Last year I waited until mid-January to post my Year-in-Review feature. Inevitably, there were a few 2007 films that I caught later that month—particularly There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton—that probably should have been ranked among the best of the year. Nevertheless, this year you're getting my assessment of 2008's films on the final day of December. The risks of shutting out features that won't arrive in St. Louis theaters until next year have to be weighed against the faded relevance of a 2008 Year-in-Review feature published in January of February. In the end, the decision was somewhat arbitrary, just as the marking of a "Year in Film" from January 1 to December 31 is fairly arbitrary. Ultimately, I relied on my sense that I have a fairly full quiver to draw from this year. Simply put, I saw a lot more films in their theatrical release in 2008 than I did in 2007, which has significantly enhanced my ability to assemble a respectable Year-in-Review feature.
So let's get to it. I still have mixed feelings about last year's self-imposed constraint of just five films, so this year I'm veering in the other direction. I've assembled a list of the best films of 2008 without any regard for a final number. I ended up with thirteen luminaries and thirteen honorable mentions. The top thirteen were those works that truly jumped out at me when I combed back over this year's films. These features didn't just stand out from the pack as cinematic achievements; they also possessed some elusive element that touched me personally. The films are listed alphabetically, because A) this method seemed to work well last year, B) I hate agonizing over rankings, and C) rankings are fairly ridiculous anyway.
To be considered, a film must have opened in America between January 1 and December 31, 2008 in wide, limited, or select city release. Film festival premieres don't count, but even a one-week run in New York City does. Got it? My wife also offers up a capsule second opinion, including some contrarian tweaking of the Coens and Claude Chabrol. Let the nitpicking begin!
The Best of 2008
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - Christian Mungui - Romania
Christian Mungui's harrowing drama is steeped in the gnawing agony of oppression and desperation. Hurtling out of the gray purgatory of 1987 Romania, 4 Months employs a realist approach to the story of an illicit abortion, all while engaging a fearsome snarl of themes. Much more than a thriller, and yet fueled by a groaning tension that Mungiu winds to nearly unbearable tautness, 4 Months collapses the viewer's awareness until it matches that of protagonists Otilia and Gabita. Possessing both a stony gaze and a searing feminine empathy, this is cinematic drama at its most potent. Full review here.
The Class - Laurent Cantet - France
The tousled, buzzing energy of Laurent Cantet's wondrous work of social realism seizes the viewer's attention and refuses to let go. Cantet captures the sparks and exasperation of secondary education with a novel, breathtaking sensitivity to classroom dynamics. Pitting nimble pedagogue Mr. Marin against a roomful of defiant grammar students, The Class alights upon an array of cultural and political nodes with striking, naturalistic performances, while maintaining a lean structural discipline. Eschewing condescension or exploitation, Cantet sketches a portrait of contemporary education perpetually teetering on the brink of small miracles and catastrophes. Impressions from SLIFF here.
The Dark Knight - Christopher Nolan - USA
Unnerving, despairing, and unabashedly grandiose, The Dark Knight is action film-making at its most uncompromising and gleefully diabolical. Christopher Nolan resolves to burn Batman Begins' soaring themes—and the entire concept of the "comic film"—to cinders, while still hewing to the genre's meat-and-potatoes conventions. The Dark Knight is assembled out of civic anxieties long forgotten, contemporary hobgoblins suckled on fears of shattering violence, and a bottomless tank of sheer velocity. Stunningly edited and scored, and held together with Heath Ledger's mesmerizing, utterly terrifying presence, the film cleaves comforting political constructs on all sides without pause or pity. Full review here.
The Edge of Heaven - Fatih Akin - Germany / Turkey
Fatih Akin's pained, touching ode to compassion and forgiveness is a work of beauty, brilliantly executed and emotionally sensuous. Zigzagging across borders, cultures, and generations, The Edge of Heaven weaves a tale of six wounded souls in search of contentment and meaning. Suffused with boundless pathos and an elegant sensitivity to the delicacy of relationships, the film ponders the nature of opportunity, calamity, and connection. Accompanied by a score both rousing and mournful, Akin discovers one affecting gesture after another, offering one of the most powerful films about fallibility and grace in recent memory. Full review here.
Encounters at the End of the World - Werner Herzog - USA
Trading the acerbic bite of Grizzly Man for an infectious sense of flabbergasted wonder, Werner Herzog triumphs again with this meandering yet penetrating rumination on the people, creatures, and places of Antarctica. Encounters at the End of the World transcends the sideshow impulses that bedevil nature documentaries, delving with jaunty elegance into the sublime mystery of exploration. Combining visual marvels with Herzog's dry witticisms, Encounters is a rare treat for the eyes and the mind. The venerable director captures moments charged with both awe and sentiment, painting the polar wilderness as a modern oracle who jealously guards her secrets. Full review here.
