Sunday, December 28, 2008

CBS sued over 'Two and a Half Men'

Charlie Sheen (R), Jon Cryer (L) and Angus T. Jones pose with their award for Reuters – Charlie Sheen (R), Jon Cryer (L) and Angus T. Jones pose with their award for favorite TV comedy for …

LOS ANGELES – "Two and a Half Men" has spawned one major lawsuit.

Warner Bros. Television sued CBS in Los Angeles on Wednesday, claiming it is owed nearly $70 million for producing and licensing the hit sitcom.

The show, which stars Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, is in its sixth season.

Warner Bros. claims that its agreement with CBS granted it the ability to recoup $49 million in losses on the show's first four seasons and other financial incentives.

Warner Bros. claims CBS will soon owe it $20 million now that "Two and a Half Men" has remained a hit in its fifth and sixth seasons.

Chris Ender, CBS' senior vice president of communications, issued a season-themed statement: "Wow, I wonder what they got the other networks for Christmas."

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New George Michael Track Survives on The Pirate Bay

Written by enigmax

Back in 2004, George Michael announced that he was turning his back on the music industry, vowing that he would never make another album for sale in record shops. Instead, in future he would give his music away for free online. On Christmas Day he gave away a brand new track, but how many people noticed?

GeorgeGeorge Michael is possibly one of the greatest stars the music business has ever seen, so when he announced in 2004 that he intended to turn his back on the music industry, it came as quite a shock. The 100 million album-selling artist would no longer sell future albums in shops, but instead release his music on the Internet for free. In return he hoped that fans would donate money to charity.

A few weeks ago there were a handful of news articles reporting that George would release a new track in December but there has hardly been a NIN or Radiohead media surge, although maybe that’s understandable since it’s just one track.

However, as promised, on Christmas Day “December Song” quietly appeared on as a completely free download.

In recent years George Michael has had little problem bursting the capacity of every venue he’s appeared at, with tickets to his last tour changing hands on eBay for $2000+. That said, I think I expected quite a bit more hype to go with this song, but maybe George isn’t that interested in the ‘game’ anymore. Maybe the song hasn’t been well received? I expected to see the song on his Wikipedia page, but as of now there is no mention.

Those wishing to listen at this stage may have a problem. It may exist officially elsewhere, but a day after release and “December Song” has disappeared from Michael’s website. However, fans who haven’t heard the track don’t have to be disappointed. A torrent for the track is alive and kicking on The Pirate Bay, which brings me to the point of this post.

Many file-sharers like to promote a donation model so, if you can afford it, don’t forget George Michael’s message. No threats of being sued, just a simple request that people consider donating a little to charity if they download the track. He lists several charities on his site, including Breast Cancer Campaign, Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, but I expect he wouldn’t mind if your chosen charity got the money instead.

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5 Famous Christmas Songs Written by Jewish Songwriters

David K. Israel
by David K. Israel

1. “White Christmas” - While there are more than five Christmas carols written by Jewish songwriters, I thought I’d just cover my favorites, starting with not only the most famous Christmas song written in modern times, but according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the best-selling single of all-time.

irving_berlin.jpgWritten by: Irving Berlin in 1940

Actually written by: Israel Isidore Baline (Irving’s real name)

Written while: seated poolside at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix, Arizona (talk about your White Christmas)

Made famous by: Bing Crosby in the movie Holiday Inn

Cool Irving Berlin fact: Refusing to make money off his deep-seated patriotism, Berlin donated all the royalties from “God Bless America” (just another little ditty he penned) to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls

jmarks.gif2. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Written by: Johnny Marks in 1949

Based on: a poem/story penned by Marks’ brother-in-law, who invented Rudolph

Made famous by: Gene Autry, whose recording sold over 2 million copies in the first year alone

Famous Rudolph mondegreen: “Olive, the other reindeer” (see our post on mondegreens if you don’t know what they are)

Cool Johnny Marks fact: He is the great-uncle of economist Steven Levitt, co-author of one of my favorite books of all time, Freakonomics

styne_j_pic2.jpg3. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

Written by: composer Jule Styne in 1945 with lyrics by Sammy Cahn

Actually written by: Julius Kerwin Stein and Samuel Cohen (real names)

