2008 was as exciting as any other year for movies. The big-budget fantasies only got more awesome, the lavish period pieces more impressive and the frat-boy antics more profane. But as Hollywood perfects its money-making formulas — carefully targeting, marketing and apportioning films among audiences — it becomes more difficult to find universal movies filled with people and stories as believable and memorable as the latest explosions and effects.
With many of the year's Oscar hopefuls still pending as of this writing, the best of 2008 is a touchy subject. The following could be considered the good of 2008, some of them anyway — movies you could recommend to almost anyone, or, maybe more importantly, watch more than once. More than ever, that's saying a lot.
“W.” — It isn't the last word on President George Bush, but don't let the former excesses of star director Oliver Stone turn you off from this understated and insightful look at the president and all his men and women.
“Redbelt” — Another one of those movies that would be a classic if it held up to the ending, this psychological thriller from David Mamet tests a martial arts instructor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to the limit of his honor.
“Wall-E” — The spirits of Chaplin and Keaton inhabit the near silent drama of this animated feature's first act, in which the voiceless title character roams a desolate, abandoned world in search of love. Unfortunately for plot purposes, Wall-E couldn't stay alone in his dusty world forever. The shift in tone and point of view when he meets a fellow robot and takes off on an interstellar adventure makes a pedestrian second half that keeps this very good kids' movie from achieving greatness.
“Synecdoche, New York” — Nobody does crazy stories like Charlie Kaufman. Isn't that what a character in one of his movies says to the guy playing him? It holds true for his directorial debut, about a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who descends into his own overblown masterpiece, set in a life-sized, ever-evolving portion of New York.
“Gran Torino” — The world view being celebrated — essentially a retired Dirty Harry who cleans up an aging neighborhood filling with immigrants — will be irksome to many, but Clint Eastwood manages to take on racism, old age and loyalty without being trite or overreaching. Sentimental? Sure, especially the overcooked ending, which mars but doesn't ruin the enjoyment to be had with this one.
“Burn After Reading” — Though lacking the pedigree and splash of last year's “No Country for Old Men,” this Coen Brothers spy-genre spoof stars George Clooney, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand as goofballs who get tangled up in espionage shenanigans. It will age better than most comedies this year.
“Good” — Though the film industry often errs in selecting monument-sized subjects to explore, this smallish production centers on an obscure professor (Viggo Mortensen) gradually corrupted by the Nazi party. It's notable for portraying a common German's perspective of a subject frequently covered in movies.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — This adventure abroad in Spain for two young women (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) who fall for a modern Don Juan (Javier Bardem) isn't perfect, but without Woody Allen where would we get our yearly dose of subtle wit and charming drama? Allen's brand of filmmaking is a dying art.
“Revolutionary Road” — The subject matter — suburban malaise — may be tired, but “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes helps stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet turn in compelling performances within a fully believable 1960s suburb using minimal resources.
“Paranoid Park” — This simmering thriller by Gus Van Sant about a teenager involved in the grisly death of a security guard manages to apply expressive cinematography and editing toward an essentially entertaining movie. It's surprisingly evocative of teenage kids, a group the film industry targets but rarely gets right on film.