As the philosopher said, life is lived forward and understood backward. It's the same for movies - with the obvious exception of
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- and for the movie year in review.
The theme that links many 2008 movies is hiding in plain sight: globalization. Nine of the films on my 10-best list (all but Milk) are windows into cultural connectivity and interdependence.
Consider Slumdog Millionaire, that Dickensian hiss-the-villain, cheer-the-hero tale for the millennium, where Mumbai call-center workers service English telecom subscribers.
Or Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where American transplants take to the Spanish soil.
Or The Visitor, where a Syrian virtuoso of African drums meets a closed-off American and teaches him a world beat.
Or - to name a movie topping the box office, if not my list - The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the otherwordly Keanu Reeves directs earthlings to be mindful not of the fate of their nations but of the fate of their planet.
As almost everybody knows, 2008 was also the year of the superhero, with The Dark Knight the year's box-office phenom. With nearly a billion dollars in tickets sold worldwide (second only to Titanic, which has grossed, incredibly, $845 million more), the sequel to Batman Begins was distinguished by the late Heath Ledger's creep-out performance as the dead-serious Joker, urban terrorist.
Knight is one in a fistful of superhero films of 2008 that include Hancock, Hellboy, Hulk and, best of all, Iron Man. He's the one super who cracked my Top 10 list, largely due to the deadpan performance of Robert Downey Jr. as the arms dealer who has a crisis of conscience when he sees Americans killed by the weapons designed to protect them.
Downey and director Jon Favreau take the scrap metal of the superhero story and weld it into a form more nuanced than the good-versus-evil dualism of superheroics.
In 2008, the perennially cheerless Sean Penn smiled and most every other major actor glowered. In fact, the protagonists of Iron Man and Milk, featuring a transcendent Penn as the San Francisco gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, were about the only do-gooders not in feel-bad movies.
It's been a depressing December at the multiplex, thanks to Big Stars Making Big Sacrifices. In Valkyrie, Tom Cruise is a German officer who plots to kill Hitler before he kills again. In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays the neighborhood racist who protects the Asian Americans next door. In Seven Pounds, Will Smith is a gloomy man atoning for an act of carelessness.
Given the heavyosity shrouding theaters like a storm cloud, a character like Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), the cockeyed optimist of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, is a ray of sunshine, transforming the weather, and people.
Speaking of Poppy, 2008 was a good year for movies starring and/or directed by women.
Best of all: Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, perfectly pitched to a time of economic hardship and fear of terrorists. Her haunting story of hard-luck single moms (Melissa Leo and Misty Upham) who smuggle aliens across the U.S./Canadian border boasts two of the best performances of the year.
Likewise Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, tangled tales of the varieties of love and sisterhood, with the cyclonic Penelope Cruz in the former and Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt and Debra Winger in the latter.
The commercial success of female-driven movies is the business story of 2008. So far Mamma Mia!, the Abba jukebox musical starring Meryl Streep and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has made $572 million worldwide, establishing a box-office record for a female filmmaker.
Similarly, Sex and the City ($415 mil worldwide), Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight ($214 million and counting), and High School Musical 3 ($234 million) demonstrate that fangirls can have as much box-office clout as fanboys.
This was another vintage year for documentary. My eyes brimmed during Young@Heart, the inspirational about a geriatric choir that sings rock and rap songs. My blood boiled during Trouble the Water, an exceptional eyewitness account of what happened at ground level during Hurricane Katrina.
But the docs that really got to me were Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World and James Marsh's Man on Wire. Herzog's film, interviews with scientists posted at the South Pole, is an alternately crackpot, cranky and poetic meditation on how life begins and where it may end. Marsh's chronicle about how aerialist Philippe Petit strung a cable between the World Trade Center buildings and walked across, is a death-defying, life-affirming thriller that gives us back the twin towers.
A weaker-than-usual year for movies proved to be a stronger-than-usual year for actors. Besides Ledger and Penn, who look to be front-runners for acting honors during award season, there are other outstanding performances.
In 2008, Robert Downey, Jr., James Franco (James Franco!!!), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Kate Winslet verified their versatility.
Downey found previously inaudible beats as the self-deprecating Iron Man and as the self-important actor in Tropic Thunder.
Franco, whether as the stoner of Pineapple Express, the repentant son in Nights in Rodanthe, or as Harvey Milk's companion in Milk, proves to have as many facets as the Hope diamond.
Hoffman, shrunken and introverted as the playwright in Synecdoche, New York, and expansive and outgoing as the priest in Doubt, is a continuing revelation. As is Meryl Streep, fizzy fun in Mamma Mia! and steely seriousness in Doubt.
Winslet, so multidimensional in The Reader and Revolutionary Road (opening here Jan. 2), makes all around her look flatter than the movie screen.
Finally, 2008 was the Year of the Dog: Bolt, Marley (of Marley & Me), the Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Lucy of Wendy and Lucy, and Daisy, Eastwood's yellow Lab in Gran Torino. Truly, the movies are going to the dogs - but in a good way.
(in alphabetical order)