The Top 10 Movies of 2008
A lot of things changed in 2008. The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with the release of Iron Man, Heath Ledger tragically passed away in the midst of what promised to be a stellar acting career, and Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, and Rooney Mara all had their film debuts in three mostly unknown films. We definitely did not get a fourth Indiana Jones movie that was the second-highest grossing film behind The Dark Knight. And, on the non-Hollywood side of things, the United States triggered a massive financial crisis and then elected its first African-American president.
A decade later, it’s debatable whether we’ve gotten enough distance from these films to determine which ones will be timeless classics and which ones will start showing their age. Fifty years from now, when we’re all Flickcharting on tech devices implanted in our brains, we might have a wholly different list. But for now, the users of Flickchart have collectively chosen these 10 to represent the best of 2008.
Nobody can say of Charlie Kaufman that he isn’t ambitious. After penning such surreal scripts as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s no surprise that his directorial debut is also spectacularly weird. It tells us the story of a theater director who yearns to do something ever more realistic and artistically honest, and this somehow spins into the creation of an enormous set that models the outside world and a massive collection of actors trying to capture the “realness” of the world outside them, to the point where reality starts to blur. Just like the in-world director’s out-of-control hopeful masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York is a sprawling chaotic movie that might not be making the huge statement about life that it wants to make. What it does do spectacularly well, though, is evoke feelings. The final scene, as Philip Seymour Hoffman wanders through his abandoned life-size set, is almost crushingly devastating. We as an audience have little sense of what his piece of art was likely to be, but we feel it spiraling into something enormous, as if enormity were an adequate substitute for substance. Like all Kaufman’s works, it’s a strange, strange film, but one well worth at least one viewing. – Hannah Keefer
- Global rank: #796
- Ranked 52,106 times by 2,840 users
- Wins 56% of its matchups
Sure, The Hurt Locker took Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director. That’s not why it’s special. And no, it’s not just because Kathryn Bigelow was the first female director to ever take the award (though that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at). It’s how richly deserved that directing Oscar is.
The horrors of war are nothing new in cinema. Bigelow frames them here with a documentary-like detachment that really puts the viewer in the maw of hell with Staff Sergeant William James (Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner) and those poor saps unfortunate enough to be riding shotgun with this lunatic looking for his next adrenaline-fueled death wish. The tension ratchets up from scene to scene like a great thriller, until, finally, there’s release, relief: a ticket home, away from the desert and the bombs. Yet, there’s one final gut punch coming, as we, the audience, come to realize something James has almost certainly known all along: he needs the desert, the danger. It’s real life that scares him the most. Never before has a supermarket cereal aisle seemed so harrowing, or so hopeless. – Nigel Druitt
- Global Ranking: #725
- Ranked 156,464 times by 11,470 users
- Wins 61% of its matchups
8. Gran Torino
As tempting as it may be, one should probably try to avoid analyzing a Clint Eastwood movie primarily through the prism of his infamously wonky politics. Case in point, his 2008 film Gran Torino, a perceptive and deep character study. He not only directs but also stars as Walt Kowalski, a retired auto worker whose wife has just died. Further alienated from his grown children and without any kind of faith, he is alone in his bitterness. This is in a Detroit that, while some might see to be in an undeniable and irreversible state of decay, is actually evolving thanks to Hmong immigrants who are moving into Kowalski’s old neighborhood. Gran Torino is about how we should not be afraid of change, and how actions can speaker louder than words. Gran Torino would also be a fitting swan song for Eastwood’s fine career as an actor, if not for Trouble with the Curve, which I am fully prepared to pretend never happened. – Walter J. Montie
- Global Ranking: #714
- Ranked 391,415 times by 41,435 users
- Wins 55% of its matchups
A fairly controversial Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire still has enough fans to keep it in Flickchart’s Top Ten after ten years of arguments about whether it deserves its acclaim. Structured as a series of flashbacks during the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (remember that show?!), the film tells the story of a young boy growing up in the streets of Mumbai. The boy, now a young man, is competing on the show and almost miraculously able to answer every question due to some specific event in his past. It’s a cutesy story to be sure, highly dependent on chance and fate, but director Danny Boyle knows how to navigate these waters (see: Millions) and in many ways, this is one of his most overall satisfying films; it doesn’t reach the heady heights of some of his others, but it does stick the landing, whereas many of his efforts get lost in the third act. The newcomer Indian actors are very charismatic, and the soundtrack represents one of the most accessible attempts at bringing Bollywood rhythms into a mainstream western film. Slumdog Millionaire is more heartwarming than groundbreaking, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. – Jandy Hardesty
- Global Ranking: #571
- Ranked 546,169 times by 64,800 users
- Wins 53% of its matchups
6. The Wrestler
