My picks for the 10 BEST films of the year

Posted by · 11:04 am · December 29th, 2008

Angelina Jolie in ChangelingIt’s no secret that I don’t expect 2008 to be remembered as a banner year for cinema, though with that said, there are plenty of exceptional films to be remembered.

Perhaps 2007 spoiled us and got our hopes up and 2008 brought far too many let downs and disappointments from great filmmakers. Usually when I sit down to write up the year’s best, the first short list stands at around 30, perhaps 35 films that range from very good to great. This year I was at less than 20, and in some cases, I was probably stretching to allow space for this or that.

But I got it down to 10, so here they are…

10. “VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA”
This film was not vintage Woody Allen, as he has grown so much as a director for anything new from him to be considered a throw-back, but it is certainly refreshing Allen.  Sexy and sleek, this film is part of the newest stage in the director’s career, moving away from the comfort and familiarity of New York to an exotic locale with Americans mixing it up and getting into all sorts of bizarre situations.  Penélope Cruz all but burns a hole in the screen with her sensuality in this film, which is terrifying because she just might be psychotic.  Welcome back Woody…we’ve missed you.

9. “SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”
Danny Boyle’s latest was another Toronto Film Festival find that exploded out of the gate to become one of the best films of the year, the critics’ darling and a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination from the Academy.  Boyle uses an array of color, sound and images to create a startling view of the world inhabited by a young man who has seen his share of horrors in his life.  He finds opprtunity on a popular game show, a chance to turn his life around.  The film is amodern day fairy tale full of hope and dreams and the belief in what might be possible. I do not share the belief that this is the best of the year, but it is without question a part of the list.

8. “FROST/NIXON”
Earlier this year I wrote a piece asking if Ron Howard had the edge to make this film work.  Did he possess the courage to present former U.S. President Richard Nixon with absolute honesty or would he candy coat the story as to not offend?  I was thrilled when the director made a brilliant film out of the Peter Morgan play with powerhouse acting from Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. With dialogue-driven films, the performances must crackle and crackle they do throughout this one, with the edge going to Langella as Nixon, slowly dancing with David Frost until finally dropping his guard in front of the American people. This is Howard’s best work since “The Missing.”  Only “Apollo 13” stands above it in his catalog to date.

7. “CHANGELING”
A great film is a great film is a great film, so I cannot understand why so many American critics lashed out at this work when it was released in October.  Or were they perhaps lashing out at its director, Clint Eastwood, believing he had enjoyed too much success in the years previous?  “Changeling” is a great film, beautifully acted and directed, telling a frightening tale of corruption and the abuse of power and the manner in which one woman driven by the anguish of losing a son fought back just to be heard. Angelina Jolie is better than she has ever been in the lead role and John Malkovich is equally superb as a preacher who believes her and comes to her aid. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers — this was a great film.

6. “CHE”
I saw the four-and-a-half-hour cut of Steven Soderbergh’s latest at the Toronto International Film Festival and watched it again recently on DVD.  I believe with every fiber of my being that this is a great film. Yes, there are detractors, but I believe they are wrong, plain and simple. This is a demanding work, with no great climax to its slow-moving narrative, unfolding with great patience and detail just like life itself.  Benicio Del Toro is a revelation as Che Guevera, slipping under the skin of the character to become him. He masks from his men a quiet fury, a smoldering intensity borne of an intelligence, of truly understanding what they are fighting for.  Soderbergh has given us an extraordinary achievement, bold and daring, as far from manistream cinema as we can get, yet compelling and altogether brilliant.

5. “REVOLUTIONARY ROAD”
Years ago, Hector Babenco’s “Ironweed” polarized audiences and critics because, on one hand, it was a relentlessly bleak story with no hope.  But it was performed with utter genius by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. To this day people are not sure what to make of it. Will that happen Sam Mendes’s brilliant Richard Yates adaptation? Yes it is bleak and full of marital despair and pain, but it is so beautifully acted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who give themselves over to their roles. The raw pain of their existence is etched in their faces as these two great actors go toe-to-toe, delivering superlative work backed by the eerie Michael Shannon and Kathy Bates. Sam Mendes again displays remarkable gifts with actors.

