Editor’s Picks: The Ten Best Movies of 2008

As is customary this time of year, it is my duty (and honor) to present you my list of the Ten Best Films of 2008. And in the past year we’ve seen an interesting range of films, have we not?
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By  · Published on December 31st, 2008

Holy hyperbole, folks. It is time to do the big top ten list. As is customary this time of year, it is my duty (and honor) to present you my list of the Ten Best Films of 2008. And in the past year we’ve seen an interesting range of films, have we not? We slowly dredged through the early months of the year, escaping with most of our moviegoing dignity. We were all incredibly excited about the start of the summer movie season, only to be blown away by a Batman movie two months later. And we’ve been timid through the fall and winter seasons, waiting patiently for a new classic to emerge as the Oscar frontrunner. And though a classic has yet to emerge from the pack, 2008 will be marked in the minds of film lovers as a year of good. A year that saw a lot of really good, but not necessarily great films. This fact alone makes it difficult to compile a list of the ten best, as everything seems to get smashed in together in the “good” pile. But I’ve done it, just for all of you — though, it stands to reason that few of you will agree with my top ten and proceed to lay it on thick in the comment area. But whatever, that’s just the way it is around here. So lets go forth and do this thing.

Before we drop into the top ten, I wanted to lay down ten honorable mentions. These are the films that were close, but didn’t quite make it:

Kung Fu Panda – Had it not been for the brilliance of WALL-E, Kung Fu Panda would easily be the best animated film of the year. Those damn Pixar people just cannot be topped. But with Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks Animation appears to have finally closed much of the gap. It was beautifully animated and incredibly fun, a movie that I’ve both enjoyed and appreciated through multiple viewings.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – While I am still convinced that David Fincher spent way too much time playing with the shiny toy special effect of making Brad Pitt look old in the first act, there is no denying that Benjamin Button will go down as one of the more memorable films of the year. The performances were great and the visuals were awe-inspiring, more than making up for a relatively flat, slow story.

Timecrimes – Writer/Director Nacho Vigalondo definitely made a name for himself this year with this simple, yet incredibly engaging suspense thriller. It is quite possibly one of the most inventive and clever science fiction films of the past ten years. And considering it was made on a shoestring budget, it is all that more impressive an accomplishment.

Quantum of Solace – There are those who wished that this latest Bond film delivered the same level of character investment as its predecessor Casino Royale, but I am not one of them. I will trade a little bit of plot development for intense action any day. Fast-paced and brutal, Quantum of Solace captured the action-packed, retro aesthetic that I’ve always loved about the franchise.

Choke – Though my list contains many of the obvious picks, it does also include some of the most unsung films of the year, films that have made me feel as if I’m the tree in the forest that no one hears. One particular film is Choke, the deviously fun film from first time director Clark Gregg. It is as twisted a film as we’ve seen from the work of Chuck Palahniuk since Fight Club, and twice as sexy.

Tropic Thunder – This may not be the only time one of his movies makes the list, but Robert Downey Jr.’s most memorable performance might be as an Australian power-actor playing an African American soldier in a Vietnam platoon. Ben Stiller’s movie, an equal opportunity offender, was this year’s Hollywood equivalent of shock and awe, and boy wasn’t it fun?

Frost/Nixon – Normally I am ambivelent to many political dramas — and to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in Frost/Nixon going into it, but Ron Howard’s movie played out less like a boring historical piece and more like a big screen slugfest between two titanic personas. Played beautifully by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon was one of the better character pieces we’ve seen all year.

The Promotion – Yet another great unsung comedy, The Promotion surprised the hell out of everyone at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. The perfectly pitched performances of Sean William Scott and John C. Reilly combined with an equally smart screenplay from writer/director Steve Conrad made for one of the most genuinely funny movies of the year.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno – It is no secret that I am a Kevin Smith fan — the man is a personal hero of mine. And I will defend to the end that Zack and Miri is among his better films, the film that he should have made instead of Clerks 2 in my opinion. Hysterical performances from a few newcomers to the View Askew world combined with familiar faces and a scene where someone gets shit on. That’s what I call fun at the movies.

Defiance – It is really sad that Paramount decided to hold this movie until the very end of the year, as it was easily the best World War II drama of the year. With respect to Tom Cruise and Brian Singer, they should really see Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber’s performances and take some notes. They gave Edward Zwick’s movie a fantastic authenticity and a wealth of emotion, all of which made for an incredibly compelling WWII drama.

