Signs of Life 2008: Best Film

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5. The Visitor[Thomas McCarthy]
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a most unexpected and unhip protagonist in McCarthy’s charming follow-up to The Station Agent. Even so, as Walter befriends an immigrant couple, you can’t help but care about all three characters as deeply as McCarthy does.

4. Nights and Weekends? [Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig]
godfather Joe Swanberg works without a script, forcing his actors to dig into their murky, often funny subconscious minds. His newest romantic feature is heartbreaking and masterfully self-assured, reveling in the awkward pauses and false starts of natural conversation. A reminder that dancing lovers are still beautiful, even when toes get crushed.

3. A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) [Arnaud Desplechin]
On top of his story about a hilariously contentious family reunion, Desplechin has heaped cinema itself, spinning up a maelstrom of irises and dissolves, Vertigos and Tenenbaums, Minguses and Herrmanns, to end up with something that feels almost, maybe, strangely, ever so slightly touching.
2. The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan]
With the hype surrounding Heath Ledger’s death, it seemed impossible for the latest Batman movie—and Ledger’s performance—to meet expectations. But the creepy crime noir more than delivered, with thrilling action sequences and Ledger’s complex portrayal of the Joker, a confused mélange of half-truths and ambiguities underscored by a palpable madness, its roots uncertain, even to the character.

1. Firaaq [Nandita Das]
For all the praise showered on Slumdog Millionaire this year, it wasn’t even the best film shot in India; it ran a distant second to Firaaq, the directorial debut from Nandita Das. The 39-year-old actress has crafted a modern masterpiece that serves as a study in authenticity and humanitarianism. With an uncompromising dedication to her characters, Das explores profound issues without ever sounding a false note.

Firaaq, an Urdu word meaning both “separation” and “quest,” examines the aftermath of the Hindu/Muslim sectarian violence that erupted in 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat. More than 2,000 people (mostly Muslims) died in riots after 58 Hindu pilgrims were burned in their train car. Das’ film begins after the riots, following five loosely connected stories that transpire during one 24-hour period. A kid searches for his Muslim parents while passing as Hindu. A couple investigates the ransacking of their house and confronts the betrayal of friends. A mixed Muslim/Hindu couple faces the subtle prejudices of their middle-class friends while also struggling with their own religious and ethnic identities. A Muslim musician in a Hindu neighborhood tries to live as if nothing has changed, until he’s forced to confront the new realities. Each of these tales unfolds with compelling momentum.

A sense of redemption also permeates Firaaq. Through a conversational mix of English, Hindi and Urdu, the film’s unflinching emotional honesty offers catharsis. Das, who has a master’s degree in social work, refuses to merely victimize or vilify. Through dialogue, openness and a sharing of stories, humanity can progress. It might be slow; it might be painful. But there’s hope in the midst of struggle.

Check out Paste's other Best of 2008 features:
The Top 50 Albums of 2008
The Top 10 TV Shows of 2008
The Top 10 Video Games of 2008
The Best Books We Read This Year