The Bestest 2008 – Tunage

Unlike the film business that has now left hugely fallow patches during the year in favor of timely Oscar release consideration, the music business is now so diverse and alive with new approaches that great records emerge daily, finding audiences across the internet through hugely viral discovery methods: Twitter, imeem, Facebook, Myspace,, and Pitchfork. Now fifteen years into my labor of “Bestest” love, I am able to spot not coincidental trends in my own musical preferences having much to do with my own state of mind and yes, the inevitable effect of growing older. This year my favorite records tended to be folksy, 70’s influenced , but the below list also includes what seemed like echoes of all the other genres I have loved throughout the years.

1. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes / Sun Giant EP (SubPop)

These days I know almost instantly when I am hearing what will become my favorite record of the year. I have been intermittently grinding the five songs on the Foxes’ debut EP ‘Sun Giant’ (especially the epic ‘Mykonos’ and ‘English House’) and the 11 songs on the self-titled masterpiece ‘Fleet Foxes’ for the eight months since I accidently stumbled on the band at one of their earliest NYC shows. The Foxes play a deliciously derivative fusion of 70’s Americana rock; imagine a bit of CSN&Y or America, mixed with Brian Wilson’s exquisite SoCal choral moments as well as a dash of Appalachian gospel. Seattle’s Fleet Foxes are the much anticipated next branch to fall after My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Devendra Banhart. Flannel shirts and beards are back, but with a kind of modern authenticity, led by the exquisite vocals of Robin Pecknold.

But what sets the band apart is more their range. On a handful of tunes the band is able to create multiple songs within a single structure by pivoting off of dead-stop transitions from acoustic harmony to electric rock anthem. It will be hard to unseat a record like this one for a long time. It will sit comfortably atop that evergreen go-to shelf which includes Buckley’s “Grace”, Midlake’s “Van Occupather,” Galaxie 500’s “On Fire” and another twenty or so records that will never fall from their high perch. This is a classic.

2. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar)

No one loves quiet folk more than I do, but for some odd reason on my first two distracted passes, “For Emma” felt almost too precious. On top of that, at the time I was pretty far gone into the hymn-like orchestrations of the Fleet Foxes. But standing with about a thousand swaying souls at the Outside Lands Music Festival on an oddly typical gray, but pleasant summer afternoon in San Francisco, Bon Iver began to make perfect and beautiful sense.

This is largely acoustic strumming, but with layer upon layer of vocal harmony building towards these almost Pentecostal hand clapping sing-alongs. On songs like “The Wolves” it starts slow and easy enough before exploding into a beautiful percussive cacophony of restrained emotion. To call a record like this folk would be to pay them an immense creative disservice. Sure there are guitars, hushed drums, but this is so much bigger and original. On “Blindsided” or “Re: Stacks” nothing is wasted, not a line or a strum. The nine songs here are as genuine and authentic as can be. Emma must have been quite special.

3. Girl Talk – Feed the Animals (Illegal Art)

What is this- A hip-hop record, dance music, a “mash-up?” It took until my third, and at the time, last, listen to begin to understand how incredible a record this really was. Not since The Avalanches’ masterful 900 sample debut “Since I Left You” in the late 90’s has there been such a compelling, creative exploration of the history of modern music. On “Feed the Animals” closet genius Gregg Gillis weaves together hundreds of desert island classics, as well as guilty pleasures, into 14 neatly compressed loosely hip-hop seeming masterpieces.

From The Band and Fleetwood Mac, Sinead O’Connor and the Cranberries, Nirvana and Procol Harem, Big Country and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Police and Springsteen, The Beach Boys and the Kinks, Frampton to the Jackson 5, the record flows seamlessly between samples reconciling nostalgic childhood bookmarks and longer- lasting favorites. Sure we have been living in a world of samples for 25 years now, but they are rarely, if ever used so creatively. With this record I managed to tick off every conceivable genre I might have naively neglected for this year’s list.

