The preponderance of year-end top-ten lists, especially of the movie variety, can get eye-blearily redundant. The publications I’ve worked for have staffs of several critics, all of whom want to—and should—weigh in at the end of the year. The result, though, is a series of numbers and titles, sometimes varying little from list to list.
Wanting to differentiate my list, I suppose, last year I took a slightly different tack. What were the year’s surprises, or disappointments? This year it’s performances, breakthroughs, and trends:
- The resurrection of Mickey Rourke—The Wrestler might be my favorite film of the year, and not just because I happen to be slightly familiar with the milieu of professional wrestling (although I haven’t watched a match since the Rock last laid the smack down). Director Darren Aronofsky flirts with the sentimental tropes that tug at one’s heartstrings in lesser comeback tales, but ultimately he and writer Robert D. Siegal eschew too-easy salvation by way of a forgiving daughter or a hooker with a heart of gold. They opt instead for ambiguity in what might be the most perfect ending … ever. Rourke, whose comeback was glimpsed in Sin City, brought an emotional gravity from his much-reported-on personal parallels to the story that elevated both the film and its myth.
- The reunion of Leo and Kate—Also a contender for my favorite film of the year is Revolutionary Road, a potent examination of what might have happened had Jack and Rose’s nascent romance not been rent by the sinking of the Titanic. Sam Mendes’s film unapologetically demands more out of life.
- The revenge of indie film—Beloved by film critics and moviegoers alike, Slumdog Millionaire nearly never made it to the big screen: just as Danny Boyle wrapped filming in Mumbai, Warner Bros. shut down Warner Independent, which was slated to release the film. The studio considered releasing it straight-to-video before Fox Searchlight rescued the feel-good film of the year. Meanwhile, Boyle continues his streak of never repeating himself behind the camera.
- The recruitment to a cause—Environmentalism is the new go-to theme for message movies, but there are ways to raise awareness and ways not to. Wall-E got it right. The Day the Earth Stood Still didn’t.
- The relevance of a genre—Superhero movies can be hit or miss: for every Iron Man, there’s a Spirit; for every Dark Knight, a Ghost Rider. 2008 was a good year for superpowered crime fighters, including The Incredible Hulk and Hellboy II. But Iron Man and Dark Knight demonstrated the range of the genre, from comedy to pathos, and proved once again that great actors, great writing, and great direction make great movies. Period.
- The reiteration of Josh Brolin—2007 was a breakout year for Brolin, who appeared in Robert Rodriguez’s half of Grindhouse, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. His sensitive portrayals of two conservative politicians in Oliver Stone’s W. and Gus Van Sant’s Milk in 2008 that proved that string of quality roles was no fluke.
- The retirement of Clint Eastwood—Rumor has it Gran Turino will be Eastwood’s final turn in front of the camera. If so, his performance as a tough-as-nails grumpy grandpa would be a fitting denouement to a storied career.
- The realization of Jason Statham—In the ten years since his acting debut in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, one-time Olympic-grade diver Statham quickly rose to topline B-grade actioners like The Transporter franchise. Even in stinkers like Crank and In the Name of the King, he’s always afforded himself well—and looked great doing it. This year he starred in three films, including a remake of Death Race and a third Transporter movie, but it was the based-on-a-true-story heist flick Bank Job that finally proved he belongs on the A list.
- The redemption of Tom Cruise—Cruise’s bizarre behavior of a few years ago may have lost him fans as well as a studio contract, but he proved he still has a sense of humor about it all with his hilarious cameo as a Hollywood mogul in Tropic Thunder. Valkyrie further demonstrates that the man knows ho to choose quality material.
- The return of Indiana Jones—I’m sorry: I liked it. Save for the Tarzan-esque vine swinging, it was fun. Even—especially—the bit in which Indy escapes a nuclear a blast by hiding in a refrigerator. Besides, how are aliens any goofier than supernatural religious artifacts?