The BEST Films of 2008

After two years which many have deemed as simply divine for quality movies, 2008 seemed almost pre-destined to pale in comparison and it didn’t fail to disappoint. In fact the most common reaction this year in movie going by far seemed to be that of being letdown.

The Spring proved completely dead, one modestly reviewed CG animated film being the only feature to earn any actual money (“Horton Hears a Who”) and only the odd foreign film garnering good notices. With the Summer came a series of successful superhero films which were outnumbered by some highly profitable but severely wanting duds ranging from the disappointments (the recent “Indiana Jones”) to the plain stinkers (“The X-Files” sequel).

In the Fall came the prestige season where each week it seemed a film was being lined up as ‘the big Oscar contender’ and then was summarily dismissed as ‘well-made but not exceptional’ after it was screened. This period had its more commercial fare too but despite their profitability it seemed again that none of them were better than modestly received (“Quantum of Solace,” “Twilight”) while otherwise were outright ridiculed (“Australia,” “Seven Pounds”).

The inevitable result is various Top Ten lists with the same titles in different orders to reflect the critics personal tastes and preferences. It’s sad that only about forty to fifty films released this year were worth catching, but it’s good to know that a lot of these gems will live on long after this year is forgotten. Here are the films that will keep gracing my Blu-ray and DVD player as the years go by:

1. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s sublimely rich and daringly grim crime saga shakes off the last shackles of the superhero movie mold that he first broke out of in 2005’s superb “Batman Begins”. ‘Knight’ has drawn comparisons ranging from the fair (“Heat”) to the overzealous (“The Godfather II”), but the latter seems fitting in one aspect – this is that rare sequel that takes an already excellent first movie and turns the property into something even more epic, dark and groundbreaking.

Rife with multiple narrative and thematic layers, Nolan’s past work seems to only improve and grow richer on repeat viewings and this is no exception. Excellent performances all around, especially Ledger’s unforgettably chilling take on the Joker, with strong and more understated support from Bale, Eckhart, Caine and most notably Oldman give this real weight. Production values are exquisite, especially the more grounded realistic stunt and model work which keeps computer effects restrained to minimal levels.

If there’s a downside here it’s that some notable plot holes and character inconsistencies (this impulsive Joker sure can plan ahead) do occur throughout, and are ignored in favor of one too many pop psychology speeches. Also Nolan’s dense and relentlessly self-serious style of filmmaking isn’t for everyone – it is clinical, far more comfortable with labyrinthine plot twists than true emotional character studies (something ‘Begins’ did a better job at), and is as unrelentingly grim as the old 60’s TV series was unabashedly high camp.

For someone like me though who rarely finds emotional catharsis in the cinematic form, this slightly cold and overly complicated approach to storytelling fits my cup of tea. The critics adored it, the public loved it, and the box-office records were forever changed by it. No single movie this year had more effect or will be more remembered than this. Big-budget studio filmmaking at its absolute best.

2. Slumdog Millionaire
The most uplifting movie of the year, Director Danny Boyle’s tale is a 21st century take on Dickens’ work with a gritty edge, boundless energy and refreshing humor. Its third act does succumb to eventual Bollywood trappings, including a great dance number, but that life-affirming and almost magical result comes after the quite dark first hour which makes one feel that this good luck story earns its keep.

Boyle infuses the film with so much vigor and creativity that often tired aspects that we’ve become accustomed too are turned on their head. Bland subtitles become colorful text, while the Mumbai setting avoids the tourist trap picturesque locales in favor of unconventional locations that lend a real ‘on the ground’ atmosphere. Satire is fast and sharp and the romance is sweet, but it’s all tempered with tragedy and some seriously disquieting moments where character’s fates have grim outcomes.

Smart enough to appease the art house crowd but mainstream enough to pull in regular audiences. It’s manipulative in the extreme and despite its zest and exotic exterior, it follows some very familiar formulas. Yet the cast is great – especially Anil Kapoor as the sly but deeper than you’d expect game show host – the direction is often astonishing, and the sheer fire on display is breathtaking. No film this year left me leaving the theater appreciating life more than this one.

