The Best Movies of 2008

2008 turned out to be the weakest year for movies that I can recall.  While Hollywood typically saves its best flicks for December, I found this year’s crop of Oscar contenders disappointingly fallow.  As a result, my top-10 list excludes some notable movies, including the beautifully photographed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, showered with 13 Oscar nominations, which can best be described as Forest Gump without a soul.  Unfortunately, its superb cinematography cannot overcome the black hole at its center: Benjamin Button himself, a distant, blank-slate character who exudes little to no emotion for the entirety of a lifetime aged in reverse.  In a similar vein, best-picture nominee, The Reader, ultimately frustrates the viewer with the silence of its protagonist (played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes), who learns that the woman he once loved—a terrific Kate Winslet—is being prosecuted for Nazi war crimes.  Another World War II-based drama, Valkyrie, features a laughably miscast Tom Cruise as a one-eyed, one-armed rebel Nazi—who looks, speaks and acts like a modern-day, white-bread American.  Sean Penn, in contrast, disappears into the role of San Francisco’s gay politician, Harvey Milk, in the Oscar-nominated Milk, but despite some wonderful performances, the film never breaks free of the bio-pic formula or the stilted info-dumpish dialogue so common to that genre.  Revolutionary Road provides some solid dramatic moments and fine performances, but I could not relate to the tortured existence of the married couple played by a reunited Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (Oh, the oppression of suburbia!).  I found myself wishing that the characters would just stop whining and get a hobby.  Finally, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, is nothing more than tepid, third-rate Dirty Harry-fare that asks us to celebrate the curmudgeonly cuteness of a gun-toting, racist septuagenarian.  No thanks.

Here are my ten favorite picks from the year’s weak field:

10. Cloverfield. Living up to the promise of its clever viral marketing campaign, the year’s best horror movie delivers pulse-pounding thrills and genuine terror.  A going-away party is disrupted by the invasion of New York City, sending a group of yuppies fleeing into the streets and subway tunnels.  Adopting the “found footage” conceit of The Blair Witch Project, we witness the destruction of Manhattan in a grainy, herky-jerky video shot through a hand-held camera carried by one of the panicked partygoers.  Interspersed scenes of two of the characters on a romantic date preceding the attack actually provide some poignant moments given what we know is in store for them.  Yes, I used the word “poignant” in my review of a monster movie.  That alone makes it top-ten-worthy.

9.   Iron Man. Robert Downey plays amoral millionaire arms dealer Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow his loyal Girl Friday, Pepper Potts, in the year’s best popcorn movie. The sheer force of Downey’s charisma seems to propel the gold-suited Avenger through the skies in this entertaining, high-energy adaptation of the Marvel comic book.

8.   Frost/Nixon. Ron Howard’s superlative political drama captures the face-off between Richard Nixon and British lightweight interviewer David Frost—both in front of the camera and behind it—in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the president’s resignation.  Surprisingly tense and always compelling, it features riveting performances by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen.

7.  Vicki Christina Barcelona.
In one of his better efforts, Woody Allen tells the breezy tale of two American women touring Spain (Scarlet Johannson and Rebecca Hall) and their involvement with a Spanish artist/gigolo (a terrific Javier Bardem).  The film explores the different conceptions of love espoused by each of the players and the difficulties they face when they try to embrace a new way of life.  Penelope Cruz steals the movie as Bardem’s tempestuous—bordering on psychotic—ex-wife who falls into a ménage trios with Johannson and Bardem.

6.  The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke gives a tour de force performance as an ailing, down-on-his-luck professional wrestler in the sunset of his career, in this dark, engrossing character study of a man unable to let go of his past.  Marisa Tomei is outstanding as his loyal confidant, a stripper with reservations about his romantic overtures.

5.  Doubt. Set in the Bronx in the 1960’s, John Patrick Shanley’s utterly engrossing adaptation of his Pulitzer-Prize winning play focuses on two Catholic school nuns (Amy Adams, Merryl Streep) who suspect—despite no hard evidence—that a charismatic priest in their parish (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has abused a young African American student.  Streep gives an Oscar-worthy performance—what else is new?—as the school principal, a cynical disciplinarian whose glare sends a shiver down the spines of the entire student body.  Watching Streep and Seymour Hoffman square off with such great material is alone worth the price of admission.  There’s no doubt about it; Doubt features the best ensemble acting of any movie this year.

4.  The Dark Knight. Unlike other superhero movies, Christopher Nolan’s superb action-thriller doesn’t merely explore the struggle between good and evil; it immerses itself in all the moral grays in between.  It is the exploration of these moral complexities and compromises—Batman, prosecutor Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon each draw the line differently in battling the Joker’s terrorism—that raises this movie above the average popcorn-fare.  Christian Bale effectively growls his way through the sequel as the caped crusader, but it is Heath Ledger’s Joker, a sociopathic agent of chaos, who steals the movie.

