All in all, 2008 was a great year for cinema - probably a hair short of the top tier of 1999, 2004, & 2007, but arguably fourth best of the last decade. Great action movies, dramas, comedies, thrillers, sci-fi / fantasy; every genre had solid representation, and while there was a fair share of letdowns and overrated movies at year's end, the good outweighed the bad, and the following were my favorites:
TOP 25 BEST MOVIES OF 2008
#25 - DEATH RACE
Guilty pleasure. Fuck you, what do you want me to say?
#24 - ROLE MODELS
I'm an unapologetic Paul Rudd enthusiast and it was a minor thrill to see him step up to the leading man plate. The first couple acts of Role Models are funny if a bit generic but it then explodes into one of the most batshit crazy and hilarious comedic climaxes of the year, an extended sequence of fantasy warfare (I shit you not, Role Models virgins) that alone demands its placement on this list.
#23 - HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY
Abandoning the first film's Lovecraftian horror motif in favor of more of a modern high fantasy with elves, goblins, golems, and forest gods, Hellboy II is a lot of fun. Guillermo del Toro marries innovative prosthetics and makeup with remarkably imaginative art direction, creature design, and epic sets where other filmmakers today might just use lazy CGI to fill in the gaps, along with plenty of well-shot action and fight scenes - the film is a lot stronger than its own screenplay - and it's easy to see why Peter Jackson selected him to carry on his work in The Hobbit.
#22 - TRANSSIBERIAN
A taut, gripping thriller with a cold, ethereal, otherwordly setting. Reminded me of Christopher Nolan's "Alaskan noir" from Insomnia, except with a tighter and more exciting screenplay. Corrupt cops, drugs, infidelity, torture, murder, all on a goddamn train; that's what thrillers are all about, baby.
#21 - QUANTUM OF SOLACE
Bond's 22nd adventure is a definite step down from Casino Royale (which I still count as my favorite movie of 2006) with shakeycam action scenes and forgettable villains, but it's still Bond, and Bond is sacred. The introduction of Quantum, a new SPECTRE-style evil organization, hopefully bodes well for future films, we get more screentime from Jeffrey Wright's badass Felix Leiter, a classic scene at the opera where Bond compromises a whole cell of Quantum operatives at once, and of course more of Daniel Craig's hard-edged reinterpretation of Bond. Let's hope Bond 23 can distill the best elements of both Casino and Quantum into something even better.
#20 - FROST/NIXON
A rare example of an obvious filmed play actually working as a movie, Frost/Nixon succeeds despite a few unnecessarily expositional cinematic flourishes on the strength of Michael Sheen/Frank Langella as the titular Frost/Nixon, and the rising tension as the interview moves towards Watergate leads to one of the most satisfying cinematic climaxes of the year.
#19 - PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
Pure action-comedy is a great, underrated commodity at the multiplex, and when it's done right and perfectly balances the two elements as David Gordon Green, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg managed to do here, it gives such a complete cinematic experience you're still grinning hours after the movie is over. Much of the credit goes to James Franco, who delivers in addle-brained pothead Saul Silver one of the funniest pure and undiluted dumb guys in the last decade of film.
#18 - RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Rachel Getting Married is unusual and bold as a low-key drama that actually has the balls to make its protagonist Kym rather unlikable - she basically tries to do the right thing, sure, but she's a truly pathetic, burned-out drug addict with zero social skills, volatile, overdramatic, and prone to crashing cars. And Anne Hathaway plays Kym's worst aspects to the hilt, abandoning any trace of Hollywood glamour or dignity and letting the soul-crushing awkwardness spill out across the whole film as she tries (and largely fails) to have a normal weekend away from the rehab facility at her sister's wedding. It's a minor gem, particularly Hathaway's performance.
#17 - THE BANK JOB
A muscular, entertaining heist movie that gives way to a crackling thriller, and proof that Jason Statham isn't just the dumb action man and can act in some legitimately great stuff. Also, I'm just gonna say it, Saffron Burrows is retardedly hot, and I enjoyed looking at her for the duration of the film.
#16 - MILK
A political biopic done right, doing justice to Harvey Milk's life and legacy by focusing primarily on his consolidation of political power in San Francisco, his campaigns and election, and his successful fight against California's Proposition 6 that would have allowed firing teachers on the basis of sexual orientation. Sean Penn does a great job as the man himself and as long as you can block out Diego Luna's character it's a wonderful film.