4. Blitzen Trapper – Furr (SubPop)

Although I was always more a Nick Drake or Donovan fan than Dylan; Dylan is certainly a broader muse to all musicians and critics. Blitzen Trapper was, until this masterpiece, always a band prone to experimental freakouts amidst infinite potential. On “Furr” the band applies healthy amounts of restraint from abstraction and they mine history for that balance between nostalgia and relevant modernism. Yes there is Easy Rider folk (“Furr”) complete with harmonica solos and acoustic strumming, Neil Young balladry (“Not Your Lover Anymore”), and old school Tom Petty arena rock (“Gold For Bread”), but there is also something so refreshing and comfortable about the way they mine the past.

Oddly the first time I saw the band live, on a rainy night at the Bowery Ballroom early in 2008, the opening band was a then little known band called the Fleet Foxes. Ultimately I think I was so mesmerized by the originality and intimacy of the Foxes, that I wasn’t able to fully grasp how talented Blitzen Trapper really was. If consistency and cohesion is what defines how you feel about a record, this will prove frustrating, but if diversity is what you are after, nothing spans a broader canvas than “Furr.”

5. TV on the Radio – Dear Science (DGC/Interscope)

Finally a TVOTR record I can love. After years of sincere but unemotional “appreciation” for the abstract-indie “dance” music of Brooklyn’s crown princes, the band opens everything up a bit for pop fanatics like me. That is not to say that anything here is straight forward in the literal sense, but the grooves here are warmer, the melodies less corrupted by the bands desire to muck it up with distortion or free jazz abstraction. There is still that intensity and desire to rise above the background, the choruses here are infectious, the throbbing beats compulsive, and the hooks unavoidable.

Tunes like “Crying” are toe tapping-funk bliss, derived from the early records of Prince, while “Halfway Home” is more of that space evolved distinctly by the band over the past decade. I am certainly not alone in singing the high praises of “Dear Science,” and the band hardly needs another small time blogger pimping their obvious genius, but I would be remiss in not holding them way up as one of 2008 highlights.

6. Femi Kuti – Day By Day (Downtown) / Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80 (Disorient)

Who says the progeny of true music legends can’t ever seem to measure up? Two of the many sons of Afrobeat originator and pioneer Fela Kuti have released albums that not only can stand on their own two feet, but even stand a chance of enduring the inevitable test of time.

Femi is now a bunch of records into his successful own and on “Day to Day” he continues his migration away from the direct continuation of his father’s brand of big orchestra percussion and brass thumping Africanized funk. This record is quite a bit more focused both vocally and instrumentally, more like reggae or 70’s era American funk. The songs are shorter, but the beats tend to follow the classic infrastructure of Afrobeat. For fans his earlier albums or those of his father this is a nice subtle evolution, for new fans this is a really accessible introduction to the genre.

The debut by younger brother Seun on the other hand, is cut impeccably from the legacy left by his father. This is old school Afrobeat. It’s built on long deep grooves played by many of the original orchestra members from his father’s band. The songs are fiercely political (“Na Oil” and “African Problems”) and sung with all the passion of a leader who transcends merely the pulpit of music. There is much to love about this record, but it isn’t so much anything new as the rightful passing of a torch and tradition from father to son – perfectly executed.

7. Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)

I am a huge sucker for that occasional ‘big’ sounding rock band not yet big enough for me to immediately discount, yet melodic enough to enjoy as some sort of profoundly guilty pleasure without the guilt. Unfortunately armed with a silly name, sure to polarize audiences, Frightened Rabbit is a Scottish band who seems like a long lost soul mates to Ireland’s Frames, Scotland’s Snow Patrol or even the recently pop-afflicted Okkervil River.

To be clear, this is a large, emotive, and crescendo building rock record, but I don’t care. If not for the recurrent use of the F word, the song “Keep Yourself Warm” would blow up through the blogosphere right into the dreaded world of commercial radio. Perhaps this is why they jinxed the song in such a way. Of all the finds you are not likely to stumble upon, enjoy this diamond in the rough!

8. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive (Vagrant)

Unlike the earliest Hold Steady fanatics, I wasn’t hooked by the raw more blue collar punk of first few records, but by the prominently Springsteen- like authentic quality of their last two records that struck a chord. “Stay Positive” is a keyboard and piano-based rock record chocked-filled with hummable, swaggering bar-band bravado, but done with just enough almost cheeky guitar solos to establish that the band has a sense of humor as well as a deep appreciation for big rock songs.

There are three kinds of songs on this record though: 1) not-too-sappy, yet beautiful ballads like “Navy Sheets” 2) rock romps filled willing dueling guitars and keys “Sequestored in Memphis” and 3) and more brooding rock short stories that start slow and build to a massive fist pumping crescendos “Constructive Summer.” I guess that’s what makes this record so good. The Hold Steady really do one thing, but in three different ways and it all sounds great.

9. Rodriguez – Cold Fact (Light In The Attic)

“Cold Fact” is easily the most undeservedly unearthed re-released album this year. This is one of two folk/psychedelic masterpieces released by Mexican, Detroit native, Sixto Rodriguez. There is quite a bit of colorful legend here like the fluky audiences that gravitated to this record in South Africa and then later in Australia, and thento his rediscovery this year. Have no doubt the Donovanesque folk tune “Sugar Man” about drug dealers, and the psychedelic guitar groove “Hate Street Dialogue,” also about drug dealers, sound a bit dated until you realize just how well it has aged. For those that argue that the dawn of the digital has created too much to chose from, “Cold Fact” represents how well the long tail works as a way for overlooked art to resurface and find an audience. This is truly an unfairly forgotten classic.

10. The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age of the Understatement (Domino)

Spinoffs so early in the career of over-hyped indie rockers rarely bear fruit. Granted this is an Arctic Monkeys side project, to me that doesn’t even provide that much credibility. But from the first few notes, I was bought in. This record is at times dominated by that dusty swagger of Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack music, at others it is a brooding Bryan Ferry inflicted drama. Much of this brought out by the always prevalent classical strings and horns backdrop that sets the tone to many of the songs.

There is still the issue of that very familiar vocal signature, which is both a tad nasal, but also an oddly compelling conveyor of forward motion. In the end, from the black and white cover art to the almost gothic or Renaissance inflected vibe from the “Age of Understatement,” there is a wonderful sense of time in place captured here that is quite unique. Although the album goes by in a breezy 35 minutes, songs like ‘My Mistakes Were Made for You” and “Standing Next to Me” will be the ones I return to when the dust eventually settles.

11. M83 – Saturday=Youth (Mute)

Apprehension, nostalgia and finally joy. That pretty much sums up my feelings about “Saturdays=Youth.” This is a lovely, occasionally saccharine, French synth-pop masterpiece by M83 wonderkind Anthony Gonzalez. Harkening back to that long lost 4AD sound defined by Cocteau Twins, Lush and Pale Saints, M83 is a breezy, upbeat 80’s influenced melody. Listening to this album in the splendid isolation of noise canceling headphones on a cross country flight immediately brought to mind the feeling I got from the early John Hughes high school epics.

Songs like “Graveyard Girl” just seem to float freely on that thin blue ephemeral line that is the moment. There is nothing serious going on here, except that the idea that capturing and bottling happiness is so hard to actually do. This record is “youth” personified, both fleeting and emotional, but without the cynicism that comes with growing old.

12. Hercules and Love Affair – Hercules and Love Affair (Mute)

My flirtation with electronica has been slowly waning for the past few years. Although I’ll always lapse back into the Kruder & Dorfmeister sessions, the Hotel Costes records, and Gilles Peterson, I have largely lost that loving feeling. Then along comes this disco record, probably best played at clubs that open their doors hours after I am soundly asleep. Featuring the fragile yet exquisite vocals of Antony Hegarty (of the gorgeous goth folkies Antony and the Johnsons). All of a sudden, like a time traveler from the mid-70’s or club kid from the early 90’s, I am tapping my feet and bobbing my head like somebody who actually likes to dance.

