Our Critics Rate the Best Movies of 2008

Critical Mass
The best movies of 2008

Is it a sign of the apocalypse? Something in the water? Or is it just the way the wind is blowing? Whatever the case, when our often-contentious quintet of film critics put their heads together about the best movies of 2008, they managed to agree (more or less) on a dozen they felt were deserving of that designation. What’s more, two of those films—The Dark Knight and Wall-E—also happen to rank among the year’s five highest-grossing releases (with The Dark Knight, as of this writing, the second-highest-grossing film ever released in the U.S.), taking the wind out of that tiresome old argument that says the tastes of critics and those of the average moviegoer are permanently out of alignment. Does that mean Hollywood is getting better, or Indiewood merely worse? Discuss amongst yourselves on your way to a night at one of these movies:

Che. Steven Soderbergh’s superlatively crafted, dramatically compelling, emotionally distant account of Che Guevara’s participation in the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s and the disastrous Bolivian uprising a decade later is an anti-biopic that seeks to humanize its subject with a shocking absence of human interest. History is not personalized. Che (which opens wide in January) is both action film and ongoing argument. The two parts are best seen together: The second may be more realized, but its tragic futility is only comprehensible in the light of what has come before. (JH)

Walt Disney Pictures
The Dark Knight
Warner Bros. Pictures
The Dark Knight

A Christmas Tale. A family of labile French hobgoblins bound together by one of the cheesiest movie metaphors—bad blood—and stewing volubly over old wounds goes home for the holidays and squabbles over who’s going to save Catherine Deneuve. Writer/director Arnaud Desplechin wraps their brief encounters and power struggles in an armory of cinematic tricks and literary allusions and turns them into a wonderfully fractured, endlessly self-renewing prose poem on the mysteries of domestic life. (ET)

The Dark Knight. It was a dark pleasure indeed to return to Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City in this hugely ambitious continuation of Nolan’s already-impressive 2005 Batman Begins—think of it as The Godfather: Part II of comic-book movies. As the anarchic Joker, the late Heath Ledger proved to be the freakishly disturbing highlight of a very good show, in which Nolan once again explored the themes that have attended his work since Memento—memory, obsessive desire and the dual nature of man. By the end, our winged protagonist is no longer sure whether he is the hero or the villain of his own story—and neither, for that matter, are we. (SF)

Milk. As conventional as biopics get: uplift and tragedy, upper as downer. But this one’s more heartfelt than most, as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black—who rescued Harvey Milk’s story from Hollywood’s give-up pile—has amassed what amounts to an oral history re-enacted by a cast that honors the late San Francisco supervisor’s legacy as barrier-buster; no mere martyr he, not here. But without Sean Penn—who makes Milk’s mannerism quirks his own without reducing them to impression or, even worse, “interpretation”—the movie wouldn’t work; all alone, he renders the potentially pedestrian absolutely profound. (RW)

Paranoid Park. Not since Springsteen in The Rising has an artist used pop so consciously (or urgently) as public address as Gus Van Sant does in Milk. By comparison, this little-seen vision of childhood’s end is the triumphant culmination of Van Sant’s apprenticeship in noncommercial cinema: It gathered all those experiments in looped chronology, sinuous long takes and meandering with intent into gorgeous, artfully scattered fragments of a skater boy’s doomed now-is-forever youth. (JR)

Silent Light. To date, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’s astoundingly beautiful, Dreyer-influenced drama of marital and spiritual crisis, set in a modern-day Mennonite community on the outskirts of Chihuahua, has played the festival circuit extensively but received only one regular, week-long booking at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But starting in January, it will begin making its way toward an art house closer to you, which is good news indeed for anyone who cares seriously about the art of cinema. (SF)

Slumdog Millionaire. After last year’s Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s back to doing what he does best: grimy fairy tales in which the uplift’s hard-earned after putting his heroes through hell and his audience through the wringer. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everyone, sure, but the grown-up orphan at the center of Slumdog deserves it more than most, as the story, in fevered flashback, provides the answers to questions put before him by the cruelest game-show host this side of Howie Mandel. After the recent terrorist-inflicted violence in Mumbai, an extra layer of anguish now shrouds every scene. (RW)

Still Life. The world’s oldest civilization is also the world’s newest, which is why Jia Zhangke, pre-eminent cine-chronicler of contemporary China, seems the most contemporary narrative filmmaker on Earth. Predicated on a sense of everyday social flux, Jia’s fifth feature broods like a cloud over Fengjie, the ancient river city largely flooded and partially rebuilt as part of the Three Gorges Dam project. Still Life vibrates with traces of human presence—deserted construction sites; shabby, cluttered rooms; eerily half-demolished (or half-built) neighborhoods; moldering factory works. Everything’s despoiled and yet—as rendered in rich, crisp HD images—everything is beautiful. (JH)

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