Ten Favorite Films from 2008

Any year in which a comic book movie sequel is heralded as the next great American epic, a trash-compacting robot takes the world by storm without ever uttering a word, Indiana Jones has a close encounter of the kitschy kind, and Clint Eastwood makes a comedy has got to be a landmark year for film, and 2008 was all that and then some, a year of rich, bold cinema both at the arthouse and at the megaplex. For this critic, anyway, it was one of the most rewarding years of moviegoing in a while, and these ten films are the ones that stood out the most– movies I’ll be watching and savoring for years to come.

01. Wall*E
Dir. Andrew Stanton
A work of pure, hard science fiction; a family movie that is, for its first half hour, essentially a silent film; a powerful parable about the consequences of greed and the power of love; and oh yeah, one of the biggest blockbusters of the year; who else but Pixar could possibly have made this work? The latest feature from the director of Finding Nemo is Pixar’s boldest, most ambitious and sophisticated film yet, and also one of their richest, brimming with romance, humor, excitement, and, most of all, meaning. It’s a dystopian vision with a big heart; if the title wasn’t already taken, you could call it Love in the Ruins.

02. The Dark Knight
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Chris Nolan blows up a comic book movie sequel into a soaring, dark mythology, one informed by all the weight and complexity of human existence circa 2008. A film about terrorism and the problem of evil, it treads the same thematic ground as No Country for Old Men, and it deftly plays both sides of the argument while refusing to allow any easy answers. Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker is a character for the ages, but Gary Oldman’s quietly noble Jim Gordon is the franchise’s true heart. Not too shabby, Caped Crusader.

03. Synecdoche, New York
Dir. Charlie Kaufman
Ruthlessly complicated and bizarre to the point of being truly maddening, Charlie Kaufman’s first turn as a director is a movie of sweeping ambition and frightful imagination. A film about the frustrating life of the artist and the mysterious role of the creative act in our lives and our culture, it’s a film that could be watched over and over again without ever truly being unraveled or fully understood– which is what makes it both frustrating and unforgettable, a harsh and beautiful masterpiece.

04. Slumdog Millionaire
Dir. Danny Boyle
Boyle harnesses all his powers as a director for a feat that employs the full range of pure cinema– color, light, sound, seamless editing– for a grand fantasy that’s as much a celebration of the movies as it is a monument to true love. A fairy-tale for grown-ups, the film is one of the most suspenseful, and at times one of the darkest, of the year, but its bold, unashamed belief in the power of love to turn darkness into light if unflinching and unerring.

05. Speed Racer
Dir. The Wachowski Bros.
A movie that’s just about being a movie, this big-screen, live-action cartoon was unfairly maligned by critics who wanted it to be something different from what it is. Look for profundity and you’ll be disappointed, but watch it on the biggest screen you can find and prepare for a sugarrush of pure fun and energy and you’ll be blown away. It’s a masterpiece of style and creativity, a careening joyride of whiplash action and sly humor, color and motion and giddy joy. I have a hard time watching this movie without grinning from ear to ear.

06. Doubt
Dir. John Patrick Shanley
Adapted from stage to screen with appropriate theatricality, this big-screen parable is told with the utmost simplicity, even as it addresses some big, complex issues. It’s a human drama about faith and doubt, idealism and cynicism, tradition and compassion, and, at its heart, it’s a clash between two titans of acting– Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman– who share scenes of verbal sparring that rank among the year’s most intense and engrossing. Streep is as great as usual, but it’s Hoffman who proves to be the powerhouse actor with this riveting, nuanced performance. As an added bonus, the film gives us one of the most appealing portrayals of a Christian on the big screen in some time.

07. Man on Wire
Dir. James Marsh
What makes this documentary truly masterful is the way in which the filmmakers simply let their subject tell his story– and that story is so breathlessly compelling, no embellishment is needed to make this a film that’s not just a totally engaging, entertaining history lesson, but, more importantly, a truly inspiring film about a man with big dreams and a desire to bring a little bit of beauty into a sometimes ugly world. Priceless.

08. Shotgun Stories
Dir. Jeff Nichols
A blood-soaked, Christ-haunted morality play set in the deep South, Shotgun Stories sounds, on paper, like a Flannery O’Connor homage, but, more than that, it’s a tribute to Terrence Malick, finding inspiration in the famed director’s long pauses and evocative imagery. It’s subtle but powerful, devoid of frills but rich with thematic depth, and its resonantes on levels both personal and political.

