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Most critics declared 2008 cinematically inferior to 2007, but I disagree. While I struggled to remember five titles I enjoyed for last year’s list, even settling on the overrated No Country for Old Men (ugh), this year I have trouble narrowing my list to only five. I never doubted, however, which film would make my top slot. Milk isn’t a perfect film—far from it—and I’ll admit to political reasons for its selection. But let’s face it: No film exists in a vacuum. In a landmark election year, it was thrilling to see a sturdy biopic about the godfather of the gay-rights movement that retained a sprinkling of director Gus van Sant’s avant-garde touches.
2. Rachel Getting Married
Though Frozen River may be the only film on the list directed by a woman, Rachel Getting Married shares its distinctively feminine sensibility, thanks to the outstanding script by first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sydney). While many critics downplayed her contribution—giving the credit to director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs)—it was Lumet’s strong ear for dialogue and knowledge of upper-middle-class mores that made this one of the strongest dramas of the year.
3. Frozen River
Poverty. Broken homes. The historical mistreatment of immigrants and Native Americans. As my seatmate cracked, “I didn’t know this was going to be a comedy.” It wasn’t, but it was a good enough movie to salvage a dud of a date. One of the plot twists is pretty unbelievable, and I’m not convinced that the lead performances were quite as revelatory as most of the critics claimed. But with Catherine Hardwicke fired from the Twilight sequel and Sofia Coppola missing in action, it sure feels good to see newcomer Courtney Hunt join the ranks of accomplished female directors.
4. The Visitor
Another film about the mistreatment of immigrants occasionally veered into didacticism, and a simple plot summary would make it sound horrifically boring. Suffice to say that The Visitor is one of those indies that the critics adore, audiences ignore, and the Academy acknowledges with a perfunctory nomination—in this case, probably for Richard Jenkins’ performance as a stuffy professor. But The Visitor is full of scenes that you will still be mulling over days later. There’s a great scene involving an overenthusiastic dog owner that may not make its purpose clear upon first viewing. Do yourself a favor, and send this to the top of your Netflix cue.
5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The most obscure film on this list is also the darkest and the most cheaply made. As two college roommates trying to secure an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are at once heartbreaking and infuriatingly naïve. A small, mean part of me almost wanted to chuckle when the girls thought their black-market abortionist might appreciate some homemade cookies. Of course, he’s after something much more sinister than that, and the idea behind 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is that the criminalization of abortion allows him to get it.