The Fall - Tarsem Singh - India / UK / USA
Tarsem Singh goes all in with this cinematic gamble, a maddening, bewildering work that gleams with an otherworldly grandness. The Fall nests a dazzling, surreal fantasy within an affecting drama about the power of storytelling, creating one of the most perplexing and indescribable films of the year. Yet for all its storybook camp and breathtaking vistas—every one a real-world locale—The Fall's heart rests in the hands of Lee Pace and the stunning Catinca Untaru. Together they convey a moving and utterly credible bond between a man and child, one that passes through affection and deceit to discover salvation. Full review here.
Paranoid Park - Gus Van Sant - USA
Slippery and addictive, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park burrows into a rattled headspace of adolescent guilt and philosophical fumbling with astonishing empathy. Daring in its visual and aural methods and evincing a profound psychological sensitivity, this film is exquisitely balanced between art and observation. First-time actor Gabe Nevins' inky gazes and awkward musings serve as a humane anchor amid a jumbled, fluid tale of fear, secrecy, and emerging moral awareness. Van Sant shuffles and backtracks through time, then stops to linger on acute, charged moments of motion and light. This is challenging, meditative film-making at its finest. Full review here.
Standard Operating Procedure - Errol Morris - USA
Errol Morris tackles the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuser scandal, riveting the viewer's attention with his meticulous, ominous stylings even as he upends expectations. Blending talking head interviews with hypnotic effects and glinting, gothic recreations, Morris broadens the controversy beyond quarrels about American power to encompass grittier, timeless matters of responsibility, culpability, and perception. Standard Operating Procedure delves into our memories of Abu Ghraib's searing images, striking a sobering balance between horror and doubt, shock and exasperation. Morris resists finger-wagging, permitting the men and women involved to speak for themselves even as he sculpts a furious aura of menace and moral free-fall. Full review here.
Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains - Gonzalo Arijon - France
Stranded is a marvel of a documentary, a one-two punch of superb historical storytelling and soaring ecstatic wonder. Gonzalo Arijon lends the tale of the Andean flight disaster the detailed, moving treatment it deserves, layering it with graceful recreations and priceless first-hand accounts from the survivors. However, Stranded's achievement rests on more than the uniqueness of the Andean story. Arijon uncovers the profound, almost rapturous themes of life and death within his narrative of astounding endurance. Stranded summons an otherworldly aura around the survivors, exhibiting a generous appreciation for the confluence of unthinkable trials and universal love. Impressions from SLIFF here.
Synecdoche, New York - Charlie Kaufman - USA
Charlie Kaufman takes us deep into the bowels of his (and our) mortal fears and existential longings, chuckling dryly all the way down. Spellbinding, devastating, and deliciously, hideously funny, Synecdoche, New York is a brazen roundhouse to reason and the senses. Kaufman conjures an uncanny dream world around miserable theater director Caden Cotard, stretching locales, identities, and time like so much Silly Putty. Synecdoche duels with itself, parrying despair with charm, revelation with silliness. This is a mindfuck with a heart, a haunting, baffling plunge into the secret terrors and vanities that crouch on humanity's collective chest. Full review here.
Trouble the Water - Carl Deal and Tia Lessin - USA
Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's outstanding documentary on Hurricane Katrina is both stark and uplifting, a work of astonishing density and spirit. Trouble the Water follows Kimberley Roberts, a hustler and aspiring hip-hop artist with a thousand yards of charisma, as she weathers the storm and its aftermath. Deal and Lessin step aside, permitting Roberts' hand-held footage and commentary to claim the spotlight, while still maintaining an elegant control over the pacing and structure of this remarkable woman's story. Together they create a stirring and poignant ground view of American values, aspirations, and endurance. Full review here.
WALL•E - Andrew Stanton - USA
Andrew Stanton's WALL•E is a versatile treasure, as gorgeous and insightful at it is pitch-perfect hilarious. The film's post-apocalyptic landscapes and sterile corporate environs pop with curious majesty. The titular automaton's charms—a small miracle of character design, this WALL•E—lend his struggles allegorical heft and startling resonance. Stanton creates something more ambitious and memorable than an endearing fable, layering on science fiction motifs and themes to create a remarkably rich and prickly story that tackles consumer culture, sustainability, and utopianism. Easily Pixar's boldest and most complex film to date, WALL•E soars above the expectations and constraints of both medium and genre. Full review here.
Wendy and Lucy - Kelly Reichardt - USA
Exhibiting an enviable sensitivity for agonies of the everyday sort, Kelly Reichardt spins an unassuming, painfully intimate story of two days in the bleak, wobbling lives of a drifter and her mutt. Wendy and Lucy mates pointed, politically-conscious realism with universal sentiments about loyalty and sacrifice, resulting in a powerful, uncompromising work that rubs the heart raw. Michelle Williams astounds as Wendy, and together she and Reichardt boldly craft an impoverished heroine who evokes sympathy without benefit of saintly virtue. In Wendy, this moving film finds an avatar to scrutinize the small tragedies that sprout like dandelions in hard times. Impressions from SLIFF here.
