5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

What a horrible poster. For a film so weighed with a theme that ‘everything fades’, what a bland and lazy way to try and sell tickets. David Fincher’s movie isn’t the masterpiece it could have been, but it’s a very successful and moving epic that is as lavish and attractive a film as we’ve seen in a good while and there are moments of true brilliance woven within the somewhat melodramatic tapestry from Eric (Forrest Gump) Roth’s slighty fat script. When it works it works in spades, with the early Benjamin Button moments as Brad Pitt’s face is married to another smaller actor’s work to near perfection and effectiveness and Benjamin’s years abroad being high water marks. It could have been one of those rarities, an awards magnet crowd pleaser that succeeds universally, but even in its current form The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a very good film and one that showcases yet another facet to the already incredible body of work of David Fincher.

Current rating: 8.8 out of 10

Contributing factors: Amazing marriage of craft and tech. Excellent work from Brad Pitt, especially as the ‘younger’ Benjamin.  David Fincher’s brilliant eye. Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and (of all people) Jason Flemyng’s solid work. A colorful supporting cast and some breathtaking visuals. The most gorgeous cinematography of the year.

Performance to savor: Jared Harris, whose work as the ill-fated Captain is really strong stuff.

CHUD.com Pull Quote: “The best sap you’ll see all year!”

4. Appaloosa (Pre-Order the DVD)

How does a somewhat generic Western make into the top five list of any year, even a weak one like 2008? Two lead characters that are such perfect complements to each other you’d watch them do anything for two hours. The term ‘bromance’ is one of the dumbest ever coined, but one of the things that make a lot of the best movies work is chemistry between the male leads. It’s why Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Danny Ocean movies are so effective. It’s why Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is one of the best film of the last ten years. It’s why Appaloosa is a truly wonderful movie when it is superficially carved from Old West 101 textbook. Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris are such a tongue in groove fit as actors and characters here that what transpires is truly secondary. The gunfights, romance (a very weird one involving a very puffy Renee Zellweger), and scenery pale in comparison to two men with a history and some of the best tough guy dialogue I’ve heard in years. Seriously, Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino need to watch this film to see how it can be done without becoming arch. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen elevate this movie way higher than it had any right being. And James Gammon is in it too!

Current rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing factors: Two great leading characters. The willingness to evolve the romance someplace interesting. Jeremy Irons actually showing up for a performance. Lance Henriksen being excellently Lance-y. Dialogue to savor.

Performance to savor: Viggo Mortensen, sly and subtle, and the kind of men we should all aspire to be.

CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Another excellent Western arrives, and without Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner involved!”

3. The Wrestler

There was no denying Darren Aronofsky’s ability to inject true emotion into his work after the misunderstood and underappreciated The Fountain after coming out the gate with acclaimed but extremely cold stories in Pi and Requiem for a Dream. That he has distilled his craft to such a fine and raw point with The Wrestler is a revelation, and proof that the man is so much more than we thought he was as a filmmaker. Mickey Roarke is terrific, as is Evan Rachel Wood and the delectable Marisa Tomei (whose work in the 00’s more than proves her odd My Cousin Vinny Oscar wasn’t an anomaly), but the star of the film is Aronofsky and his uncluttered vision. This is a terrific character study, one that avoids the underdog cliches and allows for things we’ve seen dozens of times in various films to take on new meaning. A sneaky little gem of a movie.

Current rating: 9.1 out of 10

Contributing factors: The great acting. Realistic portrayals of people who live on the margins. A phenomenal third act. Darren Aronofsky absolutely on fire..

Performance to savor: Mickey Roarke, a bag of meat pumped up yet amazingly small.

CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Darren Aronofsy rises even closer to the top of the heap with a wonderful and finely tuned classic character study.”

2. Slumdog Millionaire

I am mystified that I came out of this movie so energized. Danny Boyle (and Loveleen Tandan, who probably deserves a fair share of credit as director of the Indian scenes) has come through with an odd hybrid of crime film and love story that really shouldn’t work at all, but does to magnificent effect. Whether it be the City of God-esque childhood scenes or the ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ segments, the thing just pulsates with energy and terrific performance after terrific performance. Especially the child actors. Boyle already proved with Millions that he was capable of being so much more than the edgy British filmmaker folks tried to pigeonhole him as, but this takes him up to the top tier of directors working today. Truly special stuff, and bouyant with hope amist the most dreadful scenarios.

Current rating: 9.1 out of 10

Contributing factors: Inventive filmmaking, great performances, and the willingness to put things in perspective as people in the worst conditions find and cling to their hope. One of those rare ‘inspirational’ films that actually is. Oh, and Freida Pinto is friggin’ smokin’.

Performance to savor: Dev Patel, lots of intensity in that young man. And dance moves, as the end credits reveal!

CHUD.com Pull Quote: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Danny Boyle may have matched his classic Trainspotting!”

1. Wall-E (Buy the DVD)

If Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin were alive today (and exhumed, freshened up, and put into a movie watching mood after all those years in the Hereafter) and allowed to see Wall-E, it’d probably bring tears to their eyes and fill them with enough ideas and dreams to launch a few dozen new animated film ideas. Pixar’s best film (which is saying something) has more imagination and pure storytelling in its opening half than most genres see in a given year and more than a cursory nod to an era where there were no bells and whistles to assist in conveying action and emotion. When it shifts, and it has to to keep from losing its sheen, it evolves into something deeper and smarter than a film like this has a right being. It improves with each viewing and showcases an acute sense of character and elegance that is so uncommon in a business where bigger, faster, and dumber is the status quo. Smart, gorgeous, honed to comedic and dramatic perfection, and truly moving. This is storytelling at its finest.

Current rating: 9.5 out of 10

Contributing factors: The best animation team in the world at the top of their game. Truly lovable characters with more depth than most humans. Strong themes that resonate with adults and plant sparks of curiosity with children. M-O, the cutest little cleaning robot in town.

Performance to savor: Ben Burtt and his hard drive filled with chirps and blurps.

CHUD.com Pull Quote: “The first legitimate animated Best Picture contender.”

Honorable Mentions: Burn After Reading. Religulous. The Ruins. Tropic Thunder. Cloverfield. Gran Torino. Man on Wire. Funny Games.
Wish I’d seen in time: Waltz with Bashir. Revolutionary Road. Rawhead Rex: The Musical.
Wish actually existed: Rawhead Rex: The Musical.