Top 10 Movies of 2008

by Eric Melin on December 30, 2008

in Top 10s

After the busiest December in movie-watching history, I finally managed to squeak out a list of the best movies of 2008. After going back through my favorite films of the year, I noticed that the last-minute Oscar contender cramming didn’t really change things all that much. Sure, “The Wrestler” and “Let the Right One In” were Oscar season additions, but the other ten or so movies that you’ll be hearing about between now and February 22 didn’t make the list. For another take see Alan Rapp and Ian McFarland‘s lists at sister site Transbuddha.

10. Speed Racer

speed racer wachowskiTo dismiss one of the most inventive movies of the year as a candy-colored assault on the senses is missing the point completely. This groundbreaking offering from the Wachowski brothers was unfairly bashed like no other movie this year. Like most films that are ahead of their time, though, I’m sure that “Speed Racer” will have its day. Rather than depicting reality, 14 different effects houses worked together to create a new form of “layered unreality” where nothing that is seen on the screen can actually exist in real life. The goal? A live-action interpretation of Japanese anime. The effects teams literally pieced together layer upon layer, essentially becoming the production design heads and “virtual” cinematographers. The pacing is frenetic, and the movie is probably too long for its own good, but as a bold experiment in storytelling, nothing else is as invigorating this year.

richard jenkins the visitor9. The Visitor

Writer/director Tom McCarthy’s character study of a widowed university professor who finds some squatters in his New York City apartment avoids all the trappings of a political treatise, despite a plot device that indicts post-9/11 immigration policies. Richard Jenkins’ understated and nuanced performance gives us a clear sense of the decency of a man who would prefer to blend into the background. The relationships he forms in the movie are unlikely, but only on the surface. Watching the man come out of his shell and embrace friendship with a Syrian djembe player and his Senegalese girlfriend was one of the biggest surprises of the year. It’s like “Gran Torino,” except without all the racism, bad acting, and inappropriate martyrdom!

wall-e still8. Wall-E

Having a cinematographer like Roger Deakins work as an advisor on Pixar’s latest was one of many smart choices that led director Andrew Stanton to realize the most filmic-looking animated movie ever produced. The first half of “Wall-E” is an expertly rendered whimsical “silent” film told through the binocular eyes of the last robot on Earth. If the first part of that sentence sounded different from the futuristic dystopia of the last half, that’s because it is. Big sci-fi ideas about the possible fate of the world are in store for the movie’s second half, but “Wall-E” also never loses sight of what’s at its robotic little heart—a love story for the ages.

the fall tarsem7. The Fall

Young Romanian actress Catinca Untaru was remarkable in Tarsem’s underappreciated melancholic fantasy “The Fall.” She overshadowed even the movie’s startling imagery with reactions so unaffected (she stumbles over her words searching for the right way to communicate), it’s as if she’s not even working off of a script. The movie was filmed over four years in 23 different countries, and features almost no CGI. Instead, remarkable
Tarsem avoids computer generated graphics as much as possible to create a look that is almost exclusively in-camera. I think on some subliminal level, this approach pays off because, as far out as the imagery he presents is, it always feels like it is actually there. It actually exists, in some form or another. The more CGI that becomes common in movies, the more likely we are to feel when it’s not being used, on some level. As fantastic as the story sequences in “The Fall” are, we are grounded by the fact that characters we believe in have created them, and they have happened right there in front of our eyes.

slumdog millionaire dev patel6. Slumdog Millionaire

A kinetic, multi-genre sociopolitical fairy tale, “Slumdog Millionaire” is British director Danny Boyle’s love letter to maximum city Mumbai, India. Simon Beaufoy’s script is one of the most narratively tight of the year, jumping back and forth in time to tell the story of a young chai walla’s search for his lost love. It’s the device of the plot that he finds her by appearing as a contestant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” but Jamal (the enigmatic Dev Patel) is less interested in winning money than he is finding his true love. Boyle directs the film like a chase picture, never staying too long on any of the film’s memorable shots of the teeming Mumbai, and that’s one of the reasons the movie is so successful.

man on wire best doc5. Man on Wire

The best documentary of the year is a lot like “Slumdog Millionaire”—it works on so many levels. As a suspense thriller, it tells the story of a gutsy and improbable break-in carried out by a French tightrope walker and his buddies. As a portrait of a man, it reveals Philippe Petit as an obsessive whose life is consumed by his feats of daring long after the deeds are done. As a snapshot in time, it paints a picture of a world whose imagination was captured by the gigantic World Trade Center and the mischievous act of one man dancing on a thin line between the two towers. “Man on Wire” is easily one of the most riveting films in recent memory—documentary or not.

