If 2008 was a year of smarter-than-average popcorn movies (The Dark Knight, WALL*E, Tropic Thunder, Iron Man), that's where the good news ended. Foreign and indie distribution continued to dry up (no 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Paranoid Park, or Flight of the Red Balloon for Memphis, among countless other intriguing titles), Hollywood Oscar bait underperformed, and pleasant surprises were outnumbered by disappointments. (On a more optimistic note, perhaps things will look better after a flood of promising January releases, including Waltz With Bashir, The Wrestler, I've Loved You So Long, and Gran Torino.)
Amid the wreckage, our critics scavenged for good stuff. This is what we found.
1. Happy-Go-Lucky: In the worst film year in the more than a decade I've been keeping track, this deceptively minor character study from the medium's greatest working artist takes the top spot by default. From the dreamy, on-the-move, triptych opening credits to a serene closing seemingly indebted to '70s art-house classic Celine & Julie Go Boating, British master Mike Leigh (see also: Topsy-Turvy, Naked, Vera Drake) has never exhibited as light a touch or been as inspiringly humanistic as with this portrait of a London schoolteacher (Sally Hawkins) whose sunny demeanor is challenged by others' ways of seeing — and being in — the world.
2. Rachel Getting Married: Jonathan Demme directs this blend of intense family melodrama and epic, Robert Altman-style party sequences with the same intimacy and purpose he put into such masterful concert docs as Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold. The tumultuous homecoming of Anne Hathaway's doe-eyed narcotics addict is shown as an oscillating series of white-knuckle interactions and quiet retreats, a handheld camera capturing furtive reaction shots. As the gonzo wedding celebration fights against the family tension, Demme turns indulgence into strength, and the viewer is sucked into the middle of the most audacious home movie ever.
3. The Dark Knight: At one level an almost sympathetic critique of post-9/11 government overreach, The Dark Knight achieved resonance without straining for topicality. The late Heath Ledger's agitated, sarcastic performance as the Joker managed the impossible task of exceeding pre-release hype, but credit director Christopher Nolan with making a movie that wasn't overshadowed by it. There's a procedural tension and insistent, palpable anxiety to The
Dark Knight common to great crime films (from Fritz Lang to Michael Mann) but unprecedented in comic-hero adaptations. This was grand, gripping, propulsive filmmaking.
4. Cadillac Records: This story of the rise of Chicago R&B label Chess Records exposes good movies like Ray and Walk the Line for the self-serious Oscar bait they were. Don't believe me that this under-marketed, late-year "B" movie was the 2008's most purely enjoyable Hollywood film? Search YouTube for the clip of Eamonn Walker's ferocious Howlin' Wolf singing "Smokestack Lightning" to Muddy Waters' woman while Muddy (Jeffrey Wright, earning the nomination he won't get) looks on from the other side of the recording-studio window. That should be all the convincing anyone needs.
5. There Will Be Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson's three-hour fever dream about the unsteady partnership of capitalism and Christianity in forging manifest destiny opened in Memphis in January 2008 — even if it seems to have come out two years ago. But it seems even older: an increasingly rare handcrafted American cinema epic; a celluloid triumph in a digital age.
6. Man on Wire: This documentary about the day in 1974 that French tightrope walker Phillipe Petit spent 40 amazing minutes on a strand of wire between the World Trade Center towers is the most exciting caper flick in years. And Man on Wire is all the more effective because its wonder at dual human achievements (Petit's walk and the buildings' construction) and its melancholy that Petit outlasted the towers are both allowed to emerge without direct commentary.
7. Milk: Gus Van Sant's fiercely patriotic biopic of martyred gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn's best lead performance in years) is novel for celebrating Milk as simultaneously a principled leader and a hard-nosed, pragmatic politician. Pertinent viewing in the Age of Obama.
8. Persepolis: This sharp adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels about growing up Iranian during and after the revolution cleverly, believably, and movingly weaves the personal and political.
