It was a bleak year at the movies. I don’t mean the movies weren’t good. I mean that even the good movies were often remarkably dark.
Take the year’s biggest film, the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight — probably the grimmest, least escapist superhero movie ever made. Or take the year’s biggest family film, the similarly lauded Wall-E, with its dreary, uninhabited post-apocalyptic world and vision of mankind reduced to passive, nearly helpless blobs — one of the bleakest family films ever and probably the bleakest cartoon ever released under the Disney banner.
How bleak was the movie year 2008?
So bleak that the film styled by critics the “feel-good movie” of the year opens with a police torture scene and involves the mutilation and prostitution of children (Slumdog Millionaire).
Other films notably honored on critical Top 10 lists include an excruciating drama about an illegal abortion (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), a wrenching documentary about survivors of a terrible plane crash who survived for months only by eating the dead (Stranded), and any number of stories about individuals and families who are variously broken, lost, struggling, mourning, loveless or hopeless (a sampling might include The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, Revolutionary Road, A Christmas Tale, Wendy and Lucy, Ballast and Shotgun Stories).
There were bright spots. Iron Man offered rousing escapism with some heart. Family audiences enjoyed the uplifting and joyous Horton Hears a Who! as well as the funny and furious Kung Fu Panda.
In fact, it was a good year overall for family films — but, again, even the good family films weren’t all sweetness and light: One of the best was the dark and scary, but morally rewarding, fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Below, in alphabetical order, are 10 films I consider deserving of special recognition, followed by 10 more also worthy of note. Not all are for all tastes or viewers, but there’s something here for nearly everyone. All 20 films are available on DVD.
10 That Stood Out
August Evening: An extended family of Mexican Catholics living (presumably illegally) in southern Texas grapple with loss and the obligations — and limits — of filial piety in Chris Eska’s low-key, Spanish-language domestic drama. A father-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is the unusual focal point of a story about an elderly farm laborer and his dead son’s widow. A foul-mouthed supporting character; references to a premarital pregnancy. Subtitles. Might be okay for teens.
The Dark Knight: The darkest superhero movie ever is also the most sophisticated and morally serious: a superhero movie for grown-ups who know that “heroes” — from soldiers to saints, policemen to priests, presidents to popes — are fallible human beings like everybody else. Yet, amid this virtual symphony of ambiguity are ringing notes of grace and redemption. Heroes may not be untarnished, but heroism is still possible. Intense menace and psychological intimidation; some brutal violence; a number of gruesome (mostly non-graphic) deaths; some grisly images; a few profane and crass references. Mature viewing.
The Fall: Tarsem Singh’s visually dazzling, mad folly is a breathtaking excursion into a dreamlike alternate reality as majestic and luminous as the psychic landscape of the director’s earlier The Cell was repellent. A hospitalized silent-era Hollywood stuntman spins an outlandish tale of epic derring-do for a precocious young girl. Too weird for some, it’s a messy, extravagant, creative act of love — the kind of bravura moviemaking Baz Luhrmann was trying to do in Moulin Rouge. A few stylized images of grotesque violence; minor profanity; attempted suicide; brief sexuality (nothing explicit). Mature viewing.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: One of the most important films of the year — and one of the hardest to watch — Cristian Mungiu’s wrenching drama about two college students who set out to procure an illegal abortion in the communist Romania of the late 1980s is too disturbing for a blanket recommendation, but its uncompromising acknowledgement of the human cost of abortion is worth recognizing, even if it isn’t for many. Extensive, explicit depiction of the procuring of an illegal abortion; brief nudity; disturbing sexual themes; a lingering shot of a post-abortion fetus; some obscene and profane language. Subtitles. Extreme discretion advised.
Ghost Town: Not since Groundhog Day has a high-concept romantic comedy so successfully blended hilarity and redemptive uplift. Writer-director David Koepp’s best film to date stars English funnyman Ricky Gervais as a dentist whose antisocial tendencies and dry wit equal Bill Murray’s weatherman and who gets a similarly paranormal cross to carry: A near-death experience leaves him seeing ghosts — who need his help. A terrific comedic cast including Téa Leoni, Greg Kinnear and Kristen Wiig make the material sparkle. Some sexually related humor; references to infidelity. Teens and up.
