Taken in its totality, 2008 was a very good year for movies - and not just because it boasted more excellent films than could be contained on a 10-best list. When movie columnists and media pundits weren't looking, there was a surprising mood-shift on the part of many of the best Anglo-American filmmakers. Undiluted despair was out. Intelligent optimism was in.
David Fincher, the man who gave us Se7en and Panic Room, achieved a state of bittersweet exultation in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Although it became chic to regard Pixar's WALL-E as a dystopian screed in goofy computer-animated clothing, it was actually a testament of faith that the same technology that numbs us can ultimately save us.
Danny Boyle, who broke into the top ranks with Trainspotting, pulled off the best kind of rags-to-riches story in Slumdog Millionaire: The ragamuffin hero found riches because of what he learned from hard experience - and the riches were emotional and spiritual as well as material.
The great British filmmaker Mike Leigh, who last directed a film about a hyper-verbal character with the bleak Naked, made a comedy called Happy-Go-Lucky - and it really was happy-go-lucky in its portrait of a woman holding on to her openhearted embrace of life without ignoring reality.
Cynicism can be invigorating to moviemakers, but not in a steady diet. This year's best movies showed how healthy aesthetic diversity can be.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: At its core churns a wonderful Jack London-esque adventure story about a young man shipping out to see the world. On either end of his journey, the director, David Fincher, the writer, Eric Roth, and the star, Brad Pitt, turn a slender F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a fellow born old who ages backward into a stirring tale of innocence, experience and life lived to the hilt (if the wrong way around). It's a thrilling, funny, at times heart-rending fusion of authentic feeling and movie magic. Pitt turns a character who could have been a blank sheet into a panoramic mirror of emotion, and Cate Blanchett, as his true love, is enchanting - a sylphlike muse for Button, the filmmakers and the audience.
WALL-E: Despite its nightmare vision of an Earth overrun with trash and humans grown ovine and ovoid, Andrew Stanton's sci-fi adventure is a lilting daydream of a movie. He and his collaborators at Pixar breathe the spirit of Charlie Chaplin into a squat trash-compacting robot. The result is comic poetry - and one "green" movie that is evergreen in spirit. WALL-E and his beautiful oval robot lover, EVE, help humans rediscover the beauty of real land, real growth and real moviemaking.
Slumdog Millionaire: Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy follow a Mumbai slum urchin who pours everything he's learned on the streets into winning the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? This film puts to shame the fleeting sensations of reality TV. It uses a structure based on the game show's escalating rounds of questioning to open up the volatile world of the Indian underclass. In the process, it conjures a dynamic parable about the power of romantic constancy and the ability of every man to plot his own destiny.
Happy-Go-Lucky: In an era when close-to-the-ground public servants have often been made figures of mockery, no director has done more to celebrate their selflessness than Mike Leigh. In this film he and his star, Sally Hawkins, create a portrait of a primary school teacher who expresses all the creativity, joy and observation needed to stimulate young lives - and to keep up the high spirits and open-ended outlook of a woman who runs on audacity and hope.
The Edge of Heaven: For me, the jigsaw-puzzle, time-hopping storytelling of movies from Pulp Fiction to 21 Grams fulfilled itself at last in director Fatih Akin's splendid film about the eternal pull of family. Akin sets a tale of mothers and daughters, a father and a son against contemporary turmoil in Turkey and Germany. It's about the spaces people need to travel, and to live in, to find out what they want and who they are.
What Just Happened: Barry Levinson created the year's best American comedy with this tale of a Hollywood producer (Robert De Niro) struggling to get one movie in shape for Cannes despite a temperamental, way-out director (Michael Wincott); to roll the cameras on another film despite the insistence of its leading man (Bruce Willis) on wearing a Mosaic beard; and to win back his most-loved ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) despite their enrollment in divorce therapy. Although pegged unfairly as an "insider" movie, it's actually about the fractured and distracted way many of us live. And it features De Niro's subtlest and funniest acting since he appeared in Levinson's Wag the Dog (1997).
Rachel Getting Married: The ties that bind and sometimes smother siblings have rarely received more vibrant treatment than in Jonathan Demme's movie about a recovering-addict (Anne Hathaway) who gets a weekend pass to attend the wedding of her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). Working from Jenny Lumet's individualistic, incisive script, Demme achieves a full-bodied spontaneity that gives his peak moments the impact of found art. When Hathaway goes one-on-one with Debra Winger (who plays her mother), it's the emotional slugfest of the year - in the emotional heavyweight division.
American Teen: In another super year for documentaries, none was more affecting or revelatory than Nanette Burstein's novelistic group portrait of a handful of high-schoolers in Warsaw, Ind. Although it limns the pressure that new technology puts on teens, even when they impulsively or thoughtlessly exploit it, it's mostly about themes that are equally topical and timeless. Burstein charts the creation of individual identities amid the surging emotions of growing up and the sometimes-toxic influence of conformist peers and parents.
Flash of Genius: No classic work of theater has cropped up more often or tellingly in movies this year than Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and no movie better earned the right to invoke it than Marc Abraham's woefully underrated Flash of Genius, the story of Bob Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. Under-promoted and misapprehended as a conventional underdog story, this movie revels in the beauty and the cost of creative fixation. And no actor had a better 2008 than Greg Kinnear, who was a deft light comedian in Ghost Town and delivered an inspired characterization of a wary obsessive here.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona: The year's most welcome surprise was this solar-powered comeback from Woody Allen - a sensuous movie, set in sun-kissed Barcelona, that goes way beyond his early comedies about "sex in the head" to show how much residue sexual desire or experience leaves in the brain and gut and heart. All the actors (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz) achieve a voluptuous relaxation that allows them to fuse thought and passion with ease. The outcome is as fierce as a flamenco, as tender as a lullaby. It treats love as a waking dream that - without the perfect chemistry - can fade as easily as a bedtime story. The film also stars Christopher Evan Welch, Chris Messina, Patricia Clarkson and Emilio de Benito.