Monday, December 29, 2008

Top 10 Best Movies of 2008

The difficulty in creating a top ten list of films is threefold. First, wonderful films that are worth viewing somehow don't make the cut. I would highly recommend The Fall, The Orphanage, or even this year's earliest hit, Cloverfield. Don't skip out on these films just because they didn't make someone's top 10 list. 

Second, the countdown order is always subjective. How does one compare Iron Man with 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days? Which is a better film: the animated and innovative Wall-E, or the not-animated-but-very-innovative Slumdog Millionaire?

Third, what qualifies a film to be a 2008 film? When it is originally released at a film festival? When it's in limited release? Wide release? Films like Paranoid Park, The Visitor, and 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days were all first released in 2007 at international film festivals, then released for public viewing in 2008. The majority of people--including myself--watched them in 2008, even though they were already winning awards in 2007. So I'm considering them 2008 films.

Thus, after all is said and done, these ten films are what I believe to be the best of 2008. My criteria is a creative-redemptive framework--the film creatively and beautifully points to something transcendent, revealing truths about our world that engage us emotionally and leave us pondering the film for days to come. I also have to ask, which of these films will endure beyond 2008 and go down in film history? Which of these films will I still enjoy one year from now? Ten years from now? Both the timelessness and timeliness of a film are key to its value.

So, without further ado, here they are, the top 10 best films of 2008:

10. Iron Man: The surprise superhero summer hit, this film is nothing without Robert Downey Jr.'s lively performance as billionaire Tony Stark. An engaging story filled with action and humor, it's a fun film with a deeper message about redeeming one's legacy in history.

9. 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days: The word that comes to mind for this film is heart-wrenching. Set in 1980s communist Romania, the story follows two college roommates getting an illegal abortion. Long uncut shots and pauses in conversation make the film strikingly realistic. There are moments that are visually shocking and disturbing, but the overwhelming tragedy of the film is the guilt and pain the girls must endure together. The empathy I felt for the girls was incredible, and the raw emotional power of the film is nearly unparalleled in films I've seen this year.

8. Man On Wire: Graceful yet energetic, wirewalker Philippe Petit is a force to be reckoned with. Creating a real-life tale with complex and passionate characters, director James Marsh's documentary about Petit's daring 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers is as tight and inspiring as his film's subject. Petit's entire being is permeated with passion; his drive to achieve the impossible is stirring. Yet behind all of the tension of pulling off the ultimate stunt are the incredibly human characters, full of emotion and the spirit of adventure.

7. Doubt: Tight dialogue and powerful performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis drive this film as it wrestles with themes of spirituality, moral ambiguity, and truth. The characters of Father Flynn (Hoffman) and Sister Aloysius (Streep) are incredibly complex, and their conflict/contrast is quite thought-provoking. Even the subtle cinematography from Roger Deakins is phenomenal, turning a mundane scene into a work of art. This film could have been cliche-ridden and simplistic; instead, it's a tour de force of ethic proportions. I would recommend anyone in ministry leadership--or anyone with a conscience--view and meditate on the themes in the film. It is powerful and timeless, and one of the better pictures of Christianity I've seen on film in a long time.

6. Rachel Getting Married: A mosaic of a film that feels like a documentary for its authenticity, Rachel Getting Married is a punch-in-the-gut narrative of a family at an emotional crossroads. There is both celebration of the hopeful future and memory of a tragic past. Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt give incredible performances as sisters leading very complex and different lives. It's not a feel-good film by any means, but it does give a sense of hope and paints a beautiful picture of what the kingdom of God could look like: diverse, creative, authentic, celebratory. This film is very real and honest, celebrating the diverse postmodern culture America is slowly becoming. I would want to go to a wedding like this.

5. Paranoid Park: It's hard to talk about Paranoid Park without noting my love for the city of Portland, the setting for the film. The grey environment of Oregon perfectly complement the ethical ambiguity of the film. The moral dilemma presented to the teenage Alex after an accidental death of a security guard is an in-depth look at the nature of guilt as well as a commentary on postmodern youth culture. Gabe Nevins muted performance as Alex is awkwardly authentic, and Gus Van Sant's direction and cinematography are visually arresting. Some of the skateboarding sequences are nearly dreamlike, grainy images of skaters floating through space and concrete. This film is not for everyone with it's slow pacing and quiet performances. But it's one of my favorite films of the year and certainly worth viewing.

4. The Visitor: Richard Jenkins gives one of the most understated performances this year as a worn out economics professor finding a renewed vision for life. The film could have been a preachy political film about illegal immigration. Instead, the director chooses to focus on the humanity of the characters and their unity as broken people in need of companionship. The film takes a familiar premise--an elderly man rethinking his life--and creates something unique and transcendent. It is both frustrating and endearing, and I can't recommend this film enough. Plus, it has lots of drums in it.

