More was certainly less in 2008, in which an obscene 650-plus movies nabbed theatrical releases and yet only a paltry few rose to heights that might warrant even inclusion in a discussion of greatness. That such a pitiful percentage made more than a passing dent on the cinematic landscape may simply have been due to the hastiness with which most were shoved out of cineplexes and arthouses to make room for the following week’s batch, though our various Top Tens also suggest that, with a few notable exceptions, both Hollywood and indiewood largely ceded groundbreaking terrain to foreign and nonfiction filmmakers. Documentaries in particular enjoyed a banner year, whether crafted by well-known legends of the medium (Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure) or heretofore-unknown talents (Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s Chris & Don), achieving a richness and insightfulness that only the rare fictional film managed to match. Masters semi-forgotten (Jonathan Demme, André Téchiné) or merely underappreciated by the majority (Mike Leigh, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Catherine Breillat) rallied to help fend off the encircling mediocrity, a cause further aided by the reliably phenomenal folks at Pixar (WALL-E), the distinctively inventive Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York), and an ambitious Christopher Nolan superhero sequel that made equally enormous critical and box-office waves. Meanwhile, what was old was new again, leading to a greater-than-usual quantity of recycled assembly-line junk (Saw, why won’t you just die already?), but also, quite a few comebacks that surprised and enlivened, whether it was Danny Boyle’s ebullient return-to-form with Slumdog Millionaire, Robert Downey Jr.’s blockbuster-aided ascension to superstardom, or—in the year’s most welcome cinema-spotlight homecoming—the incomparably eccentric, electric Mickey Rourke. Nick Schager
1. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
A Dogme film with an Altmanesque soul, Rachel Getting Married is a richly eccentric and instinctive look at addiction and the toils, troubles, and joys of blood relations, in which a recovering alcoholic played by Anne Hathaway struggles to save herself using a language no one either speaks or cares to, set by Jonathan Demme during a wedding whose pretense to multiculturalism reveals itself as a narcissistic clan’s way of disguising from the world that they’re hurting just as badly as the next family.
2. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
Built on sensuous interplays between the landscape of the human face and winding French streets, reality and representation, Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerín’s rapturously alfresco In the City of Sylvia uses an erotically voluptuous language of spatial-temporal equations to conflate one’s love of people with one’s love of movies.
3. The Witnesses (André Téchiné)
A sterling follow-up to his similarly themed Changing Times, The Witnesses is another triumph for the criminally underrated André Téchiné, who uses his sensual humanist verve to home in on the desires and insecurities of a group of friends and lovers when AIDS rattles their sense of complacency.
4. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris)
Errol Morris’s dramatic recreations are his aesthetic signature, and they’re sometimes sore spots in his work, but in his heady Abu Ghraib exposé Standard Operating Procedure they are as purposeful as they were in The Thin Blue Line, cannily dialoguing with his thesis about the veracity of image-making.
5. Summer Palace (Ye Lou)
Summer Palace teems with sex scenes more meaningful than anything in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, hinging on more than just a feeling of duplicity; in them, filmmaker Ye Lou locates the soul of his young people, a woman’s areola and the hairs on a man’s chin popping off the screen as vividly and urgently as placards of political protest.