4. “THE WRESTLER”
Indeed this film marks the return of Mickey Rourke, but it is something much more, a merging of actor with role that allows an artist to explore his demons before our eyes. Once considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, Rourke blew it, destroying a promising career. He’s back here as Randy “The Ram,” an over-the-hill wrestler making ends meet working odd jobs and wrestling long after his body has told him to quit. Marisa Tomei is outstanding as his stripper friend in this marvelous, gritty little film from the great Darren Aronofsky.

3. “MILK”
In Gus Van Sant’s best film in years, Sean Penn delivers the finest lead performance of the year as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected to office in the United States, only to be assassinated in the late 1970s. Penn is astonishing, filling the screen with warmth and love, exuding goodness and faith in his fellow man and humanity. Yep, that Sean Penn. He is surrounded by a long list of terrific supporting performers including James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch in this, an American masterpiece.

2. “THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”
David Fincher nails it with a haunting romance that is also a splendid fantasy film, a stunning character study of a man born aged and growing younger with each passing year. Brad Pitt gives a superlative performance, matched step-for-step by Cate Blanchett in one of the screen’s great romances.  It’s a knockout that may in time edge out my number one choice for the top spot this year, but not yet.

1. “THE DARK KNIGHT”
I never thought a Batman film would sit at the top of this list, but Christopher Nolan turned comic book fantasy and wild entertainment into art this year with this superb film, one that I truly hope cracks the Academy’s Best Picture category.  Heath Ledger gave a performance for the ages, truly one of the greatest film performances ever, and Christian Bale continues to grow, emerging as, hands down, the best Batman ever. Gary Oldman gives the film its heart and soul, grounding it with a conscience, while Michael Caine is a delight as loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth, who often knows and understands Bruce Wayne better than the man does himself. The film grabs you by the throat at the beginning and never lets you out of its grasp. I loved it more the third and fourth times I saw it than I did last summer and no other film brought me such pure, giddy joy as this

Runners-up: “Doubt,” “Gomorrah,” “Iron Man,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “The Visitor,” “W.” and “WALL-E”

Best unreleased film of the year: “Lovely Still”

(Check back tomorrow for my list of the year’s worst.)




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89 responses so far

  • 1 12-29-2008 at 10:38 pm

    Glenn said...

    Some people will just never be happy.

  • 2 12-30-2008 at 1:10 am

    Michel said...

    “Sure, you’re going to feel a certain way about a film, but good critics can most of the time not look only at personal preference. For an example, “Rules of the Game” bores the hell out of me, but I put that aside because I can see the social satire and the amazing, innovative depth and light/dark contrasts that Renoir used. Therefore, it’s a great film from an objective standpoint, but I really do not like the film much at all. In fact, I wholeheartedly prefer “Grand Illusion”, even though it’s not quite as good of a film.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. People should consider it much more before jumping to shield their opinions behind the sanctity of the right to dissent. Sure, critics are entitled to their opinion, and most things won’t ever be completely objective, but if critic give me no insight on the workings of art, and judges quality on a completely solipsistic and instinctive level… what’s the use of it? What does it add to my view of the movie?

    Nothing is completely subjective but people should keep their subjectivities on check.

  • 3 12-30-2008 at 2:49 am

    John Foote said...

    Film criticism class? Never took one, instead taking the advice of Pauline Kael — I write from the heart and write about how a film makes me feel, how it impacts my senses — don’t like it? Too bad…to quote Popeye, I yam what I yam…

  • 4 12-30-2008 at 2:50 am

    John Foote said...

    And why, why, why should I ever keep my subjectives in check…who says? Who made that rule?

