Monday, January 19, 2009

The Best Films Of 2008

For the first time since maybe 1999, I didn't publish a top-10 films of the year piece in any publication. Why? Well, for some reason, a lot of the major contenders for Oscars and other awards got released here really late.

What would be the point of me writing a best-of piece for the Jan. 23 newspaper? It's too passe by then. So I went with the great Roger Moore's top-film story in the Register a couple weeks back, and resigned myself to spending plenty of recent weekend days at Criterion downtown.

Over the past three weekends, some friends and I have seen a ton of movies. A ton. And I've finally, I think, figured out my favorite films of 2008.

Now, I'm doing this in from a critical perspective. I enjoyed "Iron Man" way more than "The Dark Knight," but I understand the Batman flick is the better movie. I loved "Role Models" a ton, but I know it's not one of the best films of last year.

As usual, some movies featured great, great performances, but didn't quite make it as a film ("Frozen River"). While other buzzed-about flicks seemed rather silly to me. For example, I don't know how any critic in their right mind could give "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" a better than mediocre review. It's the definition of "all style, no substance," or "good idea, horrible execution." But, hey, it sure did look good.

And I'll go on record as saying any movie that needs to be watched four times to even be somewhat understood — I am talking to you "Synedoche, New York" — is just not a good piece of filmmaking, no matter how much Roger Ebert wants to snuggle and caress it.

With all that said, let's get to my list, which actually wasn't that hard this year. Well, it was really only easy picking the 10 films; ranking them was another story. But tough things need to be done all the time. Here we go:


Sean Penn clearly deserves the best actor trophy for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in this stirring drama. That is one thing I'm sure of. Oh, yeah, I love Mickey Rourke and we'll get to him soon, but Penn is just amazing. Gus Van Sant's film plays a little too much like a standard biopic to be ranked higher than this, but in a year of many not-great films, just the stellar acting from Penn and others gets it on this list.

Before I even get into what was so great about this movie, I do have to mention how tired I am of hearing people say this was the best movie of last year or, heck, one of the greatest films ever. I even heard someone compare it to "The Godfather." Um, no. Christian Bale, a normally good actor, is laughable as The Caped Crusader, Maggie Gyllenhaal is simply awful and not believable as a hot woman and the film rattles on about 30 minutes too long. With all that said, for a comic-book film to have so much gravitas and realism, well, it's a notable accomplishment. And Heath Ledger really is very good as The Joker, just not Philip Seymour Hoffman-like good.

I know a lot of people will argue that this Danny Boyle film should be higher, and I can somewhat understand why, but I just can't get past the fact that I believe most are just loving this because it's different. And it is different. And it is very good. But great? I'm not so sure. The narrative convention works well, but it's just a standard device in film and literature. The acting is good, but hardly memorable. Mostly, this is just an underdog story filmed in a fascinating place that incorporates minimal Bollywood characteristics. Yet, the film really shines and is a eclectic and dizzying ride at times.


This is a film that's destined to get lost in the shuffle of bigger movies by bigger directors with bigger stars, but "The Visitor" is one of those truly compelling, thought-provoking dramas that come to screens each year. Richard Jenkins deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here. This is a really interesting take on post-9/11 politics.

I know some people consider "The Wrestler" too much like "Rocky," but let's not forget that "Rocky" won a best picture trophy. This is an underdog story at its core, but it's affecting like far few of these kinds of movies are. And, yes, Mickey Rourke is startlingly good in the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a broken-down professional wrestler looking for one last shot at the big time. Even director Darren Aronofsky does a great job filming the wrestling scenes and the touching, intimate moments, something I would have not expected. Credit must also be given to Bruce Springsteen, whose original song is one of the best tunes I've heard for a movie in years.


Whatever "Doubt" loses in its transition from stage to screen, it makes up for in the great performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. As someone who really enjoyed the stage version of the play, I think this is a totally different experience, even though it's very, very similar in script. Just the way sermons are delivered and metaphors explained change this enough. But I really enjoyed this movie. Although it's not anything that should ever win a best picture trophy, it's just a quality four-and-a-half star drama.

