January 7, 2009 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | January 7, 2009 |


I don’t know that we’d say that 2008 was an amazing year for films — there were 8 or 9 really good films, and a couple of great ones (if you’re counting at home, that put Milk at number 11, with apologies). What was sort of nice and unusual in 2008 is that not all of the best films came out during the last two months of the year — our top ten list includes three movies that came out in the Summer and even two that were Spring releases. We’ll say this much — ranking numbers 3 - 10 was a difficult task, as they each fit similarly into the “really good” category, but I honestly don’t think there was any question as to what the number one film would be. The Golden Globes may have largely ignored it, and The Oscars may very well do the same in the Best Picture category, but there wasn’t a chance we were about to disqualify it (or the number four film) simply because they were summer blockbusters.

Without further delay, here are your top 10 films of 2008.

doubtrev.jpg10. Doubt: Doubt is so predictably good — Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, top-level cast, accomplished writer-director, etc. — that it’s easy to overlook the nuances and grace notes in the execution that make it truly great. One of the best measures of a film’s quality is how closely it adheres to the maxim that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it, and in that regard the film is a fantastic success, a probing, tightly woven, powerfully acted examination of the cost of faith. There’s a deep honesty to the story, a kind of unflinching and completely believable way the film unfolds and the relationships become wrapped around each other that moves it beyond the area of just some abstract or academic treatise on suspicion and doubt and turns it into a living, breathing, dangerous thing. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who adapted his own play, Doubt is a fantastically rendered version of the stage story, revolving around the same basic beats and scenes but still accomplished as a film. It’s so accomplished, and full of such casually powerful moments, that it would be easy to write it off as “as good as expected,” but to do that would be to rob the film of the respect and thought it genuinely deserves. — Daniel Carlson


the-wrestler-01.jpg9. The Wrestler: The Wrestler lives and dies by the performance of Mickey Rourke, and it is something to behold. Robert D. Siegel’s script at times feels like an allegory for Rourke’s own less-than-glorious career. Randy is a hideous mess of a man, a sagging giant with peroxide-bleached Vince Neil hair and a turkey-basted tan. Mickey’s plastic-surgery ravaged pout, craggy face, and world-weary body add a depth to the character that no cinema star’s makeup-laden smile could have ever captured. The Wrestler is a blisteringly uncomfortable film to watch, because it’s the story of a man who doesn’t know how to be anything else. Rumor had it that Nicolas Cage was attached to be Randy the Ram, but this is Mickey Rourke’s film, both figuratively and spiritually. Rourke is a fallen star, a man who mauled himself in the name of drugs and craft, who keeps lumbering through projects like a lost bear. When Randy the Ram dons the tights to recapture glory, you feel a little like Mickey Rourke’s getting his last moment to shine as well. — Brian Prisco

frostnixon.jpg8. Frost/Nixon: Frost/Nixon is the best film Ron Howard’s ever made, as well as a telling reflection of his skill as a director and the path he’s taking. Written by Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play, Frost/Nixon is an intelligent, brisk, engaging, wonderfully acted film that benefits as much from Howard’s skill with set-ups and pacing as it does his complete inability to take something and make it his own. It’s a good film precisely because of what Howard doesn’t bring to it, or rather, what was already there before he arrived. It’s the kind of deft, interesting, skillfully told tale that could only be directed by a man this invisible. Howard is able to both peel back the artifice inherent in his film and also amp it up to the point where it feels like a solid re-creation of fact. It’s another in a long list of seeming dichotomies that mesh beautifully, turning a historical drama into an honest meditation on the price of power, the cost of fame, and the perils of an imperial presidency run rampant. Though based on fact and using real people, the film never comes across as satirical or abusive, and even though a “number of the events have been fictionalized,” the story is, on an emotional level, undeniably true. — Daniel Carlson

walle4.jpg7. Wall-E: As if Pixar didn’t have enough to be proud of already, their latest CG-animated film, WALL-E, is their greatest achievement yet in terms of pure storytelling. It has all the things that are now expected to come with the Pixar brand — likeable characters, engaging stories, and an unshakeable feeling of warmth and hope — but it’s also phenomenal in the way inanimate objects are imbued with personality, physicality, and genuine souls. The animation firm first started to break ground with a short about a Luxo lamp come to life, and that same sense of breathing life into everyday objects, or at least objects that shouldn’t be able to move, gives WALL-E a refreshing and almost pioneering feeling, as if the animators dared themselves to see just how much they could convey onscreen without dialogue. And as is often the case with a Pixar movie, the filmmakers have surpassed their goal, creating a film full of humor and character that can be enjoyed by children but whose emotional complexities and heartbreak will only truly resonate with adults in the audience. — Daniel Carlson

richard_jenkins9.jpg6. The Visitor: It would be easy to say that writer-director Tom McCarthy makes films about lonely people, or that that’s all he does. It’s not entirely inaccurate — the quartet at the center of his latest film, The Visitor, are strangers whose disparate lives intertwine much like the trio that anchored his previous film, The Station Agent — but it’s also dangerously reductive. What made The Station Agent so good was its honest look at the complicated ways people connect with each other, and how someone can stumble into your life one day and become an irreplaceable part of it inside a week. McCarthy has preserved that sense of honest discovery in The Visitor, an engaging, expertly drawn, and moving examination of one man’s empty life and the way he comes to fill it again. The character at the center of the film is lonely, yes, and even bears some surface similarities to Fin, the hero of The Station Agent. But more than the loneliness, McCarthy’s focus is on its cause, its damages, and its cure. He doesn’t just make films about lonely people; he makes films about those people finding the hope they thought had been lost. The film is a beautiful and soaring confirmation of everything that’s best about people and the ways they come together in times of trouble and trial, and McCarthy’s storytelling never falters. He has done something very hard: He has created indelible characters, names and faces and hearts whose melody lingers long after the music has faded away. — Daniel Carlson