  • 5 12-30-2008 at 6:32 am

    Dan said...

    Haha.. if anything Revolutionary Road may be the worst film of the year.. I cringe at that birthday party scene followed by showers… that is SOOOOOO bad.

    Sorry Foote, if you have no reasonable (academic) backing behind your words, you’re open to a backlash. I mean, you’re almost as bad as Ben Lyon.

  • 6 12-30-2008 at 6:52 am

    Helena said...

    McGuff

    Like you and John, feel that “RR” is a wonderful films with masterful performances

  • 7 12-30-2008 at 7:25 am

    Zan said...

    John: It’s okay to write about how you feel about a film, but it’s just easier on the whole for people to relate to somewhat of an objective approach or at least be presented with some combination of the two.

    For example, you could write all day about how “Slumdog” makes you feel euphoric after watching it, but someone who didn’t enjoy it just won’t feel the same and won’t read it the same. On the other hand, if you ALSO include how “Slumdog” was good at what it did–seamlessly intertwining three stories (fantastic editing), jarring, absorbing, in-the-moment camerawork (cinematography and direction), and a musical composition that captures the essence and feel of the film (score)–I think just about anyone can relate to that.

  • 8 12-30-2008 at 7:27 am

    Zan said...

    To correct, the part about three stories is just a way of saying the game show itself, the flashbacks, and the police station.

  • 9 12-30-2008 at 10:17 am

    jp said...

    good list…i dont get the appreciation for Changeling, but hey, you’re entitled to your feelings.

    Top 10 (w/o Gomorrah, Happy Go Lucky, Gran Torino, Rev Road)

    1–The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    2–Rachel Getting Married
    3–Synecdoche, New York
    4–Doubt
    5–Milk
    6–Slumdog Millionaire
    7–Let the Right One In
    8–Vicky Christina Barcelona
    9–In Bruges
    10–Frost/Nixon

    Also: The Visitor, TDK, The Wrestler, The Reader, Burn After Reading

  • 10 12-30-2008 at 10:24 am

    McGuff said...

    Well, Dan, clearly our film tastes run opposite. If I didn’t know better, I’d fancy you as a Packers fan.

    But c’mon, don’t attack John’s credibility. The man has given us his story in previous posts, and I assure you, there’s trained “backing behind his words.” The man has taught, directed, and studied film.

  • 11 12-30-2008 at 10:49 am

    Davidraider88 said...

    1. Slumdog Millionaire
    2. The Dark Knight
    3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    4. Doubt
    5. Rachel Getting Married
    6. Man on Wire
    7. Revolutionary Road
    8. Wall-E
    9. In Bruges
    10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

    Still left to see: Che, The Reader, The Wrestler, Defiance, Gran Torino, Let the Right One In, Frost/Nixon
    9.

  • 12 12-30-2008 at 10:56 am

    Dan said...

    Actually, I’m a big Bears fan =)

  • 13 12-30-2008 at 11:26 am

    McGuff said...

    We’ll always have Soldier Field…

  • 14 12-30-2008 at 12:49 pm

    Michel said...

    “And why, why, why should I ever keep my subjectives in check…who says? Who made that rule?”

    It’s not a rule, just sound advice. All people are subjective, and critics are subjective spectators too, but people listen to them (at least, to the best ones) because they are supposed to have an authority, more experience and more discernment on the topic. And if you strip your opinion of justification, what is the use for it? Critics are supposed to offer a (more) objective perspective on a film, unveiling with reasonable insight what worked and what not. NOT everything has to be explained, but lots do. Lots do. And there are many ways to do that while still remaining true to what you FELT about the film.

  • 15 12-30-2008 at 1:23 pm

    John Foote said...