let the right one in snow4. Let the Right One In

The cold, formalistic composition of Swedish import “Let the Right One In” is simply stunning. Stark images of snow-covered landscapes and rundown apartment buildings stay onscreen long enough to burn into the brain. Director Tomas Alfredson’s vampire flick is a high water mark for the genre, and should draw comparisons to George Romero’s ultra-realistic take on the legend in “Martin.” The loneliness and despair of a Stockholm suburb in 1982 sets the tone for a movie where the vampire is not portrayed as a sexy outsider (see “Twilight”), but rather a pathetic freak of nature that’s ashamed of its own being.

the dark knight oldman eckhart3. The Dark Knight

My third viewing of “The Dark Knight” in the theater convinced me of one thing—Christopher Nolan’s script and direction in this culturally relevant crime drama are nothing short of miraculous. Heath Ledger’s re-invention of the Joker is as exciting as anything that was onscreen this year, and fine turns by Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart bolster the idea that this is not merely a Batman movie. It’s an ensemble piece. Weaving multiple storylines and themes together in a film that explored the fine line between security and fascism in such gloriously entertaining fashion is not easy, and Nolan has proven himself again to be a mature, world-class filmmaker.

synecdoche new york2. Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman’s latest confounded and frustrated many, but I found it to be an exhilarating expressionistic picture. There is no way to dissect “Synecdoche, New York” in order to find out “what really happened;” no surefire method to construct a realist narrative. Instead, it’s a very intimate and internalized snapshot of a frustrated theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and how he saw his life as a constantly evolving story. His own profession and way of analyzing things result in a picture where characters and actors interchange, blurring the line between what is dreamt up by the playwright and what’s actually taking place—so much so that it doesn’t matter anymore. Kaufman offers an unflinchingly honest and deep examination of the soul of a person by taking us headfirst into the scariest and ugliest recesses of his mind.

the wrestler rourke1. The Wrestler

This movie accomplishes a task simlar to “Synecdoche,” but through completely different stylistic means. No movie this year made you feel the pain and longing of its main character like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” The low-budget POV camerawork puts you in Mickey Rourke’s shoes as this former superstar struggles with his identity and the thought of redemption in the face of a life-changing event. Every moment is perfectly realized and drips with authenticity, even when the story flirts with standard subplots. Rourke is the only actor this year who looks as if he lived in his character’s body for years. Despite all this, Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a charmer; someone who is a decent person deep down. You want to root for him. He comes with all Rourke’s hard-scrabble emotional baggage, and it feels so real, it doesn’t even look like acting.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ YouTube 

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Aaron December 30, 2008 at 3:24 pm

Great list. I am trying to work on my top 5, but I haven’t seen a lot of the movies I know would be in it. I love Charlie Kaufman, and I want to see The Wrestler and Let The Right One In. When will these be around to see?!?!

Looks like my top 5 might be lame…


2 cleavy December 30, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Grrrrrrrr!!! When and where will The Wrestler be released in the Lawrence/KC area?! And, why is Milk only playing at the Tivoli?! Anyway, great list Eric! Oh, and it looks like Let the Right One In is “coming soon” to Liberty, so at least that’s a bright spot in our pathetic movie theater scene…


3 Kenny December 30, 2008 at 6:33 pm

A great list. Speed Racer and The Fall were underappreciated. The Dark Knight became so much more than a superhero movie. Wall-E certainly deserves it’s place among the best of this year. Synechdoche and The Wrestler are some of the most authentically personal films that I’ve seen lately. Good stuff.


4 Brian December 30, 2008 at 6:58 pm

As you and I have already discussed, Speed Racer was a truly a misunderstood masterpiece. I just got a blu-ray player for Christmas and after watching the epic final race in HD I believe even more that this film will find a cult following on disc. It looks so amazing. I’m also glad to see you included The Fall. It is a breathtakingly beautiful film. I can’t wait to see The Wrestler.


5 RCM December 30, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Extremely nice list! Love that you included “Speed Racer”. I too can’t wait to see “The wrestler”, wish I knew when it was coming out in my area.


