As 2008 draws to a close, movie writers everywhere scratch and puzzle over their lists — to a degree that you can find collected lists of lists out on the internet, as everyone from your local paper’s film critic to your friendly neighborhood web writer chimes in. I keep a Top Ten, contributing the same list to all the people who ask me, with some perspective — I don’t think I’m walking down from the top of any mountain with this list carved on two tablets, and these are the films that I really enjoyed — but, then again, if it inspires you to check out one of the films on this list you haven’t heard of (some of which are on DVD and some of which aren’t even in theaters yet), then I’m doing my job. I tend to use the same rule for consideration as the Academy does for the Oscars and make my lists for any given year out of films that have played theatrically in L.A. and New York for at least a week in 2008; with that said, and in no particular order leading up to #1, here’s my Top Ten Movies of 2008. …
An animated documentary — with artists creating visions and visuals based on interviews with real people — about war, youth, memory and loss, with brilliant, bizarre images and human, heartfelt emotions.
9) Funny Games
Full of cruel tricks and grim treats, this horror-thriller is almost a kind of magic trick — director Michael Haneke warns you that he’s going to trick you and then does it anyway, leaving you not just scared by a movie but thinking about all scary movies.
8) Man on Wire
The year’s best documentary showing how Phillip Petit, a French tightrope walker, managed to break into the World Trade Center in 1974, string a wire between the two buildings and step out between them with the city — and the world — looking up in awe. Exhilarating, exciting, and more than a little sad — 9/11′s never mentioned, but it hangs over the film’s wonder and joy — Man on Wire‘s a great story of inspiration, celebration and gutsy glory.
Yes, it’s a comic-book movie; it’s also the year’s best meditation on right, wrong and the struggle to figure out the difference between the two. It also has some amazingly pure action moviemaking — and it’s ultimately a great example to big-studio Hollywood that you can make a great movie that still makes plenty of money.
One of the standouts of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Ballast is hard to sum up, as three people connect and clash in the gray flatness of a Mississippi winter — and even harder to forget, with incredible performances and a haunting realism that the movies too rarely have.
A lesser-seen foreign film that speaks in the universal language of youth and young manhood, as two friends and novelists in their ’20s kinda know they’re clichés and don’t quite know how to change that. Reprise tackles some real stuff, but it’s also fun — brilliantly cut and shot and edited, with energy and ambition leaping off-screen in every frame.
One of the best performances in the year, as Sean Penn plays the murdered San Francisco politician and gay rights leader with smart, sly acting that, as I noted when the film came out, shows us that while Harvey Milk may have been a martyr, he was no saint. Milk‘s not a one-issue film, either; it’s one of the best movies about modern American politics we’ve had in a long, long time.
3) Slumdog Millionaire
A big, old-fashioned movie set in 21st-Century fast-forward India, as a brave, smart street-born kid (Dev Patel, in a winning performance) gets a chance to win it all on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and more importantly, just maybe, reunite with his lost love. Tough and exciting and hopeful and honest, and immensely rousing.
2) The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke makes his comeback as a broken-down ’8os pro wrestling superstar making do and getting by in low-rent matches and with what remains of his faded glory — until a heart attack forces him to face the idea of life after the ring. A brilliant script, smart direction and a great cast (Rourke’s amazing, but Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood also put unexpected moments in what could have been cliché parts) make The Wrestler a thrilling, funny, scary and very American story.
For this two-part epic about the life of, yes, revolutionary Che Guevara, Steven Soderbergh combines his indie roots (sex, lies and videotape, The Limey) with the big-screen scale of his studio films (Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven) to make a historical epic that doesn’t try to tell you everything about its subject’s life, and one that shows us a vision of the most important political figures of the 20th century without making our minds up for us. Part one is thrilling, exciting action; part two is a sad slide into the darkness, and the two compliment each other perfectly. Benicio Del Toro is great as Che, but it’s Soderbergh — shooting on location, on digital video, with fully independent financing – who’s the star here, making the most ambitious, flawed, exciting and fascinating movie of the year.
(Almost, but not quite: WALL-E, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, A Christmas Tale, Encounters at the End of the World, Gomorra, Rachel Getting Married, Synecdoche, New York, The Class.)