My Picks For The Best 25 Films of 2008

It's a full two weeks into the new year and I've finally assembled my list of the best films of the past year. It may be a bit late, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a list of 25 must-see new films; films that helped make this such a phenomenal year for a movie nut like myself.

As was the case last year, however, this isn't really a true "Best of 2008" list, since I've yet to see all of the great films just released at the end of the year, such as "Slumdog Millionnaire", "Milk", "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button", "Happy-Go-Lucky", "Waltz With Bashir", "Revolutionary Road", "Frost/Nixon", "Doubt", "Man On Wire", "The Wrestler" and "I've Loved You So Long", to name just a few. And, even though it came out last summer and I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, I still haven't seen "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" either.

And, again, just like last year, some of these films on my list are actually late-2007 theatrical releases, films I didn't get to see on DVD until well into 2008.

So, call it whatever you like, but I'm calling it My Picks For The Best 25 Films of 2008:

1. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
Filmmaking at its absolute best. And, interestingly, an American movie filmed entirely in French.

You know you're dealing with one hell of a great filmmaker when the story of a completely paralyzed man writing his autobiography one letter of the alphabet at a time - communicating to the person transcribing it through an excruciatingly-slow system of blinks - is not only far from boring, but somehow completely fascinating and captivating. And one hell of a great filmmaker is exactly what Julian Schnabel is. His first film, "Basquiat" (1996), was terrific, while his second, "Before Night Falls" (2000), was truly fantastic, but this, his third film, is his masterpiece.

2. The Edge of Heaven
Written and directed by Turkish-German director Fatih Akin and set both in Germany and Turkey, this wonderful film features some great camerawork, lots of beautiful scenery and an incredible cast... and a story involving six main characters dealing with everything from love and loss to multiculturalism and radical politics. Powerful and moving... and simply brilliant.

3. There Will Be Blood
Ostensibly a tale about oil and religion, this epic masterpiece from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is really a metaphor for the ongoing battle over the past century for America's soul, an all-out battle waged between the twin evils of fundamentalist (and/or charlatan) Christianity and unbridled Capitalism/Greed and how together they've so twisted all that is good and decent about the country and its people. A pretty heavy story, yes, but with some dark comedic moments throughout.

I recently saw this for a second time and, as with all great movies, it was even better on second viewing. Daniel Day Lewis' performance, it must be noted, is one for the ages - up there with anything DeNiro, Brando, Streep or Penn have ever done, and I say that as a huge fan of those four Gods of acting.

See my full review here: Two Classics, Three Masters: The "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" Rave

4. No Country For Old Men
It was so nice to see the Coen Brothers clean up at the Oscars for this dark, violent masterpiece. In years past "Juno" would almost certainly have won, as all the old people would have voted for the one comedy over all the violent gritty dramas. But luckily, it seems, they've been dying off and filmmakers like the Coens can now finally be recognized for what they are - cinematic geniuses.

See my full review here: Two Classics, Three Masters: The "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" Rave

5. Tell No One
Originally released in Europe back in 2006, but only released here this past summer, this French thriller is a masterpiece in both filmmaking and acting.

A suspense/thriller with a real emotional heart, the film has accurately been described as a cross between "Vertigo" and "The Fugitive". I'd call it a Hitchcockian thriller better than just about any actual Hitchcock thriller, with the possible exception of "Vertigo". And the acting here is absolutely outstanding. Francois Cluzet, especially, gives a breathtaking performance as a man who comes to believe his wife may, in fact, be alive, eight years after her brutal murder.

Featuring a plot much more complicated than your typical Hollywood thriller (adapted from a novel by American writer Harlan Coben) and masterly directed by Guillaume Canet, who also wrote the screenplay, this is a must-see for any and all lovers of great cinema.

6. Into The Wild
Writer-director Sean Penn's best film yet. Breathtakingly beautiful landscapes and a career-defining performance from Emile Hirsch in the lead role.

See my full review here: The Sean Penn "Into The Wild" Rave

7. I'm Not There
Ok, I'm a Dylan fanatic and was therefore predestined to love this ode to the many personas of Bob... and, man, did I ever! But you certainly don't have to be a Dylan fan to enjoy this highly original work from the mind of writer-director Todd Haynes. However, you probably do have to be a fan of art films to truly appreciate it, as it's a very unique and creative piece of filmmaking, without any real linear storyline. Being a fan of Bob definitely does make watching the film more interesting, though, since non-fans simply won't get all the (literally) hundreds of references and jokes, not to mention all the lyrics and lines from interviews used as dialogue.

