To quote Roger Ebert, whom I cannot top: “I am violating the age-old custom that film critics announce the year’s 10 best films, but after years of such lists, I’ve had it. A best films list should be a celebration of wonderful films, not a chopping process. And 2008 was a great year for movies, even if many of them didn’t receive wide distribution.”
Here, then, are the very cream of the crop of U.S. film releases I’ve seen in 2008. The listing is alphabetical as well because, like Ebert, I cannot decide what should go in what order. I have, however, picked my favorite film of the year, followed by a first runner-up.
You may also notice a few separate lists here. After my list of the “Rest of the Best” English-language narrative films, I’ve separated the rest into categories, with the alphabetical Honorable Mentions, Best Foreign Language Films, Best Documentaries and Best Animated Films. Because I rate on a curve and my ratings are relative and not absolute, I wanted to highlight the best of each “type” of film and not just throw them all together. They are all equals… Enjoy!
The Best Film of the Year
Synecdoche, New York (2008): Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Here is an astonishing, dizzying, beautiful, melancholy, sardonically amusing, lovely, apocalyptic, powerful, low-key, brilliant, bewildering and inspiring work of staggering genius (Have I used every single superfluous adjective known to man yet? Good). Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a struggling playwright who is faced with having to live up to the receiving of a “Genius Grant.” Mass confusion and hints at the meaning of life ensue. An exhilarating masterpiece from the writer of Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation. (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). This is a life-changing experience that will be analyzed and, perhaps, misunderstood for decades to come.
The Wrestler (2008): Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Robert D. Siegel (as Robert Siegel).
In this stunner from the brilliant young mind behind Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Mickey Rourke gives a career-best performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a has-been circa-1980’s professional wrestler who works unloading trucks in the back of a New Jersey supermarket by day and still performs attempts at recapturing his glory days by night. The closest thing he has to love (outside of his vocation, of course) is an intimate relationship with an aging, soul-bruised stripper (Marisa Tomei). He even has a desire to reconnect with his estranged young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). All of this could’ve made for the stuff of overwrought melodrama, but somehow Aronofsky, Rourke, the supporting cast, the gritty cinematography by Maryse Alberti, and the beautiful screenplay by Robert D. Siegel pull out all the stops to make this a one-of-a-kind, gut-wrenching slice of painful life.
The Rest of the Best (Alphabetically):
Ballast (2008): Written and Directed by Lance Hammer.
A quietly devastating drama about three damaged souls attempting to learn to heal the deep-seeded wounds of the past, to live together and move on. A store owner in the heart of the Mississippi Delta loses his twin brother to suicide. The brother’s adolescent son and the son’s mother live nearby and struggle to make ends meet. The son, getting into trouble at school for fights and drugs, is now out of school but drifting in and out of the orbit of a local gang. The mother, a good woman, is trying to do her best. An exceptionally moving debut film.
The Dark Knight (2008): Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, based on characters created by Bob Kane.
The greatest superhero movie to date had Christian Bale return to Gotham City as the Caped Crusader following Batman Begins (2005), the triumphant reimagining of the franchise by Nolan (Memento, Insomnia). However, the late Heath Ledger steals the show in perhaps his best performance as the Joker, a positively demonic force of evil, insanity and chaos reigning supreme over Gotham’s criminal underworld.
Doubt (2008): Directed by John Patrick Shanley. Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a priest in a 1964 Catholic school in the Bronx, friendly and charismatic – perhaps too much so? Meryl Streep is the powerful, draconian Principal who suspects Hoffman of impropriety with the school’s only black student, and Amy Adams is also very good as the hopeful, innocent young nun who has her suspicions but doesn’t want to cause trouble. Viola Davis shows up for one long scene in the middle and brings down the house.
The Fall (2006): Directed by Tarsem Singh (as Tarsem). Screenplay by Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis & Tarsem Singh (as Tarsem), based on the 1981 screenplay Yo Ho Ho by Valeri Petrov (as Valery Petrov).
Frost/Nixon (2008): Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on his play.
The best film yet from the maker of Apollo 13 (1995) and The DaVinci Code (2006), based on the play by Peter Morgan (The Queen), illustrates the dramatic true story of former President Richard Nixon (a magnetic Frank Langella), disgraced in the wake of Watergate, and his controversial interview with British talk show host David Frost (a pitch perfect Michael Sheen).