My Flick Fights podcast colleague Hannah was the first I’ve heard classify Aronofsky‘s films as being about obsession, and this is an astute assessment of a catalog that would be otherwise difficult to categorize. But however well it might nail Pi or Noah or Requiem for a Dream, obsession only speaks to about a third of what drives The Ram in The Wrestler. The lion’s share of the forces driving the story of this modern-day Job are decay and entropy. This is the tale of a flawed man driven to the edges of society by the distorted incentives of the collective American id, and despite repeatedly trying to make the brave choices that will bring him back into the fold, every societal structure crumbles at his touch. Work, money, health, love, family, everything that Normals use to extract joy from this barren New Jersey coastline of existence, they all fail to give anything at all to Randy. And sure, you could say this is karma for his flaws, but he is flawed in exactly the same ways we all are; it’s just a matter of degree. In the end, the lesson for this martyr of the Church of Nihilism is to not fight it anymore, lean on the crowd’s love, and don’t rely on anything else, because you’ve already tried it all and failed. We are witnessing the tectonic bravery of a filmmaker to make a film with so deeply pessimistic a message, and it is because of Aronofsky’s trademark fearlessness and absolute dedication that such a story can manage to fill our broken hearts with hope and our bruised eyes with tears. – Doug Van Hollen
- Global Ranking: #507
- Ranked 397,279 times by 35,501 users
- Wins 57% of its matchups
5. In Bruges
Dark comedy is hardly a new genre, but there’s still something fresh about playwright Martin McDonagh‘s voice. Instead of finding his comedy in the shocking moments of darkness and violence, he finds it in the mundanity. In Bruges follows a pair of hitmen so accustomed to killing they do it by rote, and the joke is, over and over again, how even as they do horrible things they have the same ridiculous arguments that people who weren’t mercilessly killing others might also have. McDonagh’s effortless combination of morbidity and hilarity brings out some surprisingly thoughtful moments amidst the laughter, and raises questions about what consistent violence does to the human soul. In Bruges is a unique creature. It’s tough to find anything else like it, besides other McDonagh films, and it still works 10 years later. – Hannah Keefer
- Global Ranking: #425
- Ranked 182,897 times by 14,184 users
- Wins 62% of its matchups
You’d think by 2008 there’d be nothing left to say about vampires, or certainly nothing interesting. Tarantino, John Carpenter, and Buffy had shone such harsh lights on these creatures that they had lost all of their original mysterious and regal sexiness and become little more than demonic goblins with big teeth. But this was the year of not one but two (r)evolutions in the vampire myth which would re-animate it for a whole new century, albeit in a bifurcated form. In November, we saw the release of Twilight, the much-maligned-and-yet-somehow-much-embraced “sparkly teen” vampire, which brought some of the trope’s superpowers and anguished longevity to bear on the pain of young adult romance. But eleven months previously, Sweden had given us an altogether quieter and more vulnerable vampire, a frail-seeming little girl who is as imprisoned by her condition as any bullied child or parent of a disabled child. After decades of ever more exhaustingly “dynamic” vampires from Hollywood, this sweet, moody, terrifying, and incredibly meaningful film reminded the world that the soul of the vampire remains tied to the Old World, and that this legendary creature still has volumes to teach us about our collective relationship with death and the boundaries of the human heart. You can see the reverberations of this film in the patience and fragility of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and in the simple elegance of Only Lovers Left Alive. Even in semi-blockbusters like 2009’s Daybreakers, you get the sense that from this point on, vampires are no longer just monsters but characters, and that their plight is a valid lens through which to weep at the human condition. – Doug Van Hollen
- Global Ranking: #312
- Ranked 147,450 times by 9,973 users
- Wins 64% of its matchups
The first time I saw WALL·E, I knew Pixar had hit upon something truly incredible in a 2000’s children’s movie. In an era of loud, flashy, action-packed family films full of witty wisecracking sidekicks (see: every Dreamworks film ever), it was a bold and refreshing move to put forth a film that opens with 45 minutes of a mostly nonverbal robot exploring a deserted planet. Even when he is joined by a second nonverbal robot and the two begin to haltingly communicate, the pace remains leisurely and the emphasis remains on the slow building of the characters — and there’s still almost no dialogue. Pixar created a near-silent movie for children with one of the most likable protagonists they’ve ever brought to life. There’s no doubt the first half of the movie is a stunningly ambitious feat for a blockbuster in today’s film landscape, and that alone would qualify it as something special. While at first it feels like a bit of a jarring move to go from part one to part two, the latter half of the movie really does tie it all together. When WALL-E heads off into space to rescue his love, we find ourselves just as disoriented as he is by the change of pace. As we learn what happened to the Earth, WALL-E’s story broadens to morph with our story, and it’s hard not to feel the same sense of joy that curious robot does when it all resolves in the end. It’s one of Pixar’s most daring films. – Hannah Keefer
- Global Ranking: #230
- Ranked 796,488 times by 82,551 users
- Wins 62% of its matchups
2. Iron Man
It’s strange now to remember that just a decade ago, the only superheroes worth their screen time were Spider-Man at Sony and the X-Men at Fox (and both had recently released disappointing third chapters). In 2008, I knew little about Iron Man. I thought Iron Man was some kind of robot, as I had only seen a few images of him in the mechanical suit from the comics. I had no interest in Iron Man as a character and little interest in it as a movie, but decided to see it anyway, and now, nearly ten years later, Tony Stark is one of my favorite movie characters, and I am a huge MCU fan.