I originally saw this at the theater and it was fantastic, but I enjoyed it even more the second time (on DVD). The music, of course, is incredible throughout, but the acting is also pretty amazing, especially that of Cate Blanchett, in one of the greatest performances of her entire career.

The heart of the film is the sad story of the deteriorating marriage between characters based on Bob, played by Heath Ledger, and his first wife Sara, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Even sadder to watch after Heath's tragic death.

8. La Vie En Rose
Another fantastic French film, this one featuring Marion Cotillard as French singing legend Edith Piaf, in one of the greatest tour de force acting performances of all time. A much-deserved winner of the Best Actress Oscar last year. If you like music, great acting and/or wonderful filmmaking, see this movie.

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
A brilliant and completely absorbing piece of filmmaking from writer/director Cristian Mungiu. Heavy as hell, - gut-wrenching, in fact - this Romanian film most definitely isn't for those looking for a night of fun and laughs. But for those looking for an amazing piece of social realism, this is a must-see work of art. Set in dictatorship-era Romania in 1987, the film presents a snapshot of a very different world and a brutal depiction of a topic rarely discussed in film: abortion.

10. Juno
Fun, light and somewhat silly (and occasionally hilarious), this is quite unlike most of the other, much heavier, films here in the Top 10, but it definitely deserves to be here nonetheless. A fantastic cast, a terrific script and a great soundtrack too. The whole thing rests on the shoulders of the amazing Ellen Page, who does a outstanding job in the title role. However, if you want to see her in a role ten times more awe-inspiring than this, check out "Hard Candy" (2005). She'll blow your mind.

11. Michael Clayton
I loved this film from writer-director Tony Gilroy. And, hey, doesn't George Clooney just seem to get better and better with each year? Such a wonderful actor! And a great film all around.

12. Gone Baby Gone
An impressive directorial debut from Ben Affleck and a powerhouse performance from the entire cast, including Ben's brother Casey, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman. Like "Mystic River" and "The Departed" before it, the city and neighborhoods of Boston feature prominently. So much so that the city almost becomes a character in its own rite. Without giving anything away, it's a morally ambiguous tale that, unlike so many Hollywood films, offers no easy simplistic answers and leaves you struggling with what you would have done if put in the same situation.

13. Honeydripper
Yet another in a long line of subtle masterpieces from writer/director John Sayles. Perhaps best known for the minor hits "Eight Men Out" and "Lone Star", he's been making his fantastic little independent, low budget films for years and years now, films that brilliantly tell the story of a specific time and place as much as they tell the story of any specific plot. I've seen 12 of his gems now and every one of them has been great, while none of them succumb to typical Hollywood formulas. There was "The Secret of Roan Inish" set in Ireland, "Limbo" in Alaska, "Sunshine State" in Florida, "Lone Star" in Texas, and "Silver City" in Colorado. And now this film, which slipped right under the radar, transports the audience back to early-1950s rural Alabama, with all the racism, amazing music and small town realities that that time and place conjures up. Another great film from one of the greatest American filmmakers working today.

14. Burn After Reading
Another highly enjoyable Coen Brothers film, and what a change from their previous flick. After the dark, violent "No Country For Old Men", they decided to go with one of their wonderfully bizarre comedies this time. And isn't that part of what has always made the Coens so special - they never repeat themselves. Not one of their greatest films, perhaps, but fantastic just the same. And with an all-star cast, featuring hilarious performances from Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Frances McDormand, but also some terrific work from the likes of John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and Richard Jenkins.

15. WALL-E

On first viewing I saw this as yet another great Pixar film for kids that adults could really enjoy as well. But on second viewing I realized that this is a fantastic film, period. I mean, what "kids movie" is dialogue-free for the first 20 minutes and still completely captivates the viewer no matter what their age?

16. The Dark Knight

As far as story and character development goes, I actually preferred the first film, "Batman Begins", but there's no denying the thrilling joyride of this second instalment. And Heath Ledger gives one of the greatest twisted villain performances in film history. Dark, moody and far from the earlier camp versions of Batman, writer-director Christopher Nolan's caped crusader is very much a Batman for adults... and for the ages.

Now, if you liked this, go out and rent Nolan's "Memento" (2000), his most original work of all.

17. The Visitor
A quiet little comedy-drama dealing with some rather serious topics, and featuring a quiet yet powerful performance from Richard Jenkins, as a professor transformed from his dreary existence by the two illegal immigrants he discovers in his apartment one day.

18. In Bruges
This dark comedy/crime thriller is at turns utterly hilarious and absolutely suspenseful. Fantastic performances all around from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes and Clemence Poesy. And the other main star of the film is, of course, Bruges, a place I have some very special memories of from way back in 1990 when I was backpacking around Europe. And, just in case you're wondering, I, personally, never once said "Fucking Bruges!!", but then again I wasn't a hit man on the run either.

