Barrel Fever: Eastwood aims for a wise commentary on bigotry in Gran Torino.
Barrel Fever: Eastwood aims for a wise commentary on bigotry in Gran Torino.

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Chances are good that you’ve had better years. This one wasn’t exactly littered with triumphs: Americans were losing their jobs, increasing their debt, or spending nearly three hours being bored by Australia.

But just as the nation’s economic miseries began to snowball, we got a reprieve: With the election of Barack Obama, history was made. People danced in the streets, both in this country and around the world. Newspapers sold out! The night was an exhilarating, cathartic release followed by days of continuing buzz.

The best films of 2008 evoke a similar feeling of a big win, a wash of elation after too much time spent shouldering a burden. Below, in no particular order, are the films that offered the year’s most satisfying emotional orgasms. Honorable mentions to Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, gifts to nerds of the comic-book and movie variety that didn’t need darkness to make their pure bliss pop.

1. Slumdog Millionaire: This Danny Boyle drama, set and filmed in Mumbai, has Best Picture drooled all over it. My guess is partly rooted in cynicism—I’m taking into account the recent terrorist attacks on the city and the Academy’s inclination to be swayed by factors beyond what’s projected onscreen. You can’t argue, however, that this story (adapted from a Vikas Swarup novel) about an orphan turned game show winner isn’t full-bodied, jubilant, and one of the least-flawed films of the year. Boyle captures the plight of India’s disenfranchised, weaves in a potentially tragic love story, and caps it off with a note-perfect re-creation of a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire climax. Even if the show’s trivia-for-dummies and melodramatic mechanics drive you nuts, you gotta admit it’s often irresistible—and integrating it into an already compelling story is genius.

2. Milk: Re-live the exuberance of Nov. 4 with Gus Van Sant’s biopic about another political barrier-breaker, Harvey Milk. Portrayed in another Oscar-worthy transformation by Sean Penn, Milk had the charisma, level-headed intelligence, and fearless determination to persuade San Francisco to elect him the country’s first openly gay public official. Milk’s under-the-underdogs status when he finally won the race for city supervisor in 1977 makes witnessing his filmic victory Obama-sweet, even if the joys of both his victory and progress he made possible in the gay-rights movement are countered by the hatred he suffered and the grim price he ultimately paid.

3. WALL•E: My favorite film of 2008, if only a hair’s breadth above No. 10. Pixar’s masterpiece depicts an Earth abandoned and covered in trash, as humans, obese to the point of immobility, have been shipped off to cruise space indefinitely. WALL•E, the workbot who doesn’t realize his cleanup mission has long been scrapped, toils alone, comforted only by a VHS tape of Hello, Dolly! and trinkets he uncovers. It’s a bleak setup, yet the execution and heart of Andrew Stanton’s nearly dialogue-free screenplay is exquisite. Never mind the breathtaking animation and adorable ’bot romance—the keenly observed nuance of what makes life and all its peaks and valleys such a joyous ride are as well-rendered in this children’s film as anything else on this list.

4. Trouble the Water: It’s not easy to revisit firsthand accounts of the devastation—and fatal mishandling—of Hurricane Katrina, particularly hearing 911 calls in which victims are essentially told they’re going to be left to die. What makes Carl Deal’s and Tia Lessin’s unflinching documentary worthy is the home-video footage and narration of Kimberly River Roberts, aspiring rapper and lead phoenix of a family whose members reached out to neighbors as best they could even though they had very little before the flood. Startling optimists, the Robertses looked at Katrina as a slate-cleanser, with Kimberly performing a powerful rap that suggests the onetime Ninth Ward persona non grata may have a bright future under her stage name, Black Kold Madina.

5. Man on Wire: 9/11 isn’t mentioned once in James Marsh’s documentary about Philippe Petit, the high-wire performer and charismatic sprite who pranced between the towers of the World Trade Center for nearly an hour in 1974. Even if his act, captured only in photos, knots your stomach, Petit’s effervescent storytelling of “le coup” will make any sadness about the buildings’ fate temporarily float away. Witnesses called Petit’s stunt a “gift,” and so is this film, skipping talk of death to demonstrate the marvels that can be accomplished in life.

6. The Wrestler: The only cheer-worthy comeback in Darren Aronofsky’s story about a washed-up wrestler is Mickey Rourke’s performance in the starring role. Within the film, however, there’s plenty to admire, particularly the endearing personality of Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a big softie underneath a gruff, battle-scarred tank of a body. Randy’s post-stardom reality is heartbreaking; at one point his famous face is topped with a hairnet when he hits a personal low and takes work at a deli. But try not to smile as he warmly interacts with the customers, a light-handed but clear reminder that you are not your job.

7. Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski isn’t an underdog, oppressed, or even terribly likable, unless you have a soft spot for grumpy, racist old men. But the Korean War vet’s Hmong neighbors qualify as at least the first two descriptors and Walt, after threatening the extended family’s punk teenagers with his rifle a few times, eventually accepts that they’re also not bad people. There’s a lot of ugly slurs in Eastwood’s second directorial effort this year. As Walt becomes protector of the very people he’d been trained to kill, though—well, the change isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but you feel good about his progress nonetheless.

8. Religulous: Bill Maher’s documentary on blind faith, directed by Borat’s Larry Charles, challenges the tenets of each major religion—sometimes sarcastically, of course, but not quite as often as you might expect—and ultimately preaches skepticism. But the film’s closing one-two punch of violent, familiar imagery and Maher’s impassioned argument that you’re best off believing in doubt is a volcanic triumph that makes you want to cheer.

9. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: This Amy Adams–Frances McDormand trifle, set in 1939 London, only hints at big-picture anxieties such as impending war while lingering a bit more leisurely on wasted lives and broken hearts. But these trickles of melancholy that surface when Adams’ ringleted, giddy performer, Delysia Lafosse, meets McDormand’s straitlaced, happy-to-be-dull governess, Guinevere Pettigrew, only deepen the loveliness of Delysia’s gilded world as each woman takes cues from the other. The film’s messages are best summarized in a nightclub scene during which Delysia sings “If I Didn’t Care,” her tender rendition at once waking her to the truth of whom she really loves and convincing Miss Pettigrew of the rewards that await her should she step out of her shell.

10. The Dark Knight: There’s no spinning light out of this black blockbuster, no matter its magnificence. Its script about good guys turned angry and depressed offers not a sliver of comic-book sunniness, but its backstory is even worse, with Heath Ledger’s sublime turn as the Joker to be forever shadowed by his death before the film was released. I believe there are too many flaws in the script to earn it a Best Picture statue. But it’d be a stunning injustice should Ledger’s name not be short-listed when the supporting-actor nominees are announced Jan. 22—the one-year anniversary of his death.