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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a modern movie miracle. Aglow in the wonderment of time, the film captures the poetry and pain of life with such originality that audiences may not want to awake from the dream the film casts upon them. Working from a screenplay by Eric Roth, David Fincher clocks in again as one of the most exciting voices in American film, and his extraordinary use of technology, often the enemy of performance, serves only to enhance Brad Pitt's brilliant turn in the title role. Pitt's chemistry with Cate Blanchett creates one of film history's most powerful screen romances, reminding us all of the preciousness of each passing moment. Read the AFI Catalog entry

THE DARK KNIGHT leapt from the screen and into the zeitgeist of a nation desperate for a savior, but wary of the consequences of rushing to action. At once brave and bravura, this epic studio presentation succeeds as blockbuster entertainment and true artistic expression from Christopher Nolan, who devised the story with David S. Goyer and co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan. Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal lead a stellar cast marked forever in time by Heath Ledger's re-imagining of "The Joker." THE DARK KNIGHT is a movie that leaves your heart and mind racing as it redefines heroism for a new generation. Read the AFI Catalog entry

FROST/NIXON brings history to life with such dramatic intensity that audiences feel eyewitness to a duel of titans from the worlds of politics and journalism. Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan, working in perfect harmony, have reinvented Morgan's stage play in cinematic terms, making it a dynamic ensemble piece where warring camps ready for battle. Tour de force performances by Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost command the screen with all the power of a Shakespeare play. This is not only a film about an historic event, but also the blinding light of hubris and the fight for how one is to be remembered. FROST/NIXON will be remembered as a classic. Read the AFI Catalog entry

FROZEN RIVER challenges audiences to witness the strength and the character of America's underclass — and, ultimately, asks if they have what it takes to endure such hardship. First-time feature filmmaker Courtney Hunt tells the story of two women from different worlds who stand together in an astoundingly bleak landscape — unlikely partners on economic thin ice. Their struggle unfolds with such authenticity — free from the comfort endemic to most American films — that the pain and power of the story are palpable. The performances of Melissa Leo and Misty Upham stand among this year's finest. Read the AFI Catalog entry

GRAN TORINO is a cultural landmark in the grand and glorious career of an American master — Clint Eastwood. As director and leading man, Eastwood examines his own iconography to tell a timely tale of crossing cultural boundaries, the enduring legacy of racism and the cost of poverty in our country's neglected industrial cities. Though born from "Harry Callahan," Eastwood's "Walt Kowalski" reflects a more complicated definition of what it is to be a hero in today's world. Watching a screen legend embody the times and triumph with such comic, tragic and cinematic flair is a thrill audiences will long remember as witness to film history. Read the AFI Catalog entry

IRON MAN smashes through the cinematic stratosphere to take its rightful place among the leading superhero sagas in American film. Witty and bold, this dynamic film is a shining example of summer entertainment that can both entertain and enlighten. Jon Favreau's dynamic direction delights in the medium, using visual effects with a light touch and in perfect service to the story. Robert Downey, Jr.'s inspired interpretation lifts the title role off the pages of a comic book with great respect — and his own indelible quirkiness — launching it into the future as audiences cheer both a hero and their own humanity. Read the AFI Catalog entry

MILK is here to recruit you — and all audiences who yearn for stories of hope and inspiration. The film is a time capsule that comes to life through Sean Penn's transformative performance, adding another chapter to the volumes this great American artist has written for the ages. His work here holds the center of a spectacular ensemble led by Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco. In a year when America went to the polls seeking change, director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black crafted a story that soars above the biopic genre by illuminating the thrill of activism, celebrating the theater in America's political process and extolling Milk's legacy through his simple message — "You gotta give 'em hope." Read the AFI Catalog entry

WALL•E proves to this generation and beyond that the film medium's only true boundaries are the human imagination. Writer/director Andrew Stanton and his team have created a classic screen character from a metal trash compactor who rides to the rescue of a planet buried in the debris that embodies the broken promise of American life. Not since Chaplin's "Little Tramp" has so much story — so much emotion — been conveyed without words. When hope arrives in the form of a seedling, the film blossoms into one of the great screen romances as two robots remind audiences of the beating heart in all of us that yearns for humanity — and love — in the darkest of landscapes. Read the AFI Catalog entry

WENDY AND LUCY is a precisely observed portrait of life on the edge in America, where every dollar is measured and daily decisions are high drama. Director, co-writer and co-editor Kelly Reichardt trusts the simplicity of a well-plotted, emotional story to reach its audience, infusing this minimalist movie about a woman and her dog with quiet moments that do not beg for sympathy. Michelle Williams's heroic performance is the center of this powerful poem about friendship — what it is to care, to give and to let go — as the wail of a distant train calls for a better life. Read the AFI Catalog entry