3. Slumdog Millionaire: A tribute to both Bollywood and Charles Dickens, Danny Boyle's latest film is nearly flawless. I strongly debated putting this film at #1. It's heart-warming and gut-wrenching, funny and sad, romantic and tragic. In the midst of all this is the culture of India and the story of an insightful boy who rises from the slums to become a sort of national hero on a game show. Intertwined is a beautiful love story that is one of the finest of the year. Dev Patel as Jamal gives a splendid performance, as do the Indian child actors throughout the film. If you haven't seen this yet, stop reading this blog and go see it right now. You won't be disappointed.

2. WALL-E: Charming, insightful, and simply delightful, Pixar's film is a multi-layered masterpiece. On one level, it's a stunning animated film, with some of the best visuals this year. On another level, it's a tribute to the silent cinema giants of the past (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton), captivating audiences with lovable characters and sight gags instead of dialogue. (Who knew a silent robot could capture our hearts?) On an even deeper level, it is a wake-up call about consumerism and being good stewards of our world. It's a wonderful film on all these levels, making it the best animated film of the year, the best film on a number of critics' lists, and worthy of being nominated for Best Picture.

1. The Dark Knight: The hype leading up to this film was absolutely staggering...and the film definitely managed to live up to it. The best action, crime thiller, and comic book movie this year. On nearly every level--visuals, acting, direction, story arc, writing--this film is phenomenal. Heath Ledger deserves an Academy Award for portraying the most evil character I've seen on film. His performance as the Joker is simply otherworldly. The moral ambiguity of the ending still has me internally wrestling; Batman's choice could be viewed as an act of redemption or of moral corruption. In any case, it's a great film for an ethics discussion. It has set numerous box office records, is one of the top-selling films of all-time, and currently sits at #4 on IMDB (where it sat at #1 for a few days). I could go on, but enough has been said about this film. It's forever changed the standard for comic book and crime movies, and it will likely take a long time for another comic book movie to surpass it.

If this was a Top 20 List...

The Orphanage: I don't normally enjoy the horror genre, but this engaging film about a mother and an orphanage is hauntingly captivating. One of the best films of the year.

Cloverfield: J.J. Abrams' monster movie literally had me on the edge of my seat. The best YouTube clip you'll ever see.

Burn After Reading: The Coen brothers' latest dark comedy is a humorous slap in the face of C.I.A. films, showing that spies--or anyone, really--don't really seem to know what they're doing.

The Fall: Visually speaking, this is the best film of the year. Beautifully ornate costumes, masterful scenery, imaginative story; even the scene transitions are aesthetically beautiful.

Encounters at the End of the World: Werner Herzog gives us an awe-inspiring picture of life on Antarctica--both the human and nature kind of life--in his latest documentary.

Horton Hears a Who!: I was pleasantly surprised at the witty humor and deeper message about faith and the value of people in this film based on a Dr. Seuss book.

The Band's Visit: A charming and endearing film about the wonder of human connection, even in the briefest of encounters.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Fincher's film is a visually imaginative epic that celebrates life in all its wonder and quirkiness.

American Teen: A touching, if predictable, account of small-town American teens struggling with the pressures and insecurities of high school life in Warsaw, Indiana.

Son of Rambow: A pair of young misfits make a homemade action film in 1980s Britain. Wonderfully imaginative, this film about a boy's creativity being fully expressed is both touching and hilarious.

Films I haven't seen that could have ended up on this list...



  1. Well, you've obviously seen more movies than me this year. But that very well may change soon with your baby on the way and my awesome AMC movie pass. =P

    Really excited to see that our top three are the same. I think any of those could be worthy of #1. I hate to flow with the crowd, but Dark Knight definitely topped the year.

  2. Very good list, Joel. I totally forgot about 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days...I heard it's absolutely brilliant. I also really, really want to see The Visitor. And
    like Cam said, when that baby comes your "going to the movies" days are over!! Trust me, I know!

  3. I love your top 10 movie lists- i can rent all your recs in 2009. My family has been dying over Slumdog Millionare so that is the one i am dragging mark too as soon as we get back on our feet. happy new year to our favorite maywards and have a blast in ptown too! we'll miss you around here.

  4. Cam and Carlos, my baby and I will be frequenting the theater together often, then having long philosophical discussions about the merits of the film. That's good for babies, right? ;)

  5. Now that I've seen Slumdog Millionaire, my friend, I've got to ask .. how did that ever get to be number 3 on your list behind the movie of 10 words and an annoying robot voice. Just sayin'. You are right, the child actors were brilliant! It is SO good. I loved it!

  6. Lori,
    I'm so glad you loved it! It was a toss-up for #1 between Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E, and The Dark Knight. Something in that silly little robot captured my heart in ways I'm not sure I can pinpoint. It's just so hard to compare those 3 films, as they're so different!