The Best Movies of 2008

Written by Movie Retriever

It’s that time of year when critics make the often futile attempt to sum up hundreds of movies and twelve months of viewing into a nice, neat package. How do you define 2008 in movies? Personally, I found myself turning away from films that were too focused on the depressing. The movies that I loved not only transcended criticism but also were more often than not “positive.” Maybe Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky wore off on me but bleak films like Revolutionary Road, Changeling, Ballast, Wendy and Lucy, and I’ve Loved You So Long didn’t make my top twenty and I’m completely burned out on everything Nazi (The Reader, Valkyrie, The Boy with the Striped Pajamas). Not that they’re all bad, I just found myself looking for those moments of emotional transcendence instead of reminders about the bleakness of humanity. Walter’s drum-playing in The Visitor, the beautiful wedding at the center of Rachel Getting Married, the Dickensian triumph that has made Slumdog Millionaire a phenomenon, the movement of Milk, even The Ram’s final moment of twisted glory in The Wrestler, and, of course, the little robot who saved planet Earth. Blame the economy, the war, the bitter campaigns, or just the general state of the world, but the movies that really spoke to me in 2008 gave me hope, not just for filmmaking, but for life.

Before we get to the list, I feel I should address the question I’ve been asked the most this season – was 2008 a good year for movies? Let’s break it down statistically. I gave my highest rating (four stars or “bones”) less times this year – 11 out of over 200 seen – than I have since 2002 – and, to be fair, I saw half as many movies that year than I did in this one, so the percentage of quality at the top was disturbingly low. But I also gave three stars more than any other rating in 2008. So, there weren’t a lot of great movies, but there were a lot of good ones. At the same time, and I’ll get into this more in next week’s “Worst Films of 2008” article, there was an unacceptable amount of total junk – one star or less films. (I shattered my record for that rating.) More three-star films than four-star ones and more one-star films than two-stars – it seems pretty clear that everything slid down a notch, making 2008 not a very good year. But we’re here to stay positive. These were the best…

Acclaimed films of 2008 that I didn’t get a chance to see that could have conceivably made this list: August Evening, Before I Forget, Cadillac Records, Chop Shop, The Flight of the Red Balloon, Frozen River, My Winnipeg, Shotgun Stories, and Waltz With Bashir

Runner-ups: Burn After Reading, Che, The Class, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, The Edge of Heaven, Pineapple Express, Sangre de mi Sangre, Snow Angels, Still Life, Tell No One, Transsiberian, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Wendy & Lucy

Brian Tallerico


10. Hunger

Remember what I said about emotionally positive movies in my introduction? Forget that for just a little bit. Steve McQueen’s stunning dissection of the human power to choose the mental or even the spiritual over the physical is one of the most riveting films of the year. Almost dialogue-free except for a 17-minute, unbroken conversation that sets up its final act, Hunger is the story of IRA prisoners led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbinder) and their decision to go on a hunger strike. The first half of the film ping-pongs protagonists from a cop in the prison to one of the physically-abused inmates to eventually Bobby himself. Seemingly disjointed but stunningly photographed scenes like the cop washing the wounds on his hands (from beating prisoners) to an amazing sequence visualizing the physically violent way the inmates are cut and cleaned add resonance to Sands’ decision, which takes center stage in only the final act. But McQueen isn’t mythologizing Sands or hunger strikes. Hunger may not be thematically “positive,” but in seeing the striking visual sensibility of one of the best directorial debuts of the year, I certainly felt something close to elation at the use of the form.


9. Let the Right One In

Speaking of debuts, Tomas Alfredson made one of the best of the year with his riveting tale of vampire in love, Let the Right One In. I mistakenly gave the film only three-and-a-half “bones” the first time I saw it. Watching it again and letting it sink in from the first viewing, it deserves four. One of the things that struck me most both times I saw Let the Right One In is the way Alfredson and his cinematographer turn their snow-covered setting into a character in their brilliant blend of adolescence and blood-lust. Who’s more emotionally isolated than the awkward pre-teen? The awkward, pre-teen vampire who literally can’t be close to anyone. And the isolation of puberty is amplified by a cold, snow-covered setting that forces everyone indoors. Oskar is drawn to Eli partially because she’s the only other child on the playground. Their love story is one of the best of the year, a beautiful tale of how much we are willing to forgive to keep the one person (or vampire) who has ever loved us close.


