You may have noticed the difference already. This is not a Ten Best list. It is a Fifteen Best list. For years, I have been threatening to do away with the whole concept of a ranked list and simply present an alphabetical rundown of my favorite films from the year past. Maybe it's only eight films one year, perhaps twenty the next. I've yet to do that because, in addition to this website, I also do reviews for a company that owns and operates five Pennsylvania radio stations. They want a Ten Best list, and so I dutifully make one every year, as if it's at all possible to distinguish levels of excellence. However, this is my website and I'm tired of having to "cut" great movies or to taint them with the idea that they are somehow lesser than other great movies. Besides, is anyone really going to complain if I give you five extra outstanding recommendations this year?
My hope is that you will not take the ranking thing very seriously. Is there really a perceptible difference between my #10 and #11 films? Absolutely not. I went back and forth about which of them would rank slightly higher, knowing that my appreciation for both was essentially equal. Consider, too, my top four films. At one time or another, I thought each of them would earn the coveted "Best Film of 2008" position. That's four Best Films. Can't be done. I love them all the same, but only one can be chosen. I had to find a process - a way to rank one over the rest that felt natural, comfortable, and reasonable. In most years, as in this one, that usually means asking myself this question: What movie most blew me away this year? If, by some chance, you don't like my #1 film, substitute #2, #3, or #4. They're just as worthy.
Before unveiling the final list, I want to recognize a bunch of other movies I really enjoyed this year. All films in these categories earned 3 1/2 stars from me. If you've seen all the titles in my top fifteen, try one of these:
Dramas - The Bank Job, Changeling, Che (all 4 1/2 hours of it!), In Bruges, Revolutionary Road, Wendy and Lucy
Comedies - Get Smart, Ghost Town, Happy-Go-Lucky, Pineapple Express, Role Models, Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Family Films - City of Ember, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Action/Adventure - Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, Wanted
Foreign Films - Let the Right One In, Mongol
Documentaries - I.O.U.S.A., Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
Those movies did not make the official list, but entertained and/or enriched me, and therefore deserve one last tip of the hat. And now, here are my choices for the ten…excuse me, fifteen best films of 2008:
15. Snow Angels - David Gordon Green directed this story of how a murder shakes up several sad residents of a small working class town. Sam Rockwell, Michael Angerano, and Juno's Olivia Thirlby all did fantastic work, but it was Kate Beckinsale who was the true revelation. If you only know her from the Underworld pictures, guess what? She's more than just a pretty face; she can act.
14. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson - "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Hell's Angels" are two of my all-time favorite books. Director Alex Gibney presents a thorough and well-researched look at the man who wrote them. He also captures the sad truth of how Thompson became a victim of his own larger-than-life image, which led to years of subpar writing. Still, for the many years that he was on, HST remains one of the most compelling and vibrant people ever to pound the keys of a typewriter. This documentary is a fine tribute to him.
13. Kung Fu Panda - Only one animated film in 2008 was better (hint: it ain't Delgo). What I liked about this DreamWorks production was that it remained true to its characters and story, never feeling the need to force in a lot of unnecessary pop culture references. Plus, it was a darn good martial arts film, with a charming twist.
12. The Visitor - You may not know Richard Jenkins by name, but you'd doubtlessly recognize the face of this busy character actor. Jenkins came into his own this year, playing a closed-off professor whose spirit is re-awakened when he discovers two illegal aliens squatting in his apartment. The Visitor is one of those humane movies that makes you feel good all over as you watch it, even as it's imparting a message about the unfairness of our immigration system.
11. W. - Oliver Stone takes on George W. Bush. Do I need to say more? My affection for this film has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with guts. Never before has a filmmaker tackled the story of a sitting President. Stone took on the challenge and, of course, had a subject best described - to crib from another Stone film - as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." How accurate is Stone's version of Bush? Hard to say. How fascinating is it? Completely fascinating.
10. Towelhead - Alan Ball, screenwriter of American Beauty and creator of "Six Feet Under," made his directorial debut with this adaptation of Alicia Erian's novel. Newcomer Summer Bishil memorably portrayed an adolescent Arab-American girl dealing with racism and sexual exploitation, the latter coming in the form of redneck neighbor Aaron Eckhart. Challenging, perceptive, and occasionally a bit disturbing, Towelhead is an undiscovered gem for people who appreciate bold, unsafe storytelling.
9. Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father - I often like to humorously boast that I never cry at movies, but when this heartbreaking documentary was over, I honestly just sat and bawled. Kurt Kuenne set out to make a film for the infant son of his murdered friend. When the man's killer was inexplicably granted custody of the child, his project took on a completely unexpected (and tragic) turn. Some film snobs may scoff that Dear Zachary is in no way impartial, but that's what I liked about it. Kuenne channels all his rage and anger into the movie, and his loss becomes yours as well.
8. Doubt - "Certainty is an emotion, not a fact." That's the theme of this gripping drama, directed by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Meryl Streep is the nun who's convinced that the local priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) did something inappropriate with a young boy. The evidence is circumstantial at best, yet Streep's character goes on a witch hunt because she knows in her heart that he's guilty. With only a few characters and settings, Doubt provocatively explores the nature of what we "know" versus what we know, and ends up echoing William Goldman, who famously said, "Nobody knows anything."
7. The Wrestler - Mickey Rourke made the comeback of the year playing a washed-up professional wrestler who hits rock bottom and yearns for - you guessed it - a comeback. Visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) reigns himself in, using fewer visual flourishes in favor of palpably stark realism as he follows this character through his grungy, has-been life. And Rourke is just superb, getting fully inside the guy's skin and delivering a performance that goes beyond acting and becomes real. You just know that the actor understands his character's feelings one hundred percent.
6. Frost/Nixon - We all know the outcome of the famous interviews between British journalist David Frost and disgraced president Richard Nixon. That said, director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan create suspense anyway, by focusing on how much both men had to either win or lose when they sat down to chat. Masterful performances from Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon seal the deal.
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - This movie is like a hand grenade; the impact of it isn't felt right away. David Fincher's meditation on life and death - in which Brad Pitt plays a guy who ages in reverse - was beautiful to watch, but almost hypnotic. I found myself occasionally getting lost in my own thoughts as ideas were presented on screen. But, of course, that's exactly what Fincher wants. In the days afterward, I couldn't stop thinking about Benjamin Button, how it made me feel, or how deeply it had moved me. I'd bet dollars to donuts that's the kind of reaction Fincher wants too.
4. Milk - Sean Penn delivered another career highlight portraying Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to high public office in the United States. More than just a straight biopic, Milk (directed by the great Gus Van Sant) makes you understand Milk as a human being: his politics, his activism, his intense need to fight for civil rights. Ably supported by a cast that includes Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch, Penn completely disappears into character, while the film points out the lasting legacy of Harvey Milk, even years after his assassination.
3. Slumdog Millionaire - In my original review, I talked about being caught off guard by how original and inventive this movie was, concluding that I needed to see it again soon. Well, I did see it a second time - and it rocketed higher up on my list than I had initially placed it. Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) brought creative visuals and pacing to this story of a kid from the slums of India who becomes a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" How the film combines the rough, violent life of the slums with the frivolity of a TV game show - and works in a romance and a Bollywood-style musical number to boot - is nothing short of magical. I've never seen anything quite like Slumdog Millionaire. It's a true one-of-a-kind.
2. Wall-E - The good folks at Pixar have raised the bar on animated movies once again. I never expected them to top the genius of Finding Nemo, but they did with this sweet, sentimental, surprisingly deep tale of a lonely trash-collecting robot who ends up saving the human race. Much, much more than just a "family film," Wall-E is also a rich satire of human consumption and the dangerous paths it might lead us on. At the center of it all is that cute little robot, a character for the ages who deserves to stand alongside the most beloved of all Disney figures.
And my choice for the Best Film of 2008 is:
There you have it - fifteen great films. I'd like to thank the people who worked on them, whether they are writers, actors, directors, or technical crew. The fact is that, in all fifteen films, everyone worked together and created something genuinely special. As a person who has suffered through some unspeakably awful movies in 2008 (see other list), I feel immense gratitude toward the filmmakers who strove for excellence, and achieved it.
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