Yeah, I know most people whittle their lists down to 10, but (as teh ‘monkey often observes) I’m not exactly what you’d call “normal.” And this way you get three more extra-good flicks at no extra charge.
2008 was the year of the cape. Super-heroes and comic book films hit theaters like Twilight tweens at a Robert Pattinson appearance, and most of them turned out to be pretty good (forgetting that second-half of Hancock and all of Punisher: War Zone). As a self-admitted and unabashed comic book nerd I couldn’t help but pepper my list with a few of these along with some heroes not in tights, a vampire, a pair of documentaries, and one kick ass panda.
Honorable mentions – Before we begin let me mention a couple films I missed including In Bruges, The Reader, and The Fall (the last of which made our pal Eric’s list), and offer some appreciation to the lovable also-rans who didn’t quite make the cut. These include Traitor, Tropic Thunder, The Visitor, Bolt, and Wall-E (the last film to miss the cut).
We begin, not surprisingly, with a comic book movie. Director Jon Favreau (you know, this guy) delivers one of the best comic book films ever, centered around a character no one was that excited about, and on the heels of the disappointing Spider-Man 3. The film far exceeded my expectations, and the suit itself was seriously cool. Iron Man has rarely looked better than as played by Robert Downey Jr., and although it gets downgraded for a lackluster final act there’s no question it deserves a spot on the list.
I’ve read, and own, by far, more Batman comics than any other colorful costumed character found on the printed page. So, as you might imagine, it takes a bit of an effort to please me when it comes to ol’ pointy-ears. The film isn’t perfect. It’s a bit long, the wrong baddie dies, and Bats himself is still the slowest kid in class, but you’ve also got terrific performances for Aaron Eckhart and Heath Ledger and plenty of suspense. I would still argue it’s not the best Batman flick out there, but in terms of a realistic live-action depiction of a guy dressed up as a Bat it kicks some serious ass.
Scarlett Johansson is finally well-cast, Javier Bardem is charming, Rebecca Hall is smart and sassy, and Penelope Cruz nearly melts the screen. Kudos to Woody Allen for finally choosing romance over yet another murder mystery. In another director’s hands this tale would have turned tawdry and been quickly forgotten, but Allen is more than up to the task giving us his trademark wit in this unconventional love story. Cruz is getting much of the film’s love in critic circles (including our own), but there’s much more to also enjoy.
The first of two documentaries we have on the list is a frank, and often humorous, look behind the scenes of the Young@Heart Chorus as they prepare for their latest concert. What makes this group so unique is the age of the members (all senior citizens) and the numbers the choose to perform (pop, rock, and alternative music). From the Ramones, The Clash, the Pointer Sisters, and Sonic Youth, this group of elderly performers belts out the hits with an energy and emotion missing from many younger bands. Along the ways there are some sad moments, but here’s a genuine feel-good movie the whole family can enjoy.
I’m not the only critic who enjoyed this complicated WWII tale from Spike Lee, but I was definitely in the minority. Many found the film’s near 3 hour length and slowly unfolding plot too much to bear, and others questioned is historical accuracy (it was based off a novel), but there’s so much here which works for me I can easily forgive its flaws. I wouldn’t argue it’s Lee’s best, but for patient viewers who enjoy war films more about characters than battles I would argue its worth your attention, and it’s the only one of the many WWII films from this past year which I’ve included here.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed Rachel Getting Married given its similarities to last year’s misadventure Margot at the Wedding. Jonathan Demme’s picture has a natural look and style (at times you feel like you’re watching a documentary) and Anne Hathaway shines as a deeply troubled soul trying to come to grips with her past and survive the weekend at her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWit) wedding.
Other than my love for Buffy, Angel (and all things Whedon), I’m not a big vampire fan. It’s hard to do a good story involving vampires, ridiculous as they are. Although it was a different vampire movie that garnered all the attention, this quiet little Swedish film about a young outcast (Kare Hederbrant) befriended by his mysterious neighbor (Lina Leandersson) with a taste for blood is exactly what you want from a vampire film to be – creepy, haunting, and intensely memorable. Due to its late release in select markets this little gem would likely be forgotten if it weren’t so damn good.
A film made for Barney Stinson, and the rest of us, to love. It was a great year for animation, but it wasn’t the little trash compacting robot or the dog who thought he had super-powers which makes my list. No, this spot is reserved for the most fun I had at a theater all year. Jack Black provides the heart and soul of this film as a Panda who is given his lifelong desire as he struggles to become The Dragon Warrior and fulfill his destiny.
Our second animated film on the list, and the third comic book movie, is the only one to go straight to DVD, bypassing theatrical release. This limitation almost caused it to be left off the list, but I simply can’t dismiss the homage to DC’s Silver Age. Although Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman all play signifigant roles here, it’s the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter, the new heroes of the age, who drive the story. It’s the Flash, the first hero of the Silver Age whose abilities are needed, and it’s the birth of Hal Jordan’s journey as Green Lantern which ultimately saves the day. This adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s mini-series tackles everything from McCarthyism to what it means to be a hero; it’s all I wanted, and more. I’ll admit I have a comic geek-out when I pop this into my DVD player, but it’s so damn good I simply don’t care.
Who would have thought one of the year’s best dramas would be about professional wrestling? Mickey Rourke is perfectly cast in this personal tale of a once-great wrestler now struggling to get by on the independent circuit, reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and begin a relationship with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). Both longtime wrestling fans and those who simply love strong drama can find much here to appreciate. It’s not exactly a happy tale, but it is a deeply touching one.
What makes a man tightrope across a high wire suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center? James Marsh’s documentary takes us back to 1974 and tries to answer the question. Philippe Petit‘s journey from initial planning to the fame which followed is chronicled in this engrossing tale of obsession, dreams, and a death-defying destiny fulfilled.
That a film which takes place over an entire lifetime feels so fluid and moves so well is a credit to director Danny Boyle. That a film centered around a game show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire works at all is a marvel. There’s always more to uncover and more to learn about Malik (Dev Patel) and the journey which led him to this moment, and it’s impossible not to cheer for the underdog as he risks everything for love.
Although Frost/Nixon appears on many top 10 list for this year not many rate it as highly as I have. From the moment I saw the film (through now three viewings) I’ve regarded it as the best film of 2008. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella give superb performances bringing their drama from stage to screen. Ron Howard surrounds the pair with a strong supporting cast, rising tension, dry humor, and a struggle for the truth. Of all the films on the list this is the one which stays with me and which I will return to more than any of the others.