Ahhhh, what a year 2008 was. Of all things, it will likely be remembered as a time when summer blockbusters were at their highest peak - intelligent, well written and technically superb - and fully deserving of the cacophony of hype leading up to them. Iron Man? The Dark Knight? Incredible Hulk? Wall-E? Fuggedaboutit. I imagine impending summer 2009's strong slate (Wolverine, Transformers 2, G.I. Joe, Star Trek) will more than meet these high standards (Eye-roll). Curiously, however, this passing year will also be recalled as one of the weakest of Oscar-bait years, with disappointing wannabe award's winners like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader and Australia fumbling their chance for the greatest of glories. Oh well, here is my top ten of the year, selected from the 85 films I wasted my precious hours attending. Hope you enjoy, and please note that at the time of this list's compiling, Gran Torino, The Wrestler and Revolutionary Road have yet to reach my neck of the woods. I also didn't see Twilight, though that's probably neither here nor there...
Without further adieu...
1) “THE DARK KNIGHT.” Even though the backlash (Batlash?) is well underway, there’s no getting around the fact that five months after first viewing, Christopher Nolan’s dense, disconcerting superhero crime epic continues to amaze. Heath Ledger’s darkly comical performance as the preening Clown Prince of Crime aside, the key to The Dark Knight’s brilliance lies in its seemingly effortless weaving of pulse-pummelling action and intriguing moral conundrums into a world made troublingly familiar. The Caped Crusader’s latest epic tale is a stunning reminder of what the magic of the movies can achieve, and hopefully inspires future comic-book adaptations to think a little more outside the panel.
2) “SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.” Director Danny Boyle’s kinetic and life-affirming story of a young Bombay orphan, whose journey of self-discovery leads him to true love and a chance for financial windfall on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. In following the film’s young hero, Jamal, from childhood to maturity amidst settings alternately grimy and arresting, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy never shy away from the ugly truths of the boy’s reality. Their commitment and unique personal vision has created an exhilarating coming-of-age film and a gorgeous filmic fable destined to inspire viewers for many years to come.
3) “MILK.” Just when you thought you had Sean Penn nailed down, he shows up in a film like Milk and completely blows all expectations to smithereens. This triumphant and moving biopic, which follows the life and career of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay U.S. government official, is a sincere and touching examination of an individual’s power to create change, and a sincere plea for tolerance and understanding for all human-beings. Lovingly directed by acclaimed director Gus Van Sant, and featuring great character work by Josh Brolin, James Franco and Emile Hirsch, Milk is an inspiring story told at precisely the right time.
4) “THE ORPHANAGE.” While technically a cheat, due to an international release and assorted film festival appearances at the tail-end of last year, first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona’s ghastly, ghostly horror fable is too spookily brilliant to go unrewarded. Coated with a thick atmosphere of unrelenting dread, the film follows a grieving mother, powerfully played by Belen Rueda, who journeys into the world of the supernatural in search of her missing son. Featuring the most suspenseful supernatural séance put to film, The Orphanage is a relentlessly gripping bone-chiller that, surprisingly, may actually bring a tear to your eye before the final fade to black.
5) “THE VISITOR.” No man has eyes as alternately sad and hopeful as actor Richard Jenkins, who gave one of the year’s best performances in this criminally overlooked gem. Playing a withdrawn economics professor, whose newly-formed bond with an illegal Syrian immigrant (the effortlessly charming newcomer Haaz Sleiman) is threatened by the U.S. immigration department, Jenkins’ Walter Vale is a refreshingly honest and heartbreaking portrait of frustration and helplessness in the face of overbearing bureaucracy. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy has a wonderful eye and ear for human truth and, through examining Walter’s relationship with actress Hiam Abbass, also fashions one of the most authentically stirring adult romances in recent memory.
6) “HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY.” The astonishing success of 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth thankfully allowed visionary director Guillermo del Toro to run rampant with this follow-up to his 2004 demonic superhero sleeper. Following the further exploits of Ron Perlman’s surly scarlet badass, Hellboy II immerses viewers into a rich universe of voracious tooth faeries, ominous troll markets and gleaming mechanized clockwork armies. Employing a skilful mastery of adventure and off-beat humour, as well as an unwavering dedication to the power of fantasy, del Toro crafted one of the year’s most vivid transportive experiences.
7) “FROST/NIXON.” While Batman and the Joker may have been 2008’s definitive duelling duo, second place surely goes to Frank Langella’s wily fallen president and Michael Sheen’s underdog journalist in Ron Howard’s riveting semi-fictionalized historical recreation. From spot-on period detail, to a cavalcade of searing performances from a cast which also includes Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon, Frost/Nixon manages to take the most uncinematic of concepts – the static interview form – and conjures up one of the year’s most intelligent and provocative films.
8) “WALL-E.” C-3P0 and R2-D2’s mantle has officially been passed, as the diminutive binocular-eyed star of Pixar’s latest is the new ambassador for lovable robotic beings this galaxy and beyond. His movie isn’t too shabby either, a poignant and amusing underdog tale with an adorably sweet love story, which mixes in surprisingly provocative classic sci-fi concepts, inspired by films such as 2001 and Silent Running, to rapturous crowd-pleasing effect. From Wall-E’s lonely trash-filled planet, to his and EVE’s enchanting dance amongst the stars, Wall-E proves that when it comes to creating unforgettable visuals, Pixar continues to reign supreme.
9) “RACHEL GETTING MARRIED.” Sometimes momentous failure leads to great things. After releasing a duo of cinematic turkeys, Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme regrouped and seized hold of first time screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s brilliantly acidic and perceptive examination of middle-class dysfunction under pressure. With captivating performances by Anne Hathaway as a bitter recovering addict, and Bill Irwin as the conflicted family patriarch, Rachel Getting Married is captured with virtuosic near-documentary precision by Demme, a sharp directorial talent hungry to prove his worth again. Fortunately for the viewer, his triumphant success is our great pleasure.
10) “CHOKE.” This filthy little triumph, all but ignored in its theatrical run, is a smutty, filthy little valentine for film-fans exhausted and infuriated by off-the-shelf Hollywood rom-coms. Sam Rockwell stars as a sex-addicted ne’er-do-well with serious mommy issues (though with the slyly cruel Angelica Huston as his mother, it’s not hard to see why...), an adorable but nutty girlfriend (Kelly Macdonald) and, quite possibly, a divine lineage. Choke’s cleverness lies in its ability to mix its off-beat attitude and perversions, wacky plot-turns, and sweet love story into a truly original entertainment that manages to mix some “awww’s” amongst the gags.
Honourable Mentions (In no particular order): "RAMBO", "FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL", "RELIGULOUS", "MAN ON WIRE", "IRON MAN", "THE INCREDIBLE HULK", "IN BRUGES", "SNOW ANGELS", "DOUBT".
*Main content originally printed in SFU's "The Peak": January 5, 2009.
Jan. 11th Edit: Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road are well out of Top-10 contention, but The Wrestler would have likely ended up in the upper 5 had it been released at a more opportune time. Sorry Mickey, you'll have to settle for an Oscar...