One of the things I hate the most about putting together the end-of-year “Best-Of” list is that it is near-impossible to have any perspective on movies that have only come out months earlier. The victors of these lists often turn out to be the flashiest, most hyped, or, as is often the case with the Oscars, the most easily digestible. Would-be blockbusters that bomb in the box office tend to be labelled failures, would-be cult favourites haven’t had time to build a following, and foreign movies are close to impossible to catch in their initial run unless you live by an art house theatre (which I most certainly did not ten years ago).
All of these problems are mitigated somewhat by the blessed passage of time. The advent of streaming services makes it easy to catch-up with movies I missed the first time around. The intervening years has allowed the reputation of some movies to grow while others fade away. And away from the immediacy of the movie’s release, it is easier to allow a movie to stand on its own two-feet and not by whatever level of hype it was supposed to match. In other words, I am convinced that ten years later I have a better assessment of what the best movies of 2008 actually are. But before we get to that, let’s just remind ourselves of what the year in film in 2008 was:
BOX OFFICE GROSS (North America Gross in USD)
- The Dark Knight ($533,345,358)
- Iron Man ($318,412,101)
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ($317,101,119)
- Hancock ($227,946,274)
- WALL-E ($223,808,164)
- Kung Fu Panda ($215,434,591)
- Twilight ($192,769,854)
- Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa ($180,010,950)
- Quantum of Solace ($168,368,427)
- Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! ($154,529,439)
One thing becomes apparent when looking at this list: it might just be one of the most influential turning points in modern cinematic history. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a much better instalment than you remember but certainly not the best) paved the way in subsequent years for the resurrection or reboot of decades-old franchises like Star Trek, Total Recall, Mad Max, Blade Runner and the mega-behomoth of them all, Star Wars. WALL-E cemented Pixar’s place as a true titan of the industry and one of the central pillars of Disney’s upcoming market takeover. And joining WALL-E were three other children’s movies (Kung-Fu Panda, Madagascar 2, Horton Hears a Who!) that underlined the newfound importance of appealing to families for box-office success (and conversely the dangers of an R-rating for any would-be blockbuster). Twilight opened up a new profitable market for young women in adapting YA novels. Meanwhile the presence of Hancock stands as the last vestige of a soon-to-be-obsolete business model of Hollywood that invested heavily in star-projects for profitability. But it is the two biggest films of the year that probably have had the biggest impact overall. Nolan’s The Dark Knight made the superhero movie a legitimate genre and not just a category of film belonging to a niche audience. And with The Dark Knight paving the way, Iron Man stepped in and introduced perhaps the most influential film concept of the 21st century: the cinematic universe.
WINNER: Slumdog Millionaire
NOMINEES: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Frost/Nixon; Milk; The Reader
The most remarkable thing about this slate of nominees was that it ultimately inspired the Academy to expand the list from 5 nominees to 10 the following year. The reason why is because this bunch of middlebrow movies knocked out two of the film sensations of the year in WALL-E and The Dark Knight – both of them seemingly being punished for belonging to the less respectable genres of animation and action movies respectively. The Academy’s expansion of the nominees in other to allow more popular movies in has had mixed results at best, but one thing is for certain: the 2008 nominees were a mediocre slate of movies. They highlight the Academy’s problem of nominating easily digestible self-described “prestige” movies at the expense of more conventionally entertaining and narratively ambitious fare.
20. SPEED RACER (dirs. Lana & Lily Wachowski)
Speed Racer is frantic. It makes very little sense. And it is so colourful as to possibly induce migraines. But it is also such a splendiferous display of visuals that it is hard for me not to at least applaud the effort. But beyond the mere effort, the Wachowski’s accomplish something quite spectacular: they actually manage to make a zany Saturday morning cartoon come to life. The years subsequent to this release would produce many a CGI-filled movie that used their available technology in absolutely pedestrian ways. Speed Racer is if nothing else a wonderful alternative view of how CGI can, and maybe should, be used.
19. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (dir. Ari Folman)
Much like Persepolis the year before, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir is a powerful example that animation can serve a narrative purpose beyond keeping children entertained (and please, don’t show this movie to your children). By keeping his memoir of his involvement in the Lebanon War animated, Folman accomplishes three things: First, it helps us enter into his subconscious recollection of the events so that it is clear we see things through his prism. Second, it illustrates clearly what it is like for former soldiers to remember things: the repression, the fuzzing of details, the will to keep things at a safe and detached distance. War is too horrific, and the only way to function is to protect oneself emotionally. But finally, the animation allows us to fully experience the horror, the terror, and the banality of war without it ever becoming exploitative or, God-forbid, entertaining. We don’t get explosive special effects, we don’t get to be entertained by seeing war onscreen. We are instead left to contemplate the reality of the ugliness of war. And what an uncomfortable place that is.
18. THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (dir. Kim Jee-Woon)
I suppose that there may be theoretically some merit to trying to describe the plot of this crazy Korean spaghetti-Western. But if you are coming to this movie for plot, you’ve come to the wrong place. Instead this movie’s plot is merely an excuse to string together as many insanely entertaining action set-pieces as they could stuff into its running time. Technically all of the action occurs because there is some map that the central trio is trying to get that leads to some sort of treasure, but who can tell with this many bullets flying?
17. THE BEACHES OF AGNÉS (dir. Agnés Varda)
It is somewhat rare for any of us to get afforded the status “legend” in our own lifetimes. This is precisely what makes The Beaches of Agnés such a remarkable film. Agnés Varda is without a doubt one of the greatest directors of all time with a career spanning all the way back to the French New Wave of the 1950s. With literally nothing left to prove, she should be able to rest on her laurels and enjoy the rest of her days. But since she is such a compulsive creator, that is obviously impossible for her and so instead her later years has found her in an increasingly reflective mood with The Beaches of Agnés being an unconventional retrospective of sorts of her career as she walks back through her life. It is filled with her usual whimsy, charm, self-deprication, and infectious love of life, all the while proving indisputably what an amazing talent she is and how blessed we are to have experienced her and her work.
16. BRONSON (dir. Nicolas Wending Refn)
Nicolas Wending Refn’s debut is a tour-de-force of visual and narrative ambition that belies his relative experience. It is ostensibly a biopic of Michael Peterson aka Charlie Bronson – Britain’s most violent prisoner – the film is instead a chance for Refn and Tom Hardy to go absolutely wild in tearing apart all the conventions of a biopic (while tearing up more than a few bodies in the process) frequently resulting in explosively compelling diatribes and shockingly terrifying fits of violence. The whole movie is also sonically surrounded by a pitch perfect soundtrack both in emphasizing Bronson’s manic energy or juxtaposing that energy transcendentally. It is simply an insane movie. And I doubt the real life Bronson would have it any other way.
15. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (dir. Jonathan Demme)
People who complain about Anne Hathaway as being “too perfect” have obviously not caught up with this gem of a movie where she plays Kym, a drug addict who is released from rehab for a day so she can attend her sister’s wedding. Rachel’s wedding has probably inspired countless future Instagram weddings, and is a paragon of immersive perfection save for one glaring detail: the black sheep of the family Kym. It is obvious that Kym’s presence at Rachel’s wedding is more a case of familial obligations rather than any true love, and a shocking reveal into their shared family history reveals why. All this provides the perfect template for a truly boiler-room atmosphere and as the centre of that tension, Anne Hathaway gives us a raw, vulnerable, acerbic, and prickly performance. But the true strength of her performance is that Kym never stops being sympathetic in spite of that.
14. MILK (dir. Gus Van Sant)
What a difference a decade makes. When this biopic of Harvey Milk came out, we were barely a month into the bigoted Prop 8 being passed in California that effectively banned gay marriage in the state. A celebration of Harvey Milk as the first openly gay man elected into public office and an examination of his life and legacy suddenly felt like a revolutionary statement. And indeed it would’ve been extremely easy for Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn to beatify Milk, and make him a hero. But they do something greater instead by painting him as merely an ordinary person, flaws and all, who simply believed that there could be a better world than the one he was born in. We have come light years from the 1970s when he lived, and even further when the Supreme Court knocked down Prop 8 in 2013 making gay marriage the law of the land. We still have a long way to go. But the power of Milk is in reminding us that small steps of progress have ramifications that go beyond our lifetimes.
13. IRON MAN (dir. Jon Favreau)
Thanks to the ridiculously large Marvel Cinematic Universe that followed this movie, Iron Man probably has the largest influence of the modern film industry than any other movie on this list. And yet it would be a mistake to project the increasingly large scope of latter-day Marvel movies to the original that kicked it off because Iron Man is practically an intimate indie-film by comparison. Focusing on the genesis of Tony Stark (the perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr.) from unwitting war profiteer to eventual fighter of justice is one of the more interesting origin stories to come in the glut of superhero origin stories, while the shockingly down-to-earth and real world underpinnings of Stark and the villains he fights give this movie a compelling and relevant edge.
