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The Year in Film – 2008

What a strange year for movies. Lots of stuff came out that was completely watchable — I actually had genuine difficulty narrowing down my top 10 for the first time in years — but little that anyone would consider genius. The Dark Knight‘s legacy notwithstanding, what movie from 2008 is such a classic that it will be playing on regular rotation on TNT in 2018? Even the vaunted WALL-E failed to become a hit on the scale of most of Pixar’s previous films (The Incredibles, Cars, and Toy Story 2 all made more money). Strange days, people. Strange days.

Without further ado… a gaggle of top ten lists.

Christopher Null

1. The Wrestler – I was so skeptical about The Wrestler that I could barely bring myself around to watch it. Glad I did: It’s easily the best film of the year and proof that enfant terrible director Darren Aronofsky has a soul. After the maudlin and wildly overwrought Requiem for a Dream and the absurdly goofball The Fountain, I was ready to write Aronofsky off as an inaccessible auteur with a mild psychosis. With The Wrestler, everything has suddenly clear, with Aronofsky returning to his 16mm roots and ingeniously casting Mickey Rourke — another lost soul — in the role of a lifetime as a pro wrestler who tries, and repeatedly fails, to clean his life up. Unlike so many of 2008’s downers — perhaps the most depressing year for movies in history — there’s a glimmer of hope in The Wrestler. Even though it ends on a harsh note — our hero Randy taking a possibly suicidal leap back onto the map — we’re left confident that, even though this might be his last body slam, at least he tried.

2. Milk – Gus Van Sant has taken a lot of criticism for failing to craft much of a story around the life of Harvey Milk, and that’s a totally fair criticism: The film reads like a ‘greatest hits and saddest moments from the life of Harvey Milk.’ And yet a fierce performance from Sean Penn redeems all, as we’re transplanted to San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood during a time of incredible upheaval. I’ve lived in San Francisco for over a decade now, and only after drinking in Milk have a come to appreciate how truly important — and great, even — Harvey Milk was. I’m here to recruit you.

3. Iron Man – Better than The Dark Knight. Yeah, I said it. Can’t wait for the sequel.

4. Man on Wire

5. Encounters at the End of the World – If I could have dinner with one filmmaker, it’d probably be Werner Herzog. Herzog’s been on a tear lately, and his South Pole documentary is — as he puts it himself — decidedly not ‘another movie about penguins’ but rather a fascinating look at the mostly human denizens of Antarctica, explaining — as best anyone can — why on earth anyone would choose to live in a place like this. The haunting underwater photography is icing on this frozen cake.

6. The Promotion – Savagely underrated, this small movie was immediately forgotten after release and failed to find an audience on DVD, too. Tragic. It’s hysterical, offering a fantastically hysterical (yet low-key) John C. Reilly as a Canadian import gunning for the same supermarket manager job as Seann William Scott, who proves that he’s got incredible talent acting outside sex- and drug comedies. If you liked the savage send-up of the business world in Office Space, you’ll love The Promotion. We call it ‘cracking the cheese. Cracking it.’ (Watch the movie and you’ll understand.)

7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

8. Timecrimes – I’m a sucker for a good time travel movie, and this small Spanish number (it has only four cast members) is incredibly fun and thought-provoking. While not as brain-mangling as the similarly indie Primer, it’s a movie that’s impossible to get out of your head, an exercise in recursion that, despite its complexities, makes you want to watch it again immediately when the credits roll.

9. Frost/Nixon

10. WALL-E

Best use of the term ‘deranged penguin’: Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World
Worst way to kick-start your movie: three-minute scene displaying only a map of Cuba (Che)
Most bizarre coda: Buzz Aldrin appearing at the end of Fly Me to the Moon to gruffly assure all the children in the audience that the movie they had just seen was ‘scientifically impossible.’
Outstanding achievement in hair: Alison Pill, Milk
Underrated: Cloverfield
Good, but overrated: Slumdog Millionaire
Worst film of the year: Speed Racer

Don Willmott

1. Flight of the Red Balloon – Deep thinker Hsiao-hsien Hou reimagines the classic Red Balloon in modern-day Paris and makes it into another one of his exercises in urban dislocation and loneliness. Juliette Binoche has never been better. Watch for the long improvised takes.

