by HELEN GEIB
When I see a – best, worst, whatever – films list, I ask, “what’s the methodology?” I want to know eligibility standards, selection criteria, purpose. I want to know if the list will be of use to me by challenging my critical judgments or introducing me to new works, or if it’s just another useless “AFI 100”-style publicity grab. Because context matters to me when I read others’ lists, I lay out the context for mine in the next paragraphs. If you’re here for the titles and want to jump straight to the list, that’s okay with me too.
First things first: “2008” is a movie-year, not a calendar-year. A movie-year is approximately 14 months long; it runs from January 1 through the day in late February or early March of the following year that I publish my best-of list. The pool of films for movie-year 2008 is all films with an official calendar-year 2008 release date that were released theatrically where I live during movie-year 2008, plus films with an official calendar-year 2007 (or earlier) release date that were first released theatrically in calendar-year 2008 (but that didn’t make the cut-off for movie-year 2007). I didn’t create this system, I just live with it.
2008 was a very good year for me, both in number of movies seen – 80 – and moviegoer satisfaction. I enjoyed most of the films I saw, loved every film on this list and a handful of others besides, and hated only a few. Because I lived in Los Angeles for part of the year, I saw some great foreign films I wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to see in the theater.
My top ten is more accurately the top ten films in English. All of these films received nationwide theatrical release, although two were relegated to limited release on the art-house circuit. The main list is followed by a sidebar spotlighting my top five foreign-language films. Theatrical distribution for these films ranged from limited to extremely limited; I encourage you to seek them out on DVD.
The ranking is largely arbitrary; there is an appreciable difference in quality between the first and tenth films on the list, but little between the first and third, or sixth and eighth. Ranking a drama, a thriller, and an animated family film is an apples to oranges to pears comparison to begin with, and when several films are all extraordinary, debating which one is the most extraordinary is a pointless exercise, albeit one I heartily wish I could indulge in more often.
Director and co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann’s grand epic of the forging of Australian national identity received little attention and less favor. I count myself among its few, but fervent admirers. I love everything about Australia, from its humane mythmaking to its pictorial beauty, its thrilling set-pieces to its emotions-stirring climax, its consciously old-fashioned movie-making to its celebration of song as primal, universal language. Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman prove their worth as charismatic, glamorous stars and actors of great range and depth, while young unknown Brandon Walters gives one of the best performances I’ve seen by a child actor; their characters simultaneously fully realized participants in a particular story and symbols in a foundational myth.<
2. In Bruges
My film going began on a high note with In Bruges, the first new movie I saw in 2008 and the year’s best written. Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s original script is a brilliantly balanced and sustained mix of wit, feeling, intellectual challenge, visceral thrills, and spiritual seeking. Colin Farrell’s brilliant performance is the best of his career to date; Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes are excellent in support.
3. Slumdog Millionaire
The first time I watched Slumdog Millionaire I was swept up and carried along by its energy, by the tremendous driving force behind the storytelling. I sympathized with the characters and was engrossed by the story, but what I felt most directly was the sheer verve of the filmmaking, visual and aural. The second time I watched it I experienced an immediate and uninterrupted emotional identification with Jamal, the young hero whose Dickensian life story stretches from a Mumbai slum to a respectable office job and (the modern touch!) an appearance on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” The identification is aided by the great charm of Dev Patel’s performance as the adult Jamal and cemented by the universality of his character’s motives: devotion to his childhood love and his brother.
4. Kung Fu Panda
Kung Fu Panda is hands-down the best family film of 2008. Smart, clever, often very funny, but characterized more than anything by a warm affection for Po, Shifu, the Furious Five, and all the creatures, great and small, kung fu fighting and not, in its colorful menagerie. The lessons about courage, friendship, and community arise naturally from the storytelling and are always worth repeating. The perfect film to introduce children to kung fu cinema; adults already in the know will find it a delightful tribute to the genre. And the animation is great, too.
5. The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke’s justly acclaimed performance as professional wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson, long past his prime but still enraptured by the roar of the crowd, is the centerpiece of writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. While I was watching the film I was aware of flaws (a degree of over-determination, moments when the skeleton of the script shows too clearly), but as I think back on it what I remember is the brilliance of the character study and an ending that captures all the contradictions of the Ram’s empty/fulfilled life in a single image.
