Ah, the ever-popular "Top Ten List" that critics put out every year. Our own little way to push our opinions on our readers one last time before a new batch of theatrical pleasures and heartaches come our way in a new year. One last attempt to get people to rent or screen theatrically those films we personally loved during a given theatrical release year.
I don't think I'm alone among critics in thinking this is one of my favorite and most loathsome essays to write each year. It is my favorite for the very reasons I mentioned in the first paragraph. I loathe it because it is cause for defense about something that is incalculable, something that cannot be described about a particular movie, an innermost feeling that this or that was the best movie I saw this year. And to claim one movie as the best is ignoring one of the primary ingredients of a great film, a sense that there is no other experience exactly like this particular film. As such it is incomparable with any other film, and therefore none of the great films can be the best.
But I digress. As a critic, it seems even if no one demands it, I must divulge a list of what I feel were the best movies of the year. This year I awarded 11 four-star reviews to individual movies (actually, 13 including documentaries, which I have separated from fictional films for the first time this year). But much as I did a couple of years ago, I found it very difficult to order them into a numbered list from the worst of the best to the best of the best. They are all great movies, and should be observed as such rather than say this one was the very best and that one not so much. So instead of a numbered list, I have chosen to list my top ten alphabetically and added a special jury prize for the most unique of those eleven top-rated films.
I have also included four documentaries that are as entertaining as any of those eleven. And included a list of ten other films that, while not being the best movies of the year, should be considered as great entertainments. I have also included a list of the worst movies of the year. There were eleven of those as well; but since "The Onion Movie" was not released theatrically, I cut that list back to the standard ten entries.
Last year, due to a hard drive crash that limited the amount of time I had to compile my list, I left out best of lists for specific film achievements in acting, direction and writing. Those lists are back this year in a slightly altered form. There is a list of ten directors of note over the last year. There is also a list of ten writing assignments of note from original and adapted works combined. And I have included all 20 of my performance nods in one category instead of separating them into leading and supporting roles and genders. And finally, I have included eight noteworthy voice performances from the 2008 release year.
But enough of how, it's time for the what and why.
Chop Shop. This ultra indie by director Ramin Bahrami is an intimate study in survival for a kid who lives and works in the streets. Finding both job and home in a back alley chop shop, the young Ale lives by his wits in a world that requires him to be as strong and resourceful as the greatest of citizens while living in a forgotten and mostly unseen community of our urban poverty. Bahrami presents a revealing portrait of a way of life invisible to most Americans, yet one that exists as a right of passage for many underprivileged urban dwellers.
The Dark Knight. While possibly not the greatest superhero movie ever made, "The Dark Knight" is perhaps the greatest movie ever made based on characters created for a comic book. This movie takes the hero out of superhero and provides a study on the relationship of good guys and bad guys. Suggesting that heroes and villains are drawn out by each other, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan use the Batman mythology to argue that no matter what, the hero is necessary because evil exists in the world whether we like it or not. Someone has to face that responsibility, and it is one that must have its consequences.
Doubt. John Patrick Shanley's 1960's based Catholic school drama about a priest who may or may not have sexually abused the school's first black student is near perfection in dramatic structure and cinematic style. "Doubt" looks at the clashing personalities of the two nuns who bring suspicion on the priest and the priest himself. It also looks at the fragility of social change, with four of the year's best performances by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.
Gran Torino. Continuing a streak of Eastwood's best films, "Gran Torino" proves that some directors and actors just get better with age. In his latest, Eastwood plays and old codger living after his wife's death in the same neighborhood he has his whole adult life. But the neighborhood around him has changed, becoming a community of the Chinese Hmong people. Despite his racism, the old man takes a Hmong boy under his wing after the boy tries to steal his vintage '72 Gran Torino. Through his acceptance of others, the man goes on a personal journey discovering truth through his staunch stance of right above wrong.
Paranoid Park. While Gus Van Sant's late year entry "Milk" (still unseen by me) has reaped in awards for the longtime indie favorite director, his early year release "Paranoid Park" has been fairly well forgotten by most critics. Taking on a very different subject matter, "Paranoid Park" concerns itself with a high school skateboarder who finds himself involved in a murder mystery after visiting a skateboard park. Unlike the star-studded "Milk", Van Sant made "Paranoid Park" in much the same manner as his powerful "Elephant", using non-actors in all the primary roles. He mixes in the elements of a structured mystery into a keenly observed portrayal of teenage life.
