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The 10 Best Films of 2008

by Peter Sobczynski

Once again, this is the time of year in which virtually everyone you can think of is offering up their lists of the best films of 2008. Once again, this is the only one that really matters.

After the embarrassment of riches that was 2007, the cinematic year of 2008 was closer to being just a plain embarrassment--12 months choked with unfunny comedies, turgid dramas, unexciting action spectacles and too many ill-advised rehashes and remakes to even contemplate at this time. And yet, there were good films here and there and in some cases, they were so good that they allowed viewers to temporarily forget the existence of such garbage as “Prom Night” or “The Love Guru.” These were films that mattered--ones that told intelligently crafted stories that were filled with humor, excitement and emotion, beautifully acted by performers at the top of their games and wonderfully constructed by filmmakers at the peak of their artistic powers--and when the memories of all the other craptacular finally burn away, these are the ones that will stick around for the long haul.

Here are the 10 best films of 2008, along with a list of the 10 runners-up (which might have made it onto the official list in another year) and a round-up of the other titles that entertained me over the past 12 months.

1. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (directed by David Fincher): Blending together cutting-edge technology with old-fashioned storytelling values, this adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story chronicling the strange life of a man (Brad Pitt) who was born old and who aged backwards into infancy was a knockout piece of contemporary cinema that blew the mind and touched the heart in equal measure. Yes, it clocked in at nearly three hours but it was told with such skill that, unlike its main character, you never felt the passage of time. It was the kind of ambitious swing-for-the-fences filmmaking that few American movies these days even attempt anymore and even fewer have been able to pull off successfully. In other words, David Fincher (ably aided by the contributions of a large and talented collection of actors and technicians) reconfirmed his position as one of the great filmmakers working today and gave us a film that will surely go down as an instant classic.

2. MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (directed by Wong Kar-wai): When the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker’s first American-made project debuted at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, it received a near-universal critical drubbing and for the life of me, I cannot figure out why. Certainly, the story--following the adventures of a lovelorn waitress (Norah Jones) as she travels across the country while nursing a broken heart and regaining her emotional bearings through encounters with a charming diner owner (Jude Law), a disintegrating couple (David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz) and a card sharp (Natalie Portman) with some issues of her own--is a little more streamlined than the oblique likes of such efforts as “In the Mood for Love” and “2046,” but other than that, this is as visually ravishing and wildly romantic as anything that he has ever done before and the more direct storytelling approach that he uses her actually works better in this context than a more mysterious take would have. This is the kind of cinematic bliss-out that so fully envelopes you that when it comes to its conclusion, you’ll want to stay in your seat and bask in its glories a second time rather than return to the comparatively mundane sights and sounds of the real world.

3. THE DARK KNIGHT (directed by Christopher Nolan): It would be easy to simply deem Nolan’s blockbuster follow-up to 2005’s “Batman Begins” as arguably the greatest superhero film ever made and be done with it but that wouldn’t begin to give this masterwork the credit it so richly deserves. It isn’t so much a bubblegum saga on the level of “Iron Man” or “The Incredible Hulk” (to demonstrate the artistic extremes of this particular subgenre) as it is a series of meditations on the ambiguities found within such theoretical absolutes as good and evil (the latter embodied by the mesmerizing performance as the Joker by the late Heath Ledger), the burdens (physical, emotional and psychological) that fall upon those who take it upon themselves to stand up for what is right when everyone else is perfectly willing to sit down and the state of a post 9/11 America so petrified with fear of the unknown and of what might happen that we have begun to inflict just as much damage upon ourselves as any other entity has done. That Nolan and his co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan would offer viewers such a morally and emotionally complex narrative in the first place at a time when such things are frowned upon by financiers and audiences alike is a bit of a miracle. That they have been able to pull this off within the context of a comic book adaptation chock-full of massive special effect sequences and a hero who fights crime in a bat suit without trivializing any of the issues or ideas that they are setting forth is a cause for celebration.

4. SHINE A LIGHT (directed by Martin Scorsese): When I first reviewed this film, which found Scorsese capturing the Rolling Stones performing in the relatively intimate confines of New York’s Beacon Theatre in 2006, I admitted that while it was undeniably brilliant as a concert movie, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t try to be more than just that. However, having seen the film several more times since writing that review (including one in its IMAX incarnation) whatever disappointment I may have once felt over what it wasn’t has long since faded away in the face of what it was--a visually extraordinary snapshot of one arguably the greatest rock band of all time plowing through a set of greatest hits and relative obscurities with so much passion and energy that they put virtually every other musical act working today to shame by comparison. And yes, it does deserve to be placed alongside “Stop Making Sense” and Scorsese’s own “The Last Waltz” as one of the best concert films ever made.

5. SNOW ANGELS (directed by David Gordon Green): Having already established himself as one of the best and most fascinating of the new generation of American directors with such films as “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls” and “Undertow,” Green stepped up his game with this mournful and haunting adaptation of the Stewart O’Nan novel about a tragedy that hits a small town and how it affects two couples--a pair of high school kids (Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby) negotiating the mysteries of first love and a couple of former high school sweethearts (Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale) whose relationship has long since dissolved into acrimony and divorce. Beautifully filmed, impeccably acted (even the usually wooden Kate Beckinsale is pretty brilliant here) and deeply moving, I still feel the impact of this movie as strongly today as when I first saw it nearly a year ago. And yes, this was the same David Gordon Green who would go on to direct the decidedly different (though brilliant in its own way) “Pineapple Express” later in the year.