    Dan — I love it when people attack my credibility because it usually displays an ignorance on their part or a deep insecurity that no one is listening to them — I studied film in university, focusng on American Film History, Film Genre Theory and the study of directors, with the history and theory of method acting along with it — I have produced and hosted a TV show here in Canada for seven years, (92-99)written extensively as a critic for twenty, signed a five book deal with Greenwood/ Praeger to write film related books (I assure you my academic background meets their standards) and have been Director of the Toronto Film School for eight years where I lecture on Film History, Genre Study and Directors Study — in addition I still find time to write for this website and appear on CBC Newsworld from time to time –though you may disagree with me, and it is your right to do so, you have no right to attack me as a person or to slander my academic standing — are you truly that arrogant and bitter??

  • 16 12-30-2008 at 1:54 pm

    Chad said...

    People have taste in critics just as they have taste in movies. I want my movies to have insight and originality and I want my critics to be discerning and thoughtful. I want them to be harsh and I want them to be analytical. As someone who’s made a film and had it reviewed, I can tell you that filmmakers are desperate and hungry to read a review by someone who puts as much thought into their analysis as we have in the product. Whether that review is good or bad, as long as our intentions and techniques are questioned and dissected, we are satisfied. It’s rarer than you think.

    I like reading John’s contributions to the site but with all due respect, I won’t be heeding his advice on what or what not to see. Any critic that uses a phrase like, “The film grabs you by the throat at the beginning and never lets you out of its grasp” is not for me.

  • 17 12-30-2008 at 2:09 pm

    Linda C. said...

    I saw Benjamin Button last night, and I have to say, I don’t think i’ve been that bored in a theater for a long, long time. The whole movie just dragged – there was no drama, no tension….just Zzzzzzzzzz…Booooring…. I mean, even the concept of the film made no sense. They keep showing all these people dying around Benjamin – wouldn’t these people die anyway, regardless of how young or how old Benjamin is? Just a misplaced concept made to look like it is a special idea. The most boring movie of the year. I don’t know how someone could sit through that movie more than once. Boring and depressing at the same time. And Cate Blanchett in old lady make-up, trying to act and sound like an old lady – had to be the worst performance of the year!

    Glad to see the best movie of the year is number one on your list. The Dark Knight, in a perfect world, should win every Academy Award this year. Can’t they give Heath Ledger Best Actress as well? Joker in nurse outfit has to count!

    BEST PICTURE: THE DARK KNIGHT

    BEST DIRECTOR: CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

    BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: WALLY PFISTER

    BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: HEATH LEDGER

    BEST EDITING: LEE SMITH

    BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: JONAH/CHRIS NOLAN ‘THE DARK KNIGHT’

    SOUND DESIGN: THE DARK KNIGHT

    This film truly deserves a win in all these categories. That is how awesome it was in all these categories. The film is even better on multiple viewings. Not many films can do that.

    P.S. I’m not even a super hero or comic fan. This movie, as a MOVIE, just ROCKED!

  • 18 12-30-2008 at 2:15 pm

    McGuff said...

    BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL.

    Wait a minute…

  • 19 12-30-2008 at 2:22 pm

    Linda C. said...

    Also, there is a segment in Benjamin Button where Benjamin is telling a story of timing and fate: he explains that there were these different people, doing different things, at exact times, to in the end cause a car to crash into Cate Blanchete’s character. ( a man was late for work, a girl picked up a package late, etc.) How does he know this??? Did he turn the entire city’s cell phones into microphones. then using a sonar machine to figure out where those people were at those times, and what they were doing??????Stupid. Just plain stupid.

  • 20 12-30-2008 at 2:27 pm

    McGuff said...

    Linda: I agree with that sentiment. What a ridiculous, gimmicky five minutes that was. Similar to all the flashes to the man being struck by lightning. Would it really have been that hard to chop 30 minutes from the movie, while maintaining the exact same level of pathos?

  • 21 12-30-2008 at 2:28 pm

    Linda C. said...

