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There has been much moaning and bellyaching among critics and industry watchers about how 2008 was "a so-so year" for American movies; all I can say to that is nonsense. Last year was ridiculously strong, to be sure -- any year with No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Michael Clayton in release isn't a good year for movies; it's a gift from the cinematic gods -- but 2008 had its share of great movies as well. Here's a (highly subjective) list of the ten best:
10. Role Models
The irony is that the year's best Judd Apatow movie is the one he didn't make. But could Role Models have happened without Apatow? Starring two actors he made into stars (Paul Rudd and Christopher Mintz-Plasse), it walked the laser-carved line between foul behavior and warm sentiment. With brilliant throw-away gags ("I didn't know Jews could rock like this!") that later turned out to be the carefully-sown seeds of perfectly constructed big-payoff gags, Role Model's go-for-broke sense of fun respected the characters instead of turning them into caricatures.
9. Synecdoche, New York
Synecdoche, New York is poised at a fascinating point of possibility for indie film: Will it be the last gasp of the indie boom that saw major studios create, fund and shutter 'dependent' micro-distributors... or the film that represents the rebirth, rediscovery and resurgence of truly independent American movies? Although hard to wrap your head around -- starting with the title and going uphill from there -- the movie's puzzle-box construction and big, bizarre ideas are wrapped around an all too human meditation on art, mortality, love and the struggle to find happiness.
8. Burn After Reading
Much like The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading left critics and audiences scratching their heads; but keep in mind The Big Lebowski has since become a cult classic. With brilliant supporting performances from George Clooney, as a weirdly charming womanizer, and John Malkovich, as a prissy ex-intelligence man, Burn After Reading bizarre comedy isn't just deadpan slapstick, it's also a satire of life in America, where greed and unhappiness lead to horrible, hysterical events.
7. Funny Games
Michael Haneke's remake of his own Austrian home-invasion thriller is one of the most reviled and despised movies of the year -- which tells you it's doing what it should. Haneke's post-modern attack on the slasher movie also works as a great slasher movie; Funny Games makes us squirm and shiver over what cruelty Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet (and, for that matter Haneke) are going to subject their victims (and us) to next. Funny Games isn't easy to watch, but the bloody brain-bender asks us why we find violent movies so appealing and then makes us question our answer.
Thanks to Ben Burtt's sound design and the script by director Andrew Stanton, WALL-E's title automaton had more heart and character than most of the flesh-and-blood humans on 2008's movie screens. After years of making genius kids flicks, Pixar made a movie that gives kids and grown-ups plenty to think about in between the jokes and the spectacle. Some of the sequences in the first 40 minutes are moments Kubrick himself would have admired for their composition, grim honesty and masterly technique.
5. The Dark Knight
Brilliantly twisting comic-book ideas into thoughtful perspectives on real issues like terrorism, privacy and the role of law in lawless times, director Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan crafted a pure pop myth of fierce genius. The tragic death of Heath Ledger is helping draw heat to his performance as the Joker, but even if Ledger hadn't passed, we'd still have been watching riveted; it's a performance that redefines big screen villainy. The Dark Knight proves you can make a real movie and still make a lot of money.
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about the unusual life of a man who ages backwards -- born old and wizened, falling into youth near the end of his life -- resisted adaptation for years, in no small part because of the technical challenges in making the journey look and feel right. But David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't just a technically showy epic: It's a resonant and emotionally complex movie that gave Fincher the chance to prove he could give us more than just thrills, chills and kills. The moments that stick aren't the high-tech inventions; they're the quiet scenes when people talk, love, and fall away from that love while time passes, regardless of how exactly it may pass for the characters in the movie.
3. The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke, as broken-down wrestler Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, offers blood, sweat and tears to the part. But The Wrestler is about a lot more than just that performance -- it's about making it in hard economic times, selling our bodies and souls off a piece at a time for low pay, about the way the '80s have lingered in pop culture (and politics) like a strength-sapping disease, and how living your dream isn't always a good thing. Like Benjamin Button for Fincher, The Wrestler proves that director Darren Aronofsky can portray big feelings and down-to-earth lives, and not just the big ideas of Pi or the edginess of Requiem for a Dream.
Milk may be about the 1970s, but no other movie this year spoke so firmly and fiercely to the political mood of the country in the here-and-now; the need for change, the hard work required to make change happen and the dubious deals and backroom bargains that go into modern politics. Milk also showed us what director Gus Van Sant is capable of, between the crowd-pleasing emotion of Good Will Hunting and his arty experiments Elephant and Paranoid Park. Also at the top of his game: Sean Penn, as the contradictory, wonderfully human Milk -- nervously fearless, gently unstoppable and deviously principled.
With the fiercely independent Che -- shot on location, in Spanish, on digital video -- Steven Soderbergh made precisely what he wanted to make. Studio heads would have demanded he add a love story to make Che Guevara (a brilliant Benicio Del Toro) more "likable," or add exposition to fill in the blanks; he didn't, and the movie's better for it. Enthralling and mournful, Che is great entertainment and still great art. The two movies that make up Che are getting overlooked at awards time, but when you consider the ambition and passion Soderbergh needed to make this epic happen, and how much of it wound up on the screen, you realize that Che is its own award.
What do you think? Vote below and share your thoughts in the comments.