6. WALL*E (directed by Andrew Stanton): How do you tell a complex cinematic story in this day and age within the context of a story in which there is no real dialogue to speak of for nearly the entire first half of its running time? How can you create an emotionally resonant work when your main character is a trash-collecting robot? How can you persuasively offer up an argument about the dangers of conspicuous consumption within the context of a film that was also offering up an enormous array of tie-in paraphernalia for you to purchase after leaving the theater? Amazingly, the geniuses at Pixar managed to do just that with this sweet, hilarious and thought-provoking masterwork about a lonely robot who to win the heart-like center of the artificial life form of its dream and winds up saving the survivors of a pollution-choked Earth from terminal atrophy. Anyone willing to dismiss this film based solely on the fact that it is just an animated film is missing the point--if all films were made with this level of intelligence and charm, my life would be a lot easier.

7. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (directed by Jonathan Demme): Having spent the year’s since the triumph of “Silence of the Lambs” making a series of increasingly bland feature films (including “Philadelphia,” “Beloved” and the fairly unnecessary remakes “The Truth About Charlie” and “The Manchurian Candidate”) offset by the occasional fascinating documentary, Demme was artistically reborn with this exquisite comedy-drama about a perennially rehabbing drama queen (Anne Hathaway in one of the year’s great performances) who returns home for the wedding of her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) and nearly upstages everything with her own personal turmoils. Featuring a gallery of wonderful supporting performances (including Bill Irwin as the well-meaning dad and a ferocious Debra Winger as the estranged mom), a screenplay by Jenny Lumet that never takes the easy way out and a killer soundtrack, this was Demme’s best and boldest work since the classic “Something Wild” and easily the directorial comeback of the year.

8. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (directed by Tomas Alfredson): Every year, it seems that at least one foreign-made horror film emerges to become a hit on the festival circuit with fanboys eager to get on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing. Most of the time, these films rarely live up to the advanced hype but in the case of this Swedish-made take on one of the great horror myths--a decidedly off-beat coming-of-age tale in which a lonely boy embarks on a sweet and mutually beneficial friendship with the strange girl who moved in next door that isn’t at all affected by the fact that she is a vampire--it not only lived up to the considerable advance word that it had been receiving, it turned out to be one of the best horror films to come along in a long time. Inevitably, Hollywood has already announced that the film will be remade by some of the people behind “Cloverfield”--do yourself a favor and see the original while you have the chance

9. THE WRESTLER (directed by Darren Aronofsky): Having given us such visionaries mind-benders as “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain,” Aronofsky demonstrated that he was equally adept at handling more down-to-earth matters with this haunting and heartbreaking examination of an over-the-hill wrestler trying to reconnect with the life he tossed away in the search for fame and fortune when he is forced to retire from the ring. Of course, a good portion of the credit also goes to Mickey Rourke, whose performance in the title role was not only the single best acting job of 2008 but the best work of his entire career--a soulful and beautifully modulated performance that is so complete stripped of any artifice that it almost becomes too much to bear at certain points. Even if you have no interest in wrestling, you are likely to be spellbound by this powerful and deeply moving film.

10. MY WINNIPEG (directed by Guy Maddin): Having made some of the most delightfully strange and unclassifiable films in recent years (including “The Saddest Music in the World,” “Brand Upon the Brain” and the jaw-dropping short “The Heart of the World,” Canadian filmmaker Maddin gave us what may the most audacious work of his entire career--a bizarre, bittersweet and bleakly hilarious meditation on his hometown that blends fact, fiction and fantasy together into the kind of package that might have resulted if David Lynch and Werner Herzog used a time machine to go back to the 1920s to collaborate on a project. Of all of the films on this list, this is the one that most complete defies ordinary description but once you see it, I guarantee that it will be impossible for you to forget.

My ten runners-up, which could have fielded a pretty good Top 10 list themselves if the above films had never been made, are Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World,” Dario Argento’s “Mother of Tears,” George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead,” Peter Sollet’s “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” Catherine Breillat’s “The Last Mistress,” Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” and Roger Donaldson’s “The Bank Job.”

Other films from 2008 that I enjoyed, in roughly the order that I saw them, include “The Band’s Visit,” “Cloverfield,” “U2 3D,” “How She Move,” “Tre,” “In Bruges,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Be Kind, Rewind,” “Chicago 10,” “Funny Games,” “Flawless,” “Leatherheads,” “The Grand,” “Priceless,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Young @ Heart,” “Iron Man,” “Standard Operating Procedure,” “Son of Rambow,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “The Duchess of Langeais,” “Constantine’s Sword,” “OSS 117,” "Boarding Gate," “The Edge of Heaven,” “Get Smart,” “Stuck,” “War Inc.,” “Wanted,” “CSN&Y: Déjà Vu,” “Tell No One,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Meet Dave,” “Space Chimps,” “Step Brothers,” “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Swing Vote,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Boy A,” “Pineapple Express,” “IOUSA,” “Transsiberian,” “The Traitor,” “Appaloosa,” “The House Bunny,” “Trouble the Water,” “A Girl Cut In Two,” “A Christmas Tale,” “Gomorrah,” “Ashes of Time Redux,” “Zack and Miri Make A Porno,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “I’ve Loved You For So Long,” “A Secret,” “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story,” “Role Models,” “W.,” “High School Musical 3,” “JCVD,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Dark Streets,” “Transporter 3,” “Australia,” “Che,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Timecrimes.”

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originally posted: 12/29/08 08:28:51
last updated: 12/29/08 14:42:41
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