marie_josee_croze2.jpg5. Tell No One: Tell No One presents a dazzling example of embracing genre conventions while also elevating them. Clearly influenced by films such as Caché and The Fugitive, Tell No One elects not to strain to find detours around genre tropes, instead choosing simply to de-emphasize them while respecting the viewer with plausible but unobtrusive stepping stones to propel the story. Tell No One leads us on a wild chase through a careening plot, hitting the suspense formula marks only in service to the downhill thrills between the turns, occasionally dotting the proceedings with small but resonant bits of action. It also works well as an ensemble piece in the spirit of Lantana, with a uniformly excellent cast where each character holds an important piece of the narrative puzzle, their conversations flowing in a natural way while maintaining the shifting intrigue of each character’s involvement in the unfolding story. Indeed, Tell No One is a beautiful example of filmmaking craftsmanship, incredibly entertaining, deeply moving, and well worth a trip to the cinema. — Ted Boynton

iron-man-downey-jr.jpg4. Iron Man: Iron Man is the reales Abkommen, the real goddamn deal. Better than a film for cool kids, it’s a film that makes you feel cool for loving it. It is cinematic engorgia, a movie that will leave you gleefully priapistic. Or, for those of you who prefer unpretentious terminology: It will make your funny parts hard. Iron Man is the perfect storm of badassary, debilitating wit, tester-octane explosives, and tongue-in-cheek gnarliness. And Robert Downey, Jr. is in the eye of it, motherfuckers. It never really feels like a comic-book film — sure, it follows the genre template, closely tracking the comic-book movie story arc, but it tosses aside the alter egos, the kryptonite, the typical you-killed-my-parents revenge fantasy, and the heavy-handed moralizing that seems to take up so much space in comic-book panels. Moreover, for all its implausibility, Iron Man feels grounded in a form of reality; the action is low key, without being underwhelming; and at no point does it feel like Iron Man is being weighed down by obligations to the fanboys. In other words, Iron Man is not just a great comic-book movie, it’s a great goddamn film. — Dustin Rowles

alg_rachel.jpg3. Rachel Getting Married: In Rachel Getting Married, featuring the performance of Anne Hathaway’s career, Jonathan Demme took the same approach to the dysfunctional family film that Noah Baumbach has been taking for the last few years, with one great exception that makes Rachel the superior film: Demme’s characters, for all their insufferable neuroses, are ultimately likable, sympathetic, and heartbreaking. What appears, initially, as just another film about a broken family marred by tragedy flowers into something real and cathartic and painfully exuberant. Though the wedding at the center of the story nears some sort of multicultural, hippy-liberal fantasy, Demme perfectly captures the swirl of emotions that accompany weddings: The emotional highs of matrimony and the bittersweet pain of reunions, as well as the authenticity of the long, soporific speeches. It’s a tearjerker that doesn’t jerk the tears out of you — to your surprise, they just quietly seep out before you realize it. Watching Rachel Getting Married hurts, but in a way that makes you want to hang on to the sadness, to let it linger, because way down beneath the hurt is something like joy. — Dustin Rowles

slumdog.jpg2. Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is the latest example of why the director is so good at making movies in different genres: It’s got the connective thread of emotional honesty, fidelity of character, and devotion to the story’s specific universe that links it with everything from Boyle’s drama Shallow Grave to the horror of 28 Days Later to the children’s film Millions. Boyle can jump from one style to another because he always brings a level of truth to his films, and that’s one of the many things that makes Slumdog Millionaire such a joy to watch. The film is beautiful, sad, sweet, uplifting, and thoroughly entertaining, but above all it’s honest, a paean to life and love that stands firmly rooted in reality even as it reaches for the heavens. The story bounces around in time and often rapidly shifts location or mood, flirting with everything from comedy to drama to a blend of fantasy and reality that’s completely engaging and works on every level. Boyle has made a true coming-of-age film that balances technical skill with emotional heft, and that marries heartbreak with hope. It speaks of joy and sacrifice, of redemption and atonement, and the sense of destiny attendant with the unstoppable perseverance of selfless love. Perhaps the ultimate testament to Boyle’s skill at crafting a story that’s engaging on every level and an actual pleasure to watch is the inability to say more than that: It’s almost impossible to sum the film up or even get close without either completely blowing the plot or wandering into dangerous abstraction, into wonderings about fate and love and the feeling of being infinitely strong and young. What else can I say? It is written. — Daniel Carlson

darkknight3.jpg1. The Dark Knight: The Dark Knight is a harrowing, frightening, uncompromising, flat-out great superhero movie, wonderful in sad ways, hitting the perfect mix of characterization and humor, bouncing between phenomenal action set pieces and the brutally human moments that place the film in a recognizable world even as it soars into comic book fantasy. Put simply, Christopher Nolan just gets it. He’s a believer, and he’ll make one out of you, too. By crafting another superb movie that’s as believable as it is entertaining, he elevates the entire film and achieves that most unattainable of goals: A believable superhero movie. Even the nameless citizens aren’t caricatures but actual characters, and that makes their pain that much sharper and their decisions to do right that much truer. The Dark Knightis all about what it means to fight a losing battle knowing the outcome in advance, and why. For Bruce Wayne and Christopher Nolan, the answer’s simple: Because you believe in it. — Daniel Carlson

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Guides | January 7, 2009 | Comments ()




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