3. In Bruges
A truly dynamic film debut by playwright Martin McDonagh, “In Bruges” is a deliciously cynical and thoroughly untamed black comedy filled with the year’s most quotable lines. Rife with reams of swearing and a proudly defiant politically incorrect attitude, the language is used to clever humorous effect rather than to shock.

There have been comparisons to Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, but ‘Bruges’ far less glorifies its violence, over indulges in pointless flashy hyper-style, or wallows in long rants to establish geek cred. Instead it lets its smart writing, strong performances and modest but picturesque visuals do the heavy lifting.

Colin Farrell has never been better and Brendan Gleeson is at the top of his game as this unlikely matched odd couple – the seasoned patient veteran and the restless young newcomer. A flawless and very contained supporting cast also keeps things flowing smooth with Ralph Fiennes as their highly unstable boss stealing the show with his fiery and crass turn.

Admittedly the narrative slightly falls apart in the last fifteen minutes as the mostly talky film makes way for an over indulgence in gunplay and a quite bleak ending. Yet of all the smaller films this year, this was the one that hit me like a breath of fresh air – it’s not the most polished, and the subject matter isn’t weighty but it’s the funniest and amongst the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in recent years.

4. Revolutionary Road
One of the most daring films by a studio this year, ‘Revolutionary’ is easily Sam Mendes’ most accomplished work to date. A compelling 1950’s set emotional drama about personal compromise and the hollowness of suburban life, it’s not an easy film in the slightest. After all, much of the film’s runtime is spent with DiCaprio and Winslet either bickering or making hopeful plans.

Ultimately it points the finger hard at us in the audience to make us ponder the little lies we tell ourselves in order to keep our heads above water. It posits that many of us have sacrificed personal dreams in the name of pragmatism to justify not leaving our comfort zone. It’s a chilling thought and you’d be hard pressed to find people who haven’t made that compromise and pondered ‘what if’ about missed opportunities.

The actors are all on fine form here, charting the collapse of this marriage of two people who struggle desperately against the inevitable repression and conformity of society that threatens to drain them of their free spirits. The obvious chemistry, and the way that the faults on both their parts, make this an adult problem without an easy solution. At times though the screaming matches do go overboard to the point of near-farcical hysteria.

Michael Shannon is being criminally overlooked by awards groups for his superb supporting role of the mentally deranged son of the Wheeler’s realtor who, in his few short scenes, is the only person who speaks the whole and unvarnished truth. Thomas Newman’s score is also brilliant, probably the second best of the year behind ‘Slumdog’.

Like all of Mendes’ work though the man can’t make a point without sledgehammering it into place – resulting in repetitive dialogue, and lead characters that some will find downright unlikable. Having never read the book I can’t attest to its merits as an adaptation although even I can still see that there a lot of threads and characters here that have obviously had a lot of depth excised to make it onto the screen. Nevertheless what remains is powerful, tragic and in its own way quietly devastating.

5. Let the Right One In
“Twilight” may have raked in all the dough, but it is this Swedish story of vampire romance that stole the critics hearts – and it’s understandable why. Taking careful time to unfold, ‘One’ follows the unlikely friendship of a bullied 12-year-old boy and the neighbor’s pre-teen girl who also happens to be a quite hungry vampire.

‘Right’ mixes horror and coming-of-age staples with some of the year’s most inventive cinematography and an innate understanding of when to be subtle and when to pour on the creepiness. More importantly, while there’s plenty of creepy moments, attacks, and mythology explored – it’s the relationship between the boy and girl that is always at the forefront and is the very core of the film. Both kid actors play it brilliantly, especially the young boy.

It’s not a scary film, but it is decidedly atmospheric and certainly owes a lot more to its gothic horror lineage than other vampire films. Genre press has admittedly over-hyped it to some extent, often ignoring the decidedly lackadaisical pacing of the first hour. Still, one can see why as horror films with this kind of originality, daring and sheer inventiveness so rarely come along.

