THE YEAR THAT WAS 2008: Leading Up to the Top Ten Films of the Year

LAST UPDATE: 4/2/11

This was a year that had a hard act to follow. 2007 turned out to be one of the best in recent memory, in terms of quality pictures. There were a few notable titles here and there in the beginning of 2008, but for the most part, not much stuck out.

Then came the fall, and an assortment of quality films began to slowly come out of the woodwork. Some we expected to be good, others pleasantly surprised us. In the end, 2008 couldn't hold a candle to 2007, but the films worth looking into really did know how to shine.

Just like 2009, below is the list of all the titles I saw, ranked from worst to best. I still need to see the following: The Baader Meinhof Complex, The Band's Visit, The Class, Happy-Go-Lucky, Man on Wire and Revanche.

Total Films Seen: 43

Films Seen in Theatres: 36 (84%)

43. Max Payne - probably a stupid question at this point, but I'll ask it anyway: is it that hard to make a decent film based off of a video game? Apparently, shooting for decent is a stretch in itself, because this was terrible. 2008 was a bad year for Mark Wahlberg, and this was probably the biggest piece of crap he was involved in. If you haven't already, try the game out (it should be super cheap by now), and then you'll realize what a squandered opportunity this was. (D-)

42. The Spirit - by the time you get to the scene where Samuel L. Jackson is wearing a Nazi uniform, nothing about what's happening seems strange to you, because you've already accepted how monumentally idiotic this is. It looks nice, but this was all kinds of stupid, saved only by Jackson's entertaining overreactions. Also, nice to see The Wonder Years' Dan Lauria turn up in something. Too bad it's not a film he can be proud of. (D)

41. Shutter - helpful advice: if you want to be scared by a remake of an entertaining Japanese horror picture, watch an original Japanese horror picture. It started off fine enough, but once it got the ball rolling, things got more and more ridiculous. Joshua Jackson would eventually find his footing in the thriller genre with Fringe, but this was a giant misstep along the way. (D)

40. College Road Trip - now, this wasn't as bad as most reviewers made it out to be, but it definitely wasn't good either. Case and point: the best part of this movie is Donny Osmond. Think about that for a minute. It was refreshing to see Martin Lawrence tone down his usual crazed acting style, but his co-star, Raven-Symone, could barely breathe without resorting to overdone facial expressions. (C-)

39. The Informers - honestly, the first ten minutes of this film put it in the running for worst movie I've ever seen. The young actors performed as if they were on trashy soap operas, and there were too many uninteresting stories going on at once. About halfway in, however, it didn't turn into anything amazing, but the film did manage to (finally) grab your interest. You only wish it had been that engrossing the whole time. (C-)

38. Vantage Point - I always think it's incredibly interesting when you have an insane lineup of talented actors that, for whatever reason, decide to do something that's beneath all of them. The story isn't terrible, actually, but this would have made for a fine short film, not a feature-length presentation, where the idea wears out its welcome pretty early on. Also, if you've seen the trailer, you know a major plot twist. Where's the sense in that? (C)

37. Miracle at St. Anna - man was I excited when I saw the trailer for this. You don't get too many films about black soldiers, and to have Spike Lee behind the camera? That sounded like a slam dunk. Unfortunately, what we got instead was an extremely mediocre, overly long war picture that utilized some nice camerawork but cut back on script and performance quality. (C) 

36. Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! - for the most part, I agree with the majority of critics when they praise or denounce films that come out every year. Sometimes, however, it's like we didn't see the same film at all. Such was the case here, with a pretty harmless kids film that, while it looked great thanks to some nice computer effects, played out like a slow, dull, unfunny inside joke between Jim Carrey and Steve Carell. (C)

35. The Happening - Marky Mark dropped another doodie on the turnpike with this laughably unconvincing thriller that announces to the world just how much M. Night Shyamalan has lost his touch since 1999's The Sixth Sense. I love Zooey Deschanel, but I've never seen her perform this badly before. A door would have generated more emotion. I will note, though, that James Newton Howard's score is, as usual, fantastic. It's the movie's only saving grace. (C)

34. Never Back Down - as frustrating as it can be to go into a good film hoping it will be great, it's slightly annoying when you prepare yourself for a massive crapfest, and you end up witnessing something not nearly as terrible as you had imagined. I would never buy this on DVD, but I have to admit that it was not as bad as it looked. It's the kind of movie to have on in the background while you clean your room. (C)

