Sam's Top Twenty Films of 2008

20. Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller doesn't get enough credit for his directorial skill and talented eye for framing images (watch The Cable Guy again to see what I mean). Not to mention that the film itself is funny as hell. Great work from the main cast members, and a surprisingly hilarious appearance by Tom Cruise as a studio mogul who seems to think he's the balding second coming of Sean “Puffy” Combs.

19. Pride And Glory

Unfairly compared to last year's We Own The Night, this incredibly gritty Joe Carnahan-penned family cop drama puts its seedy brand of stink on the audience. Colin Farrell and Ed Norton are obvious choices for this kind of work, and deliver the kind of unbridled gravitas needed for a film about corruption amongst those who are supposed to uphold their values at all costs.

18. My Name Is Bruce

Sure, it has the production values of a made-for-SciFi-channel stinker, but this loving homage to such tripe is a total hoot. Self-referential as all get out, the film stars cult film actor Bruce Campbell as a slightly twisted version of himself. He's forced to face off against a real demon (who loves bean curd) when a devoted fan confuses Bruce's silver screen antics with real life action heroism. Has guilty pleasure written all over it. Groovy!

17. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

For some reason I haven't watched a single Woody Allen film this side of Sleeper, Bananas and that sex comedy with the overlong title. While the characters populating this light, entertaining love rectangle are slightly neurotic, they don't come across as simply alter egos of their director. It's romantic and witty, and features a great wrap up that echoed my own sentiments to a tee.

16. Changeling

While this twenties period piece was generally looked upon as Eastwood-lite fare, I found it to be his most engaging and satisfying film since the unquestioned masterpiece that is Unforgiven. Angelina Jolie's tortured performance is rightly lauded, and the film itself surprised me when it takes a darker path than expected. Perhaps a bit overlong, but it echoes the truth that real life often offers no easily tied up answers.

15. Choke

Considering this is an adaptation of a Chuck Pahlaniuk book, plenty of people were already comparing it to Fight Club before it even got out of the gate. But director Clark Gregg wisely made a smaller, more indie-hearted film that delivered the correct amount of piss and vinegar balanced against a sobering tale of a man still haunted by his bizarre childhood and constant abandonment. It's sweet, funny and filthy. Bravo!

14. Cloverfield

This J.J. Abrams produced homage to classic Godzilla films is a love it or hate it affair. I really enjoyed the camcorder-based simplicity of it all and thought it delivered the right amount of intensity needed. I still would rather have seen the film made into more of an anthology piece based on footage from a more diverse cast of New Yorkers, but for better or worse the final product is a lean, mean Slusho machine that still delivers.

13. Sex Drive

In another year of piss-my-pants funny Apatow product (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Step Brothers), in comes indie filmmaker Sean Anders with this devastatingly hilarious take on the horrors of puberty. Between this and the previous year's Superbad, the final nails have been slammed into the coffin of the lame American Pie series. Yes, teenagers and their desire for sex can be funny beyond mere shock value and gratuitous nude scenes. A great cast (especially Seth Green and James Marsden), tons of funny ad libbed dialogue and a walking donut sporting a giant black erection make this a complete winner!

12. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

I'm a sucker for the ‘one night' films in which the protagonists experience some kind of life changing paradigm shift over the course of twenty-four hours or less. Michael Cera and Kat Dennings hit all the right notes as young Manhattan-prowling hipsters looking for that special someone (and a secret performance by a hot emo band called Where's Fluffy?). It's as if John Cusack passed his torch to these new kids and they ran with it.

11. Definitely, Maybe

Another romcom on my list? Have I gone soft in my old age? Something about the primarily nineties-based self-discovery undergone by Ryan Reynolds' charming main character reminded me deeply of my own idiotic ways around the same era. Abigail Breslin, Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks and Isla Fisher all add considerable verve to this surprisingly touching affair about finding your true love. Crap, did I just say that?

10. Traitor
Written off by far too many, this complex tale of deep cover gone to extremes features a tour de force performance by Don Cheadle. His delicate delivery of emotion and intensity is primarily rendered through use of facial manipulation and poignant stares. His character treads that age-old line dividing right and wrong, only to find it has become irreparably blurred. What's remarkable about a film depicting terrorism in this day and age is that it gives a balanced insight into all factors and sides of the coin, be they 'justified' or decidedly 'evil' – and that both good guys and bad guys can easily fall prey to the corruption of their ideals.

9. Slumdog Millionaire

Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later etc.) proves yet again that he can adapt to just about any given genre. This fun and romantic celebration of underprivileged, undervalued Mumbai slum denizens capably adopts the cinematic conventions of the Bollywood template while still managing to appeal to Western audiences. It's an inspired, visually and sonically rich tribute to the human experience, regardless of one's caste or financial status.
I was looking forward to this film from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, but was expecting more of a wannabe gangster film that wore its Tarantino inspirations on its sleeves. Much to my very pleasant surprise, what got delivered was a nuanced, character driven trip into Boschean surreality that deftly balances its ample humor with a slathering of pathos. The delicate sadness of Colin Farrell's childlike hitman is something rarely glimpsed in films of this genre.

