The Best Movies of 2008

Critical Mass 

The Best Movies of 2008

When our often-contentious film critics put their heads together about the best movies of 2008, they managed to agree (more or less) on a dozen. What's more, two of those films — The Dark Knight and Wall-E — happened to rank among the year's five highest-grossing releases (with The Dark Knight, as of this writing, the second-highest-grossing film ever released in this country), taking the wind out of that tiresome old argument that the tastes of critics and those of the average moviegoer are permanently out of alignment. Is Hollywood getting better or indie cinema merely getting worse? Watch these movies (some due in Kansas City in the coming weeks) and then discuss.

Che

Steven Soderbergh's superlatively crafted, dramatically compelling, emotionally distant account of Che Guevara's participation in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s and the disastrous Bolivian uprising a decade later is an anti-biopic that seeks to humanize its subject with a shocking absence of human interest. History is not personalized. The four-hour movie, which opens in Kansas City in January, is both action film and tragedy. — J. Hoberman

A Christmas Tale

A family of labile French hobgoblins, bound together by one of the cheesiest movie metaphors (bad blood) and stewing volubly over old wounds, goes home for the holidays and squabbles over who's going to save Catherine Deneuve. Writer-director Arnaud Desplechin wraps their brief encounters and power struggles in an armory of cinematic tricks and literary allusions and turns them into a wonderfully fractured, endlessly self-renewing prose poem on the mysteries of domestic life. — Ella Taylor

The Dark Knight

It was a dark pleasure indeed to return to Christopher Nolan's Gotham City in this hugely ambitious continuation of Nolan's impressive Batman Begins — think of it as The Godfather: Part II of comic-book movies. As the anarchic Joker, the late Heath Ledger proved to be the freakishly disturbing highlight of a very good show, in which Nolan once again explored the themes that have attended his work since Memento — memory, obsessive desire and the dual nature of humans. By the end, our winged protagonist is no longer sure whether he is the hero or the villain of his own story — neither, for that matter, are we. — Scott Foundas

Milk

It's as conventional as biopics get: uplift and tragedy, upper as downer. But this one is more heartfelt than most. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black amasses what amounts to an oral history re-enacted by a cast that honors the late San Francisco supervisor's legacy as barrier buster. He's no mere martyr here. But without Sean Penn — who makes Milk's quirky mannerisms his own — the movie wouldn't work. He renders profound what might otherwise have been pedestrian. — Robert Wilonsky

Paranoid Park

Not since Bruce Springsteen's The Rising has an artist used pop as public address so consciously (or urgently) as Gus Van Sant does in Milk. By comparison, this little-seen vision of childhood's end is the triumphant culmination of Van Sant's apprenticeship in noncommercial cinema. It gathers his experiments in looped chronology and sinuous long takes, meandering with intent into gorgeous, artfully scattered fragments of a skater boy's doomed now-is-forever youth. — Jim Ridley

Silent Light

To date, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas' astoundingly beautiful, Dreyer-influenced drama of marital and spiritual crisis, set in a modern-day Mennonite community on the outskirts of Chihuahua, has played the festival circuit extensively but, in 2008, received only one weeklong booking at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Starting in January, it will begin making its way toward an art house closer to you, which is good news for anyone who cares seriously about the art of cinema.­— Scott Foundas

Slumdog Millionaire

After last year's Sunshine, Danny Boyle gets back to doing what he does best: grimy fairy tales that put his heroes through hell and his audience through the wringer. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everyone, but the grown-up orphan at the center of Slumdog deserves it more than most. His story, told in feverish flashback, answers the questions put before him by the cruelest game-show host this side of Howie Mandel. After the recent terrorist-inflicted violence in Mumbai, an extra layer of anguish now shrouds every scene. — Robert Wilonsky

Still Life

The world's oldest civilization is also the world's newest, which is why Jia Zhang-Ke, pre-eminent cine-chronicler of contemporary China, seems the most contemporary narrative filmmaker on Earth. Predicated on a sense of everyday social flux, this feature broods like a cloud over Fengjie, the ancient river city largely flooded and partly rebuilt as part of the Three Gorges Dam project. Still Life vibrates with traces of human presence — deserted construction sites; shabby, cluttered rooms; eerily half-demolished (or half-built) neighborhoods; moldering factory works. Everything is despoiled and yet — as rendered in rich, crisp HD images — everything is beautiful. — J. Hoberman

Synecdoche, New York

In interviews, Charlie Kaufman has floated the idea of building a scale-model Las Vegas in Las Vegas, which would entail building a scale-model scale-model Las Vegas and, within it — well, you get the picture. That's probably the easiest way to describe Kaufman's dizzily ambitious directorial debut, a nonmusical All That Jazz devoted to a terminal case (Philip Seymour Hoffman) riddled with the affliction of the age: impermeable layers of self-awareness, surveillance and scrutiny that filter the living out of life. There's much in it that I neither understand completely nor love, yet if any film resists the demotion of movies to one-time consumables, it's this one: a puzzle box that starts to unfold only after you open it.  — Jim Ridley

Wall-E

The most human film of the year features two robots whose courtship takes place among the ruins of a planet destroyed by the greedy, spoiled humans who abandoned their apocalyptic trash heap. Everything about Wall-E is sumptuous and warm and wise. No movie in 2008 soared more than this animated wonder. Its luminescence will linger for generations — or until science fiction becomes sad fact. — Robert Wilonsky

Waltz With Bashir

If Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman had simply edited his own memories of the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre in Lebanon (and those of former comrades in the Israel Defense Forces) into a talking-heads doc, he would have gotten a few respectful nods from critics and a brief tour of the marginal film-festival circuit. Instead, he and his creative team animated the soldiers' testimonies into a vintage graphic novel, creating a surreal record of recovered memory, whose deceptive emotional flatness amps up the terror of bearing witness to the murder of helpless Palestinians by Christian Phalangists. Waltz With Bashir is a giant anxiety attack of singular beauty and sorrow that also shatters the Israeli myth of invincible Israeli masculinity. — Ella Taylor

Wendy and Lucy

Old Joy director Kelly Reichardt's simple yet deeply felt road movie about a rudderless drifter (the excellent Michelle Williams) and her canine companion offered a lovely minimalist riposte to the year-end movie season's many overblown acts of cinema maximus (see Australia, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, et al.). It was also, along with Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, one of a small number of American movies devoted to a real, recognizable United States, a place broken down by disappointments and yet suffused with possibility. — Scott Foundas

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