Without my soft spot for Hegarty, I would have blown through this album once without much thought, but here I am, liking it more each time. No bones about it, this is modern disco, and although not all of it is perfect most of it very very good. Tracks like “Time Will” and “Blind” bop with a gothic sheen, while “Hercules Theme” is straight-up platform shoe Saturday Night Fever. This album will polarize fans of smart music, but I’m happy to count this as an extremely guilty pleasure.

13. Crystal Stilts – Alight of Night (Slumberland)

In the late 90’s when Interpol and The Strokes decided to dust off the old Joy Division or Jesus and Mary Chain vinyl in an attempt to reinvent or at least pay homage to the forgotten masters, they did so with enough distance not to be accused of plagiary. Crystal Stilts don’t seem to worry too much about direct inspiration, and instead embrace their forefathers overtly. “Alight of Night” is a murky, jangly debut filled with boppy hooks and a shady swagger. The consistently tinny drums (think Beat Happening) and brooding vocals (a less intense Ian Curtis) create all the atmosphere you need to dawn the eyeliner and sway like zombies at a prom.

On “Crystal Stilts” you can hear most directly the familiar discordant swirl of the past, while “Prismatic Room” is that sunnier shade of gray that tends to grow on you like a pleasant kind of West Coast moss. Of all the albums that turned me on this year, this one is probably the least likely to appeal to the masses, but like M83, most likely to hit a chord for those who still miss the 80’s and some of the sounds that defined the era.

14. Sun Kil Moon – April (Caldo Verde)

There are some voices so distinctive, and so seductive that even though the basic pace and construct manages to stay the same album after album, the music always sounds new. Mark Kozalek (aka Sun Kil Moon, and former Red House Painter impresario) is one of those artists. His voice is deep and oddly flat, his songs are dark but somehow always emotive and epic seeming, and his lyrics smart, honest and poetic. He has been in films (“Almost Famous,””Shopgirl”), covered everyone from John Denver to AC/DC to Modest Mouse, and has created a legacy of creating some of the finest records of the past fifteen years.

“April,” his first original effort in five years, is an absolute jewel. The ten songs begin with the elegiac “Lost Verse” a ten minute pristinely patient jam highlighting Kozalek’s trademarked guitar strumming, and soulful croons. His songs are stories, mostly topical observations made by people the singer knows, might know or might have observed. Like most of his House Painters or eponymous recordings, Kozalek’s music is slow and plodding, beautiful and glimmering but only if consumed in the right state of mind. But so many of these songs just seem to slowly rise up into something bigger, longer and louder than you would have anticipated. “April” is a stripped down affair, but one that sparkles. Cameo’s from Will Oldham and Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard add perfect little ornaments to the preciousness of another quiet classic.

15. The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)

Barely a month into 2009 and we already have a contender for the best record of the year. This is a soaring emotive affair filled with songs as ambitious as those of “War” era U2, and complete with an often oddly familiar sounding guitar riffs and vocals that almost allude to those of a much younger Bono. But having never seen the band live, it is hard to imagine how a two piece band can create songs at this scale. Unlike the other guitar and drum dominated duos like the White Stripes or Black Keys, The Helio Sequence creates complex song structures that remind you more of the shoegazing serenity of My Bloody Valentine, than they do of more stripped down and direct rock outfits. Like the great studio bands of the 70’s (Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan), there is a purity and a clarity that seems refreshing in an age of electronica.

The ten songs on “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” begin with big rock anthems and end in the form of a quiet folky acoustic numbers akin to what you can hear sprinkled throughout the later career Replacements albums. The band is equally capable on both ends of the spectrum, capturing both the intimacy and emotion but making sure each carefully crafted song leaves enough room for easy joy. Like labelmates Band of Horses, this is a record for people who love melody and harmony, and appreciate bands who study the history of rock and continue to add to the legacy.

These records are pretty damn good as well ….