2. In Bruges – Oh, the suspense of this nasty little thriller, incongruously shot in one of Europe’s loveliest cities. Colin Farrell and Brenan Gleeson dazzle, and Ralph Fiennes makes for a devilish bad guy. Pair this with Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, also starring Farrell.

3. Never Forever – The lovely Vera Farmiga deserves to be more famous. Here she’s incredible as a conflicted wife who turns to a secret illegal immigrant baby daddy when her impotent (and volatile) Korean-American husband keeps shooting blanks. Painfully intimate.

4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – As you watch this story of a young woman seeking out an abortion during Romanian dictator Ceausescu’s regime, look at the décor. It’s not just her plight that’s miserable, it’s everything else. What was wrong with Communism? Let’s start with the wallpaper.

5. The Fall – The mad creation of borderline insane director Tarsem, this epic fantasy, filmed in 28 countries over four years, hurls image after unforgettable image at you,
leaving you dazed and maybe a little bit confused. (And all without CGI.) Words don’t do it justice.

6. Mongol – As the first film in what may be a trilogy about the life of Genghis Khan, we’re off to a rip-roaring start. It has the sweep of LOTR but feels far less synthetic. And props for the hard work of Tadanobu Asano, who by my calculation is the coolest person on the planet.

7. The Visitor – Director Thomas McCarthy follows up his understated The Station Agent with another low-key four-person drama that indicts our entire post-9/11 police state in a calm yet devastating way.

8. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father – This searing, excruciating documentary about a cold-blooded murder and the numerous tragedies that follow in its wake gets 2008’s Rip Your Heart Out Award. Just typing the title makes my hands shake.

9. Iron Man

10. Up the Yangtze – A perfect documentary that reports on the sweeping changes in China by microscopically observing the lives of peasants who are being swept along or swept away by the Three Gorges Dam. Imagine: a movie about dam construction that made me cry.

Worst film of the year: Any horror flick imported from Asia and remade. For example: Shutter and The Eye. I’m so sick of this. Just watch the originals. They’re always better, and you can handle the subtitles.

Chris Barsanti

1. The Class – Laurent Cantet vaults to the top ranks of modern filmmakers with this scrupulously observed, cinema-verite take on a year in the life of a French high school class headed up by a tough-minded teacher played by co-writer François Bégaudeau (an actual teacher). Refusing to fall into the clichés of either heartwarming success stories or hopeless nightmare — the two ways in which multiethnic urban classrooms are usually depicted — Cantet just sets up a series of short-fuse explosions between the teacher and his rambunctious kids and watches the struggle for power play itself out, with fascinating results.

2. Happy-Go-Lucky – Even if Sally Hawkins doesn’t win the Oscar for her live-wire performance in the newest, and certainly happiest, film from Mike Leigh, it’s one for the books. Playing a London grade-school teacher with a ridiculously sunny outlook on life, Hawkins somehow transcends her character’s potential for self-satire and makes her into something of a real person. Watching Leigh navigate her through the rough realities of modern life is a thought-provoking lesson in learned optimism; at what point does thinking positive become simply self-delusion? And is ingrained negativity any more realistic an outlook?

3. Synecdoche, New York – Death, despair, upstate New York, a fire that never goes out, and a theater project that becomes its own civilization; this is Charlie Kaufman’s most heartfelt script since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and an astounding directorial debut. Even if the wheels come off somewhat in the final stretch, there are more ideas banging around inside this carnival of a film than other directors’ entire bodies of work.

