Mark Jenkins: My 10 Movie Picks For 2008 Critic Mark Jenkins says never mind the posh Brit accents and the somber themes crowding the holiday multiplex; they're awards-bait: The year's genuinely superb films came from all over, and in many languages.
NPR logo Mark Jenkins: My 10 Movie Picks For 2008

Mark Jenkins: My 10 Movie Picks For 2008

9. Taxi to the Dark Side: Soldiers in red light

Every December, cineplexes teem with marquee actors, posh accents and somber themes, all of them assembled to attract awards-season attention. And some of these (mostly Anglo-American) ingredients will indeed help their respective movies get statuettes.

But the year's best films came from all over the globe. And they were distinguished not by the usual artistic suspects but by distinctive personal visions.

These are my choices for 2008's 10 most remarkable movies, listed alphabetically. They're so good that I barely regret the ones (see below) left on the cutting-room floor.

Most Sublime Vision Of Everyday Life

1. - Red Balloon: Song Fang and Simon Iteanu
IFC Films
The Flight of the Red Balloon
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's homage to 1956's The Red Balloon is set in a city far from home, based on a premise the director didn't choose and featuring dialogue improvised in a language he doesn't speak. Yet the movie is unquestionably Hou's, from its brilliant use of color to its gliding long takes. With Juliette Binoche playing a voice actress with an interest in Chinese puppetry, the scenario cleverly balances East and West. While the film could only have been shot in Paris, Hou's visual style transforms familiar landmarks and vistas.

Most Chilling Vision Of Everyday Life

2. 4 Weeks - Anamaria Marinca and Alex Potocean
IFC Films
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Director: Cristian Mungiu

Trailing closely with a hand-held camera, writer-director Cristian Mungiu observes a young woman as she arranges an abortion for her college roommate. It's Romania in 1987, and the procedure is illegal. That means the woman will enter the world of black-market services, where she'll get a clear view of life under a faltering totalitarian regime. The movie's intensifying sense of menace doesn't lead to any particular assault. Instead, it reflects the generalized dread of living in a place where everybody zealously enforces their tiny rations of power — just as the roommates' agreement never to talk about the abortion stands for the many things that can't be said in an authoritarian land.

Most Sprightly Critique Of Totalitarianism

3. - I Served: Ivan Barnev as Jan Dite
Sony Pictures Classics
I Served the King of England
Director: Jiri Menzel
Rated R

In a year when both Kate Winslet and Tom Cruise played Nazis, the near-silent clown Ivan Barnev offers a comic yet more convincing depiction of why someone might have donned the swastika: to win the heart of an earnest Teutonic blond. Barnev plays a Chaplin-like waiter who rises to a job at Prague's best hotel, where he seeks only money and love. Instead, he is clobbered by the one-two punch of Nazi occupation and Soviet domination. Director Jiri Menzel doesn't play everything for laughs; there are wrenching shifts of tone at crucial moments. That the movie treats the 20th century as absurd doesn't mean it takes historical horrors lightly.

Most Eccentric Biopic

4. My Winnipeg: Frozen Horse Heads
IFC Films
My Winnipeg
Director: Guy Maddin

Offered the opportunity to make a movie about his hometown, Guy Maddin produced an astonishing and often hilarious "docu-fantasia." This film also has Nazis, but they're a minor irritant next to the shock of adolescent sexuality, the treachery of the National Hockey League and a domineering uber-mom. The director's style is simultaneously a homage to and parody of silent-era cinema, mostly in contrasty black and white but with fevered shades of local color. According to Maddin's mock history, his hometown "has 10 times the sleepwalking rate of any city in the world" — and this movie indeed suggests something encountered on the cusp of wakefulness.

