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Eight movies for 2008

| Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009

Memory is a strange, unpredictable thing -- it's hard to know with certainty what you'll remember one year from now, or 10. The big joys and traumas stick with you. But the hundreds of little things that make life worth living -- like a sweltering summer afternoon spent blissfully enveloped in the cool netherworld of a movie theater -- are harder to keep straight.

If you saw a great movie in the past year, but can barely remember it now -- was it really that great•

"Changeling," "Traitor," "Body of Lies," "Synecdoche, New York," "Appaloosa," "Vicky Christina Barcelona," "Lakeview Terrace" -- I enjoyed these movies at the time, and remember bits and pieces. But less than a year later, they've almost totally disappeared from my mind.

Maybe they got pushed to the back of the line by the onslaught of Oscar-bait at the end of the year (the beginning of '09 for us in "flyover country"). Maybe they weren't that good to begin with. Maybe this is just what they call "getting old."

Then there's the movies I wish I could forget. From the comedy Kryptonite of Mike Myers in "The Love Guru" to the stupefyingly sluggish suspense of "The Happening" to the asinine action of "Wanted," 2008 brought a bumper crop of cinematic bummers.

Then there was the "Sex and the City" movie, which I may spend the rest of my life trying to forget.

All that aside, there were quite a few movies in 2008 that I'm fairly confident that I'll remember -- that I'll want to remember. Here are eight, for 2008 (and a sliver of 2009): "Wall-E," "Waltz with Bashir," "Persepolis," "Let the Right One In," "Gran Torino," "The Wrestler," "The Visitor" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

First of all, if you weren't animated in 2008, you weren't trying hard enough. Three "cartoons" blew me away. The first was "Wall-E," another Pixar-perfect product assembled with precision by the world's top animation studio, which takes more and better risks than any of the year's best picture nominees. It's a post-apocalyptic slapstick satire of consumer culture run amok, about a little robot who has become the last sentient resident of a long-since despoiled Earth -- well, other than his buddy the cockroach -- until a mysterious, high-tech new robot probe arrives, and he falls in love.

The other two were animated memoirs. "Persepolis," based on the graphic novel-memoir by Marjane Satrapi, is a history of modern Iran compressed into the story of a mischevious, precocious young girl with a very active imagination. It begins when Marjane is knee-high, obsessed with Bruce Lee and convinced that she will become a great prophet, and takes us through the revolution, oppression under the Ayatollahs, reluctant exile in Europe and her uneasy stuck-between-worlds return.

The other is "Waltz with Bashir," an Israeli's attempt to learn the truth about what happened in 1982, when, as a young soldier, he took part in the invasion of Lebanon, which triggered a massacre of Palestinian refugees by one of their allied factions. This film is a kind of interior journalism of the soul, as its protagonist digs through memories, nightmares, old friends and enemies to learn what really occurred, and the part he played.

As for the non-animated films, there are two rugged, weather-beaten and world-weary faces that I won't soon forget.

Mickey Rourke's down-and-out grappler in "The Wrestler" is a struggling artist whose canvas is the ring, his medium, blood and punishment. It's a deeply personal performance, clearly informed by Rourke's own traumatic, often-scraping-bottom personal life.

Then there's the craggy Mt. Rushmore face of Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino," as an angry, racist retired autoworker -- radiating withering contempt and squinty-eyed spleen at a world that has left him behind. Slowly, his sense of justice is aroused after witnessing a local gang preying on the family of Hmong refugees living next door, and he strikes up an unexpected friendship with the awkward kid who tries to steal his car. But he never softens, never mellows, never sells out -- and if any 80-year-old grandpa can intimidate a crew of gangbangers, it's this guy.

2008 was the year that teen vampires drew blood at the box office, with the smash hit "Twilight." So it was easy to miss the best vampire movie in decades -- the sinister, suspenseful, artfully bloody and heartbreakingly sad Swedish film "Let the Right One In."

A bullied young boy finally makes a friend when a pale, dark-haired young girl moves in next door. Unfortunately, she needs human blood to survive. This may be a deal-breaker to some, but their mutual loneliness and awkward, tentative puppy-love charmingly trumps all needs for self-preservation.

Then there were two movies that speak to our uneasy, globalized present with an eloquence rarely seen on the big screen. The first is "The Visitor," about a solitary, emotionally bruised economics professor (Richard Jenkins) who strikes up an unusual friendship with a African immigrant musician who he finds illegally squatting in his New York City apartment. They form a bond through the international language of music, but it's put to the test when the young musician is picked up by the immigration authorities. This could have easily been a maudlin, unlikely buddy movie, but Jenkins' wonderfully subtle, controlled performance made it ring true.

The other is "Slumdog Millionaire," a charming old-timey Hollywood heartstrings-puller set in the booming metropolis of Mumbai where a child of the most squalid slum rises to the top the only way he can -- through India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" It's got a charming coming-of-age story, spiced with touches of brutal social realism, and garish, musical Bollywood fantasy.

OK, that's eight -- and I just realized I've left out Sean Penn's stellar turn in "Milk" and Meryl Streep's steely performance in "Doubt." Maybe 2008 wasn't so bad after all.

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