Here are my top ten movies of 2008. This is one of the strangest lists I’ve assembled in years, as it includes a unique blend of comic book action, animated robots, a drinking beverage and a vampire – and no where to be found are the Nazis. Without further ado…
- The Dark Knight
I am not one of those people who usually put action movies in their top ten lists. I like dramas. I especially like depressing dramas. I love action films, too, but when it comes to the best films of the year, they rarely rank well. 2008 was an exception for two reasons: 1) the year, in general, was weak. There were some hilarious comedies and some great action movies, but few absolutely stunning dramas. In other words, there were no There Will Be Blood‘s this year. This opens the door for… 2) one of the most amazing action films ever made. No, The Dark Knight is not the best action film out there – in terms of your typical action movie. However, few films manage to transcend the genre and deliver drama, suspense, crime and action in such a seamless, brilliant format. Christopher Nolan really outdid himself, and it is unlikely we’ll see another comic book movie top this one anytime soon, if ever. Oh yeah, and Heath Ledger is halfway decent in the movie, too.
- The Wrestler
If not for The Dark Knight, this one would be #1. Well, duh. The Wrestler is an incredible piece of work, a movie that is entertaining, dramatic, powerful and sad all at once. Darren Aronofsky, who was once rumored to direct the next Batman film, comes back down to earth after the strange The Fountain to direct his most normal film yet, but the director elevates an otherwise simply story to another level. The film looks great, but it’s Mickey Rourke’s performance that makes the picture worth it. With incredible acting, superb direction and stellar screenplay, it’s a real shame that The Wrestler isn’t getting honored with more Oscars – but leave it to the Academy to ignore great films.
- Tell No One
This French film is not the typical Top Ten selection: it’s a thriller about a man who begins to suspect that his wife, who was murdered several years earlier, is actually alive. Unfortunately for him, the police also think that he’s responsible for her death – and a series of other murders that have emerged. Tell No One is a clever, carefully crafted thrill ride with great acting, a suspenseful story and lots of cool twists. The movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, yet it is also engaging on a level that transcends its genre. Why France elected to have The Class be its representation in the Oscar race confounds me.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and written and directed by the author, Doubt is a captivating tale of suspicion and stubbornness that leads to the destruction of real people. Some people may be put off by the theatrical dialogue, but John Patrick Shanley lured me in with his every word. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis were all nominated for Oscars for their performances in the picture, and Shanley for his screenplay, which begs the question: how does a movie with incredible acting and an award-winning screenplay not get nominated for Best Picture? What more do you need?
- Revolutionary Road
Perhaps the worst reviewed movie on this list, the Sam Mendes movie is a disturbing look into a hollow marriage in the 1950′s. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet turn in some of the best performances of their already sparkling careers as a couple whose marriage deteriorates over a number of years. It’s a troubling film that is more depressing than everything else, but it’s pretty spellbinding. The supporting cast, most notably Kathy Bates and Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon, do a lot to assist the leads where possible.
Sean Penn turns in yet another unforgettable performance in Milk, which makes the race for Best Actor a close one with Mickey Rourke. Penn plays gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was fatally shot early in his career. The movie looks, feels and acts like a Best Picture winner, and given that my top five movies were not nominated for the coveted award, it is my choice to win. Will it win? Probably not, but it deserves to. The subject matter is eerily similar to the current political climate, with churches and “liberals” facing off over a bill that parallels today’s Proposition 8. Great acting from everyone involved and superb direction from Gus Van Sant makes this a must-watch film.
Wall-E is an animated film, but it is so much more than that. Few, if any, cartoons are as unique as this picture, which is both perfect for children and captivating for adults. What’s so remarkable is that Pixar, the studio that continues to defy expectations, managed to make a movie with so little dialogue so damn entertaining. The visual effects are amazing, the title character is cute, and Pixar delivers a disturbing message about environmental collapse and America’s reliance on consumer goods. Whether you prefer shots of a devastated New York or a scene that involves hundreds of fat people rolling over each other, Wall-E has it all.
- Gran Torino
Come the middle of 2008, everyone expected Clint Eastwood’s Changeling to be a front runner for Oscar glory, but that movie failed to deliver. Gran Torino, however, doesn’t. Eastwood turns in an excellent and hilarious performance as a cynical, racist grandpa who instinctively decides to protect his Hmong neighbors from a local gang. The movie, while by no means an action movie, give Dirty Harry fans something to feast on, and gives everyone else a downright bitter screenplay full of tongue-in-cheek racial slurs that will have you rolling in your seat. Gran Torino doesn’t leave as much of an impact as some of the other movies on this list, but it is genuinely entertaining and worth watching multiple times just to remember some of the funnier lines. And yes, it’s a drama.
- Slumdog Millionaire
The front runner for Best Picture, it will be surprising if the Danny Boyle drama-romance doesn’t win. While Boyle deserves a directing Oscar, the movie, about a young man on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” who is on the verge of winning the top prize despite growing up in the slums of Mumbai. The picture is flashy, unique and entertaining, but it lacks the power I was expecting given its early buzz. The movie is a product of its own hype, but it’s still a quality film with some memorable moments, terrific directing and an original score.
- Let the Right One In
It was the year of the vampire, but of the three vampire productions that hit audiences in 2008, Twilight was the least significant. HBO’s True Blood turned out to be a pleasant surprise, but it was Let the Right One In that turned heads. While I debated long and hard on which movie would take this tenth spot, I finally settled on the little Swedish vampire flick – which is unfortunately being remade in English in 2010 – due to its uniqueness. The movie couldn’t have cost much to make, but there isn’t a cheap thing about it: the story is intriguing, the atmosphere spooky and the ending is downright bad ass. Recommended.
The Best of the Rest
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt stars as a man who ages backwards, and that’s pretty neat. The movie is a pleasing fairytale that spans decades, and is an all-around good film. Still, compared to Forrest Gump, it doesn’t quite hit the emotional chord.
- The Visitor
Richard Jenkins turns in a great performance and the movie itself, about a guy who gets into drums, is surprisingly captivating. Ultimately, the picture lacks the power needed to be among the year’s best, but it works for what it is.
James Bond… er, Daniel Craig… stars as a man who defies the Nazis and flees into the woods with hundreds of Jewish survivors. The movie looks great and offers fine performances from its stars, but is missing just that special something. Edward Zwick has the knack for making good films that don’t quite click on all cylinders.
I’ve been hating on this movie for no good reason, other than that it isn’t as good as the buzz indicates. Ron Howard was nominated for directing the picture – and the movie itself was nominated for Best Picture – yet aside from the last 30 minutes, it isn’t anything more than your average end-of-year film. Still highly recommended, but other than Frank Langhella’s fine performance as Richard Nixon, there’s nothing award-winning here.
- Body of Lies
This Leonardo DiCaprio/Ridley Scott venture got ravaged by critics, but I found it to be an engaging and slickly directed thriller about terrorism in the Middle East. The ending is a little weak, but it’s still an understated film that should appeal to fans of the genre.
- Man on Wire
This documentary about a tightroping individual who attempts to cross a wire connected between the two World Trade Center buildings sounds like it’d be pretty boring, but it’s actually one of the most engaging and entertaining films of 2008.
View a full list of movies reviewed in 2008.