Most Distinctive Teen Flick

5. Paranoid Park: Gabe Nevins
IFC Films
Paranoid Park
Director: Gus Van Sant
Rated R

Paranoid Park is Gus Van Sant's best use yet of his mainstream narrative style, but his most heartfelt films are more abstract. While this beguiling tale of a shaggy-haired lost boy begins with a conventional strategy, adapting a mystery novel, the director circles around the story rather than approaching it directly. Turning on events at an ominous skateboard park and a nearby rail yard, the movie is a coming-of-age tale that depicts oncoming adulthood as both threatening and disorienting. Van Sant turns the mystery inside out, emphasizing his protagonist's blurry confusion over a crisp resolution.

Giddiest New-Wave Update

6. Reprise:  Espen Klouman Hoiner and Anders Danielsen Lie
Miramax Films
Director: Joachim Trier
Rated R

At the start of this literary-life caper, two college-age aspiring writers drop their respective first novels into an Oslo mailbox — and the world explodes with possibility. Writer-director Joachim Trier takes the young men's emotions seriously, but also observes with amused detachment. The result is a comedy with tragic elements, and its shifts in pitch are thrilling. So are the speedy flashbacks, narrated asides, impatient edits, and sprinting hand-held camera. No explosions, shootouts or car chases are required when a film moves this beautifully. Trier was inspired by the '60s French new wave, but it's surely also relevant that he's a former Norwegian skateboard champion.

Most Audacious Account Of Youthful Triumph

7. Slumdog Millionaire:  Dev Patel and Freida Pinto
Fox Searchlight
Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Rated R

Borrowing from Bollywood, City of God and the book Maximum City, British director Danny Boyle crafts a portrait of Mumbai that's half romp, half expose. The framework is a round of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in which each question summons an episode from the young contestant's often horrific past. For all its flash, the movie is not superficial: Every flashback reveals some aspect of the diverse city's history or culture. If the characters are thin, it's because Slumdog is really the story of a far bigger organism — one stuffed with gods, factions and unresolved rivalries.

Most Audacious Account Of Youthful Defeat

8. Summer Palace: Hao Lei and Guo Xiaodong
Palm Pictures
Summer Palace
Director: Lou Ye

That this electrifying movie was made at all is a marvel of artistic sedition. Shooting without permission, Chinese director Lou Ye managed to film a comprehensive account of the Tiananmen Square generation, complete with a highly effective simulation of the student uprising itself. Politically, that sequence is the movie's boldest aspect. Dramatically, however, the film's gutsiest move is to place the official crackdown at the midpoint, allowing another hour for disillusion to seep gradually into the characters. After the adrenaline stops pumping, youthful commitment — and youth itself — slowly fade.

Most Outraged Anti-War Film

9. Taxi to the Dark Side: Soldiers in red light
Taxi to the Dark Side
Director: Alex Gibney
Rated R

The title of Alex Gibney's essential documentary neatly encapsulates the story it tells. On one side is Afghan taxi driver Dilawar, an apparently innocent victim of American policies; on the other is Vice President Dick Cheney, who in 2001 announced that the U.S. would have to enter "the dark side." Sold to the Yanks for cash, Dilawar was not charged with any crime and had no known ties to al-Qaida or the Taliban. He probably would have been released in short order. But before that could happen, he died from being severely beaten and then hanged by shackles from a metal-grate ceiling. The film expands from Dilawar's case to cover the thousands of detainees who were imprisoned and tortured, according to one interrogator, simply because top U.S. officials "wanted them to be guilty."

Most Introspective Anti-War Film

10. Bashir: Ari Folman and Carmi Cnaa'n
Sony Pictures Classics
Waltz with Bashir
Director: Ari Folman
Rated R

Ari Folman's innovative "animated documentary" was sparked by sessions with an Israeli army psychiatrist; discovering long-buried memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the filmmaker went searching for other reminiscences. The real-life stories include some whimsical anecdotes but culminate near the two Palestinian refugee camps where Phalangist militias rampaged after the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel. The movie was drawn, rather than filmed, in order to capture the protean qualities of memory. Yet it finally shifts to documentary footage — acknowledging that what happened is not just the stuff of individual nightmares.

Runners-up: Ashes of Time Redux, Boy A, Chop Shop, A Christmas Tale, The Exiles, Love Songs, Milk, Religulous, Still Life, Tell No One