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THE LAST LAUGH: Heath Ledger's Joker expressed the angst of 2008.

A Year in The Dark

'The Dark Knight' and 'WALL-E' led the parade of best and most troubling movies of 2008

By Richard von Busack

IN 10 or 20 years, you could show THE DARK KNIGHT to someone and say, This is how scared we were; this sums up how we wondered if there was going to be an election at all, if some unthinkable event might give them an excuse to pull the plug. After all, the administration openly reserved that particular right.

The actual relevance of The Dark Knight was clearer when posted "The Dark Bailout." This brief video merged President Bush's Sept. 24 speech on the economy with the scene of the summit meeting of the Gotham gangsters. The visibly frightened Bush, digitally pasted into the TV set, asks the thugs, "How did we reach this point in the economy?" The Joker enters laughing, sort of: "And I thought my jokes were bad ... as for the television's so-called 'plan' ... call me when you want to get serious about this."

Opposing him was a half-seen figure. The Wall Street Journal's Andrew Klavan descried Bush's face under the bat mask: alas, misunderstood warrior, Bush did what needed to be done on the war on terror, even under the cover of darkness. Some East Coast critics pounced: there, the WSJ proved it, Christopher Nolan's hit endorsed vigilantism. This was a deliberate misreading of the film. The majority opinion understood the film's double edge. Even if the child at the end pleads that Batman didn't do anything wrong, adults knew he was a criminal: Gordon knew, Bruce Wayne knew, even Batman knew.

And here was the least-aesthetic screen version of the adventurer. The oversized cowl recalls that episode of The Outer Limits where the human of the year 50,000 is revealed to have a geodesic-dome-size skull. Seal-like black eyes shine out of the mask in the interrogation scene when Batman foolishly tries to beat some info out of Osama Bin Joker. Clown that he is, Joker sees the funny side of it all: "I just wanted to see what you'd do. You didn't disappoint."

Two lines of dialogue summed up how the nation capitulated in the face of panic—how to our shame, we turned over the weapons and the armies to schemers. Two lines that sum up seven years of bad luck, war and financial ruin.

Sure, the movie is too long. Nolan tried to invent a new shape for a movie, an arc with an annex. Golden hindsight suggests that he ought to have merged the Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes characters; changing the character's sex would have been an interesting updating, and Bob Kane seems to have borrowed Two Face from the George Cukor movie A Woman's Face, anyway.

But if The Dark Knight summed up '08, the single best movie of the year was WALL-E, and that was 1 1/2 hours of bliss. WALL-E appealed to cinephiles, who cherish some snippet of some forgotten film the way WALL-E adored his few minutes of Hello, Dolly. If a villain is a movie lover, we will forgive him; if a hero is a movie lover, we will cherish him.

Like Chaplin before him, director Andrew Stanton might not have understood the strings he was pulling. In interviews, Stanton downplayed the seriousness of his satire, which depicts American humanity as devolved, all-consuming blobs. Stanton insisted that the love story is where he turned his attention. The WALL-E and Eva love duet was primal stuff: Joe Lunchpail in love with an unearthly beauty, probably too good for him. In it was the idea of hope from some unlikely union, set against an earth that endures and forgives.

As for the rest of the Top 10—they are of less impact but of the highest quality:

MILK, timely as could be, is a success because of an actor showing unlikely lightness and grace. UP THE YANGTZE offered a deliberately flooded China and a clear vision of the next century, and I am so glad I won't be here to see it happen.

MY WINNIPEG: O, rare Guy Maddin, thank you for this memorial to your hometown, both fragrant warm blanket and smothering sweaty pillow. (What a rebuke this one was to the muss and fuss of Synecdoche, New York. )

THE FALL was the most visually glorious film of the year, if too rich, too sweet and too spicy for most; here's to old Roger Ebert, who helped get it released. And thanks again to Roger Ebert for that fine essay he wrote against intelligent design in general and Ben Stein in particular. Sometimes film critics can join Mencken and the muckrakers.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY showed the upside of optimism, with an aged director generously conceding that it has an upside. More about REVOLUTIONARY ROAD later, but it was by far the most successful of the holiday prestigers, and Kate Winslet is a stormy, fascinating tragedian.

A CHRISTMAS TALE's satisfying heft and tanginess made it the best of a good crop of French films. Finally let's remember AROUND THE BAY, an ultralow-budget San Jose movie, with the kind of incisiveness and generosity that ought to have been found in many a blockbuster.

As for the worst: Why belabor it? Go, Speed Racer, go. Here's a rule: a movie with a number in its title (Fistmaster 4: The Beatening) is usually going to be more crap than one without: see Chapter 27, 10,000 BC and the ineffable Seven Pounds.

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