The 20 Best Movies of 2008

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Here are Paste’s 20 best films of 2008:

20. Iron Man [Directed by Jon Favreau]
While the film’s explosive, high-flying action scenes struggle to catch fire on the small screen, Robert Downey Jr.’s fantastic, humanizing performance means you won’t just be waiting for him to put on the suit and blow shit up.

19. Chop Shop [Ramin Bahrani]
Reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ neo-realistic films, Chop Shop follows two orphaned siblings living in an auto-repair scrap yard in outermost Queens, who dream of making a better life for themselves. It’s a heartbreaking story of disappointment and hope at the intersection of two worlds.

18. The Pool [Chris Smith]
Indie director Smith has a knack for edgy, comical documentaries about culture jammers (The Yes Men) and low-budget horror auteurs (American Movie), but The Pool is a literal jump into the deep end. This understated gem—about a poor young man’s dreams and a wealthy older man’s bottled sorrow—aspires to literary epiphany (in Hindi, no less) that transcends class and language barriers.

17. The Wrestler [Darren Aronofsky]
This gritty portrait of a former pro-wrestling star is not only a surprising blast of realism from the auteur who made The Fountain but also a stunning comeback for Mickey Rourke, who brings humor, pathos and pharmaceutical-grade testosterone to his role as Randy “The Ram.”

16. Paranoid Park [Gus Van Sant?]
A stylistic masterpiece, Paranoid Park is one part Spike Jonze, one part Wong Kar-wai and one part something only Gus Van Sant himself could’ve imagined. But while the film is unmistakably gorgeous, it’s Gabe Nevins’ untrained lead performance that makes this haunting tale of lost innocence unforgettable.

15. Kabluey [Scott Prendergast]
One of the best-looking comedies in?years, Scott Prendergast’s semi-autobiographical Kabluey is an audacious first feature that sends up the war in Iraq by way of suburbia. Its odd mixture of slapstick and melancholy is unlike anything else we’ve seen.

14. Rachel Getting Married [Jonathan Demme]
Demme shot the electric family gatherings in Rachel Getting Married like a fascinated documentarian, huddling in the corner to watch every sweet or hurtful moment. It’s like a Noah Baumbach film but with a heart, a soul and a stellar ensemble cast, anchored by Anne Hathaway’s fierce, quivering performance.

13. Vicky Cristina Barcelona [Woody Allen]
Woody Allen’s lusty travelogue is one of his finest films. Anchored by a captivating cast, it explodes upon the arrival of Penélope Cruz, radiating passion. For such brisk entertainment, Vicky ends on an ambiguous but poignant note, a final gracenote from a director who’s back in top form.

12. Man on Wire [James Marsh]
Reducing the most daring artistic crime in modern history—Frenchman Philippe Petit’s wire walk between the World Trade Center towers—to a three-word film title illustrates the minimalist purity of this gripping documentary.

11. Call+Response [Justin Dillon]
Music from Matisyahu, Talib Kweli and Cold War Kids—along with the poetic musings of Dr. Cornel West—keeps this documentary about the estimated 27 million people living in slavery from leaving you paralyzed with depression. Dillon has created what may be the year’s most important film.

10. Ballast [Lance Hammer]
Mississippi in cool blue winter light. Three souls hanging in the balance. The flat infinity of the Delta landscape. And a parable about the mystery of compassion. Soulful and breathtaking, Lance Hammer’s brave debut is a testament to the lowly wise.

9. Son of Rambow [Garth Jennings?]
Two scrawny schoolboys—?one rabble-rousing, one raised in religious isolation—are inspired by Rambo: First Blood to film their own DIY action flick. Son of Rambow hits tender and gut-busting high-water marks, and the 1980s English setting grounds a passionate nostalgia for the youthful discovery of cinema and camaraderie.

8. Momma’s Man [Azazel Jacobs]
This past year saw its share of male characters frozen in arrested development, but few films took the situation as seriously as Jacobs’ third feature—a gently funny character study, a preservation of the filmmaker’s own childhood home and a tender portrait of his parents.

7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [Cristian Mungiu]
A spare, visceral stunner, and the crown of the new Romanian emergence in world cinema, Mungiu’s stripped-down film follows a woman helping her roommate secure an illegal abortion during the last hours of Communist control in Romania.

6. WALL-E [Andrew Stanton]
Though Pixar made a name for itself with talking toys, fish and cars, the studio’s most ambitious, affecting and important work to date features a cooing automaton and zero dialogue for the first third of the movie, proving that children’s fables require neither narrative nor aesthetic sacrifice. WALL-E was a triumph not just for animation, but for all of cinema.

5. The Visitor [Thomas McCarthy]
Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a most unexpected and unhip protagonist in McCarthy’s charming follow-up to The Station Agent. Even so, as Walter befriends an immigrant couple, you can’t help but care about all three characters as deeply as McCarthy does.

4. Nights and Weekends? [Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig]
Mumblecore godfather Joe Swanberg works without a script, forcing his actors to dig into their murky, often funny subconscious minds. His newest romantic feature is heartbreaking and masterfully self-assured, reveling in the awkward pauses and false starts of natural conversation. A reminder that dancing lovers are still beautiful, even when toes get crushed.

3. A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël) [Arnaud Desplechin]
On top of his story about a hilariously contentious family reunion, Desplechin has heaped cinema itself, spinning up a maelstrom of irises and dissolves, Vertigos and Tenenbaums, Minguses and Herrmanns, to end up with something that feels almost, maybe, strangely, ever so slightly touching.

2. The Dark Knight [Christopher Nolan]
With the hype surrounding Heath Ledger’s death, it seemed impossible for the latest Batman movie—and Ledger’s performance—to meet expectations. But the creepy crime noir more than delivered, with thrilling action sequences and Ledger’s complex portrayal of the Joker, a confused mélange of half-truths and ambiguities underscored by a palpable madness, its roots uncertain, even to the character.

1. Firaaq [Nandita Das]
For all the praise showered on Slumdog Millionaire this year, it wasn’t even the best film shot in India; it ran a distant second to Firaaq, the directorial debut from Nandita Das. The 39-year-old actress has crafted a modern masterpiece that serves as a study in authenticity and humanitarianism. With an uncompromising dedication to her characters, Das explores profound issues without ever sounding a false note.

Firaaq, an Urdu word meaning both “separation” and “quest,” examines the aftermath of the Hindu/Muslim sectarian violence that erupted in 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat. More than 2,000 people (mostly Muslims) died in riots after 58 Hindu pilgrims were burned in their train car. Das’ film begins after the riots, following five loosely connected stories that transpire during one 24-hour period. A kid searches for his Muslim parents while passing as Hindu. A couple investigates the ransacking of their house and confronts the betrayal of friends. A mixed Muslim/Hindu couple faces the subtle prejudices of their middle-class friends while also struggling with their own religious and ethnic identities. A Muslim musician in a Hindu neighborhood tries to live as if nothing has changed, until he’s forced to confront the new realities. Each of these tales unfolds with compelling momentum.

A sense of redemption also permeates Firaaq. Through a conversational mix of English, Hindi and Urdu, the film’s unflinching emotional honesty offers catharsis. Das, who has a master’s degree in social work, refuses to merely victimize or vilify. Through dialogue, openness and a sharing of stories, humanity can progress. It might be slow; it might be painful. But there’s hope in the midst of struggle.

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