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Palermo's top 10 films of 2008 

The confetti's cleared and the verdict is in. Mark Palermo provides his list of the the best films of 2008..

1) Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller)

No other 2008 movie summarized our culture with more knowing wit. Ben Stiller's directorial effort (a big step up from Zoolander and The Cable Guy) focuses on the insecurities of actors who think they're participating in the filming of a war epic. Any real parody has to take the step of becoming an amplification of what it's making fun of, and Stiller hits the pretentious phoniness of Hollywood's event and issue movies. A series of fake trailers that open Tropic Thunder satirize the star-martyrdom of three ridiculous (but believably real) films. It's a great touch that the serious award-calibre war movie-within-a-movie is fetishly violent and emotionally exploitative. Tropic Thunder is a messy, ambitious movie that works for a lot of reasons, not the least of which are that it's messy and ambitious. It's the landmark comedy in a year that had a lot of verygood ones.

2) My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)

Maddin's take on his hometown is part fact, part fantasia, but as his droll narration explains, "everything in Winnipeg is a euphemism." The side lanes that only locals know about provide a metaphor for Maddin's alternate history. He hires actors to recreate his childhood family life, and presents the snow-filled nighttime streets as a city of the living dead. The scene of horse heads frozen on the surface of the Red River is a fabrication, but it has lingered with me more than any other film image this year. My Winnipeg's comic black-and-white dream-reality is hallucinatory.

3) Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)

More than a celebration of family life through the ritual formalities of a wedding, Rachel Getting Married realistically and non-judgementally looks at support and oppression through the juxtaposition of two sisters. Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is starting her dream life. Sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) is fresh out of rehab for the weekend. She faces the (largely imagined) scrutiny that she hasn't grown up "the right way." Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet leave it up to individual taste to decide whom to side with. The family dynamic is dramatic and profound because it doesn't believe in easy scrutiny or caricature.

4) CJ7 (Stephen Chow)

After Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle got big notice, why was the studio so quick to bury Stephen Chow's CJ7? Evidently Western audiences are confused by an Asian genre movie that isn't about martial arts. Too bad, because the children's film CJ7 is more exhilarating and deep than the bulk of 2008's grown-up fare. From the opening where a young boy is scolded by his teacher when he follows up on his classmates' careerist dreams by stating that he wants to grow up to be a poor person, CJ7 announces itself as a left-field treat. Though his construction worker father can't afford the new toy that could give the kid social acceptance, he's granted something better. When he's visited by an alien, Chow turns CJ7 into a rare, sharp variation of E.T.. The boy's friendship with the creature becomes a lesson in humility and outsider acceptance. This is no Mac and Me.

5) Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Characters repeatedly state, "What the fuck?!"---the Coen Brothers' latest is cohesive in its confusion. Burn After Reading is commonly dismissed as a minor work---another of those comedies the Coens make between serious Oscar films. Repeat viewings (most Coen films need at least two) reveal that its pieces are as carefully placed as No Country For Old Men's. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand parody their real-life personas, all involved in a spy game spiralled far out of their control or understanding. They're dangerously eccentric egos, but the Coens have so much fun with these characters that every false move is a comic moment.

6) W. (Oliver Stone)

W. faded from discussion when it was discovered it wasn't full of sophomoric political jabs. Instead, Oliver Stone was more courageous, taking an artist's understanding that our biggest enemies are human. In one of the year's most remarkable performances, Josh Brolin turns George W. into a being of Shakespearian torment.

7) Hamlet 2 (Andrew Fleming)

"Sometimes an idea can be so bad it starts to turn good again," the high school theatre critic informs the school's drama teacher Dana (Steve Coogan). Dana has been panned for his school plays of movies like Erin Brockovich, but takes his lack of success as an excuse to stage an original work: a musical sequel to Hamlet. Sure, the portrait of the Latin thugs in Dana's drama class will raise some eyebrows at first. But director Fleming makes Hamlet 2 a comedy about push-button liberal and conservative moral outrage that winds up a fresh, feel-good look at the impulse of art and unexpectancy of life. Like the process of putting on a school musical, the movie builds from nothing into a complete, surprising experience. It's why the whole of Hamlet 2 is better than any individual scene in it.

8) Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)

I find Wall-E's social satire too familiar---the movie becomes too message-driven and focuses too heavily on uninteresting humans after establishing the surprising humanity in the robots. The inconsistency is frustrating. But the first 40 minutes of Wall-E are better than any movie released in 2008. In that stretch, director Andrew Stanton and Pixar craft a moving, purely cinematic silent film that stands with the best of them.

9) Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

Whenever someone tells me Mike Leigh is boring, I'm tempted to ask if they consider their life is boring as well. In Happy-Go-Lucky, the daily familiarity of life is engaged through the type of person most movies ignore: an optimistic, spacey, good girl. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) isn't judged derisively, and Happy-Go-Lucky is not, as some weird conspiracy of marketing and reviews want you to believe, a comedy. Leigh views the intersection of different social types, making the everyday world familiar. That's something most movies never do.

10) Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

A documentary ostensibly on the people who choose to live in Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World's fragmented style takes its time to get going. Once it does, it develops into something more fascinating---a thesis on how humans try to maintain a deity complex within a world largely ruled by chaos. Herzog shows bizarre underwater sites and creatures, and points out that a lot of it is beyond understanding. The planet was here before us, and won't die until long after we're wiped out. There's beauty in chaos and the universe beyond our control, so why fear that rather than be humbled by its majesty?

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