6. The Fall
I can’t decide what I like most about director Tarsem’s The Fall: the touching friendship story, performed by the handsome Lee Pace and an adorable child actress named Catinca Untaru; the nearly continuous stream of stunning images; or the elaborate puzzle-box narrative. The film’s loving homage to the comedies and serials of the silent cinema was the icing on the cake.
A boxing movie given a contemporary veneer through the application of mixed martial arts moves in place of old-fashioned punches, writer-director David Mamet’s Redbelt is a compelling character study built on the foundation of a terrific lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Emily Mortimer is wonderful in the principal supporting role and Tim Allen, of all people, nearly steals the show as an aging Hollywood action-movie star.
The limited release given director and co-screenwriter Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian is the distribution enigma of the year. A well-crafted, dramatic, and emotionally engaging thriller, this is a film with far, far wider audience appeal than its small box-office returns would suggest. (It even boasts well-known, popular actors (Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley) and an exotic setting!) The film creates suspense through perfect pacing, misdirection, and by alternately following and working against genre conventions. Because I went into the film blessedly unspoiled, it got me several times, and I defy even the most jaded filmgoer to see one of the twists coming. Emily Mortimer’s performance as the vulnerable, resilient heroine was my favorite performance by an actress in 2008.
9. The Dark Knight
The event movie of the year was, all too unusually, also one of the best films of the year. The character psychology is disturbingly credible, while the film’s sustained intensity carries it easily over the occasional implausibility in the plotting. Hollywood’s current comic book movie strategy of casting fine, “serious” actors paid excellent dividends in the performances by Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and of course, Heath Ledger, outstanding as the Joker.
10. The Forbidden Kingdom
An idiosyncratic choice, I admit. I love that Hollywood has made a high-quality movie in my favorite movie genre, the martial arts fantasy. I love that Jet Li plays the Monkey King. I love that Jet Li and Jackie Chan are in a movie together, that it’s a good movie that gives each of them a really good role, that they fight each other and it’s a great action set-piece. I love the Hollywood artistry and craft that went into making this movie look so amazing. I love that there’s a fight in a teahouse, two splendid villains, and witty, inventive opening credits. I love the respect the film holds for the Chinese mythology and Hong Kong movies that are its inspirations. I love that there isn’t a “Hollywood happy ending” and that the film ends just exactly as it should.
Top Five Foreign-Language Films (in alphabetical order)
The Edge of Heaven (Germany)
The Edge of Heaven defies easy summary. Read my full review here.
Let the Right One In (Sweden)
Let the Right One In is not like other vampire movies. Its story of a vampire girl trapped in perpetual adolescence and the young boy who becomes enamored with her is horrifying and terribly, terribly sad. I was moved to tears by the boy’s pitiable conviction that he will be happy forever when the reality is that he will live degraded and die miserably, for his present ignorance and certain future knowledge that he is merely one of many interchangeable companions in the endless cycle of his beloved’s life.
None of the five films up for the Oscar for best foreign-language film for 2008 was released in time to be considered for this list. Similarly, Mongol, one of the nominated films for 2007, missed the cut-off date for my 2007 list. It’s too good a film to let it slide through the gap between its home country and U.S. release dates. I like a film that assumes its audience is intelligent and paying attention. I also appreciate the filmmakers’ good judgment in sticking closely to the historical legend of the youth and rise to power of the Mongol, Genghis Khan; a story this good doesn’t need “improving.”
No Regret (South Korea)
A love story about two young men from widely separated social classes, No Regret is a powerful drama and a fascinating window to contemporary Seoul. While the digital cinematography betrays the film’s shoestring budget, the script and performances, particularly by the lead actors, need no disclaimers. The complex narrative construction of variation within a repetitive pattern is exhilarating. The characters’ consciousness of the repetition makes it more than an intellectual exercise.
Sword of the Stranger (Japan)
Sword of the Stranger is an animated samurai movie about a young boy, his faithful dog, and the mysterious ronin who aids them in their desperate flight (and many fights) to escape the clutches of a cadre of ruthless Chinese warriors, the local lord and his double-dealing samurai retainers, and various corrupt monks and venal peasants. The film is at once a drama of friendship and redemption, an exciting adventure story, and an excoriating attack on Japanese xenophobia and racism. The animation is superb; landscapes are beautifully detailed and colored and fluid, thrilling chases and fights make this one of the best action movies of the year.