Best Movies of 2008


Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2008, with an additional 15 honorable mentions that could easily have made the best ten as well. This list has gone through many variations in recent weeks, as I’ve seen a few films more than once or some for the first time. But I’m quite satisfied with the final ten I’ve narrowed it down to. These are the films that thrilled me the most in 2008.

10) Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer): Ballast is a simple, life-affirming (in the true sense) film about how we pull our lives together after tragedy. It’s about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). A small, lyrical, beautifully photographed film.

9) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman): This is a crazy, brainy movie, loved and loathed by many. Similar in spirit and style to the films he’s written (especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), Synecdoche is truly Kauffman’s magnum opus.

8) Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt): This is a short, quick, devastating film. Reichardt follows Old Joy in theme and style, peering in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly menacing world.

7) Vicky Cristina Barcelona (dir. Woody Allen): The second really great film from Allen in 2008 (the other being Cassandra’s Dream), Barcelona is a sumptuous feast of elegant, polished, on-point filmmaking. Allen is a master of the craft, and this film is gorgeous, rewarding evidence of that fact.

6) Australia (dir. Baz Luhrmann):
I’m confounded by the paltry critical and popular response to this movie. I simply adored it. It’s a remarkably fun, beautiful, lush film with no pretensions of importance but a keen command of the craft. That is: the craft of outrageous, epic, old school Hollywood artifice that birthed everything from Gone With the Wind to Titanic. A joy to watch.

5) Flight of the Red Balloon (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien): Not for those who hate slow movies, because this is a very slow movie. But that is why I love it. It rushes for no one or no thing, and treats its subjects with the sort of delicate, curious gaze that is rarely seen in the post-Tony Scott era of attention-deprived cinema.

4) Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme):
A highly compelling, superbly acted assemblage of intimate, interpersonal moments. Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, and the whole cast offer a smorgasbord of stylish, humane acting. I think it might be my favorite wedding movie ever.

3) The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films ever as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.

2) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher):
This is an exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time. The freshest and best parts of them are only temporary. It’s a film that touched me deeply, perhaps more than any film this year, bringing to the fore those sometimes dormant emotions and deeply rooted recognitions of life’s impermanence that are at once heartbreaking and galvanizing. Props to David Fincher for two years and two films (this along with last year’s Zodiac) that rank among the best and most defining of the decade.

1) Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant):
This film has stuck with me more than any that I have seen this year. Something about it moved me very deeply; it’s one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though it is highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.

Honorable Mention: Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Cassandra’s Dream, Slumdog Millionaire, Shotgun Stories, The Wrestler, Wall-E, Chop Shop, Burn After Reading, Hunger, Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, Tell No One, Snow Angels, Iron Man.

16 responses to “Best Movies of 2008

  1. No mention of Rambo? Come on.

  2. Shocked at the lack of Revolutionary Road. I thought it was fantastic.

  3. I’m surprised that Benjamin Button has not made more “best of” lists. In fact, some critics have included it in their “biggest disappointment” category. Weird. Like you, Brett, I was moved by the film and thought the reverse aging mechanism was a fresh way to to look at some well-worn themes.

  4. I have a lot of respect for Revolutionary Road (well crafted, acted, etc), but in the end it was just too bleak for me. Seemed a little bit “been there, done that” to me.
    And yes, Mike, I’ve been surprised at some of the haters of Benjamin Button. But the most significant films are typically the ones people either love or hate, so it makes sense.

  5. The Paranoid Park choice is provocative. I had largely forgotten about it in this incredible flux of international programming here at the end of the year.

    I am a huge fan of the Death Trilogy, which makes me appreciate two things about PP: The way it commingles memory with Van Sant’s meditative approach to death and loss as almost formal evaporations of life within an exactingly crafted frame (like taking a Gursky photograph and turning off all the lights). And the sound design is incredible. Perfect soundtrack, perfect ebbs and tides of all that diegetic noise that sounds like it has been bottled and released in increments throughout.

    And then the railroad scene is my favorite Van Sant scene so far next to the rock scene in Gerry and the last frames of Last Days. Cool choice.

    I am really looking forward to Ballast.

  6. First on Vicky Cristina Barcelona:
    Wonderful inclusion – it was the most fun and meaningful experience for me at the cinema this year.

    And on your No. 2 pick:

    This film turned uneven to me. On the upside there was the coloring, Tilda Swinton, and the “car accident” scene.

    Once Benjamin looked as Pitt does now, the film turned distracting, and suddenly the sumptuous costuming and cinematography made Pitt and Blanchett (the most beautiful woman in cinema today) look like they were strutting on a Vogue set.

    At the end, I was struck first by the incredible Swinton. She can do anything in front of a camera. Then I realized that her segment had little to do with the rest of the film. Pity. It was the best bit.

    What Fincher and Roth did , accidentally I think, as they tried to make a story out of Fitzgerald’s concept was to form two separate entities: the Daisy/Benjamin mainline story and the concept of living backwards.

    I feel that Fitzgerald’s short story is a masterwork. It starts off whimsical, unique and quaint. The reader is drawn on through the curiosity of what a oddball story like this could say. And then, in the final few paragraphs (as I strain to remember) the reader is struck by the sudden sadness of it all. The sadness of living alone, dying alone, and never understanding your surroundings.

  7. Anthony,
    Thanks for your observations, re: Button. I agree that the Tilda Swinton bit was the best segment of the film, but I disagree that it had little to do with the rest of the film. I think it had everything to do with the rest of the film. The film’s narrative device (diary read to a dying Daisy) makes it seem like B. Button’s whole life was defined by his relationship to Daisy, when actually their time together is actually quite brief. The majority of Benjamin’s life was unknown to Daisy, and vice versa (i.e. in the “young Button goes to India” sequence)… which is the truth of any life. 90% of it is known and experienced only by ourselves. We have encounters with people that are held within our memory and ours alone, events and circumstances that shape us just as much as our Daisies do, but which our Daisies have no relationship to.
    This is what I loved about the film: it dared to include segments and episodes that had no bearing on Button’s relationship with Daisy. It showed his meaningful interactions with a number of people–all fleeting interactions, just like his time with Daisy.

  8. And my issue with Gran Torino is that while the film was technically good, the acting by some of the younger Hmong actors in their first American film was so distracting bad that it took away from my enjoyment of the film. I think that film requires another watch from me actually.

  9. Did you dislike “Doubt”?

  10. No, I liked “Doubt.” Just not quite enough to mention it in the top 20 of the year… Meryl Streep was insanely fun to watch, however.

  11. I do agree with anon. and would add that it’s almost shameful that you didn’t include Revolutionary Road, dir. Sam Mendes, on your list. The Fall, dir. Tarsem Singh, also deserves an honorable mention, at least.

    p.s. Nice variety on this here weblog, v nice.

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  13. I’m curious to know why Slumdog Millionaire didn’t make it on your top ten…I saw that you listed it as an honorable mention, but in my opinion, it deserves a much higher honor than that.

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