Best Films of 2008

I saw somewhere on the order of 70 movies that were released in 2008. Most critics see more than that, but your average moviegoer probably sees far less than that. I have to say, I’ve been really disappointed with 2008. It’s been a rough year for movies and I had a really hard time cobbling together a top 10 (Hence the extreme lateness of this post). The 6-10 of my list is somewhat weak and probably wouldn’t have made the list in either 2006 or 2007. On the other hand, the films near the top of the list are great, and would compete with the films of the last two years.

Of course, making a top 10 list is an inherently subjective exercise. I’ve noted before that these lists tend to tell you more about those who are compiling the list rather than the movies on the list. The hosts of the Filmcouch podcast were recently talking about how these sorts of lists are an autobiographical exercise and invited listeners to send in their top 5 lists, at which point they would psychoanalyze the list and try to come up with a picture of who the list’s owner was. I submitted my list, and they tried to figure me out by the movies I listed. Before I go through their results, I should probably let you see my full list, so here goes:

Top 10 Movies of 2008

* In roughly reverse order

  • Man on Wire: This documentary follows French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s amazing high-wire stunt performed between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. This act was, of course, illegal, and indeed, the film carries with it many of the conventions and tropes of the heist movie… except that Petit wasn’t stealing anything, he was just obsessed with tightrope walking (and had been performing various other similar stunts around the world, such as his walk across the towers of Notre Dame). The story is amazing and Petit is bewildering. I’m particularly thankful that director James Marsh decided to completely ignore the 9/11 angle, as such sermonizing would be unnecessary and distracting.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle’s Dickensian romp across India is getting a lot of attention these days and is seemingly a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar. There seems to be something of a backlash as well, which I feel is somewhat undeserved. I certainly don’t think it’s the best film of the year, but it features an interesting mix of dark and edgy material with a more optimistic undertone. There are moments of extreme violence and tragedy, but the movie is ultimately an uplifting experience. Of the Oscar nominees, it’s my favorite.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • Teeth: Adventurous filmmaking at its best, this movie is about a teenage girl who has teeth… down there. This is most unfortunate for all the males in the movie, especially the ones who attempt to take advantage of our heroine (which is to say, most of them). As a male, it was sometimes hard for me to watch (let’s just say the film gets graphic), but in the end, I had a lot of fun with the movie. Despite it’s B movie/horror roots, the film delves deeper than you might expect, exploring the nature of sexual power and male/female interactions. If you think you can handle the gore, it’s a good film.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Bank Job: Based on the true story of the 1971 Baker Street bank robbery, this movie follows a band of amateur thieves as they plan and execute their heist, which is aimed at the safe deposit boxes rather than the standard cash. What they don’t plan on is that the safe deposit boxes also contain loads of dirty secrets, and there are people who don’t want those secrets to come out. Nefarious acts ensue. I have to say that I was really taken with this movie. It seems like a by-the-numbers heist movie, but I’d say it’s the best heist movie made in the last several years (and I like me some heist movies).

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Mad Detective: Directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai have crafted an exceptional police procedural and infused it with a giddy wackiness in the form of their main character, Bun, who can see the inner personalities of people. Bun’s talents are explained in a stunning visual manner and the film’s climax is a cinematic masterpiece. Unfortunately, this film is hard to find and it took me a while to get to it, but it was well worth the wait (it actually displaced the original number 10 movie on this list and may deserve to be even higher on the list than I placed it).

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]

  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall: A movie that almost perfectly walks the fine line between romantic comedy and raunchy comedy, never straying to far from either. I’d say this is a tough trick to pull off, but this sort of mix seems to be producer Judd Apatow’s specialty. Still, I think even among those films, this one is a winner. The film feels fresh and all of the characters in the movie are surprisingly well developed. The film is written by and stars Jason Segal, who goes all out in his performance. Mila Kunis is wonderful, as are the other supporting characters played by Kristin Bell, Russell Brand, Bill Hader and Jonah Hill. Excellent stuff.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Winner of 2 Kaedrin Movie Awards]

  • Let the Right One In: This Swedish horror film follows a lonely 12 year old boy, bullied by schoolmates, who falls in love with his neighbor. She happens to be a vampire. Set against a stark and beautiful snowy backdrop (excellent cinematography here), this film is not your typical vampire movie. It’s more contemplative and subtle. There are moments of violence and gore, but they highlight the sadness of a vampire stuck in the body of a 12 year old girl. It’s clear that vampires are a bad thing, an evil thing, but they’re also sad creatures (and not in the whiney romantic, woe-is-me Interview with the Vampire way), which kinda endears you to them. It’s also surprisingly tender, as you see the relationship between the young boy and vampire blossom. There is a Hollywood remake coming, but from what I’ve heard so far, you’d do far better to watch the original.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Timecrimes: An intricate Spanish time-travel thriller, and my favorite film of the 2008 Philly film festival. It has a light and humorous feel to it, but it’s got a dark edge and it doesn’t shy away from consequences. It’s intelligent and rewards thought, but it’s not difficult to follow or understand (which can be a problem with some time travel movies). Perhaps it’s just my affinity for time travel stories, but I loved this movie.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]