THE WRESTLER is a cinematic smackdown that slams audiences head first into the harsh and harrowing world of professional wrestling. Director Darren Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel transcend the sports genre, and fearlessly explore the dream-ravaged landscape of a performer whose time has come and gone. Mickey Rourke's towering performance as "Randy 'The Ram' Robinson" stands firmly in the pantheon of great American performances on film — and his tag team of Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood prove once again that they are among the finest actors of their generation. Read the AFI Catalog entry


BREAKING BAD is combustible television — a bold enterprise that illuminates how high the stakes are for "everyman" in modern-day America. Marked by an explosive mixture of dark comedy and pure savagery, this allegorical examination of a man in crisis springs from the mind of writer/director/creator Vince Gilligan, and together with his creative ensemble, they set the moral compass spinning. Bryan Cranston proves once again that he is one of the true talents of television as the tragic high school chemistry teacher who is faced with mortality, a desire to provide for his family and no easy answers along the way.

IN TREATMENT redefined "appointment television" for 2008. The show's innovative format presents a new episode every weeknight, each a daring one-act-play that sets a standard for dynamic drama via verbal combat. Writer/director/producer Rodrigo Garcia and his talented team expertly weave together the intimate stories of six patients and their psychotherapist with questions and answers that are not always what they — or we — want to hear. Gabriel Byrne leads this weekly master class on acting, with a standout performance by Mia Wasikowska as "Sophie," the young gymnast. With IN TREATMENT, when your time is want more.

JOHN ADAMS is an act of heroism in the history of long-form television. This epic seven-part miniseries was born from the pages of David McCullough's book, nurtured by the masterful rhythm and timbre of Kirk Ellis's writing, and shaped and sculpted like a work of art by Tom Hooper's extraordinary vision of America's founding fathers. Never bowing to pageantry, this work presents an historical tale greater than unfolding events, articulating ideas that continue to echo across time. With a superb cast led by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, JOHN ADAMS is a gift to today's generation, one most resonant in a year when American ideals were discussed and debated in the glow of televisions around the world.

LIFE breathes new life into the classic cop show. The hallmark of Rand Ravich's beautifully realized drama is the emergence of an original character in homicide detective "Charlie Crews," a man reclaiming his life in a profession that brings him in touch with death each day on the beat. Compelling and insightful, this stylish procedural is not solely about solving a crime, but also about a range of adult, emotional issues not traditionally observed in the genre — including an arresting exploration of what it is to achieve transcendence.

LOST found itself further solidifying its place in television history as one of America's most addictive and audacious dramas. Now in its fourth year, each new episode defied convention with such authority that the show exemplified the term "surrender television," transporting audiences beyond the boundaries of a remote island and back and forth across time. LOST is a wildly imaginative adventure series, and this year, time was not only of the essence — it was the essence — redefining the very possibility of storytelling on television.

MAD MEN unveils a work of art each week — one reminiscent of a modernist painting that invites an audience to find more with each visit. Masterful in its music, costumes and production design, Matt Weiner and his brilliant creative ensemble delve deep below the surface glamour of the sixties and tap the psyche of a generation on the brink of enormous change. Though the show continues to be anchored by the commanding presence of Jon Hamm's "Don Draper," this year became a true ensemble piece, one that remains as insightful as a Bob Dylan anthem and as cool as a dry martini.

THE OFFICE provides a potent tonic for what ails America in 2008. Creating a consistently funny situation comedy is among television's greatest challenges, and THE OFFICE not only delivers the laughs each week, but grew even stronger this year by peeking into other cubicles and drawing stories from many exceptionally well-realized supporting characters. From flat out farce to touching displays of emotion, THE OFFICE celebrates the maddening dynamics and the embarrassing emotional intimacy of a family — the family we all love and endure at the work place.

RECOUNT vividly captures an historic moment in America, as well as a reality that can only be appreciated in retrospect — that history is often written by the smallest of decisions, the quietest of conversations and the narrowest of margins. Director Jay Roach presents Danny Strong's meticulously researched script in the great tradition of classic films like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN — heart-pounding thrillers with endings well-known. Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Laura Dern and Tom Wilkinson lead a flawless acting ensemble, reminding us that truth — especially in politics — can be stranger than fiction.

THE SHIELD entered its seventh and final season with great expectations and smashed through them with each new episode. Always faithful to the show's inspired noir roots, Shawn Ryan and the creative ensemble drove the Strike Team through higher levels of dramatic storytelling and complex moral quandaries, with Michael Chiklis's timeless and tortured "Vic Mackey" always at the rotten core. The season finale is an episodic masterpiece, as extraordinarily satisfying as it was inevitable — the perfect ending to a landmark series.

THE WIRE captures the decay of an American city by calling upon the forces of many art forms — the novel, the opera, the motion picture — and combining them to present a show like no other on television. David Simon's wizardry of the word harnesses the unique power of the medium to show the interconnectivity of our complex social and political systems, the consequences of their inability to relate and the dramatic effect on us all. This fifth and final season brought the curtain down on America's tragic urban landscape — an ending that served as both love song and eulogy to a city, its institutions and its people.