First thing’s first: there are still a dozen films I have yet to see before this list can be considered truly complete, so expect revised versions to pop up from time to time in the future. Life is too busy for me to get out and see all the Oscar nominees and overlooked gems as much as I’d like to. Schoolwork is a constant pileup, and I’ve got two short films to shoot over the next three weeks or so. March is shaping up to be a madcap frenzy of essay-writing and filmmaking, so posting may cease for some time during this period. That said, the summer beckons and with it comes some more free time and I hope to use that opportunity to do a series on Ridley Scott’s work, as well as a piece or maybe a series on epic warfare in film.
The list isn’t in any particular order, though if you were to wonder if my top picks were at the top of the list, you wouldn’t be mistaken.
Without further ado, I present my initial picks for the best films of 2008.
The Dark Knight
It’s a blistering crime thriller, a pulse-pounding superhero flick, and most importantly, a powerful meditation on evil, chaos, ethics, and redemption. After four theatrical viewings, its flaws are more apparent than during those first couple of blissful screenings, but nothing else from 2008 matched The Dark Knight for its iconic, perfectly executed ending. Its rare when a mainstream entertainment comes to us imbued with such complex themes and exciting craftsmanship, but this was the first such film since Return of the King to tread that tightrope, and succeed.
Martin McDonagh’s tale of hitmen, guilt, and a certain pretty city in Belgium came out early in 2008 but would not be forgotten. It’s a thoroughly dazzling piece of film; its deft balancing of comedy, dark moral dilemmas, brutal violence, and dream-like situations reveals feather touch skill from playwright-turned-director McDonagh. Colin Farrell does his best work ever, the always reliable Brendan Gleeson gets some deserved attention, and their supporting performers fill in with memorable moments, collected into this perfect little film.
Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme sits back and lets the truth unfold as a family comes together to celebrate marriage and welcome back a prodigal daughter. It’s a film inhabited by people, not characters, and the subtle, graceful way that Demme draws them out of their shells and dark memories into the light of day is extraordinary. Ann Hathaway deserves the Oscar win, but the entire cast, starting with Rosemarie Dewitt, deserves recognition for an array of strong performances. Demme’s hand-held camera flawlessly observes the lives around it, compiling moments so moving in their simplicity (few images this year were as affecting as Rachel being bathed by her sister) that they steal the breath away.
Utter realism. Watching Ballast is like peering through a window into another life. Lance Hammer’s directorial debut is so sure-footed and precisely crafted, but we know this because he steps back from the material and guides the performances, the camerawork, and the overall picture into its greatness. It required a director, no doubt, but this director’s imprint is found not in what is onscreen, but in what isn’t included. Ballast has everything it needs and nothing else; it is a model of efficient filmmaking the likes of which I haven’t seen in a while. But what is extraordinary is the way it makes so much time for the inhabiting of real three-dimensional characters, for the natural progression of real life.
The Good The Bad The Weird
Blissful adventurism. It’s funny how as Indiana Jones was making his way back to theaters, his spirit left Indy IV and traveled over to Korea and inhabited this magnum opus of adventure filmmaking, an insane pastiche of homage and originality. Sergio Leone provides the film’s plot; everything else is supplied by the filmmakers, and the result is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a theatre this year. Hopefully this will get major distribution sometime this year.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
If there ever was a nightmare film in 2008, it was this one. It involves abortion but won’t take a side; it simply remains still and observes, and so do we. And the result is one of the more devastating emotional journeys undertaken in film this decade. Heartbreakingly well-acted and staged with a simply shot, beautifully detailed style, this one deserved its Palme D’Ors. The final few frames of the film are unforgettable.
Overlooked in its time, this near-classic will hopefully be rediscovered by future generations. Visually spectacular, beating with the pulse and joy of filmmaking absent from the Wachowski’s Matrix sequels, this live-action cartoon is overwhelming, intoxicating, vastly entertaining, and surprisingly resonant in its core themes of familial love and relationships. With the exception of The Dark Knight, this was the single best time I had in a theatre last year.
Synecdoche, New York
Maddening yet lovable, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut made for an entrancing, challenging experience. It’s a film of rich layers, waiting to be investigated further through subsequent viewings, and its overall portrayal of one man’s life is poignant. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent, as are the bevy of incredible actresses who filter in and out of his life. Bursting with life and originality, this is a fascinating hymn to the process of living life, and a slowly enthralling, haunting experience.
I wouldn’t put it above Finding Nemo or Ratatouille, but it’s still quite brilliant. I loved nearly every frame of this delightful film; it would be higher but for its somewhat disappointing third-act crisis, which felt too familiar in a film full of new sights and wonders. Never mind that. There’s much to cherish in this beautifully rendered sci-fi fable. I hope Ben Burtt gets some love on Oscar night.
A few brief complaints about the Oscars:
The Reader should not be nominated for anything, let alone Best Picture and Director. What a bore of a film, seemingly too confused by its own source material to make up its mind about anything. And while Winslet does well, she was outshined by other performances, like Rachel Getting Married and Doubt.
The Dark Knight deserves Best Picture and Director noms.
Cate, not Brad, should have been nominated.
I’m sure I’ll have more grumbles once the trophies are handed out.