Made Famous by: Vaughn Monroe, hitting #1 on Billboard in ’46

Curious “Let it Snow” fact: the lyric never once mentions Christmas

Cool Jule Styne fact: he also wrote the music for the musicals Gypsy and Funny Girl

livingston_evans2.jpg4. “Silver Bells”

Written by: Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1951

Actually written by: Jacob Harold Levison and Raymond Bernard Evans (real names)

Introduced by: Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the movie The Lemon Drop Kid

Made Famous by: Bing Crosby and Carol Richards

Cool “Silver Bells” fact: the song was inspired by the silver bells of the Salvation Army bell ringers, thus making it one of the few Christmas carols about the city, as opposed to the usual rural countryside setting

ahague1.gif5. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”

Written by: Albert Hague in 1966 (with words/lyrics by Dr. Seuss, of course)

Actually written by: Albert Marcuse, who was born in Berlin, but his family raised him Lutheran with the last name Hague in order to avoid the raging anti-Semitism in the 1920/30s (He got out of Europe just in time, landing in America in 1939)

Made Famous by: Thurl Arthur Ravenscroft, who made a name for himself singing and doing voice-overs for Disney

Curious Albert Hague fact:
He was also an actor! You can see him in both the movie and TV series, Fame, playing the role of Shorofsky

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Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs?

"Revolutionary Road," based on Richard Yates's 1961 novel of the same name, is the latest entry in a long stream of art that portrays the American suburbs as the physical correlative to spiritual and mental death.

Suburbia in Art

See a slideshow about the "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes" exhibit.

The movie's opening scene could serve as a precis of over 50 years of antisuburban sentiment in American culture. Frank and April Wheeler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with misdirected intensity like two Titanics passing in the night) pull their car over to the side of the road. They've been fighting, and now they both jump out into the dark of the night. When April's needling escalates to downright cruelty, Frank pulls back his arm as if to hit his wife and then slams his fist into the car. She's been tormenting him, he cries, "ever since we came out here to the suburbs." In the naturalistic novels of Emile Zola, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, economic forces inexorably destroyed the protagonists. In "Revolutionary Road," the two principal characters are brought down by lawn sprinklers and station wagons.

But Sam Mendes, the film's director, is just getting started. Flashbacks emphasize the chilling role the tortured couple's environment has played in the disintegration of their lives: Against a background of sunlit, leafy yards, we see Kate Winslet taking out the garbage; Kate Winslet doing the laundry; Kate Winslet making small talk with a neighbor. The tree-lined streets are empty and eerily quiet. The beautiful house is tastefully furnished and eerily quiet. You are meant to think of the Wheelers' suburb as "a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime," to borrow Van Gogh's description of an equally alienating milieu (except that Van Gogh was talking about an urban café).

Still, the film's hostility toward the suburbs pales when compared with its source. Yates's novel, cherished by literary intellectuals and Paris Review interns to this day, expresses American suburban-phobia with crude explicitness. Describing the Wheelers' new neighborhood, Yates writes: "The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy.... [The neighborhood] was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves.... A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place."

Dreamworks, LLC.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Revolutionary Road'

No literary critic that I know of has ever challenged Yates's puerile social perceptions. The reflexive reverence for "Revolutionary Road" is a testament to the degree to which antisuburban sentiment is one of the most unexamined attitudes in American culture. For what might a neighborhood that had been designed to accommodate a tragedy possibly look like? For a man running down the street in desperate grief to fit right into the landscape, he would have to be hurtling through a place where vampiric towers blocked out the sun and corpses hung from the lampposts.

Yates's rage against the suburbs had all the subtlety of adolescent rage against authority (this indiscriminate anger might account for the novel's fatal deficiency: Frank and April's total lack of talent or substance makes their ultimately thwarted attempt to leave the suburbs for Paris less the stuff of tragedy than irritating farce). Yet "Revolutionary Road" -- the name fatuously meant to imply that America's revolutionary promise withers and dies in the suburbs -- caught the reflexive attitudes of many readers. Postwar writers and intellectuals overlooked the book's flagrant shortcomings, lit up from within by their shared opposition to a single place. X might be a Stalinist, and Y a fellow traveler and Z a closet Republican, but they could all agree on one thing -- they'd rather perish in a nuclear holocaust than move to Westchester!