09. Flight of the Red Balloon
Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Great filmmakers can turn light and motion into pure poetry, which is exactly what happens in this remarkable, bittersweet film that deftly walks the line between childhood and adulthood, capturing the tension that exists between the two. Told more through suggestive imagery than through plot, it’s a slow-moving, meditative film that rewards patient viewing. Its neatest trick is the way it celebrates both childlike wonder and grown-up responsibility, and its greatest surprise is a strikingly blond Juliette Binoche, in one of her best performances.

10. Gran Torino
Dir. Clint Eastwood
A deeply personal film that only Eastwood could have made, Gran Torino is covered in the fingerprints of its auteur and carries with it the weight of his entire career up to this point. Alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious, the film plays off of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry mythology and subverts his familiar iconography into a primal, redemptive tale of sacrifice and friendship.

Honorable Mention: Burn After Reading
(Dir. The Coen Bros.)

How do the Coens follow their dark, philosophical, Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men? Why, with an absurd, over-the-top CIA farce, of course. A team of master filmmakers and terrific actors cut loose and have fun in this infectiously silly, quirky send-up of government ineptitude and international espionage. Hilarious and full of surprises.

A few more honors…

Best Film for the Whole Family

Achievement in Acting
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt, Synecdoche, New York)

Achievement in Directing
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight

Richest Exploration of Spiritual Issues
Tie– Synecdoche, New York and Doubt

Richest Exploration of Cultural/Political Issues
Tie– The Dark Knight and Shotgun Stories

Richest Exploration of Film as a Medium
Slumdog Millionaire


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7 responses to “Ten Favorite Films from 2008”

  1. Scott S says :

    Josh, while I guess it could old to say “Have you seen, x, y, or z”…are there films that you haven’t seen from 2008 that you would like to, that could possibly make this list?

  2. Darren says :

    I watched Shotgun Stories a couple weeks ago and was surprised, afterwards, to read so many allusions to it being set in O’Connor’s “deep South.” Little Rock is more than 600 miles from Milledgeville (I googled it just out of curiosity) and is as close to Oklahoma City as it is to Birmingham. I know I’m just picking nits here, but it’s one of the things that bothered me about the film. I know Jeff Nichols is from Arkansas and that the fishery we see is owned by a relative, so he’s a credible witness of this world, but everything about that movie felt like tourism to me — a Sundance version of a generic, working class, rural America.

  3. Josh Hurst says :

    Scott– I have still yet to see Milk, A Christmas Tale, or Rachel Getting Married, to name a few that I’ve heard good things about.

    Darren– Interesting observations. Personally, I’ve never lived in Arkansas or spent much time there, but the little town in Shotgun Stories reminded me very much of some small towns I’ve been in in other parts of the south– or at least, of Appalachia. In particular, it was VERY similar to the little Kentucky town where I have some relatives. So I never felt like it was a vision of the South as imagined by an outsider, or anything to that effect. As for O’Connor, I think the similarities are surface-deep, and I’m actually surprised I haven’t read more of them; anything that’s set in the south and contains any kind of violence seems to provoke a knee-jerk comparison to O’Connor, deserved or not.

  4. Doug Kimball says :

    Thank you, Josh. THIS is the list from you that I most enjoy reading each year. Yes, I read your music reviews and enjoy them and experiencing music I have never heard of, but film – film is where it’s at for me. You the man.

  5. Josh Hurst says :

    Well, thanks, Doug. I’m sorry I don’t cover film as much as I used to, but, well, I don’t have time to do it all, and there are a lot of great Christian film critics out there, but, in my opinion, far fewer good Christian music critics. And frankly, I enjoy writing about music more anyway, though movie reviews will always have a special place in my heart, and I’m certainly excited to be able to share some of these great movies with folks such as yourself. I hope some of these titles prove to be to your liking!

  6. besidethequeue says :

    Great list, Josh. Especially happy to see Shotgun Stories there; it was my favorite film of the year.

    But no 40 minutes were more enthralling and beautiful than the first 40 of Wall-E, especially that first time, in the theater, at midnight even. I suspect my mouth hung open the whole time, a thin string of saliva falling ever closer to my jeans.

    Doubt was also among my favorites, as was Gran Torino, but I wasn’t quite as impressed by Slumdog as most people are.

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