6. The Wrestler
The lasting film trend of this decade is taking a pre-existing genre or film franchise and delivering a whole new, gritty and serious realistic take on the material. Darren Aronofsky’s brutal and compelling “The Wrestler” does just that, taking the almost cliche ‘former sports hero has one last comeback’ story and turning it completely on its head.

Mickey Rourke easily delivers not just the best performance of his career, but the best performance of any actor in any film this year (his nearest rivals being Michael Fassbender in “Hunger” and Sean Penn in “Milk”). Combining the real-life parallels to the star himself with a relentless fly-on-the-wall documentary style approach that simply doesn’t believe in the concept of personal space – it’s an emotionally naked and hauntingly tragic work that is rough-going at times but never feels less than absolutely honest.

Aronofsky’s downbeat handicam visuals combined with the unflinching look at the artifice and physical toll of wrestling gives not only real insight but a sense of respect to these guys in a ‘sport’ that many (including myself) have dismissed in the past. I can’t heap enough praise on Marisa Tomei either who kicks to the curb those critics who called her “My Cousin Vinny” Oscar win a fluke with this endearing and brave turn.

Evan Rachel Wood and her subplot about the estranged daughter is the weakest element of the film, it works but feels the most tacked on and cliche element of this otherwise daringly original work. Also, much like the very commendable “Wendy and Lucy” or more brutal “Hunger”, the hard and relentless approach to this story is confronting and sad enough that it’s one of those films you have to be in the right mood for and probably won’t get much rewatch value out of. Nevertheless this very much deserves all the accolades its been getting (in fact it should be getting more).

7. Burn After Reading
Following up their brilliant thriller “No Country for Old Men”, the Coen Brothers have gone back to comedy and churned out this little gem – their best effort in that field since “The Big Lebowski”. Ruthlessly cynical and surprisingly broad in mind if not appeal, almost every single one of the characters here are utterly selfish, self-deluded, cartoonish and generally miserable which makes for an interesting mix. It’s a film that certainly won’t garner audiences seeking either more realistic and empathetic characters, or the dumber and broader laughs of easy formula comedy.

Those who are open however will delight in the acidic wit on display, a fusion of physical slapstick and pitch-black dark comedy delivered in rapid fire succession and a breezily fast runtime. Even now after several viewings one can still find all sorts of layers, intricacies and nuances to the story here to compete with the more obvious arch elements like Malkovich’s rampant swearing, J.K. Simmons’ sublimely confused CIA director, or Pitt’s lovable lunkhead Chad.

The Coens script is not only far more complicated than it might first look, but is surprisingly sharp and pointed in its evisceration of our self-absorbed culture. The fusion of political thriller and screwball sex farce will also rub some the wrong way who will find the jarring changes in tone ungainly, others will simply consider these characters a bunch of annoying morons doing stupid things. A shame they’ve missed out, it’s by no means a wide appeal film and some will simply consider it one of the lesser Coen efforts. Though it isn’t a ‘No Country’ or ‘Fargo’, it stands above the likes of some of their other work in recent years.

8. Frost/Nixon
Scribe Peter Morgan can do no wrong it seems. Following up on his brilliant “The Queen” comes the pitch perfect film adaptation of his stage play about the interview between talk show host David Frost and the just resigned former President Richard Nixon.

For what is essentially a film in which half the runtime is dedicated to characters sitting down and talking about events now decades old, real tension and suspense are generated and effectively deal with the serious personal consequences for both men about the outcome of these interviews.

Ron Howard’s workmanlike direction may lack that spark that Stephen Frears generated with “The Queen”, but it remains easily the best work of his career. Langella is superb and truly seems to get under the skin of the man and inhabit his personality despite their very notable physical differences.

Michael Sheen, one of my favorite actors to watch of late, doesn’t get Frost as spot on but he does deliver the swagger, desperation and determination in spades exactly when needed. Support from Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Rockwell is like a welcome warm glove.

Like Morgan’s other work, it’s a more fact-reliant than emotionally-involving tale – audiences after personal revelations may find it a little too cool and clinical, others simply may not care about the subject matter. Yet I went in with only a little knowledge about the Watergate scandal and no huge interest in it, yet came out thoroughly impressed. Very professional and very compelling.

9. Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme’s beautifully touching look at a rather dysfunctional family, torn apart by tragedy, who come together for a wedding. Shot much like a wedding home movie, the almost unrecognizable Anne Hathaway along with a cast of talented unknowns lend a real credibility to the scenario – helped by long looks at the various stages from the preparations to the lavish after party.

The joyous occasion is tinged with a sadness by a past event that starts to become clear as the film progresses, and restrained pleasantries give way to emotional breakdowns that are amongst the most real and convincing you’ll see in a film this year. Demme doesn’t hide the awkwardness at times, such as Kym’s rambling toast.

Hathaway is truly at her absolute best here, delivering a confronting and completely honest performance of a black sheep character burdened with guilt, self-loathing and selfishness. Rosmarie DeWitt as the older sister also astonishes and the pair are utterly convincing as sisters complete with the sibling rivalry and genuine affection that come into play at different moments.

Fun, cringe-inducing, powerful – in many ways like a real wedding. Demme’s best work in years, it lacks any cheesy pretense or formulaic turns to be a true art house film that is deserving of its accolades.

10. Wall-E
Marking a return to form not seen since 2004’s “The Incredibles”, “Wall-E” sits as one of Pixar’s strongest, certainly their ballsiest, efforts to date. In fact it could be fairly called their best yet if it weren’t for a somewhat more routine second half and a kid-friendly ending diluting the sheer boldness of the almost dialogue-free first 45 minutes.

For the old romantics at heart you won’t find a more emotionally satisfying film this year and best of all it’s one that truly is suitable for any age – a sand storm is about as dangerous as it gets here, but there’s also a lot in this that only adults will truly engage with. There’s also a sheer earnestness about it, a genuine sweet and almost nostalgic tone to its simplicity – helped along by this silly old robot’s love of classic musicals and longing for companionship.

The brilliant first hour with the robot, a cockroach, and his initial time with the almost Apple-designed ‘Eve’ are charming, we as an audience falling for and getting behind these two robots who express their emotions through gestures and the odd noise. It gives the film a distinct timeless quality, while the serious issues of environmentalism and the laziness bred by our consumer culture give this depth.

The second half does fall for more conventional plotting with Keystone Cops-style chases and heroics against a Starliner’s HAL-like computer, but the film remains an energetic and brave turn that keeps showing off PIxar’s true strength – its classic storytelling skills. The end at one point almost takes a tragic twist, and while it does cop out to a happier tone, you have to give director Andrew Stanton the thumbs up for leading us on as far as he does. Up there with the absolute best animated films of the decade like “The Incredibles” and “Spirited Away”.

11. Man on Wire
A documentary about a tight-rope walker? On paper it sounds dull, but James Marsh’s feature-length effort easily proves the year’s best effort in the documentary genre. Seamlessly blending real footage,zrecreations, photos, modern day interviews and personal accounts – the film doesn’t a brilliant job of playing out more like a narrative-driven feature than a scattershot wide-encompassing drama.

Phillippe is a showman, and it shows. The doco doesn’t shy away from his cocky arrogance or

12. Tell No-One
Proving he’s more than just that hot piece of Euro-totty that out-hunked DiCaprio in “The Beach”, actor Guilliaume Canet makes an auspicious directorial debut with “Tell No-One” – a convoluted, fast-paced thriller that Hitchcock himself would’ve been proud to call his own. Based on Harlan Coben’s novel, the surprisingly complex and energetic murder mystery takes a familiar genre and turns it on its head.

The hero is not some muscled spy but a 40-something pediatrician, and unlike other mysteries this one does an excellent job of revealing its clues at the same time as our assertive and quite human lead learns them himself. There’s also some moments of solid action such as a chase scene across a busy motorway and through street markets that rivals the “Bourne” films – albeit without the headache-inducing shaky cam and quick cut editing.

In spite of its French language and Parisian setting, the film has pacing beats more in line with American cinema than French. Some can fairly call it overplotted as squeezing Coben’s dense work into a two-hour feature does result in some clumsy exposition-heavy monologues at times. Also the overall answer does stretch credibility, and the final few minutes of the film do take the easy (and convenient) way out. Yet it’s never less than compelling, and if people can get over their subtitle prejudice then they’ll find a thriller every bit as exciting as the absolute best the major American studios can churn out.