Scene from 'Revolutionary Road'


See a scene from "Revolutionary Road," a new film based on a novel by Richard Yates and starring Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet. Courtesy DreamWorks Pictures.

American antisuburban sentiment is often comically absurd. In his 1955 poem "Howl," Allen Ginsberg elevated suburb-phobia to the level of myth. He excoriates the "invisible suburbs" -- i.e. they are so spiritually dead that they are hidden from a living eye -- as one of the pernicious manifestations of Moloch, the destructive god of soulless materialism. Sylvia Plath added some spine-tingling details. In her 1963 autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," Plath's heroine steps off a train and has this infernal experience: "The motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and dogs and babies. A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death." The pleasures of a station wagon's aroma are open to question, but summer calm, the smell of wet grass, the scent of dogs (if they're clean) and babies (clean or dirty) -- are, it could be argued, some of the least horrifying experiences in life.

For Yates, Plath, Ginsberg and less gifted suburb-phobes like the novelists Sloan Wilson and John Keats, as well as hugely influential liberal sociologists and writers like David Riesman, William Whyte, Paul Goodman and Betty Friedan, it went without saying that the suburbs could transform the people who had committed the error of moving to them into the walking -- make that driving -- dead.

Yet the Wheelers live in a safe and protected middle-class town with intact, well-to-do families; efficient services; and happy children gamboling in sprinklers and running among the trees. How did such an environment come to acquire qualities previously associated with Dante's "Inferno," Dickens's Victorian workhouses and Solzhenitsyn's gulags?

In the '50s and early '60s, the postwar exodus from the cities to the suburbs was just beginning. Veterans of the Second World War and then the Korean War sought inexpensive homes of their own, far from the urban scrimmage that must have been, for some, a cramped extension of real combat. Enterprising builders eagerly obliged, throwing up houses in a matter of months, modest Cape Cods and ranches that returning veterans were able to safely buy with little or no down payment, thanks to the GI bill.

It's easy to see why artists and intellectuals felt that they had to alert the general public to the emergency of these sudden new places' peaceful, leafy streets. For one thing, the suburbs seemed not to offer the primary experiences of either country or city. The backyard is but the reminder of a meadow; the tree-lined intersection is but the faint echo of a busy urban intersection. The suburbs were the embodiment of that period's fashionable existential fear: "inauthenticity."


Levittown, N.Y., in 1954

More important, suburban houses were often designed along unsightly cookie-cutter lines. The archetypal suburb, Levittown on New York's Long Island, was constructed between 1947 and 1951 using assembly-line methods; at one point, 30 houses were springing up a day. In 1950, when builder William Levitt, who created Levittown, appeared on the cover of Time magazine, the conversation in the cafés of Greenwich Village must have sizzled with frightening visions of totalitarian sameness. And no doubt the depiction of the suburbs as brainless utopias on the television sitcoms of the time -- shows like "Leave it to Beaver," "Bewitched," "Father Knows Best," "The Dick van Dyke Show" -- also incited intellectual revulsion, as much against the sinister new mass medium of TV as against the suburbs themselves.

There were two overarching reasons for condemning the suburbs, during the '50s and early '60s, as the most rotten locale in civilized life: class and money. Most of the people leaving the cities for the suburbs in the 1950s were tradespeople, modest businessmen, teachers and the like. They were, in other words, members of the middle-class, the impassioned rejection of which has been the chief rite de passage of the modern American artist and intellectual. With the growth of suburban towns, the liberal American intellectual now had a concrete geography to house his acute sense of outrage.


Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York in '60s series 'Bewitched'

Yet if the suburbs were becoming the headquarters of the American middle-class, they were also becoming associated with the enviable characteristics of upward mobility: a decent salary, home ownership, access to superior public education and services. "We're going to have to move back to the city," the callous but suddenly redeemed advertising man grimly says to his wife after quitting his job in disgust in the popular 1959 film "The Last Angry Man" -- moving from suburban Connecticut to hardscrabble Manhattan being proof of his redemption. (What a socioeconomic difference 50 years makes!)

Art and intellect are solitary vocations, and their practitioners often require a common enemy to sustain the lonely effort. The suburbs continued to serve that purpose, but the type of antipathy toward them changed in the late '60s and '70s.

Just as during the '30s the Depression had polarized every issue along moral lines, in the Vietnam-era artists and intellectuals grew impatient with mere esthetic considerations. Now the suburbs were stigmatized not only by materialism, lack of imagination, and conformity. From that moment -- and up to our own -- the suburbs were portrayed in every type of art as non-communities that signified ugly moral choices.

Everett Collection

David Wayne and Betsy Palmer in 'The Last Angry Man' (1959)

The cultural chasm between liberals and conservatives that first appeared in the '60s was largely one between the city and the suburbs. The liberal "idealism" that had created the catastrophe in Vietnam now got blamed, unfairly or not, for failing economic and social policies. For marginalized conservatives, the suburbs were living refutation of the crumbling ethos that had guided the crime-ridden, decaying urban centers. For embattled liberals, people leaving the cities for safer and cleaner outlying towns were racists and cowards who had no respect for shared public space.

One of the most glaring ironies of American life is that, a quarter-century later, the cities have metamorphosed into the suburbs -- sans trees and grass. The cities' fabled diversity has devolved into global chain stores and the electrolyte-enhanced water bottle and the branded baseball cap have become the accessories of a universal comfort and conformity. In a social and cultural sea change, the cities' rented apartments, once the guarantor of diversity and fluid, exciting movement, have been converted into exclusive co-ops and condominiums. Yet as the cities have become a new type of suburb, suburb-phobia has become an ever more acceptable cultural attitude. The suburban person is considered too meek, too asphalt-challenged to inherit the earth. In the urban centers, on the other hand, desperate ambition makes bad manners respectable, and the chic of perverse taste covers up Philistine cluelessness. The decent, suburban person is regarded as contemptible because he has not learned to reach beyond his talents and pick life's pockets.

Paramount/ Everett Collection

Nicole Kidman in 'The Stepford Wives' (2004)

In the last couple of decades, the antisuburban film has become as much a staple of Hollywood as the Serious Crime Drama With an Incomprehensible Plot. A few prominent examples: Todd Haynes's "Safe" (which has suburban people inexplicably bleeding from every pore of their bodies); the 2004 remake of "The Stepford Wives" (where Viking range + Sub-Zero refrigerator = robotic wife, death of feminism and extinction of human rights); "The Ice Storm" (just in case you ignored the urgent alarm sounded by the antisuburban novel by Rick Moody on which the film is based and moved to Larchmont); the British Sam Mendes's very own "American Beauty" (of which "Revolutionary Road" is simply a reiteration -- take a sprinkler, add a dollop of anomie, and presto! you're an authentic American filmmaker). Television, once home to the idealistic vision of the suburbs, has gotten in on the act, too, with the antisuburban satires "Desperate Housewives" and "Weeds," not to mention the "Real Housewives" franchise, which opens a fake-appalled window onto a world of midday margaritas and $18,000 sleepover parties.

It could be that suburb-phobia has been a necessary attitude for ex-suburbanites living in urban centers. It may well help them to feel that the increasingly anodyne and homogenous cities are still adventurous and challenging places to live. In any case, suburb-phobia has even made its way into the visual arts' most rarefied sanctums: in the paintings of Eric Fischl and the photographs of Jeff Wall (one of his most famous works: rifle-holding men stalking an invisible prey in an anonymous suburb).

Showtime Networks Inc./ Everett Collection

Mary-Louise Parker, left, and some of the cast of 'Weeds.'