#15 - RAMBO
First, Sylvester Stallone wiped clean the stench of Rocky V with the great Rocky Balboa, and now proceeds to do the same to Rambo III with the first Rambo movie in twenty goddamn years! Stallone understands 80s action - it's in his blood - and he abandons pretension and makes a movie about Rambo fuckin' killing people. A Burmese paramilitary group captures a group of Christian missionaries, so John Rambo does what John Rambo does best and slaughters half the fucking nation of Burma to rescue them. Hundreds dead. Brain matter and skull fragments fly, arrows shot through eyeballs, limbs flayed, people burned to the crisp with flamethrowers, crucifixion, sliced into lunch meat and fed to the pigs, bones shatter into so many white splinters, gore and viscera spewing like grotesque geysers from hell, and the rivers of Burma run red with the blood of a thousand murdered bad guys. I am speechless. I am in awe. I bow to Stallone's magnificence, I am not worthy.
#14 - VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
I'm actually surprised myself to be putting Woody Allen's very small and very intimate faux-Spanish melodrama this high on my list; it's intellectual junk food and I initially enjoyed it no more than a number of other summer movies, but it's percolated in my mind since then whereas other films have been forgotten and I must say it's a fine, warm, funny movie for grown-ups. Rebecca Hall and Javier Bardem are both wonderful. Scarlett Johansson is consistently unremarkable but as long as being Woody's muse keeps him producing films like this and Match Point in contrast to his mediocre 90s output, I say keep at it.
#13 - MAN ON WIRE
In 1974, tightrope-walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a dream by illegally setting up and walking across a rope stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center, a quarter-mile in the sky with no safety net and nothing keeping his feet in place amid the beating winds but sheer adrenaline, and Man on Wire chronicles his feat with verve. Assembling vintage film, photographs, and modern interviews with all the people involved, it has all the tension of a fun heist movie and in the end a genuinely moving, inspirational moment as he steps out onto that wire. 2008's finest documentary.
#12 - TROPIC THUNDER
A fully balls-out, epic, big-budget, explosive comedy that calls to mind the spirit of the 80s. It's bloody and profane and relies on some degree of behind-the-scenes Hollywood knowledge to fully enjoy, and I'm almost surprised a studio took a gamble on it, but I'm glad they did because what a funny movie. Particularly Robert Downey Jr. playing an Australian actor playing a black man who in one scene pretends to be an Asian farmer with a faux-Asian via faux-black accent. Robert Downey Jr. is awesome. Even the stuffy-ass Academy nominated him for Best Supporting Actor for it!
#11 - SEX DRIVE
This is probably where my own genre biases come starkly into focus, and I'm aware that no one else in the country ranked Sex Drive anywhere near their top ten of 2008, but what do I care? It's no Superbad but excepting that masterpiece it's one of the better "teensploitation" movies of the decade, and I was cheered by every generic, cum-drenched second of it.
#10 - LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Spitting in the face of everything American cinema suggests horror movies should be, the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In is a slow-burning, deliberately-paced, eerie, atmospheric experience. The story of a bullied, lonely youth who befriends a girl who turns out to be a vampire - and a REAL vampire, who has to drink human blood for substinance, can't enter without an invitation, and sunlight immediately burns, nothing like the shitty Twilight non-vampires - is equal parts haunting and moving, punctuating its quiet, snowy atmosphere with effectively rare moments of gore and horror. An intoxicating, otherworldly experience.
#9 - FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
I loved Forgetting Sarah Marshall because it was the most I laughed in a theater last year, and I like laughing. That's it.
#8 - BURN AFTER READING
In a comedy nearly as pitch-black as Fargo, the Coen brothers deliver a delightfully wicked satire of stuffy CIA thrillers, reveling in the absurdity of what it would be like if a MacGuffin (in this case a CD full of what is assumed to be "secret CIA shit") got into the hands of some dumb, ordinary people who didn't know what to do with it and tried to blackmail the CIA in retaliation. Intrigue, spying, deception, theft, and murder all ensue, all played for absurd humor, and it's an awesome and hilarious movie.
