The Year in Movies

Ledger (top) as the Joker; Downey Jr. as Kirk LazarusPhoto: Courtesy of Warner Bros. (top); Merie Weismiller W/Dream Works

The Case for Over-the-Top

It’s a phrase that gets applied to performances too easily—as if a large-scale, extravagant star turn from an actor is simply a matter of letting every bigger-is-better impulse pour onto the screen unchecked by fear, timidity, or taste. So let us now praise Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight by saying that we were thrilled to witness perfectly controlled pieces of work by actors who knew exactly how to calibrate what they were doing. Lesser talents would have let the blackface and the whiteface do their job for them, but for these two, good makeup was just a tool of the trade, a starting point for their intelligence and imagination. While we’re delighted to applaud the prodigally talented Downey in his comeback year, we wish we could end 2008 by heralding Ledger’s breakthrough to the first rank of young actors instead of by memorializing him. As The Dark Knight searingly demonstrated, he always seemed to know how much was too much. How sad and paradoxical that he left us wanting more.

The Year in Superlatives
Unfogettable Performances
The Top Ten Films
The Top Ten DVDs

The Year in Superlatives

Kate Winslet in makeup for her other starring role of 2008, The Reader, in which she plays a German on trial for war crimes. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Best Script: Reprise
Who knew the next-best Charlie Kaufman would actually be two guys from Norway? Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt’s screenplay for Reprise begins with a pair of dizzying flash-forwards, then zigs and zags with the brash, spiraling energy of the two young writers it follows. As a whole, the script is a show-off showcase of postmodern tricks, mirroring its literary protagonists, but each individual line rings true.

Best Cinematography, Score, and Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog’s cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, worked with one-twelfth the budget of The Dark Knight and still managed to capture the frantic, violent, hurly-burly pulse and rhythm of Mumbai, while embracing the digital, polyglot future. Superstar Indian composer A. R. Rahman provided the propulsive backbeat, mixing his own symphonic sound with the pounding global pop of collaborators like M.I.A. And editor Chris Dickens stitched it all together, producing director Danny Boyle’s shamelessly flashy and gimmicky, sometimes contrived, impossibly romantic, and utterly irresistible vision.

Best Movie You Didn’t See: Ghost Town
Precisely the sort of smart, emotional, well-acted comedy for grown-ups that we’ve been begging Hollywood for. Needless to say, it finished eighth at the box office its opening weekend.

Best Performance By an Actor: Kate Winslet
Early in her career, Winslet gave the impression of being a frail, neurasthenic thing. No more. In her husband Sam Mendes’s film of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, she portrays a suburban mother desperately afraid of losing her openness, her self, and the performance is by turns frighteningly vulnerable and rock-hard: She rages against the dying of her inner light. Her battles with her husband (Leonardo DiCaprio) are so intense, so visceral, that you know there can be no survivors. That she turned around and delivered an entirely different heart-rending performance in The Reader (above) makes her this year’s most astounding chameleon.

Best Hope for the Muppets: Jason Segel
His puppet musical of Dracula in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was extravagant, funny, and a slightly more coherent work of art than the movie in which it appeared (written by and starring Segel). Since Disney has handed him the keys to the next Muppets film, we feel, for the first time, reassured about the future of Miss Piggy et al.

Best Use of a New York City Location: Chop Shop
On a square-foot basis, more legendary movies have been made in New York than any other city, so it often feels like every square inch has been filmed. But Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop was totally new—a kinetic, breathing portrait of the honking mayhem of Willets Point, Queens, on the eve of nearby Shea Stadium’s replacement.

Best Blessedly Apatow-Free Comedy: The Foot Fist Way
This year’s barrage of overly hyped bro comedies from Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen reminded us that the best laugh is the one you don’t see coming—a quality nailed in Jody Hill’s redneck Tae Kwon Do flick. Presiding over a strip-mall dojo, Danny McBride’s Ricky Gervais–meets–Barney Fife lug-head was an underdog knockout.

Best Mess: Synecdoche, New York
First-time director Charlie Kaufman’s execution was deeply screwed up, but there’s something about the whole that feels authentic. Add to that a trio of kick-ass female performances (Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, and Catherine Keener) and you have one memorably disturbed film.

