I was pretty spoiled by 2007, I'll admit. It was my first full year of doing the movie critic thing and if that weren't enough to get excited about, so many of the movies I saw were unbelievably great. But as 2008 wound to a close and my top 10 list still had gaps in it, I had to admit that this year just wasn't the best we can do. Even though 4 of the top 10 biggest grossers are actually pretty great, 2008 hasn't produced much of anything that will be heralded, analyzed, or revered a few years down the road.
But there are a few, and they're all on here I think, along with other movies that tickled me, broke my heart, or just gave me a little of that thrill that makes seeing more than 100 movies in a year worth it to begin with. The order is less important than last year; except for #1, I have a hard time ranking any of these films above the others. But they're all movies I'll be seeing again and again, happy that despite its disappointments, 2008 offered enough to satisfy this little critic.
In a language of beeps and tweets, not to mention pixels and 3D models, Pixar made a sad, lonely masterpiece that resonated so deeply with audiences that people actually turned the year's best movie into a box office hit. Beyond an environmental message about our inevitable self-destruction, or any finger-wagging morality about experiencing the world, Wall-E is primarily about love, for friends like a cockroach, for your fellow man on the neighboring hoverchair, and even for a sleek egg-shaped marvel named Eve. Best Moment: Wall-E and Eve share a galactic dance.
It seemed impossible to make a biopic anything other than just a long list of accomplishments and tragedies, but the ever-inventive Gus van Sant, aided by an astonishingly great Sean Penn in the title role, has done it. Milk is the story of a vital and inspiring man, but it's also a piece of passionate and devoted filmmaking, encircling an excellent supporting cast and, most importantly, the streets of San Francisco where Harvey Milk changed the world. Best Moment: Harvey calls his estranged lover Scott on the morning of the assassination, and tells him "I don't want to miss this." "Miss what?" "This."
3. Rachel Getting Married
It sounds so awful in concept-- a movie about a wedding, where a drug addict comes to mess things up, and the memory of a dead brother lurks in the background, ever-ready to evoke tears. But Jenny Lumet's screenplay is so insightful, and Jonathan Demme's direction so instinctive and relaxed, that the audience slips right into this world of bright Indian saris, stately homes, and heartbreaks deep and ancient. Rosemarie DeWitt is great, Anne Hathaway even greater, but the strongest performance is from the ensemble as a whole, vital and honest and complicated, and above all, genuine. Best Moment: The mother of the groom gives a wedding toast that in any other movie would have been teeth-grindingly sentimental.
4. The Dark Knight
The movie will define 2008, both due to its sheer size and the nerve it seemed to strike in all of us. It's messy and ambitious in a way a movie has to be to risk greatness, and it pretty much gets there, thanks to the indelible x-factors of its performers, particularly Heath Ledger. It's populist entertainment with a soul, a visual effects powerhouse that also implores its audience to think about what they're feeling, and why. Superhero movies, and maybe all popular movies, will never be the same. Best Moment: The tractor-trailer flips, and moments later, the Batpod flips off a wall.
5. Wendy and Lucy
A snapshot of a life in flux, a quiet exploration of the financial and class woes that go ignored in this country, and a feat of acting from Michelle Williams, playing a woman who wants to improve her station in life, but has everything--and everyone-- working against her. Unlike the colorful fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire, where success is attainable with just a little bit of luck, Kelly Reichardt's searing film
takes the pessimistic, tragically realist view of just how possible it is to change your life. Best Moment: Wendy realizes that the best way to care for her beloved dog, Lucy, is not to care for her at all.
6. Man on Wire
We've had a dearth of real heroes this year, despite domination by men Bat and Iron, and while Philippe Petit sometimes comes off as a frustrating egomaniac in Man on Wire, his feat between the towers of the World Trade Center was nothing short of heroic. In the early 70s, one of the darkest periods in New York City's history, Petit strung a wire between the towers and made magic. So does director James Marsh in his funny, inventive, thrilling documentary. Best Moment: Using just archival photographs and Debussy's "Clair de Lune," Marsh captures the lyrical grace of Petit's feat.
7. Revolutionary Road
The film's look is all elegance and class, with top-notch cinematography from Roger Deakins and the beautiful, pallid faces of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. But Revolutionary Road is a film of rage and frustration, at the tiny box life can become and the partner you find trapped there with you. It's become cliche to explore the dark underside of sunny 1950s America, but Sam Mendes and his amazing actors wring terrible life out of the familiar wide hats and crisp dresses.
Best Moment: Frank returns home after sleeping with a secretary to find his wife and kids surprising him with a birthday cake. The tears in his eyes say it all.
8. The Class
More truthful and realistic than most documentaries, the adaptation of Francois Begaudeau's memoir takes place over a series of long, dynamic classroom sessions, in which the debates are fascinating not for their hot topics or level of intellect, but how real they are. Anyone who has suffered through a boring class, or has loved a great one, will be struck by the honesty here. That goes double for teachers, either over there in France or here. Best Moment: Francois confronts a girl who was his best student the year before but has turned hostile; her indifferent response exposes the flaws in both of them.
9. The Wrestler
Beyond Mickey Rourke's vaunted lead performance, which is really spectacular, The Wrestler is thoughtful and deeply emotional, both specific in its setting and characters and universal in its exploration of loss and disappointment. The broken-down bodies and limited dreams here are specific to professional wrestlers, but the sadness and limited flashes of joy in Randy's life is familiar to anyone who's ever found themselves at the end of the road, but with no choice but to keep going. Best Moment: Taking a job at the grocery deli counter, Randy flirts with old ladies and chats with his customers-- happy at last, but not for long.
10. I've Loved You So Long
Kristin Scott Thomas gets much of the credit for the success of this emotional drama about sisters and secrets, but that's underestimating first-time director Philippe Claudel's instinctive understanding of the emotional underpinnings of his story, things that could tip the whole thing into melodrama with one false move. Equally great as Thomas is Elsa Zylberstein, playing a younger sister who struggles to understand her troubled, closed-up sibling. Best Moment: Juliette visits her estranged mother in the nursing home, and is still so shellshocked by the past that she can't return her mother's hug.
For more of Cinema Blend's BEST OF 2008 click HERE.