Unfortunately 2008 has turned out to be an almost painfully weak year for film. Many movies were good, very few were great, and most of the Oscar bait released late in the year failed to deliver. Some like Wendy and Lucy or The Wrestler, contain incredible performances but are themselves, not particularly impressive films. Mickey Rourke may be awesome but I can't give his movie a spot on my list. I want the total package.
What you will find below in my obligatory list are the movies I saw and liked best. Many critics pad their lists by trying to push certain films they don't feel got enough attention, at the expense of more popular movies which they may have liked better. I'm not interested. This is not a list of the best movies of 2008 that you didn't see, it's simply and plainly a list of the best movies I saw in 2008. In order even! This is my list, and here it is:
1. The Dark Knight
Most of the talk around this movie has centered on Heath Ledger's eye-opening turn as the Joker, and he deserves every bit of the praise he's been given. But this is so much more than a one-note performance film. As brilliant as Ledger is, he's working from an incredible script under the direction of a truly visionary filmmaker. The Dark Knight is defies convention and refuses to be pigeonholed into the comic book movie mold from which so many other caped crusader movies have been poured. In fact it's not a comic book movie at all, it just happens to use comic book characters in something bigger, bolder, and beyond the genre. The Dark Knight is simply a great film, one which uses masked characters to say something complex about the very nature of man. The film is even better in IMAX, the first to truly take advantage of the format as more than a gimmick. The Dark Knight is a stunning, unbelievable achievement and though it's drenched in darkness it is unquestionably the year's best and brightest cinematic experience. Viewed in IMAX as it was intended, it may be one of the best movies of any kind ever made.
Best Moment: The Joker. Pick any scene.
2. Kung Fu Panda
The Dark Knight may be the year's best, but Kung Fu Panda is 2008's most beautiful film. Set in a vibrant, animal populated version of ancient China it tells the story of a fat and awkward panda, who wishes he could become a Kung Fu master instead of the noodle seller his father is grooming him as. His dreams come true, but not in the way you might expect. Dustin Hoffman's voice has never sounded better than when coming out of a fuzzy, diminutive, animated martial arts badass and the movie's all-knowing turtle sensei Master Oogway is the best teacher since Obi Wan. DreamWorks Animation took a gigantic step forward this summer, and must now be taken seriously. Kung Fu Panda is pure poetry. Oh and there's a lot of action and comedy stuff too. It's an achingly sublime, dazzlingly delicate piece of epic animated artwork full of wisdom, wit, and heart.
Best Moment: Master Oogway departs on the wind in a swirl of peach blossoms.
3. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
I've developed a very strange relationship with Forgetting Sarah Marshall. When I first saw it back in March at the SXSW film festival I liked it, quite a lot. But it was only after the movie came out on DVD that I fell in love with it. Or maybe it's more than love, it may actually be obsession. I've watched it over and over and over again. It's become my go-to movie for whenever I'm feeling a little bummed or heck, just can't think of anything better to do. Written by and starring Judd Apatow alum Jason Segel and directed by Nicholas Stoller it takes the been told before story of breaking up and moving on, and tells it in entirely new, awkward yet true, ways. The movie begins with male nudity and ends with Muppets, while we're treated to something very special in between those two extremes. Few movies hold up as well when watched over and over and over again, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall not only holds up, it keeps on getting better.
Best Moment: Dracula, the all Muppet rock opera!
Like so many 2008 movies Milk is defined by a single, incredible performance. Unlike a most of those heavily touted single performance defined film's though, Milk is in the top half of my list, and it's here because there's depth in what director Gus van Sant does around his engrossing lead. Penn plays Harvey Milk, and we follow his journey to become the first openly gay man elected to major office. The film starts with Harvey in the closet and looking to do something worthwhile and it begins to build. As Harvey grows and figures things out, so does the movie. Though the demands of history mean Milk must inevitably end with Harvey's death, Penn's Milk projects warmth, hope, and inspiration. If the real man was anything like this, it's no wonder he was able to win over the hearts and minds of even straight-laced, homophobic voters.
Best Moment: My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you!
I'd be lying if I said I didn't go into Religious hoping to see Bill Maher stick it to, well, somebody. Against all odds, that never really happens. Maher's documentary resists taking the easy propaganda angle and simply sits back to let things happen as the well known anti-god comedian wanders into trucker churches and creepy mosques where the women have their own corner. When Maher sees bullshit he calls bullshit, but he doesn't invent it for the sake of pushing his anti-religion agenda. Instead he wanders the globe interacting with believers, some weird, some normal, some smart, some United States Congressmen. When the movie's funny it's hilarious and when it's frightening, it's only because the truth is just that god-awful. That's not to say there isn't a message, there is. Maher's message is clear and his film is a rallying call to the silent non-believers who so rarely make their voices heard. Because his movie is almost intentionally designed to cater to that one group, you probably won't see it on many other end of year lists. But there's no denying that Maher's documentary is one of the most flat out entertaining and simultaneously poignant achievements of the year.
