When people look back on 2008, several features will stand out. The economy imploded spectacularly, voters elected the first African American president as a referendum on eight years of failed policies, and conflicts throughout the Middle East and the world reminded us on a weekly (daily?) basis of the incredible delicacy of concord among Earth's tribes. 2008 is certainly a year for the history books.
2008 was also a remarkable year for film both for its extraordinary stories and brilliant performances and for its dismally disappointing fizzle-films. As a tribute to the best and the worst films to light up the silver screen, here are the top-10 must-see movies of 2008 as well as the five biggest flops of the year.
And, of course, the comments section awaits your assessment of 2008's best and worst.
The Ten Best Films of 2008:
10. Taxi to the Dark Side* In this riveting and horrifying documentary, director Alex Gibney pulls off the cloak that covers U.S. interrogation methods to reveal the horrendous abuses committed in the name of intelligence gathering under the Bush Administration. "Dark" puts it mildly. *So it turns out that this film was released in 2007 that debuted internationally in '08. Apologies for that oversight!
9. Iron Man In a year of several comics-inspired films, Iron Man is one of two that succeeds in truly transcending the graphic novel genre. It succeeds because of its flawless special effects and an unexpected and brilliant lead performance by Robert Downey Jr. whose wise-cracking superhero persona distinguishes Iron Man from all the others.
8. Doubt The colossal clash between the certainty of modernism and the doubt of the postmodern impulse unfolds between the lines in the caustic minutiae of a Catholic school principal's attempts to discredit and destroy the new parish priest. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes under his wing the first black student at St. Nicholas, which evokes supreme ire and venomous accusations from Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Masterful performances and a gripping narrative in this struggle between tradition and progress.
7. Frost/Nixon President Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 when the Watergate scandal crashed down on his administration, but left office without admitting any guilt. Nixon received a full pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford. David Frost, a lightweight television personality decided to interview Nixon in hopes of eliciting a full admission from the stonewalling president. This film dramatizes the tense battle of wits between Frost and crafty President Nixon, whose rhetorical acumen would ultimately fail to keep the truth at bay.
6. Man on a Wire The Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center captivated the imagination of the world, nobody more than French magician Phillipe Petit. He conspired to walk between the two towers with nothing more than centimeters of cable suspending him well over 1,000 feet in the air. In 1974, Petit walked eight times back and forth between the towers before being arrested by waiting police. This dizzying film documents how Petit pulled it off. Just don't look down!
5. Milk The true story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. During a time not long ago in American history when police unfairly targeted homosexuals, Harvey Milk rose to prominence as a spokesperson not only for gay rights and equality, but also for the rights of all overlooked and discarded people. This is a tale of triumph and tragedy and a superb performance by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
4. The Wrestler A broken-down, past-his-prime wrestler (Mickey Rourke) continues wrestling because he knows no other life. He desperately wants to be reconciled to his grown-up daughter and he longs for companionship. Alternately gritty and tender, the film navigates the jagged, fake world that is show biz while telling a story that is remarkably personable and real. Rourke gives an award-worthy performance and the narrative is among the year's most compelling.
3. Slumdog Millionaire Director Danny Boyle put together an aesthetically near-perfect film about a destitute Indian orphan who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who wants to be A Millionaire?". Through wit and ingenuity, he navigates India's dangerous streets en route to becoming a national hero. But wealth or acclaim don't matter to him as much as a particular girl who is an ardent fan of the TV show. Fast-paced and exquisitely filmed, this award-winning story tells us what we already know in ways that continually surprise us.
2. The Dark Knight Like Iron Man, this film jumps from the pages of its graphic novel origins to take on a vivid, complex life of its own. Heath Ledger's role as the Joker is arguably the best performance of the year, made legendary by his untimely death. An outstanding cast, impeccable effects and a complicated story of intrigue, compounding dilemmas and moral ambiguity make this a cinematic masterpiece.
1. WALL-E This film is Pixar's magnum opus. Unparalleled in its artistic beauty, WALL-E simultaneously enchants, repudiates, inspires and amazes. At its heart, it is a love story of an lonely robot who finds companionship in the form of a sleek EVE probe sent to earth looking for signs of life. The robots' love story unfolds through a dense dialogue of just three words. Its rich simplicity and sparkling animation speak volumes without relying on human language. The film conveys a poignant, but nothing-like-preachy critique of human excess and throw-away mentality, and then leaves us feeling proud of humanity's will to band together against adversity. And who would have thought that two little robots could show us so much about human love?
1. The Fall 2. Changeling 3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 4. Trouble the Water 5. Waltz With Bashir
Five Worst Films of 2008*:
5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull How could Stephen Speilberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford all do this to us? After 20 years of anticipation? I was following along intently right up to the silly punch-line. Aliens? In an Indie flick? You must be joking! Please tell me you're joking. You're not joking, are you.
4. Semi Pro There are times when Will Ferrell makes me laugh. This is not one of those times.
3. Meet Dave What is it about Eddie Murphy and ridiculous films featuring Murphy in multiple roles? It stopped being funny about five films ago. An alien invasion in the form of little Eddie Murphys that pop out of the orifices of big Eddie Murphy is about as lame as any story of 2008.
2. Love Guru When I was fourteen, I appreciated Mike Meyer's sense of humor. It is fourteen-year-old-boy humor. Now, fifteen years later, it isn't doing much for me anymore. And Sir Ben Kingsly--the same man whose portrayal of Gandhi is one of my favorite all-time performances--doing this type of potty humor? Have mercy!
1. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed Intelligent Design proponents have a persecution complex. At least, that's the sense one gets from this pseudo-exposé on the links between Liberalism, Adolph Hitler, Richard Dawkins and Darwinism. It deserves a place at the bottom of this list not for its technical aspects (it's fine as far as that goes). Rather, it sits down here at the bottom of the bottom for its ghastly attempts to demonstrate that teaching evolution is tantamount to advocating eugenics, which is tantamount to Hitler's holocaust. Come on, really?
*I've heard stories about a 2008 Paris Hilton picture with the words "Hottie" and "Nottie" in the title. They don't make low enough classifications to categorize that sort of thing. Oh, and George Lucas released a poorly-animated cartoon version of Star Wars in 2008--The Clone Wars. Make that two monumental mess-ups for him this year.
And you? Which films delighted you this year? Which films did you detest?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1314