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A treasure from trash, a ‘Dark' achievement

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

It was strange watching "The Dark Knight" this summer, and then watching it take over the world.

Heath Ledger's accidental fatal overdose cast a grim shadow on an already grim vision. Yet here was pop artistry on the highest performance level. The fiendishly inventive young actor's interpretation of The Joker put a human face on an inhuman harlequin, part Mod, all mad.

Director Christopher Nolan's grave, grandly destructive depiction of a city under siege supported that performance all the way.

I saw the film a second time recently. It seemed different this time, though of course nothing had changed except the world around it. Ledger's accomplishment, if anything, felt even greater, with every choice and detail revealing the work of a masterly obsessive. The Chi-caaaago accent; the catlike licking and preening; the masochistic glee in provoking his nemesis, Batman, into violence: All was horrible, horrible bliss. What a performer. What a loss.

The movie itself, by contrast, seemed to shrink and go on a bit during that second viewing, away from the spectacle of the IMAX screen, a little further down the timeline from Ledger's demise. It is nonetheless an excellent achievement.

My favorite film of 2008 seems uniquely tailored to the vibe most of us are feeling at the moment, as opposed to the late-Bush-era rage and despair channeled by "The Dark Knight." Our world spins forward. Now suddenly everyone's broke. Groucho said it, in "Duck Soup": "We're in a mess, folks, we're in a mess." It's a world in need of a pragmatic optimist to show us the way to a sustainable future.

President-elect Barack Obama's a start. But I'm referring to a goggle-eyed mobile trash compactor.

Top 10

1. "WallE," directed by Andrew Stanton. Considerable dread (Earth has become uninhabitable) leavened by considerable joy, in the form of a robotic waste allocator with big binocular eyes. Coming off last year's "Ratatouille," Disney/ Pixar managed one of the great one-two punches in modern Hollywood.

2. "The Class," directed by Laurent Cantet. This amazing slice of life opens in L.A. and New York for an Oscar-qualifying run before the end of the year, and arrives here in February or March. A simple story of a Parisian middle-school instructor and his contentious students, it won the grand prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, deservedly.

3. "A Christmas Tale," directed by Arnaud Desplechin. An ensemble film with the amplitude of a good novel and the unpredictability of a great magic trick.

4. "Let the Right One In," directed by Tomas Alfredson. A great vampire film from Sweden.

5. "The Flight of the Red Balloon," directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Some films deliver both a piece of life and a piece of cake (to paraphrase Hitchcock), and this small, bittersweet charmer is one. As a single mother perpetually on the run, Juliette Binoche delivers a performance free from vanity.

6. "Alexandra," directed by Alexander Sokurov. A Russian woman visits her soldier son on the Chechen front. From this notion, Sokurov takes us where the Greek dramatists took us: to wisdom born of suffering.

7. "Man on Wire," directed by James Marsh. The wirewalker Philippe Petit spent 45 minutes one morning in 1974 gliding back and forth between the south and the north towers of the World Trade Center. Petit's story is riveting, and the documentary does full justice to its subject.

8. "Snow Angels," directed by David Gordon Green. Nobody went; too downbeat; too bad, because it's awfully good drama.

9. "Still Life," directed by Jia Zhang-Ke. In the Chinese city of Fengjie, about to be flooded in the vast Three Gorges dam project on the Yangtze River, an uneasy reunion occurs between a man and a woman. Masterly cinema.

10. "The Dark Knight," directed by Christopher Nolan. Blockbuster fury with a brain.

No. 11-20, in alphabetical order:

"Ballast"; "Happy-GoLucky"; "Iron Man"; "Milk"; "Momma's Man"; "My Winnipeg"; "Rachel Getting Married"; "Reprise"; "Synecdoche, New York"; "Trouble the Water."

That doesn't even account for such fine and varied pictures as: "The Wrestler"; "Doubt"; "Kung Fu Panda"; "The Last Mistress"; "Silent Light"; "The Counterfeiters"; "Encounters at the End of the World"; "Revolutionary Road"; "A Girl Cut in Two"; "Frownland"; "The Visitor"; "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"; "Ghost Town"; "Gomorrah."

Bottom 10, in alphabetical order: "An American Carol"; "Fly Me to the Moon"; "Four Christmases"; "The Happening"; "The Love Guru"; "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor"; "Never Back Down"; "RocknRolla"; "The Spirit"; "What Happens in Vegas."

Yes, I liked: "Death Race"; "Speed Racer"; "10,000 B.C."

In fact I liked "Death Race" more than: "Gran Torino"

And yes, you read that antepenultimate item correctly: "10,000 B.C."

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