19. The Savages
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are fantastic as two very dissimilar siblings, forced to come together to care for their ailing father.

20. The Band's Visit
A timely story from Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin about the possibility of Arab and Israeli friendship and understanding. The tale of an Egyptian police band, in Israel for a concert, that ends up lost and stuck overnight in the wrong town.

21. Things We Lost in the Fire
Danish director Susanne Bier's Hollywood debut is a disappointment compared to her earlier masterpieces, "Brothers" (2004) and especially "After The Wedding" (2006), but this is still a great film and Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry are superb in the lead roles.

See my full Susanne Bier rave here: Distinctive Danes Do It With Devotion: The Danish Cinema and Susanne Bier Rave

22. Tropic Thunder
What the hell is this doing here, I can hear some people saying, but why shouldn't it be? This was perhaps the funniest movie of the year and the way it ripped into everything Hollywood - the studios, the massive egos of the stars, the cliches of war films, and so much more - was simply awesome, totally hilarious and downright brilliant. Silly, definitely, but silly with something to say. And rarely do you ever see such fantastic acting in a "silly" comedy: Robert Downy Jr. is truly out of this world as "a white Aussie dude playing a black American dude" in a portrayal of method-acting gone wrong. Oh and then there's Tom Cruise's brilliant star turn as the megalomaniacal studio head with a penchant for dancing.

23. Lars and The Real Girl
Yet another great performance from Ryan Gosling (after "Fracture", "Half Nelson", "The Notebook", etc.) in this strange and moving tale of a guy and his blow-up doll girlfriend. And, no, it's not a porno.

24. Pineapple Express
Best stoner action flick ever. James Franco and Seth Rogen are perfect.

25. Atonement
A rather conventional period piece that was nowhere near as great as all the hype would lead you to believe, but a pretty entertaining and enthralling film nonetheless.

And, finally, A Very Special Mention, One Year Late:

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Originally released in Europe in 2006 and in North America in 2007, I didn't see this masterpiece until this past year. It's a little too old to be on my "Best Films of 2008" list, but I just want to say that if it were part of this year's list it'd definitely be in the top three.

The winner of the PALME D'OR at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and probably director Ken Loach's greatest film yet. And that's coming from a huge Ken Loach fan. A breathtaking, heartbreaking film, this is European cinema at its absolute best, which is to say this is cinema at its best. Set in Ireland during the war of independence and the subsequent civil war, this could, in fact, be the story of any oppressed people anywhere fighting for their freedom from their oppressors... and then, sadly, as so often happens, descending into fighting amongst themselves. This is a must-see film!!

So, there you have it, 25 great films and one bonus flick as well. If you disagree with my choices, feel free to post your objections and/or the films that you think should have made the list.

And make sure to check out My Picks For The Best 20 Albums and 50 Songs of 2008: Dylan Tops Both Lists.

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Friday, January 16th, 2009


To see my choices from last year read this: My Picks For The Best Films of 2007


Or for another recent piece on film try this The "Eternal Sunshine of Charlie Kaufman's Mind" Rave (Featuring My List of The Top 5 Comedies of All Time)


For more on film click here: MikesAndDislikes Film: Home


Or here: Film: General


Or here: Film: Raves & Reviews


Or, if you happen to be a Bob Dylan fan, check this out: The 25 Greatest Dylan Songs of The Past 20 Years


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From your sister

Hey Mike, sorry it took me so long to read your top 25. There are several I haven't seen, but the ones I have seen, I agree with your reviews. I especially loved your #1, and your #6 - 11. All great films. Your Sis, Liz

You missed one

You missed one really great film from Quebec, The Necessities of Life (Ce qu'il faut pour vivre). It takes place in the 1950's and is about an Inuit man from Baffin Island who is dignosed with TB and sent to a sanatorium in Quebec City for treatment. Sounds dismal but isn't. Has a northern pace. Up for foreign film Oscar. Maria C.

I loved "There Will Be Blood"

Mike I had a look at your movies. A lot I haven't seen. I agree with There Will Be Blood. A lot better on DVD then cinema. Love the film. Love Wall-E and Dark Knight. Prefer Burn After Reading to No Country. I've read the book and it's a fantastic adaptation. Javier Bardem is amazing but the film left me wanting. I've only seen it once though and I think it's one I'll revisit. In Bruges is amazing. Really witty and quite touching considering it's a film about hitmen. Russell Jones (from Sheffield)