The Academy Awards announce their choices on Sunday. These are mine.

Take
TAKE

Directed by Charles Oliver • When I saw it at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, I thought Minnie Driver would be nominated for Best Actress and that writer-director Charles Oliver would be greeted as an exciting new voice in cinema. However, in July 2008 Take was released to no fanfare and poor reviews — it deserves better. It’s an elegantly constructed drama about two lives that intersect in a moment of tragedy and intersect again in a kind of forgiveness. Its ending has been criticized as an anticlimax, but it’s not a film about an explosive catharsis. It’s about carrying the weight of the world, and in a moment deciding whether to hold on to it or let it go.

Standard Operating Procedure
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE

Directed by Errol Morris • Detailing the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, Morris’s documentary is a lacerating indictment of pass-the-buck politics told through interviews with the so-called “bad apples” responsible for the scandal, a group of young scapegoats who posed for the pictures that showcased the abuse. Not all of them are blameless innocents, but it’s clear that the crime they were punished for was not the one committed against the prisoners; no, they went to jail for publicly embarrassing the military leadership and the Bush administration, who beyond the infamous photographs were guilty of far greater crimes they will never be held accountable for.

The Edge of Heaven
THE EDGE OF HEAVEN

Directed by Fatih Akin • It tells three stories that are really one: a survey of the growing pains of globalization as seen through the eyes of characters exchanging love, death, hope, and forgiveness across borders between Germany and Turkey. As the world shrinks, cultures collide in messy variations, but this isn’t a dry lesson in geopolitics. Writer-director Akin tells his story on ground level and achieves intimacy through characters who cannot see how intricately their lives interconnect, but we can. Hanna Schygulla has the pivotal role, as a woman who learns firsthand how tragedy can result and shows us that redemption is equally within reach.

Young @ Heart
YOUNG @ HEART

Directed by Stephen Walker • Aging is a subject of dread for many, or contempt, or ridicule. Walker’s documentary, which follows an elderly rock chorus as they rehearse new songs for a concert, instead favors compassion. Promoted on the basis of its humor — old fogies sing edgy rock tunes! — it penetrates deeper to explore the singers’ thoughts and feelings about mortality. It becomes a full-hearted tribute to those who age gracefully despite their physical frailties and contains music that sounds altogether richer through their voices. Listening to Fred Knittle perform Coldplay’s “Fix You,” I felt as though I only then understood what it meant.

The Dark Knight
THE DARK KNIGHT

Directed by Christopher Nolan • I seldom get excited over superhero movies, but then this isn’t really a superhero movie at all. The Caped Crusader is a welcome guest in a drama that excites some of the same thoughts as the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Nolan, whose films from Memento to The Prestige have explored the theme of men at war with their shadow selves, explodes that notion to explore how the war shapes us all. Batman and the Joker (the unforgettable Heath Ledger) converge on a battlefield of the soul to determine if we are moral creatures or if indeed our inner heroes give way to villains when we are pushed to our limit.

Rachel Getting Married
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

Directed by Jonathan Demme • Jenny Lumet’s remarkable screenplay is the centerpiece of Demme’s drama about family dysfunction, unfolding layer upon layer of pain in the subtlest, purest of ways. Upon her discharge from a drug treatment facility, black sheep Kym Buchman (Oscar-nominated Anne Hathaway) is thrown immediately back into the emotional murk that has shaped her destiny as an addict. The Buchmans’ lives have been driven by a loss that took place several years prior, and the actors, writer, and director are so attuned to the nuances of the family relationships that every word and gesture feels unerringly true.

Snow Angels
SNOW ANGELS

Directed by David Gordon Green • It begins with two gunshots and then unfolds in an agonizing slow-burn towards tragedy. Written and directed by Green, from a novel by Stewart O’Nan, it establishes its small-town setting with perfect detail and pulls back gradually to show us more and more, until the story comes full circle and reveals itself with complete clarity. Starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale as the estranged parents of a young daughter and Michael Angarano in a breakthrough performance as a teen in a budding romance, the film presents characters we come to know so well they break our hearts.

