January 31, 2009

Best of 2008: Part 5

(overlooked performances, titles, surprises/disappointments, places traveled)

Read The Best of 2008: Part 2
(best scenes, worst movies)

Read The Best of 2008: Part 3

Read The Best of 2008: Part 4


The Best Movies of 2008:

Although there were literally hundreds of movies I didn't see in 2008, I still saw many that will stay in the recesses of my brain for years to come. I just can't agree with the people that continue to argue that this was a "bad year" for movies. While last year was legendary, this year was at least excellent, in my opinion. When I find myself considering upwards of twenty movies for placement in the "best" list, how can I complain?

These are the non-documentary movies that mattered most to me in 2008.

1. Slumdog Millionaire

"Once every few years, a movie comes along that redefines the way you look at cinema. It reminds you that films don't need to be deathly serious in order to be powerful and important, and they don't need to feature Oscar winners in order to showcase impressive acting (especially among the youngest members of the cast). More than anything, they reaffirm your faith in an art form that continues to evolve in ways that you couldn't imagine. Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies. Like Cidade de Deus before it, Slumdog Millionaire gripped my entire being for two hours, transporting me to another place and another life without allowing for even a moment to breathe."

It currently sits poised to win Best Picture, which has caused the annual backlash by bloggers and, this year, fanboys simmering about the omission of The Dark Knight. I'm usually complicit in backlash against the popular movies (hello Juno), but not this year. Like Crash in 2005, I knew Slumdog Millionaire was tops of the year for me before I even got out of my seat. Sometimes you just know.

The Pool

"...the camera work by Chris Smith himself brings the city and the story to life in vivid detail, making The Pool often feel like a documentary on the Travel Channel. Furthermore, Smith's film feels more delicately and thoughtfully made, like a tasty samosa carefully made with just the right amount of curried spices, then slowly cooked until the full flavor is realized...The Pool sits among the bombastic blockbusters and pretentious indies this year as an unassuming and near-perfect gem that reminds you why you love going to the movies."

No additional comment here - it's just unfortunate so few people saw this movie.

Gran Torino

"Beyond a penetrating introduction and indictment of these Minnesotan cultures - the "Walts" and the Hmong - Gran Torino also delivers provocative commentaries on religion, family, and war... It's not a perfect film, but if you can tolerate non-actors acting and you're willing to look a little deeper than you may be used to, I think Gran Torino truly has the potential to enrich your outlook on the world."

While I fully admit my opinion about Gran Torino is biased because of the local connection to the story (and I have yet to find a Minnesotan of any demographic who hasn't raved about the movie), I still think it deserves a lot more serious discussion than it received. Sure, the decision to cast lead roles through an open casting call may have not have been the best way to mine acting talent, and yes, Eastwood absolutely could have taken more time with the production, but...alright, I don't know what I'm doing here - trying to persuade people to like the movie? That's not my business. Hate the movie for all I care, just don't deny its accuracy in portraying Minnesotans.


"What makes Ballast so extraordinary, aside from the beautiful technical production and arresting performances, is that it allows the viewer to relate so intimately and effortlessly with its characters. It is a coincidence that Hammer's film has come at a time when financial and racial tensions in this country are so high, but this is a timeless story that ultimately speaks more about people than place. Hammer makes no overt statement about power, discrimination, privilege or circumstance (if he makes any political statement, he admits it's toward gun control), and this is not a film about race relations or desperate poverty. It is a film about grief, forgiveness, redemption and hope."

No additional comment.

Boy A

"...this is a movie that needs to be seen, both for the performance by Andrew Garfield and for our collective understanding of this true-to-life story. Jonesboro, as we all know, was not an isolated incident, and there could potentially be several individuals we interact with in our lives who were once known as a letter of the alphabet. Can any insights be gained by seeing their side of the story in Boy A? That's for you to determine."

People will accuse me of giving credit to the whole movie when it should only be awarded to Andrew Garfield, but that wasn't true about Casey Affleck and The Assassination of Jesse James last year, either. Boy A is a thought-provoking and relevant movie in this age of personal information overload and a complete lack of personal privacy. Google yourself if you're not sure what I'm talking about.

Let the Right One In

"it’s a completely engaging 114 minutes of film, and as ironic as it sounds, it’s a story that makes vampires much more human than I ever considered...Oskar and Eli don’t talk to each other as human to vampire, but adolescent to adolescent...They’re not “play friends”, but soulmates from different worlds, who depend on each other not for entertainment but for survival. Innocent and tender, their relationship is ultimately optimistic, even though the last scene foreshadows tragic circumstances on the horizon...I didn’t leave as inspired so much as I left impressed. I was almost shocked, actually, for having seen such a brilliant story told in such an outstanding fashion."