16. Stephen Malkmus – Real Emotional Trash (Matador)
17. Mia Doi Todd – Gea (City Zen Records ) 
18. Dr. Dog – Fate (Park The Van)
19. Wye Oak – If Children (Merge)
20. Deerhunter – Microcastle (Kranky)

The Bestest 2008 – Filmmage

In some ways it is frustrating being a film fanatic these days. For the first three quarters of the year, good studio films slowly drip into the market, with most of them held back until December so they remain fresh when the Award season begins. During the empty Spring and Fall periods all the great indies leak quietly into the theaters but rarely remain longer than a few weeks before disappearing into that abyss that exists until the DVD is released. Summer of course is dominated largely by brainless big budget crud (“The Dark Knight” excluded). But through it all there was an endless sea of movies to pursue. This year was a good one, but then again if you work hard enough they all are.

1. The Wrestler – Dir. Darren Aronofsky (Mickey Rourke, Marissa Tomei)

For me a film like this is a shoe-in to top “The Bestest:” a transformational lead performance, a gritty and at times hard to watch subject matter, and a storyline that is both theatrical yet plausible. Like the other mostly epic feathers in director Aronofsky’s cap (“Requiem for a Dream” and “PI” specifically) “The Wrestler” feels like it is shot from right up close – close enough to the see all of mankind’s imperfections magnified almost to the point of intimate discomfort.
But beyond just the craft and style of this film, it would be impossible to imagine how this could even be a film without the performance of Mickey Rourke. Beyond the obvious art imitating life curiosity, Rourke and his bulked up, bruised and abused body, complete with eyes that have clearly visited the emotional places of his character. He infuses the role of Randy the Ram, a washed out former wrestling star, with an authenticity that is transcendent. Although the film belongs to Rourke, the consistently underrated Marissa Tomei delivers yet another brave and soul- baring performance. “The Wrestler” was the film that made me “feel” the most this year, and I believe it will stand the test of time and will sit proudly next to the gritty goodness of “Rocky” when we look back years from now.

2. Slumdog Millionaire – Dir. Danny Boyle (Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor)

It might help to think of “Slumdog Millionaire” as a bit like “City of God” set in India, but spiced up with a bit more Dickens. This is a very good thing. “Slumdog” is an epic saga that follows the life of Jamal, a young Indian boy in Mumbai, who suddenly finds himself orphaned, and shivering to stay dry in an old boxcar with his older brother and a shy girl who has also just lost her parents. From there, the children begin a journey that includes losing each other countless times and then having to accept that every separation pushes them further into the realities of adulthood. The film is slick, fast, triumphant, devastating, and authentic. It is shot with an often dizzying cinematic energy, but patient enough to reveal the colorful textures of modern India.

In the hands of almost any other director the story of Jamal’s journey from inescapable poverty to game show millionaire could have felt either too implausible or at times too hard to watch. But Danny Boyle, as he demonstrated in “Trainspotting,” and “Shallow Grave,” is both a technical genius as well as a soulful filmmaker. Sure the film which cuts back and forth in time feels a bit inevitable, but this is softened by the underlying Bollywood flavor that oozes from its outside edges. In the end, “Slumdog” will make you wince, cry, laugh, and feel that exhilaration that comes with rooting for the underdog … this is a modern classic.

3. The Visitor – Dir. Thomas McCarthy (Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbass)

The first great film of 2008 was a small gem written and directed by the director behind 2004’s brilliant “The Station Agent.” Like its predecessor, “The Visitor” is a story about a journey back from loneliness and into the real world of the living. In this case a recently widowed, middle- aged professor, stuck somewhere between deep professional apathy and outright depression, is given a totally unexpected shot in the arm.