And now, without further ado, my top ten movies of 2008:

10. Iron Man

It would be incredibly hypocritical of me to leave Iron Man off of my top ten this year, seeing as I gooed all over it back in May. Well alright, to be fair I was dropping praise bombs on Jon Favreau’s awesome superhero flick long before it hit theaters. We knew it was going to be great at Comic-Con back in 2007. And it delivered. It delivered Robert Downey Jr. back to prominence and Marvel Studios into the spotlight, setting up for a series of films leading comic book fans to one of the genre’s holy grails, an Avengers movie in 2011.

9. The Fall

Editors Picks: The Ten Best Movies of 2008

Perhaps one of the five most beautiful films of the year, Tarsem’s The Fall was equal parts adventure and fairy tale. It was also home to one of the more impressive and underrated performances of the year from Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace. Imaginative and extraordinarily breathtaking, The Fall was certainly one of the most stylish films of the year and one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the movies in ’08.

8. Let the Right One In

Editors Picks: The Ten Best Movies of 2008

It would appear that Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish kiddie vampire flick has pulled off the trifecta, making both our Best Horror and Best Foreign lists earlier in the week as well as my own. Frightening, inventive and unlike any vampire movie we’ve seen, Let the Right One In had true horror fans scoffing at that other teen vampire movie that released this year. If you missed this one, then you probably already know that you should feel some shame. Every writer on the web is championing this movie, and I am no different.

7. The Wrestler

Editors Picks: The Ten Best Movies of 2008

Mickey Rourke is back, baby. He’s back jumping from the top rope, living in a van down by the river and pouring tears all over our asses and it’s put him on a path for an Oscar nomination. And rightfully so, his performance was fantastic. But his performance was not the only great thing about Darren Aronofsky’s film. Aronofsky’s gift for camera as character delivers an authentic, gritty experience that is fun, even when it’s sad.

6. Son of Rambow

I love to fill my list with films that I consider to be underdogs, and 2008’s sweetest little underdog is Garth Jennings’ story of childhood friendship and amateur filmmaking. First and foremost, it is a damn funny and immensely charming story, illuminated with great performances from a cast of young actors, solidified with some 1980s nostalgia. I mean, who didn’t try to make their own version of First Blood back in the 80s?

5. Wall-E

Editors Picks: The Ten Best Movies of 2008

My list would not be complete without at least one animated film. And there was no more impressive animated film this year than Pixar’s story about a little robot with a personality and big dreams. I will admit that I was one of the naysayers — how could a movie with two main characters who cannot speak be any good? Thankfully, I was not only proven wrong but pleasantly surprised at how beautifully animated and charming this one came out. A robot who can’t talk, winning over hearts and minds with bleeps and boops, now that’s a novel idea.

4. The Wackness

I can’t believe that I went through three drafts of this list without the inclusion of one of my favorite films from Sundance. But upon another viewing this past week on DVD, I have reconfirmed that Jonathan Levine’s drug peddling, nostalgic coming-of-age romp through 1994 New York and the world of a recent high school grad (Josh Peck) and his smoked out shrink (Sir Ben Kingsley) was one of the maddest dopest flicks of the year, and certainly one of the most overlooked.

3. The Dark Knight

Here it is, the film that everyone has been looking for in just about every top ten list that has shown up online. And there is no denying that Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film was something special, as it captivated its audience long before and after its July release. The performance of the late Heath Ledger will go down in history as one of the most memorable villains of all-time, the infusion of IMAX technology was unprecedented and the scale and execution of the story allowed The Dark Knight to transcend the comic book genre. It wasn’t just a good Batman movie, or a good comic book movie, it was a damn fine crime drama, and it shall forever be remembered as such.

2. Slumdog Millionaire

It took almost the entire year to find it, but 2008 did eventually deliver that one special movie with a story all its own. Danny Boyle’s Hollywood/Bollywood hybrid film was one of the few films this year that stopped me dead in my tracks. Its infectious energy, dazzling performances and biting realities gave it all of the complexities of the year’s best dramas, but did so with an incredibly simple and charming story. It delivered one of the most exciting and heartwarming experiences I’ve seen in a long time, one that holds up no matter how many times you see it. To put it simply, this movie warms my heart and shit.

1. Man on Wire

It seems fitting that for the second year in a row there is a really special documentary near the top of my list. Though unlike King of Kong last year, James Marsh’s rivetting documentary managed to squeak by some ridiculously tough competition to make it to the top. And its fitting, you know, because the film follows the story of a man who lived his life at the top, walking a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Even more interesting than the accomplishment is the man behind the accomplishment, and the fact that his energy and passion translates so well, making this documentary the most engaging and emotionally moving film events of the year, hands down.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)