#7 - GRAN TORINO
Clint Eastwood's most entertaining performance ever? Sure, the first-time newbs surrounding him mostly couldn't act their way out of paper bags, but when I'm too busy roaring with laughter at Clint's latest gravelly-voiced, politically incorrect line to hear what they're saying anyway, who cares? Yes, Gran Torino is stuffed to the absolute brim with cliché and archetype, character arcs we've seen play out a million times before, and if you removed Dirty Harry from the equation it could go fuck a goat for all I care, but taking all this into careful consideration I could care less; I loved this goddamn movie. Go figure that Clint's most purely entertaining movie in years would be the one snubbed by the Academy.
#6 - IRON MAN
Pure, unleaded, guilt-free entertainment, that's what Iron Man is. Standing only behind Christopher Nolan's Batman duology, Spider-Man 2, and The Incredibles as my fifth favorite superhero movie of all time, Iron Man is not an innovative or thematically ambitious experience in the least, but what it is is junk food at its most evolved level. Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious and awesome as Tony Stark; the most entertaining action movie leading performance since Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jon Favreau shoots the action scenes in a clean, classical, eternally entertaining style free from any trace of the fast-cutting or shakeycam fads. There's as many laughs as most full-blooded comedies. The special effects are Industrial Light & Magic at the height of their powers. Even the romantic interest is peppy and likable! I haven't had so much pure fun at the theater in years.
#5 - IN BRUGES
A terrific, moving, blackly hilarious, deftly-written, woefully underrated thriller-comedy about the vacation two hitmen take to the "fucking fairy tale town" of Bruges, Belgium. I dare not give away any of the movie's twists or surprises, even the motivation for why they are on the vacation, because this is a film that should be experienced pure from the first frame to the ending, but suffice to say the sensation of laughing out loud one second and being gripped by cold tension the next is a rare treat. If not for Heath Ledger's Joker, Ralph Fiennes' Harry in this movie would be my favorite cinematic villain of '08.
#4 - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
What's this - a critically lauded, much-hyped, poised-for-Oscar-gold-film that's actually a really, really good movie? Yes, it's true, it exists! The Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? flashback structure is one of the most clever narrative frameworks I've seen in a movie in ages, and Jamal and Latika are a couple you can genuinely like and root for. It's going to get jerked off plenty tomorrow night on the Oscars, so I'll just leave it at saying that it says a lot that it warrants the jerking off.
#3 - THE WRESTLER
Nostalgia has consumed and possibly ruined the life of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, and the once-great wrestler's attempts to reach out to his estranged daughter may not be enough in the face of his inability to let go of the eternal fantasy of the 80s and accept his own age and limitations. It's a simple premise for a film, but it's a moving and great experience thanks to Mickey Rourke's truly stunning performance as Randy; an achingly real, Daniel Day-Lewis caliber performance that should be pictured in the dictionary next to "method acting."
#2 - WALL•E
WALL•E is art. Well, the first half of WALL•E is art (and taken of its own accord would probably rank #2 on this list), the second half of WALL•E is a somewhat more traditional but still way, way above average animated movie, and taken as a whole the movie might just be the greatest combination of hard science fiction and romantic comedy that has ever or will ever be made; Isaac Asimov by way of Charlie Chaplin. Temporarily removing the lukewarm Cars from the equation, Pixar has in The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL•E delivered one of the most incredible one-two-three knockout punches of mind-blowingly great cinema in the long annals of the medium.
#1 - THE DARK KNIGHT
You're shocked, I know, you didn't see this one coming. When it comes right down to it, stripping Nolan's second Batman movie of all the hype, all the viral marketing, all the anticipation, Heath Ledger's death, reducing everything to the root experience of sitting there in the theater last July watching the movie, you have the concrete and inescapable fact that no other movie last year had me so awed, overtaken by the epic scope and splendor of the story, utterly riveted and involved for every second, and ready to watch it again the second I stepped out of the theater. Yes, I identified flaws and a few weak points on subsequent viewings, as did we all, and I make no claim that it's perfect, but The Dark Knight is still a momentously ambitious and enthralling crime epic with a truly stellar villain, and anyone who argues that any other movie from 2008 will continue to be as frequently watched in 2058 is empirically wrong. That's all there is to it.
TOP 5 LEADING PERFORMANCES OF 2008
#5 - Chiwetel Ejiofor, REDBELT - You likely haven't heard of this movie, and that's fine (it made like four dollars at the box office), but Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of the best semi-underground actors there is and he delivers David Mamet's muscular dialogue like a pro.
