So long, '08—glad to stick a fork in your ugly, corrupt ass. And to say goodbye, here's one more obligatory end-of-year list. Some picks are probably predictable, some maybe not so much. And some weren't technically released in 2008 but were included anyway. So, here you go. Clip. Save. Watch:
Che: Steven Soderbergh made a film about Che Guevara so big they had to divide it into two parts. Benicio del Toro stars as the controversial revolutionary, and neither he nor Soderbergh necessarily paints him as a good guy. It's beautifully shot, extremely well acted, a history lesson on steroids. If you can, catch both parts back-to-back. (Opens Jan. 23)
The Dark Knight: Sure, Heath Ledger's performance was spectacularly disturbing, and David Goyer's script finally creates the kind of complex drama and moral ambiguity that comic fans knew could transfer from the printed page to the screen. But it's Christopher Nolan's direction that ties it together in a monstrous blend of nihilism, pain and a 70-mm lens. If you didn't see The Dark Knight in Imax, you didn't see The Dark Knight.
Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh's films have always been hard to watch because the characters are so unpleasant. But here, Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is so upbeat that she's like fingernails on a chalkboard. When her infectious need to do good rebounds in the form of a rage-filled driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), it's nothing less than a small-scale tragedy. You might want to pop her in the mouth, but Hawkins gives an amazing performance.
Slumdog Millionaire: My favorite film of the year. Danny Boyle directed this kinetic love story and is exceptionally well served by Simon Beaufoy's screenplay, which describes the brutal upbringing of Jamal, a young, uneducated Mumbai man who finds such surprising success on Who Wants to be a Millionaire that the cops want to know how he does it.
Synecdoche, New York: I know. I told you it was great, and you hated it. Hell, even CityBeat editor Dave Rolland told me it was long and dumb. Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is a lonely movie to have fallen for, but where others can't stay awake, I see something that is new and brave and exciting. Cinematic Sartre. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's glum theater director is (to me, anyway) a metaphor for each and every one of us. Synecdoche is about your life—yours and mine and everyone else's.
The Visitor: Thomas McCarthy shines a spotlight on longtime character actor Richard Jenkins, who gives a wonderful performance as a man adrift, and also manages to frame the immigration debate through people, not politics.
The Wackness: Getting old is wack, no matter how old you are. A midlife crisis can strike anyone, even 19-year-old pot dealer Luke (Josh Peck), who's trying to enjoy the hot, sticky NYC summer of '94. Ben Kingsley steals the show as his customer/shrink, who's facing exactly the same problems.
Wall-E: If you can't love Pixar's beautiful story about a robot in love, you are a robot.
Waltz with Bashir: Is it a feature? Is it a documentary? Is it a cartoon? It doesn't really matter—Israeli director Ari Forman takes an unflinching look at his long-repressed memories about the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war and the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre. (Opens Jan. 9)
The Wrestler: Don't call it a comeback. Sure, there are parallel lines between Mickey Rourke's life and washed-up pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, but he delivers the best performance of the year. Rourke'll go head-to-head with Sean Penn for the Oscar, but it's up in the air who'll body slam whom for the award. (Opens Jan. 9)
Honorable mention: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: Not strictly a film, but Joss Whedon's Internet super-villain musical is more than just a project conceived during the writer's strike. Yes, it has a budget and stars, but indie filmmakers take note—this is the future of distribution, exactly what bands had to learn to do the day the music industry died.
Worst: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Spielberg, Lucas and Ford had 20 years, and this piece of crap is what they came up with? Nonsensical plot, ridiculous, unrealistic stunts, Shia LaBeouf and a crystal skull that looks like it came from Party City? I call giant, expensive bullwhip.