Of course there is a small but stubborn counter-tradition to suburb-phobia, most famously in the stories and novels of John Updike and John Cheever. For these two writers, the suburbs are not just a determining environment, but an unpredictable one of unfolding circumstances -- like every other place on earth. As Johnny Hake, the hero of Cheever's story "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," puts it: "Shady Hill is, as I say, a banlieue and open to criticism by city planners, adventurers and lyric poets, but if you work in the city and have children to raise, I can't think of a better place."

Hake becomes a thief, has something like a nervous breakdown, and finally gets an inkling of his surprising destiny. Which only means that life's complexity and surprise follow you everywhere, even over the city-line, across the river and into the suburban trees. You wonder why the creators of the film "Revolutionary Road" are blind to such an obvious fact of human existence. But, then, Hollywood is the most illusion-soaked, soul-hardened and materialistic suburb in the world.

Lee Siegel's most recent book is "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob."

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Man Shot For Talking During Benjamin Button Movie Screening

by: Peter Sciretta

It has happened to all of us. You’re watching a movie at your local multiplex when a couple of people near you start talking, texting, or even begin yelling at the screen. We read quite a few movie-going horror stories in our Question of the Week. You know that feeling — The feeling that something must be done. The feeling that the offender must be stopped. You might have even have had a split-second flash of the offending persons being shut up by brute force. But for most people, or at least any reasonable person, it ends there. You might make a loud “shhhhhhh!” sound, a polite way of saying “Shut the fuck up” without having to reveal your face in the dark movie theater. Heck, I usually don’t even do that.

Well, 29-year-old James Joseph Cialella Jr went to see David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the UA Riverview Stadium 17 movie theater in South Philadelphia on Christmas. Seems like the Riverview isn’t the best theater to see a movie in, read some of the hilarious reviews of the “ghetto theater” on Google or Yelp. A family seated in front of Cialella began to talk during the film, so he told them to be quiet. But that didn’t stop the younger son from making comments. He even threw popcorn angrily at the talkative son, but the talk did not stop. Cialella became so enraged that he pulled out a Kel-Tec .380-caliber handgun and shot the father in the left arm.

Then what? Did Cialella run for it? Nope. He sat back down in his seat and watched the movie as others ran from theater. The police were called and arrived shortly after, less than an hour into the film screening. It is too bad that the shooter didn’t at least get to finish the movie before being hauled off to jail. The police confiscated the weapon and arrested the shooter.

James Joseph Cialella Jr is being charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person and weapons violations. The unnamed victim was treated at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and is said to be okay.

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The 10 best indie movies of 2008

Beyond The Multiplex

Images from top, left to right, "Encounters at the End of the World," "The Secret of the Grain," "Momma's Man," "A Christmas Tale," "The Order of Myths," "Flight of the Red Balloon," "Man on Wire," "Chop Shop," "Reprise" and "Waltz With Bashir."

As I reported a few days ago, film industry insiders at all levels of the business say, universally but almost in a whisper, that it was a remarkably strong year for movies in theatrical release. Says distributor-turned-filmmaker Jeff Lipsky, "I don't know why the mainstream media, or whatever is left of it, isn't talking about the fact that our business has been thriving, almost contemporaneous with the collapse of the stock market." Well, here I am, Jeff, the last man standing on the Titanic that is pseudo-serious entertainment journalism. Consider it done.

That said, I heard a contrarian argument just now from Zeitgeist Films co-president Nancy Gerstman, whose films this year have included the Oscar-plausible Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water" along with the haunting Andes plane-crash doc "Stranded," a rare marketplace flop for her small and selective company. When I suggested that a "wide range" of films have succeeded in the marketplace this year, Gerstman snorted at me (if you can snort by e-mail).

She said it was wonderful to see an unexpected hit like the French thriller "Tell No One," which went unreleased in the United States for several years before a tiny distributor called Music Box Films took a flier on it. "That sort of thing gives a small distributor hope," Gerstman writes. "It can happen. But count the amount of films released this year and then look at what you consider a 'wide range.' Maybe 10 or 20 of the small to midsize indie films made it. The others sank like a stone! This is a major problem -- there are just too many films. With critics dropping like flies, theaters closing and younger audiences shrinking, it can only get worse -- unless we are truly in a lengthy cycle in which theatergoing can revive."