Quantum of Solace. The reinvention of James Bond continues in his latest adventure "Quantum of Solace". In this first-ever direct sequel in the franchise, Director Marc Forster picks up the action right where the incredibly successful "Casino Royale" left off, and he ups the action ante. The action in this movie is so non-stop that it plays like the ultimate action movie, but it also provides a great deal of motivation for just why James Bond is the womanizing secret agent that will do anything for king and country with no thought for his own welfare or image.
Redbelt. David Mamet continues his quiet film writing and direction mastery with yet another fascinating and complex confidence game in the martial arts-themed "Redbelt". Like his underrated "Spartan", the movie itself is a confidence game--seeming to be about a jujitsu teacher struggling to get by teaching a pure form of the discipline out of a modest dojo, but soon there are Hollywood movie producers and Vegas mobsters involved in this man's fate. But the keys to the teacher's survival are the very ideals supported by his jujitsu philosophy.
Shotgun Stories. In the tradition of David Gordon Green's contemplative dramas of the Southern American experience, Jeff Nichols makes his auspicious writing and directorial debut with this harrowing and funny drama about two families from the same father that can't seem to break their destructive hatred of each other. Yes, I said it was funny too. Along with the beautiful cinematography by Adam Stone, Nichols provides a witty observation of the unique way one set of siblings knows and understands each other in the way only family can. There is no doubt Nichols will be an important filmmaker and no surprise that Green produced this little known film commodity. (Green released a couple of his own films this year to be discussed later in this list.)
The Signal. Three writer/directors combine their efforts to tell three separate chapters of a horror story where a television signal turns people into mindless killers. This rather standard horror story is told in one of the most original horror film in years. Framing this horror premise is a lover's triangle with each chapter depicting the events from a different person's perspective. The middle section adds the surprising element of humor to the horrific events by following the jilted boyfriend's search for his girlfriend and her lover after he has already been affected by the signal.
WALL*E. That loveable janitor robot that stole everyone's heart this year stole mine as well. Pixar once again proves their dominance over the animation genres by providing intelligent family entertainment that appeals to all ages. In this story of a lonesome robot that suddenly finds he is not alone in the universe, we get adventure, romance, and even social and environmental commentary about how we can all be better to each other and our planet. I dare you not to find something to appreciate about this movie.
Special Jury Prize.
Sukiyaki Western Django. In perhaps the strangest movie of the year, we get to see the marriage of two genres from two different cultures that have been fascinated with each other ever since their individual film industries developed. Japanese genreist director Takashi Miike takes us on a wild ride based on what might happen if the samurai films of the Eastern culture were to exist in the world of the Spaghetti Western. In it we see the similar themes and situations of those once popular genres set against a highly stylized production where warring samurai clans fight each other with swords, Gatling guns, and dynamite, all in the search of a mythical treasure. In the middle is a man with no name who plays both clans against each other to protect the innocent lives of the civilians caught in the middle.
Encounters at the End of the World. A nature documentary is the last thing in the world anyone would expect from eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog--himself included. But Discovery Docs financed him on a trip to Antarctica where he vowed not to make "a movie about penguins." But it is in a sequence where he does document penguins that it becomes evident how Herzog can turn any subject into a Herzog film. The amazing thing about this doc is that you can just enjoy it as a beautiful nature documentary, or you can look at it as one of Herzog's scrutinies of the loneliness of man as a self-destructive force.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Fans of the great Gonzo journalist are already aware of the insane life of the man whose pinnacle books include "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72". Perhaps this mostly talking head documentary isn't insane enough to truly reflect the man whose life it depicts, but it fills in the gaps of the life of this truly original American institution.
Surfwise. "Surfwise" is the fascinating documentary of a family that lived life off the grid due to their father's unique philosophy of life. With a family of eight children Dr. Dorian Paskowitz and his wife raised their family amazingly in a Winnebago. Paskowitz's strange beliefs would eventually tear the family apart, but through it all they had one binding force beyond mere relation--the need to catch a great wave.
