — which looks at a year in the life of a Parisian middle-school class — deservedly won the Palme d'Or. Christmas Tale provides a new twist on the familiar family-holiday theme. It's the kind of film Hollywood would make if it had the skill, or nerve.
Frost/Nixon. The most mature work Ron Howard has created, a sterling example of how to transform a prime stage property into something that works onscreen. Frank Langella's Tony-winning performance is certainly ready for its close-up.
Frozen River and Ballast. These Sundance winners demonstrate that independent film is alive and well and show the variety of approaches and styles that keep the movement vital.
Gomorrah and Happy-Go-Lucky. Joining these wildly different foreign films might qualify as an act of critical perversity, but their very diversity makes them not-so-strange bedfellows. The first is a bleak look at Italy's Mafia-esque Camorra; the other, the happiest film British director Mike Leigh has ever made.
Rachel Getting Married. A return to top storytelling form for director Jonathan Demme and a breakthrough for star Anne Hathaway. Together they bring the texture of edgy reality — both intensified and captured on the fly — to the proceedings.
Sundance documentaries. Four exceptional docs — Man on Wire,Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,Stranded and Trouble The Water — all appeared in the Park City festival that has become this country's top documentary showcase. What a group.
Tell No One. A space all its own for the little French thriller that could. This is a film no one wanted that went on to become 2008's top-grossing foreign-language film.
Wall-E. The latest wonder from Pixar is daring and traditional, groundbreaking and familiar, apocalyptic and sentimental. How often do you see that?
Waltz With Bashir. Provocative, hallucinatory, incendiary — this animated personal documentary about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is unlike any Israeli film you've seen. Or any other film, for that matter.