7. Burn After Reading

Sadly, this film got lost in a shuffle of superheroes, post-No Country For Old Men expectations and too many comparisons to previous films in the Coen Brothers' filmography. And while it does bear a certain kinship to their other crime comedies populated by dunces (such as the critically acclaimed Fargo), I appreciated that they brought new elements to the table. The Coens have crafted a snaky, snarky script that eventually ties everything together tightly whilst simultaneously explaining that none of it ultimately makes sense.

Not only does the film deal with stupid plots and paranoid delusions, but also wittily compares the devious spy world to that of the self-centered realm of romantic infidelity. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have it acted by such a stellar array of thespians – one highlight being Brad Pitt's performance as the deliciously dense gym assistant Chad Feldheimer. His oblivious exclamations about “raw intelligence” had me in stitches.

6. Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr.'s much-heralded incarnation of the hard living, morally conflicted arms dealer Tony Stark was just the thing needed to inject life into a b-tier Marvel Comics property. People expect Spider-Man films to be top-notch material (3 notwithstanding), but nobody really anticipated that Iron Man would be quite this much fun!

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

To heck with The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this was the Indiana Jones film of the year. This is the result of two young Raiders fanatics who decided to spend their entire teenage years crafting their own shot-for-shot remake of the Spielberg-Lucas classic.

Almost impossible to see because of rights issues, it nonetheless came to Hartford for a short stint and reminded me why I fell in love with cinema in the first place. Despite dodgy 80s camcorder footage and the oftentimes-shrill sound, the infectious ambition of these young stars and filmmakers seeps out into the audience. They light their basement on fire, crash and explode real trucks and even find a way to shoot on a submarine! You can't help but to be inspired and entertained by this!

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

It's no secret that David Fincher is one of my absolute favorite modern film directors, and while this loose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story doesn't quite match the sheer genius of 1999's Fight Club, it is nevertheless a compelling journey.

Brad Pitt is remarkably good at essaying a young boy trapped in the body of an old man, and while the CG effects occasionally fail to convince it's still an amazing bit of trickery. It does remind one of Forrest Gump (not to mention Big Fish and The Fountain), but it's a denser film at heart. It chews on meatier material while tossing in symbolic musings on the nature of time, infinity, lightning and hummingbird wings. It's a film that resonates with the viewer long after the end credits stop rolling.

3. Quantum of Solace

To say I'm a James Bond fan would be the understatement of the century, so needless to say I had been waiting very impatiently for this follow-up to the brilliant 2006 reboot Casino Royale. For his first Bond outing, director Marc Forster was able to apply an art film mentality (i.e. four chase scenes based on the elements) whilst simultaneously putting the pedal to the cinematic metal.

Daniel Craig is again fantastic as an evolving 007, and here he seemingly goes on a vendetta mission to finally get over his grief for Vesper Lynd. Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, and Judi Dench all return, and the latter actress' incarnation of M really connects with Bond and hits the right notes. Mathieu Amalric also adds his own flair to a down to earth Bond villain with an ecological modus operandi that certainly taps into the zeitgeist.

David Arnold's score is his best work yet (also love the opening number by Jack White), and the locales are all as amazing as expected – most notably a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert and a waterborne stage in Bregenz where a visually charged rendition of Tosca is the background as Bond aggravates the members of the very SPECTRE-like organization known as Quantum.

While at times it reminded me of just about every era of the Bond cinema franchise, it also felt like I was reading an undiscovered Ian Fleming original story, which is about the highest form of praise I can lavish upon it. Can't wait for the next one!


Andrew Stanton has done solid work with Pixar before (Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life), but this film went above and beyond what had come prior. The design work in particular is a beautiful homage to vintage science fiction imagery - especially regarding the vessel Axiom, a star bound time capsule filled with bloated, self-centered human specimens.

Balancing the technical mastery is a notable accent on character, and much of the film's opening segment relies on silent film techniques – and surprisingly makes it work for modern audiences. Not only is there a biting social commentary about humanity's natural inclination toward taking the easy way out (and our surprising capacity for reversing that impulse when it counts!), but the love story about the heart-on-his-sleeve garbage mashing robot and his sleek, vegetation-seeking muse Eve was better than those found in most other romantic comedies in recent memory.

1. The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan outshined his already stellar work on Batman Begins, delivering a psychologically sound thesis on duality wrapped in the conventions of an action adventure film. Not only are Batman and the Joker two sides of the same coin, but that notion is also brought to further fruition through the introduction of Harvey Dent and his evolution into the coin-flipping Two Face – duality personified.

Beautiful cinematography, a great score and stellar acting across the board helps this long visual essay on chaos and heroism feel fresh and compelling at all times. The interesting and often ambient sound design choices also reminded me of that other great examination of the fine line dividing heroism and villainy – Michael Mann's 90's masterpiece Heat. Here's hoping Nolan and crew can pull it off a third time!



The righteous Culture Dog Kevin submits his Top Twenty Films of 2008

20. In Bruges

19. Son of Rambow

18. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation

17. Australia

16. Miracle at St. Anna

15. XXY

14. Cloverfield

13. Elegy

12. There Will Be Blood

11. Let The Right One In

10. Milk

9. Traitor

8. Burn After Reading

7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

6. Choke

5. Quantum of Solace

4. Persepolis

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


1. The Dark Knight