8. The Visitor

Walter Vale is one of the most full-realized, believable characters of the year and it’s in the way that writer/director Thomas McCarthy and actor Richard Jenkins bring him to vivid life that gives The Visitor its beating heart. The Visitor is as full of life as any film in 2008, partially because it’s about a man who discovers the passion for his own in the most unusual of places – his own apartment. I hate it when people try to classify The Visitor as a movie about our nation’s ignorant and stupid immigration laws. Yes, that’s part of the fabric of the story, but The Visitor is a much more complex film than that. It’s a beautiful, heartwarming story of a man who opens his closed heart to music, friendship, and love. When Walter plays his drum in that final scene, he does so with anger at what happened to his friend Tarek, but also as a tribute to the man who changed his life by merely being a visitor to this country.


7. The Wrestler

The Wrestler is almost more remarkable for what it’s not than for what it is. A film about an over-the-hill wrestling superstar who can find no happiness or stability outside the ring – and increasingly less inside of it – it could have been a melodramatic, soapy mess. There’s even yet another stripper with a heart of gold, one of the most overdone clichรฉs in movie history. But Darren Aronofsky, Mickey Rourke, and Marisa Tomei take the stereotypes and make them genuine again. The physical and emotional pain of Randy “The Ram” Robinson feels completely real in every single scene of The Wrestler. Rourke has been praised for giving one of those soul-baring, physically demanding performances that you only see every few years, but it’s a part of the realism that Aronofsky is going for in the entire piece. Even the emotional confrontation with his estranged daughter, an underrated Evan Rachel Wood, which would have been pure soap opera in another director and actor’s hands, feels painfully honest.


6. Happy-Go-Lucky

I can’t shake Poppy. I think about her back story, what happens to her in Happy-Go-Lucky, and I wonder what she’s up to now. Maybe she’s been so memorable in part because I think she’s been so miscategorized by people instantly turned off to a character whose main goal in life seems to be to try to make everyone happy. But Poppy is not naive. She’s not blissful in ignorance. That’s a misreading of the film. When she encounters the abuse of one of her young students, she doesn’t ignore it. She doesn’t believe in blind love with her new beau. She even knows that Scott, her sometimes violent driving instructor, is a little crazy. Like Walter and Randy, Poppy is fully three-dimensional and, in bringing her to life, Sally Hawkins gives the most memorable performance of the year. Happy-Go-Lucky is a hard movie to define. It has its comedic moments but also goes to some dark places. And what’s the message of Mike Leigh’s movie? I’m not sure there is one. I think it’s just a classic character study and the one this year that has most imprinted herself on my brain.


5. Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s best film since Silence of the Lambs is one of his most personal. Surrounded by musicians, multi-cultural artists, and good friends, Rachel Getting Married is like Demme’s dream wedding. How better for a filmmaker to capture what thematically needs to be an overwhelming declaration of love than to do so with music he loves (it’s no coincidence that the groom sings Neil Young) and people he honestly cares about? Into this atmosphere of overpowering warmth comes a woman who can no longer feel love. She doesn’t even think she’s worthy of God’s love. Hathaway’s award-winning portrayal of Kym, the deeply damaged sister of the titular Rachel, provides the perfect counter-balance to the cinematic wedding of the decade, but the entire ensemble excels in Demme’s creatively rewarding environment. Rachel Getting Married is one of the most unique movies of 2008 because it’s filled with dichotomies. Slowly paced yet riveting. Painfully emotional yet not melodramatic. Loving and filled with self-loathing. And brilliant in every scene.


4. Slumdog Millionaire

When I was writing the introduction to this piece, I was looking for a word other than “triumph” to describe Slumdog Millionaire but nothing seems nearly as appropriate. Danny Boyle’s best film is about the human will’s ability to triumph over any kind of adversity. It’s turned into the sleeper hit of the year because of its power to inspire every audience that sees it. Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t leave the theater for Slumdog Millionaire with a smile on their face. Simon Beaufoy’s Oscar-worthy screenplay distills a book full of what were basically short stories into a study about the importance of life experience over purely intellectual pursuit. And with Boyle’s masterful direction, they turn the story of a lucky young man on a crash course with destiny into an inspirational film that everyone can relate to around the world. We’d all like to think that the ups and downs of our life have an end-goal and that, even though we may not know every answer on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, our life experience has led us to where we are for a reason. Slumdog Millionaire is one of the best films of 2008 because it takes the amazing and makes it relatably inspirational.