The Next Best of 2008
The Band's Visit - Eran Kolirin - Israel
Within an appealing fish-out-of-water fable, Eran Kolirin and his magnificent cast discover sparkling comedic moments and a rich tapestry of contradictions and conflicts. Full review here.
Blind Mountain - Yang Li - China
Yang Li's unforgiving, cthonic ordeal pulverizes modern illusions of safety, dignity, and liberty. Mesmerizing and disturbing, Blind Mountain plays out (and ends) like a nightmare. Impressions from SLIFF here.
Chris & Don: A Love Story - Tina Mascara and Guido Santi - USA
Tackling a personal tale with sensitivity and canniness, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi's study of an unlikely love bursts with affection and sublime humanity. Full review here.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father - Kurt Kuenne - USA
Kurt Kuenne pours his heart into a documentary that is part memorial and part righteous howl of anguish. A naked slice of profoundly personalized—and riveting—film-making. Impressions from SLIFF here.
The Flight of the Red Balloon - Hsiao-hsien Hou - France
Featuring Juliette Binoche in a stunning performance, Hsiao-Hsien Hou's unconventional wonderwork of a family drama is as emotionally rewarding as it is artistically ambitious. Full review here.
Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh - UK
The seductive confluence of a stellar performance from Sally Hawkins and perceptive direction from Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky is dramatic comedy as nimble social lesson. Full review here.
Let the Right One In - Tomas Alfredson - Sweden
Tomas Alfredson delivers the best vampire film in over a decade, a moody melange of camp horror, pre-teen angst, and provocative sexual subtext. Full review here.
Man on Wire - James Marsh - UK
James Marsh's compelling documentary of death-defiance plays like a witty caper at first, then discovers a tingling transcendence, ripe with reverent awe. Full review here.
Rachel Getting Married - Johanthan Demme - USA
Capped with a marvelous turn from Anne Hathaway, Jonathan Demme's paradoxical slice-of-life drama is a crackling study of family dynamics, utterly joyous and rotten. Full review here.
Shotgun Stories - Jeff Nichols - USA
Brimming with authentic, small-town lethargy and biblical ferocity, Shotgun Stories is a searing parable of revenge, amusingly pathetic and fearlessly poignant in equal measure.
Waltz With Bashir - Ari Folman - Israel
Haunting and visually compelling, Ari Folman's animated documentary expounds with obsessive, sweaty enthusiasm on memory, guilt, and the uncanniness of war. Full review here.
Wonderful Town - Aditya Assarat - Thailand
Aditya Assarat's placid, achingly observed story of ordinary love revels in both the sheer process of romance and the cold cruelty of an indifferent world. Impressions from SLIFF here.
The Wrestler - Darren Aronofsky - USA
With Mickey Rourke commanding the viewer's gaze in a miracle performance, Darren Aronofsky discovers familiar themes and delicate sensitivity within an archetypal sports film. Full review here.
Best Film the U.S. Is Still Waiting For
The Minder - Rodrigo Moreno - Argentina
Rodrigo Moreno's minimalist socio-political fable is constructed from a cascade of canny observations. The Minder is meticulous film-making that demands patience, but it's also a hypnotic and grueling glimpse of repressed resentments. In the U.S. it appeared only on the film festival circuit. Catch it when it surfaces on DVD. Impressions from tLIFF here.
Most Underrated Surprise
Speed Racer - Andy and Larry Wachowski - USA
What is Speed Racer? A madcap decathlon of color and motion. An earnest fairy tale about the power of awe and family. An intricate, kid-friendly rumination on athletics and fair play. A film more humane and snappy than the Matrix trilogy. A glorious mess of contradictions. Full review here.
Overrated, Slightly or Highly
The Counterfeiters, Doubt, The Duchess of Langeais, Frost/Nixon, Horton Hears a Who!, A Girl Cut in Two, Milk, Mongol, Roman de Gare, Slumdog Millionaire, Tell No One, Transsiberian, Vicky Christina Barcelona
The Best Films of 2008 - Second Opinion
The Best of 2008: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Dark Knight, Doubt, The Fall, Iron Man, Man on Wire, Slumdog Millionaire, Trouble the Water, Waltz With Bashir, The Wrestler
The Next Best of 2008: Dear Zachary, The Edge of Heaven, Paranoid Park, Quantum of Solace, Speed Racer, Tropic Thunder, WALL•E
The Worst of 2008:
Alvin and the Chipmunks: "Woof. More here."
Burn After Reading: "A rare Coen fail. If their intention was to make me sick to my stomach and squirm uncomfortably in my seat, they achieved what they set out to do. It just didn't speak to me in any memorable way, certainly a far cry from the masterful grace of most of their other films. Brad Pitt was hilarious, but there wasn't enough of him to make it worthwhile."
A Girl Cut in Two: "A story about stupid and miserable people doing stupid and miserable things with their stupid and miserable friends. They are good-looking, well-read, rich, and sophisticated, so we're supposed to enjoy their pain or something. Craptacular. If people like this really exist, we must find them, end them, and get it over with."