2008 goes out with a whimper as Hollywood unloads a bunch of overdramatic and bloated World War Two films (cough, Defiance, Valkyrie). The end game was weak apart from a couple of stellar late releases, David Fincher's romance masterpiece - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Danny Boyle's superb crowd-pleaser - Slumdog Millionaire. The year was also unusual in that the biggest box office hit, was also a critical hit, can be legitimately argued as the year's best, and possibly the finest film of its genre - Christopher Nolan's epic The Dark Knight. I am a big fan of some of the earlier releases, particularly Martin McDonagh's debut film, In Bruges and Ed Harris's stoic western, Appaloosa.
Top Ten Films of 2008
#1The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett shine in David Fincher's romance epic. Pitt stars as the title character, a man who is living backwards, growing old to young. Benjamin Button's curious odyssey spans the range of human emotion and adventure. It is funny, sad, action packed, and honestly, the best filmed romance to hit the silver screen in as long as I can remember. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac) uses astonishing special effects work to digitally age the characters. I hear a lot of comparisons to Forrest Gump, but this is, gasp, a much better film. Pitt and Blanchett are like Grant and Hepburn here, high praise for an extraordinary film.
#2The Dark Knight - Heath Ledger's accidental death added to the mystery and expectation of his performance as 'The Joker'. The film had buzz, huge anticipation. It couldn't possible live up to the hype. Shockingly, it destroyed the hype...smashed it into a million pieces. Director Christopher Nolan and a tremendous cast deliver a twisted crime drama that cloaked the screen in darkness. Never has a comic adaptation taken its premise so seriously and run with it to glory. Christian Bale's tortured Bruce Wayne/Batman and Heath Ledger's demented Joker are arguably the greatest arch-enemies the silver screen has ever seen. Their battle for the soul of Gotham City is the stuff of cinema legend.
#3Slumdog Millionaire - An Indian man is being tortured in a Mumbai police station. We find out that inexplicably, he is on the verge of winning the grand prize on India's favorite game show - "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". But he must be cheating. How can a slumdog, a peasant from the lowest caste, be able to answer questions that befuddled the greatest minds? This is the winning premise behind this year's critical darling. Directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan's love against all odds drama will have you cheering in your seat. The anti-hero wins big in the sure winner of the Best Film Oscar.
#4Che (Part 1) - Director Steven Soderbergh and Benecio Del Toro bring Ernesto Che Guevara to the big screen like never before. Their two film, five hour opus, is an achievement, but unfortunately runs long as a complete piece. The first film, "The Argentine", is a nuts and bolts account of how Fidel Castro and Che Guevara conquered Cuba in 1956. "The Argentine" stands by itself as Soderbergh's and Del Toro's finest work. It is an intimate portrayal of a revolution, from the heart to the battlefield. It is a war film about a movement that is rarely documented with such vision.
#5Frost/Nixon - Frank Langella and Michael Sheen take their stage roles to greatness in Director Ron Howard's adaptation of Frost/Nixon. It is a semi-fictional account of British TV personality David Frost's landmark interview with the secretive and controversial ex-President, Richard Nixon. The verbal interplay between the two actors is the best of the year. It is an acting cat and mouse that can only be done by the most skilled in their craft. Frank Langella won the Tony award for Best Actor; he will have the Academy Award sitting beside it come February. His portrayal of Nixon is stunning, character development to the fullest.
#6Appaloosa - Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are hardened men facing truth and emotion in the stark western, Appaloosa. The actors play lawmen, killers in their own right, testing the boundaries of friendship and honor over the love of a woman. Renee Zellwegger has her career best performance as the gal that drives the wedge. But her motives are not so duplicitous, as each character has choices to make about survival and happiness in a cruel world.
#7Milk - Director Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn, in another incredible performance, bring to the big screen the life of gay activist Harvey Milk. Milk was the first homosexual elected to public office in the United States. His struggle for equality in 1970's San Francisco is an opus to courage and freedom. The all star cast includes James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Allison Pill, and Josh Brolin, who along with Penn will be recognized this award season.
#8The Bank Job - Jason Statham's star power is finally unleashed in Roger Donaldson's hard-R seventies heist film. Based on a true story, a bunch of low-level London criminals are duped into a robbery with deadly international consequences. Gritty and exciting, The Bank Job revels in its sordid world. It is a must-see for any fan of old school gangster films.
#9Doubt - John Patrick Shanley adapts his troubling play for the big screen. Meryl Streep stars as the impossibly strict school principal, Sister Aloysius; who suspects a black student may have been molested by the popular new priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Set in racially charged 1964, the film is a searing indictment of morality and faith. Streep proves again that she is the greatest actress of her day, and my pick for the Best Actress Oscar.
#10In Bruges - Colin Farrel and Brendan Gleeson are two hit men at critical life junctures in the fairy tale-like setting of Belgium's capital city. This is dark comedy at its best, as the two men come to terms with a dubious assignment. Ralph Fiennes is hilarious as an irate mob boss. Very much out of place amidst the gothic architecture, canals, and cobbled streets, the two hit men fill their days living the lives of tourists. Ray, still haunted by the bloodshed in London, hates the place, while Ken, even as he keeps a fatherly eye on Ray's often profanely funny exploits, finds his mind and soul being expanded by the beauty and serenity of the city.
The Worst/Most Disappointing Film of 2008
Quantum of Solace - James Bond does a belly flop in this absolutely horrendous sequel to the awesome Casino Royale. All the good will and excitement regarding Daniel Craig's re-invention of the Bond franchise has pretty much evaporated with this clunker. I wanted to cry tears of blood as Bond became Bourne in a colossally BORING and characterless film. Director Marc Foster and writer Paul Haggis have essentially spit on Ian Fleming's grave with this brainless effort. There have been some awful Bond films, but this one may be the champion loser. I hope and pray the franchise gets back on track after such a substandard effort.
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Rosemarie DeWitt - Rachel Getting Married
Peter Morgan - Frost/Nixon
Claudio Miranda - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Lee Smith - The Dark Knight
James Newton Howard and Howard Zimmer - The Dark Knight
Dan Abrams - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Bill Maher - Religulous
Abstention, didn't see WALL-E, so don't really feel I can judge this category fairly.