Best Films of 2008

Robots, abortions, tightropes, Sean Penn, and disappearing pencils—a great year in film. Kevin Nguyen discusses his favorite movies of 2008.

Production Notes: While my flight out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was delayed three days, I pulled together clips from the films I wrote about in iMovie. Video is something new for The Bygone Bureau, so let me know what you think.


I volunteer at a local art-house theater in Tacoma called the Grand Cinema, and last Saturday’s poster sale fundraiser made me realize how many films I had missed this year. We were selling posters of movies from 2008, and though I’d seen a lot of them, I also realized how many I had missed. Unlike music, it’s hard to keep up with movies. Films are limited by their distribution, so there are some great films that I won’t see until they come out on DVD in 2009. With that in mind, consider these movies a good sampling of 2008′s best.

Milk

MilkGus Van Sant is one of the few directors who has been able to swing back and forth between making challenging art-house films and big-budget blockbusters. Earlier this year, he released Paranoid Park, an excellent avant-garde film about skateboarders, but also the epitome of why the general public doesn’t like artsy movies.

Milk, on the other hand, will please all but the most adamant of homophobes (who will probably be brought to tears anyways). Sean Penn plays the film’s titular character, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, and an inspiration for California’s gay rights movement in the ’70s. The film is eerily relevant to last November’s elections. Milk is a candidate of hope, a charismatic speaker who promises change, and a staunch opponent of Proposition 6–a proposed statewide law allowing schools to fire any openly gay teachers and any teachers who support them. (For the record, Prop. 6 didn’t pass, which reflects poorly on us today as California’s Prop. 8 pulled through earlier this year.)

Milk avoids every usual biopic pitfall. Milk‘s relationship with Scott Smith (James Franco) is absorbing but not overdone; the rivalry between him and Dan White (Josh Brolin), another city supervisor, is complex yet delicate. While most biopics tend to be wary of artistic vision or creativity, every scene of Milk is visually interesting and playful. Biopics also try to be honest by showing its protagonist’s weaknesses, but these attempts are often shallow. Toward the end of the film, Milk becomes a bully, and in many ways, his murder becomes almost inevitable but no less tragic.

I struggled to find any fault in Milk. Maybe part of me didn’t want to, since the parallels were so strong to Obama’s success, but then again, it’d be hard to mark down Van Sant’s work for having good timing. Milk is a total triumph.

Man on Wire

Man on WireWith many documentaries, the subject matter is inherently interesting. Even if the filmmaking was lackluster, Man on Wire would still be a compelling tale about a daydreaming Frenchman who high-wire walked between the two World Trade Center towers.

But this film features some of the best art direction and highest production values I’ve ever seen in a documentary. This carefully crafted narrative features interviews from tightrope walker Philippe Petit and the rest of his team, who prepared for the feat years before attempting it in 1974. Spliced in is old footage of Petit practicing and figuring out the logistics of the stunt, as well an absorbing reenactment of the team’s infiltration into the World Trade Center.

Even people who think documentaries are boring (read: philistines) will enjoy Man on Wire. It’s among the few films that can bring an audience to tears with beauty instead of tragedy.

Wall•E

Wall-EI’m pretty vocal about my adoration for Pixar, but they really outdo themselves with each film. Wall-E is their most ambitious work to date not for its premise, but for its technical aptitude. Whereas most kid-friendly movies prioritize fart jokes and slapstick to guarantee guffaws from the younger audience, Pixar finds ways to keep viewers of all ages engaged through finely crafted storytelling.

The first 40 minutes of Wall-E has almost no dialogue. Instead, we’re treated to a narrative explained and progressed entirely through visual means. Wall-E, a mini-trash-compacting robot, is the sole janitor of an over-polluted, abandoned Earth. In the details of his day-to-day joys, we find hope in his meaningless existence; through his unrequited affection for EVE, another robot who comes from space, we find love of interstellar proportions.

And yes, when your younger cousins see this, they will still laugh—even in the absence of fart jokes—and you will too.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 DaysThis film technically made its U.S. debut in 2007 at the New York Film Festival, but since it didn’t receive a limited release until last January, I’ve qualified it for this year.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days tells the story of two college roommates trying to get an abortion. This is, apparently, very difficult in 1987 Communist Romania, where the crime comes with a hefty prison sentence. Nothing about the setting is embellished by filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, who wrote and directed the movie, but the stark, decaying aesthetic of Soviet bloc Eastern Europe reflects the desolate situation of the movie’s protagonists.

Maybe in a few years, film students will study 4 Months as a model of cinematographic realism. But this isn’t just the kind of realism that makes you uneasy and uncomfortable (though it will do that too). 4 Months is human drama about a deteriorating friendship and an affirmation of human spirit. The film is deceptively simple, extraordinarily subtle, and without giving too much away, the final scene—the least shocking or difficult moment in the movie—illustrates how the medium can challenge its viewer with psychological complexity that feels cathartic.

The Dark Knight

The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight captures the one of Batman’s recent, darker portrayals, drawing influence of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, and Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween. (The film even pays homage to them by acknowledging multiple origin stories for the Joker’s smile scars.)

The Dark Knight thrives on its high-concept duality, pitting Batman not just against a villain, but a rival philosophy. Here, Heath Ledger’s Joker isn’t just creepy, comic, or cunning (though he is all these things)—he’s a contrast character. Ledger brings color and charm to the scenes where Bale’s throaty growl and stoic appearance would otherwise be a bore.

The introduction of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as Gotham’s “White Knight” was a stroke of genius. Dent serves as the moral battleground between Batman and the Joker, and I think Eckhart is convincing and sympathetic as Dent falls from virtue to villain.

But the film isn’t without its flaws. Even refreshing the role of Rachel Dawes for Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t make her a more interesting character, and almost all of the action scenes are a bore, proving that the shakey-cam realism of The Bourne Ultimatum requires deft cinematography. But Batman was never about fighting anyway. The Dark Knight, instead, captures the introspective symbolism of Batman, accomplishing what other superhero comic book adaptations have, until now, failed to achieve.

Honorable Mention

  • Slumdog Millonaire
  • Synecdoche, New York
  • Iron Man
  • Paranoid Park
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • The Orphanage

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.