13. Gran Torino
With a free pass from the Academy and a lot of older critics, Clint Eastwood’s films have become notably overrated over the years. It’s a sentiment even his most ardent fans experienced earlier this year when the commendable but ultimately disappointing “Changeling” came and went.

Then at the last minute out slipped this little surprise, an understated, touching, and often quite humorous story about the friendship between a crusty old fart and the Asian family who moved in next door. Clint doesn’t hold back the politically incorrect language, yet imbues his role with enough good morals that you come to respect the man’s brutal honesty and lack of pretense.

Also rather than taking the story down the well-trodden and often dull path of this old miser finding his heart being melted, Clint’s character stays relatively true to the end and in the process tackles the little explored topic of the effect of gangland violence stretching into even the most conservative and white-bred suburbia.

It’s not a weighty drama or deeply personal film by any means, certainly Eastwood’s efforts like “Mystic River” or “Letters from Iwo Jima” are far more deserving of peer-voted accolades than this. This is more Clint in “True Crime” form – a director who knows good old fashioned story telling and an actor who’s obviously enjoying himself in a film that has wide appeal. It’s good old-fashioned storytelling, and one that doesn’t pander.

14. Milk
“Good Will Hunting” director Gus van Sant’s return to mainstream filmmaking brings with it the skills he has honed on his experimental indie efforts in recent years to deliver one of the more interesting biopics we’ve seen in a long time. Seamlessly melding real life archival footage with his own filming, this is an obviously important and topical

Timing could also not be more perfect for the project which

The events may be real, but they do stray into Hollywood-style ‘one man against the system’ formula that feels decidedly conventional in this otherwise often original effort. The assassin Dan White is set up as a kind of middle-class Salieri to Milk’s Mozart and is notably underdeveloped, a shame considering Josh Brolin’s solid performance.

Same goes for James Franco’s beautifully understated but all too short turn as Milk’s long-term boyfriend Scott which avoids the campy overacting that Emile Hirsch, at times Penn himself, and most notably a disappointing Diego Luna fall back on.

15. Hunger
Not just the toughest film of the year but amongst the toughest ever made. Steve McQueen’s dynamic portrayal of the officially ignored IRA prison during the hunger strike in 1981 is far more an endurance test than a compelling story, nevertheless in terms of sheer filmmaking it’s right up there amongst the most well-crafted films of the year.

With little to no dialogue short of a twenty-minute passage in the middle, McQueen portrays the horror and hardship of the situation with no restraint or indulgence. Faeces lines the walls, the scrawny unkempt prisoners are often fully nude and thrown about like rag dolls, when the riot squad comes in the focus is not just on their brutality but the way one of the men breaks down sobbing over the job he must do.

A subplot about a paranoid guard working at the prison ends abruptly in an unexpected way, while the last half-hour is spent to literally watching actor Michael Fassbinder’s character seemingly starve himself to death as he ignores food placed near him and his body functions start to shut down. The “300” actor’s performance is up there with Christian Bale’s “The Machinist” work, showing off an actor utterly dedicated to the point that it dangerous compromises his own health.

Then of course there’s that twenty-minute middle segment. Two single takes of about ten minutes each, one a close-up the other a shot of two people talking over a table, is one of the year’s most compelling scenes.

Other Recommendations:
The Band’s Visit, The Bank Job, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, Encounters at the End of the World, The Fall, Frozen River, Happy-Go-Lucky, Iron Man Kung Fu Panda, Mongol, Not Quite Hollywood, Son of Rambow, Transsiberian, Tropic Thunder, Up the Yangtzee, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor, Wendy and Lucy, Young@Heart

Well-Reviewed Films I Didn’t Get To See In Time For Consideration:
Che, Dear Zachary, I’ve Loved You So Long, Nothing But The Truth, The Reader, Roman de Gare, Silent Light, Still Life, Synecdoche New York, Waltz With Bashir