I suppose I did my part this year; my electronic calendar suggests that I saw between 240 and 250 films this year, which is actually down slightly from 2007. (That reflects the demands of writing several times a week and also of parenting two small children. I know people who watch 400-plus movies a year.) I suppose I can play Solomon here and suggest that both Lipsky and Gerstman are right: The marketplace is undeniably overcrowded, but in 2008 it featured a panoply of intriguing films from all over the world, and a surprising number of those attracted at least some American eyeballs.

This was an exceptional year for documentaries and an unusually strong one for foreign-language releases, but in my judgment pretty tepid for American indie narrative features. I'm not as sold on the whole low-budget American realism wave as some critics and filmmakers are, and all such films have a tough time finding an audience. The only real exception this year was Courtney Hunt's modest hit "Frozen River," which by Amerindie standards was tightly plotted (and which might get an Oscar nod for Melissa Leo's amazing lead performance). I liked "Frozen River" just fine, and felt about the same unintense affection for "Ballast" and "The Pool" and "August Evening," none of which cracked my list. (If you're curious about my mixed reaction to "Ballast," and its inverse ratio between great reviews and human viewers, you can read all about it.)

There were plenty of films I loved at the time that just didn't stick with me strongly enough into December. I think every critic tries to correct for the year-end onslaught, but the not-so-hidden secret of this trade is that everything released before October has faded in memory at least a little by now. I should stipulate that I rarely see major Hollywood releases -- not through profound antipathy and disgust, but simply because I don't have time -- so no puritanical rejection of, say, "Iron Man" is implied. (I have admittedly flown in the face of conformist contrarianism, if you follow that concept, by asserting that "WALL-E" is not the greatest film in history.) At this writing I still haven't seen Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," which probably has a decent shot. As usual, I tend to grade on a curve, meaning that I award extra points, consciously or not, to movies that strike me as unloved or underappreciated.

So, anyway. Here's my list. I'd love to see yours!

1. "A Christmas Tale" Even I think this is too predictable: the reigning champ of European art film at the top of the list. But just go and see Arnaud Desplechin's home-for-the-holidays flick, which brings together a bitterly divided family in the uncharismatic northern French city of Roubaix (the director's hometown), and tell me it's not a masterpiece. Comedy, tragedy, madness, sex, religion, a musical score ranging from baroque to house music to Cecil Taylor, and an amazing cast headed by Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni and the wonderful Jean-Paul Roussillon. This blend of Bergman, film noir, philosophy and romantic comedy tries to capture all the possibilities of cinema in one movie, and it has finally brought Desplechin a reasonably large American audience.

2. "Waltz With Bashir" If you'll pardon the expression, Israeli director Ari Folman's animated inquest into his own repressed memories of the early-'80s Lebanon war (and his country's) is first and foremost a mind fuck. Both a documentary and a prodigious, haunting work of imagination, "Waltz With Bashir" uses its startling, dreamlike imagery to drag its viewers step by step back toward Israel's darkest nightmare, the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 by Lebanese Christian gunmen allied with the Israeli military. Folman's film perplexes some viewers because it isn't a news report or an Israeli mea culpa; it's a daring exploration of the bleak psychological landscape of war.

3. "Chop Shop" My top American film of the year is from New York no-budget director Ramin Bahrani, who followed up his much-acclaimed but little-seen "Man Push Cart" with an even more wrenching and absorbing neorealist saga, following two abandoned kids through the unpaved streets and sketchy auto-body shops of Willets Point in Queens, N.Y., a neighborhood so dire it's hard to believe it's in North America. But the North Carolina-born, Iran-educated Bahrani is more than a documentary-style realist. He's also got a wonderful eye for visual poetry even in these bleak surroundings, and depicts its people without a hint of pity or judgment.

4. "Encounters at the End of the World" As with all Werner Herzog's movies, the legendary German-born eccentric traveled to Antarctica without quite knowing what he was looking for. What he came back with was a troubling, gorgeous and sometimes hilarious meditation on, quite literally, the last place in the world, which turns out to be a refuge for oddballs from all continents ideally suited to Herzog's exploratory method. "Encounters" is the strangest and most profound of all global-crisis movies to date, and we'll soon find out whether it's also the movie that breaks through the Academy's long-running Herzog-phobia.

