This year's list took some padding and slippery conceptualization before it would satisfy me. If it had been a list of just comedies, it would have been easy to complete: many of the top ten are comedies, and I would have felt OK about including Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models, Semi-Pro, Baby Mama, The House Bunny, Ghost Town, and maybe even Tropic Thunder and the fatally flawed Zack & Miri Make a Porno (not What Happens in Vegas, though). None of these, however, felt quite strong enough in the context of a general list of all the new films I saw during the year. I'm not quite sure what principle I'm appealing to in this distinction. But finally, the ones that made the cut did so on the basis of how strong my combined emotional and intellectual reaction was to them, and as a result, how often I thought about them after seeing them. Note: there are still quite a few prominent releases from 2008 that I haven't seen yet (e.g., Milk), so it's possible that this list could be modified in the weeks ahead.
10. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (dir. Guillermo del Toro). I don't remember much of this one now, but I know that when I saw it I was impressed by the sensuous energy of its fantasticality: the kind of thing Terry Gilliam always aims for (when Gilliam hits, it's only because he uses a shotgun). It was drowned out by the thunderous release, a couple days later, of The Dark Knight, and it deserves some recognition.
9. The Happening (dir. M. Night Shyamalan). "Best" must be carefully qualified here. Like a lot of other viewers, I was at times slack-jawed at what was either ineptitude or tonal inscrutability on the part of almost everyone involved in this bizarre, dreary, eco-Jeremiad. But it has stuck with me. Some of the images have the irrational, troubling aura of nightmare, somehow made all the more eerie by virtue of their blank execution.
8. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman). This would be either higher or lower on the list if I could decide whether it adequately critiques the middle-class white-male subjectivity it privileges, and whether it makes a difference even if it does. I think maybe I only put it on here at all because I just really like synecdoche.
7. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (dir. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg). Crass, unfocused, and adolescent. Anyone got a problem with that? Rob Corddry wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights. Enough said.
6. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood). In his late seventies, Eastwood is looking more and more like Bud, the domesticated zombie in George Romero's Day of the Dead. But he wears it well, that beautiful, beautiful psycho.
5. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan). Batman Begins was elegant, but narrow and overly prosaic; The Dark Knight is a steam-shrouded juggernaut, a Wagnerian spectacle. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is like an ultraviolent aria. Oh, the film's politics are screwed up. Well, if they weren't, it wouldn't be a very accurate reflection of the state of our collective military-industrial fantasy life, now would it?
4. Pineapple Express (dir. David Gordon Green). Gratifying buddy antics with Seth Rogen and James Franco. Part of what recommends this, I will admit, is simply the memory of the trailer, so expertly edited to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" (which I don't believe actually plays in the movie itself).
3. Step Brothers (dir. Adam McKay). "I'll kiss you on the mouth, Kenny Rogers."
2. Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris). Renée Zellweger is such a ho in this! And yet the film manages never to judge her. Rather, it makes her a central hub of sympathetic attention (without requiring her to move a muscle, really). And on top of that, it's just a fine old-school western: relaxed dialogue, tense physical confrontations, and bold, expressive vistas. Big cat sitting on a mountaintop, watching a train go by in the distance. Hallelujah.
1. Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen). The Coen Brothers squeeze into the number one spot for the second year in a row with their most pessimistic and contemptuous work to date. Burn After Reading is a grim downward spiral of a spy spoof that drags you around by the heels till your fingernails scrape off on the asphalt. It gleefully forces its cast to surrender all dignity, especially Brad Pitt and George Clooney. A cinematic tone poem blowing a shrill raspberry at the human species.