33. Hellboy II: The Golden Army - I'm not sure what I expected. The first film was just okay, but Ron Perlman was great as the lead. The trailers for its sequel sparked my interest, but the results were exactly the same: Perlman's great, the film was not. There is no punch to the story. Everybody, even the special effects characters, seemed bored. Those feelings carry over to the audience. (C)

32. Twilight - if you have a girlfriend (or a very persuasive sister), than you can understand my plight of being tricked into watching something against your will. Believe it or not, though, the first hour of this film was actually quite watchable. It's what unfolds after that, however, that begins to offend your sensibilities. It takes two high school kids a day or two to fall completely in love? Robert Pattinson is supposed to be in high school? Vampires hate the light because they sparkle? You have to be kidding me. (C)

31. Burn After Reading - cheers to Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins and John Malkovich, all of whom were funny and/or fun to watch here. Jeers to everyone else, especially the Coens (for following up No Country with a very uneven comedy) and George Clooney. I like the guy, but his acting was so over-the-top it actually made me wonder what century I was in. (C)

30. Vicky Cristina Barcelona - I liked the look of the film, and I thought Javier Bardem and Penleope Cruz were good, especially in scenes they shared. But I do not understand the praise this film received at all. It's not engaging, it's too talkie, and it takes 90 minutes to convey what a bad idea it is for two girls to travel with a man they don't know who tells them upfront that his intentions are purely sexual. Felt like a major waste of time. (C)

29. Journey to the Center of the Earth - nothing too special here. The effects range from good to lousy, and it becomes pretty predictable after a while. And yet, it manages to retain your invested interest and keep you modestly entertained, and it can even be a little fun at times, usually when it doesn't try so hard. Watching it in 3D definitely elevates the experience a great deal. (C+)

28. Hancock - this was one of the few instances where a movie was almost 100% exactly what I was expecting. That means that while it didn't pleasantly surprise me in a big way, it also didn't underperform, for the most part. I thought the concept was pretty weak, but watching Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman play off each other was reason enough to sit through this. (C+)

27. Baby Mama - the first time I saw this, I pretty much hated it. After I saw it a second time, there was more that I liked about it. I had to deal with Amy Poehler in small doses both times, however, but the film, while pretty predictable and unoriginal, still had a small amount of freshness to it that was appealing. Steve Martin was hilarious as Tina Fey's boss.(B-)

26. The Incredible Hulk - first, the good news: this is better than the Ang Lee version. The bad news: it's not by much. Part of the problem is that, as far as super heroes go, the Hulk has always been one of the least interesting people. And while this was entertaining and very promising at first, it lost a lot of steam towards the end, when the special effects became more distracting. (B-)

25. Synecdoche, New York - weird, weird, weird movie that Roger Ebert picked as the best film of the decade. Maybe he understood it, or maybe he just didn't mind if he didn't. In any case, I'd be lying if I told you this was the most enjoyable thing I've ever seen, but I could appreciate it, in parts at least. Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as usual, and the makeup department was the other big draw. Make sure you're open to anything and everything when you decide to try this out. Seriously. (B-)

24. Religulous - whether you're deeply religious, sort of religious, or not religious at all, you can't help but find some of what Bill Maher uncovers to be both funny and deeply disturbing. As outspoken as the comedian is about atheism, he's actually pretty restrained for the most part, allowing what he captures to speak for itself. That was definitely the best strategy, though the film wasn't as effective as it could have been. (B-)

23. Revolutionary Road - this could have been, should have been, great. But, obviously, it fell short. It's incredibly depressing, and Kate Winslet, whom I'm a huge fan of, gave a schizophrenic performance. Sometimes she was great, sometimes she overracted. But her co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, was consistently good, and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon managed to steal the show from both of them, making it worth your while to continue watching just to see what he did next. (B-)

22. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - most people will tell you this was terrible. I'll admit, it's no Raiders, but maybe that's why I'm not as hostile towards this: I wasn't expecting too much. It's pretty ridiculous, what with people surviving atomic blasts in refrigerators, and aliens living in the ground (or something like that). But I was entertained, I enjoyed Cate Blanchett's character, the film had a sharp look to it, and it was nice to see Ford again, albeit doing something he's clearly too old for at this point. (B)

21. Appaloosa - this didn't win any awards for its originality, but that aside, this was a pretty decent western. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen played off each other well, and Renee Zellweger did a good job as the love interest of both men (she was particularly effective towards the end). You'll be able to correctly predict a lot of what happens, but it's still a fairly enjoyable time, and the witty dialogue helps move this along nicely. (B)

