As 2008 slowly recedes out of view, we’re looking back at the best in pop culture over the course of the year. Today, we look at the films of the year that actually seemed worth going to the cineplex for.
1. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s second stab at the Batman franchise is the best film ever adapted from a comic book. Gotham City has been reimagined as a cool, modernist backdrop for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and the late Heath Ledger’s Joker to battle against, but it’s characters and intrigue, not set-pieces that give Dark Knight its bite. The Joker’s chief villainy is that he questions the whole notion of heroism, arguing through murder, kidnapping and brutality that the morality of even the best men is but a thin veneer. It’s about the time you start thinking about themes like this that you have to pinch yourself you’re watching a Batman movie.
Pixar continues its quest to prove that anything can be made cute by making a trash compactor its protagonist in this charming tale of a robot finding love in dystopia. The first half of the movie is a cinematic tour-de-force that reintroduces to jaded audiences the joy of silent film. It loses some steam once the humans show up, but watching a tiny robot dance to Hello, Dolly! is a movie moment for the ages.
3. Slumdog Millionaire
The framing device of the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire sends audiences to the violent slums of Mumbai in Danny Boyle’s zippy, enthralling cross-cultural ode to the star-crossed romances of classic Hollywood.
4. Rachel Getting Married
Anne Hathaway is riveting as a drug addict on weekend leave who tears into her sister’s wedding in Jonathan Demme’s hand-held movie meant to evoke a home video. It’s Demme’s best work since Silence of the Lambs.
Taylor Greeson’s autobiographical tale of his brother’s 1981 murder and his own love affair as a boy with an older teenager escapes all the pitfalls of self-indulgence such an exercise could bring. Rather than self-mythology, Meadowlark is a tender exploration of how identity is shaped and reshaped over the course of a person’s life.
From the play by Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon admirably captures all the soul-searching and verbal fisticuffs that flew in David Frost’s 1977 interview with former US President Richard Nixon. Ron Howard’s direction is nothing to write home about, but Frank Langella’s Nixon is fascinating to watch.
Joachim Trier’s story of the friendship between two young aspiring writers has homoerotic overtones, but the real draw is the way in which the two men tackle maturity, masculinity and love– and fail at all three.
8. Breakfast with Scot
Ben Shenkman and Tom Cavanagh star as a gay couple turned daddies in this cute comedy along the lines of Raising Helen. The twist is that the young boy they take care of is the flamboyant one and it’s the gay dad’s who are uncomfortable with their new son’s predilection for lipstick and dresses.
Gus Van Sant’s biopic of the political career of Harvey Milk is a well-made hagiography that would be a lot more fun if it weren’t so self-consciously self-important. Still, Milk’s message of hope came at the perfect time for a gay community reeling with equality losses across the globe.
10. Mamma Mia!
So bad it’s good, Meryl Streep’s turn as an aging hippie singing ABBA songs for no apparent reason is the easiest guilty pleasure to come along in a while. Why is Meryl on a boat being blown by an offscreen fan? Why is Christine Baranski putting a diaper on a chorus boy? Who cares?! Mamma Mia may not have rhyme, reason or make much sense, but it sure puts on a show.