This was a good year for films overall, so I ended up with 20 that I couldn’t cut down to 10. A quick note: my top 2008 films are films that received a wide release in 2008. Re-releases don’t count. So even though the IMDB says The Fall is a 2006 film, it wasn’t actually given a release until this year (thereby making it eligible for my list). Saw 2, on the other hand, was given a wide re-release as part of the Saw Marathon to promote Saw 5, so it was not eligible (and wouldn’t have made the list anyway, probably, but I couldn’t think of another example off the top of my head). Here they are:
20. Zack & Miri Make a Porno (dir. Kevin Smith)
Kevin Smith’s first film– seriously, the first film in his career as a filmmaker– that doesn’t take place in New Jersey or constantly refer to characters and situations, etc. from his other films. Maybe that’s why it’s also arguably his best film to date. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are excellent, the supporting cast (especially Craig Robinson and Justin Long) are all hilarious, and it feels like Smith has finally hit exactly the right balance of potty-mouthed humor and sappy romantic comedy.
19. Cloverfield (dir. Matt Reeves)
After The Blair Witch Project, it seemed that mankind was doomed to a future of “handheld horror” knock-offs. That may still be the case, but for some reason it took the better part of a decade before the floodgates opened. While last year’s awesome [REC] is probably the real kickoff of the current wave of “first-person” shot-on-DV horror movies, Cloverfield opened up the giant monster movie by making it personal. Bitch all you want about unlikeable characters, there’s no denying that the film has some moments of genuine pants-wetting terror. Shame about Quarantine, though.
18. Teeth (dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein)
No idea why he thought it would be a good idea, but for Mitchell Lichtenstein’s first movie he tackles the serious taboo of vagina dentata. Luckily, he’s made a very funny film that jabs at teenage abstinence movements and lackluster sex ed that happens to feature a primordial male fear. Audiences and critics have been wildly divided over the film, but I know more than a few people who avoid “horror” films who enjoyed it tremendously. I’m anxious to see what Lichtenstein does next.
17. Stuck (dir. Stuart Gordon)
Stuart Gordon made his name with outrageous H.P. Lovecraft adaptations like Re-Animator and From Beyond, but he returned to the big screen this year with a film unlike any other out there. Taking a lurid tabloid story and translating it into a pitch-black comedy about how far some people will go to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, Gordon has made one of the most uncomfortably entertaining films in recent memory. The cast is great all around and it’s wicked, mean-spirited fun.
16. Australia (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
Moulin Rouge completely rejuvenated the movie musical with its recontextualization of popular songs and its hyperspeed ADD editing, immediately setting director Baz Luhrmann up as a controversial figure among film fans. Australia goes in the opposite direction, paying tribute to the sweeping, epic romances of Hollywood’s golden age by faithfully replicating their tone and structure. The first half-hour or so has some of Luhrmann’s trademark imagery, but it soon falls away to reveal the traditional epic beneath. It’s huge, grand entertainment the way they don’t make any more– and given this film’s box office returns, they probably won’t again any time soon. Damned shame, that.
15. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan)
The only imaginable sequel that could make even Batman Begins look like Batman Forever. Christopher Nolan puts Batman into Michael Mann’s Heat and comes up with a bleak, sprawling crime epic that I felt would have worked better as two separate films. Heath Ledger has ruined The Joker for all time– there’s no question that he is absolutely the best film Joker ever, and he more than deserved his own film. So did Aaron Eckhardt’s amazingly creepy Two-Face. Oh well. This is still unquestionably awesome, the best Batman film yet and (along with Iron Man) a major step forward for comic book-to-film adaptations.
14. Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant)
The first of two films Gus Van Sant released this year, Paranoid Park feels like a bookend to his “Death Trilogy” (Gerry, Elephant and Last Days). With a great cast of non-actors, Van Sant creates a dreamlike atmosphere to emphasize the disconnection of his teenage protagonist from the things going on around him. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and another notch on Van Sant’s current streak of excellent films.
13. Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (dir. Matt Wolf)
Even if you’ve never heard of Arthur Russell, chances are you’ll come away from Wild Combination wanting to hear more of his massive discography. Director Matt Wolf speaks to many important people in Russell’s life and intercuts interviews with performances and recordings of his incredible music, creating a compelling image of a humble, restless, entirely human genius. My only complaint is that the film, like its subject’s life, is sadly far too brief.
12. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher)
Arguably David Fincher’s best film yet, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button marries his stylistic tendencies to a story seemingly more suited to a traditional Hollywood epic. The story is almost compelling and personal enough to redeem screenwriter Eric Roth for Forrest Gump (almost), while the excellent performances and unbelievable makeup and special effects deliver the goods and then some. It’s also the only big-budget spectacle event film I can think of that is steeped in such a deep melancholy, the same one that seemed to find its way into many of this year’s best films.
11. The Fall (dir. Tarsem Singh)
Tarsem Singh’s first film, The Cell, was one of those movies that I didn’t like when I first watched it. Then I spent more time thinking about it, and over time I came to actually hate it. He more than makes up for that film’s infuriating failures with his utterly amazing follow-up. The Fall is absolutely, unquestionably the most amazing eye candy to hit the big screen this year, an utterly gorgeous film that continually offers up new visual surprises seemingly every few minutes. It doesn’t hurt that the film is anchored by a sweet, sad story about a stuntman and an injured little immigrant girl that takes place in the early days of Hollywood. Amazing.
