What does a battle between a nun and a priest, the Caped Crusader, a robot from the future, and an illiterate slumdog from Mumbai all have in common? These are just a few of the movies that have movie-watching in 2008 all the more memorable, and thus deserve a timely year-end resignation we like to call the 10 best movies of the year.
1. Slumdog Millionaire - Question: what do you call a film about a illiterate teen from Mumbai going on India's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and coming close to winning 20 million rupees and possibly his death? Answer: the best movie of 2008. No other film this year matches the vibrant energy or the blistering, in-your-face reality of third-world living than Danny Boyle's rags-to-riches tale of Jamal Malik's (the amazing Dev Patel) quest to win the heart of his childhood love, Latika (Freida Pinto) by going on a popular Indian quiz show in hopes that she watching. So is his older brother, Salim (the excellent Madhur Mittal), caught in an ethical trap - continue to serve a local mob boss who will kill Jamal for trying to steal Latika from him, or help his estranged brother and risk his own life in the process. Cinematographer Anthony Dod and editor Chris Dickens give a poet's eye to the harshness of the third-world, yet but allows life to breath in from almost every frame. Composer A.R. Rahman's score is full of pop and heartbreak to create a work of aching beauty. But it's Boyle who works wonders in this movie miracle. Shot using compact digital cameras, he paints a no-bull honest look at hard living in Mumbai that shocks and inspires you all at once. The end result is a masterpiece film where love, life, tragedy, and despair cross paths seamlessly.
2. Doubt - Watching Oscar winners Philip Seymore Hoffman and Meryl Streep exchanging verbal blows is like watching two heavyweight prizefighters go at it for fifteen rounds in the ring. Hoffman plays Father Flynn a middle-school priest who is suspected by the Catholic school's principle, Sister Aloysius (Streep) to having an inappropriate relationship with the school's first African-American student, Donald Muller. Her evidence is Sister James (Amy Adams) saw Donald upset while returning from Father Flynn's office and smelling alter wine on his breath. Why wound anyone find a movie like this even remotely interesting, you ask? Start with Hoffman and Streep, trading sharp insults, dialogue and shouting contests like devastating blows. Add in the fact that John Patrick Shanley's own 2005 Pulitzer-winning play was excellently written and directed by him and you have a drama that never really tells all, but leaves you with doubts about Flynn and Aloysius and their motives. Did I forget to mention Doubt grabs you and pulls you in better than any other suspense thriller out there this year?
3. The Dark Knight - Christopher Nolan's sequel to 2005's Batman Begins does what no summer movie since Spider-Man 2 did in 2004: not only live up to the hype, but do so by leaps and bounds. Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego now take on the sociopath criminal mastermind known only as the Joker as he leaves a trail of death and chaos along Gotham City, leading everyone - from Gotham's new D.A. Harvey Dent, to Wayne's butler/father figure, Alfred - to confront ethical traps they can't escape from. Everyone from Christian Bale to Aaron Eckhart give sold performances but it's the late Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker that pulls you in. Ledger's Joker is nothing short of a tour de force and is right up there with Daniel-Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview (There will Be Blood) and Forest Whittaker's Idi Amen (The Last King of Scotland) as one of the great performances this decade.
4. WALL-E - After watching Ratatouille last year, I didn't think it possible how Pixar was going to top Brad Bird's beautiful and funny love letter to France and its culture. Enter director/co-writer Andrew Stanton's (Finding Nemo) story of WALL-E, the robot who has been cleaning up Earth's messes for over 700 years and his adventure with EVE, a robot sent from the shpaceship Axiom to search for any signs of life on Earth, and you have another groundbreaking masterpiece that ranks with Pixar's other triumphs, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. Sure, the story's warning's of complacency and corporate greed fucking up our planet will go over the heads of the kids, but the romance between WALL-E and EVE transcends generations, and includes some of the most moving sequences i've seen since Miles and Maya in Sideways. WALL-E shows Pixar Animation Studios at their peak powers and they're showing no signs of slowing down with their newest creation, Up!, due out next May.