One of the most impressive things during that first viewing in 2008, and that still impresses, is the scene in which Stark in his new suit intervenes in terrorist violence in the village. It was something I had never seen Superman do, and that stuck with me. There’s a real-world feel to the film that falters a little bit in the climactic scenes, but for the most part, everything about Iron Man is on point: great action, suspense, makeup, animatronics, visual effects (this film features some of the final work of the great Stan Winston), characters, dialogue, humor, screwball romantic banter, and a touch of political commentary about the U.S. military-industrial complex. Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man — can you imagine anyone else? — in a film that redefined not just his career but the blockbuster movie landscape. Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane remains one of the best bad guys in the franchise. Director Jon Favreau still doesn’t get enough credit for laying the groundwork for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, 17 films and going strong. – Tom Kapr
- Global Ranking: #205
- Ranked 834,686 times by 87,638 users
- Wins 63% of its matchups
It’s hard to believe it’s already been ten years since The Dark Knight released in theaters. To call this film game-changing would be an understatement. It turned Christopher Nolan from small-time indie auteur into blockbuster maestro. True, Batman Begins had released three years earlier and placed Nolan firmly on the map. But this Bat-sequel exploded his stardom and blew audiences and critics away. Certainly many superhero films had received critical praise in the past, but The Dark Knight changed the conversation from these kinds of movies being good as “genre” films to potentially being among the best films out there, period. The Dark Knight turned the tragic story of Bruce Wayne and his war on crime into the large-scale epic that long-time comic fans thought he deserved.
Nolan with his cinematographer Wally Pfister and editor Lee Smith turn in a masterwork of pacing, editing, and cinematography that make The Dark Knight a visual feast. The film simply flows. From small, poignant character moments to full-scale action set-pieces, the film is a thrill ride. 2008 was the end of the Bush administration, with its debates about security vs. freedom, and The Dark Knight’s timely exploration of the moral dichotomy of fighting crime — how dark can we go before we become as bad as the criminal? — remains powerful today. Heath Ledger’s untimely death makes his performance of Joker stand out all the more, and it notched a rare Oscar victory for acting in this genre. He truly is a force of chaos in this film, the dark side of the coin to Batman — an appropriate pun given Aaron Eckhart’s brilliant turn as Harvey Dent/Two-Face.
While the superhero genre has largely progressed in a different direction due to the dominance of the MCU, The Dark Knight remains the peak of the “serious” mode that these films can embody. It was a film that we didn’t deserve, but truly needed. A watchful protector… a dark knight. – Connor Adamson
- Global Ranking: #15
- Ranked 1,244,061 times by 96,082 users
- Wins 80% of its matchups
Those are Flickchart’s global top 10, as decided by all Flickchart users, but they’re certainly not the only great movies from 2008. Here are a few that reside a little lower on the global chart but that our bloggers think are worth remembering regardless.
