As I did with my albums of the year list, I have to begin this list lamenting the fact that the 2008 year in film was not as good as the 2007 year in film. It was a down year for art in general, as pretty much any critic you read will tell you. Part of the reason for the negativity is the fact that the usual year-end glut of awards-baiting prestige films were largely disappointing, often ranging from merely solid to outright bad. And since that's the steady diet critics (and myself) are fed around the time they write year-end lists (albeit theirs come out at the actual end of the year, whereas mine waits until February, but I have to pay to see my movies), so it's not surprising that the same enthusiasm wasn't there, especially when the year before featured instant classics like No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, and There Will Be Blood.
Instead, the greatness in 2008 came not from the types of movies Hollywood likes to get dressed up for to dole out awards, but from the films fans line up for to buy overpriced concessions to see on opening day, or movies released early in the year when people weren't paying attention. So this list is still filled with movies I enjoyed quite a bit, and recommend to everyone. As of this writing, I've seen 63 films released in North America in 2008, which includes some foreign language films that were released in their native countries in previous years, but doesn't include some TIFF films I saw that haven't yet been released (some of which would definitely contend for this list and will probably pop up next year… unless it is phenomenal). Of those 63, these were the best…
Honourable Mentions: Man on Wire; Bolt; Synecdoche, New York; I've Loved You So Long; Milk
10. In Bruges – When I first saw trailers for this film, I liked everything about it except the prominence of Colin Farrell. That and the fact that it was released early in the year when I was focused on last year's Oscar contenders, then burned out from going to the movies so often, is probably the reason why I just got around to watching this a week ago. If either of these things have kept you from seeing this funny, twisty, clever, action flick with surprisingly effective dramatic overtones, it's time to give it a shot. Especially the Farrell thing, because he's fantastic in this. I have a feeling that I'll be watching this one several more times, as its originality, sense of fun, and pathos make it the kind of film that could become a personal favourite.
9. Let the Right One In – As original as In Bruges is, it's downright conventional when compared to the next entry on the list, a dramatic horror out of Sweden that shows that you can do a sweet story of young love and vampires and not have it be completely lame. Thirteen-year-old Oskar's lonely life usually consists of avoiding school bullies and hanging out on the world's saddest playground, until he meets his new neighbour, an unusual girl named Eli. They quickly become friends, then run through the clumsy motions of young courtship until Oskar starts noticing that people are dying due to strange neck bites, and his pale new girlfriend is never around in the day. It's just about the sweetest, weirdest, most disturbing little movie you could think of, and perhaps the most daring movie of the year. It's about time somebody restore some dignity to cinematic vampires.
8. Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Along with the blah output amongst many of the Oscar hopefuls, another reason that 2008 was disappointing was the comedic output of the year. Despite my affection for this amiable film (I've now seen it twice, and enjoyed it as much the second time around as the first), it's still a flawed movie, so the fact that it's not only the best funny movie released this year, but that no other movie even comes close, is a bit disappointing.
7. The Visitor – The first great film of the year, The Visitor was released all the way back in April, which isn't exactly the time for thoughtful character studies (to give you an idea, I probably saw the next movie on this list the week after I saw The Visitor, in a theatre where me and my companions were over half of the audience). Somehow, the Academy managed to remember it long enough (or more likely, discovered it later in the year from the comfort of their own homes) to nominate consummate professional Richard Jenkins for a best-acting award (that he has no chance of winning). That was probably the most pleasant surprise from this year's nominations, which otherwise gave me plenty to complain about.
6. Iron Man – For a glorious 2.5 months, Iron Man was on top of the world: it kicked off the blockbuster season with authority, causing quality-starved comic book fans to go wild and start asking if it was the best comic book movie ever. Which was a little overzealous, but it is a fantastic piece of entertainment, so it was easy to understand the enthusiasm, especially in comparison to the past few years of superhero movies. Then another one came out in mid-July, and people were all "Iron Man who"?
5. The Wrestler – Mickey Rourke gives the lead performance of the year in a movie that feels so accurate to its subject matter, that I almost felt like watching professional wrestling again. Then I remembered that pro wrestling isn't as thoughtful as Darren Aronofsky's film and I thought better of it. Plus, the wrestling stuff is just window dressing for a quiet drama about a broken man trying to redeem himself for all the crappy things he did while trying to get to the top, even if that man might not have it in him to properly make amends. I saw this again recently to make sure I didn't overrate it from my early morning TIFF screening with a probably-still-drunk Aronofsky introducing it, and I'm pleased to say that it does. Go see it if you like gritty character studies, and don't worry if you don't like wrestling.
4. Rachel Getting Married – I hadn't really thought about it until now, but there's parallels between this film and the one ahead of it. Both are low-fi character studies with heavily flawed protagonists seeking small measures of redemption, but keep fucking it up due to the flaws that made them so fucked up in the first place. The Wrestler was easily the more viscerally appealing of the two, but Rachel Getting Married was the better of the two. Jonathan Demme's film had the most depth of any film in 2008, accomplishing the rare feat of being a movie about family dysfunction that still imbued a deep, true sense of family, rather than a collection of damaged characters. It's as warm as it is tortured, making for the best/worst wedding you'd ever want to attend.
3. Slumdog Millionaire – I feel an extra pull to Slumdog Millionaire, having been one the first people to see it when Danny Boyle presented it at TIFF, just a week after it debuted at Telluride. It was the highlight of the festival for me, where I helped contribute to its People's Choice Award. There's been a bit of a backlash against the film, as is always the case with anything popular, largely by people who want it to be something it's not. Slumdog Millionaire is a modern-day fable, grounded in realism, but not married to it. It's not a perfect film, but rather one that eschews the crushing cynicism usually found in North American fare, and it's that sense of optimism in the face of despair that audiences have responded to. Boyle accomplishes this with the visual flair and sensualism that he's become renowned for, which allows him to indulge in optimism without devolving into schmaltz. The result is an energetic rush of a film that reinforced why I love going to movies.
2. WALL-E – At this point, my slavish devotion to (almost) all things Pixar has long passed bias and moved on to full-on cheerleader mode. And as long as they keep pushing boundaries and coming up with masterpieces like WALL-E, I'm okay with that. I love that they've decided that the fact that they're going to pull in big family audiences no matter what allows them not to lazily produce derivative schlock, but instead allows them to take chances that other blockbusters (live action or animated) from other studios won't. It's not common to see artistry thrive in such big budget situations, so I choose to enthusiastically celebrate when it does.
1. The Dark Knight – Was there really any doubt? I've been salivating over this movie since it came out, declaring it the Top Comic Book Movie of All-Time. Again, as with anything this immensely popular, there has been a bit of backlash against this film of late; although interestingly, the backlash seems to be directed more at the fans of this movie than the film itself. People are tiring of the fanboys devotion to this film, and can't fucking understand why every Oscar discussion is derailed with talk about TDK's exclusion. Well, boo hoo. How dare people question why one of the best blockbuster films ever was excluded in favour of third-rate (and somewhat insulting) Nazi films and warmed over biopics that will be all but forgotten once the ceremony is aired?!? I'm not saying The Dark Knight is the greatest movie ever, but in a year that was seriously lacking in greatness, it certainly ranked as something worthy of praise.
(Note: I'm also not saying that The Dark Knight isn't the greatest movie ever. I'll leave it up for you decide how I feel).