  • The Counterfeiters: This movie actually won the 2007 Oscar for best foreign-language film last year, so perhaps a bit of a cheat, but it did not get a theatrical release until this year. And it’s a fantastic film. It follows the story of Jewish artists and counterfeiters forced to produce fake foreign currency, destined for use by the Nazis to destabilize the economies of the UK and US. The film contains a series of fascinating moral dilemmas. Do you refuse to help the enemy and endanger your lives and the lives of those around you? Or do you protect them while aiding your enemy? There are no easy answers here, and there are two main characters who both espouse differing answers. Neither and both are proven right, if that makes any sense. Not an easy movie, but extremely compelling and highly recommended.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Dark Knight: It’s an obvious choice for me, and while I can perhaps see some flaws in the film, I can’t deny that it was the most enjoyable, entertaining and thought provoking (not an easy mixture) moviegoing experience of the year. One of my criteria for compiling a list like this is rewatch value, and when you consider that I’ve already seen this movie 5 times (while I have not seen any of the others on this list more than 2 times), it has to be at the top of my list. It’s like a crime story that happens to feature a man dressed as a bat fighting a man dressed as a clown. This is another movie that features intricate plotting and a focus on consequences. There are no easy answers here either. Heath Ledger’s inspired turn as the Joker is destined to become a classic, and the character is the perfect foil for Batman. The worst thing I can say about the movie is that the sequel has nowhere to go and will certainly pale in comparison.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Winner of 2 Kaedrin Movie Awards] [Blog Post]

So how did the Filmcouch hosts do in psychoanalyzing me? For the record, the top 5 I sent them was a little different – I had The Bank Job where Forgetting Sarah Marshall is in the above list. Anyway, their first observation was that I was a relatively young male, which is certainly true. The next thing they noticed was that all of these movies are about people who are operating under the radar (i.e. counterfeiters, bank robbers, vigilantes, vampires, etc…), so they think I’m drawn to people who operate outside the system (or smarter than the system). This may be partially true (see next paragraph for more). They also noticed that most of the movies touch on the idea that sometimes you have to do a bad thing to make things right (i.e. two wrongs make a right), and in some cases, sympathy for people doing bad things (but a recognition that such sympathy is strange). Because of that, they see me as someone who likes shades of gray. Again, this is probably partially true (more below).

I found their comments interesting, and it did make me wonder about why I really did choose the movies that I did. I think there is some truth in what they say, but I wouldn’t say that I am the person they describe. There are some things that I’m fascinated by that aren’t things I’d actually do. For instance, I’ve written before about vigilantes, and despite what the hosts of Filmcouch may think, I’m not a vigilante, and don’t really have a desire to do so. What fascinates me about vigilante stories, though, is consequences. This is something that The Dark Knight did in spades, and it also features prominently in a lot of the other movies on the list. I wouldn’t say that I particularly like the idea of “two wrongs make a right” but I am fascinated by situations in which the only possible alternatives are wrong. What do you do when no available option is right? How do you counter someone like the Joker? What are the consequences of time travel? What happens if you become a vampire when you’re 12 years old? Do you help the Nazis destabilize the Allied economy, or do you protect your fellow concentration camp prisoners? I’m also the type of person who thinks the devil is in the details, and so I like movies that show that sort of thing. Again, Batman is a good example of this sort of thing. Everyone agrees that fighting crime is an honorable thing, but when you get down to the details of such an endeavor, things become a lot more complicated. Sure, Batman could spend all his time taking down the criminals on the streets – but then he’s not getting at the root of the problem. But taking on the root of the problem has consequences. And so on. So I supposed their “shades of gray” thing might be somewhat accurate as well. But the point remains, while I may be fascinated by vigilantes in film, that doesn’t mean that I want to be a vigilante, nor does it mean that I would tolerate a vigilante in my community. Something similar could be probably be said for other people prominently featured in my list (i.e. vampires, bank robbers, etc…) I’m fascinated by them, but it’s not like I want to be them. Perhaps there’s a cathartic value in these movies as well. They mentioned that I might be someone who likes to operate outside the system, but in fact, I do no such thing in my life. I’m pretty firmly ensconced within the system. But I suspect that makes people who operate outside the system fascinating… So anyway, that’s what Filmcouch thinks. Not a bad job, but perhaps you can’t truly read someone’s soul through a list of 5 movies:p

