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The 10 Best Films Of 2008

The 10 Best Films Of 2008

With 2015 upon us, we figured it was a good time to look back on the movies the millennium has brought us. We’ve dug into the archives and are re-running our Best of the 2000s pieces, from way back in 2009 when the Playlist was a little Blogspot site held together with tape and string. Each list runs down the top 10 films of each year (it’s possible that, half-a-decade on, we’d put them in a different order and even change some of the movies, but we wanted to preserve the original pieces untouched as far as possible). Check out 20002001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 if you missed them, and today we continue with 2008. The original piece follows below, and thanks to staffers past and present who contributed.

As the decade came to a close, we have little to complain about. The second-half of the aughts were fantastic, yielding many of the best films of the aughts.

In the first place, it was nice to see a film dominate the box office that wasn’t part 4 of a McFranchise. Well, technically it was part two, but while also being a piece of smart, thrilling entertainment, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” took the #1 spot worldwide, grossing over more than $1 billion dollars. Even if your opinions of that film are negative, one has to admit this was a step in the right direction. But looking at the rest of the international box-office, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Hancock” dominated.

Still, there was much reason to be optimistic. At the Oscars, Fox Searchlight‘s persistent, mini-major campaign —which brought two small indie-major films to the awards previously (“Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine“)— finally paid off, as Danny Boyle‘s vibrant, immensely enjoyable fairytale “Slumdog Millionaire” deservedly took the Best Picture award. Sean Penn was rewarded for his turn in Gus Van Sant‘s “Milk,” and Kate Winslet finally won a Best Actress Oscar for “The Reader.” And Heath Ledger won the second ever posthumous acting award in Academy history for his riveting turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” (perhaps the film wouldn’t have been half of what it was without him).

A stellar year for film, 2008 —and the last half of the decade, really— gave us tons of unforgettable classics.

10. “The Wrestler
The mere act of describing “The Wrestler” sounds like a clumsy jumble of clichés. Tt’s got a down-on-his luck, drug-addled former athlete (a hypnotic Mickey Rourke) who wants to reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and marry the stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold he covets (Marisa Tomei) while vying for a return to his former glory. But Darren Aronofsky takes a documentary approach that wouldn’t be out of place on ESPN and captures all the emotion, unexpected comedy and character that lies in between the banalities, signalling a new and brave direction in his filmmaking that brings the story to life. At the center is Rourke, giving a tour de force performance that seemed to parallel his own career. Raw, modest and austere, his soulful, naked turn blurs reality and fiction in entirely riveting and uncomfortable ways.

9. “The Edge Of Heaven”
A profoundly entrancing meditation on kismet and the capacity for human forgiveness, three seemingly disparate Turkish and German families (Nurgül Yeşilçay, Baki Davrak, and noted Fassbinder actress Hanna Schygulla among them) are touched by death and intercede through fate in this Kieslowski-esque- drama by noted director German/Turkish director Fatih Akin. Travel and migration being a major theme in all of Akin’s work, these characters journey back and forth between the two countries, but any of the-universe-is-all-interconnected conceits are subdued and told in three elliptic vignettes that overlap softly like a dissolve. It’s a resonantly compassionate and intricate quilt handcrafted by a thought-provoking filmmaker.

8. “A Christmas Tale”
Arnaud Desplechin‘s “A Christmas Tale” runs down the most rote Christmas movie formulas: a family is brought together for the holidays; the matriarch is terminally ill; there’s a whole bunch of skeletons in the closet (unrequited love, implacable, long-standing feuds, etc). In lesser hands, this could have been a French “Family Stone.” Instead, Desplechin  —influenced by “The Royal Tenenbaums” but exceeding it by miles— has woven a novelistic, oddly moving little gem of a movie, filled with prickly and vindictive characters giving us a raw and honest view of family life. Stacking the deck with almost all of France’s renowned stars (among them Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch and Mathieu Amalric as the asshole son) and subtle stylistic flourishes, the movie is acidic, yet eventually warm and rewarding and a future classic for discerning film lovers who enjoy some bite in their holiday cheer.

7. “Ballast”
Lance Hammer self-distributed this stark, raw, deeply rich and emotional ravaged tale of a fragmented African American family in the poverty-stricken Memphis delta. Mostly unknown actor Michael Smith Sr. gives an outstandingly inward yet profoundly projecting performance as a twin quietly devastated by the suicide of his brother who has lost the will to live, yet has to guide and mentor his troublesome nephew and desperately lost sister-in-law. Pathologically unsentimental, often bleak and unnervingly spare —with the only moments of music being diegetic sound— the fractured poetry of this austere picture is viscerally gut-wrenching.

6. “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Sally Hawkins gives a fizzy tour-de-force performance as Poppy, a character filled with such bubbly levity she should float off the ground if she weren’t so grounded by the realities of the world around her. Eddie Marsan is as heartbreaking as he is terrifying as Scott, the tightly wound and paranoid driving instructor whose ill will is no match for Poppy’s eternally sunshiney attitude. The dialectic forces of these two actors’ opposing performances explode in the small confines of the car, and director Mike Leigh uses the jumping off point of Poppy’s demeanor to explore some of humanity’s darker and more interesting moments, and gets two of the best performances of 2008 in Hawkins and Marsan. To write off this film as aggressively ebullient is deeply shortsighted.