Jodhaa Akbar: Exuberant and exhilarating, Lagaan director Ashutosh Gowariker’s lavish, highly fictionalized historical epic is Bollywood spectacle at its finest: war, intrigue, romance … and, of course, singing and dancing. A proposed marriage between 16th-century Muslim emperor Jalaluddin and Hindu princess Jodhaa embodies a hope for a united India with Hindus and Muslims living in peace: a humanistic plea for respect of conscience rather than indifferentism or relativism. Stylized battlefield violence; displays of Muslim and Hindu piety; romantic complications. Subtitles. Might be fine for older kids.
Ostrov/The Island: Russian Orthodox spirituality pervades this haunting, parable-like tale of a guilt-ridden ex-soldier who is taken in at a monastery and never leaves. Locally reputed as a holy man, “Father Anatoli” hides his spiritual gifts, like the early Franciscans, under outrageous behavior, embodying the archetype of the holy fool. Simple but profound, Pavel Lungin’s film engages the supernatural in a persuasively naturalistic way. A wartime murder; some mature themes including low-key abortion references and a depiction of demonic possession. Subtitles. Teens and up.
Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains: Arguably the definitive account of the 1972 Uruguayan flight disaster, Gonzalo Arijón’s powerful documentary offers a unique window on the meaning and experience of life and death in the most unforgiving circumstances. Faith and doubt, chance and necessity collide in survivor interviews, photos and low-key recreations. Occasional objectionable language; disturbing subject matter; mixed religious musings. Subtitles. Could be fine for mature teens.
Wall-E: Pixar’s most audacious film to date, Wall-E goes where no mainstream Hollywood family film has gone before, into realms of awe, existential longing and apocalyptic hope. Directed by Andrew Stanton, the poetic tale of a lonely robot laboring single-handedly to clean up the earth is at turns a Chaplinesque slapstick comedy and a scathing satire of consumer/media culture. Mild animated menace. Fine family viewing.
Young@Heart: One of the most potentially transformative films of the year, Stephen Walker’s endearing documentary about a senior citizens’ chorus group may change the way viewers look at old age. Octogenarians singing the likes of The Clash, James Brown and Bob Dylan make for much more than a Seniors Behaving Badly conceit: The chorus is the members’ lifeline as well as their gift. Some crass language, frank sexual references and innuendo; issues related to illness and death. Fine for mature teens.
10 More Worth Noting
This year I had a harder time than usual deciding what not to include in the Top 10. A number of the following titles could just as easily have been in the list above: Ballast, first-time director Lance Hammer’s poignant Mississippi Delta drama of despair and hope in a family shattered by divorce and suicide (mature viewing); Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino’s delightful, implicitly pro-life adaptation of the classic storybook (fine family viewing); The Express, Gary Fleder’s uplifting biopic of college football great Ernie Davis (teens and up); Iron Man, Jon Favreau’s smart and silly superhero redemption story (teens and up); Man on Wire, James Marsh’s strangely transcendent documentary of Philippe Petit’s 1972 World Trade Center wire walk (teens and up); Mongol, Sergei Bodrov’s fierce barbarian-yawp biopic about the young Genghis Khan (mature viewing); Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme’s cinéma-vérité drama of a dysfunctional, rootless postmodern family struggling through nuptial-related togetherness (mature viewing); Shotgun Stories, Jeff Nichol’s spare, powerful morality play about bad blood between two sets of half brothers (mature viewing); Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings’ quirky English tale of a problematic friendship between a young bully and a sheltered Plymouth Brethren lad (teens and up); The Spiderwick Chronicles, Mark Waters’ scary but substantial fantasy adventure about a goblin-besieged family going through a divorce (too much for sensitive youngsters); The Visitor, Thomas McCarthy’s humane drama about a withdrawn professor who becomes unexpectedly involved in the lives of a pair of illegal aliens (mature viewing).
More Worth Mentioning
Family: Bolt, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Kung Fu Panda, The Tale of Despereaux. Teens and up: Be Kind Rewind, Encounters at the End of the World, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Up the Yangtze. Mature viewing: Alexandra, Caramel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Flight of the Red Balloon, Frost/Nixon, Miracle at St. Anna, Slumdog Millionaire.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.