Every year about this time, I begin to wonder if I'm losing my mind. It's about those 10 Best Movies lists.
Reading some of them feels like the critics are saying, here are the 10 best movies we've already seen that you never will. And even if you did, you wouldn't get them anyway. Neener, neener, neener.
Partially, it's an accident of timing that leads to this elitism. It's a long-standing tradition for movie studios to release what they hope will be their award contenders at the very end of the year, in very select markets - it used to be just L.A. and New York - in order to officially qualify for the Oscar race.
Maybe this reflects the short attention spans of Academy Award voters, attributable to approaching dementia and/or drug use. But this little window gives critics the chance to be kings or queens for a day, wielding all the power as they compile The List.
Thanks to the Maui Film Festival's brilliant FirstLight screeings, we get to make our own lists. The problem for me isn't what to put on it. Movies tend to be excellent this time of year. It's more about the question of what "Best" means.
The other 11 months, "Best" is about superheroes, dogs that can talk and computer-animated robots. "Best" can be measured - exactly - by the number of millions on the box-office charts.
But come December, "Best" starts being about fatal diseases, victims of starvation and genocide, dysfunctional family dynamics, reexamining the Holocaust, the messiness of real life and the inspiring refusal of the human spirit to just lie down and die.
The human condition comes in a spectrum of colors and sizes in the best movies of 2009. They range from the epic meditations on the meaning of it all in "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to the tiny "Wendy and Lucy," about a girl and her dog.
In the tug of war between art and commerce that provides the yin and yang of moviemaking, certain names have a way of showing up in December, year after year, when the industry turns its attention to quality. Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep are some of them.
Breaking into those ranks this year are Robert Downey Jr., Javiar Bardem, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and "Happy Go Lucky's" delightful newcomer, Sally Hawkins.
As compared to last year's bleak Oscar field, this one has little rays of hope shining through the dark clouds. It's been going around lately.
When it comes to making my own 10 Best list, I like "little films" as much as the next critic - but the fact that a lot of people liked something doesn't mean I can't like it, too. My version of "Best" is the movies I can't get out of my head for days after seeing them.
"Gran Torino," "Frost / Nixon" and "Milk" still remain to be seen, but for the time being, here are my tentative choices, in rough chronological order, for the 10 Best Movies for Most of 2008:
1. "WALL-E." As soulful as computer-generated gets.
2. "Shine a Light." Pushing 70, the Rolling Stones still gather no moss.
3. "Iron Man." Containing the missing ingredient other superheroes lack: a heart.
4. "Mamma Mia." What's not to love?
5. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Welcome back, Woody, and thanks for noticing Penelope Cruz.
6. "Burn After Reading." Bad intelligence, Coen brothers-style.
7. "Changeling." Clint Eastwood and Angelina craft a zen melodrama for a new millennium.
8. "Slumdog Millionaire." The year's most original, relevant and uplifting mix of truth and escape.
9. "Wendy and Lucy." Michelle Williams writes volumes about collapsing American society just calling out the name of her missing dog, Lucy.
10. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." As brilliant as it is curious, an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story yields a gorgeous, profound mediation on everything.
Don't agree? Well, then, try "Nim's Island," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Married Life," "The Fall," "Captain Abu Raed," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," "The Dark Knight," "Tropic Thunder," "Lakeview Terrace," "Appaloosa," "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," "The Duchess," "W.," "Rachel Getting Married," "Twilight," "Australia," "Cadillac Records," "Happy Go Lucky" and "The Reader."
They're winners all, one way or another. The best, you might say.
Wishing you the happiest of holidays. I'll see you right back here next year.
* Rick Chatenever can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.