5. “Silent Light”
A transcendent, slow-moving tale of adultery set amongst deeply religious Mennonites faced with  fractured morality, “Silent Light” is luminously shot and practically a religious experience in itself. Mexican arthouse director Carlos Reygadas‘ third feature film features all unknown, untrained actors; a meditative and quiet Terrence Malick-ian tone; breathtaking, patient visuals; and a stunning conclusion. Spoken entirely in Plautdietsch, the language of the Prussian Mennonites, this bewitching story of a married man who falls in love with another woman in a small community has not been widely-seen, but it’s worth the effort to track down this heavenly piece of cinema endorsed by Martin Scorsese and given award props at Cannes.

4. “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days”
As an abortion-drama, ‘4 Months’ manages not to skimp on either side of the description. Directed by Cristian Mungiu, this raw-nerve, unflinchingly told picture takes place in the late-’80s Communist Romania, following a pair of college students (Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu), one of which needs an abortion dangerously far into her pregnancy. The harrowing chronicle becomes extra potent through the eyes of the friend trying to assist in the matter but who pays her own heavy psychic toll. As desperation sets in, a roughhewn handheld style not dissimilar from Paul Greengrass‘ docu-drama feel heightens the tension and immediacy of the girls’ situation. Fortunately never falling into the traps of an “issue film,” after the most brutal moments are over (and some of it is hard to watch), the film lets you reflect on the undeniably disturbing events.

3. “I’ve Loved You So Long”
Just thinking of this movie makes us want to quietly weep in a corner. A soulful, extremely moving portrait of the seemingly limitless and incontestable bonds of sibling love, the ugliness of unpleasant familial secrets and the hope of personal rebirth, writer Philippe Claudel‘s directorial debut is anchored by an arresting performance of Kristin Scott Thomas. She plays a drained-of-life woman just released from prison after 15 years for the murder of her six-year-old son. After the family has denounced her, the only one waiting for her is her loving younger sister, played with tenderness and empathy by Elsa Zylberstein. ‘I’ve Loved You So Long’ is one of the decade’s most emotionally wrenching films made about family.

2. “Reprise”
A vibrantly alive and magnetic ode to youth and a passionate chronicle of friendship and the manic energy of a restless mind, “Reprise” struck a chord and never left. Some called this dynamically visualized tale of two competitive best friends (Anders Danielsen Lie and Espen Klouman-Høiner) with literary aspirations and their chronicles of love, loss and mental illness “Charlie Kaufman-esque,” but that’s banal and reductive. The directorial debut by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier traverses in concepts of fluid time, but the electrical human energy, Bergman-esque contemplation and kinetic zeal is distinctly its own.

1. “Che”
Steven Soderbergh‘s two part epic is not going to win any points for politics, as it jumps around Che Guevara’s life liberally and tiptoes around his more serious discretionary acts. But it doesn’t lionize the man either. Soderbergh takes his coolly proficient scalpel to instead illustrate the anatomy of a revolutionary, a field leader and a man capable of great change, who was intrigued with the verbal exchanges in the middle of sieges, the physical steps taken between two points and the hairsbreadth difference between being the leader of your people and being a victim of unmanaged hubris. Soderbergh benefits from a go-for-broke performance by Benicio del Toro as the political game-changer, and he presents an intense and typically focused characterization that helps create a full picture of a man we might not want to befriend or vilify, but one we desperately want to know.

Honorable Mentions:
It pains us how many great films we had to leave off this list. Number one in that category is perhaps French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiches sprawling, roving cinema verite family restaurant drama “Secret Of the Grain.” Other strong films that unfortunately could not make the cut but we still wish to pay recognition to include Guy Maddin‘s drunken, wintry and hilarious docu-fantasia “My Winnipeg“; Kelly Reichardt‘s micro-minimalist poverty tale “Wendy & Lucy” which suffers from zero plot, but boasts a devastating performance by Michelle Williams; Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s meandering but touching “Flight of the Red Balloon“; still going at 79 years of age, French New Wave stalwart Claude Chabrol‘s deliciously sardonic “A Girl Cut In Two,” featuring excellent performances by Ludivine Sagnier and François Berléand; Danny Boyle‘s kinetic and celebratory fairy-tale “Slumdog Millionaire“; Gus Van Sant‘s skate-park teen drama “Paranoid Park” featuring lovely lensing by the great Christopher Doyle; the German-made Jewish Holocaust prisoners story “The Counterfeiters” and Claude Miller‘s absorbing WWII family drama “A Secret,” including an excellent performance by Cécile De France who Clint Eastwood recently tapped for his near-death experiences film, “Hereafter.” Also quite amazing is Steve McQueen‘s IRA hunger-strike drama “Hunger” featuring an amazing performance by Michael Fassbender.

We also appreciate Martin McDonagh‘s feature-length directorial debut, the hit-man comedy, “In Bruges” (someone please figure out how to adapt his amazing play “The Pillowman,” we elect someone like Bong Joon-Ho or Park Chan-Wook); the Swedish vampire film “Let The Right One In“; “Waltz With Bashir,” Harmony Korine‘s most successful feature film, the dreamy and melancholy “Mister Lonely“; the under appreciated (at least in the U.S.), Palme d’Or winner “The Class,” by director Laurent Cantet; Tom McCarthy‘s simple but effective sophomore picture “The Visitor“; David Gordon Green‘s Altman-eseque and surprisingly funny drama “Snow Angels“; David Mamet‘s mixed-martial arts drama “Redbelt“; Charlie Kaufman‘s swirl-headed and dour dream “Synecdoche, New York“; and enjoyable entertainment like “Wall-E” and “The Dark Knight.”

—  Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Katie Walsh & Gabe Toro

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