Best Montage: The Brothers Bloom
Roughly three minutes of the goofily endearing Rachel Weisz break dancing, D.J. ing, painting, skateboarding, and juggling chainsaws (among many other things) in Rian Johnson’s comedy caper.

Best Moment You Knew Was Coming: Philippe Petit Walking the Wire Between the Twin Towers in Man On Wire

Best Horndog: Sir Ben Kingsley
And he did it twice: As the unself-consciously creepy and lecherous professor in Elegy, and as half of a spectacularly weird make-out scene (with Mary-Kate Olsen!) in The Wackness.

Best Crime Flick: Boy A
While the big studios delivered such bankrupt fare as Righteous Kill and Bangkok Dangerous, this little indie from John Crowley (director of Intermission)—aided and abetted by a taut script from Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe and strong performances from Andrew Garfield and Peter Mullan—delivered the goods.

Best Viral Movie Campaign That Was Better Than The Movie: Step Up 2
The film’s YouTube dance battles—with Adam Sandler, Miley Cyrus, and hundreds of B-boy throwdowns—were insanely fun. The movie, not so much.

Best Runner-Up Documentaries: Stranded, Moving Midway, The Betrayal, Dear Zachary, and Operation Filmmaker
It was a stellar year for docs, and we couldn’t stop with the one on our top-ten list: Gonzalo Arijón’s transcendent Stranded, about the Uruguayan rugby team trapped in the Andes after a plane crash, shows that—cannibalism notwithstanding—the survivors became more, not less, human … In The Betrayal, Ellen Kuras tracks a Laotian family whose father collaborated with the U.S. during the Vietnam War, producing a film with a pervasive sense of loss and a haunting lyricism … Almost too painful to endure, Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father chronicles the literally incredible battle for custody of a toddler whose mother almost certainly murdered the father … A superb fusion of journalism and criticism, Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway documents the transport of his family’s southern plantation to another location, while exploring the myth of the plantation in American popular culture … Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker chronicles a grand American liberal humanitarian gesture gone kerflooey, as a young Iraqi invited to work on an American film turns out to be many things, none good.

Photo: Jojo Whilden/Sony Pictures

Best Sidekick: Ari Graynor, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
While the title characters of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist were busy falling in well-mannered love on a larky night in Manhattan, our hearts were won by Ari Graynor as Caroline, the drunken, slutty best friend who careened through her own catastrophic B-plot of an evening. Graynor managed to turn a walking Superfund of a role into a lovable riot, even while undergoing the most harrowing tête-à-tête with a public toilet since Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting.

The Unforgettables

Photo: Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures (Williams) Courtesy of Victor Bello/Weinstein Co. (Cruz); Eric Liebowitz/Sony BMG (Wright); IFC Films (Amalric); Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Films (Davis); Phil Bray/Focus Features (Penn); Darren Michaels/Columbia Pictures (Franco); Francois Duhamel/Dreamworks (Shannon); Thierry Valletoux/Sony Pictures Classics (Thomas)

Clockwise From Top Left

Michelle Williams
Heartbreaking and restrained, her quiet desperation in Wendy and Lucy is as powerful as it is still.

Penélope Cruz
Woody Allen found his smokin’-est muse for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. (Sorry, Scarlett.)

Jeffrey Wright
As the erotically ambivalent Muddy Waters, he rocks the Hoochie Coochie.

Mathieu Amalric
A kooky Bond baddie. A weirdo black-sheep in A Christmas Tale. We’ll now see this guy in anything.

Viola Davis
Her breathtaking combo of strength and weakness in Doubt? Accomplished in just five minutes.

Sean Penn
Joyful, sexy, goofy. That’s right, Sean Penn! His Harvey Milk is a spot-on celebration.

James Franco
The studliest stoner since Pitt, he wasn’t just a dealer in Pineapple Express—he was an aspiring civil engineer.

Mickey Rourke
As a washed-up wrestler and deli-counter dude, he gets the role of a career—and the comeback of the year.

Michael Shannon
His creepy, dreamy schizophrenic in Revolutionary Road nearly steals the film.

Kristin Scott Thomas
Underrated no more after a taut, crushing performance (in French, no less) in I’ve Loved You So Long.

The Year in Movies