The Wrestler
THE WRESTLER

Directed by Darren Aronofsky • Mickey Rourke gives the performance of his career in the year’s best character study. With tender vulnerability and powerhouse physicality, he plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a Hulk Hogan-esque pro wrestler whose ‘80s glory days are long over. His story, which moves with the trajectory of Greek tragedy, is set against the backdrop of the underground wrestling circuit, which Aronofsky shows with an unsentimental eye — the broken bodies and faded careers, the injuries both emotional and physical, with Randy as its focal point. He’s got only one thing in the world he’s good at, but it may not be enough anymore.

The Fall
THE FALL

Directed by Tarsem Singh • It was more a quest than a movie production. Singh flew his actors to extraordinary locations in two dozen countries, composed shots of unimaginable logistical difficulty, and with editor Robert Duffy assembled them into a narrative of peerless imagination and grace. It’s revolutionary filmmaking in how old-fashioned it is: no green screens, no digital effects, just the camera capturing images from untold corners of the world. But what elevates the film to greatness is the story at its core, about a young girl recovering in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s and the man who hopes to make her an unwitting accomplice in his suicide by telling her the story that incorporates the magnificent imagery. By the end, I felt grateful to have seen it. Sometimes they do still make movies like they used to.

WALL-E
WALL-E

Directed by Andrew Stanton • One of the decade’s great achievements in cinema art, it is the rare animated film that can take its inspiration from Charlie Chaplin and 2001: A Space Odyssey and earn them. It is composed of shots so expressive, so eloquent, so elevating in their effect that I was nearly moved to tears.

I will never forget the shot of a lighter’s flame reflected in the eyes of lonely robot WALL-E, or the celestial dance between WALL-E and the more advanced robot EVE, with whom he falls in love. I marveled at the opening third of the film, which with a precious economy of words expresses a profound criticism of a culture of mindless consumption. I felt sadness for those gelatinous blobs in the automated chairs, oblivious to the beauty around them.

There was no better romance last year than WALL-E, and no satire more incisive. It is an unqualified masterpiece and the best film of 2008.

________________________________________
THE SECOND STRING

The runners-up — consider this a five-way tie for eleventh place.

Sara Simmonds and Scoot McNairy, in 'In Search of a Midnight Kiss'
IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS
Directed by Alex Holdridge • Inspired by Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, writer-director Holdridge’s film follows Wilson and Vivian (the terrific Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds) in their search for someone to kiss when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s. The dialogue is so good and the characters so winning that I wanted scenes to go on and on; it was bittersweet to bid them farewell.

Philippe Petit, in 'Man on Wire'
MAN ON WIRE
Directed by James Marsh • A joyous documentary about Philippe Petit, the daredevil who walked along a high wire between the towers of the World Trade Center. Marsh wisely avoids any mention of 9/11; he understands that it isn’t a story about terror or loss. Simply, it’s about a remarkable event that happened under unlikely circumstances because a small group of people wanted to create something in the sky.

Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, in 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day'
MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY
Directed by Bharat Nalluri • Underneath a delightful screwball romance is a surprisingly trenchant look at women in 1930s London who adapt to survive. Failed governess Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) refashions herself as a social secretary. American country girl Delysia (Amy Adams) styles herself into a high-class singer and actress. And all around them a nation hurtles blithely towards its entry into World War II and the loss of a generation’s innocence.

Laura Dern, in 'Recount'
RECOUNT
Directed by Jay Roach • Detailing the legal battles that followed the 2000 US presidential election, Roach’s HBO docudrama has dry subject matter — lawsuits, countersuits, statutes, precedents, and those infamous hanging chads — but as shown through the eyes of Gore advisor Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey) it has the exhilarating momentum of a thriller. It expresses outrage but is leavened by humor — political upheaval as an absurd comedy of errors.

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer, in 'Transsiberian'
TRANSSIBERIAN
Directed by Brad Anderson • Anderson channeled Hitchcock to co-write and direct one of the best pure entertainments of 2008, about a young missionary couple (Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson) who encounter danger on a train. It works so well because Anderson’s script (co-written by Will Conroy) demonstrates a great understanding of how to generate and sustain suspense throughout a story. It should be studied in screenwriting classes.

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