I had a much harder time putting together my top ten movies list than my other lists, mostly because there was no movie I wanted to place in the top spots -- there were a fair number of good movies that came out in 2008, but no great ones. What follows is my 10 best of what I saw this year*:
10) The Dark Knight -
If you thought summer movies were supposed to be fun, director Christopher Nolan and his impressive cast and crew made sure to relieve you of that impression. The Dark Knight is an incredibly dark, deeply pessimistic and just plain depressing movie -- and also one of the most enthralling and suspenseful comic book films of all time. It has its fair share of flaws -- Harvey Dent's evolution is too rushed, the Joker's boat stunt is hackneyed, and the weird sonar thing at the end doesn't make any logical or political sense -- but kudos to Nolan for attempting to make a superhero film that tackles such thorny issues as the consequences of escalation, the uncompromising nature of terrorism driven by nihilism, and the importance of symbols in driving political change. Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart, as the Joker and Harvey Dent respectively, deliver performances of such power and conviction that my heart was in my throat whenever they were on the screen.
9) Tell No One -
This French thriller offers a maze of twists and turns, all centering on the question of whether the murdered wife of a Parisian doctor is in fact dead. It makes for surprisingly gripping entertainment, even if it is a relatively simple pleasure. Excellent performances by Francois Cluzet and Kristen Scott-Thomas lift Tell No One above the standard genre conventions.
8) Rachel Getting Married -
Jonathan Demme's domestic drama about a family reuniting for a wedding is an intimate and genuine depiction of a once close clan filled with troubled characters. Demme's direction makes joyous and loving work of a sometimes contrived script. Anne Hathaway and Marjorie Dewitt, as the sisters at the heart of the story -- one a drug-addicted, self-involved trainwreck, the other an insecure bride-to-be -- are a marvelous twosome, delivering heartfelt performances of touching honesty.
7) Man on Wire -
The best documentary of the year features a story more unbelievable than most Hollywood films. In 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit illegally walked a tightrope connecting New York's World Trade Center towers. The tale of how he did it, the colorful cast of characters that helped him along the way, and the ramifications of his act are all joyfully captured in this poetic film.
6) Wendy and Lucy -
The relationship alluded to in the title of Kelly Reichardt's beautifully observed film is between Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young woman making her way to Alaska to find work, and her dog Lucy. When Wendy's car breaks down in Oregon, we witness the beginning of a series of obstacles, all believable, that stand in the way of her final destination. Reichardt's film is a portrait of a woman living on the margins, where small setbacks can doom one to misery and where whatever social safety net used to exist no longer serves any purpose. Makes you hope this Obama fellow can help a girl like Wendy out.
5) Happy-Go-Lucky -
Director Mike Leigh is not known for making light movies, so there's a sense of dread that hangs over the proceedings of Happy-Go-Lucky even as the main character Poppy (played by a vivacious Sally Hawkins) exudes her positive attitude through the most hostile of situations. That she's as cheery and effervescent at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning is all the more astonishing given the touching and hilarious events that occur along the way. Chances are, you'll end the movie feeling just as happy.
4) The Wrestler -
Darren Aronofsky's portrait of an aging wrestler past his prime takes a rather predictable story and imbues it with a rawness and sincerity that makes the whole thing feel authentic. As Ram Robinson, Mickey Rourke gives the performance of the year, fully committing himself to both the tragedy of Ram's personal life and his addiction to the the ring.
3) Milk -
The nature of the biopic genre is very limiting -- it's nearly impossible to make a truly great movie when the contours of the plot are so readily apparent and predetermined. Milk is not immune to those limitations, but it does a better job than most biopics at capturing a historical figure at the height of his significance. Sean Penn plays slain gay activist Harvey Milk with such incandescent joy and steely determination that you can't help but get involved in the local political minutiae, like ballot initiatives and city council races, that defined Milk's life's work. By giving the audience a seat at the table of all those organizing meetings, director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black choose to celebrate rather than gloss over the procedural hard work that is required to define and secure civil rights.
2) Wall-E -
Pixar's latest and greatest masterpiece, Wall-E is better than all that came before by virtue of the film's beautiful, remarkable, and wordless first half hour. In those thirty minutes, the audience is treated to a Buster Keaton comedy by way of Mad Max, a post-apocalyptic silent love story between two very affecting robots. The rest of the film is very satisfying, but those first thirty minutes were the purest expression of great cinema produced this year.
1) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days -
This Romanian film about abortion is bracing and heartbreaking, a grim tale of two friends who find themselves struggling for freedom in Communist-era Romania. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days was released in the US in the spring, but its has remained with me throughout the year. It is a tough, honest, and sometimes brutal work that demonstrates how resourceful and strong people can be even in the most punishing of environments. No other film that came out this year was so unforgettable.
*Note: I still haven't had the chance to see Che, The Class, or Waltz With Bashir, films that have received wide acclaim. Special thanks to my friend Ben Kenigsberg, film critic at Time Out Chicago, who made it possible for me to see a number of films I wouldn't have had the chance to otherwise. Please check out his top 10 list.