Maybe it was fallout from the writer’s strike. Maybe it’s just the natural ebb and flow of things. Whatever the reason, this was a terribly weak year for movies, especially coming off the bountiful output of 2007. However, the films that did rise above all had such fierce quality that picking between them proved an even more challenging task than choosing the best of 2007. Therefore, I decided to make choose 15 because I just got sick and tired of swapping things around. As with all lists, the rankings themselves are fairly inconsequential, but these make up all but about 5 of the films you simply have to see from this year.
1. Synecdoche, New York
From as objective standpoint as a person can stand, “Synecdoche” was probably the best film of the year. However, even by the standards of off-kilter genius Charlie Kaufman, it’s hopelessly dense. But with this film he peels back the basic futility of the stage and screen, as the pet project of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden requires more and more actors and set design as he tries harder to make a play about life itself. It’s gotten a mixed reaction, but I think in the future this will be seen as the companion piece to Fellini’s “8 ½.”
2. The Dark Knight
Almost assuredly the pop culture event of the decade, “The Dark Knight” is a leap forward not just for the comic book film but the blockbuster itself, infusing it with an intelligence that’s rarely seen in any genre. The performances across the board are fantastic, but of course the star of the show is Heath Ledger’s Joker, a whirling dervish of meticulously organized chaos. For the first time, he appeared in a film that was truly worthy of him, and it elevated an already good film into the stratosphere. Apart from a few plot holes, this is one of the tightest action movies ever made.
3. Rachel Getting Married
One of the best wedding movies ever made, precisely because it recognizes that it only takes one loony to ruin a party. Jenny Lumet’s merciless script doesn’t bother with making its characters likable, which makes it all the more surprising when we finally empathize and identify with them at the end. The wedding itself is a beautiful affair, even if it’s ultimately a brazenly narcissistic attempt to cover up old demons, demons young Kim clumsily exposes. Expect Oscar nominations and (hopefully) wins for Hathaway, DeWitt and Lumet.
4. The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke gives the performance of his career (and, perhaps, of the decade) as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed up, addled hulk of a man who must finally face the life he’s made for himself. Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” juxtaposes the thrill and multi-colored flash of the wrestling ring with the cold, muted reality of Randy’s situation. Not to be forgotten are performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, who operate within archetypes but put their own spins on them.
Has there been a romance as pure and uplifting since the Tramp wooed a blind flower girl in “City Lights” as the one between Wall•E and Eve? Indeed, director Stanton draws heavily from the work of silent comedy, particularly Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and “City Lights.” The environmental message made be a bit too OTT, but this is a visually resplendent fairy tale and one of Pixar’s finest works.
6. Slumdog Millionaire
Vibrant, dark, yet utterly uplifting, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is at once a tightly structured fantasy epic and something more; it positively bounds off the screen, overloading the senses with the haunting beauty of terrifying and real slum life before yanking us above it all at the end. It's as manipulative as the schmatziest of Spielberg's pictures and it doesn't have any overriding point to make, but sometimes I feel we undervalue the joy of a piece of pure entertainment. This movie may not hold as much for me as the true masterpieces of the year intellectually or even aesthetically (though the cinematography was the year's best), but dammit no film this year allowed people to so openly bask in the euphoria of film-going.
“Juno” pulled inside out. If that film dropped a reasonably cynical young woman into an unrealistically optimistic world, “Happy-Go-Lucky” shows us a typically bleak reality with an unflinchingly peppy lady. Plenty of people can play villains, but Sally Hawkins has the more challenging task of remaining cheery in the face of evil. Just watch the tiny glimmer of pain that occasionally flashes in her eyes before she promptly defeats it with her happiness. Eddie Marsan also excels as her driving instructor and raging foil; he seems at once real and exaggerated next to Poppy.
8. Let the Right One In
The real vampire movie of 2008. It’s a coming-of-age tale, a platonic love story and a haunting meditation on social pariahs all wrapped up under the guise of a horror film. Truth be told, the only weak moments of the film are when it tries to be purely horror. However, this is beautifully shot, expertly scripted, and perfectly acted by two newcomers. It’s got “cult classic” stamped all over the place.
9. Snow Angels
A dark look into crumbling relationships and the town they take with them, David Gordon Green's Snow Angels is a powerful look into a murder, adultery and insecurity that eschews melodrama in favor of a bleaker tone. In the midst of all the horror of the film Green tenderly looks at the young love between Arthur and Lila, a relationship that offers hope for the future without ever seeming incongruous with the terrors of the present. Combined with stark photography and perfect pacing, Snow Angels is the kind of film that stays with you long after it's over.
