What, another top ten list? Sure, why not. It’s that time of year. Everybody’s doing it.

These are selected only from among films released in Chicago in calendar 2008, and (far narrower than that) from films I’ve actually seen—which is far from all of them, since no one’s paying me to be a critic (more’s the pity). Spoiler Warning: plot points may be revealed below.

Caveats:  this is an entirely personal and subjective list (of course).  2008 was a bit of a mixed bag, cinema-wise; there were a handful of great films, but not very many good ones, so assembling this list took a bit of effort. No guarantee of entertainment value for any third party is intended or should be inferred, and the author specifically disclaims responsibility for any time or money readers may consider to have been wasted on any of these movies. In other words, you’ll probably disagree with me about something. Tough! That’s what the comments section is for.

1) Milk

It begins with death, ends with death, and has death in-between, along with significant portions of prejudice and injustice. The one thing it doesn’t have is despair:  this is one of the most life-affirming movies I’ve seen in ages. Gus Van Sant captures 1970s San Francisco with what feels like easy naturalism, and Sean Penn turns in a brilliant, affecting performance way outside his usual type in the title role.

2) Wall-E

Pixar scores again. In many ways this film, especially the near-silent first half, evokes the terrific silent-era work of Charlie Chaplin, with the good-hearted but hapless hero contending with outrageous circumstances increasingly beyond his control. That the hero happens to be a trash compactor seems almost incidental. It’s irrestistably funny, moving, suspenseful, and (of course) beautiful to look at. Along the way, it also offers gentle lessons for kids and adults both about the undesirable consequences of rampant consumerism.

3) Iron Man

Its politics are incoherent, as it attempts simultaneously to glamorize and to critique the U.S. military industrical complex. But I can forgive it that (and indeed credit it for at least recognizing those political tensions); this is a lovingly made, plausibly detailed super-hero film, both spectacularly fulfilling genre expectations and rising above that genre’s limitations, especially in Robert Downey Jr.’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Tony Stark.

4) The Dark Knight

If Iron Man rose above genre limitations, this film absolutely chucked them out the window and did its own thing. In particular, it more than makes up for the absence of despair in Milk, as that’s its dominant emotional tone. But it continues where Batman Begins left off with an unapologetically serious, camp-free portrayal of Batman, and improves on it with gripping supporting performances from not only Heath Ledger (as the Joker) but also Aaron Eckhart (as Harvey Dent/Two-Face). In fact, both of them overshadow Christian Bale in the title role… but that’s mainly because his transformative character arc was in the previous film, and from where this one leaves off it seems that the inevitable sequel will have reason to shift the focus back to him.

5) Mongol

My girlfriend and I realized we had unavoidably cemented our status as effete urban liberals the night we drove our hybrid car to a nearby collegiate suburb, ate dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, and then went to see this subtitled Mongolian historical epic. 😉 Covering the early life of Genghis Khan, it suffers a bit from the problems of most biopics (particularly in how it skips lightly over some events that may not be familiar to the viewer), but it’s still suspenseful and wonderfully acted, and has a mise-en-scène like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

6) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I was very pleasantly surprised by this picture, as I entered the theater with low expectations. What could easily have been a contrived, sappy star vehicle was instead a gorgeously shot, emotionally authentic, and genuinely moving film about opportunities both lost and seized, about second chances, and self-made lives, and the importance of small kindnesses. The reverse-aging concept underlying the story is presented perfectly, every bit as plausible as New Orleans in the ’20s or New York in the ’40s. Director David Fincher obviously poured a lot of loving detail into getting this film right, and it quite simply works.

7) The Bank Job

A good heist caper is always fun, and this British import has the added twist that all its implausible details were inspired by an actual bank job executed in London in the early ’70s. It’s suspenseful and satisfying, and along the way Jason Statham proves he has the acting chops for more than just high-octane, low-IQ actioners.