4. Slumdog Millionaire – Last seen trying on whatever style would fit best — dystopic science fiction in Sunshine and retro junkie chic in Trainspotting — Danny Boyle finally glommed on to a story that made him use heart in addition to style. A frenetic Dickens rags-to-riches melodrama transported to the slums of India, and given a giddy kick by its game-show structure and thrumming music, Slumdog Millionaire has passion to spare.

5. Frozen River

6. Man on Wire


8. Revolutionary Road

9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Sure, Woody Allen is only hitting home runs every few years these days, but when all the elements correctly collide (as they do in this frothy and surprisingly witty comedy of manners), it’s still clear that there are too few like him working today.

10. Taxi to the Dark Side The finest and most thoughtful of the documentaries yet made on our country’s terrifying slide into pseudo-fascist barbarity since 9/11. Alex Gibney takes the case of one Afghani man caught up in a dragnet and hurled into an American prison — where he was beaten to death in short order, despite the fact that he most likely knew nothing about anything involving terrorism — and uses it to shine a light into places we’d rather not look.

Best performance in a train wreck: Brandon Walters, Australia
Breakout performance: Andrew Garfield, Boy A
Guiltiest pleasure: Step Brothers
Strangest Al Gore story: Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29
Most disappointing: Miracle at St. Anna, Quantum of Solace
Most overrated: Tropic Thunder, Burn After Reading
Most overlooked: Towelhead, Savage Grace
Worst film of the year: The Women

Sean O’Connell

1. WALL-E – WALL-E continues Pixar Animation Studio’s initial promise to transport audiences to infinity and beyond. An example of visionary filmmaking, it seamlessly melds wondrous science fiction, big-screen romance, and adolescent heart. The only film released this year that can honestly be called a masterpiece.

2. Man on Wire< /a> – James Marsh’s stunning documentary recounts how, in 1974, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit strung a thin wire between the World Trade Center towers and crisscrossed eight times. Hands down, the greatest story I heard at the movies this year.

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – David Fincher’s sweeping, romantic epic is old-fashioned storytelling, painted on an enormous canvas but rooted in the very intimate relationship forged between Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — both at the top of their games.

4. Rachel Getting Married – If Button is a lush symphony, then Rachel is improvisational jazz. Jonathan Demme blesses his confident ensemble with plenty of freedom to find their proper groove, Jenny Lumet delivers an emotionally honest script, and Anne Hathaway gives the performance of her career.

5. Frost/Nixon – Frank Langella captivates as dethroned President Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s expertly calibrated adaptation of Peter Morgan’s Tony-nominated stage drama.

6. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

7. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

8. Son of Rambow – Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow is an exceptional coming-of-age comedy that impressed me with the way it accurately captures how imaginative boys behave.

9. Tropic Thunder – Ben Stiller’s comedy about self-absorbed actors who encounter resistance while making a war picture knocked me for a loop with its bogus movie trailers, Jack Black’s crippling heroin addiction, Tom Cruise’s bile-spewing turn as a Hollywood studio head, and Robert Downey’s fearless portrayal in modern black face.

10. Let the Right One In

Three movies that very easily could have made the No. 10 slot: The Wrestler, The Dark Knight, and Synecdoche, New York.
The Have a Heart? award: Ralph Fiennes, who excelled this year as a black-hearted killer (In Bruges), a black-hearted husband (The Duchess), and a cold-hearted lawyer with a checkered past (The Reader).
The Hail to the Chiefs award: Josh Brolin (W.) and Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), who won over red- and blue-state audience members with their convincing portrayals of former and current heads of state.
The Four Flat Tires award: (tie) Speed Racer and Death Race
Best summer movie released in the winter: Cloverfield
Best winter movie released in the summer: The Dark Knight
Worst film of the year: The Love Guru

Bill Gibron

1. Revolutionary Road – It’s not getting all the buzz. Industry insiders have written it off as one of 2008’s ‘disappointments.’ Even those in love with Richard Yates’ novel lament the choices made by director Sam Mendes. But for my money, this was the year’s most electrifying drama. Whenever Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet turned up the marital angst, the volume of bile left you breathless. Add in an amazing, in your face turn by Michael Shannon as insane neighbor/Greek Chorus, and you have the seminal suburban meltdown. It’s even better than Mendes’ Oscar winning American Beauty, and that’s saying a lot.