5. "Flight of the Red Balloon" I get it: Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's first Western-made film, a loving, leisurely comedy about the domestic life of overwrought Parisian puppeteer mom Juliette Binoche and her dreamy kid, has a small and discrete audience. You need to be a film buff, a Francophile, probably a parent, and equally enamored of Albert Lamorisse's classic "Red Balloon" (which inspired this film) and Hou's ultra-long takes with their moments of accident and improvisation. If that's you, then you won't love any other film this year quite the way you love this one. If it's not, give it a miss.

6. "The Secret of the Grain" Here's the other heartbreaking French family epic of the year, after Desplechin's "Christmas Tale," this one the intimate saga of a tight -- and tightly-wound -- Arab-French immigrant family in a Mediterranean port city. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche swept the César awards (the French Oscars) and while that partly reflects the recent French effort to wrestle with a multicultural nation, the movie itself is wonderful. Habib Boufares plays the laconic hero, a laid-off sipyard worker who has an ex-wife, a mistress, feuding daughters, stepdaughters and daughters-in-law and a philandering son to deal with, all while his dream of a shipboard couscous restaurant runs afoul of institutional racism and domestic disorder.

7. "Momma's Man" A narrative feature and not a documentary, even though it was shot in director Azazel Jacobs' eccentric childhood home in Manhattan and stars his real-life parents. (His father is avant-garde film pioneer Ken Jacobs.) This was the best narrative film I saw at Sundance in 2008, but also demands a highly specific audience, since it's both a tragicomic tribute to a lost paradise, intellectual-bohemian New York -- the younger Jacobs lives in L.A. -- and a nerve-jangling tale of early-midlife crisis. The Jacobs' fictional adult son Mikey (wonderfully played by Matt Boren) comes home for a visit, plunges into neo-adolescent despair and literally can't leave.

8. "Man on Wire" Watching this highly entertaining documentary about one of the century's great artistic crimes -- Philippe Petit's 1974 wire-walk between the twin towers -- at last year's Tribeca Film Festival was a genuinely magical experience. Partly because we were seeing those buildings resurrected in a context of wonder and adventure, and partly because Petit's death-defying act (it's unfair to call it a stunt) even at the time seemed like a paradoxical and marvelous achievement. Director James Marsh does a terrific job of distilling Petit as a contradictory, larger-than-life figure, and telling his story with a brio worthy of Truffaut.

9. "The Order of Myths" As you'll learn in Margaret Brown's fascinating and vivid documentary, Mobile, Ala., has an older Mardi Gras tradition than New Orleans -- and it's virtually the last vestige of old-school Southern racial segregation. A Mobile native with a personal connection to the subject (I'm not telling), Brown burrows beneath the skin of her hometown's racial divide, exploring the separate Mardi Gras worlds of black and white residents and emerging with an often painful, sometimes ruthless and ultimately uplifting story of American contradictions.

10. "Reprise" This brash, bittersweet and often hilarious feature debut from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (a cousin of Lars von Trier, but a less inscrutable fellow) was a hit around the world but only got a quick look-see from American viewers. Check it out if you haven't already; Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt capture a certain ethos of post-punk, intellectual-class male bonding that I've never seen nailed so perfectly. ("Reprise" has been called the Norwegian "Trainspotting," and it more or less fits.) As 20-something friends Philip and Erik (both played by nonprofessional actors) vie to become Norway's next great writer, Trier jumps backwards and forwards in time, has the characters address the camera, and willfully fudges the boundary between truth and fiction. For whatever reason, the results are thoroughly delightful instead of maddening.

Video: Salon's critics on the top movies of 2008

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: For me, the year's best music doc was "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer," which paints a compelling portrait of a defiant and mysterious talent. Steven Soderbergh's epic-scale "Che" is messy and uneven, but also brave, ambitious and not quite precedented. Nicolas Klotz's ice-cold French corporate thriller "Heartbeat Detector" has a mysterious undertow, a great performance from Mathieu Amalric and a chilling portrayal of the antiseptic world of contemporary Eurocapitalism. Thankfully, the "mumblecore" moment has passed, but ultra-indie auteur Joe Swanberg grew up in a hurry with his wrenching relationship film "Nights and Weekends" (co-directed with his costar, Greta Gerwig).