    I’m also surprised that the Golden Globes gave Tom Cruise a nomination in a comedy and ignored Gary Oldman’s performance in Dark Knight. Did anyone see Oldman in the last 20 min. of the movie???? That performance alone deserves an Oscar – and the speech at the end of the film – beautifully delivered – But NO! Let’s give supporting nods to Tom Cruise and Downey Jr. in a freakin’ comedy movie! Golden Globes = Star F@#%*!S!. And morons.

  • 22 12-30-2008 at 2:45 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Wow, looks like the movie flew right over your head, Linda. *WHOOSH*

    How could he have known that? Is that REALLY a serious question? He is an observer, a narrator, and it is in his nature to observe and analyze things simultaneously that would not be humanly possible in real life. The film is a meditation, and his narration acts as a sort of divine, unique understanding of life, fate, and cosmic “collisions,” as seen in that scene.

  • 23 12-30-2008 at 2:50 pm

    red_wine said...

    I thought that scene was actually trivial. Right when the scene started, I knew where it was leading. Whats so fucking extra-ordinary about an accident? They could have just shown her having an accident.

  • 24 12-30-2008 at 3:00 pm

    McGuff said...

    In a film that spends the majority of the time searching for its own theme — and please, if I’m wrong, tell me any theme deeper than “you never know what’s coming to ya” — it’s not entirely surprising they went with the butterfly effect five minutes, but red_wine and Linda are right, it’s completely trivial.

    The logistics of how Benjamin knows the information is unimportant, and I’m pretty sure Linda was being sarcastic. It’s just that the scene doesn’t entirely fit the narrative. Or at all, really.

    But Speaking, I am curious about how you’re seeing the idea of cosmic collisions as a consistent device (or theme, or whatever) in the film. That’s an angle I hadn’t approached it from.

  • 25 12-30-2008 at 4:01 pm

    Zan said...

    Guys, please try and label SPOILERS at the beginning of your posts if you’re going to give away key information.

    Thanks.

  • 26 12-30-2008 at 6:09 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Can I ask for help here? I just saw “Let the Right One In” and cannot understand why it is being praised so highly. Please don’t accuse me of not being savvy about foreign films or whatever: I lived in Sweden for two years and speak Swedish. For example (spoiler alert): what was that scene where the little boy and his mother brush their teeth doing in the film? And what were the scenes with the little boy’s father, particularly the last one where a neighbor stops by, doing in there? And why doesn’t the boy, Oskar, try to fight back when the older bully attacks him in the pool? He’s already taken the little vampire girl’s advice and buffed up and stood his ground before. Why does he wimp out this time? Why would this girl attack someone right in her apartment’s courtyard as she does near the beginning of the film? Are there no police in Sweden who might inquire about who has moved into the building recently (and put up a blanket and cardboard around the windows to block the sun)? It’s been a while since I’ve been this perplexed by unearned praise for a movie. On top of all the odd, nonsensical scenes, there’s the huge thematic problem of the ending, where we are to understand that Oskar goes off with the little vampire girl and will probably help her out by killing innocent people whose blood she can drink. If you are going to end on a shocking note like that, you need to prepare for it somehow.

  • 27 12-30-2008 at 9:30 pm

    Linda C. said...

    BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard ‘THE DARK KNIGHT’.

    Forgot to mention that one. They deserve it.

  • 28 12-30-2008 at 9:35 pm

    Linda C. said...

    I’ve got a great idea for an Oscar worthy movie: It’s about a guy who sits in his room and does cocaine all day, and it’s about how he has to deal with his addiction – then one day a stripper shows him that life is more than just cocaine. Starring Tom Hanks and Kate Blanchet as the stripper.

  • 29 12-30-2008 at 9:36 pm

    Linda C. said...

    Why does Frank Langella sound like he has glass in his throat, and is about to have a stroke??? That sounds nothing like Nixon. Terrible performance. Talk about over-acting.

  • 30 12-30-2008 at 9:37 pm

    Scott Ward said...