Young@Heart. Now, I'm not going to pretend not to be a sucker for a good old fashioned feel good movie experience. A sucker I am, but no movie will make you feel better about life than this documentary about a chorus of elderly retirees that sing everything from Gershwin to Sonic Youth. There are smiles and tears to be found here, but mostly there is the joy of the music that gives these old folks a purpose in their golden years and will have you tapping your feet until the last of the credits roll.
Near Best Noteables.
The Bank Job. Roger Donaldson's historical heist picture is one of the best in recent years, bringing 1970's filmmaking ideals back along with the same period's wardrobes and politics.
The Happening. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening". His best movie since 2000's "Unbreakable" suffered from a marketing campaign that suggested an R-rated horror gorefest. Instead it is a wonderfully Hitchcockian thriller with the impact and import of H.G. Wells's cautionary "War of the Worlds".
In Bruges. A shout out to the Golden Globes for bringing more attention to this wonderful dark comedy about two hitmen who are sent to the beautiful but dull Belgium town of Bruges to lie low after a botched hit.
Iron Man. Proving that a successful superhero franchise doesn't have to be as dark and brooding as "The Dark Knight" to be great, "Iron Man" put the fun back into superheroes and summer blockbusters with a sparkling cast and an intelligent script to boot.
Marley & Me. The surprise of the year was that Hollywood didn't turn this story about a man and his dog and their family into a cutesy gosh-darn-it comedy, but instead took a serious look at just what goes into raising a family in the realities of everyday life.
Pineapple Express. Director David Gordon Green turns away from his serious indie dramas in this hilarious romp of a movie that supposes what an action thriller with two potheads as the heroes would look like.
Snow Angels. Earlier in the year Green also helmed this more personal drama of love, loneliness and a missing little girl. In it, Kate Beckinsale proves she is more than just a pretty face with the best performance of her career.
Stuck. The director of the cult classic "Re-Animator" Stuart Gordon helmed this unique thriller based on the true story of a woman who ran down a man with her car and left him stuck in her window alive in her garage over the weekend before being discovered.
Tropic Thunder. Ben Stiller and company define comedic genius in this zany spoof of Hollywood blockbusters that depicts the production of Vietnam War film that goes terribly wrong when the cast finds themselves in the middle of a real war. Filled with incredible supporting performances by Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Cruise, Danny McBride, and Nick Nolte.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe. X-philes were disappointed not to see the "X-Files" signatures they had come to love from the television series. Others just stayed away. What nobody seemed to notice was a skillfully made, if moody, FBI procedural in the vein of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Cell".
27 Dresses. Just what we needed, another romantic comedy about a woman who isn't the bride but wants to be, all the while not seeing the man of her dreams right in front of her face.
American Teen. If teenagers really are this stupid, then there ain't nothin' Barack Obama can do to save this country.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Really?!
Drillbit Taylor. The writers of "Superbad" and "Pineapple Express" should have left this one inside the Trapper Keeper in which it was composed.
The Love Guru. Oh, how the mighty will fall.
Mamma Mia! Loved the music. Hated everything else.
Max Payne. Will anyone ever make a movie based on a video game that is actually worth watching?
Meet the Spartans. The absolute worst movie of the year. Possibly the worst spoof of all time.
Mirrors. Perhaps someone should have looked in this mirror before they sent it out of the house.
One Missed Call. I wish I hadn't screened this call.
Alejandro Polanco as Ale in "Chop Shop"--Never has a child performance looked this genuine.
Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"--I never saw the seams in this performance, and that cannot be done with CGI and makeup alone.
Cate Blanchett as Daisy in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"--As seamless as Pitt's work with less scenery to hide behind.
Heath Ledger as The Joker in "The Dark Knight"--I can add no more insight into this bold performance that hasn't already been said better by others.
Amy Adams as Sister James in "Doubt"--As the audience's eyes, Adams allows us to have the doubts that the other characters in this film deny themselves.
Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in "Doubt"--Unquestionably the best actor of her generation.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Brendan Flynn in "Doubt"--If he did it, Hoffman is the perfect slime for the part; but with surprising charm, Hoffman forces doubt on his character's guilt.
Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller in "Doubt"--In the course of one scene Davis lets us realize the fears of an entire generation.
