2008: The Year in Reviews

From a National Catholic Register article

By Steven D. Greydanus

Jeffrey Overstreet called the movie year 2006 “the year of the nightmare.” I’m starting to think we haven’t woken up yet.

The year’s biggest film, the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, is probably the grimmest, least escapist superhero movie ever made. The year’s biggest family film, the similarly lauded Wall-E, with its dreary, uninhabited post-apocalyptic world and vision of mankind reduced to passive, nearly helpless blobs, is one of the bleakest family films ever, and probably the bleakest cartoon ever released under the Disney banner.

How dark were the movies of 2008? So dark that the film styled by critics the “feel-good movie” of the year opens with a torture scene in a police station and involves the mutilation and prostitution of children (Slumdog Millionaire). Other films notably honored on critical top 10 lists include an excruciating drama about an illegal abortion (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), a wrenching documentary about survivors of a terrible plane crash who survived for months only by eating the dead (Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains…), and any number of stories about individuals and families who are variously broken, lost, struggling, mourning, loveless or hopeless (a sampling might include The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, Revolutionary Road, A Christmas Tale, Wendy and Lucy, Ballast and Shotgun Stories).

Wall-E was by far the best and most successful environmental apocalyptic film of 2008, but not the only one. Two unsuccessful thrillers, The Happening and The Day the Earth Stood Still, cast the human race as a blight on the earth and propose drastic final solutions for saving the planet. There was even another family film, City of Ember, that like Wall-E takes place in a far-flung future in which the human race has become lost after retreating from the biosphere (this time going down into the belly of the earth instead of into space) in the wake of some unspecified environmental disaster, then eventually finding their way back after the earth has had time to recover.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Iron Man offered rousing escapism with some heart. Family audiences enjoyed the uplifting and joyous Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! as well as the funny and furious Kung Fu Panda.

In fact, it was (as I noted in a recent article) a good year overall for family films — but, again, even the good family films weren’t all sweetness and light. One of the best was the dark and scary but morally rewarding fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian went darker than its predecessor, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And even the computer-animated The Tale of Despereaux covered some surprisingly grim themes.

The Year’s Best

While I’m not reviewing as many movies as I once did, I think I’ve probably seen at least as many worthwhile movies this year as I ever have, if not more. I had a harder time than usual deciding which films not to include in my top 10, and my list of runners-up (B-plus films and A-minus films that didn’t make the top 10) is longer than ever. As usual, the following films are unranked and in alphabetical order.

The Decent Films Guide Top 10 Films of 2008

August Evening
An extended family of Mexican Catholics living (presumably illegally) in southern Texas grapple with loss and the obligations — and limits — of filial piety in Chris Eska’s low-key, Spanish-language domestic drama. A father-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is the unusual focal point of a story about an elderly farm laborer and his dead son’s widow.
A foul-mouthed supporting character; references to a premarital pregnancy. Subtitles. Might be okay for teens.

The Dark Knight
The darkest super hero movie ever is also the most sophisticated and morally serious: a super-hero movie for grown-ups who know that “heroes” — from soldiers to saints, policemen to priests, presidents to popes — are fallible human beings like everybody else. Yet amid this virtual symphony of ambiguity are ringing notes of grace and redemption. Heroes may not be untarnished, but heroism is still possible.

The Fall
Tarsem Singh’s visually dazzling, mad folly is a breathtaking excursion into a dreamlike alternate reality as majestic and luminous as the psychic landscape of the director’s earlier The Cell was repellent. A hospitalized silent-era Hollywood stuntman spins an outlandish tale of epic derring-do for a precocious young girl. Too weird for some, it’s a messy, extravagant, creative act of love — the kind of bravura moviemaking Buz Luhrman was trying to do in Moulin Rouge.
A few stylized images of grotesque violence; minor profanity; attempted suicide; brief sexuality (nothing explicit). Mature viewing.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
One of the most important films of the year — and one of the hardest to watch — Cristian Mungiu’s wrenching drama about two college students who set out to procure an illegal abortion in the Communist Romania of the late 1980s is too disturbing for a blanket recommendation, but its uncompromising acknowledgment of the human cost of abortion is worth recognizing.

Ghost Town
Not since Groundhog Day has a high-concept romantic comedy so successfully blended entertainment and redemptive uplift. Writer–director David Koepp’s best film to date stars English funnyman Ricky Gervais as a dentist whose antisocial tendencies and dry wit equal Bill Murray’s weatherman, and who gets a similarly paranormal cross to carry: A near-death experience leaves him seeing ghosts — who need his help. A terrific comedic cast including Téa Leoni, Greg Kinnear and Kristen Wiig make the material sparkle.
Some sexually related humor; references to infidelity. Teens and up.