Best Moment: Bill sits slack-jawed while a Congressman admits there's no IQ test for public office.
Doubt is all at once frustrating and stunning. The movie soars on brilliant and engrossing dialogue from screenwriter John Patrick Shanley and incredible performances from Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unfortunately Shanley also directs the film and his work behind the camera is at best, uninspired. It's only that which keeps Doubt from being higher on my list. Sure the subject of child molestation has been done to death but Doubt's approach is entirely unique, following the exploits of a cagey, curmudgeonly nun (Streep) as she fights behind the scenes to prove her heinous suspicions to herself. Hoffman's character is so likable that our sympathies shift back and forth throughout the film, and Shanley's script approaches the subject almost as if it's a Columbo mystery with Peter Falk replaced by Meryl Streep in a habit. It's not perfect, but it's utterly engrossing.
Best Moment: Father Flynn is questioned by Sister Beauvier and Sister James.
7. Gran Torino
If the thought of a grizzled and bitter Clint Eastwood staring down gangbangers in his front yard, waving a weapon menacingly, and growling “get off my lawn!” doesn't thrill you to the core, then you're probably a fan of Million Dollar Baby Clint and not Dirty Harry era Eastwood. Well mark me down for Dirty Harry. It's been said by others before, but it's true so it's worth saying again. Imagine all of Clint's most badass characters. Now imagine them as old men, retired and living alone in a neighborhood gradually being overtaken by immigrants and thieves. Gran Torino is the perfect goodbye to Eastwood's incredible acting career and it may be the best performance he's given in it. The film itself isn't perfect, but Clint is. He's riding off into the sunset scowling, snarling, and spitting blood.
Best Moment: Get off my lawn!
8. Priceless (Hors de prix)
Originally released in France in 2006 Priceless only made it here to America this year and in extremely limited release at that. Subtitles probably kept it from a wider audience, but it's a magnificent throwback to the golden age of Hollywood, the good old days when Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn strode onto a black and white screen and delivered pure charm. Except this particular golden age homage is French, in color, and it stars Audrey Tautau and Gad Elmaleh. Audrey plays Irene, a stunning woman prone to wearing gravity defying dresses while mingling with high-society. One problem: she's poor. She makes her way by latching on to various rich men, putting out and getting them to put out. Enter Jean, a penniless busboy who fools her into thinking he's rich and then falls hopelessly in love. Besotted, he decides the only way to win her heart is to beat her at her own game. It's a movie filled with subtle comedy and genius romantic banter. It's a movie built on chemistry, and the film's two leads have more together than any other acting pair this year.
Best Moment: Irene and Jean get drunk in an empty bar.
9. The Wackness
The Wackness is an homage to a specific time and place, a love letter to anyone who did a stint in High School during the mid-nineties and spent endless summers going nowhere, while your friends were off to more exciting things. It stars Josh Peck, who surprised everyone by acting his ass off as Shapiro, a drug dealing nobody growing up in New York City. It's the story of a kid who is the most popular of the unpopular or the least popular of the popular, depending on how you look at it. In short Shapiro is lonely and so he befriends his somewhat unstable, pot-smoking shrink. With his help, Shapiro finds one of those fleeting, magical, teenage summer loves. The soundtrack is first rate and the film is original, insightful, and playful. You might even say it's funky fresh. The Wackness was overlooked in theaters earlier this year, make sure you grab it on DVD and give this dope flick a chance.
Best Moment: The sidewalk lights up beneath Luke's feet as he celebrates his date with Stephanie by dancing.
It's been a big year for dog movies, but this was the only truly great one. Disney Animation at last returns to form with the story of a deluded dog on a cross country journey with an unwilling alley cat and a fanboy hamster. That hamster, named Rhino, is easily one of the most entertaining characters seen on screen this year. But Bolt is more than a gimmicky movie about a talking dog who thinks he's a superhero. By the time the credits roll it's become a delicate, heart-wrenching movie about the connection between man and hound. This is a big, ambitious, epic story constructed to say something thoughtful, simple, and emotional. This is the Disney we all remember as kids, the Disney that told smart, entertaining, character driven stories with a nugget of truth at the center. In a year where their Pixar brothers are yet again getting all the credit, in my mind it's Disney that made the better film. Your puppy loves you. Give him a hug.
Best Moment: Bolt saves Penny.
Great Movies That Didn't Make The Cut: Rachel Getting Married, The Forbidden Kingdom, The Wrestler, Wanted, Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, WALL-E, Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, In Bruges, Ghost Town, The Visitor, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Valkyrie, Frost/Nixon, Smart People, Iron Man, Dear Zachary, Choke, W., City of Ember
Just In Case You Were Wondering: The Happening was the worst movie of 2008, but worth making since without it we wouldn't have Mark Wahlberg Talks To Animals.
For more of Cinema Blend's BEST OF 2008 click HERE.