10. Frozen River
Courtney Hunt’s debut feature is an expose on a serious subject (human smuggling) that deftly avoids the back patting that usually accompanies Serious Issue films and instead delves deep into its characters. Incredible character actress Melissa Leo is truly Oscar-worthy (although as always, the actress category is tough to call) as a working class woman who turns to pretty severe crime just to raise money to buy her children Christmas presents. A character study, Big Issue film, and, at times, a tense thriller rolled into one. Courtney Hunt. Remember the name.
11. In Bruges
It wasn't the funniest comedy of the year, but it was the darkest and oddest. Two hitmen hiding out in the titular city get up to all sorts of high jinks that I can't even begin to describe. A freewheeling romp of murders both planned and accidental, medieval architecture, little people (or midgets, depending on how inebriated the characters are), and horse tranquilizers. I told you I couldn't describe it.
One of the few adapted plays to make its exaggerations work, Doubt captures Catholicism at a crossroads and how people can twist doubt into facts. Boasting four of the year's best acting performances, Shanley's adaptation of his own play should greatly interest any cinephile. The whole might not quite add up to the sum of its parts, but this is nevertheless a triumphant master class and a deceptively simple thriller.
Like all biopics, it spends too much time in the tabloid section of its subject’s life, but Van Sant manages to make even the inconsequential aspects of Harvey Milk’s life seem relevant. Sean Penn puts in one of his finest performances as the disarming Milk, but don’t forget about the excellent work from supporting actors Franco, Hirsch, and especially Brolin. Penn’s invigorated performance and Van Sant’s direction have resulted in the first great film about gay rights.
14. Chop Shop
If I had a nickel for every time someone made a film about “the dark side of the American Dream” I could have retired before I even entered college. But this is one of those films where it really does apply. This documentary-like film lays bare the realities of American living for our poor, in which even children must work nonstop to survive. We are supposedly a nation where anyone can make something of himself, but these children were born into poverty and will die in it. Their only dream is to have a little something to call their own. An unsung gem.
15. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
This didn’t totally gel with me at first, but everything fell into a place with a second viewing and I don’t think I’ve laughed more at any other film made this decade. The romantic side of the story may be clichéd at this point, but Smith puts his spin on it and, for once, I bought Seth Rogen as a romantic lead. It may not have been a hit, but this is a great comedy and it shows who’s really the boss when it comes to R-rated comedies.
Jury Prize: Even by cheating and including 15 films, there were still a few choices left on the cutting-room floor. There are another 10 films I could have easily mentioned, but for the sake of space, but at some point it stops being a best of list and starts being a “here’s what I liked this year” retrospective. So my pick for the film that just missed the upper level is:
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Yeah, another R-rated romantic comedy with an impossible romantic lead. But this was the best Apatow Production yet, mixing big laughs with male nudity, a genuinely sweet romance, and puppets. You’ll be hard-pressed to name a weak performance in the film.
I didn’t include documentaries in my list, because it was hard enough to pick as is. However, there were a few that deserve a mention, so here are three docs that I would have put in my actual list if I included documentaries:
1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
A number of great documentaries become great when they become something else entirely during filming, and “Dear Zachary” is a prime example. Originally planned as a sort of video scrapbook of the life of Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was presumably murdered by his girlfriend, for the son he never got to meet. But the story takes a number of dark turns, and the structure of the film plays like a thriller. A visceral, emotional rollercoaster of a ride, “Dear Zachary” gets under your skin and stays there.
2. Man on Wire
If “Dear Zachary” felt like a crime thriller, “Man on Wire” feels like an all-out heist flick. The story of “the greatest artistic crime of the century,” “Man on Wire” uses stock footage as well as dramatized segments to chronicle Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk across the World Trade Center. Wisely, director James Marsh never mentions September 11th; this is the story of something beautiful, and the events of 9/11 weigh on the audience whether he brings it up or not. However, from now on I’ll think of that black dot against a blue sky when I think of the World Trade Center, and not that terrible day.
3. Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog remains the most exciting documentarian working today, and “Encounters” is a perfect display of his skills. He travels to the Antarctic to document the scientists who work there, and ends up with a film full of gorgeous and epic nature shots and interviews with the off-kilter people who try to “conquer” the land. In other words, it’s pure Herzog.