Film: The best (and worst) of 2008

SMOOTH SAILING Sally Hawkins, left, keeps a steady course in Happy-Go-Lucky, the only movie to appear on all three TONY Film staffers best-of lists.

SMOOTH SAILING Sally Hawkins, left, keeps a steady course in Happy-Go-Lucky, the only movie to appear on all three TONY Film staffers best-of lists.


Melissa Anderson, Film editor

1 Silent Light
A film that approaches grace and makes us believe in miracles, Carlos Reygadas’s staggeringly beautiful tale of a Mennonite marriage in crisis lures you in not just with images but with deep feelings.

2 La France
By reimagining the war movie, Serge Bozon reinvents the musical and the pop song, as leads Sylvie Testud and Pascal Greggory convey despair with moving economy.

3 Before I Forget
Jacques Nolot ushers in the New Old Queer Cinema with this semiautobiographical feature, a consistently honest look at decay, loss and humiliation that’s leavened with mordant wit.

4 Waltz with Bashir
Ari Folman’s exceptional animated documentary might also be called Before I Forget, as the director doggedly pursues his—and others’—repressed memories from fighting in Israel’s war with Lebanon in 1982.

5 Wendy and Lucy
Kelly Reichardt’s superb follow-up to Old Joy confirms her as American cinema’s most intelligent chronicler of those living without a net, and star Michelle Williams proves herself to be one of our greatest young actors.

6 Momma’s Man
A brilliant, gentle rejoinder to the endless movies extolling male regression, Azazel Jacobs’s exquisite paean to adulthood and an NYC bohemianism that’s nearly extinct contains not one moment of cheap, easy nostalgia.

7 Che
You say you want a revolutionary: In this anti-biopic, Steven Soderbergh daringly chooses not to give us the man but a macro- and micro-examination of will and what it takes to wage a guerrilla campaign.

8 The Duchess of Langeais
Jacques Rivette’s haunting, unforgettable adaptation of Balzac’s novella features Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu (who died earlier this year) remarkably enacting amour fou, made even crazier by labyrinthine 19th-century codes.

9 Happy-Go-Lucky
What’s so bad about feeling good? In Mike Leigh’s wonderfully surprising ode to the upbeat, the astonishing Sally Hawkins shows all the nuances of sunniness tempered by fierce resolve.

10 The House Bunny
No film was funnier this year, and no one promises to vanquish the tyranny of dude-centered comedies more than Anna Faris, who continues in the tradition of Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday while still remaining wholly unpredictable.

David Fear, Film writer

1 Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh’s tale of a relentlessly cheery Londoner (viva Sally Hawkins!), whose bubbly outlook is a force field against a cruel world, will leave you feeling as blissful as its hero.

2 Ballast
Just when you were ready to write off Amerindie cinema altogether, along came Lance Hammer’s debut: a Euro-influenced vision of grieving everyday people that single-handedly restored our faith in the Sundance nation.

3 The Secret of the Grain
This Csar winner about an elderly Algerian man attempting to open up a fish couscous restaurant says volumes about France’s diaspora community, passing on familial traditions and the cultural importance of cuisine.

4 Man on Wire
James Marsh’s extraordinary look back at Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the WTC towers is a peerless portrait of a daredevil, a caper flick and a ghost story in one tightly wound vrit package.

5 Waltz with Bashir
It’s a nonfiction exploration of memory, guilt and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon...and it’s animated? After you’ve experienced Ari Folman’s hallucinogenic confessional, you’ll realize that his war story couldn’t have been told any other way.

Easily the most dystopic Disney-sponsored film ever, Pixar’s toon about the last robot on Earth blends Beckett-like existentialism, merciless social satire, an eco-wake-up call and a moving love story between two machines.

7 Let the Right One In
Attention, Twilight fans: You waited in line for the wrong teen-vampire film. This Swedish import about two youngsters—one of whom has fangs—delivered a metaphor about adolescent alienation that was sharp and penetrating.