Bring on the barbs and insults, but "Tropic Thunder" is a pitch-perfect satire of Hollywood that is filled with great, great performances from Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte and, of course, Tom Cruise. I have to admit, I laughed so hard during this movie that it really hurt. And I totally must have annoyed the five or six friends I was with. I just couldn't stop. But this is not just a straight comedy; it's actually really smart. Seriously. I'm laughing right now thinking about it. I truly hope Downey Jr. lands a supporting actor nod for this. I doubt it will happen, but it should.


I have to admit, "WALL-E" is the only Pixar movie I've ever seen. But the sheer majesty of "WALL-E," especially the gorgeous first 40 minutes or so, makes me want to see more. I might get to a couple this weekend. We'll see. For a mostly silent movie, this one says a lot. And it just looks so perfect. I never thought an animated movie could be so adult, but this one is. Bring on the Pixar.


I really struggled with numbers one and two. I enjoyed "The Reader" more than my pick for the top spot, but I think the top one says more. I went into this Kate Winslet drama not expecting too much because the director, Stephen Daldry, always disappoints me with odd directorial decisions that seem to scream, "Look at me, not at my movie. I'm a director!" That doesn't happen here. The narrative is told in an interesting way that keeps things moving along and not dragging, all the acting is superb and the ending works perfectly.

OK, so I love "Ordinary People," "American Beauty" and "The Squid And The Whale" and other dysfunctional family takes, so maybe that explains this choice. But I just found this drama so affecting and effective. It's beautifully filmed, the mood is perfect and, of course, Kate Winslet is simply dazzling. I don't want to give away too much, but, seriously, see this. You won't ever want to see it a second time, but that's OK. Once is enough.


Anonymous said...

Good list.
Maybe a great list.
Maybe because it fairly closely parallels mine.
Except for "The Reader."
You know my thoughts on that.
And, for the record, I would've respected you in the morning if you had put "Role Models" on here.
I loved it dearly.
So what if it's silly and stupid?
Isn't life, sometimes?

P.S. -
Thanks for adding that little epilogue to your #1 choice. I too thought RR was a very fine film indeed. But wild horses couldn't drag me to it a second time.

sj said...

although i'm afraid admitting it will lead me to be shunned by you and your bloggy friends, i haven't seen many of these (yet).

i do want to see revolutionary road. and i agree that wall-e was one of the best of the year, and that iron man was more enjoyable than the dark knight, although i can see why the dark knight was considered "a better movie."

and i did totally laugh so hard my abs hurt at tropic thunder. i considered it a workout.

but, maybe you guys shouldn't listen to me anyway. after all - i loved mamma mia. and still laugh when i watch it on my oft-watched dvd copy and pierce brosnan starts to sing.

Anonymous said...

Don't sell yourself short, SJ.
I too laugh when Pierce sings.
Rest assured, I am laughing AT him, not with him.

Pat Ferrucci said...

i'll be honest, i enjoyed the stage version of 'mamma mia!' when i had to review it back in like 2002. i can't bring myself to watch the movie, but i'm not sure how it would translate. maybe it does. i don't know.

anyway, my favorite movie of the year, 'revolutionary war,' pretty much got the shaft in terms of oscar nominations, but at least robert downey jr. got something.

now, i just hope 'the reader' topples 'slumdog.' i really liked 'slumdog,' i just don't think it should win a best-picture oscar.


Anonymous said...

Hey, now I can disagree twice.

If the Oscar is good for anything, it's getting folks in the seats of the nominated films. That's why - if for no other reason - I'd like folks to see "Slumdog."

However, I am sorely disappointed that the voters chose to overlook WALL*E in the Best Picture, relegating it to Best Animated Film instead. It runs...or should I say rolls?...rings around Benjamin Button. I mean..come ON...thirteen nominations??

Anyway, in closing...

- I too saw Mamma Mia on stage in NYC at the start of its run. It was kitschy, but enjoyable. I saw Mamma Mia on the big screen. It was overly campy, poorly shot and utterly devoid of any creativity or joy. Blah.. And...oh yeah...James Bond sings. Badly.

- Revolutionary Road, friend.
Revolutionary War was enjoyable up until the part where Kathy Bates tries to sell the Redcoats a split-level ranch in Darien.

Pat Ferrucci said...

Freudian slip or something. It certainly felt like I was watching a war.