Rewinding 2008: The Top 10

December 30, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

To p 10 lists are curiosities: fun to glance at but not of much greater or lasting value. Take them for what they're worth. One reason I enjoy putting mine together is that it allows me to spend time re-watching and reconsidering some of the year's best. I have never had much use for collaborative lists, even when used as jumping-off points for discussions. But at least personal lists reveal something about the individual who assembles them. So, for the last ReelThoughts post of 2008, here's my view of the Top 10. The list is presented in reverse order, least best to best best.

(By the way, in case you missed it, the Bottom 10 was posted a month ago. Here's a direct link in case you missed it and have a sadomasochistic desire to revisit the dregs of the year.)

Hon. Mention (Alphabetical): Elegy, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Milk, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

10. Frost/Nixon: Despite taking liberties with the historical record, this is nonetheless an effective representation of its time and place. In addition to being an atypical "triumph of the underdog" story, it also provides a sense of what was at stake and what was accomplished during those unforgettable interviews that captivated a nation when they aired on television during the 1970s. Fascinating for older viewers, instructive for younger ones, and compelling for all.

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: About a year ago, I received an e-mail from a reader who said he had seen my #1 film for 2008. That movie was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. While the film did not end up at the top of my list, it was the best thing I had seen for many of the year's early months and certainly deserves a place on the Top 10. Tough issues and tougher moral choices - that's the stuff of great drama.

8. Revolutionary Road: You probably don't have to live in the suburbs to appreciate Sam Medes' dark, depressing perspective, but it may help. As martial autopsies go, this is one of the most incisive and non-manipulative I can remember. The characters are believable enough that we can feel for them while at the same time hoping we don't become like them.

7. Iron Man: 2008 was a very good year for superhero movies and, if not for The Dark Knight, this would have been the best of a generally solid group. In terms of "old school" comic book adaptations, Iron Man does everything right and, thanks to the wry approach of director Jon Favreau and the brilliant casting of Robert Downey Jr., it got the summer off to a flying (literally) start.

6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: David Fincher took a minor short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and morphed it into a modern day fable about life, humanity, chance, and chaos theory. And, as the glue that holds everything together, a timeless love story. There may be a whiff of the pretentious here, but it's great entertainment and not nearly as dark as some of the other entries on this list.

5. The Wrestler: Like Revolutionary Road,The Wrestler taps into basic human emotions. It's fiction but it could be real. The acting is superlative and the story draws the viewer into a sympathetic relationship with the protagonist. We see him both as he sees himself and as the world sees him, and that provides the monumental disconnect that represents the production's central tragedy. We suspect this can't end well but we hope against hope.

4. Wall-E: The best animated film since The Incredibles and the best animated romance since Beauty and the Beast. Boy meets girl, boy saves girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get back together again…and they're both robots. All this in one of the most hauntingly beautifully rendered sci-fi settings imaginable. Wall-E restored my faith in the occasional power of animation, a genre with which I am most definitely not enamored.

3. Slumdog Millionaire: Arguably the feel-good movie of the year, even though, in Dickensian fashion, there are some incredibly dark scenes. This is a movie that deserves to be seen by all (ignore the R rating), and it's hard to imagine anyone not being uplifted by it. Applause and cheering at the end are not unheard of and are deserved. This is not my #1 movie of the year but, over time, it may be the one I re-watch the most of everything released in 2008.

2. Doubt: Some have argued that director John Patrick Shanley did too little to "open up" his play when adapting it for the screen. I would argue that he did not need to. What he needed, and got, was a group of powerful actors capable of exploring all of the levels, contradictions, and subtleties of the text. "Doubt" is indeed a perfect title because this movie will have viewers questioning everything except the talent that went into making it.

1. The Dark Knight: No movie released during 2008 was more satisfying on so many levels than The Dark Knight, which has become to superhero movies what The Godfather is to gangster films. For comic book adaptations, this is the new Holy Grail - the standard against which all others will be measured. For the record, it was also the first film to which I gave four stars after a more than 1 1/2-year drought. Ultimately, the choice for #1 came down to a decision between Doubt and The Dark Knight. After re-watching both, it didn't take long for me to make the decision.

See you in 2009…