8 Reprise
Anyone who thinks that there’s nothing left to say via a coming-of-age parable needs to see Joachim Trier’s hip, angstful story of bright young novelists competing for literary success stat.

9 The Edge of Heaven
Fatih Akin makes good on his Head-On promise with this multilayered drama about generational gaps, East-West divides and the importance of kindness in a world driven by cruel, cruel fate. We missed you, Hanna Schygulla.

10 Alexandra
Russian cinema’s art-house auteur Alexander Sokurov delivers a dreamlike antiwar fable about an octogenarian woman visiting her grandson on the Chechen front. Rarely has a nationalistic allegory been this emotionally draining.

Joshua Rothkopf, Film writer

1 The Wrestler
All hail Mickey Rourke, mustering the year’s mightiest comeback as a pumped-up punisher who hurts himself the most. The script embraces its conventions, resulting in a modern classic.

2 Man on Wire
Philippe Petit walked tall on that August morning in 1974, when the space between the towers beckoned him. The heartbreaking majesty of this doc comes in what it doesn’t say about dreams falling.

3 Happy-Go-Lucky
Sally Hawkins is the stick stirring the drink, clomping around in her boots and exuberating over animals (“All right, doggie!”). But Eddie Marsan’s seething driving instructor stayed with me longer.

4 The Fall
If Tarsem’s name were Matthew Barney, he’d get more love from the snob squad. As it stands, he should be happy to be the only filmmaker on the planet working at this advanced a visual level.

5 Frost/Nixon
Confused by many for a mere scrappy-underdog drama, Ron Howard’s political thriller explores nothing less than the media moment when celebrity overtook heft. This may not have been so bad.

6 Rachel Getting Married
Jealousy, guilt and cattiness swirl in the year’s finest domestic drama from any country; because the picture is from American treasure Jonathan Demme, so swirls forgiveness.

7 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The year’s most strongly feminist work is a nightmare set behind the Iron Curtain in 1980s Romania, where abortion is illegal. Two friends fight the power at great cost.

8 Paranoid Park
Gus Van Sant closes the year strongly with Milk, but let’s not forget his exquisitely aloof whodunit, cast with sullen skate rats, which quietly addresses the nature of ethics in the young.

9 The Duchess of Langeais
The U.S. title was dull; why not keep Balzac’s original Don’t Touch the Axe? The film certainly delivered sharpness: A duel between two tragic flirters brought to mind Dangerous Liaisons.

10 Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody Allen rebounded strongly—like that’s so insignificant? Hot breezes and sexual shenanigans give way to a deceptively serious comedy about two friends growing apart.


Melissa Anderson, Film editor

Rachel Getting Married
Performing hysteria isn’t acting; hauling out the language of recovery and 12-stepping yet again doesn’t constitute dialogue. Emotionally fraudulent from beginning to end, this toxic, sprawling mess is narcissistic American filmmaking at its worst.

David Fear, Film writer

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
There’s a scene in Kevin Smith’s self-important, self-deluded romantic “comedy” in which a poor character’s face is defecated upon. By the film’s end, I knew exactly how he felt.

Joshua Rothkopf, Film writer

The Love Guru
Never mind Mike Myers’s career, disappearing down a slippery slope of elephant-coitus jokes and bad shtick. Here was the kind of disaster that could make critics themselves consider other vocations. Like bomb-defusing.

Report card: After last year’s spectacular crop of big-name U.S. cinema, maybe the only way to go was down: Witness the Coens following up No Country for Old Men with the dismally unfunny Burn After Reading and David Fincher proffering the disappointing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button after 2007’s virtuosic Zodiac. Beyond the cyclical nature of greatness, both the writers’ strike and the shuttering and downsizing of studio specialty divisions contributed to the widespread mediocrity of ’08. The year’s bright spots—excellent movies from France, the return of deeply intelligent American indies, numerous outstanding performances—highlighted how crummy most fare was in comparison.