Doubt - John Patrick Shanley brilliantly brought to the big screen an adaptation of his stage play that tells the tale of a Priest who is accused of unspeakable acts with a child and how his reputation and career was ruined by in. The brilliance of the film is that we are never given answers and how that doubt sets in the audience. Without answers, that doubt lingers like a poison. Doubt that the accusations might be true, or worse, that the accusations are false and we watched a man loose everything as a result. This is a striking look at the power of words when they are weaponized. Or it can be a fascinating window into the pain truth can hold when one is forced to confront his own darkness. The screenplay is incredible. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams are all exceptional. This is a fantastic drama that ropes you in and tightens its hold the whole way.
In Bruges - I adore this film for its uniqueness. It is a biting drama about suicidal depression and yet is one of the funniest films of its era and offers up some great action set pieces to boot. The film is set in Bruges, a place of inescapable beauty which the main character fails to see. He is a hitman sent there after a botched operation. Accompanying him is his partner who learns that they were actually sent to Bruges for one final kill. Colin Farrell plays the lead spectacularly. He somehow find a nugget of humanity in this otherwise despicable man that makes him quite likable and engaging. Brendan Gleeson is great as Farrell's partner. I love how in love with the city his character is. Ralph Fiennes plays their contractor and he is equal parts funny, nice guy and dangerous threat. Clemence Poesy plays a sort of love interest to Farrell and she is great in the role. This film is undeniably hilarious and rich with beauty and drama. It is my favorite film by Martin McDonagh.
Iron Man - This stealth game changer completely altered Studio filmmaking for the next twelve years (and counting). At the time, no one would have guessed that this little actioner from a start up studio would change film the way it has. Did it change things for the better, I would largely wager no, but it is undeniable that Marvel Studios has made some fantastic films and their 22 film narrative from Iron Man to Endgame is generally incredible. The thing is, this film single-handedly supports the full heft of the Marvel Studios grand plan which would end up being known as The Infinity Saga and does so through the use of subtle world building and focusing on character. At the end of the day, that is what this movie is; a character study of a man who finds a purpose in his life when his life is nearly stripped away from him. Robert Downey Jr owns this movie. His performance should have garnered Oscar attention (he did receive a nom for another film on this list, but this is the role that redefined his career and he is phenomenal in the role). Downey is to Iron Man the same way that Christopher Reeve is to Superman. The two are one. I am sure you can recast the role with other actors that would be serviceable (and they may well do so in the future...who knows) but this performance will forever be linked with this cinema icon. Jon Favreau helmed the production and did so in quite a unique fashion; he shot it through the use of heavy improvisation, almost like a Robert Altman film and by doing so, the film feels continuously unexpected and fresh. It hits a lot of the beats of a superhero origin story but does so from unique angles. Downey's ability to find sympathy in a film about a pretty not great man who discovers and slowly begins to earn his greatness (a character arc that would span the full Infinity Saga) speaks volumes. Unlike Batman who harnesses his pain into a superhero, or Superman who is just a good dude or even Spider-Man--the nerdy kid who just tries to do some good after petty revenges reshapes his worldview, Tony Stark is not a man you should root for. He is a womanizing, egotistical, brat kid who willfully creates weapons to take life on a mass scale. And, unlike most heroes, once he starts down the heroes path, he doesn't immediately change every one of his negative traits. He is allowed to be a flawed person throughout the story. His ego never shifts. He stops being a womanizer, but is also not the greatest man to the singular woman he loves. Flawed heroes will be what guide the MCU characters and Iron Man is the sturdiest example of them and you want to watch to see what character growth comes from them. At the time of release, this was my second favorite superhero film hands-down. It would get usurped two months later by another film on this list. But even still, this film is one of the best of the genre and rests just outside my top five comicbook movies. Check out my FULL REVIEW if you want to a more in depth analysis of the film.
Milk - Gus Van Sant's biopic about Harvey Milk is a hard hitting political drama that really examines prejudice. The air of prejudice surrounds Milk, an openly gay man running for office, and it is fascinating how he navigates that prejudice. Sean Penn gives a stunning performance that secured him his second Oscar. He has always been an actor who throws himself 100% into the role and this might be his most shinning performance. Surrounding him are other top notch talents in Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Diego Luna and James Brolin. Brolin is also fantastic in the film. He is a talent that doesn't often get the recognition he deserves but this is the one film where even the Academy tipped their hat it him with a Best Supporting Actor nod. This is easily one of the best films of the year.
Tropic Thunder - This is the funniest movie of the decade. A hard hitting satirical look at filmmaking and a sharp commentary on actors, filmmakers, studio heads and public perception, and all through the guise of a big budget 'dick and fart joke movie.' Even if the humor is sophomoric, the level of intelligence the script displays is stunning. Ben Stiller both stars and directs the film and this is his finest work. He fears nothing with this movie that is so biting and potentially offensive that it could have ended his career. Robert Downey Jr gives what might be his best performance (which he was nominated for) as an actor so committed to the authenticity to his roles that he undergoes a skin pigment surgery to play the role of a Black Sgt in the movie within the movie. He flits between different accents with impressive ease and offers some hilariously emotional scenes towards the climax. He would have won that Oscar were it not for the film at the end of this list. Jack Black is in top form and Tom Cruise kills as the mighty Hollywood exec.
Best Picture : Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle directed this film that even the studio had little faith in. It almost went direct to DVD, but a last minute theatrical run payed off for this little indie film that took home the Best Picture win. It is an infectiously entertaining film, shot well and engaging because of a strong performance from Dev Patel. The film channels Rocky in many ways, in that it is all about this game which is ultimately superfluous to the story; the game merely provides the framework to hang a character drama and romance on and makes for one hell of an underdog story. You know. Rocky style. That said, the film can and should be sharply criticized for leaning into negative stereotypes and offering little to change public perception from the Western purview of India. Not a great choice for best picture.
Biggest Box Office : The Dark Knight - One of the five most influential comicbook movies ever made, this film changed public perception of the Superhero film in such a dramatic way, so much so that the Academy changed the rules about how many films would be eligible for a Best Picture nomination when this film did not receive one. Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this masterpiece of a crime thriller that just happens to be about a man who dresses as a bat. This is first and foremost a crime drama. Kind of Heat, re-imagined with archetypal heroes and villains. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his magnetic portrayal of anarchy incarnate; The Joker. Whenever he is on screen, it is impossible to look away. Every scene he is in is an A+. Standing toe to toe with him is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent who is the White Knight of Gotham. Because Ledger is so good, people often forget just how incredible Eckhart is in his role. Not to be outdone, Gary Oldman is incredible as Jim Gordon. All three should have received nominations. Ledger's win was 100% earned and could be argued as the best single performance of the decade, but these other men deserved recognition for their work as well. In fact, the only performance that is really lacking in the film is Bale as Batman. He comes of as vanilla in comparison. But, this film really isn't about Batman. This is more Harvey Dent's film and Eckhart owns it. Nolan's script is one of his best, but does have a few problem areas. Characters seem to know things when they shouldn't. Batman saves his pseudo girlfriend at one stage and calls it a day, when in actuality he is leaving the whole rest of the dinner party with the Joker and his lackeys in a very un-Batman move. But these are minor quibbles because it is inarguable...this film is spectacular. This is my pick for Best Film of 2008.