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The Year in Film 2008: Signs of life (and a death) in American cinema
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Wild Combination

His statement for the movie still might be the definitive one: "Tropes of video art and family entertainment face off in a luminous orgy neither can survive." Dying of laughter has rarely felt better.

5. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008)

The growing wave of top 10 raves and critic's awards for Alfredson's deeply subversive eternal preteen romance is a rare heartening aspect of this year's feature film malaise.

6. California Company Town (Lee Ann Schmitt, USA, 2008), Viva (Anna Biller, USA, 2007), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2008), and When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, USA, 2008)

The heart of American cinema in 2008 is as wild and strong as these directors' visions. Schmitt's scorched-earth exploration of California's abandoned past, closing with a final chapter on Silicon Valley that refreshingly breaks its own rules and throws down the gauntlet, is the timeliest movie in a year of ever-accumuutf8g economic disaster. Biller's tribute to the bodaciously vivid soft-core fantasies of Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger couples enthusiasm with smarts with kinky results. It also features a character whose incessant cackling laughter practically becomes hallucinogenic. Reichardt starts off what could have been just another shaggy dog story by paying tribute to the Polaroid Kidd (she's also sussed out the new depression), and allows her lead actress's offscreen back story to silently color in a thousand shades of loss. In sync with Skuli Sverrisson's incandescent score, Reeves' movie makes love to nature. The past-tense in the title proves she's looking ahead.

7. Wild Combination (Matt Wolf, USA, 2008)

In his feature debut, the talented 25-year-old Wolf chooses a documentary subject he has an affinity for, and Russell's still-blooming musical legacy automatically gives the film a unique soulful beauty. While the pastoral and waterfront imagery is expected, Wolf's humane insight as an interviewer is a wonder to behold. It results in one of the year's most emotionally powerful films, when following the reticent Russell could have been futile. The final 10 minutes are a complete rebuke to all the idiotic discourse that rails against (and perhaps even for?) gay marriage.

8. Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK/Ireland, 2008) and Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2008)

Is hunger sated by milk? Can milk alone get rid of hunger? Steve McQueen is the last art star with film director aspirations, and Gus Van Sant is a movieland auteur who always seems to look longingly at the art world's white cubes. Both have made bio-dramas about political icons: McQueen speculates about the life and death of IRA leader Bobby Sands, while Van Sant, in case you haven't heard, has realized his fascination with a certain trailblazing gay San Franciscan. Funny, then, that McQueen makes a riveting experimental work that devolves into a standard heroic final passage, while Van Sant crafts a traditional film in drag. In interview, McQueen told me that he thought of Hunger's standout confrontational scene as a bit like the 1982 Wimbledon final. (See, tennis is uniquely cinematic.) But his visceral perspective is most effective early on, when scarcely any words are spoken, and his oblique references to everyone from Jean Genet to Van Sant's old love Alfred Hitchcock don't seem merely precocious.

9. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2008)

I may have enjoyed this movie because I know next to nothing about (and don't give a damn about) Mickey Rourke's misadventures. He arrived in my frame of vision as a modern-day American version of Jean Cocteau's Beast, blinking out some perfectly round tears when he isn't pulling staples out of his leathery salon-tanned hide.

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