Honorable Mention

* In alphabetical order

  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Brutal drama about a woman who helps her friend get an illegal abortion. The film takes place in Romania towards the end of the Soviet era, and it’s not a very pleasant film, though it is very well made. Strange as it may seem for a movie about abortion, it doesn’t take a side in the pro-life/pro-choice debate, and is more effective because of that.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Baghead: This ultra-low-budget (reputedly around $1000) horror film has its share of flaws, but it’s also quite an entertaining flick. Aside from it’s low-budget nature, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but I’ve always maintained that there is something to be said for a well-executed genre film, and this movie does its job well enough.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Body of Lies: This underrated (and, uh, poorly titled) spy movie was actually reasonably smart and entertaining. It has a distinct political viewpoint on the war on terror, but it doesn’t overplay its hand and keeps the lecturing to a minimum. The movie focuses more on the plotting of the story than the politics, and I think it works reasonably well.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Burn After Reading: The Coen brothers perplexing follow up to the critically lauded No Country for Old Men is about as different from that film as possible. I’m very much reminded of their follow up to Fargo, which was The Big Lebowski. I didn’t care much for Lebowski the first time I saw it, but as time went on, I came around. I have a similar feeling about this movie, though I still don’t think it’s near the top of the Coen brothers films. My biggest issue with the movie is that none of the characters are particularly likeable. On the other hand, several are pretty funny, Brad Pitt’s performance is hilarious, and the scenes at the CIA offices with J.K. Simmons and David Rasche are priceless.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: I actually enjoyed this more than I expected. I’m always game for a David Fincher film, but the previews for this looked awful. So I came away from the film with a pretty good feeling, but that said, there were a bunch of things I didn’t particularly care for. Many have mentioned this film’s similarities to Forrest Gump, a movie I loath, so it’s interesting that I don’t mind this movie and even enjoyed it. Not Fincher’s best work, but an interesting diversion.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • The Fall: A gorgeous feast for the eyes. The story follows a man in a hospital who tells a story to a little girl in order to coax her into getting him some morphine. Most of the film takes place in the imaginary world the man creates, which is visually impressive, but the story he tells is somewhat lacking. Of course, that’s kinda the point, because the man is kinda making things up as he goes along, but that doesn’t make it much better. Ultimately, there are parallels between the real world and the imaginary one, and in the end, I did enjoy the film.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • In Bruges: I really liked this movie right up until the end, which I felt was rather stupid and glib in attempting to tie everything together. There are some stereotypical characters here: the two hitmen who are opposites of each other – one a philosophical type, the other more hedonistic. Fortunately, the writers do a really good job with those characters, and Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell give excellent performances too. If it weren’t for the ending, this film would probably be in the top 10.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Iron Man: One of the more enjoyable and fun experiences of the year, and one of the better superhero movies, I nevertheless felt this film was somewhat overrated. It’s a good, solid film. Robert Downey Jr. gives an excellent performance. The explosions and action were cool. But ultimately, I don’t think this film carries the weight of a movie like The Dark Knight, and there are certain aspects which are lacking in this film. For instance, I thought the film lacked a credible villain. I suppose the reveal of the true villain was supposed to be something of a surprise, but it was blatantly obvious from the start who the bad guy was going to be, and the climatic battle was a bit too silly for me. With a box of scraps!

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Kung Fu Panda: Is there a more common trope than anthropomorphized animals in American animated movies? Despite the cliche, this film was a lot of fun.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Ladrón Que Roba a Ladrón: It’s like a latino Ocean’s Eleven! It even has a latino George Clooney lookalike (but he’s the villain in this film). Unfortunately, it’s not quite as good as Ocean’s Eleven, but it is still a rather entertaining heist film. It doesn’t quite hit all the appropriate notes and the various twists aren’t quite twisty enough, but it gets the job done and is definitely worth a watch.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Promotion: This odd and underseen comedy stars Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly as assistant managers at a supermarket who are vying for the same promotion. It’s offbeat and quirky and fun, but with a darker edge (which I’m assuming is why it didn’t get much of a release). That said, it’s got an interesting sort of understated humor that works well. I enjoyed this a lot and think it could be interchangeable with my number 10…

