Well, here we go again. It’s time to give my list of the best movies of 2008. It’s also time to admit that there still are several movies from 2008 that I have not yet seen, and I tried to hold out long enough to check them out. It’s also that time where I have to say that I really need to get this out of the way so I can start looking at what 2009 will bring us. So, if you will forgive me, the following movies will not be on this list (or listed as an honorable mention) because I have not seen them yet darn it:
Happy Go Lucky
I Have Loved You For So Long
In Bruges (I know I’m gonna get hell for that one)
And other movies I can’t think of right now…
There will also be no documentaries on this list because I saw many great ones this year, and I think they are deserving of their own list, and not just listed as honorable mentions. So look for that list to come out at some point in this lifetime.
2008 was a year more memorable for who died as opposed to its movies. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontainable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will think of these deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when it was announced that Heath Ledger had died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill.”
2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which itself had a tremendous wealth of great films come out of it. Many say that this was a horrible year for films with expectations foiled over some big summer tent pole franchises, and of there being way too many remakes (something that’s not gonna slow down in 2009 though). The way I see it, I think 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good movies worth seeing at one point, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for the year’s end and all those Oscar hopefuls that were unleashed on us, I’m sure I would have come up short.
In retrospect, 2008 proved to have many films worth remembering, and others we still struggle to forget. So, let us commence with this fine list (if I do say so myself) of the 10 best movies of 2008:
10) (tie) The Reader & Revolutionary Road
These two I had to put together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, they were movies with stories of relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories that were neatly wrapped up at the end. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.
“The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot escape. Speaking of escape, that’s what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up doing throughout, which itself is brilliant in the way it shows us characters who think they know what they want, but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they never want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just underneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.
Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films confidently, and they don’t just great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in. All the elements come together so strongly that we are sucked so deeply into the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either without being totally shaken by what we just witnessed.
Once again, this is Kate Winslet’s year, and she had better get an Oscar if not two!
Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is that Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and he surrounds it all with one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies that teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who in less than 20 minutes gives us a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than of the possibility of her child being molested by the priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking stories ever, and it lost none of its power on the way to the silver screen.
8) Vicki Cristina Barcelona
This is the best Woody Allen movie that I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have been going over subjects he has worn out, but that is not the case here thankfully. “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderful character driven piece filled with one great performance after another, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Penelope is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in the longest time. Just when I was ready to write off Woody completely, he comes back to surprise us with something both funny, lovely, and deeply moving.
One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!
7) Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle, the most versatile of film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie that dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty, desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality that I felt like I was seeing something new and unlike anything before it. Danny also reminds us why “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.
Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with his adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play that dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Ron also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You’d think that a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they give us what one of the most exciting moments to be found this year. Like with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.
5) Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme’s latest movie had a huge effect on me in its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were at the wedding taking place. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme (from a screenplay by Jenny Lumet) gives us a wealth of characters that are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of a family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past that has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone around her. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin (so wonderful as Kym’s father), Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway near the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.
4) The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it just weeks ago. While it may be best known as the movie where Mickey Rourke gave one mother of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit the success of this movie to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky accomplished here. Darren surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Darren’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Mickey Rourke more than deserves the Oscar for Best Actor. Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Mickey’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazing it is.
3) Let The Right One In
Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a girl vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like a horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let The Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which is currently overflowing with film after film. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see these two separated from one another. Like many other movies on this list, it stays with you long after you have seen it.
Please see this movie before it becomes another needless American remake. J.J. Abrams is already signed up to work on the remake, and while the vapid Ben Lyons of the horrifically revamped “At The Movies” might be looking forward to the remake, I AM NOT!!!
Pixar does it once again and makes another masterpiece that puts so many other movies and movie studios to shame. Granted, many of Pixar’s movies are brilliant, but this is one of the very best. With “WALL-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and that allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of our planet having since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie such a strong sense of feeling that instantly sucks into the amazing story. The fact that these two are machines becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship, imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.
I got this movie on DVD for my mom as a Christmas present, and she said that you could do an entire thesis out of it. That couldn’t be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement that dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also in its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “WALL-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film that appeals equally to kids and adults. For the most part, that’s not usually the case.
1) The Dark Knight
The biggest movie of the year was also the best movie of 2008 in my opinion. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series which is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger. Heath’s performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to Heath’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way that no one has before.
Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one that threatens to be the most underrated of the year. The “white night” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge and that we pity him more than despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Every one does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.
Where as the other Batman movies (the Schumacher ones especially) were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for the characters in this movie. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters that would ask such questions or would be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It sets the bar very high for future comic book movies. They will need all the luck they can get to top this one!
Despite this not being the best of years for movies, there are still a few more movies worthy of mention.
Milk – Leaving this one out of the top 10 was a tough decision, as Gus Van Sant’s biopic of the late Harvey Milk was a grand achievement. Sean Penn gives yet another extraordinary performance as Milk, and Josh Brolin is brilliant as Supervisor Dan White.
Gran Torino – Clint Eastwood gives a great performance in what could be his last acting gig on the big screen, and he also directs the story of his Korean war veteran coming to know the Hmong family next door with a lot of care and heart. Great movie.
Recount – This HBO movie does a great job of capturing not so much the debacle of the 2000 Presidential election, but of the threat to democracy. Great performances come from Kevin Spacey and especially from Laura Dern as Katherine Harris.
Shine A Light – Martin Scorsese’s concert film featuring the Rolling Stones was a blast to watch, and he perfectly captures the love that the band has performing live after all these many years.
Cloverfield – The first truly entertaining movie of 2008, and also the best monster movie in ages.
U23D – Another great concert movie, this one does make you feel like you’re at a concert thanks to the amazing 3D technology.
Diary Of The Dead – George Romero’s fifth zombie movie brings him back to his low budget roots, and it is darkly satiric look at the YouTube generation that watches more than it participates.
The Bank Job – Dammit! This is the most entertaining heist movie in a long time, and it is the movie that should have turned Jason Statham into a big star. What gives?!
Forgetting Sarah Marshall – One of the funniest movies of 2008, and another great one from the Judd Apatow comedy factory.
Iron Man – Another great comic book adaptation brought to life by director Jon Favreau and through one of the many tremendously entertaining performances from Robert Downey Jr.
Frozen River – Melissa Leo’s performance as a desperate mother who supports her family through the illegal smuggling of immigrants had better get Oscar consideration. She gives one of the best performances of the year in Courtney Hunt’s independent thriller which deserved a bigger audience than it got in theaters.
Tropic Thunder – Ben Stiller’s vicious satire of filmmaking was the funniest movie of the year, and it had some of the most inspired performances of the year. One was from Robert Downey Jr. as one of the ultimate method actors, and Tom Cruise as a profane, overweight and balding film executive.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – While not on the same level of David Fincher’s other cinematic masterpieces, this was still a brilliant movie to take in on a technical scale. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett both give terrific performances.
Funny Games – Movies don’t get more disturbing than this one. While Michael Haneke’s remake of his own film really pissed a lot of people off, I am still strangely fascinated by it. Great performances abound from the entire cast, especially from Naomi Watts.