After 2007, which was quite simply the best year for movies in recent memory, 2008 almost had to be a letdown. It was, especially for me, since I didn’t jump on the WALL-E or the Rachel Getting Married bandwagon.
That being said, it was a great year for superhero movies, with Iron Man dazzling us with its hip wit and The Dark Knight giving us the late Health Ledger’s villain for the ages.
To me, 2008 brought us only one bona fide masterpiece, and that’s the film at the top of my list, Slumdog Millionaire. Number 2, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, might have been a contender, but the film’s central love story—which should have been its heart and soul—ended up being its weakest link.
Two old pros had strong outings: Ron Howard made his most sophisticated and possibly best film ever in Frost/Nixon (that is, if you don’t count the Funny or Die short he did on behalf of the Obama campaign.) And Woody Allen proved that he still has it, with the funny, sexy, utterly irresistible Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Sean Penn just might add another Oscar to his mantle with his joyous, loose-limbed work in Milk. (But don’t underestimate Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler: That film, about an aging pro wrestler barely hanging onto his glory years, is the perfect marriage of actor and part.)
On the indie front: Both Richard Jenkins (in The Visitor) and Melissa Leo (in Frozen River) are getting much-deserved Oscar buzz. Neither performance had an ounce of fat or sentimentality: Jenkins slowly and believably came out of his shell as a reserved man finding his inner funk. And, with quiet fierceness, Melissa Leo showed us how far a desperate woman will go to protect her family.
The Titanic duo, Leo and Kate, reunited—and they’re all grown up! Great acting is about the dichotomy between the private self and the public one—and in this story of a disintegrating marriage in the 1950s, Leo and Kate showed us a couple of beautiful people who were spiritually bankrupt. Their final scene together—after an explosive fight the night before, Kate’s April turns into a dutiful Stepford Wife, while Leo’s Frank looks on with a combination of relief and suspicion—is cinematic punch in the gut.
France gave us Tell No One, thus proving that the French do wine, cheese, and twisty, sophisticated suspense thrillers better than us Yanks. (Sacre bleu! )
Okay, I’ve rambled enough. Here’s the list:
1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
4. The Visitor
5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
7. Tell No One
8. Revolutionary Road
9. The Dark Knight
10. Frozen River
honorable mention: Man on a Wire, Iron Man, The Wrestler, Happy-Go-Lucky, Synecdoche, NY, Religulous, Dear Zachary, Burn After Reading, A Christmas Tale, In Bruges.