Summoned to NYC to present a paper to his colleagues, Walter Vale, played effortlessly by Richard Jenkins from “Six Feet Under,” returns to his largely abandoned NY apartment after years away, only to find two illegal immigrants living inside. After an awkward initial meeting, Jenkins begins to slowly come around to the young free- spirited drummer from Syria, who, in the gentlest of ways reintroduces him to the simple pleasures of life. Ultimately the film becomes more complicated exposing us to the inherent hypocrisy of our immigration policy in a post 9/11 world. From the incredibly nuanced portrayal of lasting and fleeting love, to the broader issue of finding joy in life, this movie is a gem that pushes buttons but never tugs too hard. The truth is told in a quiet convincing tone but with a beautifully understated cast. This is a diamond deep in the rough.

4. The Counterfeiters – Dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky (Karl Markovics, August Diehl)

Holocaust films are always hard to watch but the best, “The Piano” and “Life Is Beautiful,” tend to distract you with stories about how “distraction” can lead to survival. “The Counterfeiters” is the incredible true story of a Jewish master craftsman thrown into the concentration camps for, of all things, counterfeiting. Ironically this crime is the gift that gives him the chance to survive for years by helping the Nazi’s mint currency to prolong the war.

The counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch is played with incredible intensity by Karl Markovics whose emotions and expressions beat with a fearlessness that somehow allows the movie to keep the realities of death enough at bay to let you lose yourself in the dark flow of the film. Markovics, like Duvall’s Lt. Colonel Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” emanates a kind of glow that you know will let him emerge from the war without a scratch, but is forced to take risks that could cause the deaths of the men around him. Working for the Nazis is like playing poker with the devil, but drawing the perfect card against the evil empire is redemption like no other. War is bleak, and the Holocaust will always feel like the most devastating of them all, but “The Counterfeiters” is one of the most compelling war films of the past decade. This film cannot be missed.

5. Man on a Wire – Dir. Paul Marsh (Phillippe Petit)

Some great documentaries are great because the characters and the true stories do all the work and don’t need much of anything but a camera, a talking head and few stills. Others take simple ideas and stories and make them much better by leveraging incredibly creative filmmaking, watch anything by Errol Morris and you’ll see what I mean. But “Man on a Wire,” gives you both: an incredible story combined with an incredibly textural look and feel. The film tells the story of the French wirewalker Philippe Petit who ultimately endeavored to walk across a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers.

Visually the film is an incredible combination of original footage of his three most significant walks culminating with his Trade Center excursion, in addition to home movies of the young and mildly hippie Petit and his crew practicing in the beautiful French countryside. Throughout the film the filmmakers were able to interview most of the original collaborators, allowing them to get perspectives from both the time of the event and upon reflection. What makes this film, with its odd premise, even more intriguing and eerie is obviously the footage of the WTCs at the beginning of their short lives at the moment of their completion in 1970. This film is more than a curiosity, more than non-fiction, it is a story where almost everyone and everything about it seems surreal and oddly beautiful.

6. Reprise – Dir. Joachim Trier (Anders Danielsen Lie, Espen Klouman-Høiner, Viktoria Winge)

Great films come in all shapes and sizes. Some look great, while others just make you think, and others are mostly about specific extraordinary performances. “Reprise” is that rare breed that manages brilliance on all fronts, but does so without a single recognizable actor, a single special effect, or a story that follows an easy narrative thread. Instead it rips pages from everything from “Run Lola Run” to the Dogma films, to last year’s “Control,” suspending reality, speculating on the future and meditating on the present. In it, two young writers in Oslo each drop their debut novel manuscripts into a mailbox. This sets off two parallel voyages that will lead them unknowingly into different arcs of discovery.

Set to the dark meditations of Joy Division, and filled with subtle allusions to everyone from Russ Meyer, to the great existentialists, “Reprise” is a tribute to hipsterism, but it is also fragile and self-conscious. Each character is ultimately forced to deal with the other’s success and failure at a time when both outcomes inform the rest of their lives. All of these events and emotions happen at an incredibly fast pace, both emotionally and cinematically. But more than anything, the film explores the importance of recovery: from a broken heart, from the shock of rejection, or the paralyzing effects associated with success. “Reprise” is without a doubt one of the most creative, inventive films in years. It captures the hope and dreams of youth, tempered with the complexity of becoming an adult. I relate entirely. This film is a minor major masterpiece

7. Young@Heart – Dir. Stephen Walker

Despite the rave reviews, feel-good premise, and incredible soundtrack, I was massively suspicious about a documentary that sounded this precious. But it took only moments to get sucked into this story of a few dozen 70 and 80 year-olds who are spending some of the happiest times of their later years singing an eclectic mix of punk rock and classic R&B as members of the Young@Heart chorus in Massachusetts.

