Every time I log on to a movie-related website, some joker writing in all caps is ranting about how the movies in 2008 sucked. I’ve even heard a few of my fellow film critics here in North Texas muttering the same thing between screenings. For the life of me, I don’t understand what they’re talking about.
This was a fantastic year, not necessarily because there were more masterpieces but because the run-of-the-mill stuff tended to be good value for money. Hollywood did its job this year, and the French enjoyed a resurgence after some years in the creative doldrums. Still, this list is about the crème de la crème. My top nine picks are pretty well set, but I agonized over that 10th one – you can regard any of the movies on the honorable mention list as a worthy replacement for that last entry.
You may notice that this article is missing a regular feature. I usually include lists of great acting performances, breakthrough talents, and such to go with the films. This year, though, I’m taking advantage of Fort Worth Weekly’s online capabilities and posting all that stuff to our blog, so log on and enjoy. I also usually use an asterisk to denote movies that haven’t yet been released in North Texas, but one of this year’s films actually has an asterisk in its title, so I’ll be using a cross (†) instead.
1) Slumdog Millionaire. Why is this Indian game-show drama, made with some British assistance, the best movie of the year? A) the compelling story – cleverly pegged to the rules of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? – of one teen’s incredible escape from his country’s suffocating poverty; B) the delirious beauty of its photography and music, which doesn’t keep the film from taking in India’s seamier side; C) the expert way that director Danny Boyle uses romance, humor, and nervous tension to make this potentially grim story go down with the ease of a good, pulpy thriller; and D) it is written. I say all of the above, and that’s my final answer.
2) The Dark Knight. Everybody said this movie addresses our post-9/11 fears of terrorism. It doesn’t address them so much as throw them in a blender and have Heath Ledger’s gleefully psychopathic clown serve up the resulting concoction to us with a demonic cackle. Christopher Nolan’s morally and spatially disorienting continuation of the Batman saga proved to be a cocktail that leaves you with a pounding hangover and an immediate desire to order another one. When people look back on the ’00s, this intelligent blockbuster thriller will tell them what we were afraid of.
3) WALL-E. Pixar’s latest movie opens with the jaunty “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! as background music for a dizzying shot that plunges us into a barren, deserted wasteland filled with the detritus of human civilization. This opening segment has such wounding power that it would probably earn the film a place on this list all by itself. What raises this masterwork to its intergalactic heights is the moving characterization of its robot hero, who dreams of a better world. It’s done pretty much without dialogue, too. The uncanniness of Pixar’s work still hasn’t worn off.
4) Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Kicked off by one of movie history’s all-time great breakup scenes, this comedy zips from one hilarious set piece to the next: the parodies of stale TV drama, the chess piece sex scene, Russell Brand’s tangent about his shoe, the webcam conversations, the Dracula puppet musical. Behind all the deft ad-libbing by the actors is a warm DELETE by the movie’s breakout star Jason Segel, full of cutting insights about losing love and getting back up. And if you don’t care about that, the movie still has a Dracula puppet musical. What’s not to like?
5) Reprise. This zesty Norwegian movie (when was the last time you heard those adjectives paired up?) follows the diverging fortunes of two best friends as they try to launch careers as novelists. Flashy first-time filmmaker Joachim Trier uses fake-outs, fantasy sequences, split screens, and gags involving the voiceover narration to capture the popping energy of his young protagonists as they test out their creative powers, negotiate the publishing world, compare successes, and face the pitfalls of both their chosen profession and life in general. It’s all set to an invigorating punk-rock soundtrack, too. A most promising debut.
6) Rachel Getting Married. An emotional wringer of a film, this no-frills, documentary-style domestic drama drew most of its attention for Anne Hathaway’s raw, furious, courageously charmless performance as a problem kid whose addictive personality wreaks havoc on everyone around her. Yet the star’s brilliance obscures fantastic supporting performances (Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, Rosemarie DeWitt) and director Jonathan Demme’s unique achievement, combining the austerity of a Bergman film with the bustle of an Altman film. After all the shattering heartbreak, a few beautiful songs heal all the wounds.
7) Pineapple Express. Who knew that Seth Rogen could be an action hero? Who knew that a Judd Apatow-produced comedy could be so lean and purposeful? Who knew that director David Gordon Green could film a terrific car chase? And as for James Franco, well, his comic performance as a barely coherent pot dealer was probably the biggest “Who knew?” of all. Together they all made a volatile stoner action-thriller that laced its laughs with an unusual quantity of dread and nervous energy. By the end of this wild ride, you’ll feel as drained as Danny McBride’s drug middle-man character, who says, “I have, like, no blood left in my body.”
8) Happy-Go-Lucky. With a Mike Leigh film, you’d expect a title like that to be a cruelly ironic touch on a bitterly depressing movie. Instead, the British director follows a North London schoolteacher (an incandescent Sally Hawkins) as she laughs her way through life even after her bike is stolen and her back seizes up. Most filmmakers would present this character as naïve or blind. Leigh and Hawkins show you the inner strength that lets her comprehend the bad stuff in the world without losing her good cheer. Movies like this help us stay happy, just as its heroine exhorts everyone around her to do.
9) Let the Right One In. The hit of the Lone Star International Film Festival, this Swedish vampire flick burrows deeper into your brain the more you think about it. Tomas Alfredson’s film uses little details to generate a sense of the uncanny in telling the story of a bullied boy who falls in love with a girl who’s been 12 years old for a long time. The film’s full of inventive touches that you haven’t seen in other vampire movies (not least of which is the switch in genders), but it’s the movie’s sweet romanticism that makes its horror all the more disturbing.
10) Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. The best documentary of the year is Chris Bell’s entertaining, disturbing essay on steroids. Without letting cheating athletes off the hook, his film (which indulges in Michael Moore-style gags before wriggling free of them) raises all sorts of questions about society’s attitudes toward performance-enhancing drugs. Congratulations to Bell on his achievement and condolences to him and his family on the recent death of his brother Mark “Mad Dog” Bell, a wannabe pro wrestler profiled in the film as a heavy steroid user.
Honorable mention: Guillaume Canet’s twisty conspiracy thriller Tell No One … Gus Van Sant’s rambunctious history piece Milk … Peter Sollett’s delightful music-loving romance Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist … Arnaud Desplechin’s epic-scaled family-reunion comedy A Christmas Tale … Darren Aronofsky’s bruising character study The Wrestler† … Jon Favreau’s tasty superhero flick Iron Man … David Gordon Green’s crushing small-town tragedy Snow Angels … Takashi Miike’s Japanese cowboy opera Sukiyaki Western Django … Ron Howard’s political theater piece Frost/Nixon … Jirí Menzel’s feathery period farce I Served the King of England … Céline Sciamma’s painful coming-of-age flick Water Lilies … Kelly Reichardt’s hushed portrait of loneliness Wendy and Lucy.