In a word,

displacement

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Looking back over the list of the year's most satisfying films, it isn't hard finding the thread running through just about every one.

Alienated and isolated by class, culture, country or circumstance, the heroes and heroines of the best movies of 2008 were physical and spiritual refugees - strangers in a strange land, or strangers in their own land, struggling to survive and thrive.

Jamal Malik, the street urchin of Danny Boyle's exhilarating Slumdog Millionaire - 2008's best picture, far and away - was an outsider: one of India's poor, an orphan from the muck of Mumbai, who, driven by love and destiny, climbed the caste ladder, grabbing rupees and romance on his way.

The Turks-in-Hamburg and Germans-in-Istanbul of Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven likewise trod warily on foreign soil. So too the pair of Irish mugs killing time in Belgium in Martin McDonough's black, black comedy In Bruges. And even Sally Hawkins' resilient London schoolteacher in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky was an outcast - not by geography, but by state of mind. Who's more out of place than a resolute optimist in a world of gloom and doom?

These folks fought hard for their place in the world, and so did the seriously messed-up superheroes of Hancock and Iron Man (thanks to Robert Downey Jr. for making comic-book flicks fun again!). The crushingly lonely soul channeled by Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy (opening here Jan. 23) is homeless and adrift - and then she loses her one true friend, her rangy brown mutt. (Kelly Reichardt's beautifully spare portrait is the real humans-and-their-dog story of the year, not Marley & Me).

Kristin Scott Thomas' haunted ex-con in I've Loved You So Long reenters society, carrying a heavy load of loneliness and guilt. (If Scott Thomas wins an Oscar - and she should - it'll be the second year running that the Academy Award goes to a performer from a French-language film.) Melissa Leo's and Misty Upham's desperate border-crossing duo in Frozen River - one white, one American Indian, both broke and unhappy - form an improbable bond. And Richard Jenkins' tamped-down college professor discovers something new about himself from a couple of accidental flatmates - and illegal aliens - in The Visitor.

And then there's Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which the famous bespectacled Manhattanite tries out his template of amorous switch-ups on a new terrain: the seductive city- and countryscapes of Catalonia. American ex-pats and summer tourists mingle with the natives, and sex, heartbreak, and a Penélope Cruz firestorm ensue.

There are a good half-dozen films I tried mightily to squeeze onto my arbitrary list of 10 (OK, 11 - I've cheated by making the two superhero blockbusters share a spot). Sean Penn, in Gus Van Sant's lamentably timely gay-rights biopic Milk, was downright brilliant. And one of Penn's Milk costars, James Franco, delivered the year's most sublimely goofy character study - a wacko drug dealer - in David Gordon Green's stoner comedy par excellence, Pineapple Express.

Mickey Rourke's scary rendering of a washed-up, broken-down guy on the comeback trail in The Wrestler (opening here Jan. 9) was another standout. Talk about a body of work: Rourke heaves his bruised, battered frame - and his bruised, battered psyche - into Darren Aronofsky's verite sports pic like there's no tomorrow.

I fell in love with the silent- era dreamscapes of Tarsem Singh's global adventure The Fall. The French thriller Tell No One had more pulsating action and trip-wire suspense going for it than anything Hollywood had to offer this year. Norway's Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in for you diacritical-mark fiends), about a 12-year-old vampire and the boy who befriends her, was easily the best vampire movie of the year, but Catherine Hardwicke's witty take on the abstinent teen bloodsuckers of Twilight was plenty of fun, too.

Although documentaries didn't score Michael Moore-size box-office numbers, 2008 produced an encouraging number of excellent nonfiction features. In a Dream, about Philadelphia muralist Isaiah Zagar, offered an uncomfortably close-up view of an artist and a family in crisis. And IOUSA offered an uncomfortably close-up view of an economy in crisis - ours.

Man on Wire was the best caper pic of the year, and a true-life one, recounting daredevil Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Surfwise gave us a portrait of the itinerant Paskowitz clan - a family of surfing zealots led by a domineering dropout physician dad. And Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World took a characteristically odd ramble around Antarctica, finding neurotic penguins, and neurotic people, in the process.

It was a good year for animation. Pixar's Wall-E combined silent-film slapstick with space-age existential angst, as a lonely robot discovers true love on a post-apocalyptic wasteland called Earth. And DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda mixed elegant ancient Chinese art motifs with martial-arts mayhem and Looney Tune farce.

Some of movidedom's leading lights went out in 2008: Paul Newman passed away, leaving a legacy of rascally loners and rebellious losers for us to delight in, and rediscover. Heath Ledger, who brought a devastatingly chilling conviction to his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, made a premature exit, cutting short what promised to be a brilliant career. Hollywood greats Cyd Charisse, Charlton Heston, Van Johnson and Richard Widmark moved on, as did the formidable filmmakers (and friends) Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. And Bettie Page, the 1950s and '60s pinup and '00s hipster cheesecake icon, struck her final pose.

Here's hoping they've found a place to call home.

Steven Rea's Top 10

(in ranked order)

» READ MORE: Slumdog Millionaire

» READ MORE: The Edge of Heaven

» READ MORE: The Visitor

Wendy and Lucy

» READ MORE: Frozen River

» READ MORE: Hancock

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» READ MORE: Iron Man

(tie)

» READ MORE: Happy-Go-Lucky

» READ MORE: In Bruges

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.