9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: As befits the story of a man reduced to communicating with the world via one functioning eye, Julian Schnabel's biopic of late journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby is a profoundly visual film — from its disorienting point-of-view opening to its increasingly devotional and sensuous embrace of a world its locked-in protagonist can no longer fully experience.
10. WALL*E: In the Worst Year Ever, the wordless, severe, beautiful opening section of this latest Pixar blockbuster was enough to sneak it onto the best-of list, even if I was disappointed by how noisy, violent, and conventional it became when action moved to the mothership.
Honorable Mentions: Trouble the Water, My Blueberry Nights, Married Life, Priceless, Taxi to the Darkside, Tropic Thunder, Son of Rambow, Slumdog Millionaire, Tell No One, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
1. Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh's study of hard-working London educators loses none of its charms even after multiple viewings: Its bright, children's-book imagery and its multifaceted humanism still gleam. Both on its own and as an inspirational counterargument to Leigh's infernal 1994 film Naked, Happy-Go-Lucky is an essential, strangely necessary moviegoing experience.
2. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly: This celebration of the physical world — of beauty, of nature, of communication — doesn't begin happily at all; it opens with a frightening sequence shot from the point of view of an immobilized stroke victim. But Butterfly director Julian Schnabel, much like Leigh in Happy-Go-Lucky, is more interested in the way a person's consciousness colors a world than he is in any kind of sustained realism. What could have been a maudlin, predictable story about hope and affliction is thus turned into a poetic vision of everyday life.
3. Cadillac Records: So many of the character/actor pairings in this extravaganza deserve their own TV spin-offs. Think of it: "On this week's episode of Moanin' in the Moonlight, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) challenges Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) to a knife fight, only to be told that shivs are for little boys and not grown-ass men. When Wolf asks Muddy whether he thinks he's grown because he's been 'smelling his piss,' sparks fly! Wendell Pierce guest-stars as Bo Diddley."
4. Role Models: This was the funniest, most unpredictable comedy of the year. Director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) shows he can handle grown-up stuff better than Judd Apatow's goons these days. Which is funny, because Wain is also working with Paul Rudd, the most reliable comic actor around. Yes, Rudd's bid for maturity and social responsibility involves creating a breakaway heavy-metal republic that challenges the smug assholes in charge of a LARP battle royale, but any comedy that encourages its characters to enlarge their sense of self is pretty special.
5. The Forbidden Kingdom: Aside from those Jason Statham quickies and Rob Marshall's splatter-pocalyptic Doomsday, this was the only action movie this year with fight scenes that looked good and said something about its characters. Why expect less?
6. My Blueberry Nights/Ashes of Time Redux: Wong Kar-Wai's criminally underappreciated romance is both a perceptive movie about the American landscape and an insightful look at the psychology of neon lights and window graffiti, which function like mood rings for the two leads (Jude Law and Norah Jones). It ends with a kiss that should draw sighs. Ashes of Time remains enigmatic and beautiful; made in 1994, it's Wong's least accessible film — which nevertheless makes it better than all but a half-dozen other movies released this year.
7. Man on Wire: This is a film in which a gifted French gab re-creates the literal and figurative high point of his existence through inspired, nonstop storytelling. It is also an ode to the expressive possibilities of urban architecture that, at its best, recalls the great dream-city films of F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage.
8. The Wackness: This story of a mixed-up New York City kid wandering in and out of love in 1994 stuck with me because it captured every moment of sincere or awkward adolescence I recall from the headphoned summers I spent between the ages of 16 and 22, when each month pivoted on a new, surprising crush or love affair that was as instructive as it was painful. Clever/ postmodern moment: Method Man's drug supplier sings along with himself on a Biggie Smalls mixtape.
9. WALL*E: Considering its fast-paced, visually stunning pedigree, its reliable storytelling, and its target market, Pixar's complex, melancholy response to the Spielberg-Kubrick hybrid A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of the most confounding major-studio films of the year. The first 45 minutes are wordless, lovable tertiary characters are absent, and the film seems constructed from garbage, dust, new and rusted metal, smog, and highly buffed synthetic plastic. After that, the image of fattened, immobile earthlings whose clothes change for them is probably too prescient to dwell upon.
