WALL-E is Pixar’s latest wonderfully entertaining contribution to the art of animation (©2008 Disney/Pixar).
While 2008 didn’t have the immediate, thundering classics that dropped on 2007 (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) and could in some ways be considered an “off year,” it still had some charming, eccentric gems, and a few of the timpani-fueled marquee cleanup hitters brought some real heft. As always, we’ll count down in reverse order.
#10 Pineapple Express
No mere pot comedy, but a narcotic, buddy action film with the pacing and lensing of an early Malick film, Pineapple Express is another ball bearing from the Judd Apatow juggernaut—but this one is looser, stranger, and much more violent. Directed with an elegant bemusement by the always interesting David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow), Pineapple Express is simultaneously absurd and tender, flashy and restrained, with a touching ending scored to a bouncing Huey Lewis and the News song. It’s nice to know studios still give goofy, talented people 30 million bucks to do whatever they want.
#9 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The polar opposite of Pineapple Express, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a $175 million award-grabber with a script that could uncharitably be called a carbon copy of Forrest Gump. Adapted from an extremely slight F. Scott Fitzgerald story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button should be, by all accounts, a generic prestige picture. But under the increasingly skilled and nuanced control of director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), the film has a distanced elegiac quality that gives all its big-budget bombast a rewarding iciness. Both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett deliver lovely performances, making for a Christmas film of uncommon empathy and restraint.
#8 Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood continues to rumble along, making highly composed lyrical films with a distinctly old-school cadence. As a bigoted, disciplined old coot in an urban-blighted neighborhood of Detroit, Eastwood’s Kowalski is a canny echo of Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry and William Munny in Unforgiven. But Gran Torino has a few unexpected turns in its tale of redemption at the hands of Hmong immigrants. Unlike some of his recent relentlessly somber films, Gran Torino is a tough, funny film anchored by Eastwood’s marvelously curmudgeonly performance.
#7 The Dark Knight
The event movie of the year and the biggest domestic grosser since Titanic, The Dark Knight met its celestial expectations as a dark and brutal tent-pole film heightened by a larger-than-life performance by the late Heath Ledger. Christopher Nolan uses the superhero myth as a launch point for the limits of enforcement—a perfect paean for the Bush administration. With some of the most spectacular action sequences since Terminator II and a brilliant interplay between Christian Bale’s strained Batman and Ledger’s unhinged Joker, The Dark Knight redefined the possibilities of the comic-book genre.
#6 Man on a Wire
The most moving documentary in years, Man on a Wire breathlessly chronicles the clandestine, heist-like lengths a group of whimsical French rogues went to in order to walk a tightrope between the Twin Towers. It’s paced like a thriller with a transcendent, gorgeous climax that’s enough to bring one to tears. The decision to not mention 9/11 only heightens the sadness and hope of the film as Man on a Wire dazzlingly displays the potential and risk of human verve.
The remarkable, heartbreaking story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected in known history, has finally been brought to the big screen by the unpredictable and occasionally brilliant Gus Van Sant. Led by Sean Penn’s holographic evocation of Milk and several immersive performances (James Franco, Emile Hirsch), Milk is a nearly flawless biopic, fusing the personal and political in forceful, bitingly contemporary ways. Van Sant dexterously recreates the late ’70s Castro Street and San Francisco’s emerging left-wing majority, and the film is both briskly engaging and a careful document of Milk’s inspiring life.
Pixar continues to redefine animation, following Ratatouille with the wondrous Wall•E. Both a classically romantic Hollywood love story (between two robots) and a hilarious, sardonic send-up of American culture, Wall•E is dazzling and subversive at once. Following its Kubrickian, wordless opening, Wall•E jumps to a terrifyingly plausible projection of the fate of the Western world, and yet it never loses its humor and delicate optimism. Wall•E has the immediate and sparkling quality of an instant children’s classic in the way it fuses dread and imagination, love and death.
#3 Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle’s kaleidoscopic, post-Bollywood melodrama was an unsurprising sleeper hit and now seems to be a front runner for Best Picture. Slumdog’s unapologetic quiz-show flashback gimmick made for a shamelessy entertaining, high-velocity film that collided the abject poverty, criminal underworld, and global economy of modern-day Mumbai. Featuring lively, lived-in performances by both unknown child actors and some of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Slumdog surpassed all others as a fun and affecting film.
#2 The Wrestler
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Mickey Rourke’s resurrection is nothing short of miraculous. Director Darren Aronofsky has also made a career 180, abandoning the cheap speed-up/slow-down gimmicks of Requiem for a Dream and Pi for a naturalistic, verite dynamic that’s immensely affecting. Rourke’s beatific, rugged performance as a has-been pro wrestler is funny, sad, and stunningly authentic. The Wrestler’s episodic narrative allows for humor and pathos to intersect in the same scenes. Marissa Tomei is also great as an over-the-hill stripper. Filmed in suburban poverty-stricken New Jersey, The Wrestler is a minutely perfect character study of a dying man in a dying land.
#1 Let the Right One In
This one broadsided me. A small-budget vampire film from Sweden that immediately feels like one of the best horror films ever made and a preteen romance that’s as sweet as it is creepy, Let the Right One In is dark, funny, scary as hell, and filled with moral ambiguity. Filmed with astonishing grace and beauty in socialistic, suburban Stockholm, the film has the patient pacing of a dream-fugue or an early Herzog film. Even though it’s already slated for a mediocre American remake, don’t be deterred by its limited distribution or obscurity. Let the Right One In is an absolutely masterful film.
Worst Film of The Year:
There were so many to chose from—the literal turd of The Love Guru, the metaphysical turd of Seven Pounds—but in the end the nostril-flaring dud that was The Happening topped them all. Mind-bendingly boring, nonsensical, and pretentious, The Happening made Lady in the Water seem like The Princess Bride. At this rate M. Night Shymalan’s basement has been removed, and there is no telling how bad he can get it . . . which I guess is exciting.
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