3. Milk

Speaking of inspirational, just as you shouldn’t trust anyone who’s not smiling at the end of Slumdog Millionaire, stay away from anyone unmoved by the best film of Gus Van Sant’s career and the best performance of Sean Penn’s. Milk is a masterpiece. It’s easy to write a movie about a martyr and, in lesser hands, that’s exactly what Milk would have been. But Harvey himself would hate a movie that turned him into a martyr, so Van Sant and should-be-Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black did something a lot more complicated and made a movie about a movement. Milk is a movie about the painful steps that the homosexual community has had to make just to be seen as equal. Black and Van Sant film every element of Harvey Milk’s life in that context. So, we see the impact of his drive for gay rights on his lovers, most notably in performances by James Franco and Diego Luna. We see him run repeatedly for office, picking himself up and trying again when he loses. And we see the impact of Milk’s movement on the damaged soul that would take this inspirational man’s life because he couldn’t get a grip on his own in Josh Brolin’s incredible portrayal of Dan White. As 2008 has painfully taught us, the gay rights movement is far from over, but no film has ever captured the importance of the continued struggle as vibrantly or brilliantly as Milk.


2. The Dark Knight

What more is there to say about The Dark Knight? Is it the best superhero movie ever made? There’s no contest. Seen outside of the blurry haze of the summer movie season, The Dark Knight looks even more accomplished than it did earlier this year. So much has been written about Heath Ledger’s riveting portrayal of The Joker – and I’m certainly a part of the chorus calling for him to win Best Supporting Actor – but he’s just one piece of the amazing puzzle that director Christopher Nolan put together for The Dark Knight. It’s one of the most technically accomplished films in YEARS from Wally Pfister’s gorgeous use of shadow and light in his award-worthy cinematography to the spectacular score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer to the editing, costume design, etc. Leave Ledger’s performance aside and The Dark Knight would still make this list. Perfectly conceived, paced, and executed, The Dark Knight not only raises the bar on superhero movies – that’s a given – but it also raises the bar on what we should expect from our entertainment.


1. Wall-E

Believe it or not, even a critic as cynical as I am is really just looking for that theatrical experience that transcends what we do. The movies that I find most notable are almost always the ones that simply make me forget about the review I inevitably have to write. It’s the rare film that a critic can just let wash over them and take them away from their profession. Most of us are sitting there in the dark taking notes, trying to grab quotes or ideas for our inevitable review. But when a movie can make a critic stop pre-planning their review and just enjoy the experience, well, that’s rare indeed. Pixar has that power and never more so than in their best film, the masterpiece that is Wall-E. Director Andrew Stanton and the team at Pixar proved yet again that they are filmmakers truly willing to take the biggest risks that reap the biggest rewards. A movie with almost no dialogue, references to Hello Dolly, and set in the overdone genre of science fiction? Wall-E was a HUGE risk. They swung for the fences and they hit a home run for the ages, a movie that people will be watching for generations to come. It’s one of the few films from 2008 that I can guarantee you will last throughout the years. The little robot that could is the star of not just one of the best movies of the year, but one of the best of the decade. 2008 may not have been a good year, but any that gives us a movie as treasured as Wall-E isn’t half-bad either.

17 thoughts on “The Best Movies of 2008

  1. mat

    I ordered them all on Netflix based on your review of “The Visitor” which I thought was a great flick and a total surprise! Besides, I’m snowed in and need some distraction. Thanks for the list.

  2. Lacey

    The only one I’ve seen was Rachel Getting Married. Usually I’m a big Pixar fan, but Wall E just looked to dark in the promotional material.

  3. slip35

    The Dark Knight is stunning, in every sense the word. Whether you look at the acting, the directing, the writing, or any other aspect of the movie, it’s hard to find a weak point.

    Nolan returns to do another incredible job at directing, and once again raises the bar for the Batman series. He creates a perfect balance between having The Dark Knight be a drama about the characters in it and an action-packed crime saga.

    The acting alone is terrific. Christian Bale is a natural as Bruce Wayne, and also makes the best Batman I’ve seen yet, and by his side is Michael Caine, who just seems to fit perfectly as Alfred. Maggie Gyllenhaal does quite well as Rachel and Aaron Eckhart pulls off the transformation from Harvey Dent to Two-Face. Gary Oldman playing Gordon deserves an honorable mention. And then there’s Heath Ledger, whose performance alone is nothing short of amazing. A few years ago most people would’ve said that he would be best known for and remembered by his starring role in Brokeback Mountain. Not anymore.

    There’s a constant internal struggle for Bruce Wayne, who does all he can to keep the difference between himself and Batman, and the difference between what is right and what has to be done. And all the while chaos reigns in the streets of Gotham, compliments of the Joker, who seems to be the one man who can bring down Batman.

    All in all, there is nothing disappointing about The Dark Knight. For a movie that’s two and a half hours long, there isn’t a dull moment. Living up to the expectations and hype seemed impossible for it to do, but somehow The Dark Knight not only does, but surpasses it.

  4. bill

    what about gran torino? that was four stars and even though it wasn’t nominated for any oscars it was still pretty good and i dont’ think wall-e deserves to be number 1. dark knight should be number 1

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