Christopher Nolan is an absolute machine. He has yet to make a bad film, and in 2008 he made his best film yet with The Dark Knight. Not only the greatest superhero movie ever made, but it is also one of the defining films of the decade. Heath Ledger gives a performance that in my opinion is one of the greatest screen portrayals I have ever seen. His character symbolizes the darkness of this film about a vigilante who refuses to kill, and the villain who stretches his good nature to the limits. The film also features Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart in what I think are two of the more underrated supporting performances of the year. With action sequences sure to take your breath away, and memorable dialogue that is sure to be quoted for years to come, Nolan’s masterpiece will always be remembered as the film of 2008.
2. The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant return to form is titled The Wrestler and it features the best male lead performance of the year. Mickey Rourke delivers something that is as vulnerable and honest as any work we have seen in recent memory. Aronofsky brilliantly mixes moments of brutality and sincerity to make for the most emotionally moving film of the year. From the opening shot of Mickey sitting alone in that classroom, there is not a moment in this film where we are not rooting for Randy “The Ram”. The supporting performances are pitch perfect from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood and the masterful boardwalk scene is sure to go down as the signature moment of Rourke’s career.
3. Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood proves once again that he can tell a powerful story in just about any setting. Filmed largely in one neighborhood for the entire film and featuring a cast of no-namers, this is an Eastwood film unlike any other. Although he may play the same character he usually does, Eastwood gives a lead performance that is as affecting as he always is. But the best thing about this film is how we can see Clint’s growth as a storyteller. When I saw the trailer for this film, it looked like an absolute joke, but as I sat in the theater watching it, I couldn’t find one thing wrong with the film. Probably one of the most underrated movies of his career, Gran Torino could be one of those movies that will gain more popularity as it gets older.
4. Slumdog Millionaire
One of the most affective love stories of the year, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is his best work to date. With breakout performances from Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, this is probably the most likeable film to be distributed in 2008. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming out of this film and not being impressed. This is one of those rare movies that actually make affective and important use of flashbacks. In a lot of movies flashbacks feel forced and corny, but in this one they add so much to the characters. With a storyline that is incredibly entertaining and potent, it is two of the best hours I spent at the movies all year.
5. Let the Right One In
Tomas Alfredson’s directorial effort in this film is absolutely stunning. He gets performances out of his two child actors that are on par with any work we have ever seen in vampire movies, and he creates a wholly original experience in a genre that has been beaten down pretty bad. The cinematography is so memorable; the film features some of the best shots of 2008. This is a rare vampire movie that is as gory and violent as it is emotionally affective. The movie earns its somewhat cliché of an ending because every minute of this film is presented in such an original and professional manner. Grade A filmmaking here from Alfredson.
6. The Visitor
The Visitor is worth every minute because of Richard Jenkins’ career-defining performance. Completely deserving the Oscar nomination he received, his work is reflective of the film as a whole. It is a subtle, moving work from Tom McCarthy, without a doubt the director’s greatest achievement to date. The greatest strength of the film is obviously Jenkins’ performance, but the film also has an emotionally powerful story that should be thankful to the supporting performances of Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira. A well-acted, well-written, well-done film.
7. Rachel Getting Married
Sometimes an actor or an actress delivers a performance that is so unbelievable because no one had any idea they were capable of such profound work. Such is the case with Anne Hathaway’s lead role in Rachel Getting Married. But it is not only her on display as the movie features a handful of great performances from Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, and Debra Winger. The decision to shoot this film with handheld cameras adds largely to the overall power of the film, because it feels so genuine and real as if we really were spying on this harrowing family reunion.
Light on story, heavy on acting, this movie proves that a great ensemble can carry a movie to great heights. Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis turn in performances that carry the movie from start to finish. All four of the lead actors were nominated for Oscars, and they all deserved one. Director John Patrick Shanley delivers an incredibly smart film, and fortunately for us, he realized what great actors he had and let them do most of the work.
9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
A departure from usual David Fincher movies such as Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac, this fantasy epic is a largely affecting work that is surprisingly entertaining for its almost three hour running time. Brad Pitt gives a somewhat overrated performance, not that it is bad, but it isn’t Oscar nomination quality. The supporting cast featuring Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, and Taraji P. Henson also give solid performances, but the movie mostly succeeds due to Fincher’s direction, and the long, but fast-moving story. It is a rare thing to find a 166 minute movie with hardly any action that manages to be entertaining for its whole runtime.
Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is one of the more harrowing films of the year, due in large part to the fact that it is a true story. If it weren’t true, audience members might even laugh at the preposterousness of the story, but given that it is true, its power is undeniable. Received by somewhat mixed reviews from critics, this is a movie that is not easy to watch, but is even harder to look away from. Jolie’s performance is somewhat over the top, but it needs to be because the story and the things she are put through are so outrageous. Eastwood does a beautiful job of capturing the feel of the late 1920s, and as a result, this film is a mix of a successful period piece and a frightening, fear-provoking thriller.