8 ) Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh thankfully took a breather from his usually dour themes for this upbeat comedy-drama starring the delightful Sally Hawkins as a determinedly, almost perversely optimistic and cheerful schoolteacher dealing with the travails of life in London. It’s a bit slow to get started, but it really picks up steam once you see how the meandering bits of story build on one another. It works because it remains grounded, though; at no point does Hawkins’ character come across as deluded or pollyannish, and the result leaves us questioning how much of our own lives come down to a matter of attitude.

9) Tell No One

A stylish, charismatic French import, this suspense thriller is based on a novel by American author Harlan Coben but transfers seamlessly to Paris. It kicks off when a doctor receives an e-mail apparently from his long-dead wife, and builds the mystery and pressure relentlessly toward a climax so effective that Coben himself said he liked it better than his own book. It also features a terrific supporting turn by Kristin Scott Thomas, demonstrating her heretofore unknown (to me) flawless French.

10) Body of Lies

Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t have been my first choice to play a world-weary CIA agent, but he’s surprisingly good in this political suspense film, which dramatizes just how much America’s powerful and well-funded intelligence apparatus is really making things up as it goes along. Russell Crowe is also superb, of course, and Ridly Scott keeps things moving along with enough flair to overlook a few implausibilities along the way.

There are also a number of films that have popped up on quite a few critics’ lists, but which I specifically chose not to include here. In particular, I’m thinking of Slumdog Millionaire (enjoyable in many ways, but an amalgamation of gritty urban coming-of-age story and pie-in-the-sky fantasy that IMHO just didn’t gel), Doubt (brilliantly acted but all concerned, but the ending was unsatisfying, as in my book an evil woman achieving her goals but then suffering a bit of buyer’s remorse afterward does not make for a sufficiently dramatic balancing of the moral scales), and especially Rachel Getting Married (I don’t know what Jonathan Demme was thinking, but why anybody claims to have enjoyed this underwritten, hamfisted combination of a bad after-school special and somebody’s overlong wedding videos is completely beyond me).

Runners-up that I enjoyed but that didn’t quite make the cut include a number of romantic comedies, notably Definitely, Maybe; Charlie Bartlett; and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. There are also several films that are reportedly quite worthy but which I simply haven’t had the chance to see (yet); those would include among others Changeling; Frost/Nixon; Synechdoche, New York; The Visitor; and The Wrestler. No slight is intended toward any of those films; it’s just how the dice fall. (Thank heaven for Netflix!)

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6 Responses to “Top ten favorite movies of 2008”
  1. Andrew says:

    A good list … I must admit I really enjoyed The Curious Case of Benji and The Dark Night myself, really interesting concepts. Too bad Heath passed away, I was expecting much more from that that guy after the Joker role …

  2. Chelle says:

    Wall-E was great…so simple and yet so much to think about while watching. I’ve yet to watch a Pixar movie I didn’t like! I think this one, while certainly suitable for kids, seems to be more geared for adults who can understand the different things they showed.

  3. Payday Loans says:

    There were several movies that i really liked this year. They may seem like they’re the “typical” movies, but I thought they were great. Tops? “The Secret Life of Bees”, “Miss Pedigrew Lives for a Day”, “The Dark Knight”, “What Happens in Vegas”, and “Prince Caspian”. All amazing films–no matter if they’re drama, comedy, or kid movies. I thought this year-while it was definitely a hard year-came up with some pretty good movies.

  4. michael says:

    Not really. I can barely remember most of what I saw. I’ll say that I DO remember “Rachel Getting Married” and “Doubt” as being quite good. And I enjoyed “Iron Man.” “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” was kind of sweet. But even all these only stood out against a pretty miserable backdrop.

  5. I agree that it wasn’t a great year. And yet, I notice that you decline to share any of your own favorites. There’s always something that stands out from the crowd. C’mon, fess up!…

  6. michael says:

    So you’re trying to stir up controversy to build you audience, right? Smart move. While I would have a very different list, what jumps out at me from yours is what a lousy year for movies 2008 was. (In a decent year, none of these films would rate a mention.) But that makes sense: it was a horrible year all around. Here’s hoping 2009 works out better, and not just on celluloid.

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