by Scott Mendelson
Now that I've seen pretty much every piece of end of the year Oscar-bait, I realize that I could have written this list over Thanksgiving and been pretty on the mark. Many of the awards bait films were good, but none of them were truly great. So, with most of the major films in the bag, I can officially write the 'best films of the year' list (possibly worthy films I missed - The Reader, Rachel Getting Married, and Tell No One). However, as always, this is a list of my favorite films, not the 'best'. I guarantee there were better films in 2008 than at least a handful of entries here. But these are the most enjoyable, most moving, most compelling, and most intriguing movie going experiences from 2008. Here we go...
10. Lakeview Terrace
A social drama disguised as a popcorn thriller, this surprisingly potent film is actually a study in racism, class, and the frailty of moral absolutism. While Samuel L. Jackson has a few over-the-top moments as a racist cop who targets the mixed-race couple who moves in next door, he spends the majority of the film playing a simmering, angry man who is too proud to admit that his worldview is bathed in bitterness rather than conservative moral superiority. Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington play a young, idealistic stereotypically liberal couple who discover ugly truths about themselves, as well as the practical limits of their progressive pacifism. Like all good social criticism, in the end, no one's hands are clean and everyone is wrong. Like a few films on this list, this one is better than its reputation.
9. The Bank Job
Finally, Jason Statham gets the opportunity to do his thing in a film of real quality. Based on a true story of the Bakers Street bank vault heist, this 1970s period piece is awash in British politics and rich character work. Roger Donaldson re-establishes himself as a director of top-notch thrillers, and this film stands tall as the best caper film in many years.
8. You Don't Mess With The Zohan
The years happiest surprise, this stunningly optimistic and surprisingly thoughtful Adam Sandler comedy confronts the Israel/Palestine conundrum head on and decides to 'give peace a chance'. Starring Sandler as an ex-Israeli soldier who fakes his death and moves to New York to become a hair dresser, this film takes equal comic potshots at Israelis and Palestinians and dares offer gentle, but pointed criticism of both cultures' inexplicable need to murder each other over a random patch of land. Writers Sandler, Judd Apatow, and Robert Smigel add a sharp, socially conscious wit to the usual Sandler buffoonery. I am not a fan of Adam Sandler comedies, but this is the best film he has ever made.
7. Wall-E/Kung Fu Panda
Two great cartoons from the two biggest animation houses in the business. One is an artful, socially minded fable that is as touching and sweet as it is mournful and haunting. The other is a rip-snorting action film that happens to feature Dustin Hoffman's best performance since Moonlight Mile, as well as Jack Black's best film work ever. Wall-E takes the classic Pixar morality play ('Do I merely survive in safety or truly live in danger?') and applies it to the entire human race, a struggle seen through the eyes of two lonely robots who find love on a decimated Earth. Kung Fu Panda dares to be a real action drama, with expertly staged and emotionally intense combat scenes and the character development to match. Both films are character rich and visually gorgeous. They couldn't be more different, but they are both incredibly potent family entertainments. Why choose one?
One of the more divisive movies of the year, this thoughtful and touching fable of a man in search of his own identity is cleverly disguised as a wham-bam super hero comedy headlined by the biggest star on the planet. Whether taken as a metaphor for America's relationship with the rest of the world, or simply taken as a friendship between two men who both sincerely want to help the world, this is a messy, imperfect movie that is absolutely a piece of art. Jason Bateman gives one of the best performances of the year, and Will Smith never holds back the sadness and self-pity that form the core of his ornery, irresponsible super hero. I've seen this movie a few times and it gets better each viewing. Don't hate it because of what it's not. Love it for what it is.
5. Frozen River
Melissa Leo, from Homicide: Life on the Street, finally gets a film role worthy of her talents. She and Misty Upam (no slouch herself) anchor a strikingly sparse, but brutally powerful film about the pain and stench of poverty and the desperation of the working poor. Leo stars as an impoverished mother of two, who turns to smuggling illegal aliens across the border in order to feed her family. The film works fine as a slow-paced thriller, but its core value is a stark depiction of a world all too hidden in modern America, where dinner consists of popcorn and tang, ambition consists of being promoted to full time at the Dollar Store, and families dream of living in double-wide trailers so they can be just a little warmer at night. It's a dark, morality play set in a world where people have no bootstraps to pull themselves up by in the first place.
4. Role Models
The funniest film of the year, and proof that Wet Hot American Summer was no fluke. In a year where everyone wanted to be Judd Apatow, director David Wain topped the current king of comedy by toning down the smut and adding just a touch of low-key empathy to the sorts of juvenile losers that usually exist merely as foils. Any film can toss in a medieval-role-playing-obsessed nerd and a profanity-spewing African American kid, but this film dares to treat these stereotypes as flesh and blood characters, worthy of our empathy and respect. Paul Rudd (in his first lead role) and Sean William Scott (in his best work since The Rundown) bring just enough plausibility to the film, so that by the time the climactic action scene goes down (and said climax is truly the best action scene of the year), you're laughing because you realize you're more invested in the 'comic action' than you were in the many summer action spectacles.