3.  In Bruges.
In this darkest of dark comedies, two hit-men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) hide out in the scenic but dull medieval city of Bruges where they argue, philosophize and sightsee—until one of the men receives orders to kill the other.  The exceptional screenplay manages to make its detestable characters compelling, and shows off the crispest, most obscene and downright clever dialogue of the year.  Who knew that Colin Farrell had the range to generate such belly laughs as a goofy assassin with a potty mouth and a conscience?

2.  WALL-E. In Pixar’s brilliant, robot love story, mankind has abandoned planet Earth after exploiting its resources, leaving behind only clean-up bots like the titular character, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class), a binocular-eyed roving trash compactor who has spent seven centuries compressing garbage into building blocks stacked to create haunting, towering edifices.  In the wondrous, dialogue-free first third of the movie, WALL-E comes close to cinematic perfection as the smitten bot touchingly courts a destructive egg-shaped probe.  The film ultimately veers back toward more traditional storytelling—though laced with biting satire—when WALL-E takes off into space and encounters mankind’s descendents: obese, dim-witted, couch-potato consumers whom some might say are not all that different from us.

1.  Slumdog Millionaire. The year’s most surprising movie is also its best: Danny Boyle’s colorful, hyperkinetic drama tracks the lives of two homeless orphans from childhood to adolescence, forced to survive by hustling their way through a bleak urban existence in India.  Slumdog begins as a brutal movie about amoral street thugs, focusing on murder, torture and the maiming of children, before morphing successfully—don’t ask me how—into an affecting Hollywood love story.  The electric score, the colorful costumes, the utterly foreign setting, the amazing performances by its young actors, and the engaging story all come together to make this unique little picture the best film of the year.

The runners-up:  11.  Bolt (clever animated feature about a loyal dog under the illusion he possesses superpowers, and his heartwarming odyssey across the country to save his beloved master); 12.  Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Judd Apatow’s touching and hilarious comedy about a schlub who escapes to Hawaii after being dumped by his actress girlfriend, only to discover that his ex and her new beau are staying in the same hotel); 13.  Tell No One (edge-of-your-seat, Hitchcockian French thriller about a man’s obsession with his wife’s murder and a mysterious email he receives eight years later that suggests she might still be alive);  14. Man on Wire (hair-raising documentary about a French tightrope-walker and his bold plan to tiptoe between the twin towers); 15. Let the Right One In (slowly paced but effective Swedish flick about a lonely, bullied 12-year-old who develops a crush on the girl next door—only to discover she’s a vampire; the film’s bleak snowbound setting creates a dark, haunting mood).

5 responses to “The Best Movies of 2008”

  1. Steve says:


    The only movie I saw on your list was The Dark Knight (as you know, since we saw it together with Lou when you visited). In fact, it was the only movie I watched in the theater in 2008, period (maybe you should reconsider sending me the list – :)).Heath Ledger was very good, but Christian Bale was so-so, don’t you think? It might be a testament to Ledger’s performance that Bale’s seemed so bland. And that overly-done, gravel voice really go annoying near the end.


  2. I wound up seeing it two more times on my flights overseas and really appreciated it a lot more with each viewing. Christian Bale was fine, but he was definitely overshadowed by Heath Ledger.

  3. Steve says:

    Oh that makes sense now, because I don’t remember you being that bowled over by it when we saw it. Still, I can’t imagine watching the movie two more times. It felt way too long for me.

  4. Prissy says:

    I am so shocked that Mamma Mia didn’t make your top 10. I thought you loved that movie? Especially the part when all the women jump in the water, haha!

  5. Prissy: Cute. I’ll admit to liking Abba, but that’s as far as the public confessions go….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social Links

Across the Event Horizon

Across the Event Horizon by Mercurio D. RiveraAcross the Event Horizon contains the very best of Mercurio’s work to date; fourteen stories selected by the author himself, including “Langalana” and “Tu Sufrimiento”. Learn more »

Other Worlds Than These

Other Worlds Than These by John Joseph AdamsMercurio D. Rivera’s story, “Dear Annabehls” is now out in the anthology Other Worlds Than These. Compiled by acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams, never before have the best parallel world stories and portal fantasies been collected in a single volume—until now. More info »

Year’s Best SF 17

Year's Best SF 17Mercurio D. Rivera’s “Tethered” appears in Year’s Best SF 17. Acclaimed, award-winning editors and anthologists David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer demonstrate the amazing depth and power of contemporary speculative fiction, showcasing astonishing stories from some of the genre’s most respected names as well as exciting new writers to watch. Prepare to travel light years from the ordinary into a tomorrow at once breathtaking, frightening, and possible. More info »

Holodeck Writer’s Workshop

Mercurio D. Rivera taught at the Holodeck Writer’s Workshop alongside Sheila Williams, James Patrick Kelly, Michael Swanwick and Gregory Frost. If you wish to raise your fiction, narration or art skills to the next level, this workshop is for you. More info »