Led by aging hipster and chorus director Bob Cilman, the film digs deeply into the lives of a handful of the more prominent members, many of whom are sick are dying throughout the filming and in some ways are kept alive by the joy of being part of the choir. But far from being somber, with every performance shown as either in rehearsal or to live audiences, you can’t help but get goose bumps as their renditions of Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, and Coldplay light you up with joy. Maybe I’m a sap for loving this film as much as I do, but I’m okay with that.

8. Milk – Dir. Gus Van Sant (Sean Penn, Emile Hirsh, Josh Brolin)

Films shot in your hometown always seem a bit better than perhaps they are. Each scene gives you the chance to recognize a corner you’ve stood on or a shop you have been in, or in the case of “Milk’, what the town might have looked or felt like before you arrived. “Milk’, one of two great films by Gus Van Sant this year, has all the texture and authenticity that I assume San Francisco had in that run-down, neglectful period during the 70’s. But really the film belongs, again, to Sean Penn who always chooses projects where he can attempt to morph into the character he is playing. Again, he is triumphant in becoming the ambitious and inspiring Harvey Milk who was the first openly gay elected politician in the country. And although sometimes the intensity with which Penn interprets his characters makes them seem unapproachable, his Harvey Milk is a guy you’d love to meet which is why he was able to do what he did in the first place.

The story of Milk’s rise and unnecessary fall could have easily become a sentimental mess that lost itself under the weight of politics and political correctness. But instead, Van Sant’s “Milk” is a great story about a very ordinary man who achieved what he did through hard work and persistence more than anything else. The beauty of this film is how genuinely watchable it is for a film that has such a serious and topical subject matter, it succeeds without being heavy handed or preachy. In a way it feels like eating organic food, nourishing for the body and soul.

9. In Bruges – Dir. Martin McDonagh (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes)

“In Bruges” was the first movie I saw in the theaters in 2008. It was also one of the funniest and best executed black comedies of the year. There is nothing too deep or groundbreaking happening here, but then again there hasn’t been a buddy movie with characters this believable in quite a while. Set in the quaint hamlet of Bruges, one of my favorite European cities, two small time crooks have been banished there to lie low after having just majorly botched a robbery in London days before.

The film is really just a character piece where we get to observe the way two people dealing with the stress and consequences of failure and then deal with the opportunity of being displaced in a strange new place. The kinetic Colin Farrell likes drinking, chasing girls, and making fun of stupid tourists all the while pining to get back to London, while the laid-back Brendan Gleason embraces the chance to wander through galleries and lose himself in the quiet calmness of the Bruges. But by the end of the film we move from the superficial to personal as both characters confront the mistakes and misgivings in their lives. No film this year mixed comedy and tragedy as well as this one.

10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Dir. Cristian Mungiu (Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu)

There were some great, incredibly bleak films that made it into my psyche in 2008. The first of those was a Romanian film set in Communist heyday of the 80’s. Shot largely with handhelds, both to emphasize the shaky voyage that the characters are embarking on, as well as, I assume, to best capture the crumbling grays and beiges of the city that feels both desperate and real and an explanation of circumstance.

The story follows two college friends, one desperate to have an illegal abortion – the only kind in Romania at that time, and her loyal friend who risks her own safety to make it happen. Nothing about this voyage is easy, from simply finding a suitable hotel to have it in to dealing with the slimy “doctor” willing to do the procedure. Almost every moment feels on the brink of “harrowing” but it keeps you holding on ever so tightly even though it would be easier to just walk away. This is not for everyone, but it should be required viewing for everyone.

