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Steve Persall's top movie picks of 2008

Americans ran for cover in 2008, while the economy crashed monumentally around them.

As cash-strapped generations had done before, many sought shelter in movie theaters.

It isn't coincidence that many top box office hits of all time, when adjusted for inflation, were released during the Great Depression era and recessions that followed, including this one.

More than $9-billion — enough to bail out an automaker, but slightly lower than last year's take — was spent at box offices in 2008. Movies are still the cheapest form of pop culture escapism, despite ticket prices rising to a record average of $7.08.

That's a small price to be whisked away from reality for a couple of hours.

Moviegoers spent most of their money doing just that. The top 10 moneymakers of 2008 featured superheroes (Batman, Iron Man, Hancock), adventurers (Indiana Jones, James Bond) and cartoon dreamers (Wall-E, Po the panda, the Madagascar menagerie and Horton hearing a Who), with teen vampire crushes (Twilight) edging out incredible shopping sprees (Sex and the City) for 10th place.

Now it's time to get real.

The best movies aren't always the most popular, in an era when brand names and celebrity hype are often stronger consumer influences than quality. Only one of 2008's leading hits makes my list of the year's top films. Maybe two others had any chance.

I'm as much of an escapist as anyone. But for sheer feel-good movies I prefer the inspiring seniors of Young@Heart, the Southern charm of The Secret Life of Bees and the epic sprawl of Australia. Kung Fu Panda was as lovely as Wall-E and much more fun. I loved the violent fantasy of Wanted and the true-life vineyard victory in Bottle Shock.

Escapism for a movie critic is also discovering tiny gems amid the gold rush, like The Visitor and Frozen River, reminders that movies about genuine people combined with great acting and screenwriting still have their places. Just not in the marketplace.

Neither do those cinematic pleasures belong in my top 10 rankings, evidence that 2008 was, indeed, a very good year at the movies. Tough times also bring out the best in cinema artists, as Hollywood has consistently proved from the Depression through hot and cold wars and Watergate until today.

In reverse order of excellence, these were the medium's finest hours in 2008. A few choices haven't debuted locally yet. Release dates are noted when available and subject to change.

10Waltz with Bashir. I saw this at the Telluride Film Festival and pray it will come here. Ari Folman is a former Israeli soldier haunted by war, who tracked down former comrades to beat his demons. Folman turned the interviews into an animated documentary — the first ever to my knowledge — making nightmares and flashbacks more vivid, and talking heads fascinating to watch.

9Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Alex Gibney is the best documentarian working today, perhaps the only one capable of cracking into Thompson's banshee genius. Gonzo is rife with rare footage, anecdotes from all ends of the political and social spectrum, and loving narration by Johnny Depp. Gibney presents a strong case for Thompson as the pre-eminent author and satirist of his generation.

8Frost/Nixon. Thompson would have ripped Ron Howard's movie to shreds, but I admire Howard's intimately drawn adaptation of Peter Morgan's play about Richard Nixon's television interview/confession with previously lightweight host David Frost. Frank Langella's compelling impersonation of Nixon is awards material, while Michael Sheen (The Queen) as Frost gets better with each viewing. (Opens Thursday.)

7Rachel Getting Married/Happy-Go-Lucky. These movies about strikingly different women were reviewed in tandem, so the shared honor fits. Rachel Getting Married rises from the ashes of Anne Hathaway's rehabbing prodigal daughter, while Happy-Go-Lucky soars on Sally Hawkins' serial optimism. Directors Jonathan Demme and Mike Leigh, respectively, know their women. (Now in theaters.)

6Let the Right One In. Forget Twilight. If you want a romantic vampire movie with appropriate bite, this Swedish horror flick is the one. Director Tomas Alfredson masterfully frames the tale of two children, one a bloodsucker, sharing a crush. Alternately beautiful and terrifying, Let the Right One In is 2008's best foreign language film. (Opens Jan. 2 at Tampa Theatre.)

5Milk. My only minor complaint about Gus Van Sant's film was its repetitiveness. But hammering ideas was what Harvey Milk was all about. Sean Penn is extraordinary as the slain San Francisco politician and gay rights activist, with solid support from James Franco as Milk's lover and Josh Brolin as his murderer. The 1970s period detail is perfect, while recent gay rights voting results make Milk explosively topical. (Now in theaters.)

4The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke's astonishing performance seems wrenchingly autobiographical, only in a different performance art downfall. Rourke plays a washed-up pro wrestler reaching for love from his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a stripper (Marisa Tomei). Director Darren Aronofsky tells a simple story exceedingly well, while Rourke reminds us of the talent he has wasted. (Opens Jan. 23.)

3The Dark Knight. Maybe you've seen this one. Christopher Nolan's continued revision of Batman's myth set a higher standard for popcorn art, as Jurassic Park did 15 years ago. Heath Ledger's harrowing Joker is a villain for the ages, a portrayal that didn't require his death to become legendary. Every blockbuster from now on is challenged to equal The Dark Knight's near-perfection as well as its ticket sales.

2The Reader. Stephen Daldry's post-Holocaust drama is equal parts Summer of '42, Last Tango in Paris and Judgment at Nuremberg, an erotic coming-of-age story amid historic tragedy. Kate Winslet is Oscar-worthy as a former Auschwitz guard whose affair with a teenager (impressive newcomer David Kross) results in fascinating conflict. The power of literature is a key theme, with a brilliant, devastating twist. (Opens Thursday.)

1Slumdog Millionaire. It takes a genius to beat Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and an ingenious filmmaker to turn that premise into a superior movie. Danny Boyle did it, in rarely seen Mumbai, India, surroundings with a Dickensian childhood leading to gangland turmoil. Everything that Jamal (Dev Patel) experienced boosts his game show chances, a life vividly revealed in flashbacks. See Slumdog Millionaire in theaters now.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Steve Persall's top movie picks of 2008 12/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 2:47pm]

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