The New Classics - The 30 Best Films of 2008

by PopMatters Staff

15 January 2009


10 - 1

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Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Sinead Matthews

US theatrical: 10 Oct 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 18 Apr 2008 (General release)


Happy-Go-Lucky Mike Leigh

“In some respects, it is of course, different from quite a lot of my films. Of course it also has its dark moments. But yes, I did want to make a film when I started, and call it an “anti-miserablist film”. Its very hard actually, because I’ve been in the habit of saying that, you know, we are making a mess of the world and things, and things are bad, which they are obviously in every kind of way, and there yet people out there getting on with it. I think Poppy [Sally Hawkins] is just such a person. The current news from Gaza is such that just to say, blithely, “but we must all just be positive and not let it bring us down”—because it’s very hard to not be anything other than seriously depressed about it. But, however, people do get on with it. The “Poppys” of this world who are good teachers of the next or future generations and are cherishing and nurturing them are being positive and Poppy is a positive person, really. See, it’s all about that, and I think, and you haven’t said this, of course, but there are people who talk about Poppy as being “relentlessly cheerful” and relentlessly happy. I think that’s rubbish, basically. I don’t think she’s any of those things. I think she’s sensible, serious, committed, intelligent, sophisticated and has a sense of irony. But, she also has this great sense of humor which sometimes gets the better of her.”
—Mike Leigh as told to Matt Mazur on January 5th, 2008 in Manhattan Matt Mazur

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Man on Wire

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Philippe Petit, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, Jim Moore, Mark Lewis, Jean François Heckel, Barry Greenhouse

(Magnolia Pictures)
US theatrical: 25 Jul 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 1 Aug 2008 (Limited release)

Review [8.Aug.2008]


Man on Wire James Marsh

Man on Wire is about more than a fantastic stunt. It is, implicitly, about September 11, 2001. Ultimately, when a police officer speculates that nothing like Philippe Petit’s act would be seen again, his words resonate, even though, in 1974, such poignance could not have been intended. It is also, unexpectedly, about friendship. The film’s interviews and reenactments narrate both the caper and the breaking of personal bonds. Man on Wire, quietly and powerfully, shows that it is possible to ask too much of those who care about you. Shaun Huston

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemying, Elias Koteas, Jared Harris

(Paramount Pictures)
US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (General release)

Review [14.May.2009]
Review [24.Dec.2008]


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button David Fincher

Even with the lashings of southern cornpone and the hard-to-swallow plot machinations—courtesy of writer Eric “Forrest Gump” Roth—David Fincher’s darkly gorgeous romance just about takes your breath away. Brad Pitt does his best acting in years as the eternal innocent, a foundling abandoned in New Orleans at the end of World War I who gets younger as he gets older, while Cate Blanchett glows as his naturally-aging beloved. When the two meet in the middle of their lives, for those few perfect years, the film takes on the shimmer of fable. Chris Barsanti

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Revolutionary Road

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn

(Paramount Vantage)
US theatrical: 26 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 30 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [31.May.2009]
Review [24.Dec.2008]


Revolutionary Road Sam Mendes

Unless you enjoy marital boxing matches, lots of cheating and suburban suffocation, you’re probably going to find Revolutionary Road anything but entertainment. Then again, that’s much of the point, especially considering the flawless casting of our very own icons of romance from the towering Titanic. Seeing those two slip into a familiar, venomous routine hits on a gut level harder than any other couple could. It’s frequently unpleasant, but as a cautionary tale on the fading of romance and the death of the suburban soul, few films have cut this deep. Aaron Marsh

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The Wrestler

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Ernest “The Cat” Miller

(Fox Searchlight)
US theatrical: 17 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [30.Apr.2009]
Review [16.Dec.2008]


The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky

Sometimes an actor and a character are fated to meet on film. In even rarer cases, these dueling personalities are opposite sides of the same coin. In the case of has-been actor Mickey Rourke and the role of washed-up professional wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, there was quite simply no other actor capable of embodying such a flawed yet emotionally sympathetic character. Each frayed relationship depicted in The Wrestler is written in the crevices of Rourke’s subtly expressive face—a lifetime of professional miscues bubbling just beneath the surface. And yet this isn’t just an exorcism of a careers-worth of demons, but also the performance that Rourke has been building towards over the course of a decade spent in exile. Jordan Cronk