6 Stryker January 2, 2009 at 2:26 am

Sweet list Eric. I went back to read all the reviews that you wrote for your top 10, but for some you didn’t originally behave quite as positively towards. For example, you had originally given Man on Wire and TDK solid rock fists up but put them higher up on your list than Slumdog which you had given a rock fist way up to. I assume that those were just movies which you grew to appreciate more with multiple viewings but I’m just curious what more it was that you gained. Anyway, love your stuff and keep up the good work.


7 Eric Melin January 2, 2009 at 9:50 am

You are absolutely right. I believe that your experience can be enriched on multiple viewings of a film, or vice versa. Also, films become more or less culturally relevant as time goes on. (Just look at all the changes on AFI’s greatest movie list in the ten years since they published their first one.) I’ve seen just over half of the movies on my list at least twice, and that certainly went into my thinking when I composed it.


8 Overseer January 3, 2009 at 11:21 pm

So nice to see that somebody even heard of The Fall, that movie was superb in any aspect. Too bad the Eden Lake didn’t make it on the list, I find that movie to be one with the very disturbing massage underneath all that horror layers of (not so) classic wood-slasher.


9 Clark January 5, 2009 at 6:38 am

“Slumdog” and “Wrestler” are not showing here in Brazil yet – like “Bejamin Button”, “Doubt” and many others I would like to see.
But I must say that my opinion is very different than yours. I actually felt that “The Fall” was OVERestimated. It has no plot, the whole story is slow-paced and absurd, and the little girl did not strike me as it did you.
Also, the lame storyline of “Speed Racer” destroyed it for me. The visuals are bad too, but I could accept them if the script was okay.
I only agree with you in #8: “Wall-E” is wonderful! Best of the year, should get the Oscar for Best Picture. I have seen it 7 times and loved it every time.
Happy New Year! May 2009 have better movies!


10 Ian McFarland January 11, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Echoing others’ thoughts, I’m glad to see ‘The Fall’ getting some love. The art direction on that film was something else.


11 Willis January 13, 2009 at 10:04 am

Great list Eric. I enjoyed Speed Racer, but not enough to crack my Top 10. Synedoche, Ny is the movie I am most looking forward to seeing. The Fall was an amazing movie to look at and I agree 100% on the female lead but the story left me a little unsatisfied. I would add Parinoid Park, Funny Games, and In Bruges to the list.


12 Paul Mazzoni January 15, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Great list, Eric. Kudos for including Speed Racer, though I would have put “Iron Man” before it. Interesting choice of “The Fall”. That thing went way under the radar, but I am a “Pushing Daisies” fan and wanted to see it for Lee Pace. I actually like the main story of the relationship, but I cannot believe the work put into the “story within the story”, which left me a bit unsatisfied. And the Charles Darwin character was a distraction. Still, I give it a marginal thumbs up. AND, I have Man on Wire to watch either tonight or this weekend. The only one I disagree with (though did not see) is #2. That thing looks like sh-t on ice.


13 Thomas Chapman March 25, 2009 at 1:20 am

If you want to know my top 10 well here it goes.
10. Show of hands.
9. The nightmare before christmas in 3d.
8. Prince caspin.
7. Tie betwen.
Journey to the centre of the earth.
Death at a furnal.
6. The dark knight.
5. The aunders of robin hood (the 1938 movie but it was in a film fest in 2008).
4. The mummy 3.
3. Mamma mia.
2. Iron man.
1. The curious case of benjamin button.
I am only 13 years old so that is why my list is R rated free. Were I live slumdog did not come out in till feb 5.(I chould see it because it is R13. Good movie). And were I live The werstler does not come out in till tomrrow and it is rated R16. And I thought you said it was a kids movie and that it was the most jolly film of the seson.


14 Beckyyyy! April 22, 2009 at 11:10 am

Aha This List Sucks :)
WALLE Is Crap. Worst Movie Ever.
And The Dark Knight Drags On 2 Much. Its Borin


15 Movies Clips Trailers Kid April 24, 2009 at 4:56 pm

This is a great list and saw all but two of them… Heres my list of best movies for 2009 with trailers in HD.. Hope you like


16 Ada July 19, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Haven’t actually seen any of these…*shrug* I’m pulling for Underworld: Rise of the Lycans to be on the 2009 best movie list. It’s a favorite, no matter how bad people think it is.


17 hi August 3, 2009 at 12:29 pm

#1 Twilight


Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: