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Best Movies of 2008

When pondering the "Best Movies of 2008," which come to mind?

Those big tent films that were first described as mega-box-office hits? If worldwide gross be the criterion, then "The Dark Knight" won big time this year, grossing well over $900 million, followed by "Indiana Jones" coming in at some $700 million and "Kung Fu Panda" making a whopping $600 million and change.

"WALL-E" made $500 million plus as did "Quantum of Solace," "Hancock" and "Iron Man." "Mama Mia" and "Sex in the City" both broke the $400 million mark. And as of last month, 46 films released in 2008 grossed more than $100 million. In other words, the moviegoing public voted with their feet and wallets.

But in criticworld, when push comes to shove, it's not always those movies that are massively popular and generate box office heat that form the year-end best lists or make the cut for Oscar (it happens, recall "Titanic," but not often). Rather, films that are esoteric, character driven, offering platforms for nuanced and powerful performances by some of our best actors, are the ones that give Oscar serious artistic street cred and reap kudos from the Academy.

These films, because of limited distribution, initially screened only in Los Angeles and New York, and depending on box-office response, may find their way to metropolitan centers and eventually smaller towns. More than a few movies on year-end critics' lists will never be seen by a wider audience. "Shotgun Stories," "Let the Right One In," "Encounters at the End of the World," "Paranoid Park," "Man on Wire," "Trouble the Water," "The Fall," "Ballast," "Chop Shop" and "My Winnipeg" are good examples.

"Frozen River," "Happy-Go-Lucky" and "The Visitor" did find traction and eventually wider distribution. Thankfully. "Frozen River" is about a single mother barely keeping her head above the economic Plimsol line and features an astonishing performance by Melissa Leo. "The Visitor" is a quiet yet emotional tale focused on a lonely college professor who finds new reasons to live in New York City.

In "Happy-Go-Lucky," Sally Hawkins delivers a powerful yet understated portrayal of a young London schoolteacher who, through sheer will and courage, finds joy in life while acknowledging, in rare private moments, how flawed, sad and uncertain life can be.

Heading the list of films with solid studio support and Oscar in mind are "Doubt," "Slumdog Millionaire," "Frost/Nixon," "Milk," "The Wrestler," "The Reader," "Synecdoche," and "Revolutionary Road." How "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "W.," "Changeling" and "Gran Torino" (reportedly Clint Eastwood's last onscreen performance) will measure up is uncertain.

There will always be tension between the people's choice of movies and those selected by the critics. Thankfully, films cover a wide spectrum, from action-adventure, CGI-driven entertainment that captivate audiences while offering the thinnest of stories, to those narratives that mine the nuanced intricacies of the human condition.

Hollywood will always serve up a smorgasbord of compelling choices and therefore will rarely have a bad year.