I was shocked then, and I'm shocked now - a "vampire movie" was one of the best I saw all year. I don't think this has broadened my general film interests to include horror and/or darker subject matter from this point on, but let it not be said that all of these movies "are the same".

7. The Wrestler

Unfortunately I haven't had time to sit down and properly write a review for Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which has slyly been creeping up in my mind's list in the three weeks since I saw it. Buoyed by a once-in-a-lifetime performance by Mickey Rourke, it's one of the most affecting movies of the year and one of the most emotionally poignant of the stripped-down indie dramas that have been released this year (a group which also includes Ballast, Chop Shop, Frozen River, The Pool, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, and Wendy and Lucy). Featuring one of the best endings of the year, The Wrestler ends up achieving everything you never thought it could - and then some.


"Sharply directed and superbly acted, it's the first important movie about the war in Iraq, and the only one I can recommend that isn't a documentary. It isn't perfect, and it's not The Deer Hunter or Coming Home, but it's a lot better than you would think an MTV-produced movie made for teenagers would be. Kimberly Peirce has absolutely nailed her sophomore effort and proven to those unconvinced that a woman can translate the horrors of war as well as a Clint Eastwood or Oliver Stone (and I'm hopeful that she'll help forge a path for female directors behind her)...the film packs an emotional punch because the characters are people that we know exist all around us, and will for the rest of our lives. Stop-Loss forces us to accept this reality as much as we don't want to. We can go back to our TVs and movie blogs and other distractions, but are we going to be ready when the real effects of the war start here? When hundreds of thousands of veterans are going through the same unexaggerated struggles as these characters? That question has been on my mind for about five years now, but Stop-Loss is the first mainstream movie (The War Tapes from '06 is a similar doc) that may wake up the public and start a dialogue about the future. Hopefully we can at least agree on the importance of that discussion in this polarized and partisan culture, and Kimberly Peirce has successfully attempted to initiate it."

No additional comment.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

"Its technical aspects are masterful and absorbing, from the Technicolor to the costumes to the music. It may not look as good on DVD, but it was a sight to see in the theater...Director Hazanavicius does well in not trying to hammer the plot home, but some of scenes are awkwardly placed and the repetitive gags start to lose their flavor. The good news is that Dujardin single-handedly carries this film all the way through the end credits, and several of the scenes (getting lost in the maze of streets, waking to the Mezzuin's call) are truly hilarious. If not for some awkward humor and poor writing in the second act, I would be talking about OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies as a potential new classic."

Definitely the outlier on this list, I'm including it mostly because I think it was arguably the funniest movie in a year that was pretty lacking in the comedy department. You're probably suspicious that this is some highbrow elitist French comedy, but that could hardly be further from the truth. It's absurd, immature, and the deserving winner of several Cesar Awards for its beautiful production. Heads up for a
sequel on the way.


"I can't imagine being a member of the Pixar team. Your movies are expected to capture children's hearts, warm over the coldest critics, top $300 million domestically at the box office, win Academy Awards, cure cancer, and do my laundry. Pixar's 2008 film, WALL*E, has succeeded on the first two of those tasks. The third and fourth are a foregone conclusion, and the last two, well, we'll see...At the very least, WALL*E is the best animated film and the best romantic comedy of the year. I expect its mention in Best Picture discussions will peak and eventually fade by January, but the fact is, we might want to set the Pixar people loose on some of the world's real problems, because all they do is make magic happen...The animation in WALL*E shocked me for two reasons: 1.) metal is literally brought to life, and 2.) I didn't think I could be shocked by computer animation anymore. Garbage has never looked so beautiful, and WALL*E's curious excitement as he drifted into outer space (above) was not just my favorite moment of the movie, but the one that might make WALL*E my favorite Pixar movie."

Personally, I think the intellectual studies of this movie were pretty unnecessary, but I guess bloggers and critics had a lot of time on their hands in June, a month that included garbage like The Happening, The Incredible Hulk, The Love Guru, and You Don't Mess With the Zohan, to mention only a few. Yes, WALL*E was a "smart" animated movie with some subtle lessons about humanity, but we don't have to overthink it to death, especially when even its most "minor" aspects are so outstanding. Why not just let this be an enjoyable movie for adults and kids alike, instead of trying to take the fun out of it by scolding people who don't appreciate the "lesson" it offers?

The Honorably Mentioned 10:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight: I wrote at least four posts about The Dark Knight (only two of which focused on the actual movie), which was probably three too many. Here I would pose the same question about over-intellectualizing as I did with WALL*E. Why can't The Dark Knight simply be considered a pop culture phenomenon, a much-better-than-average summer blockbuster and an excellent comic book adaptation? Isn't that enough?


In Search of a Midnight Kiss: Really liked this romantic comedy about a blind date on New Year's Eve in Los Angeles (which looks beautiful in crisp black and white). I originally thought this might have squeezed its way into the Top 10, but even though it didn't, it's still a promising sign for the future of American independent film.

