Andy Hart over at Fandango Groovers has a simple question for all of us movie lovers: what’s the best year in film? Or, maybe more easily answered, what’s your favorite year in film? I being such a notoriously indecisive person had to wrestle with these two challenges– with very nearly a century of film to peruse, how does anyone possibly comfortably pin down five films from one single year as their personally selected “best” year in film? More difficult than the question, strangely, is the answer; after a couple of weeks mulling it over, I knew I wanted to look at modern film history, but that still left me with an incredible array of options to choose from.
So I rolled a 10-sided die, and Lady Luck decreed my movie year to be 2008.
Which feels a lot like kismet. 2008 is one of the strongest release years of its decade, in my opinion, right up there with 2007 in sheer excellence; from The Dark Knight to Towelhead to Redbelt to The Wrestler to Gomorrah to Wall-E, there’s no shortage of wonderful cinema to glean from ’08, and that’s barely scratching the surface. I kept on whittling away, though, and what I came up with follows below.
(Special thanks to Andy for putting this together; you can view the master post, and all of the pieces from participating bloggers, here.)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army: I’ve made no secret of my undying effusive admiration and love for everything Guillermo Del Toro does, and if you know me well enough then you’re well aware that as far as I’m concerned, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy ranks among the very best of contemporary comic book fare. (And if you know me even better than that, you know this is all because I just flat-out love monsters, mythology, folklore, and everything in between. But I digress.) In other words, a Del Toro film about Hellboy featuring a nearly unending creature pride parade is a movie that’s tailor-made to earn my cash. Hellboy II is a film for which I have absolutely no capacity for objectivity; I’ll argue that it’s made with superlative craftsmanship and fueled by dizzying imagination, and boasts some of the best creature FX work of the last ten years, but I know at the end of the day that I’m basically programmed to love this film, so every word I write about it will– and maybe should– be taken well-salted.
Milk: To this day I consider Milk to be Sean Penn’s finest hour and a sterling example of what biopics should be. I think far too often, projects of Milk‘s kind tend to get far too wrapped up in info dumping and forget that at the end of the day, they need to be telling a coherent story; of course, when Gus Van Sant is pulling director duty, you know you’re going to get your money’s worth (so to speak). Milk captures a time, a place, and a person all very much anchored to our own world with pitch-perfect clarity, but Van Sant handles the film with such artful finesse that we’re never ejected from the narrative by overbearingly didactic filmmaking. Biopics shouldn’t read like textbooks; they should read like dramatized recreations of history and life (without, of course, skimping on the facts). But Milk‘s other great characteristic is its timelessness; boil away the details of its period and its focus and you have a yarn about the degradation of political and social discourse, tolerance versus intolerance, and a never-ending fight for equality.
Iron Man: Full disclosure– I originally had The Dark Knight in this spot, until it occurred to me that if any one 2008 comic book movie really changed the game for the future of comic book movies, it’s Iron Man. At the time of this writing, we’re all well aware of what’s coming in just a few short weeks, and with that in mind it’s pretty incredible to trace the upcoming release of The Avengers to a single post-credits scene at the end of Jon Favreau’s surprise smash hit. It all began with a simple meet-and-greet between Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, and before we know it we’ll all be watching the culmination of nearly half a decade’s worth of hard work and careful, if occasionally errant, dedication to continuity. You want to talk about objectivity in film writing? Iron Man represents the beginning of what may end up being one of the most game-changing superhero narratives committed to celluloid. If that level of influence isn’t worth acknowledging, I don’t know what is.
Hunger: To this day, British artist Steve McQueen’s feature-length debut, Hunger, remains one of the most difficult to watch films I’ve ever seen. You can read my review here; alternately, you can just read this excerpt below and move on:
Hunger‘s legacy lies in announcing McQueen and Fassbender as two talents at the very height of their respective fields. In other words, it’s an impressive feat for the former, being his directorial debut, and a mark of continued progression for the latter, who has shown his quality in role after role after role ever since (he’s appearing in McQueen’s next film, Shame, in less than two weeks). But the film also stands on its own merits as an unassailable, strong depiction of what people will endure for their convictions and beliefs. Dissent one might have with IRA doctrine should never even surface; this isn’t about Sands’ ideals but about how he’s willing to offer his life in support of them. And while the film proposes queries about the morality of his actions, Hunger‘s ultimate question nevertheless remains: When it’s your values at stake, would you be able to do the same?
The Strangers: Being perfectly honest, I don’t know if there’s anything about The Strangers that identifies it as being “special”. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not game-changing, it’s not one of a kind. Taken on its aesthetic, stylistic merits, it’s a film that fits into a very specific and very classical milieu of horror filmmaking. Put bluntly, The Strangers is a quiet, unassuming slice of slick, real-world horror, but none of that means that it doesn’t stand among the best contemporary horror films and very well may be the best horror film of 2008 entirely. Bryan Bertino, at the time a complete rookie, guides this callback to the Manson family with so much confidence and precise technique that it’s easy to mistake him for a veteran director instead of a first-timer; through his self-assured direction, The Strangers ends up serving as a masterclass in building suspense and anxiety through a slow-burn approach and a high-end sense of aesthetics. And honestly, that’s more than enough to single the film out as thoroughly excellent and unfailingly frightening.