#4 - Anne Hathaway, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED - Utterly unpretentious, utterly unglamorous, intensely naturalistic. It's a shame she doesn't have any chance at the Best Actress Oscar because she deserves it.
#3 - Clint Eastwood, GRAN TORINO - Clint Eastwood gravels out every politically incorrect, darkly comic line in a sickening rasp, and although it's broad and arguably even overacted, it's outrageously entertaining. To say he outshines the actors surrounding him would be an understatement like saying the Sears Tower would be the tallest building in a small African village; it's an acting slaughter of everyone else onscreen. Rugged, classical Hollywood masculinity that convinces me that a man creeping towards eighty can kick the shit out of men fifty+ years his junior, and if that isn't badass, I don't know what is.
#2 - Robert Downey Jr., IRON MAN - It's difficult to identify exactly what makes Robert Downey Jr. so good; he's not exactly subtle or naturalistic, nor is he broad or theatrical, but his line readings just WORK, always, they're always entertaining. Tony Stark is the best superhero leading performance of all time.
#1 - Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER - Method acting rarely reaches this caliber, and I can honestly say that it's hard for me to determine whether I was more impressed by Mickey Rourke in this movie or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. A character study this raw and intimate lives or dies entirely on the strength of its leading actor, and Rourke makes it one of the finest pictures of the year.
TOP 5 SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES OF 2008
#5 - James Franco, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS - Goddamn hysterical performance as what boils down to just a dumb guy. Made me laugh with damn near every line.
#4 - Brad Pitt, BURN AFTER READING - Goddamn hysterical performance as what boils down to just a dumb guy. Made me laugh with damn near every line.
#3 - Ralph Fiennes, IN BRUGES - Fiennes is vastly entertaining as Harry, a brutal hitman / crime boss with principles. He only comes in in the last act of the movie but proceeds to own and dominate every frame from there on out, even up against an actor the caliber of Brendan Gleeson. It helps that he has all the best lines in the movie. We should be so lucky for all our crime movie villains to be so badass.
#2 - Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER - "To be a moron. To be moronical. An imbecile. Like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived."
#1 - Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT - Instantaneously rocketing to the shortlist of the best villains in the history of film, Ledger's simultaneously hilarious, wicked, terrifying interpretation of the Joker is unquestionable proof that you don't need any superpowers to be full-blown supervillain. He trumps Batman several times, plunges Gotham into anarchy and chaos, organizes the downfall of Harvey Dent, takes control of the mob, orchestrates simultaneous assassinations of key city leaders, blows up hospitals, and when he says "This is MY city," you believe every word of it, because this guy is a goddamn SUPERVILLAIN, a cackling, evil, flamboyant, gloriously entertaining supervillain.
TOP 5 SCREENPLAYS OF 2008
#5 - FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL - Although critics are loath to admit it, writing good comedy is really, really fucking hard, and when a movie keeps me consistently laughing without a missing a beat for two hours it warrants kudos and applause.
#4 - SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - As I said, although the romantic plot may be a classical story, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? framing device is completely new; something I've never seen before, ever.
#3 - BURN AFTER READING - Immensely clever CIA thriller satire, incorporating lots of characters and subplots without ever becoming convoluted, driving each dangling plot thread towards the madcap conclusion where everything collides in a glorious trainwreck. Satire done right.
#2 - THE DARK KNIGHT - It's dense, it's thematically ambitious, it's dark and brutal, it has a dozen endlessly quotable lines (most from the Joker, not surprisingly), it's even laugh-out-loud funny at points. The best crime epic screenplay since Heat.
#1 - IN BRUGES - The combination of crime thriller and comedy reminds me of vintage Tarantino, but without ever seeming like a knock-off. Centering the drama around a small handful of characters while keeping it brisk, quotable, funny, and completely unpredictable, this is a real masterpiece of a screenplay, one worthy of reading in text format just to study the structure of. I love it.
TOP 5 DIRECTORS OF 2008
#5 - Clint Eastwood, GRAN TORINO - Eastwood's performance and lean, easygoing directorial style salvage the creaky Frankenstein of cliché and melodrama that is Gran Torino's script, and when a director can mine gold from a chunk of lead, well, that's a good goddamn director.