20. Tropic Thunder - I was extremely hesitant about seeing Robert Downey, Jr., in blackface, and with Ben Stiller directing, I knew this was going to be a pretty tasteless, offensive movie. It was, but more for how it dealt with the mentally challenged than other races. And Downey, as it turned out, was excellent. The film had a handful of jokes that didn't land, but enough of them did. The fake trailers and Tom Cruise were two other notable highlights. (B)

19. W. - even as someone who wasn't exactly Bush's biggest fan, I liked this, though I was surprised that, of all people, Oliver Stone decided not to take any serious jabs. It's not his best film, or one of his all-time best, but it's good, and, thankfully, much better than that fluffy World Trade Center. Great acting from a large ensemble, particularly Englishman Toby Jones as Karl Rove (and he looks just like him!), Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice, and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush. (B)

18. Cloverfield - think Godzilla meets Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and that's essentially what this is. This was probably a test to see how much money a movie could make if J.J. Abrams was involved. Looks like it's a lot. That's not to say this didn't deserve the money. It's an interesting thriller that feels very realistic. I only have two complaints: the revelation of the monster was unimpressive, and the shaky camerawork gave me a major headache. (B)

17. The Reader - not only is this the film that Kate Winslet (finally!) won an Oscar for, it's one of the last projects late great producers/directors Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack completed. It's a good film that never touches greatness, but its leading lady is the major draw anyway, and she doesn't disappoint. The makeup job was great, too. Look at Winslet when she's supposed to be older. She actually looks it. (B)

16. Let the Right One In - it's pretty slow, and there's at least two instances where the special effects were kind of sloppy. But other than that, this is a very interesting foreign film about a young female vampire and her friend. Films about the living dead are usually very predictaible and uninspired. This was a welcomed, original approach. (B)

15. The Visitor - I've liked Richard Jenkins for years now, particularly for how he played Nate's eccentric dead father in Six Feet Under. This was his chance to make an impression in a leading role, and he got it right. He earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and Tom McCarthy's script ain't half bad either. (B+)

14. A Christmas Tale - a French Royal Tenenbaums. It's a little lengthy (clocking in at about 150 minutes), but it only gets better as it goes along. If for no other reason, this should be seen because of Mathieu Amalric's performance as the eccentric son/brother Henri. Every scene he's in immediately becomes the best one in the film. (B+)

13. Doubt - typically, I try to stay far away from movies based on plays. Oftentimes, you feel like you're watching a play instead of a film: there are usually 4 or less principal actors, there's an overflow of dialogue, and one location is used. This didn't break the mold in that regard. In fact, it followed all those guidelines. But the performances were so good, it didn't even matter. Even with acting heavyweights Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the mix, the standouts were Amy Adams and, even with her limited screentime, the fantastic Viola Davis. (B+)

12. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - sure, this is essentially a modern retelling of Forrest Gump (even the trailers are fashioned in the same way), but this was still a visually satisfying film. The makeup and special effects departments really earned their pay when it came to the aging of Brad Pitt, and even though the film could have benefited from a tighter editing job, the running time was never a factor. (B+)

11. In Bruges - ever since his breakout role in 2000's Tigerland, I haven't heard too many nice things about Colin Farrell's acting abilities. Then he won a Golden Globe for this, and, interested as I already was in the film, I was even more intrigued. I'm glad he won (he definitely deserved the trophy) and I'm glad I finally checked this out when I did. Incorporating much more drama than I had anticipated, this was a very fun little film that generated some great performances (Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and, of course, Ralph Fiennes) from a great script, courtesy of Martin McDonagh. (B+)

 

 

 

10. IRON MAN - I don't know about everyone else, but once I learned that the guy who made Daredevil was doing this, I wasn't particularly thrilled. Jon Favreau has officially redeemed himself. Also, I had forgotten how charismatic and likable Robert Downey, Jr. could be. I wish the studio hadn't dumped Terrence Howard like they did, but, obviously, they found a replacement. No one else could do Tony Stark like Downey. He was made for the role, and he knocked it out. (B+)

 

 

 

9. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED - I can't remember the last time I had such a good time at a movie (while I'll also being very moved by it). I've always thought Anne Hathaway was a good actress, particularly with what she did in Brokeback Mountain (being the only one of the four principal actors to not get awards recognition). Well, she finally found something that truly showcased her talent, and she was amazing in it. She wasn't the only reason to watch, though. This was an ensemble piece, with some great supporting work from Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin and Debra Winger, too. (B+)