5. Milk - What an amazing man. What a tragic end to his quest for gay rights. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were both assassinated in 1978 by troubled politician Dan White. This stirring and compassionate biopic, directed by Gus Van Saint and staring Sean Penn as the title character, isn't about that fateful day. Its about the man, his crusade for equality and justice for the gay and lesbian community, and his personal triumphs and losses. Penn doesn't so much play the slain gay activist as he does bare his soul for all to witness. Josh Brolin plays White not as a monster, but as a man at war with his own emotions and isolation. Watching him naked and cut off from everyone, in a small room, is devastating. If you think Van Saint's Milk isn't a call to arms to carry on in Harvey's work, then let me point to California's shameful vote on Proposition 8 on Election Day. Where's Harvey Milk when we need him the most?
6. Frost/Nixon - Go ahead. Tell me that Ron Howard's take on the historic battle between disgraced former President Richard Nixon and talk show host David Frost has no relevance today or is the kind of filmmaking that'll put an audience to sleep faster than NyQuil. I say that the movie's themes of holding our elected officials accountable for their crimes is a much needed wake-up call. And if you should fall asleep during this knockout of a docudrama, then you're missing some of the most explosive acting you'll see all year. Frank Langella is remarkable playing Tricky Dick, trying to make a comeback and wash away the stench of Watergate and stay one step ahead of Frost and his crew. Michael Sheen is excellent as Frost, trying to make a big score from the Nixon interviews, mainly his reputation as more than a British playboy/talk show host. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are excellent, each reporter out for blood.
7. Changeling - Even at the age of 78, Clint Eastwood can still pack one hell of an emotional punch. His new movie is based on a true story about Christine Collins' crusade to find her son who had gone missing. Her journey would unravel the LAPD's system of corruption, circa 1928, and their disturbing methods to silence anyone who would dare challenge them. Angelina Jolie is phenomenal, portraying the strength and heartache in Collins' struggle to discover the truth about her son's disappearance. And Eastwood, once again, creates a crime drama blistering with intensity that makes it nearly impossible to turn away.
8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona - Confession: i've never seen a Woody Allen movie before watching this hilarious and bittersweet comedy-drama about two female friends Vicky (Rebbecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) spending the summer in Barcelona, Spain. Fans of Allen's dialogue will love Oscar-winner Javier Bardem and Oscar-nominee Penelope Cruz trading off his unique and delicious Allen-isms in Spanish. Speaking of Oscars, Cruz will get the golden statue for her funny and heartbreaking turn as Maria Elena, Juan Antonio's ex-wife filled with passion that's untamed and inner sorrow that's unable to heal. She's funny and devastating all at once.
9. Australia - Baz Luhrmann's romantic epic about a Brit snob (Nicole Kidman) coming to Australia to take over his deceased husband's cattle ranch and falling in love with a hardened cowboy (a suave and sexy Hugh Jackman) is ambitious. The size, scope, look and feel scream Gone With the Wind and Casablanca all at once. Mind you, he doesn't totally pull it off (clocks in at nearly three hours, and do we really need the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" at every damn tear-jerking moment?) but at least the man has ambitions and the stones to see it through, something that's missing in most movies these days. You can take Australia as a cliched-riddled knockoff to romantic epics of the past. Or you look at it as a gorgeous and vividly beautiful love letter to an age of filmmaking long since forgotten, disguised as a love letter to Luhrmann's native land. I'll take the latter.
10. Iron-Man - Sure, this was the year of the Joker and The Dark Knight, but there's little denying that Robert Downey Jr. is the comeback kid of 2008. And what a way to signal your return by playing a snarky, self-serving playboy/mercenary who gets a change of heart after one of his own weapons nearly kills him during an ambush in the Middle East. For three months in captivity, Tony Stark builds his escape: an iron suit of armor, the prototype of his greatest invention: an advanced suit of armor with the look of a insanely sexy hot red hot rod, built to destroy the weapons he had built. Iron-Man was the kick-off to an amazing summer at the movies this year, but it also had something few other movies offered this summer: heart and soul.