Revolutionary Road

Che: Another one I haven't yet found time to review, Steven Soderbergh's epic is a remarkable feat primarily because it holds your interest for nearly four and a half hours. But it also educates and enriches - how did it take this long to bring this story to the screen? Also, Benicio del Toro gives his all in an unheralded performance for the second year in a row.

Chop Shop

My Blueberry Nights

Priceless: If there was an award for longevity, Priceless might win it. I only saw it once last spring, yet I've come to appreciate it more and more as time passes.

The Visitor


And finally, to end out the year in movies in the best way possible, I present you with an absolutely brilliant video by one Matt Shapiro, who's created an exhilarating video montage for the second year in a row. Thanks to Matt Lucas for bringing it to my attention earlier this month.


  1. Nice list, Daniel.... with the exception of "Stop Loss". The same way that you find truth and naturalism in "Gran Torino's" northern setting, that's the exact thing that turns me off Kimberly Pierce's film. As a native Texan, the film's display of endless country line dancing, Lone Star beer consumption and idle days shooting guns in the woods feels very dishonest and unnatural- just like a Californian's idea of what Texas is all about.

  2. We've got each other's back on that one, Matthew!

    Thanks much, Joseph, and that's a totally fair criticism of the movie. But for what it's worth, I'd always try to give actual humans the benefit of the doubt over movie characters, and I know all Texans aren't like that at all - they drink Bud Light, not Lone Star. No, I'm completely kidding. Seriously, I feel your rage everytime I see a movie like New In Town come along.

    That's why I loved movies like Ballast and Chop Shop and The Pool and In Search of a Midnight Kiss this year. They were all very city or region-specific, but they were able to avoid ridiculous stereotypes by focusing on what the characters were made of under the surface. I even felt like despite all the criticism against its portrayal of India, even Slumdog Millionaire focused on a broad enough swath of the country that you couldn't leave saying "all Indians are like _____".

    So that's a long agreement to your important point. I looked completely past the supposedly Texan aspects of Stop-Loss - over a million veterans are soon going to be spread out all throughout the country, and that's the most important point to take home from the movie.

  3. Let me just say that the motnage you threw on the bottom of the post should be played at the Oscars unedited because it was awesome. As far as your picks, there is no way anyone on the internet did a better season-end recap than you. It was unfathomably (maybe invented a word) thorough and fantastic. But at the same time I found Boy A and Stop-Loss to be...what's a good word...bad. But let me repeat, best end-of-year recap ever. Here's my top ten, interesing only to you, who I saw 34 movies with AT THE THEATER:

    (keep in mind, havent seen Button or Nixon, think I've seen everything else. Also keep in mind, I've disqualified docs because if not Man On Wire was the best movie I saw all year.)

    Dark Knight
    The Fall
    The Wrestler
    OSS 117
    Revolutionary Road
    Rachel Getting Married
    In Bruges
    Vicky Cristina Barcelona
    Tropic Thunder

    And honestly if I get one more look at Syndec..., New York it might be number one.

    There you go. That's the drunk post of someone who put half-a-paycheck on the Cards. I will seriously give S. Holmes a dirty look the next time I see him. Ruined my fantasy season and then somehow ruined my Super Bowl. Only saving grace was that awesome Pepsi commercial.

  4. Daniel, these are some fantastic choices and "Gran Torino" notwithstanding, we have quite a bit of overlap (I'll be publishing my list later this week). I'm a big fan of "Let the Right One In" and "The Wrestler," so it was fantastic to see it getting some love there. "Revolutionary Road" made it into my top 10, so I'm also glad to see it honorably mentioned. In any case, solid list!

  5. Well thanks, Matt. And cheers to another year. We lost a little steam towards the end but I hope we can pick up in this spring, maybe after the Wolves are done.

    Did I see Stop-Loss with you? I guess I must have. Well I knew I was higher on that than most people, and I do remember you being blah'd by Boy A, too. I just didn't like the ending, but loved the rest the more I thought about it.

    I would have liked to have made room for all of the ones you list that I didn't, with the exception of Rachel. Toss a couple nominations its way and be done with it, and give us a respite for a year from wealthy East Coasters whining about their problems (Margot at the Wedding in 2007).

    Well I know you saw something in The Fall that I didn't, but I still expected it to show up more in my year-end thoughts. I guess it was just too scattered for me or something.

    And I can't believe SNY hasn't shown up in more Top 10 lists. That has to be one of the most overlooked movies of the decade by the academy and the public, including me. It was just too much to get in one viewing.

    And I assume you're talking about PEPSUBER!.