#4 - Sylvester Stallone, RAMBO - As far as I can tell, Rambo has no screenplay, nor does it need one; it's a blood-and-viscera soaked festival of screams and grunts and guttural monosyllabic noises, Rambo killing everyone in sight, pure testosterone pleasure. Stallone gets it. He doesn't hold back and soaks the fucking thing in gore like I haven't seen in an action movie since, well, ever. Even as he ages out of starring, may he continue directing action films for two decades to come.
#3 - Danny Boyle, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - Exotic, energetic, emotional. Danny Boyle's incredibly lively, vibrant directorial style in this film warrants the Best Director Oscar he's going to win tomorrow.
#2 - Andrew Stanton, WALL•E - The first forty or so minutes of WALL•E are told almost entirely free from dialogue or voice actors; it's all in Stanton's hands. He delivers truly and completely with a haunting, desolate world given life by a remarkably charming main character, some of the best pure visual filmmaking in years regardless of whether in live film or animation. It's a stunning artistic achievement.
#1 - Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT - You know what I like? That Nolan proved that you can pony up the dough to rent buildings and streets in a real live city, film real stuntmen doing stunts and riding Batpods, flip real trucks and throw real SWAT vans into the river, actually film in Hong Kong for your scene set in Hong Kong, actually blow up a hospital-sized building for your hospital explosion, and do it all without resorting to nothing but CGI and bluescreens, and people will be there to watch your movie in droves. I love to see real stuff happening onscreen in an action movie in this day and age.
TOP 10 BEST MOVIE MOMENTS OF 2008 - Spoilers!
#10 - Randy gets stitched up, THE WRESTLER - Not only are the emotions raw in The Wrestler, so is the wrestling, and the scene where Randy gets cleaned and stitched up after a match while flashbacks show the fight's use of chairs, ladders, barbed wire, and a staple gun is equal parts cringe-inducing and fascinating, what these men go through in staged exhibitions for the sake of entertainment.
#9 - Jason Segel shows the full monty, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL - The eternal nudity rule of thumb: Female nudity is erotic. Male nudity is funny. The penis is the funniest thing of all.
#8 - Jamal kisses Latika, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - I'm not normally a sucker for cinematic romance - someone ask me what I think about The Notebook sometime if you'd like an earful - but when you've been following a pair for over a decade of their lives, constantly gravitating around and just missing each other, what could be a better ending?
#7 - Tony Stark reveals Iron Man's identity, IRON MAN - Struggling to get through the military's phony briefing in front of a room full of press, Tony Stark gives up and announces to the world that "I am Iron Man," smiles, and we cut to credits. I'm so used to secret identities I didn't see that one coming AT ALL, I was floored. What an awesome ending!
#6 - "Never go full retard," TROPIC THUNDER - Robert Downey Jr. says everything I've always thought about actors playing retarded characters in movies with a straightforward eloquence I could never dream of. Pure brilliance.
#5 - Crossing the wire, MAN ON WIRE - We spend ninety minutes with Philippe Petit as he practices his tightrope walking, outlines his dream of crossing the ultimate gap, plans the best way to sneak into the World Trade Center and get the rope between the two towers, his numerous close calls with security and nearly failing to get the rope up on time, the setting of the wire, and when he finally takes those initial steps over the void, sure, it's illegal, but what could be a more perfect climactic moment?
#4 - Brad Pitt gets his brains blown out, BURN AFTER READING - Howls of laughter in the audience instantaneously turned into gasps of horror! Completely unexpected plot twist, fucking brilliant!
#3 - Nixon tacitly admits guilt, FROST/NIXON - They sort of give it away at the end of the trailer (okay, completely give it away, what the fuck trailer?), but that doesn't make it any less a perfect moment.
#2 - "Define dancing," WALL•E - Although I've said that the first half of WALL•E is the superior act, the film's best scene - a scene that like the spaghetti kiss between the dogs in Lady and the Tramp will endure through cinematic history - occurs in the latter half when WALL•E and EVE find themselves floating in deep space. Wielding a fire extinguisher, WALL•E propels himself around the lights and engines of the space ship while EVE follows him in a dance as a rather stellar song plays; sublime, beautiful, artistic filmmaking, profoundly moving and elegant. And this is coming from someone who hates dancing!
#1 - FIVE WAY TIE! The Joker's pencil trick; The Joker's bank heist; Batman flips Joker's truck; The Joker blows up a hospital; "Why so serious?," THE DARK KNIGHT - This is the Joker's world, we're all just living in it.