Less was more: 10 great, graciously austere movies of ’08

Notwithstanding Robert Downey Jr’s nervy performance of the year in Tropic Thunder, my favorite films of ’08 tended toward the spare and simple, winning me over with eloquent reticence. True, these ten involve tween vampires, washed-up wrestlers, dingbatty Englishwomen, sentient-seeming balloons and anthropomorphized trash compactors, but the point is how much humanity they all contain. In alphabetical order:

1.  Ballast (pictured). Of his debut feature, director Lance Hammer says, “There is an energetic resonance in the [Mississippi] Delta that moves me, especially in winter. It has to do with the dignity of endurance in the face of sorrow.” Wow, did he ever nail it.

2.  The Class (Entre les Murs). By now I’d follow the consistently amazing French director Laurent Cantet anywhere. Even — especially — a Parisian middle school.

3.  Flight of the Red Balloon. A dance, a dream, a whirling dervish of Juliette Binoche.

4.  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Yes, definitely the best Romanian movie about an illegal abortion you’ll ever see.

5.  Happy-Go-Lucky. A surprising, mysterious, buoyantly humanist achievement for filmmaker Mike Leigh and for movies in general. The range of feelings it provokes is astounding.

6.  Let the Right One In. A viscerally immediate sketch of adolescence and a stylish, coolly Swedish genre reboot, all without a single false note.

7.  Rachel Getting Married. Its warmth and generosity sends a catchy message: American movies don’t have to suck.

8.  Wall-E. So what exactly is so “spare” about the latest uber-animated Pixar blockbuster? Its nearly wordless first half, which plays like a perfect, universally communicable silent film.

9.  Wendy and Lucy. America’s Umberto D., to put it pretentiously. Politically astute and elegantly realized; I think it might be an instant classic.

10.  The Wrestler. The best thing about Mickey Rourke’s top-turnbuckle comeback: They’re not faking it.