Israeli cinema godfather Amos Gitai tackles the Holocaust in highly unconventional fashion in "One Day You'll Understand," and it'd be a great film without that obligatory flashback sequence. New York indie kid Josh Safdie felt the love at Cannes for "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," his Godard-flavored debut, but found virtually no audience in the homeland. New Wave legend Eric Rohmer says his willfully eccentric 18th-century-style pastoral "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon" is his farewell to cinema at age 88, and one couldn't ask for a more idiosyncratic, or more gorgeous, goodbye. Gonzalo Arijón's doc "Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains" tells the incredible story of that 1972 Andes crash where survivors lived for months on the flesh of their friends.

Despite its choppy, unfinished quality as cinema, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's post-Katrina doc "Trouble the Water" maxes out on uplift, inspiration and sheer human drama. Laura Dunn's gorgeous "The Unforeseen" is the "Chinatown" of Texas real-estate documentaries. Korean director Hong Sang-soo's dry, wry, unpredictable comedy "Woman on the Beach" gets better with every viewing; check back in a few months and I'll have moved it up to No. 1.

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A look at the best movies of 2008

1. The Dark Knight: Sometimes you just have give it up for the leader. And this one dominated the box office for the best of reasons: outstanding technical elements, a story that thrills and provokes and a crackerjack cast led by the cackling Joker of the late, great Heath Ledger. If only every blockbuster were this good.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The special effects alone make you stare in wonder, as Brad Pitt seamlessly transforms from senior to newborn. But there's also grand fable and epic inspiration in this life lived backwards, with David Fincher's skilful direction pulling it all together.

3. My Winnipeg: Guy Maddin's lyrical ode to his prairie hometown finds sleepwalkers sharing the frigid streets with nagging moms, threatening urinators, scorched squirrels, hysterical parakeets and a golden pagan symbol hidden in plain view by canny Masons. Pure delirious joy.

4. Man on Wire: James Marsh's documentary account of French daredevil Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers is a celebration of human achievement, making us forget for a moment the 9/11 terror that followed. It soars with the promise that we are tethered to the ground only by lack of imagination.

5. Wall-E: R2-D2 and E.T. smashed into one irresistible mobile love machine. No mere environmental rant, Pixar's latest and greatest is a romance starring a goggle-eyed rust-pot with treads for feet and a big thumping mechanical heart. He's saving the world and serving Cupid, one trash heap at a time.

6. Doubt: Writer/director John Patrick Shanley retains the most unsettling questions of his stage creation: Whom can we trust? Is morality absolute? He invites us to judge in this parable of Catholic school tensions, roiled by Meryl Streep's crusading nun, but then lays out reasons why our verdict might be tragically wrong.

7. Rachel Getting Married: Jonathan Demme does Altman and Anne Hathaway courts Oscar in the year's most emotionally fraught observation of the blood sport known as weddings. There are also some very funny moments, and a few where the music is in tune, up-tempo and capable of moving hips.

8. Let The Right One In: This exceptional Swedish vampire film warms your heart as it chills your blood, and that's the most disturbing thing about it. Heinous acts are justified as necessary measures taken by lonely and desperate people. You feel for these characters, especially the empathetic child leads played with astounding grace.

9. The Wrestler: Wayward actor Mickey Rourke and indulgent director Darren Aronofsky meet on the mat in this humane, soulful portrait of an aging ring champ, finding new strengths in both men. It's so easy to hurl "has been" when the skyrocket sputters; so much harder to praise the long climb back.

10. Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood transforms a stereotypical racist into a fully realized character in a thoughtful work that continues the actor/director's remarkable late-career surge. It's set in Detroit, but it's really a western like Unforgiven, with a similar theme of reconciling past deeds and paying the toll that violence exacts.

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