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Role Models: This is probably the funniest movie of the year, and if not for the more cliched story, it might have been in the top 10. Still, it was much better than some of the other high-profile comedies this year, and all of the comedic performances were well done and funny.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Spiral: [Note: This was originally my #10 film, but was unseated once I saw Mad Detective. I’ve preserved my original thoughts here, with some additional notes.] Unquestionably the weakest movie on this list and I have to say that it just barely squeaks onto the list [Again, it has since been knocked off the list]. It’s not a great movie, and in objective terms, several of the honorable mentions probably deserves to be here ahead of Spiral. But for some reason, this movie got under my skin and stuck with me, so here it is. It’s a slow burning thriller that I’m betting most people haven’t even heard of (another reason to give it some love, I guess), but I did enjoy it quite a bit.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • Wall-E: The first half of this film was spectacular and ambitious filmmaking, but as soon as the humans showed up, things started to get less interesting. It’s still a wonderful film, and I have to give credit to a movie that spends the first 45 minutes or so with almost no dialogue… and yet manages to be compelling and interesting. Visually impressive, funny, and touching.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

  • The Wrestler: Darren Aronofsky’s character portrait of a down-on-his-luck professional wrestler is very well made, but ultimately a little too cliched for my tastes. It’s an excellent movie, but it’s not really my type of movie. However, Mickey Rourke’s performance is amazing and the final shot in the movie is exceptional.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Full Review]

  • Zack & Miri Make a Porno: I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Smith’s brand of raunchy humor, and this film is no exception. Perhaps not the funniest movie of the year, I still laughed a lot and as usual, Smith grounds the film with heart you don’t often find in raunchy comedies. I don’t think it’s his best work, but I do think it was criminally underseen.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]

Bottom 5 Movies of the Year

Perhaps as evidence of how bad a year this is, I am listing out my 5 least favorite movies. Typically, I’d have a tough time with this list, because I generally try to avoid bad movies and am usually somewhat successful in that. This year, I was not.

  • The Happening: The worst dialogue delivered in the worst possible way make this film laughable. The story is rather pointless as well. I’ve been something of a Shyamalan apologist in the past, as I liked The Village and even Lady in the Water, but this movie is just indefensible.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • Speed Racer: Matty Robinson (of Filmspotting fame) described the movie thusly: “It’s like a skittles induced stroke.” Of course, he was being favorable to the movie, which is something I’m not inclined to do. It is visually ok, but everything else was pretty awful (except for Christina Ricci, who was unfortunately given nothing to do).

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • Storm: My least favorite movie of the 2008 Philly film festival. It has a lot of interesting ideas, none of which are followed through in any detail, instead devolving into an incomprehensible stew of cliches and unlikeable characters.

    More Info: [IMDB] [Capsule Review]

  • Sukiyaki Western Django: I have to give Takashi Miike credit for trying something new and different, but ultimately the film didn’t work for me at all. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood or something, but I just couldn’t get into this movie.

    More Info: [IMDB]

  • The X Files: I Want to Believe: This could have made an excellent creature of the week type episode of the original series, but instead the movie attempts to tie in way too much of the series’ baggage, thus creating a mess of a storyline. I really liked the show a lot, but found this movie terrible.

    More Info: [IMDB]

Should Have Seen

There are a couple of these that might even have potential for unseating my number 10 movie, but I couldn’t get to them for whatever reason (usually that it wasn’t playing near me or otherwise available). For instance, I ordered Mad Detective (co-directed by Kaedrin favorite Johnny To) on blu-ray on January 21, but according to Amazon, the delivery estimate is sometime in early March!?

Well, that just about covers it for 2008. The only thing that remains is the annual liveblogging of the Oscars (which are next Sunday? Yikes, time flies!) Anyway, here’s to hoping that 2009 is a better year!

Update 2.21.09: Well that didn’t take long. I saw Mad Detective last night and decided that it needed to be on the top 10. This knocks Spiral off the list and into the Honorable Mentions. Also worth noting are the comments to this post where I have an interesting discussion Adam from Filmcouch. And finally, the Filmcouch podcast mentioned my comments on this week’s podcast as well. Thanks guys!

5 thoughts on “Best Films of 2008”

  1. Hey Mark, interesting post! I was one of the FilmCouch guys psychoanalyzing you, so it was interesting to hear your thoughts. One thing you said especially resonated with me, that you’re interested in decisions where every option has unacceptable consequences. One question: what do you mean by “The devil is in the details?”