Frozen River (2008): Written and Directed by Courtney Hunt.
Melissa Leo gives a stunningly tragic performance as a desperate single mother and dollar store employee living on the border between New York State and Canada who, forced to overcome dire circumstances, must help a near-sighted Mohawk (Native American) woman (Misty Upham, every bit her equal) smuggle illegal immigrants across the border from Quebec to make ends meet. A powerfully assured debut for writer-director Hunt.
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): Written and Directed by Mike Leigh.
The great British theater writer-director turned filmmaker again improvises his way to comedic gold with this portrait of a profoundly good London woman, a school teacher named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in a stunner of a performance), who meets her match in a violent, misanthropic driving instructor (Eddie Marsan).
Hunger (2008): Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Steve McQueen and Enda Walsh.
A disturbingly accurate-feeling portrait of life inside Maze Prison, focusing on a British security guard, two IRA prisoners who become hunger strikers, and their ringleader, the stubborn and resolute Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The long two-shot of Sands conferring with a priest about the ramifications of his hunger strike, which will effectively result in suicide, is hypnotic, tense and gut-wrenching.
In Bruges (2008): Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh.
A charming darkly comedic thriller from Ireland, playwright turned writer-director McDonagh’s feature debut is about two hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) who take a sojourn to the beloved medieval tourist village of the title (it’s in Belgium) in the wake of a tragic miscalculation on the job. Ralph Fiennes steals the show as their foul-mouthed, bloody-minded boss.
Milk (2008): Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Dustin Lance Black.
A powerfully moving portrait of the first openly gay elected official in U.S. public office, this features a wonderful marvel of a title performance from Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s “Mayor of Castro Street,” who gained a great deal of support and political capital and gave a lot of people hope before being senselessly gunned down by colleague Dan White (Josh Brolin, in an effectively chilling performance).
Rachel Getting Married (2008): Directed by Jonathan Demme. Written by Jenny Lumet.
Demme does his best work in over a decade, a million miles away from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) with this delightful dramedy from writer Jenny Lumet (filmmaker Sidney Lumet’s daughter). Anne Hathaway is all grown up here as the family’s black sheep, fresh outta rehab on a weekend pass for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Revolutionary Road (2008): Directed by Sam Mendes. Screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the novel by Richard Yates.
A portrait of middle-class suburban hell like only the director of American Beauty (1999) could devise, this adaptation of Richard Yates’ tragic novel features Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (reunited for the first time since 1997’s Titanic) as a young 1950’s Connecticut couple suffering through lives of quiet desperation. Michael Shannon (Shotgun Stories, Bug) pops in for two scenes of emotional evisceration that are positively devastating.
Shotgun Stories (2007): Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Directed by Danny Boyle. Co-Director – India: Loveleen Tandan. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup.
Vikas Swarup’s novel provides the inspiration for this affecting and inventive tale of a Mumbai youth whose difficult life experiences inform his ability to correctly (if improbably?) answer questions on the Hindi Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? A joyous stylistic leap into an Oliver Twist-ian world of shady criminals and disbelieving adults.
W. (2008): Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stanley Weiser.
An oddly empathetic, if satirical, biopic about the life and times of George W. Bush, played superbly by Josh Brolin – from his difficult youth to his sudden shift into the family business, from his governing of Texas to his controversial first election to the Presidency of the United States (it’s almost over!). A mostly spot-on cast of terrific actors (especially Thandie Newton and Richard Dreyfuss as Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney) joins in on the fun.
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically):
The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008): A positively daffy slapstick comedy from the writing-directing team behind Fargo, No Country for Old Men and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (among many other fine films), this time we delve into the collision between the world of CIA espionage, disgruntled ex-analysts and insanely funny gym trainers. George Clooney is a former “spook” having a affair with the cold soon-to-be ex-wife (Tilda Swinton) of a recently fired analyst (John Malkovich). When the analyst’s memoirs are left on the floor at a local D.C. area gym, they are scooped up and used for blackmail at the hands of a couple of bumbling gym trainers (Brad Pitt, never funnier, and Frances McDormand, somehow hilarious and poignant at once). Add into the mix a clueless CIA head honcho (J.K. Simmons) and a lovestruck gym manager (Richard Jenkins), and you have one of the weirdest and funniest films in the Coens canon.
Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (2008): A powerful, angering, haunting fact-inspired epic from Eastwood, who may be our greatest living actor-turned-director (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby). Starring Angelina Jolie as a struggling single mother in 1928 Los Angeles whose son goes missing, leading to a police search. When a young boy matching his description is found in Illinois, the woman is heartbroken to find it’s not her son. The police, however, cannot abide the bad publicity and insist she’s hysterical and/or insane and fight her tooth and nail to keep their lie going.
Neil LaBute’s Lakeview Terrace (2008): Another misanthropic “let’s rip the lid off hypocrisy” jaunt from playwright turned filmmaker LaBute, this one adds race and stirs it into his usual stew of sex and gender issues. Featuring Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington as an upper-middle-class couple in Los Angeles that moves in next to an LAPD officer (Samuel L. Jackson), whose disapproval of their relationship grows from creepy to violent. A modern Western tangling with controversial issues in American society, and way better than the trailers advertise.
Jay Roach’s Recount (2008): A remarkably effective, often very funny take on the controversy behind the 2000 Presidential Election, this HBO film from the director of the Austin Powers franchise featured, in top-form, Kevin Spacey, Tom Wilkinson, Denis Leary and a terrific Laura Dern as the figures behind the scenes who helped make Al Gore’s contesting of Bush’s win a nail-biter to watch.
Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): The legendary writer-director of romantic comedies concerning neurotic New Yorkers takes his shtick to voluptuous Spain with terrific results. Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall are two young American students on vacation in the title city who first come across a handsome and seductive painter (Javier Bardem) and then his volatile firecracker (some might say “loose cannon”) of an ex-wife (Penelope Cruz).
Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008): A simple story, stunningly told. A poor young woman (Michelle Williams) is emigrating to Alaska in hopes of getting a summer job. Her beautiful pet dog her only companion, situations turn from bad to worse when her car breaks down in the area of Portland, Oregon and she is forced to make some tough decisions to reach her goal.
Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008): Writer-director Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy) is a master of the profane and here he makes one of his funniest and oddly sweetest comedies, possibly the year’s best comedy, a tale of two lifelong friends who face dire financial straits and must… well, just read the title. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are hilarious and the supporting cast (from Craig Robinson to Jason Mewes) is a dream.
The Best Foreign Language Films (Alphabetically):
Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One / The Argentine (2008) and Che: Part Two / Guerrilla (2008), from Cuba/Bolivia. The great American director’s epic portrait of Cuban Revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, featuring a fiery title performance from Benicio Del Toro.
Laurent Cantet’s The Class / Entre les murs (2008), from France. An absorbing tale about a year in the lives of a struggling teacher and his inner-city students.
Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah / Gomorra (2008), from Italy. A disturbingly realistic expose of the modern exploits of the Naples Mafia.
Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long / Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (2008), from France. With Kristin Scott Thomas as a woman just released after 15 years in prison, struggling to reconnect with her family.
Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2008), from Sweden. A glorious achievement. Forget Twilight! As a film about vampires, this is one of a kind. As a film about the pangs of adolescence, it’s invaluable.
The Best Documentaries (Alphabetically):
Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008): A portrait of the late, great reporter Hunter S. Thompson (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas).
Patrick Creadon’s I.O.U.S.A. (2008): An informative and fascinating look at the growing national debt, the economic collapse and the ways can repare it for the sake of the future.
James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008): An oddly fascinating look at a Frenchman’s crossing of a high-wire between the Twin Towers in 1974.
Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light (2008): America’s greatest living director captures a rollicking good time at a Clinton Foundation benefit concert featuring the Rolling Stones. You feel like you’re there!
Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008): A powerful expose of the methods of torture and humiliation – and the rationalizations for it – as captured in pictures at Abu Ghraib Prison.
Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Trouble the Water (2008): A sobering examination of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on a black New Orleans couple as evidenced through their own astonishing home video footage of the event.
The Best Animated Films (Alphabetically):
Andrew Stanton’s WALL·E (2008): A witty, conscientious and delightful science fiction fable about a love-struck trash-compacting robot who is meant to restore the abandoned Earth to sustainability in the wake of humans trashing the place.
Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir / Vals Im Bashir (2008): The second animated documentary of the year (also would’ve qualified for the Foreign Language category), in which the director, an Israeli veteran of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, interviews his fellow comrades in order to reconstruct his own memory of the events. Haunting and beautifully-done.
Note: I am constantly seeing new films so this list will be updated as/if necessary.