Jodhaa Akbar
Exuberant and exhilarating, Lagaan director Ashutosh Gowariker’s lavish, highly fictionalized historical epic is Bollywood spectacle at its finest: war, intrigue, romance… and, of course, singing and dancing. A proposed marriage between 16th-century Muslim emperor Jalaluddin and Hindu princess Jodhaa embodies a hope for a united India with Hindus and Muslims living in peace: a humanistic plea for respect of conscience rather than indifferentism or relativism.
Stylized battlefield violence; displays of Muslim and Hindu piety; romantic complications. Subtitles. Might be fine for older kids.

Ostrov/The Island
Penetrated by Russian Orthodox spirituality, Pavel Lungin’s deceptively (or perhaps not so deceptively) simple film tells the story of a monastic who is reputed as a holy man and a wonder-worker, but masks his spiritual gifts with subterfuge and outrageous behavior. Guilt-ridden over a crime he committed as a soldier in WWII, “Father Anatoli” easily mediates God's grace to others, but struggles with appropriating it himself.
A wartime murder; some mature themes including low-key abortion references and a depiction of demonic possession. Subtitles. Teens and up.

Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains
Arguably the definitive account of the 1972 Uruguayan flight disaster, Gonzalo Arijón’s powerful documentary offers a unique window on the meaning and experience of life and death in the most unforgiving circumstances. Faith and doubt, chance and necessity collide in survivor interviews, photos and low-key recreations.

Wall-E
Pixar’s most audacious film to date, Wall-E goes where no mainstream Hollywood family film has gone before, into realms of awe, existential longing and apocalyptic hope. Directed by Andrew Stanton, the poetic tale of a lonely robot laboring single-handedly to clean up the earth is at turns a Chaplinesque slapstick comedy and a scathing satire of consumer/media culture.

Young@Heart
One of the most potentially transformative films of the year, Stephen Walker’s endearing documentary about a senior citizens’ chorus group may change the way viewers look at old age. Octogenarians singing the likes of The Clash, James Brown and Bob Dylan make for much more than a Seniors Behaving Badly conceit: The chorus is the members’ lifeline as well as their gift.
Some crass language, frank sexual references and innuendo; issues related to illness and death. Fine for mature teens.

Runners-up

Ballast: First-time director Lance Hammer’s poignant Mississippi-delta drama of despair and hope in a family shattered by divorce and suicide (mature viewing).

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: Andrew Adamson’s well-mounted but revisionistic take on the second Narnia story.

Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who: Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino’s delightful: implicitly pro-life adaptation of the classic storybook.

The Express: Gary Fleder’s uplifting biopic of college football great Ernie Davis.

Man on Wire: James Marsh’s strangely transcendent documentary of Philippe Petit’s 1972 World Trade Center wirewalk (teens and up).

Mongol: Sergei Bodrov’s fierce barbarian-yawp biopic about the young Genghis Khan (mature viewing).

Iron Man: John Favreau’s smart and silly superhero redemption story.

Kung Fu Panda: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson’s snappy, colorful tribute to kung-fu movies by way of sharp family entertainment.

Rachel Getting Married: Jonathan Demme’s cinéma-vérité drama of a dysfunctional, rootless postmodern family struggling through nuptial-related togetherness (mature viewing).

Shotgun Stories: Jeff Nichol’s spare, powerful morality play about bad blood between two sets of half brothers (mature viewing).

Son of Rambow: Garth Jennings’s quirky English tale of a problematic friendship between a young bully and a sheltered Plymouth Brethren lad.

The Spiderwick Chronicles: Mark Waters’s scary but substantial fantasy adventure about a goblin-besieged family going through a divorce.

The Tale of Despereaux: Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen’s endearingly sincere if uneven adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s fairy tale about a small mouse with a big heart.

The Visitor: Thomas McCarthy’s humane drama about a withdrawn professor who becomes unexpectedly involved in the lives of a pair of illegal aliens (might be okay for mature teens).

Honorable Mention

Be Kind Rewind, Doubt, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Miracle at St. Anna,

Worth Noting

Australia, Burn After Reading, Caramel, City of Ember, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Henry Poole is Here, Igor, The Incredible Hulk, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Lucky Ones, Quantum of Solace,

Not Recommended

Bee Movie, Brideshead Revisited, Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa, Religulous, The Spirit, The Tracey Fragments, Twilight,

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