Holy hyperbole, folks. It is time to do the big top ten list. As is customary this time of year, it is my duty (and honor) to present you my list of the Ten Best Films of 2008. And in the past year we’ve seen an interesting range of films, have we not? We slowly dredged through the early months of the year, escaping with most of our moviegoing dignity. We were all incredibly excited about the start of the summer movie season, only to be blown away by a Batman movie two months later.
And we’ve been timid through the fall and winter seasons, waiting patiently for a new classic to emerge as the Oscar frontrunner. And though a classic has yet to emerge from the pack, 2008 will be marked in the minds of film lovers as a year of good. A year that saw a lot of really good, but not necessarily great films. This fact alone makes it difficult to compile a list of the ten best, as everything seems to get smashed in together in the “good” pile. Here is my Top 10 Movies of 2008 :
Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Gary Oldman all deliver terrific performances in the second Batman movie from writer/director Christopher Nolan. ‘Dark’ is the appropriate word to associate with this Batman tale which pits our hero against one of his biggest adversaries – The Joker.
Bale’s Batman is once again one of the best lead performances in a superhero film, and Ledger’s Joker is one of the most memorable villains ever to grace the silver screen. The effects are top-notch, Nolan’s direction is crisp and precise, and there’s absolutely no fat left to trim away. The Dark Knight is just about as good as movies get.
The popularity of Who Wants to be a Millionaire has waned, but you don’t need to be a fan of the series to understand and enjoy Slumdog Millionaire. One of those films that’s hard to resist as tagging ‘a little gem’, Slumdog Millionaire shows how one young man was able to emerge from horrible poverty to become a millionaire on India’s version of the once-popular game show.
Although some of the scenes are horrific and incredibly sad, there’s a sense of hope that permeates Slumdog Millionaire. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) shot the film on location in Mumbai, employing mostly unknown young actors to fill out his lead roles. The result is a film that’s believable, relatable, and genuinely touching.
? That doesn’t sound all that appealing. And not only that, Pixar didn’t hide the fact there wasn’t much dialogue in the movie. I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea but I’ll tell you what, 10 minutes into the movie I fell in love with Wall-E – and I fell hard. Those magicians at Pixar, led by writer/director Andrew Stanton, did it once again. They created a magical world that draws in audiences of all ages and pulls on your heartstrings.
2008 was a year that saw some successful comebacks mounted by folks like Robert Downey Jr., and in the case of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke. The latter film tells the story of Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler who tries to rescue himself from the depths of personal and professional obscurity, in the name of making up with his daughter and being able to stand proud once again.
While playing a fictional character, Rourke lends a semi-autobiographical flare to his performance, drawing on his own experiences as a boxer. There are moments when you can literally see his heart breaking on screen, and Aronofsky captures all of this beautifully in one of the relatively warmest and most poignant films of his career.
The second seismic shift in Hollywood to take place in 2008 was another big decision to come out of Paramount’s gates. Taking a chance on the then-still-recovering Marvel Comics brand, the studio made arrangements to help them create the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Robert Downey Jr. taking the lead as Tony Stark, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was seen as a hell of a gamble on what was once a B-level title in Marvel’s ranks.
Of course, all it took was one kick-assed adventure, and a hell of a post-credits teaser that promised the full Avengers Initiative, and the world was ready for the MCU’s full-fledged takeoff. Everything that happened after that point would make comic book movies a multi-billion dollar game, with Disney eventually buying Marvel as a result of the success this film would see.
Up until the production of In Bruges, writer/director Martin McDonagh was primarily known for stage plays that conveyed his brand of dark humor and violent action. Yet, 2008 brought him his first full-fledged feature film, with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson taking the lead roles of hitmen exiled to the idyllic European city of the title.
But, in true McDonagh fashion, the plot unravels like a finely crafted watch, in a fashion that truly shows off his playwright roots. With clever profanity, quotable sequences, and a third act that walks a bittersweet line of closure, In Bruges is a hell of a feature film debut for a writer/director
The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and the “war on terror” (to use the increasingly forgotten Rumsfeldian formulation) never really got their John Wayne/Green Berets moment in Hollywood: a big movie whose unembarrassed purpose is to endorse the military action. Most of the serious responses have been liberal-patriot fence-straddlers, multistranded stories urgently set in Washington, the Middle East, south Asia and elsewhere, tying themselves in knots in an attempt to acknowledge a dovey point of view.
While covertly leaning to the hawk’s – pictures such as Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, which showed torture in terms of CIA man George Clooney being tortured by an Arab, Robert Redford’s mealy-mouthed Lions for Lambs, Gavin Hood’s issue-fudging Rendition, and Peter Berg’s The Kingdom, with its feeble moral equivalence between jihadist zealots and the US army.
It was a desperate business, and “Hunger” is a desperate film. It concerns the fierce battle between the Irish Republican Army and the British state, which in 1981 led to a hunger strike in which 10 IRA prisoners died. The first of them was Bobby Sands, whose agonizing death is seen with an implacable level gaze in the closing act of the film.
If you do not hold a position on the Irish Republican cause, you will not find one here. “Hunger” is not about the rights and wrongs of the British in Northern Ireland, but about inhumane prison conditions, the steeled determination of IRA members like Bobby Sands, and a rock and a hard place. There is hardly a sentence in the film about Irish history or politics, and only two extended dialogue passages: one a long debate between Sands and a priest about the utility or futility of a hunger strike, the other a doctor’s detailed description to Sands’ parents about the effect of starvation on the human body.
The Ford Gran Torino earned its footnote in pop culture history when a ketchup-red 75 model with a white racing stripe was featured every week in the TV cop show Starsky and Hutch. The model shown here is an earlier vintage, 1972, and its owner’s glory days would appear to be from around the same era. This is widower, retired car worker, military veteran and seething American patriot Walt Kowalski, played with grandstanding gusto and unfakable star quality by Clint Eastwood. (Eastwood also directs and produces.)
Walt bought one of the Gran Torinos that he helped to manufacture – “right off the line” – but keeps it in pristine condition in the garage, while he rumbles around town in an old Ford pickup, glowering at foreign automobiles and their disloyal American owners.
“Kung Fu Panda” is a story that almost tells itself in its title. It is so hard to imagine a big, fuzzy panda performing martial-arts encounters that you intuit (and you will be right) that the panda stars in an against-all-odds formula, which dooms him to succeed. For the panda’s target audience, children and younger teens, that will be just fine, and the film presents his adventures in wonderfully drawn Cinemascope animation. (It will also be showing in some IMAX venues.)
The film stars a panda named Po (voice of Jack Black), who is so fat he can barely get out of bed. He works for his father, Mr. Ping (James Hong) in a noodle shop, which features Ping’s legendary Secret Ingredient. How Ping, apparently a stork or other billed member of the avian family, fathered a panda is a mystery, not least to Po, but then the movie is filled with a wide variety of creatures who don’t much seem to notice their differences.
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