At the end of last year, when a flurry of Oscar-hopeful films hit theaters, it was clear two movies stood out from the crowd. One was the Coen Brothers' intense No Country for Old Men, a murder saga that found Javier Bardem giving his all in one of the best bad-guy roles of all time. The other was There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic about an oil tycoon that featured yet another mesmerizing Daniel Day-Lewis performance.
This year, as another series of late releases tries to stir up Oscar buzz-worthiness, it's not so clear what the best film is. Sean Penn is certainly terrific in Milk, a period piece that might be Gus Van Sant's best film. But it seems bound for art houses only. And Anne Hathaway is great in Rachel Getting Married, the most talked-about movie at the fall's Toronto International Film Festival, but the Jonathan Demme flick has gotten mixed reviews. And while films such as Australia, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Defiance all clock in at more than two hours and have epic aspirations, they too fall short of the mark.
In fact, the year will likely be most remembered for The Dark Knight, the summer blockbuster that set all kinds of records. The second Batman film by director Christopher Nolan showed just how perfect the steely Christian Bale is in the role of the caped crusader. And the late Heath Ledger really stole the show as an unhinged, completely devious Joker. Even if, as critic Jonathan Lethem correctly observed in a New York Times op-ed piece, the film offered "a defense of the present administration's cursory regard for human rights abroad and civil rights at home," its blurring of the lines between good and evil was ultimately profound (and the amount of the film's pontification on the matter was actually a bit much).
It was also a year when the ubiquitous Judd Apatow, the guy behind the terrific short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, started to show signs of running out of ideas. While he didn't direct a movie in 2008 (next year's Funny People will mark his return to the director's chair after classic comedies 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up), he did attach his name (as producer) to crappy comedies such as Drillbit Taylor, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express and the slightly better but still uneven Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
The year's best comedy, however, was Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, a movie about a botched attempt to make a Vietnam-era war movie. It featured an ensemble cast (Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise) and didn't adhere to any sort of political correctness. Of course, that courted some controversy, but the film's satire was right on the money.
The slew of half-baked sequels (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) that performed well enough to gross over $100 million suggests we can expect more ill-conceived product of that sort to flow out of Hollywood in 2009. That's nothing new. But usually there's more wheat amongst the chaff. In any case, our critics were able to pluck out 10 noteworthy films (some of which don't open in Cleveland until 2009). Their annotated lists follow.