Many who know me are used to hearing me champion classic and arthouse films, so they’re usually surprised to learn that Speed Racer is my #1 film of 2008, and not by a small margin. I have always been a Wachowski fangirl, even as their popularity among audiences and other cinephiles continues to fall. To me they remain visionaries, and their much-maligned 2008 film is no different. It’s a live-action cartoon, a feast for the senses, and throws me into mesmerized delight every time I see it. From the wonderful combination of live action, drawn elements, and CGI evident from the very first scenes to the eye-poppingly overwhelming race sequences, I’m in love with this film from start to finish. Is the story somewhat simplistic? Sure, but it does what it needs to do, which is provide a thematic throughline for the Wachowskis to blow the senses into ecstatic disarray every few minutes. The editing on the first race scene with all the character wipes and overlapping audio cues is just brilliant, and no one will ever convince me differently. The colors, the editing, the art design, everything just combines in a perfect way for me, and I will defend this film until the day I die. – Jandy
This is one of those pieces of art that some people argue shouldn’t be listed on Flickchart at all, much less on a best-of-the-year list. It is not only a short film, but a short divided into three chapters released one at a time on the internet. Its disputed “filmness” aside, it’s landed a spot in my personal top five, and I’d argue (unpopularly) that it’s the best thing Joss Whedon has ever done. Dr. Horrible is wildly funny throughout with some truly great musical numbers, but where it snaps into greatness is in its literal third act, where the light and funny musical we’ve been watching thus far gets a bit more serious. Neil Patrick Harris is largely known for his showmanship and his comedy, but he has a gift for layering deeper emotions in his humorous characters, and it serves him well here. The character of Dr. Horrible is one of the most sympathetic villains I’ve ever seen on screen, and that makes his story all the more compelling. It’s a funny, poignant 45-minute story that I will never grow tired of. – Hannah
Burn After Reading sadly remains one of the Coen brothers most underseen and underrated efforts. It might be hard to justify calling it underrated given its 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it rests far too low on the Coen brothers Flickchart filter at 14/17. It is a brilliant combination of chaos and absurdity featuring one of the Coens’ finest scripts. It jumps from moment to moment with a gleeful and knowing insanity as the Coens mock and celebrate the spy thriller genre with their signature black comedy zeal. This film is brilliantly casted with George Clooney and Brad Pitt delivering some of their best performances in their careers, and John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Richard Jenkins rounding out a perfect ensemble. But ask me to describe the plot of this film and I’ll tell you only one thing: “I’m f*cked if I know what we did.” – Connor
I’ll say this up front: yeah, some of Tropic Thunder’s more… controversial humor is not going to have aged well. And maybe I won’t even revisit this film anytime soon. But it will forever live in my memory as a movie that made me laugh, out loud and often. Ben Stiller’s ambitious comedy had me in stitches from the opening mock trailers.
Let’s not forget: Robert Downey Jr. was Oscar nominated for playing an Australian actor who undergoes a skin pigmentation procedure in order to portray an African-American soldier in a war movie. And he’s NOT the most outrageous character in the film. That title belongs to a nearly unrecognizable, ludicrously profane Tom Cruise gyrating around in a fat suit. From Stiller’s airheaded action hero to Matthew McConaughey’s slick agent (“the Pecker”) to Danny McBride’s effects maestro who likes blowing things up just a little too much, this movie is populated by an impressive cast at the top of their comic game. A lot of comedies push the boundaries of taste, but a lot of comedies don’t make me laugh like this one did. For that reason alone, it’ll always be a favorite. – Nigel
As a fan of martial arts movies, animation, and Jack Black, I was… reluctant to see Kung Fu Panda. It could so easily have failed to do justice to those constituent elements, making them subservient to kiddie jokes, sloppy action, and merchandising concerns. Instead, it transcends them. The filmmakers’ reverence of the high mythology and melodrama of the martial arts genre is palpable; co-director John Stevenson said “I wasn’t interested in making fun of [martial arts movies], because I really think martial arts movies can be great films… [So let’s] take our place in that canon.” Much effort is well-spent crafting a poignant, epic, genre-appropriate backstory involving the film’s villain and colorful kung fu masters, but the tastes of kids and kung-fu newbies aren’t lost among the layers of homage: Jack Black’s panda is our guide, an outsider looking in, a chosen one with everything yet to learn. Black’s range of strengths, from mock-heroic dramatics to arena-rock vocals to winsome silliness, are ideal for this project that aims to be multiple things: a cartoon, a “real” martial arts movie (in which, admittedly, the martial arts are drawn rather than acted), and a startlingly gorgeous piece of animation. The supporting cast (including Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu) provide occasional color here and in the next two installments of what is now the Kung Fu Panda trilogy — a trilogy not primarily born of that merchandising impulse I feared, but of the cast and crew’s love for the genres that Kung Fu Panda bestrides. – David Conrad