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On Movies: Acting rules in the best of 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2008 - The conventional wisdom among film scholars and critics is that film is a director's medium, but most of the best movies of 2008 were dominated by superior acting. In at least two cases - "Milk" and "I've Loved You So Long" - riveting performances in the lead roles raised movies from merely a cut above ordinary into the dramatic stratosphere. This was a year made memorable by fine actors like Sean Penn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Penelope Cruz and John Malkovich, among others, working at the absolute top of their form.

Here are my choices of the top movies of 2008, in alphabetical order.

Burn After Reading: John Malkovich, who has been known to overact in villainous roles, is perfect as a self-important, cashiered CIA agent in a hilarious and disturbing Coen brothers farce about spy culture gone berserk in the nation's capital. The film features terrific acting from Frances McDormand, George Clooney and others, although Brad Pitt may overdo the mugging as a low-IQ personal trainer. Who does he think he is, John Malkovich?

The Counterfeiters: In this haunting Austrian-German film, Karl Markovics gives verve and moral nuance to the role of a Jewish petty criminal in the World War II era who saves himself and others in a concentration camp by organizing a counterfeiting ring for the Nazis. The film puts the viewer in the middle of stark horror that is emotionally and morally disorienting, and poses the question, "What would you have done?"

Doubt: In the 1960s, a Catholic priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who wants to open up the church, and an authoritarian nun (Meryl Streep), who suspects the priest of child molestation, are at the center of an intense drama that touches on a number of sensitive subjects - racism, homophobia and male domination of the church among them - beyond the obvious one. John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the original play, directs in a fairly undistinguished way, but his script and the fine acting make this a very effective dramatic presentation of weighty questions it doesn't always answer.

Frost/Nixon: Two men passionately seeking comebacks - a TV personality whose New York talk show was cancelled and a former president who resigned under the threat of impeachment - go mano a mano in a brilliantly opened-up hit stage play with a compelling performance by Frank Langella as Richard Nixon.

Happy-Go-Lucky: Sally Hawkins is both a delight and a pain-in-the neck as a resolutely positive, aggressively friendly young London schoolteacher in what may be the sunniest film usually dour British filmmaker Mike Leigh has ever directed.

I've Loved You So Long: Kristin Scott Thomas gives a mesmerizing performance in this emotionally complex French film about a woman who gets out of prison after serving 15 years for killing her son. The weight on her frail shoulders is palpable, and it is slow to lift.

Milk: Sean Penn gives what may be the performance of his career by sinking into the role of San Francisco gay leader Harvey Milk, who was murdered by a fellow member of the city's Board of Supervisors. Penn somehow manages simultaneously to soften and sharpen himself to play Milk, a complicated character who could turn from dove to hawk in an instant.

Slumdog Millionaire: Three orphans who grew up on the exceedingly mean streets of Mumbai (Bombay) find their lives are once again intertwined when one of them has a chance to win millions on a TV quiz show. Intense, passionate, exuberant.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Woody Allen, whose movies have been steadily getting better since he began working in Europe, directs his best comedy in years, the story of a love triangle in Barcelona with Penelope Cruz, an irresistible force of life and sensuality, at the hypotenuse.

The Wrestler: Mickey Rourke hits no false notes in the gritty tale of an aging, footloose professional wrestler who finally tries to put his life in order, but discovers it may be too late. Fine supporting performance by Marisa Tomei as a reluctantly kind stripper.

Harper Barnes is a long-time cultural and movie critic.