10. The Signal (dir. David Bruckner, Dan Bush, & Jacob Gentry)
The Signal is a callback to anthology films of horror’s golden past, as well as a clever update. The three main segments were each written and directed by different filmmakers, who picked up where the last one left off so the other two had no idea what was going on in the others’ segments. The second segment proved to be violently divisive among audiences and critics, but I for one was pleasantly surprised by it. A fun, unique take on a 28 Days Later-esque apocalypse… anything else would be telling.
9.Inside (dir. Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury)
I’m sort of breaking my own rule here, or at least stretching it. Inside was picked up for distribution by the Weinstein brothers, who quickly sent it directly to DVD. However, it did receive a wide release in the US in 2008, it just happened to be on DVD. Which is a damned shame– this is a great film to see in a theater full of freaked-out people. A beautiful, relentless monster that will put you through the wringer and then some. It’s pretty sick that this is the first film from these directors, it’s absolutely stunning.
8. Speed Racer (dir. The Wachowski Brothers)
Critics and audiences stayed away in droves, but this one seems to be a case where 90% of the potential audience just didn’t get it. The Wachowski Brothers made a complete 180-degree turn away from the dark, pretentious sci-fi of their Matrix trilogy and spent $200 million making a goofy cartoon whose eye candy quotient was only slightly edged out by Tarsem’s The Fall. This should have been huge and steered sci-fi away from more dank space hallways and misery planets; instead, its failure ensures at least another couple years of mopey, self-serious sci-fi films. Dammit!
7. Dance of the Dead (dir. Gregg Bishop)
Another one that went straight to DVD, and another damned shame. I saw Dance of the Dead at the Horrorhound Weekend in Indianapolis, and it was like a rock concert. This is a movie tailor-made to be shown to theaters full of horror fans. It’s basically an update of Night of the Creeps, only without that film’s weird 1950s parallel storyline and with Andrew WK on the soundtrack. Best enjoyed with several people and booze, this is one of the most fun movies of the year.
6. Role Models (dir. David Wain)
I had no idea this movie was in the works until about a month before it came out, and although I love Paul Rudd I admit I was a little worried. I had absolutely no reason to be, though: Role Models is unquestionably the funniest movie I saw this year. Wain seemingly used a sieve to pan out all the weirdest parts of his other projects and left the hilariously inventive, unrepentantly juvenile part completely intact. Also, KISS. I didn’t laugh anywhere near as hard at anything else this year except Zack and Miri and Tropic Thunder.
5. Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau)
Hands-down, inarguably the best comic book adaptation of all time. Period. It simply nails everything– Robert Downey, Jr. was born to play Tony Stark. It’s insanely fun, the effects are astonishingly convincing, and it’s one of those films that you wish would go on for another couple of hours when it’s over. Plus, it has the ultimate fanboy stinger at the end of the credits. This is why people started making movies out of comic books in the first place.
4. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Haunting, beautiful, sad and bittersweet. I made a joke about how Frostbitten (Sweden’s first vampire movie) was more Wes Craven than Ingmar Bergman, and then this movie happened and put that to bed. It’s basically everything you would imagine a Swedish coming-of-age vampire film would be, if you can imagine such a thing. The best vampire film in ages and ages, and if it doesn’t get a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, someone at AMPAS must have a bitter hatred for anything even vaguely related to the horror genre.
3. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Charlie Kaufman’s been quiet for some time now, and it turns out this is why. He was busy making the most depressing film since Love Liza, a bizarre, awkward masterpiece about everything in life that really keeps you up at night: fear of failure, fear of rejection, regret, sickness, death, life, success, etc. etc. ad nauseum. The film’s few moments of humor are so dark they suck in any light that surrounds them; the fact that Phillip Seymour Hoffman can hold this entire thing together is nothing short of a miracle. If Kaufman never makes a film again, it’s probably safe to say he’s made his ultimate statement with this one.
2. WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton)
A blatant anti-corporate hard sci-fi film disguised as a family movie? Sure. However, whether you’re disgusted by its messages (implied or imagined), you can’t argue that WALL-E and Eve are the cutest damned robots in film history. Or that their relationship is one of the most heartwarming in recent memory. WALL-E is Pixar’s crowning achievement, a stunning leap forward from filmmakers who have almost always consistently pushed their technology and storytelling to new heights with each project. This is why CG animation exists.
1. My Winnipeg (dir. Guy Maddin)
Guy Maddin has described his last couple of films as “autobiographical,” which is somewhat confusing since one (Cowards Bend the Knee) is about how his mother was the ghost of a hairdresser and his dad was an installation at a hockey museum and the other (Brand Upon the Brain!) explains how he lived in a lighthouse orphanage where his mother kept watch on all the kids while his dad worked on experiments in the basement, even after he died. My Winnipeg is his latest autobiographical film, but this time it feels a lot closer to the truth. While Maddin freely mixes truths and fictions about the history of Winnipeg and his own life, everything about the film feels real and immediate– who doesn’t remember weird stories of their hometowns? This is easily Maddin’s most accessible film yet, often hilarious but also sometimes painfully nostalgic, with a devastating conclusion that had me in tears all three times I went to see it.
