COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
2008’s cinematic fare showcased new and old industry voices alike, including breakthrough director Lance Hammer’s heartrending, austere “Ballast” and Mike Leigh’s drastic leap into comedy with crowd-pleaser “Happy-Go-Lucky.” 2008’s best films tackled a broad range of subjects with fearless gusto, transporting viewers from independent circuit wrestling rings to the streets of Gotham City.
10. “The Dark Knight”
Irrefutably the best comic book adaptation of the new millennium, “The Dark Knight” is a gothic thriller that matches its exhilarating action with moral complexities. As the iconic Joker, Heath Ledger’s posthumous performance is spellbinding - the rare sort that comes around as often as Halley’s Comet. “The Dark Knight” boldly blurs the line of entertainment and art, illustrating that with the precise balance of brains and guts, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
9. “Synecdoche, New York”
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a disillusioned theater director, reevaluates his life’s meaning after he’s struck with a mysterious illness that shuts down each of his autonomic functions. After Cotard receives a MacArthur grant, he guides his acting troupe into an abandoned New York City warehouse to devise a play of brutal honesty, leading Cotard to become entangled and lost in his carefully constructed - albeit artificial - reality. With a fantastic ensemble cast, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” is a film with maverick ambition and a haunting - if morbid - reflection on life, death and everything in between.
After centuries of carrying out his waste-collecting duties on lonely, desolate Earth, Wall-E discovers EVE, a reconnaissance robot sent to figure out if the planet is sustainable yet. Once EVE discovers a living plant amid Wall-E’s mishmash collection of relics from Earth’s sustainable era, a massive ship arrives to collect the sample. Unwilling to lose EVE, Wall-E hitches a ride on the exterior of the ship, which returns to its origin, a large space cruise ship carrying the remnants of humanity. Although borderline preachy in its heavy-handed moral assertions, “Wall-E” is a breathtaking, creative vision that ranks among Pixar’s finest work, fusing slapstick wit with the futuristic grandeur of a Kubrick film.
7. “Pineapple Express”
When stoner Dale (Seth Rogen) goes to pick up a rare strain of weed called Pineapple Express from his kindred spirit dealer Saul (James Franco), all hell breaks loose. After Dale accidentally witnesses a murder by a corrupt cop and the city’s most dangerous drug lord while smoking a joint in his car, he panics and flicks his roach at the scene of the crime, which the cop and drug lord track back to Saul. In a state of weed-instigated paranoia, Rogen and Franco boast phenomenal chemistry as they run from the bad guys. Under the supervision of indie, experimental director David Gordon Green, “Pineapple Express” is an outrageous, unpredictable ride chock-full of the crude hilarity and whip-smart dialogue we’ve come to expect from the Judd Apatow comedy troupe.
Gus Van Sant’s latest return to mainstream film is as unconventional a biopic as they come. Following the 1970s San Francisco campaigns of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), the first gay man to be elected to public office in the United States, “Milk” portrays its titular character in the most humane of terms, not a hero per say, but rather a funny, flawed, inspiring man yearning for equality. With a powerhouse performance from Penn and a poignant turn from James Franco as Milk’s supportive lover, “Milk” is ripe with humor, sexual energy, historical significance and a blatant sense of contemporary relevance.
5. “Revolutionary Road”
Adapted from the classic novel by Richard Yates, “Revolutionary Road” is a harrowing portrait of suburban hell. April and Frank Wheeler (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) are a young couple living in a 1950s suburban Connecticut town with their two children. Frank works at a boring, but well-paying, job and April is a housewife who laments her failed career as an actress. After reveling in their mutual hatred for their mundane lives, the two decide to move their family to Paris to start a new life, yet after Frank is offered a promotion and April suffers a surprise pregnancy, their hope for escape is thrown into jeopardy. Exploring the troubles of juggling material success with personal fulfillment, “Revolutionary Road” is a rich, disturbing film with gorgeous cinematography and explosive acting from Winslet and DiCaprio.
In director Lance Hammer’s tragic hymn to the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta, “Ballast,” one man’s suicide radically alters the lives of three individuals. Marlee (Tarra Riggs) is a struggling single mother and her 12-year-old son James (Jim Myron Ross), who has begun to tread down a tragic path of drug addiction and violence, move into an abandoned house on Lawrence’s (Michael J. Smith, Sr.) property. The three characters slowly develop a poignant dependence upon one another, slowly but surely pulling one another out of the vast depths of grief. Shot in cinéma vérité, “Ballast” is a bleak juggernaut of emotion that operates through sparse dialogue, wandering cinematography and ambiguous subtext, but it’s Riggs’ heartbreaking performance that steals the show.
Mike Leigh’s comedy “Happy-Go-Lucky” gave the year the burst of glee it needed. Following the daily trials and tribulations of unwaveringly optimistic primary school teacher Poppy, the film questions just how difficult it is to be truly happy. In a star-making turn as quirky Londoner Poppy, Sally Hawkins is absolutely brilliant, commanding audiences to discover the joy in the most commonplace of circumstances. Cheerful, honest and sublime, “Happy-Go-Lucky” won’t make you question humanity’s dark side like most of Leigh’s prior social realist films - it’ll restore your faith in it.
2. “The Wrestler”
Marking the complete resurrection of Mickey Rourke’s career, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” is a gritty tour de force. Rourke stars as Randy ‘The Ram,’ a forlorn, has-been wrestler working at a dead-end job in a supermarket in New Jersey. After suffering a heart attack when a match gets out of hand, Randy revaluates his existence, leaning upon the dependable support of a single mother played by Marisa Tomei, a stripper who’s losing clients at the club as she ages. The two lonely souls find solace in one another, which blossoms into an unconventional relationship that skews the line of romance and friendship. “The Wrestler” aches with an overt sense of tragedy, boasting a dark, bleak revision of the standard underdog sports movie formula. Hands down the best performance of the year, Rourke’s radical assumption of character is a revelation, somehow making a self-destructive, washed-up 50-year-old wrestler relatable and completely human.
1. “Rachel Getting Married”
Chronicling Kym’s (Anne Hathaway) tumultuous journey from rehab back home for her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding, Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” is a powerful family drama. Over an emotional roller coaster of a weekend, Kym’s return home awakens decades of family tensions and tragic memories, providing a searing study of the modern American family. With hand-held, docudrama cinematography and mind-blowing acting from Hathaway, DeWitt and Debra Winger as an emotionally distant mother, “Rachel Getting Married” is a vibrantly alive tale that will lead viewers to lose themselves in this dysfunctional, yet familiar family. Riddled with devastating pain and biting humor, “Rachel Getting Married” is an elegantly nuanced masterpiece.