12. HUNGER (dir. Steve McQueen)
The second prison drama set in Britain on this list (who knew that would be a sub-genre?) is much less manic but no less harrowing. Focusing on the 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoners that eventually ended in the death of ten prisoners, it is a grim affair steeped in merciless realism as we get a glimpse into the appalling and dehumanizing conditions these prisoners endured. It would be nearly too hard to watch except for the star-turning performance by Michael Fassbender as the ringleader of the strike Bobby Sands. Whether going toe-to-toe philosophically with a priest (one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen) or resolutely going to his death by starving himself, Fassbender forces you to look at him and gaze at his suffering, leaving you nowhere to hide.
11. PONYO (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
With Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki achieved crossover appeal in the States. This might have prompted him to make more conventional films that could have continued his crossover success or worse yet, sequels. Instead in Ponyo he makes his most unabashedly Japanese film in a decade, loosely adapted from “The Little Mermaid”. Using only the most basic frame of that story he creates one of his most imaginative worlds filled with wizards, magical sea creatures, and tsunamis while still being ultimately an intimate and warm story about two children from different worlds who come together and become friends.
10. THE WRESTLER (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Confession: so far I have generally been less than enamoured with Darren Aronofsky’s work (I’m willing to grant that the problem may be me, but I find that unlikely). The grand exception to this rule is The Wrestler – maybe because its the first movie I’ve seen where Aronofsky seems to have some empathy for his protagonist. Mickey Rourke has his best role as the broken and broke local wrestler Randy the Ram who has clearly has his best days behind him. He only knows how to do one thing well, which is to put his body on the line to entertain crowds in the ring, but that body is now betraying him by breaking down. But rather than Aronofsky’s usual penchant for punching a protagonist when he’s down, he begs us to care deeply about Randy as he struggles to keep whatever modicum of dignity he has left.
9. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
It is hard to overstate just how sorry the state of American horror movies was around 2008 as Saw and all its copycats had driven the genre into a derivative torture-porn corner while the arrival of Twilight simultaneously neutered the genre of its bite. Fortunately for all of us, the international market came in to deliver horror movies that were inventive, ambitious, and stylish. Leading the charge in 2008 was Tomas Alfredon’s Swedish icy-cold flick Let The Right One In. It brought fresh terror to the vampire story with the requisite amount of twistedness and gore but most importantly revelled in a horror that relies less on jump-scares and more of the variety that burrows deep within your psyche.
8. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (dir. Mike Leigh)
Sally Hawkins establishes herself as one of our great current actors with her role as Poppy, a genuinely happy schoolteacher who manages to bristle nearly everyone around her because of her undying optimism. Such optimism strikes most of them (and most of us) as frivolous, stemming from a lack of seriousness or childishness – and we would be wrong in that assessment. Her happiness is not masking some inner pain, the result of her naivety or stupidity, nor the result of some mental disability. Instead her happiness comes from an inner resolve to be good, kind, positive, and to make the world around her a brighter place. In the hands of another actress that message would have felt forced, but such is the unique power of Hawkins’ craft that she never fails to come across as anything but genuine in this movie. And under Mike Leigh’s astute direction the movie becomes a treatise for civility, and a quietly subversive one at that.
7. DEPARTURES (dir. Yojiro Takita)
It is perhaps cliche to say, but the one commonality humanity has is that death comes to us all and it is how we approach death that reveals who we are. When Daigo (Masahiro Matoko) finds out that the orchestra where he plays is forced to shut down, he finds work at a job “assisting departures” which to his surprise is not a travel agency but is instead a traditional ritual mortician. To handle the dead is considered taboo in Japan (and frankly, everywhere else too) and the job strains his relationship with his wife and friends. But he comes to love the work, as he learns the intricate patterns of the ritual which inevitably not only gives dignity and honour to the dead, but brings comfort to the ones left behind. It is somewhat ironic that it a movie about how to treat the dead is one of the more life-affirming movies I’ve seen.
6. WENDY & LUCY (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s intimate portrait of Wendy (Michelle Williams), a woman on her way to Ketchikan, Alaska with her mutt Lucy to get a job who gets stuck in an unnamed Oregon town after her car breaks down is a remarkable film. Very little happens from a plot perspective, and yet Reichardt’s camera keeps us lingering close so that we are intrusively shoved into Wendy’s plight to get to her promised land before the bottom drops out. The movie also serves as a prophetic snapshot of an increasingly desperate America just before the market crashed in 2008, damningly showing that all of us who were caught by surprise by the impending recession were simply not looking close enough.