11. The Wackness – Dir. Jonathan Levine (Josh Peck, Sir Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby)

I vividly remember the Summer of 1994 in NYC because I was there. It was hot, and I was poor, and Kurt Cobain had just died. This is the backdrop for the hugely underrated indie “The Wackness.” The film is mostly a coming of age tale following 18 year-old Luke Shapiro, a lonely, weed- dealing, recent high school graduate, around for the summer before he starts college. Shapiro and his parents are on the verge of eviction of their rented Upper East Side apartment while his peers who live in nearby penthouses have largely either left for travels in Europe or summer houses in the Hamptons. But the film doesn’t dwell too much on issues of class but more on a few relationships that don’t really fit any traditional mold.

Enter Ben Kingsley as Luke’s psychiatrist, who trades mostly lame hippie wisdom for bags of grass equivalent in size to the length of the session. As Luke reluctantly confesses the causes of his depression (he wants a girlfriend) he is specifically imagining Kingsley’s beautiful stepdaughter Stephanie. As Stephanie begins to fall a little for the awkward but not totally un-cool Shapiro, the real friendship in the film combatively ignites between Kingsley and Luke. The summer rolls on while Stephanie and Luke spend time together, Kingsley begins to lose his sense of purpose and Luke races to sell enough grass to bail his parents out of debt. This film is not profound in any real way, but is a kind of perfect rumination on the nature of love both as a teenager and as an adult. So smoke a joint and enjoy.

12. Vicky Christina Barcelona – Dir. Woody Allen (Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz)

Could it actually be considered lame to genuinely “love” a late phase, post “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Woody Allen movie? Or is it merely honoring past loves (“Manhattan” or “Annie Hall”)? No. This is a great, modern, yet old school Woody film filled with all of the literate banter and emotional second guessing that we’ve come to expect from him over the years. But this time around, instead of a funny looking Woody somehow attached to implausibly good looking women, we have these same kind of characters but everyone is equally beautiful so there is no suspension of disbelief required.

The film follows two twenty-somethings spending the summer in Barcelona, looking for the answers that have consequences beyond the less trivial ones that seemed so “important” earlier in their lives. The film is both whimsical and serious, tragic and revelatory, nothing really happens, but a good story lies in the details. I hope Woody has a few more of these left in him.

13. Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (Frank Langella, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell)

“Frost/Nixon” is a film about an interview where much of the film is a recreation of that interview. In most hands, this could be a redundant seeming and dreadful idea, but Ron Howard doesn’t ever really make mistakes. Most of the time he errs on the side of safety by tugging on heartstrings, insulated by big stories and even bigger named actors. But this time Frank Langella literally is able to channel the nuanced mannerisms and elusiveness of Richard Nixon, all the while letting the pursuit of the story and near disastrous pursuit of financing, unfold neatly into the hands of always reliable Michael Sheen who plays interviewer David Frost.

Like all Howard movies, there is a perfect pace for much of the film, when gradually the intensity builds leading up to the final battle of wits where Nixon reveals the tiniest kink and actually says the words the world had been begging him to say. More than anything, this is Langella’s film, and for those too young to remember the actual interview, it seems a like fairly unbiased and accurate history lesson. This is the biggest small movie of the year, but it sure is good.

Once again, very much worth your while, but one most draw a line somewhere:

14. Frozen River – Dir. Courtney Hunt (Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe)
15. The Edge of Heaven – Dir. Fatah Akin (Nurgül Yesilçay, Baki Davrak, Tuncel Kurtiz)
16. Rachel Getting Married – Dir. Jonathan Demme (Anne Hathaway, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger)
17. Paranoid Park – Dir. Gus Van Sant (Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen)
18. Wendy and Lucy – Dir. Kelly Reinhart (Michelle Williams)
19. Happy-Go-Lucky – Dir. Mike Leigh (Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough)
20. The Band’s Visit – Dir. Eran Kolirin (Ronit Elkabetz, Sasson Gabai, Uri Gavriel)