 

 

 

8. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - I couldn't help but be reminded of City of God while I was watching this. That, of course, is a very good thing. The concept of a kid winning a foreign version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire might not seem like an immediate Oscar-type picture, but when you have direction from someone like Danny Boyle, a script by Simon Beaufoy, and some extremely talented young actors, these things have a way of working themselves out. (B+)

 

 

 

7. FROST/NIXON - I can't believe this was based off of a play. Nothing about this feels stagey. Peter Morgan is quickly becoming the go-to screenwriter in the business, and Ron Howard surprised me with his expert direction here. This is definitely one of his best films. Frank Langella was a great Richard Nixon, and while I don't think he looked anything like the former President, he sure tapped into his psyche. (A-)

 

 

 

6. WALTZ WITH BASHIR - it's hard to look at animated films the same again after seeing one this creative. It's a documentary, told in another language, and with the aid of imaginative flashbacks, relaying the message of just how destructive war can be. Familiar plot, very different approach. That kind of film is always welcomed at my table. Also, Max Richter's score was outstanding. (A-)

 

 

 

5. MILK - the trailer was fantastic, but oftentimes, previews make films out to be much better than they actually are. This was one of those cases, however, where the movie lived up to its expectations, and then some. It's a biopic, but thanks to a great script by Dustin Lance Black, it's an original, memorable one. The cast all contributed some top notch performances, particularly Sean Penn (who deserved his second Oscar win), Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch. (A)

 

 

 

4. FROZEN RIVER - I'm really glad Kate Winslet won her Academy Award. But if I had a ballot that counted, I would have given Melissa Leo my vote. From the first time she appears on screen until the very last shot, she's pretty mesmerizing. Most of that is due to her undeniable acting ability, but Courtney Hunt's very tightly-written screenplay doesn't hurt. After doubling as the director and writer, Hunt should have no problem getting another project started after what she did here. (A)

 

 

 

3. WALL-E - the trailer didn't do much for me, but the movie definitely did. There's hardly any dialogue during the first half, but you barely notice. This is a great example of why Pixar is the premier studio when it comes to memorable animated films: the kids may like the look of it, but their parents will appreciate what it is the movie's trying to say. Great script, great score (as always, from Thomas Newman), great film, animated or otherwise. (A)

 

 

 

2. THE WRESTLER - I loved this. Mickey Rourke, unquestionaly, was great, and he hasn't done anything this good in his life. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood made for some fine supporitng ladies. But what really impressed me was how director Darren Aronofsky and writer Rogert Siegel took a simple story, and a very lowbrow sport, and made this work. Except for Tomei (see In the Bedroom), career-best work all around. (A)

 

 

 

1. THE DARK KNIGHT - it's not just another comic book adaptation. And it's not just a film showcasing the now immortalized talent of Heath Ledger. This is really something special. It's that rare breed of film that doubles as entertainment and thought-provoking drama. It does have the super hero thing going for it, but this is more like a nice mixture of Heat and Nolan's first try at Batman, with the emotional weight of something like The Godfather. It has a word written all over it that's thrown out there too much, but it deserves the title: instant classic. (A)

 

 

UPDATE (4/2/11):

46. The Spirit 45. Max Payne 44. Shutter 43. College Road Trip 42. Vantage Point 41. Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who! 40. Miracle at St. Anna 39. The Happening 38. Hellboy II: The Golden Army 37. Burn After Reading 36. Vicky Cristina Barcelona 35. Never Back Down 34. Religulous 33. Journey to the Center of the Earth 32. Hancock 31. Twilight 30. Baby Mama 29. The Incredible Hulk 28. Synecdoche, New York 27. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 26. Revolutionary Road 25. An American Crime 24. The Class 23. Appaloosa 22. Role Models 21. W. 20. Tropic Thunder 19. Cloverfield 18. The Reader 17. A Christmas Tale 16. In Bruges 15. Let the Right One In 14. The Visitor 13. Doubt 12. Rachel Getting Married 11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Re-Adjusted Top Ten: 10. Iron Man 9. Slumdog Millionaire 8. Revanche 7. Waltz with Bashir 6. Frost/Nixon 5. Milk 4. Frozen River 3. WALL-E 2. The Wrestler 1. The Dark Knight

And now, a fine way to sum up the year that was. . .

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