5. IN BRUGES (dir. Martin McDonagh)
When a hitjob goes horribly and tragically wrong, hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent to the idyllic and picturesque town of Bruges to lay low. Ray is wracked with guilt over his botching off the hit, and slowly lashes out in more and more destructive and darkly humorous ways as he is cooped up in the town. Ken meanwhile simply wants to enjoy the sights and keep Ray from getting killed. Naturally things will go south from here but it is testament to Martin McDonagh’s writing and direction that the journey these two take is both inevitable in hindsight and yet completely unexpected. It is rare for a crime movie to deal with anything but the action at hand – even though this movie has some great action sequences – but it is even rarer for one to anchor the action in the musings of death, guilt, mortality, and redemption.
4. THE DARK KNIGHT (dir. Christopher Nolan)
I seriously debated putting The Dark Knight this high up the list because of several reasons. First, as IMDB’s Top 250 list proves, it might just be a highly overrated film that dudes who watch very few movies love to say is their favourite movie (there is absolutely no way it is the fourth best movie of all time, and IMDB’s heavy male-skew is well documented). Additionally The Dark Knight seems to have lost some of its shine thanks to Zack Snyder and the rest of the DCEU taking all the wrong lessons (make everything dark and Wagnerian) in trying to imitate its success. But taken on its own terms it becomes increasingly clear that the reason The Dark Knight got its sterling reputation is because it is a groundbreakingly great film. It elevated the superhero movie beyond mere pulp fare into a more serious piece of art. In the iconic clash between Batman and the Joker it introduced a level of ambiguity not seen in most American movies let alone superhero film as it tackled the morality of vigilantism, preemptive strikes, the surveillance state, and utilitarian justice. The trio of Christian Bale as Batman, Aaron Eckhart as D.A. Harvey Dent, and the late Heath Ledger as the Joker provide some of the most compelling dynamics ever in a superhero film, and Nolan’s assured direction of the proceedings easily make this one of the best action movies of the century. Just not the fourth best movie of all time.
3. STILL WALKING (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Most of the time whenever American movies depict family reunions, they seem to revel in the airing of dirty laundry as a way to mine drama (see, for instance, Rachel Getting Married at number 15). What Hirokazu Kore-eda wisely realizes is that there can be just as much drama to be had when family members do their best to repress their old hurts and emotions in an effort to keep the peace. In this case a family has come together on the anniversary of the death of oldest son who drowned trying to save another boy 15 years earlier. Ryota, the second son and now an adult with a new family of his own, secretly hates these occasions because he is rightly convinced that his parents secretly wish that he had drowned instead. His sister hurriedly acts as peacekeeper trying to keep things light and people talking. His mother distracts herself with the food and rituals of the day, while his father in his retirement increasingly seems unable to go through the motions without bitterness seeping out. What makes Still Walking so remarkable as a movie is that we instantly believe that this is a real family, with dynamics that have been established over decades that influence every action they make – and Kore-eda wisely and rightly knows that families with those kind of dynamics don’t upset the apple-cart for dramatic effect.
2. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
With writing credits like Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind under his belt Charlie Kaufman already firmly established himself as one of the greatest modern screenwriters, if not one of the all-time greats. It was only a matter of time before he ended up in the director’s chair as well. And with his first effort he swings for the fences with a labyrinthine movie about a theatre director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who finds himself dissatisfied with the pedantic plays he has produced and wants to make his magnum opus – a play about “real life”. This leads to a daunting journey whereby Kaufman does nothing short of actualize the inner workings of a creative mind. This is a movie that is so dense that one viewing is hardly enough to grasp the absolute genius of this work – with each of my subsequent viewings revealing that I had underestimated how good it was the last time. I realize that is not exactly the most enticing to encourage you to watch this movie, but this film is worth it.
1. WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton)
Admittedly, WALL-E‘s second half is not as strong as it’s first. But that speaks more to how stratospherically phenomenal the first half of this movie is than any deficiency in its second. It is a very bold (to the point of nearly fooldhardy) move to have nearly half of the movie occur without any spoken dialogue. It is insane that Pixar attempted to do that in a children’s movie. And yet, it worked and miraculously so. Consider that all the animators had to work with here was robots who are less than expressive, and yet the love story between the trash compactor WALL-E and the exploratory drone EVE is one for the ages. Borrowing heavily from the playbook of silent comedies, every action from the most frantic arm movements to the subtlest eye-twitch is calibrated to perfection to tell its story. The moment dialogue comes in is a jarring moment because we realize that we haven’t necessarily missed it, a true sign of the storytelling prowess of Andrew Stanton and his team. This is the high-water mark for Pixar, more than buying enough goodwill to last us through the much choppier decade that has followed.
Burn After Reading
Man on Wire