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Brave new worlds

Abba singalongs aside, plenty of films broke exciting, fresh ground this year

Darkness in cinema comes in different guises - one person's knockabout frat-house comedy is another's definitive proof of the end of sentient civilisation. For anyone who regards 2008 as lacking somewhat in cheer, that tone will have been set early on with the release of the harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in which the director Cristian Mungiu's tenacity in holding shots until breaking point made me want to leap to my feet and cheer - possibly not an appropriate response, all things considered, to a film about illegal abortion in Ceausescu's Romania.

Then, in Hunger, Steve McQueen conveyed Bobby Sands's physical disintegration with a tactile immediacy that overrode any reassuring distance between film and audience. (My ears are still ringing from the picture's opening chorus of dustbin lids drumming on concrete.)

Somewhere in between was There Will Be Blood, a work so muscular and overwhelming that it might have been conceived by its central character, the rampaging oil prospector played by Daniel Day-Lewis. In fact, it was made by Paul Thomas Anderson, who dedicated the picture to Robert Altman - ironic, given that Anderson has found his own voice only now he's stopped trying to be Altman's mini-me.

Judged purely on subject matter, this trio fell outside the most accommodating definition of fun. Still, these were the films that, in their bravery and experimentation, made a convincing case for the future of cinema - especially so Hunger, not just one of the strongest pictures of the year but the mightiest debut (followed closely by another British film, Joanna Hogg's Unrelated). But someone should have told the makers of The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace, two films embarrassed by their obligation to entertain, that seriousness isn't synonymous with wisdom. (Rumour has it that Christian Bale's arrest in the summer was orchestrated by senior Met officers keen for a word in his shell-like about making the next Batman film lighter, "putting a few jokes in".) However, Wall-E was an ideal antidote: bright and witty, yet essentially a sober broadside against consumerism, pollution and other ills we have visited on our planet.

Playfulness ran wild, too, in the docu-fantasy My Winnipeg, in which the director Guy Maddin presented a delirious vision of his Canadian home town. Visually it resembled a new sort of film - I'd call its look "funhouse noir" - while the script was festooned with fake facts that assumed a trippy authenticity. Does Winnipeg really have the highest rates of sleepwalking in the world? Is it really laced with secret lanes and back roads not illustrated on any map? I don't think so, but part of me was both haunted and tickled by Maddin's fabrications. This bleeding of fantasy into reality to form new textures goes to the heart of what makes cinema unique as an art form. There were moments during My Winnipeg, not to mention Waltz With Bashir, Times and Winds, The Fall and The Orphanage, when it felt like you had a direct line into the director's imagination, and that simply anything might be found blooming or festering there.

In 2007, the industry wondered whether films about the Iraq War would prove any more popular than the conflict itself. The answer was a resounding no, as each picture, whether good (Stop-Loss) or bad (Redacted), toppled like a tenpin at the box office. Paul Greengrass is currently working on an Iraq picture, Green Zone, which may be insulated from commercial failure by its talismanic star, Matt Damon. And the HBO series Generation Kill, created by The Wire's David Simon, earned appreciative reviews. Yet it was hard to avoid the suspicion that cinema audiences, unlike their David Hare-brained, theatre-going counterparts, will pay to see anything but accounts of Iraq. Writers pitching script ideas may be tempted to follow Basil Fawlty's advice and not mention the war - or not that war, at any rate.

There were, however, some excellent documentaries that approached from differing perspectives the idea of our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. In Terror's Advocate, Barbet Schroeder gave Jacques Vergès, lawyer to despots and terrorists, two hours of screen time, and more than enough rope. Taxi to the Dark Side recounted the torture and murder by US forces of an Afghan cab driver; its director, Alex Gibney, deftly ensured that both this death and its incalculable implications stayed in focus at all times. And I was taken aback by the emotional wallop of James Marsh's Man on Wire, which revisited Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. The selflessness of Petit's friends, and their commitment to helping him fully express his vision, dazzled every bit as much as his impish ballet in the sky.

I've dwelt here on silver linings, but this year's storm cloud - no, mushroom cloud - has been the unfathomable success of Mamma Mia!. It's bad enough that such a shoddy film has reached phenomenon level, but it has also made it almost impossible to find a shop or cafe that isn't blasting out the original cast recording. (You haven't confronted the abyss of eternal despair until you've heard Meryl Streep laying in to "Waterloo" as though it just spilled her pint.) The "singalong" version of the film, with lyrics illuminated at the bottom of the screen, is also proving popular, though it would be more instructive to have each actor's fee flash up instead: I can't be alone in wondering what the going rate is for a reputable performer's integrity.

Streep has agreed in principle to a Mamma Mia! sequel, even though there are no Abba songs left to desecrate, and this wins by a whisker in the category of Worst Film-Related Announcement of the Year. The runner-up is surely the news that Robert Carlyle may be cast as Leonard Rossiter in a forthcoming biopic. What a kick in the teeth for Ralph Fiennes, whose apoplectic turns in Martin McDonagh's comic thriller In Bruges, and on stage in God of Carnage, felt to me like unofficial auditions to play the man who would be Rigsby.

Looking forward: Ryan Gilbey’s pick of 2009

Each winter, prestigious releases compete to yoo-hoo at Oscar and Bafta voters; this January is no exception. There's the film of Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon, which I found overly simplistic, although I'm marking its release by cultivating a pair of furry David Frost sideburns.

They should sit nicely with the beret I'm wearing to herald Steven Soderbergh's Che: Part One (Part Two follows in February), though I may draw the line at donning a leotard to welcome Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. Sean Penn is near-unrecognisable but awfully winning as Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected official, in Gus Van Sant's Milk.

Kate Winslet returns in two adaptations - The Reader, a half-good film adapted by David Hare from Bernhard Schlink's novel about a teenage boy's affair with an older woman in postwar Berlin; and Revolutionary Road, directed by Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes, which reunites her with Leonardo DiCaprio, her Titanic beau, in Richard Yates's study of 1950s suburban disquiet.

In February, there are new works from Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Three Monkeys) and the indefatigable Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino). Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a priest suspected of child abuse in Doubt, as well as a playwright who mounts a full-scale version of his own life in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (May).

In blockbuster-land, cinema-goers of an excitable disposition are already in a tizzy about Watchmen (March), the adaptation of the graphic novel, the revamped Star Trek (May) and Terminator: Salvation (June). Peter Jackson bids goodbye to hobbits for the film of Alice Sebold's macabre bestseller The Lovely Bones (April). Pedro Almodóvar offers Broken Embraces (August) and Martin Scorsese visits Shutter Island (October) for his fourth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. I don't want to jinx things, but maybe we'll see Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, too, before the year is out.

With the exception of Cadillac Records (February), which tells the story of the legendary Chess Records label (Mos Def as Chuck Berry! Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters! Beyoncé as Etta James!), and Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat follow-up, Brüno (May), the films I'm most looking forward to are aimed, in theory, at young audiences. Hayao Miyazaki puts a spin on The Little Mermaid in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (April) and the Pixar studio contributes to the year's 3-D craze with Up (October), about a man who travels to South America by attaching balloons to his house.

Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, figureheads of the 1990s boom in adventurous US cinema, have both branched out into filming children's classics. Jonze's live-action version of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, co-scripted with Dave Eggers and shot on location in Australia, was due for release in autumn 2008, only to be postponed after a chaotic shoot and reportedly fretful scenes among children at test screenings. It will materialise in December, by which time we will know whether Anderson's animated take on Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr Fox (November) lives up to the adjective in its title.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special