And my ten least favorite films of 2008 (that I actually saw, mind you):
1. The Spirit (dir. Frank Miller)
Frank Miller pisses all over Will Eisner’s awesome character with this garish, bizarre film. The Spirit has powers? We spend half the movie staring at The Octopus? His henchmen are idiot clones? Why is he in Nazi regalia in that one scene? Why is Plaster of Paris in this at all? Who the hell is Gabriel Macht? And why does it look so much like Sin City? UGH.
2. Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (dir. Jon Knautz)
Sub-sub-sub-Sci-Fi Original take on horror comedy. A better title would have been Jack Brooks: Plumber in Therapy, since that’s the first seventy minutes of the movie. The last 20 minutes are actually spent with a monster or two, so I guess that’s where the title comes in. Just go watch Evil Dead 2 again.
3. Saw V (dir. David Hackl)
I have no idea why anyone would continue to go see entries in the Saw franchise after Saw IV, but audiences packed theaters like they were punching a clock and made Saw V #1 at the box office for a week or two. It’s an appropriate comparison– Saw V is a chore to sit through, a shockingly boring extension of the series’ increasingly tiresome interconnected storyline. The tagline on the poster was “You won’t believe how it ends,” but would be better as “You won’t remember how it ends” since I was having trouble recalling anything that actually happened in the movie the day after I saw it.
4. The Happening (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
People are already starting to re-evaluate their take on The Happening, a practice that I will do all I can to discourage. Angry over the failure of Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan set out to give audiences and critics a blockbuster-sized middle finger. On that level he succeeds in grand style. There’s not a line of dialogue in this film that feels like something any human would actually ever say, and everybody just looks kind of awkward and embarrassed all the time. Make no mistake, Shyamalan thinks you’re an idiot. Don’t encourage him.
5. Quarantine (dir. John Erick Dowdle)
The more I thought about Quarantine, the more I hated it. It lifts hefty chunks of its running time directly from [REC], of which it is a remake, but exchanges that film’s character development for some audience-insulting moments like using the camera to beat someone to death. The camera keeps working and all the blood comes off the lens, so that’s good since otherwise the movie would be over. OH WAIT THAT WOULD BE PERFECT. Suck it up to read some subtitles and find a copy of [REC], it’s a hundred times better than this garbage.
6. Run, Fat Boy, Run (dir. David Schwimmer)
See, Simon Pegg is fat and he’s a lazy asshole, and then his ex gets a responsible, seemingly decent new boyfriend and he has to uh, run a marathon to prove he’s not a lazy asshole. Except he is. You just can’t have a romantic comedy with such a spectacularly unlikeable lead, and here’s the proof. Even worse, the film makes the new boyfriend seem like a good, reasonable guy until it becomes convenient to make him the world’s biggest prick. As lazy and forgettable as its lead character.
7. Mother of Tears (dir. Dario Argento)
This year saw two legendary directors hammer out highly-anticipated films that were both pretty damned awful. Argento’s is slightly worse, though, which is to be expected since his filmography is wildly inconsistent anyway. He’s in “incoherent gore” mode here, assaulting the audience with painfully loud cues on the soundtrack in case the stuff sticking out of people didn’t give you enough of a jolt. Also, a few scenes are edited in such a way that it’s hard to tell what the hell is going on, and the ending would have been hilariously anticlimactic if we hadn’t been waiting 30 years for it.
8. Diary of the Dead (dir. George A. Romero)
Here’s the other one. Romero starts with a promising setup, and there are enjoyable moments along the way, but he hammers away at his talking points and comes across as preachy. They’ve never really been models of subtle social commentary, but for the first time in the Dead series it feels like he’s talking down to his audience. Despite a few inspired moments, Diary of the Dead gets bogged down with endlessly repeated footage and embarrassing “technology” montages that make it seem like Romero didn’t shoot enough footage for a feature.
9. W. (dir. Oliver Stone)
Another one that I hate more and more when I look back on it. Stone inexplicably thought it would be a good idea to make a film about a president in office while we have no real historical perspective on the effects of his actions, which I guess is why the film ends in 2003. What!? Some genuinely great performances, but it sort of feels like wasted effort. And it’s hard to imagine that it had any impact on the presidential election, regardless of what Stone might think. Bleah.
10. Repo, The Genetic Opera (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman)
This movie is a complete mess. While I admire director Bousman’s commitment to making something so unusual, I have to wonder if the finished product was really worth it. It looks great, the cast is perfect, and it’s an interesting story… too bad about the music, then. The production is slick, but the music is almost entirely devoid of hooks, and unless you’ve listened to the soundtrack album a few dozen times you’ll probably miss half of what’s being said/sang. The Rocky Horror crowd seems to have latched onto it already, though, so I guess that’s nice. Any other audience might just wonder what the fuss is about.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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