Some say the true measure of a great film is how well it stands the test of time. So don’t believe all those other “Best of 2008” lists that tried to tell you which of last year’s movies were going to last before the year was even over. The Daily Film Staff’s top 15 list covers all the can’t-miss films of last year. So without further ado, who wants to see a magic trick?
1. “The Dark Knight”
Hindsight’s a valuable thing, and there’s a reason we all saw this 11 times. So much has been said about Christopher Nolan’s revisionist spectacle, but in short, “The Dark Knight” is perfect. Perfect in its mix of art and entertainment; perfect in its mass appeal and longevity. An operatic costume tragedy, it’s a money-maker with guts and brains. It was easily the greatest film experience of 2008. Forget the Oscars. In time, this film will receive the honors it really deserves.
2. “Slumdog Millionaire”
Telling the story of a young man from the slums and his quest to win “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” “Slumdog Millionaire” is sometimes a human drama, other times a romance and at all times completely magical. It beautifully details pain, suffering and, above all, the strength of the human spirit. A film that will will leave you wanting to dance out of the theater, “Slumdog” is without a doubt one of the best films of the year. And that’s the final answer.
The term “movie magic” has been abducted by Disney (a subsidiary of Buy n Large) as a corporate catchphrase. So it’s playing into the palm of their Mickey Mouse hand to declare this Pixar’s sci-fi robot romance as such. Yet what other possible response could one have to seeing the world’s most adorable trash compactor escape a demolished Earth, sail into the outer reaches of the galaxy on the back of a spaceship that holds his true love and outstretch his arm to brush Saturn’s rings? Very well: Magical it is.
To quote Harvey Milk himself, “You gotta give ’em hope” — and this film certainly takes that to heart. An absorbing look into the life of openly gay politician Harvey Milk, “Milk” is the perfect mix of humor, inspiration and strength. In the center of it all is the wonderfully human performance by Sean Penn. Years from now, audiences will still feel this film’s poignant message of tolerance and, yes, hope.
5. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
It speaks to the quality of the film when its 166-minute running time seems to just fly by. “Benjamin Button” combines stunning CGI effects, solid acting and an intriguing fantasy story to create one of this year’s best-produced films. While it’s Pitt’s film to carry, a strong supporting cast, including Taraji P. Henson as Button’s adoptive mother, keeps the audience engaged and the film enchanting.
6. “Gran Torino”
Like “The Searchers” for 2008, Clint Eastwood handed in his most aware and oddly affable performance with this contemporary “mid-western.” Seldom has an old curmudgeon been this likeable. A morality tale about traditional values fighting with progressive redemption, Eastwood puts everything he has learned over the course of his career into this film. It may be his last performance, and if that’s true, he has made his departure even harder with this movie. A crowd-pleaser with a message, as long as you stay off his lawn.
7. “Man on Wire”
“Man on Wire” covers the scheming behind the red-headed Frenchman Philippe Petit’s infamous walk between the Twin Towers. It’s funny, endearing and almost poetic at times. Petit captured the spirit of the ’70s and the film brings to life the raw emotion behind his feats.
8. “In Bruges”
Yes, the film is charming to the extreme. But there’s more to “In Bruges” than inducing chortles as Colin Farrell’s supposedly tough hitman swears and trudges his way through a fairy tale village. Death is an ever-present force on this vacation, and the movie’s final act drives that point home with striking camera work, potboiler suspense and the mournful, heart-ripping usage of The Dubliners’ song “On Raglan Road.” As these characters approach their harrowing but justified consequences, Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy approaches greatness.
9. “Iron Man”
One of the most energetic movies of the year, “Iron Man” closely follows the original comic book source material with nonstop action and pure, unadulterated fun. In a time of complex philosophical/political distractions, the film is a refreshing change from the subliminal subtexts that characterize so many modern superhero movies. In the end, the success of the movie is attributed to the basics: keen attention to the story and eye-opening and original visual effects.
Based on Peter Morgan’s stage play, “Frost/Nixon” is heavy on talk but never boring. It’s a film that allows younger audiences to see further into Richard Nixon’s famous Watergate scandal, an event that ordinarily seems only flat and historical. Frank Langella, as disgraced President Nixon, is particularly impressive as he portrays his character in two different lights: a proud public figure and a more flawed private man. He humanizes Nixon in a way that is both endearing and entertaining.
11. “Tropic Thunder”
Much has been said about Robert Downey Jr.’s exceptional and divisive dip into black-face, but “Tropic Thunder” has some acute writing (thanks to Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, Downey’s co-star and director) that should not go unappreciated. Beginning with lewd and crude faux-previews, “Thunder” is as politically incorrect as possible. It adheres to the no-holds-barred, offend-all-so-as-to-offend-no-one mantra, but it succeeds where Howard Stern and other racy comics fail. “Thunder” has the same wit and layering as the similar comic classic “The Three Amigos,” and that Downey character is pretty hilarious.
As producer Scott Rudin said, “There is nothing postmodern about this movie.” It is simply a riveting piece of drama. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley elicits remarkably strong performances from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis as three members of the parish faculty and the mother of a student, respectively. Having adapted the script from his own stageplay, Shanley constructs an entirely enthralling character piece that only gains more strength in its execution on screen.
-Noah Dean Stahl
13. “Burn After Reading”
It’s the Coen brothers at their most bizarre yet, so of course it’s hilarious. “Burn After Reading” stars Brad Pitt, George Clooney (that’s enough right there) and Frances McDormand. Pitt is a meathead who believes he has uncovered FBI secrets, McDormand is a physical trainer who just wants some plastic surgery and Clooney keeps a sex machine in his basement. Through a series of unusual coincidences, their lives become entangled in one of the biggest government misunderstandings imaginable.
14. “Beyond Our Ken”
If you stumble upon this cult documentary, you’ll find yourself quoting it for a lifetime. But that shouldn’t be the only reason to see this superb observation of the Australian cult Kenja, named for founders Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton. Half-shocking, half-hilarious, you’ll want to transfer energy, put on a play and grapple your niece right after. Seriously, that’s all in there. It’s highly obscure, but totally worthwhile. In a good year for docs, this was the most unique.
15. “The Wrestler”
If a man is defined by what he does, what becomes of him when he is no longer needed? “The Wrestler” is a beautiful movie that chronicles the aftermath of a noteworthy professional career and a failed personal life. Mickey Rourke is brilliant as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. This is Rourke’s most important and memorable performance to date, and while the movie is extraordinarily directed by Darren Aronofsky, the spotlight remains firmly fixed on Mickey Rourke.