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The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Eric Roberts, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

(Warner Brothers)
US theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 21 Jul 2008 (General release)

Review [17.Jul.2008]


The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s Batman epic runs 152 minutes long, and 100 percent of that running time feels like climax—the audience is afforded no setup, no catharsis, no dénouement in which to catch its breath. Propelling the story forward at this breakneck speed is a quartet of stellar performances—Heath Ledger’s Joker being the most celebrated, though not the only one worth watching—each of which embodies a character that lives on a spectrum of morality that doesn’t quite fit into the easy “good” and “evil” dichotomy of most comic-book films. And, unlike Nolan’s non-Batman pictures, no narrative trickery is employed; the characters are set in motion, and we get to watch as they race to the film’s dark conclusion. The result is as thought-provoking as it is pulse-pounding. Marisa LaScala

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Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver

(Walt Disney Pictures)
US theatrical: 27 Jun 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release)

Review [27.Jun.2008]


WALL-E Andrew Stanton

What I love most about Wall-E, Pixar’s triumphant masterpiece and the best film of 2008, is the sheer audacity of it. Imagine the pitch for this: “We, Pixar, propose a for all intents and purposes wordless romantic comedy about a cute little sentient trash compactor and his intergalactic courtship with a sleek alien probe shaped like an Ipod earbud (or an egg), set on a bleak post-apocalyptic Planet Earth among the heaping detritus of long-since-fled humanity. With this promising set up, we, Pixar, resolve to take audiences’ breath repeatedly away; deliver a high level of physical comedy and sight gags; deliver a cautionary environmental message; and make grown men cry.” That they proposed this at all is a testament to Pixar’s perennial nerviness and ambition. That they succeeded so brilliantly, is testament to their undisputed genius. Jake Meaney

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Synecdoche, New York

Director: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Dianne Weist, Tom Noonan

(Sony Classics)
US theatrical: 24 Oct 2008

Review [24.Oct.2008]


Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a landmark film in the history of artistic overreaching. The premise is almost inexplicable: a talented theatre director, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is awarded a MacArthur genius with which he attempts to reconcile his depression, failing marriage and general angst by creating a replica of his world inside an enormous warehouse in New York City. A cast of characters in his piece parallels those of the film until the effect begins to double and nest and there are more cities inside cities. However, the film becomes absolutely beautiful right about the time you realize this microcosmic effect will never succeed. The shortcomings of the film’s conceit become the shortcoming of Cotard and, in a deft metafilmic turn, the film itself becomes the paragon mirror of life that Cotard tries to create in his warehouse. This is brilliant and insane film at its best. Erik Hinton

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Slumdog Millionaire

Director: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan

(Fox Searchlight)
US theatrical: 12 Nov 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [12.Nov.2008]


Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle

There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if every film threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government should at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career—and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you. Bill Gibron

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Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Sean Penn, Jamesw Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Alison Pill, Diego Luna

(Focus Features)
US theatrical: 26 Nov 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [26.Nov.2008]


Milk Gus Van Sant

Harvey Milk was more than just a crusader. He was much more than a civil rights icon struck down by an unhinged, unhappy assassin. He was more than a symbol of gay pride, or growing minority power, or of community organization and activism. First and foremost, he was a man—a complicated, sometimes incomplete man… and it’s within all these conflicting and shifting paradigms that Gus Van Sant delivers the year’s most devastating personal portrait. Fueled by the best work of Sean Penn’s career, and a supporting cast that each provides their own individual knock out blows, the rise and horrific fall of this middle aged maverick is not the story of some martyr. Milk may have indeed died for what he believed in, but it’s clear that in this battle between right and wrong, everyone shares some blame. Sadly, we as a society have learned very little in the last 30 years. Indeed, in addition to its artistic merits, it is the importance of the subject matter and its relevance to the issue of GLBT rights in America now that makes this film PopMatters’ #1 pick for 2008. Bill Gibron

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