    Thanks very much, Dorothy. I look forward to your list, especially if it includes Revolutionary Road. I thought for sure that might make it into mine, but it just missed the cut. I think it's my favorite DiCaprio performance.

  6. Magnificent list Dan!

    I confess I didn't see STOP LOSS, but I am intrigued with your stellar appraisal!

    Needless to say I am thrilled at the #2 placement of THE POOL, as I have shared your passion for this brilliant inde since it's release. It's true that too few people have been able to locate it after it's brief run theatricaly, but I'm sure DVD will find it a new audience.
    Likewise, your promotion of BALLAST is marvelous. I was fortunate enough to meet the director (as you did) and i feel guilty about not including it myself in a competitive list.
    Kudos on your rightful recognition of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and BOY A, two films that would ditinguish any short list!
    And SLUMDOG at #1? I had it very high too, so I join with you at that railway station at the end! Was that you I saw in that ocean of people?

    One of the most modest and good-spirited of all bloggers, you are always putting yourself behind everyone else, but I'd be hard pressed to find a more cinematically-encompassing list than this.

    You should be proud.

  7. And while I wasn't the big fan of THE WRESTLER that you were, I admit it's a fine film and a worthy choice for any Ten Best list.

    Your runner-up list is hugely impressive, especially for the citations for:

    Benjamin Button
    Chop Shop (nice one to remember; I was lucky enough to see and review it)
    In Search of a Midnight Kiss
    My Blueberry Nights

    and of course my beloved:

    The Visitor

    Your runner-up list is as great as your Top 10!!!

  8. And last but not least.......

    *drum roll*

    for your #10 (my #1)


    Your recognition here is glorious.

  9. Haha, drum roll and everything. Well thanks a lot for all the good will, Sam. We're brothers in arms with The Pool, which I know was well-reviewed by critics but didn't connect much with the public. And I don't know if I really expect it to. If I were a more impatient viewer, actually, The Pool, Ballast and Chop Shop (all of which are very similar) would probably be too tedious.

    But for me they exemplify what I love about movies - they can inform and inspire at the same time.

  10. Wow. As noted by the others, a truly excellent and comprehensive compendium of 2008. And thanks so much for sharing the Matt Shapiro montage: stunning and moving! (do those words even go together? oh well, they both fit for me)

    As you know, I would have to put The Dark Knight somewhere in my top ten for sure. Having said that, the films from Parts 1-5 of your Best of 2008, plus that video montage, reminded me of just how many great movies I clearly have not seen yet - yikes - with Boy A and Ballast being at the current top of my wish list, each for various reasons. And thank you again for your ongoing coverage of documentaries; I really appreciate your expertise in and exposure of them.

    I think my only surprise for nostalgia's sake was that Young At Heart did not make your (non-documentary) Honorably Mentionable 10 -- your first A+ review ever, n'est-ce pas?

    lastly ... VIVA PEPSUBER!

  11. Thanks, Josh. Well I love #'s 1-5 but my thoughts on those are pretty rare. Or I should say, most people wouldn't consider The Pool or Gran Torino or Boy A the best movies of last year. But I still recommend them!

    And Young @ Heart was definitely one of the best of last year, but that snuck into Part 4.

  12. Nice well rounded list, Daniel, that reflects legitimacy as well as individuality. I haven't seen four of the films you've chosen, and I vehemently disagree with one of them (which one, which one?), but it's great to see OSS sneak on there.

    One of my favorite parts of these lists is seeing how they reflect the tastes of the list-maker in question.

  13. I absolutely love your list Danny, and your honourable mentions too! I agree with you, '08 was an excellent year for movies and your list(s) sure offer insight into the best of the best. I still need to see some of what you have seen, but overall: loves the list. Totally.

  14. Thanks, Evan. I was happy to have the freedom to choose some outliers here, since my tastes aren't always inline with the "critics", whoever they are considered to be these days anyway.

    I'm not holding my breath about your disagreement - it has to be Gran Torino!

    Thanks much, Nick. I didn't get Reprise on here, which I know we both really enjoyed, so it was great that you gave it such a high spot on your list.

  15. Finally saw Slumdog Millionaire this past weekend, and although I enjoyed that film, I still would have given Best Picture (and Best Director) deference to Gran Torino and the The Dark Knight instead of Benjamin Button and Slumdog. Have not seen The Reader, but based on my ignorant impression of it, at this point I am guessing that Wall-E and Andrew Stanton would have taken it's place in my Picture/Director wish list as well.

    Sorry, guess I'm unintentionally supporting the bigger studio productions here ...

  16. Hmm yeah, well you know I still loved Slumdog even the second time around, but I definitely agree that The Reader could have been replaced with anything else you mention - GT, TDK or WALLE.

    But generally my interests have aligned with the Academy (or at least with the eventual winners if not the nominees) over the last few years much more than they used to, with a few exceptions.


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