Maybe it’s because I took a demotion of my own this year, but no other movie rang so true in 2008 as The Promotion. Amidst disappearing retirement savings and massive layoffs, along came this incisive and bitterly hilarious comedy about two grocery-store managers (Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly) feverishly competing for a promotion to a crappy job they don’t even really want. Writer-director Steve Conrad’s timing was too good – the movie captured our current economic desperation so well that it promptly bombed.
The feel-good movie of the year, even though most of it is set in the squalid, treacherous slums of contemporary Mumbai. Director Danny Boyle – a dazzling, vibrant filmmaker – has been accused of glossing over poverty with this Dickensian fable of an orphan who lands a spot on a popular Indian game show, but what he’s actually done is distinctly different. With its sparkling sense of compassion, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t ennoble poverty. It ennobles the poor.
Documentaries are usually as good as their source material, and this Katrina consideration found a source who was literally in the eye of the storm. Kimberly Roberts, a resident of New Orleans’ doomed Lower Ninth Ward, turned on her video camera when the winds started to blow and kept taping – through the Biblical floods, the astonishing wreckage, the infuriating governmental indifference and the ensuing bureaucratic nightmare. Roberts rarely rages at her predicament. Watching the movie, you likely will.
A sad, beautiful picture about death, in which Brad Pitt plays a man who was born old and gets younger each day. This fantastical notion – pulled from a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story – is a roundabout way for screenwriter Eric Roth and director David Fincher to confront something that normally makes Hollywood shudder: the sorrowful reality of the aging process.
The best comic-book movie ever? Probably, though The Dark Knight shouldn’t be constricted by the terms of any one genre. The murky morality at work here – embodied by idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), anarchic villain The Joker (Heath Ledger) and a caught-in-the-middle Batman (Christian Bale) – is nothing less than Shakespearean. The grand visuals, meanwhile – courtesy of director Christopher Nolan – are literally Imaxean.
This Pixar installment makes my list for its entrancing, wordless opening third alone – a rueful vision of an abandoned Earth and the one plucky robot left behind to tidy things up. The second half – a harsh satire of humanity as a gluttonous species headed not for extinction, but obesity – is only a bonus.
A picture of quiet pain, which is the kind most of us experience. This assured independent production follows the relationship between a suicidal single man – bereft after the death of his twin brother – and his latchkey nephew, whose life is at a crucial crossroads. The way the picture winds its way toward a simple, hopeful ending is a wonder of narrative creativity and tact.
Beneath this thrilling Godzilla revamp – in which a group of Manhattan partygoers videotape a giant creature’s destruction of New York City – is a potent consideration of how technology has become intensely personal, even poignant. The camera here is the main character, desperately going in and out of focus at one point when someone falls dead. It’s a distinctly human gesture of denial and disbelief. Who knew our iPods had feelings too?
A celebration of creativity that’s as loose, loopy and discombobulated as any self-respecting creative process should be. After accidentally erasing all the tapes in a video store, an employee and his friend (Mos Def and Jack Black) recreate and film their own versions of Hollywood blockbusters using found costumes and cardboard props. Forget Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Wait until you see Jack Black’s Jessica Tandy.
10. Tropic Thunder
More Jack Black, though he is only one hysterical member of this Hollywood satire’s brilliant cast. Robert Downey Jr. in blackface (trust me, it works); Ben Stiller in Tom Cruise mode; and Cruise himself as a studio mogul with a frighteningly filthy mouth. Stiller also directs, atoning in one film for Night at the Museum and Starsky & Hutch by skewering exactly that sort of Tinseltown pap.