2008 was a poor year for film. Nearly every film on my top 10 list came from the last few weeks. 2008 seemed to be the year of the blockbuster. The sagging economy couldn’t stop box office juggernauts such as THE DARK KNIGHT (530M), IRON MAN (318M) or the ceremonial raping of childhood memories and dreams called INDIANA JONES: KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (317M).
2008 was a year filled with disappointments *cough* Benjamin Button *cough* as well as pleasant surprises. Here are the top 10 films of 2008. It should be noted that I did not see THE READER, HAPPY GO LUCKY, GRAN TORINO or FROZEN RIVER.
1. The Wrestler
The most captivating and moving film of the year was the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an over-the-hill pro wrestler who tries to make sense of a life filled with failure and disappointment. The film is flawlessly directed by Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky has said he had a choice between making the film for $19M with Nicolas Cage or $6M with Mickey Rourke. Commerce doesn’t always win over art. The choice to go with Rourke is what makes the film, and Rourke gives a one of a kind performance as Randy the Ram. THE WRESTLER has great use of music, from the hair metal classics which serve as monuments to Randy’s glory years in the generation prior to the score which serves the film perfectly.
There wasn’t a more timely film in 2008 than Gus Van Sant’s MILK. Instead of being a celebratory film, MILK becomes a rallying point in the wake of Proposition 8. Sean Penn would win an Oscar for Best Actor in any year that Mickey Rourke doesn’t play a wrestler. Penn is predictably phenomenal as the first openly gay politician in San Francisco. Excellent supporting performances all around, especially Emile Hirsch as an emerging activist. MILK does not fall into the trap of being preachy or overtly political. It’s simply about a man trying to do what he can to be equal in the eyes of the law.
WALL-E is a double shot of a film. The first half is a brilliant silent film about a lone robot in a post apocalyptic Earth that is overrun with garbage. The second half is a dystopian cautionary tale about rabid consumerism. A heartfelt love story serves as the bridge between the two halves, and WALL-E manages to do with a robot and a vacuum cleaner what BENJAMIN BUTTON couldn’t do with human beings. WALL-E is an ambitious film from Pixar that combines social commentary with classic storytelling.
4. Revolutionary Road
Director Sam Mendes returns to the suburbs in this compelling drama about marriage and deferred dreams set in the 1950s. The film features strong performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Michael Shannon. This is an intense film about repressed emotions and the consequences of their eventual eruptions. Great production values that convincingly recreate the 50s.
5. The Dark Knight
The best Batman film of all time. Director Christopher Nolan rescues the franchise from Burton hell and the late Heath Ledger delivers a memorable performance. THE DARK KNIGHT make the early Batman films look silly and childish. It’s an unblinking thriller about limitations, and the depths that people will go to in the name of good and evil. Tremendous transfer to IMAX that left me shaking.
There wasn’t a better ensemble performance this year than we got from the cast of DOUBT. Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis and Amy Adams deliver great performances in this tale of suspicion and the power of both certainty and doubt. Doubts can be healthy, and the film walks an interesting tightrope by never revealing too much about any character. Viola Davis’ 12 minutes of screen time were a highlight of 2008.
7. Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog’s fascinating documentary about inhabitants of Antarctica truly transports us to a world we have never seen before. Herzog follows the goings on of the McMurdo station that include the discovery of new species, the symphony of the sea lions, and community talent shows. Herzog’s extraordinary underwater shots make ENCOUNTERS one of the most beautiful films of the year.
Ron Howard’s captivating film about an over-his-head talk show host who uses his pocketbook to lure recently resigned President Richard Nixon for the purpose of a gotcha interview. This film does a great job of setting the stakes, and the film is paced beautifully. Michael Sheen is the standout as the nervous Frost, who has little more than his cavalier attitude and charm. Frank Langella shines as well as Nixon, a clever and shrewd man who sought to reclaim his image.
9. Slumdog Millionaire
The crowd pleaser film of the year. SLUMDOG is a sweeping tale of fate, love and survival. Ironically set against the glitz of a television gameshow, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is the story of Jamal (Dev Patel) surviving the brutal elements of India. Director Danny Boyle makes India come alive with excellent photography and a pulsating soundtrack.
10. Burn After Reading
The Cohen Brothers are perhaps the most diverse filmmakers alive, going from the grittiness of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to this screwball comedy about gym workers getting involved in a CIA conspiracy. This film pulls the old switcharoo. At first it seems like a typical CIA thriller but it goes in a completely different direction. Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Francis McDormand are all very funny but John Malkovich steals the show.