10. Persepolis: It's just like a graphic novel, except that it's compelling, emotionally engaging, and worth revisiting.
Honorable Mentions: Ten performances just as good as Heath Ledger's Joker: Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Dominique Pinon and Audrey Dana in Roman de Gare, Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, George Clooney in Burn After Reading, Viggo Mortensen in Appaloosa, Anne Hathaway in anything, Audrey Tatou and Gad Elmaleh in Priceless, Belen Rueda in The Orphanage.
1. Frozen River: Compared to lots of my other favorite 2008 films, former Memphian Courtney Hunt's debut film, Frozen River, says what it does sans hoopla and bombast. It saves the fireworks for the cherry bomb sparking at its emotional core, and the only scenery chewing going on is happening to leads Ray (Melissa Leo) and Lila (Misty Upham) as they're mashed up and spit out by a callous world. But they find each other. And they push the ball forward a little. And sometimes that's enough.
2. There Will Be Blood: P.T. Anderson's Citizen Kane. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as American wolf Daniel Plainview is colossal. Too bad Paul Dano as preacher Eli Sunday isn't up to snuff. But nothing can suppress the singular experience of watching Plainview eat the sun. Hey, kids: Come watch capitalism bash in the brains of religion. Woot!
3. The Dark Knight: Finally! A comic-book adaptation that's more of a movie than just a stay-inside-the-lines, rote project based on origin-story source material or fanboy wish fulfillment. With Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, comic-book superhero movie meets genre pic. History will recall the moment Batman went crime epic on the big screen, but it just as easily could have been Superman going torture porn or Wolverine in X-Men: The Musical! I'm glad it happened the way it did.
4. Cloverfield: The movie's probably not as good as I remember, but what I do recall is the electrical charge I had coming out of the theater. I could've pulled one of those Donald O'Connor climb-up-the-wall-and-flips off the side of the Paradiso. I was high on life, man. The best theatrical experience of the year; cinema in all its visceral glory.
5. Rachel Getting Married: The less narrative Rachel Getting Married becomes, the better. When it's a home-movie-style documentation of a wedding, it celebrates life and possibility in ways most films can't touch. When it's in plot-forward mode, it's still really good.
6. Iron Man: Growing up, I never much got over to the Marvel side of comic-book town. I had Batman/Bruce Wayne already — why would I need anybody else, much less another rich smart guy fighting crime, such as Iron Man? What I didn't know worked in my favor. I went into the film relatively cold and came away pleased as punch. For once, make mine Marvel.
7. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: A solid film with a napalm ending: I've rarely been so obliterated by a movie. Designed like a long con, Striped Pajamas suckers the audience into believing this may be the one story you could tell about the Holocaust that's — to the extent that is possible — feel-good. Wrong. There are no happy Holocaust stories.
8. Be Kind Rewind: A film that busts easy categorization, Michel Gondry has now made my favorite music video ever (the White Stripes' "Hardest Button to Button"), my favorite Jim Carrey movie (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and my favorite movie about video stores, making movies, and Fats Waller (Be Kind Rewind). He's a five-tool director.
9. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: I'm not sure I understand the vitriol surrounding the latest installment in this popcorn series nearing three decades old. Aren't movies sometimes supposed to be fun? Can't some fiction be improbable? Isn't it occasionally a good thing to see people eaten alive by ants or surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator? And sure, Shia. But did he, like, spill wine on your couch or something? Sheesh.
10. Redbelt: This isn't by a long shot David Mamet's best film. But Redbelt's protagonist, Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is by far Mamet's most likable character and the only one I think I'd like to see again in another adventure. The ending has stayed with me for seven months now, so I guess it's in my head to stay.
Honorable Mentions: Doubt, The Fall, Man on Wire, Milk, Taxi to the Dark Side, Quantum of Solace, Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie, Persepolis, Wall*E, Slumdog Millionaire.