While there was plenty to celebrate at the end of the year in Washington, D.C., the results of the 2008 movie campaign didn't exactly showcase change we can believe in. That's because after 2007, a year that witnessed the release of countless stellar achievements, the cinematic crop this time around wasn't as fruitful.
Of the 170 titles I screened over the course of the past 12 months, a large number of films hardly seemed worth the effort -- either for them to produce or for us to watch -- and while there seemed to be a bounty of recommendable, 3-star outings, many of them failed to possess any sort of lasting power, instead dissipating from memory soon after the viewing experience.
Of course, the cream always rises to the top -- and the dung always plops to the bottom -- so coming up with enough films to either champion or condemn was never an issue. Here, then, is my 10 Best list for 2008, followed by 10 noteworthy runner-ups, other assorted superlatives, and -- shudder -- my 10 Worst list.
THE 10 BEST
1. MILK (Gus Van Sant). The best picture of 2008. Historical biopics are a dime a dozen, but this remarkable work from director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black reinvigorates the genre with its bold examination of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco activist who became the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States -- and whose achievements live on even though he was fatally shot by a disturbed co-worker (Josh Brolin). Van Sant's film, full of passion and purpose, expertly mixes new material with choice archival footage, while Sean Penn delivers a career-best performance as Harvey. Although it's very much a look back at the 1970s, Milk is also a movie for these intolerant times, and it will serve as a useful time-capsule document provided we can ever move past our petty fears and irrational hatred.
2. THE WRESTLER (Darren Aronofsky). The other best picture of 2008. I've gone back and forth between Milk and The Wrestler for weeks, and have been flip-flopping between them for the No. 1 slot on an almost daily basis. What it ultimately means, though, is that viewers can't go wrong with either title. Director Darren Aronofsky (whose Requiem for a Dream topped my 10 Best list back in 2000) and scripter Robert Siegel have constructed a terrific character study about Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke, delivering the performance of the year), an aging wrestler who left his glory days behind in the 1980s. Now barely able to eke out a living, he tries to establish connections with both a sympathetic strip club dancer (Marisa Tomei) and a daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who has long despised him. Before it reaches the best closing shot of the year, The Wrestler has managed to rock our world with its raw and often outrageous examination of a life that exists only on the margins of American society. (The Wrestler is scheduled to open locally Jan. 23.)
3. THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan). There's very little to add to what's already been said about this phenomenal film, one of the two best superhero flicks ever made (the 1978 Superman being the other). Yes, it taps into real-world anxieties in a way that no other superhero film has done before. Yes, Heath Ledger is simply amazing as The Joker, the dark counterpoint to the dark knight, Batman (Christian Bale). And yes, this most assuredly deserves a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I mean, if hobbits can fare so well with the Academy, why not?
4. IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS (Alex Holdridge). Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris landed in the No. 4 slot on my 10 Best list last year, so it's only fitting that this similar indie effort enjoys equal billing. Like its French counterpart, this is a smart, perceptive and slightly cynical film which upends the traditional romantic comedy by marinating it in the realities of the modern world. As the two lonely souls hoping to find some modicum of contentment on the streets of Los Angeles, Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds are ideal, while Robert Murphy's crisp black-and-white cinematography adds the proper mood.
5. ELEGY (Isabel Coixet). An English college professor (Ben Kingsley) known for bedding attractive students finds himself for the first time becoming emotionally involved with his latest conquest: a Cuban-American woman (Penelope Cruz) who teaches him about the complexities of love and devotion. Eloquent and understated, this masterful adaptation of Philip Roth's The Dying Animal benefits from a note-perfect ensemble cast and a script (by Nicholas Meyer) that allows every character -- no matter how flawed -- a chance to have their say.
6. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton). Another year, another Pixar film making my Top 10. This time, it's the summer blockbuster about an intrepid little robot who collects junk on an abandoned Earth, learns about love by watching the only movie in his possession (a VHS copy of Hello, Dolly!), and aches to be accepted by the sleek robot (EVE) who newly arrives on the planet. WALL-E is a great children's film, yes, but with its pro-environmental message, it's a godsend for progressive adults as well.