2008 was a weird year at the cineplex, at least for list-making purposes. Outside of the top five, very few movies felt like “must-includes.” The films in the second half of this list feel largely interchangeable with any number of equally good-but-not-great releases. It has, however, been a banner year for big-budget crowd pleasers - the maturation of the summer spectacle has been something to behold.
1. The Dark Knight - For the first time in decades, the year’s most philosophically interesting film doubled as its most successful commercial venture. “The Dark Knight” isn’t a great movie because of Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance, Christopher Nolan’s technical achievements or its stunning action sequences. It’s a great movie because it contains all of those elements while simultaneously asking provocative questions about social order in the age of terrorism.
2. Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle’s Dickensian melodrama is the most entertaining film of the year, for sure; its frenetic pace, quick-cutting edits, fantastic score and crowd-pleasing ending have drawn plaudits from all corners. “Slumdog Millionaire” examines the poor in India’s Mumbai without getting sucked into despair or glorifying poverty, and it serves as a crash course for Western audiences unfamiliar with the subcontinent’s growing superpower.
3. The Wrestler - Darren Aronofsky‘s fourth film impresses on a number of levels, but none more so than the performance turned in by its star, Mickey Rourke. His is a virtuoso work, one in which the actor disappears and only the character remains. Mr. Aronofsky’s portrait of minor-league wrestling is a powerful examination of an oft-ignored subject matter, but the heart of this movie beats within Mr. Rourke’s chest.
4. Wall•E - Pixar’s latest is a masterpiece of storytelling; the first 30 minutes of “WallcE” rival the first 20 minutes of last year’s “There Will Be Blood” for “best silent act of the decade.” The animation is amazing, the direction is sure-handed, and the underlying love story is incredibly touching.
5. Gran Torino - The superior Clint Eastwood-directed film of 2008, “Gran Torino” serves as an excellent coda to the Man With No Name’s storied on-screen career. Part revenge tale, part redemption movie, part uproarious comedy, Mr. Eastwood’s look at modernity’s clash with the past’s values is right up there with the best works in his oeuvre.
6. Let the Right One In - This Swedish vampire film is notable for the way it seamlessly blends genres. It’s hard to say whether this is a horror film, a coming-of-age tale or a love story. What isn’t hard to say is how excellent it is; director Tomas Alfredson masterfully uses Sweden’s desolate landscapes to heighten the sense of loneliness felt by his young leads. Mr. Alfredson’s film also focuses on something too often ignored by vampire flicks, namely the relationship between the bloodsuckers and the humans who protect them during daylight hours.
7. In Bruges - Playwright Martin McDonagh’s first feature film is an uneven affair, veering wildly between fantastically dark comedy and jarring brutality. Nevertheless, the writing is heartfelt in its honesty and the performances (Brendan Gleeson’s in particular) are top-notch.
8. The Strangers - The most intense movie of the year, “The Strangers” traded in the omnipresent gore of the torture porn genre to create fear through mood, atmosphere and pacing. It’s probably the best pure horror film of the year.
9. The Bank Job - Simply put, this is a satisfying heist flick based on a scandalous true(ish) story starring the greatest B-movie star of the aughts, Jason Statham. Throw in some great period costumes and locations - ‘70s London was a pretty swinging place - and I defy you to find a better piece of fluffy entertainment this year.
10. The Promotion - Very few movies capture the struggles of working-class life with the heart and wit of Steve Conrad’s second feature. Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly bring to life the story of two simple grocery-store managers chasing after the American dream without letting the movie devolve into irony or camp, no easy trick.