There were a normal number of good movies released in 2008, but very few great ones. In fact, I’d only argue for my number one pick being a movie I’ll keep revisiting in future years.
OK, more ground rules: I didn’t see (yet, if ever): Milk; Synecdoche, New York; Rachel Getting Married, and god knows what others I might have liked.
So, here’s the list:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This is a small movie in big movie clothes, one that’s easy to admire and hard to love. It overreaches for relevance to justify its “big picture”-ness by awkwardly bookending its story with Hurricane Katrina, but it has nothing going on between its ears to justify that wrapper. (At least something like “The English Patient” could reasonably wrap its romance around WWII.) Still, despite its slightness it’s beautiful to look at—could a David Fincher movie be anything other than an amazing technical accomplishment?—and touching in its final hour. It’s a bit of a slog to get to that point, though.
This movie tends to polarize people, though it seems like some just have an issue with Will Smith, which I’ll never quite understand since he’s just so damn… likable. His playing against type makes the first hour of “Hancock” a blast; the second half, well… the twist was unexpected, but it didn’t make a lick of sense. Sure, it’s a little bit like “The Incredibles,” in that it deals with a public that would take its heroes for granted. But the idea of a superhero needing a PR makeover is still pretty good.
Not having any interest in comic books make it easy for me to ignore “fidelity to source material” when considering the movie version of something like “Wanted.” Talk about pandering to your audience: meek guy turns out to be an assassin; the lesson here is that you can only be a man if you kick ass and hang out with Angelina Jolie. Uh huh. It’s borderline offensive and misogynistic in so many ways, but at the same time is so gloriously stupid and immature—James McAvoy smacks a dude with a keyboard, and the flying keys spell “F U C K U,” with the “U” being a tooth?—that it crosses over into something not entirely unlike genius. Think of it as “Fight Club’s” retarded cousin.
7. Tropic Thunder
I was disappointed in “Pineapple Express”—maybe I need to smoke more dope?—but this one worked for me. Though it teeters on the edge of “too big Hollywood movie,” it’s redeemed by Robert Downey Jr.’s method actor and Tom Cruise’s movie executive that’s reportedly based on Viacom head Sumner Redstone. (Who knew he could be this funny? It’s one of the only times you don’t feel like he’s trying too hard.) Highlights include Steve Coogan’s death, the opening trailers, and the addition of “never go full retard” into the pop-culture lexicon.
6. The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky is as skilled a filmmaker as David Fincher, and he keeps “The Wrestler” from being the predictable and thinly plotted little melodrama it is. It helps that Mickey Rourke is so able to inhabit the main character. The real-life Rourke looks horrible, his face all bloated and fucked up from his plastic surgeries and detour into boxing. Which makes him perfect as the fallen wrestler who sells his body for entertainment—oh my, he meets a stripper who does the same thing!—and the fallout that happens when people stop watching and caring.
5. Wendy and Lucy
This is the kind of indie move that is almost better seen on the small screen. It’s an intimate, quiet story of a young woman whose car breaks down on the way to a better life/job, runs out of cash, gets caught shoplifting, and saddest of all, loses her dog and, once out of jail, goes looking for her. It’s just a beautifully detailed look at life on the fringes, when you have no safety net. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for its low-keyness, and for the look in Michelle Williams’ eyes throughout. I’m not sure if this was shot before or after Heath Ledger’s death, but she looks profoundly broken in all of the amazing close-up shots of her face in the movie. And it’s heartbreaking, that’s for sure.
4. The Dark Knight
Is this “just a comic book movie” or not? It certainly has pretensions to be something else, with its entire plot being an obvious parable on the war on terror and whether or not you’re willing to throw away personal freedoms for safety, but then you criticize it for anything and suddenly “it’s just a comic book movie!” Even if the fandom is annoying, the movie itself is pretty great. It’s not as “oh my god” great on subsequent viewings, but Heath Ledger’s Joker keeps it watchable. Loved the buzzing sound that plays in the background when the Joker is on screen. And his changing stories about his scars. And Senator Patrick Leahy’s performance as “old man who gets in Joker’s face at a party.”
3. Iron Man
Though the last third is total crap—really, Jeff Bridges gets in the suit? Why not the dude from Afghanistan?—this is cotton candy worth consuming. Of course it’s all about Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, an oversized role that’s perfect for an oversized personality. It’s also a weird action movie that features fairly lousy action; it’s really all about people talking, and Tony Stark being the cool, suave bastard we all wish we could be, at times.
2. Slumdog Millionaire
Rarely does contrived artifice work so well. You either buy into the fairy tale conceit—poor Indian “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” player goes over his entire life story while being interrogated over why he’s doing so well on the show, with each question/answer tying in to some memory—or you don’t. It wallows in the squalor of Mumbai while celebrating love and its rags-to-riches protagonist. It’s Danny Boyle making the Bollywood version of “Charles Dickens’ Trainspotting,” complete with a musical number at the end. It’s the most commercially weird movie of the year, and I totally went along for the ride.
AKA, “Young Robots in Love.” With movies like “No Country For Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” leading the charge, the best movies of 2007 were characterized by horrific acts of violence. In a nice contrast, the best movie of 2008 was all about hope. Hey, is this the Barack Obama story, or what? “WALL-E” satirized technology while deploying the best that Pixar has to offer. It’s a marketing juggernaut that criticizes our consumption of WALL-E toys from Wal-Mart. It features a musical no one other than director Andrew Stanton apparently liked—“Hello, Dolly!”—and is the first Pixar movie to feature real-life humans. (Though Fred Willard can be brilliantly cartoon-y.) The first 45 minutes or so is the most profoundly sad bit of filmmaking to ever emerge from the House of Mouse. Certainly, “Bambi” has the saddest individual moment, but a nearly wordless half-hour of desolation? In a kids movie? That’s the kind of juice Pixar has earned.