  2. Hi Adam! Thanks for stopping by…

    Devil in the details is when something seems easy and simple from a high level, but when you start to dig into it, you find that the details are much more complicated and difficult than it seemed (often leading to the impossible decisions etc…). You don’t see a ton of this in movies, but it’s there. Dark Knight kinda got at it – it’s easy to diagnose the problem with Gotham. Organized crime, corruption, etc… Everyone even knows who the leaders are. So why is it so hard to fight crime in Gotham? Why is Batman, who sets out to fight crime, continually being faced with those impossible decisions? The diagnosis is easy, but the devil is in the details. Another aphorism that might help is the phrase “The Road to hell is paved with good intentions.” History is replete with examples of dictators taking power to solve some problem or the other – and people seem happy with that… until the dictator starts trying to preserve and expand his power. It’s a slippery slope. I think the great thing about The Dark Knight was that Batman and those working with him knew that Batman couldn’t solve the problem alone, and that vigilantism is a bad thing. That’s why the movie ends the way it does.

    You do see this sort of thing in science fiction novels a lot though… Rigorous attention to detail is a hallmark of the genre (in literature, at least – movies are much less so). Space flight is another subject that seems straightforward, but is incredibly complicated, difficult and dangerous. Some of the space race movies got at this a bit, but for the most part, you don’t see a lot of the pragmatic stuff in movies. Instead you get Star Wars:p

    This pops up in real life all the time too. I don’t want to start a holy war here, but a lot of alternative energy solutions have a lot of devils in the details (which is a big part of why they haven’t had much success). This leads to lots of consternation because people don’t delve that deep into it, so it seems a lot easier than it really is…

    My job IRL deals with this a lot. I’m not a programmer, but I work with them, and they deal with it a ton too. There are a lot of things people want to do that wind up being exceptionally large efforts because even though the concept is simple, the necessary groundwork and infrastructure is extensive. A lot of times what’s being asked for is a nonesuch beast.

    A lot of it comes down to tradeoffs. Human beings don’t really solve problems. They trade one set of problems for another in the hopes that the new problems will be more favorable than the old. But from the outside, it looks simpler than it really is.

    So I think I’ve babbled on long enough. I could probably keep going for a few thousand words:p

  3. Mark, thank you for your detailed and articulate response! You make an interesting point about the attention to detail in sci-fi; do you have any theories about this? I wonder if it has anything to do with the kind of minds that are interested in writing sci-fi?

    For example, I play Dungeons and Dragons with a group of very detail-oriented people who love to write detailed backstories about their characters. They all work in the computer programming field, and studied the physical sciences and engineering in college. I wonder if there’s a correlation there? That people who love working with details enjoy using their imagination in a setting where the details matter? (I.e., describing how a space engine is able to harness the power of sunlight, etc.)

    That said, one of my favorite detail-oriented novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky, doesn’t write fantastically at all. THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is like a detail-oriented investigation of how four family members try to lead worthwhile lives in drastically different ways. Let’s say the book deals with the ethical details of living, issues that many other books (and minds?) ignore.

    The novel’s scope, which is deep and wide, make the novel a feat of imagination–but everything in it is still so ‘mundane’ or relatable! I can recognize myself in the characters. Now I’m rambling. I hope reading this is as thought-provoking as writing it.

  4. Well, scientists and engineers are constantly dealing with devils in the details, so it would make sense to me… They demand higher standards of scientific plausibility because the science is what interests them, and real science is a rigorous process. This can be a real challenge when you consider that the rigorous science must be mixed with a well crafted story… The whole point of fiction in general is to come up with entertaining conflicts and to speculate on how they would turn out. SF takes an idea about the future, then speculates what that would mean for humanity, society, whatever… And a good exploration of that needs to be detail oriented, or you’d never believe it.

    I don’t think it’s a surprise that computer programmers like this sort of thing. If you’ve ever tried to write a program, you’ll see it right away. Computers are very simple machines in a lot of ways, but thinking through how to do something seemingly simple can yield deceptively complex results, even in high level languages…

    D&D can be a great example! There are some who take a lighter approach to the game, but there are many who really take it very seriously. You mention the people who write extensive backstories for their characters and use that as a way guide their player’s actions. The game itself is rather detailed, and there are tons of rules that were made to account for all the scenarios that could come up. Interestingly, a good DM will explore the stuff we’re talking about here by placing the players into impossible situations and making them face the consequences later in the game. Here’s an interesting example. The most interesting thing about that example is that it’s clear the DM had thought through the details and formulated the results based on possible player actions… but the players did something he didn’t expect. Consequences all around!

    Dostoevsky is indeed a detail oriented kinda guy. I’ve not read Karamazov, but Crime and Punishment takes a pretty simple premise (murder!) and explores it deeply.

  5. This guy sounds like a really good DM. And to take this point in a bit of a circle, he’s a software developer!

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