    Zan and Michel:

    I ask each of you this question — when you look at a film through your most objectional eyes, and you write about it, or at least think about it, have your thoughts on the film always, 100% of the time corresponded with all of the critics, or for better wording, simply anyone who has also viewed the film in the same light? If you answer yes, you are flat out lying.

    Each of you keep criticizing John because because you feel that a good critic should always look at a film in the most objectionable way possible. Each of you act like their is some kind of solid truth in objective viewing; you are basically concluding, and don’t say you aren’t, because you can look back at the posts and see, that if all people objectively looked at a film, their would be complete agreement. There are many times when people try to look at a film as “deep” as possible, yet they still disagree. Yes we both see the montage of jump cuts, but I may think it works very well and adds to the film while the person next to me thought it was a bit trite and merely used to “show-off” in a sense. We are both critique the elements that went into making the film and we are both being as objective as possible, yet we still completely disagree. That’s because even looking at a film objectively involves personal preference.

    And I know you say that John didn’t really defend his picks that well. Well of course not. The only point of the post is the list. The brief comments is basically just a perfunctory formality. If you read his bio, you’ll see that he is quite distinguished and lauded in the film criticism era. And as I said before, I can more than guarantee you he could write lengthy essays on each of these films if he felt like it. It is completely stupid that you all criticize him because he didn’t spend two or three full days (yes, it takes a long time to write a full review compromised of most of your thoughts on a work – also ten full reviews in three days is doing nothing else, so I’m being generous with that number) writing about each film extensively. Because even if he did so, there would still be people calling him stupid and such because they disagree, because as it should be know, objectivity is not a perfect truth.

  • 31 12-30-2008 at 9:50 pm

    Scott Ward said...

    And Zan and Michel, before I’m misunderstood. I agree that if I’m going to read a review, I’d would rather hear from a critic who tried to look past his own pallate and talk about the film in cinematic terms; such as how well did the narrative move, how well did the actors do in creating their character’s persona, how well was the script written, etc. While this is certainly a better way to look at the film, it still boils down to being one opinion.

    So again it is stupid that people are criticizing John just because he has more important things to do than sit at a computer and type for hours straight. As he said, he basically does this in his spare time, for the love of movies. A life goal of his should not have to be extensively defending his love of certain movies here, and only here, at InContention.

  • 32 1-01-2009 at 5:49 pm

    Casey said...

    GREAT list. Especially glad to see you pick Changeling, what a geat film that got a bad wrap overall. Here is my very unconventional list (I have not seen The Reader or Wall-E .. i know bad of me):

    1 – MILK
    2 – CLOVERFIELD
    3 – DOUBT
    4 – CHANGELING
    5 – THE WRESTLER
    6 – RELIGULOUS
    7 – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
    8 – SYNEDOCHE NY
    9 – BURN AFTER READING
    10 – VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA

  • 33 1-01-2009 at 8:55 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Regarding the Benjamin Button five-minute “gimmick,” I’ve asked Roth about this. In fact, I did so immediately after seeing the film. Sheepishly, he admitted it was probably a cheat. I think there’s really no argument that in a film built the way this one is, that segment of sudden fantasy sticks out as a screenwriting boo-boo. It’s my least favorite part of the film.

  • 34 1-02-2009 at 6:07 am

    John Foote said...

    Thank you Scott — I was debating whether or not to comment, you said it better than I could have — you took the emotion out.

  • 35 1-03-2009 at 12:21 pm

    Zan said...

    Why, couldn’t formulate an objective response?

  • 36 1-07-2009 at 12:52 pm

    Big Braveheart said...

    The Dark Knight is rightfully NUMBER ONE.
    Great film and should win Best Picture
    amongst so many others but may get the
    cold shoulder but Heath will win and it’ll still
    be my best film of the year no matter what.
    One film missing from the list is IN BRUGES,
    great little black comedy with some great
    acting and a razor sharp script to boot!