2. Let the Right One In While tween nation is wetting themselves over the horrid adaptation of the tepid Harlequin horror romance Twilight, the vampire genre was literally saved by Swedish auteur Tomas Alfredson. This is the real deal, an actual fright film that uses ideas and invention instead of pop culture puffery and a presold audience of aging adolescents and spinsters to sell its shivers. For alienated teen Oskar, life in a Scandinavian apartment complex is dull and lifeless. When new resident Eli moves in, he slowly starts to warm to her ethereal presence. Beautifully crafted and rife with atmosphere, the resulting dread seeps down right into your bones.

3. Slumdog Millionaire

4. The Wrestler

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

6. Milk

7. The Dark Knight – It arrived with so much hype and pre-release publicity (most of it centering on the untimely death of actor Heath Ledger) that it almost drowned in the pulsating din. But leave it to Christopher Nolan to exceed everyone’s wildest expectations to create the greatest serious comic book movie ever. By taking the material and turning it into GoodFellas with superheroes, the man responsible for the entire Batman reboot delivered one of summer 2008’s definitive entertainments. Even better, Ledger’s turn as the Joker was everything as advertised — deranged, brutal, and slightly sad. Together with Nolan’s direction, it took the entire genre up a necessary notch.


9. Speed Racer – Geeks didn’t get it. Fans of the original series hated it. Mainstream crowds avoided its non-Matrix make-up. But for pure eye-popping cinematic splendor, few could argue with the Wachowskis’ live action cartoon take on the ’60s Japanese anime. The characters are comic book wholesomeness personified, while the brothers brought a pinball machine-like sensibility to the mostly CG car races. Heck, these vehicles even battle videogame style. Maybe sometime in the future audiences will come to appreciate this unique effort. Until then, those of us in the know can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

10. Zack and Miri Make a Porno If there was ever a ‘perfect’ Kevin Smith project, it would be this amalgamation of Chasing Amy, any number of his Clerks classics, and your standard motion picture marital aide. Though sex is indeed part of the storyline, Silent Bob has actually delivered one of his freshest, least scatological scripts. The relationship between Seth Rogen’s Zack and Elizabeth Banks’ Miri is sweet, honest, and loaded with truth, while the supporting players provide enough laughs and lewdness to keep the XXX demo interested, at least for a while. Make no mistake about it: This is a film more interested in heart than hardcore.

Much ado about nothing: The Reader, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Strangers
Guiltiest pleasure: Death Race
Worst film of the year: Funny Games

Norm Schrager

1. Waltz with Bashir How do you track down a memory? That’s the difficult question posed in Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s brisk animated feature, an investigation into one man’s recollections of war. Twenty years after military service in Lebanon, an Israeli is haunted by a snippet in his subconscious and spends the film trying to figure it out. Folman’s direction is near-perfect, the pacing superb, the mood befitting a film about moments best forgotten. Folman reminds us that searching for a lost memory can be painful, but finding it may be worse.

2. Be Kind Rewind Michel Gondry puts away the brain games of his previous films (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) to muse sweetly about simple things like friendship and community. Two buddies (Jack Black, the understated Mos Def) devise ingenious ways to keep their local video store alive, and invigorate the neighborhood in the process. Like American films of a bygone era, Be Kind Rewind has a wistful warm that just makes you smile. The ending is one of the most elegant — and hopeful — of the year.

3. Blindsight What looks like a clichéd inspirational story — poor blind Tibetan children try to climb Mt. Everest – avoids saccharine paths and actually exposes the project’s warts. Filmmaker Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground) introduces the kids and tells their stories with great efficiency and wonderful care. This is everything a documentary should be.

