It’s the end of the year as we know it, which can only mean one thing: top 10 lists! Now, we can’t lie—we haven’t seen absolutely everything. (We’re still waiting on Gran Torino, Seven Pounds, and a few others. Also, we will never watch Wall-E. Never!) But we did see an awful (awful) lot in 2008. And here, in no particular order, are our very favorites.
The Visitor: We’ve had the weirdest crush on character actor Richard Jenkins for ages, and it was pure pleasure seeing him take on a leading role at last. In The Visitor, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), Mr. Jenkins plays Walter, a quietly repressed professor who arrives at his New York pied-à-terre only to discover that a Syrian musician and a Senegalese street vendor have taken up residence. Instead of kicking them out, he befriends them. In fact, The Visitor is full of nice surprises, including a determined avoidance of pieties and lots of sneak-up-on-you emotion.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: We started off 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival (a.k.a. Bananastown) and caught this fascinating documentary at 8:30 a.m. after trudging through heavy snow (and we still loved it!). Directed by Marina Zenovich, the film concentrates on Mr. Polanski’s totally batshit-insane trial for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, his subsequent exile to Europe and the paparazzi circus that kept up every step of the way. There’s a ton of archival footage of the charismatic and enigmatic Mr. Polanski, plus tons of interviews with all the key players, including Mr. Polanski’s lawyer, the prosecutor and the young lady in question (now grown up with children).
The Dark Knight: Sure, this film got swirled up in a ton of hype even as it fell in the long shadow of Heath Ledger’s tragically early demise … and no, we don’t know what the deal is with Christian Bale’s lispy growl. But, leaving all that aside, this movie simply kicked ass. Dark, moody, twisting, turning, soaring, it was the most exciting moviegoing experience to be had in 2008. Yes, Heath Ledger made quite the terrifyingly awesome Joker, but not to be overlooked are Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine and—our personal favorite—Gary Oldman, taking subtle acting to new heights.
Revolutionary Road: When we first heard there was going to be a film adaptation of this, one of our very favorite books, written by the great Richard Yates in 1961, we were a little worried. Turned out there was no need. Sam Mendes, working from a faithfully adapted script by Justin Haythe, manages to capture all the angst, loneliness and longing from the original. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio turn in astonishing performances, and as bleak as the story of a marriage falling apart may be, Revolutionary Road is simply exhilarating.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Hands down, this is our favorite of Woody Allen’s latest works. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Allen muse Scarlet Johansson) are two American la-de-da friends of very different temperaments on holiday in Spain when they both fall for the same hot Spanish painter (Javier Bardem). Spain has never looked more sunny and appealing, and all these women (which include Patricia Clarkson, yay!) have never looked more attractive. Just brace yourself for when Penélope Cruz shows up and blows everyone way.
Burn After Reading: No matter what the other critics say, we’ll stand by this Coen brothers film. Sure, it’s a little on the zany side, but hey, we like that! This cast—which includes a hilarious Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich—looks like they had the time of their life filming this one, a caper involving a missing C.I.A. file.
Rachel Getting Married: When we first got to know Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries, we had no idea she’d one day turn in such a sniping-to-perfection performance like this one. Ms. Hathaway plays Kym, a young woman on leave from rehab, returning to the family fold for the wedding of her older sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). Directed by Jonathan Demme from a script written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney!), this small film takes a very close look at the madness that happens whenever any kind of family gets together.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Strangely enough, this film made us even more depressed than Revolutionary Road. Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button, a man who ages backward. It’s a beautifully lit, gorgeously shot movie (based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story), and director David Fincher keeps a slow and an almost-old-fashioned-like steady pace. Supporting players Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and Jason Flemyng are all very fine, and perhaps after this one, we can all forget about “Brangelina” for a while and remember that Brad Pitt is, in fact, a good actor.
Milk: Just when you think Sean Penn can’t surprise you with his “acting” anymore, a movie like Milk comes along and does just that. Mr. Penn disappears completely into his role of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, who was later assassinated. James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin all turn in memorable performances, and director Gus Van Sant departs from the dreaminess of his past few films to tell this real-life and poignant story effectively straightforwardly.
Slumdog Millionaire: This year’s little-best-picture-that-could doesn’t have a big marquee name in it, but audiences have rightly flipped for it. Using the structure of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) teaches us all about the tragic childhood of our hero, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a “slumdog” from the streets of Mumbai. Watch for the always-great Irfan Khan as the interrogator who doesn’t believe this orphan kid could win a trivia show, and the ridiculously fun song-and-dance final number.
Honorable Mention: Definitely, Maybe: We can’t lie, we love ourselves a good romantic comedy. But the trouble with this genre is that, when not handled properly, things can get pretty ugly (cough, Made of Honor). Definitely, Maybe, written and directed by Adam Brooks, was our very favorite rom-com of the year. Not only are the performances from Ryan Reynolds (who knew?), Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Kevin Kline good, it absolutely nails the je ne sais quoi of living in New York in the mid-’90s. Cue the nostalgia!