Up until November my Top 10 list was topped by The Dark Knight. Walking out of a screening in IMAX, I remember telling anyone who would listen that I'd just seen the best movie of the year and probably the best superhero movie ever made. Then in December I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button...and I began flip-flopping The Dark Knight between 1st and 2nd place. Ultimately, I went with The Dark Knight because it stuck with me for months. Keep in mind these are my personal favorites. You're free to disagree with any or all of them.
Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Gary Oldman all deliver terrific performances in the second Batman movie from writer/director Christopher Nolan. 'Dark' is the appropriate word to associate with this Batman tale which pits our hero against one of his biggest adversaries - The Joker. Bale's Batman is once again one of the best lead performances in a superhero film, and Ledger's Joker is one of the most memorable villains ever to grace the silver screen. The effects are top-notch, Nolan's direction is crisp and precise, and there's absolutely no fat left to trim away. The Dark Knight is just about as good as movies get.
Oh man, I love this fantasy tale. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may run 2 hours and 45 minutes but it's 2 hours and 45 minutes I'll never regret spending in a theater. Gorgeous to look at, every detail is perfect in this fairy tale pic from David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac). Watching Brad Pitt age backwards and seeing Cate Blanchett evolve from a gangly young woman into a mature, dignified senior citizen could have felt contrived, could have looked hokey even with all the progress that's been made in make-up effects. But the fact is within minutes of sitting down to watch Benjamin Button you are so lost in this beautiful story, you don't think twice about it being Pitt and Blanchett under all that make-up.
The popularity of Who Wants to be a Millionaire has waned, but you don't need to be a fan of the series to understand and enjoy Slumdog Millionaire. One of those films that's hard to resist as tagging 'a little gem', Slumdog Millionaire shows how one young man was able to emerge from horrible poverty to become a millionaire on India's version of the once-popular game show. Although some of the scenes are horrific and incredibly sad, there's a sense of hope that permeates Slumdog Millionaire. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) shot the film on location in Mumbai, employing mostly unknown young actors to fill out his lead roles. The result is a film that's believable, relatable, and genuinely touching.
Wall-E snuck up on me. It's not that I didn't want to like it - in my book Pixar hasn't made many missteps in the past. But come on...a movie about a robot that compacts trash for hundreds of years and looks a little like the character in Short Circuit? That doesn't sound all that appealing. And not only that, Pixar didn't hide the fact there wasn't much dialogue in the movie. I wasn't immediately sold on the idea but I'll tell you what, 10 minutes into the movie I fell in love with Wall-E - and I fell hard. Those magicians at Pixar, led by writer/director Andrew Stanton, did it once again. They created a magical world that draws in audiences of all ages and pulls on your heartstrings.
5. 'The Reader'
Kate Winslet is phenomenal in the lead role in The Reader, a difficult film to sit through because of its subject matter but one that doesn't attempt to apologize or make excuses for the unbelievably evil acts committed by its lead character. The Reader is one of those movies that's going to split the audience reaction into two camps - you'll love it or loathe it. There's no middle of the road with this dramatic film which focuses on the aftermath of the Holocaust and its affect on survivors.
I knew nothing about the Nixon versus Frost interviews until I watched this movie. Now I feel better versed about the disgraced ex-President as a fallen world leader and as a man who had to deal with being run out of office (something he brought on himself) and forced to live out his life away from the world of politics. Directed by Ron Howard and adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan (who wrote the stage play the feature film's based on), Frost/Nixon isn't just about politics and that's what makes it so fascinating.
7. 'In Bruges'
Did you see In Bruges in theaters? You didn't? You are not alone. But it's out on DVD now so put it in your Netflix queue or run to the store and find out what you've been missing. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play hitmen sent to cool off on vacation in Bruges after a job goes horribly wrong. While the film's a little violent, it's also absolutely hilarious and features the best performance of Farrell's career. It's a shame it was released early on in 2008. Had it hit theaters in the fall, In Bruges might have stood a chance at earning a spot on more Top 10 lists and maybe even an award or two.
Another bit of American history I wasn't familiar with prior to seeing a feature film on the subject, Milk chronicles Harvey Milk's rise from a small business owner to being the first openly gay man elected to office in California. Milk marks the feature film writing debut of Dustin Lance Blank who, with this film, announces himself as a screenwriter to watch. Blank condenses Milk's life without marginalizing the man and director Gus Van Sant shows considerable restraint in handling the subject matter. Loaded with terrific performances (Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch are real standouts), Milk is a thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking story that hopefully will be the fodder of conversations for days after viewing.
Right up there with In Bruges in the 'I bet you missed this in theaters' category, The Visitor is a timely story about an introverted man who helps two illegal immigrants and in the act of befriending them, he opens up to life and love. Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) gives a tour de force performance as a guy who keeps all of his emotions bottled up until he meets these strangers who need his assistance. The filmmaker behind the brilliant The Station Agent, writer/director Tom McCarthy, gives us a movie loaded with people carrying on real conversations - not spouting dialogue.
Daniel Craig scored yet another hit with his second movie as Bond, James Bond. Quantum of Solace, released on November 14, 2008, will likely finish its theatrical run with bigger numbers than Casino Royale and that's great news for Craig because it means more potential ticket buyers for his other projects - including Defiance. What might be a hard sell to audiences is made easier with the current Bond in the lead role of the oldest of three brothers who flee from the Nazis into the forest surrounding their town. Set in 1941 and based on a true story, Defiance follows the brothers and the ever-increasing group of Jewish citizens who join with them in order to survive.