4. Timecrimes

5. Man on Wire

6. The Wrestler


8. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* – More than just ‘the steroid documentary,’ this surprisingly lively film by Chris Bell considers the entire state of the American competitive psyche, from the demand for physical strength to the desire for fame. Bell’s story has a prophetic coda since the December death of his wrestler brother Mike. Would make a perfect double feature with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

9. New Year Parade – I’ve been talking about this Slamdance winner all year — unfortunately, the film never found distribution. Director Tom Quinn puts a subtle twist on the divorce story, making the affected children older than your typical movie adolescents. The dialogue and editing feel urgent and authentic, enhanced by Philadelphia’s real-life Mummers Parade acting as narrative bookend.

10. Synecdoche, New York

Also worthy: A Christmas Tale, The Visitor, Religulous, Encounters at the End of the World, Slumdog Millionaire, Nights and Weekends
Nice surprises: Definitely, Maybe; Sex and the City
Oddest cameos: The Visitor director Tom McCarthy in Baby Mama, sports talk host Scott Ferrall in Redbelt
Most bizarre treat: Big Man Japan
Worst film of the year: 21

BONUS: 12 Top Tens — “clip ‘n’ save”

Christopher Null
1. The Wrestler
2. Milk
3. Iron Man
4. Man on Wire
5. Encounters at the End of the World
6. The Promotion
7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
8. Timecrimes
9. Frost/Nixon
10. WALL-E

Don Willmott
1. Flight of the Red Balloon
2. In Bruges
3. Never Forever
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
5. The Fall
6. Mongol
7. The Visitor
8. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
9. Iron Man
10. Up the Yangtze

Chris Barsanti
1. The Class
2. Happy-Go-Lucky
3. Synecdoche, New York
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Frozen River
6. Man on Wire
8. Revolutionary Road
9. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
10. Taxi to the Dark Side

Sean O’Connell
2. Man on Wire
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
4. Rachel Getting Married
5. Frost/Nixon
6. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
7. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
8. Son of Rambow
9. Tropic Thunder
10. Let the Right One In
Bill Gibron
1. Revolutionary Road
2. Let the Right One In
3. Slumdog Millionaire
4. The Wrestler
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
6. Milk
7. The Dark Knight
9. Speed Racer
10. Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Norm Schrager
1. Waltz with Bashir
2. Be Kind Rewind
3. Blindsight
4. Timecrimes
5. Man on Wire
6. The Wrestler
8. Bigger, Stronger, Faster*
9. New Year Parade
10. Synecdoche, New York

Paul Brenner
1. Frost/Nixon
2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
3. Wendy and Lucy
4. A Christmas Tale
5. Pray the Devil Back to Hell
6. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
7. Frozen River
8. Sukiyaki Western Django
9. Let the Right On In
10. Revolutionary Road

Chris Cabin
1. Che
2. Waltz with Bashir
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
4. Paranoid Park
5. A Christmas Tale
6. Flight of the Red Balloon
7. The Wrestler
8. My Winnipeg
9. Still Life
10. Let the Right One In
Brian Chen
1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. Let the Right One In
3. Never Forever
4. The Dark Knight
5. Milk
6. Home Song Stories
7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
8. Bigger, Stronger, Faster
10. Iron Man

Jesse Hassenger
1. Snow Angels
2. The Dark Knight
4. In Bruges
5. Synecdoche, New York
6. The Wrestler
7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
8. W.
9. Be Kind Rewind
10. Slumdog Millionaire

Jay Antani
1. Milk
2. The Wrestler
3. In Bruges
4. Transsiberian
5. Shot in Bombay
6. The Dark Knight
7. The Matador
8. Let the Right One In
9. Gomorrah
10. Late Fragment

Blake French
1. The Wrestler
2. Frost/Nixon
3. Slumdog Millionaire
4. Doubt
5. Taken
6. Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer
7. Hunger
8. Bigger, Stronger, Faster*
9. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
10. Milk
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