Russell Brand as Aldous Snow in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"--Brand steals the show with surprising witless charm.
Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino"--They call them the golden years because of the grace Eastwood has attained throughout his years.
Neil Patrick Harris as Neil Patrick Harris in "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay"--Has anyone ever parodied themselves with quite the same success as this former child M.D.?
Colin Farrell as Ray in "In Bruges"--With the most difficult role in this complex comedy, Farrell's Golden Globe win was well deserved.
Paul Giamatti as John Adams in "John Adams"--Watching Giamatti gives one the impression that Hollywood would be missing something vital were he never discovered.
Laura Linney as Abigail Adams in "John Adams"--Linney's strength as Abilgail makes you believe such strength was the only course of survival in such times.
Laura Dern as Katherine Harris in "Recount"--Dern lets you believe that buffoonery is a necessary element in modern politics.
Kate Beckinsale as Annie Marchand in "Snow Angels"--As a lonely woman who can't find the right man to love, Beckinsale is despair in this movie.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy Burgess in "Stop-Loss"--In a movie that steps way out of line in its final moments, Gordon-Levitt is shiftless as an Iraq War vet who first turns to alcohol then staunch patriotism as his way to deal with the horrors of war.
Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in "Tropic Thunder"--Even though his line "I'm the dude playing the dude, disguised as another dude," really makes no sense, neither does anything this character does. That's why Downey is so great here.
Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in "Tropic Thunder"--Who cares if he jumps up on your couch when he's this funny doing it?
Richard Jenkins as Walter in "The Visitor"--The longtime under-noticed character actor gets his shot at a leading role and nails it.
Hank Azaria as Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg in "Chicago 10"--The one vocal performance in the film that represents the real people he's depicting rather than the actor chosen to play that person.
John Travolta as Bolt in "Bolt"--If only for the way his voice cracks when a wiener dog sniffs him and he asks, "What are you doing?!"
Susie Essman as Mittens in "Bolt"--The accent sells the character, the inflection sells the performance.
Werner Herzog as Narrator in "Encounters as the End of the World"--I could listen to Herzog pontificate on the images he finds until my dying day.
Will Arnet as Vlad in "Horton Hears a Who!"--Both the cancelation of "Arrested Development" and the existence of "The Brothers Solomon" are a shame for this man who has one of the best vocal instruments in the industry.
Randall Duk Kim as Oogway in "Kung Fu Panda"--Were this a live action film, people would be calling for a repeat of Pat Morita's Oscar nod.
James Arnold Taylor as Obi Wan Kenobi/4-A7/Medical Droid in "Star Wars: The Clone Wars"--If I didn't know it wasn't Ewan McGregor revisiting his live action role in this vocal performance, I most certainly would think it was.
Ben Burtt as WALL-E in "WALL-E"--He gave us the blurps and beeps of R2-D2, now he makes us love them.
Roger Donaldson "The Bank Job"
Ramin Bahrami "Chop Shop"
John Patrick Shanley "Doubt"
Clint Eastwood "Gran Torino"
Werner Herzog "Encounters at the End of the World"
Gus Van Sant "Paranoid Park"
David Mamet "Redbelt"
Jeff Nichols "Shotgun Stories"
David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry "The Signal"
Takashi Miike "Sukiyaki Western Django"
Bahara Azimi and Ramin Bahrami "Chop Shop"
Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer "The Dark Knight" based on characters created by Bob Kane
John Patrick Shaley "Doubt" based on his play
Martin McDonagh "In Bruges"
Gus Van Sant "Paranoid Park" based on the novel by Blake Nelson
David Mamet "Redbelt"
Jeff Nichols "Shotgun Stories"
David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, Dan Bush "The Signal"
Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen "Tropic Thunder"
Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon & Pete Doctor "WALL-E"
As usual there are many films I didn't get a chance to see this year that could've made this list, most notably Oliver Stone's "W.", Gus Van Sant's "Milk", Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire", and Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon". And I will likely see many of them in the next few months as they get wider theatrical releases and are released on DVD. This is a problem I face by living where I do, but it allows the search for movie greatness to continue into my own living room. I hope this list bring some into yours.
For full-length reviews visit A Penny in the Well.