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Critics' Choice: Top Movies of 2008

  • Editorial Staff and Film Critics
  • 2009 26 Jan
Critics' Choice:  Top Movies of 2008

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced its list of nominees for the 81st Annual Academy Awards, and now it’s time for to announce our favorite movies of 2008. 

How do we pick the top ten?  Our panel consists of our three regular movie critics and four staff editors, film fans one and all.  Each submits their personal top ten films of the year which serves as our list of nominees.  Then our editorial team picks its favorite films with the most consideration given to the films with the most votes.

Film is perhaps the most dominant and culturally influential art form of our generation.  As such, movies cry out for the thoughtful engagement of Christians at every level, be it critique, writing, acting, directing, or any of the technical aspects of moviemaking.  What we are looking for in a film, much like the Academy Awards, is excellence.  Technical excellence.  Excellence in storytelling.  Excellence in acting. But just as important to us as believers is how the film stands up when examined from a Christian perspective.  What message does the film want us to walk away with?  How does that message look in light of the Christian worldview?  And in the end, as we are people who love the movies, which ones are the most entertaining?

Please note that we understand that not every film is for everyone.  We all have different comfort levels with the portrayal of sin and potentially offensive content on the big screen.  You may click on the links provided below for a more detailed evaluation of each film’s potentially objectionable material.

The Envelope Please …

Typically after we tabulate the votes, we have a short list of films that we as a group feel are equally worthy.  Last year’s vote produced a three-way tie for the top spot.  After careful consideration our editors broke the tie by picking Ratatouille as our number one film of 2007.  Both in its artistry and message, this Pixar story seemed to be the best fit for our criteria of excellence.  This year however, no tie-breaking vote was necessary.  Our favorite film of 2008 was the only movie that was included on every panel voter’s top ten list.  For four of our voters, it was number one.  And while it may seem redundant to last year,’s favorite movie of 2008 is ...

1.  WALL•E
Rating:  G
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Certainly the most visually stunning film of the year, Pixar’s Wall•E brings us the poignant story of the last “living thing” on earth.  Set hundreds of years into the future, humanity has left the trashed planet Earth behind with only robot-kind to clean up the mess.  And as the last remaining people languish for generations aboard massive cruise-ship-like spaceships, the little robot Wall•E learns what it means to be human by rummaging through the trash humans have left behind.  This emotionally rich film has important things to say about the value of hard work, sacrifice, and love. Pixar’s attention to detail, in both narrative and animation, deserves enormous praise.

Rating:  PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and some menace)
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It was chaotic, violent, disturbing.  So why does it rate so highly on our list?  Not only was Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker a performance for the ages, but just think about the state of our world:  the realities of terror, human nature, and escalation, and what it takes to overcome them, in both the physical and spiritual realms.  Director Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale have hit upon everything elemental in the Batman character that resonates within us regarding love for people, sacrifice, and never giving up—on ideals, on each other, no matter how hard things get.

Rating:  R (for some violence, disturbing images and language)
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Prepare yourself for a cinematic rollercoaster ride when you settle in to watch the latest motion-picture experience from Director Danny Boyle.  Your emotions will run the gamut as you take in a story that is both violent and tender in its content and delivery.  Told quite creatively with the use of flashbacks, the tale of one man’s against-all-odds struggle to survive the slums of Mumbai, India, to fight for true love and to remain honorable in his actions is beyond substantive.  It is the kind of story that great films are made of!  If you want to be stirred, to be challenged and to ponder right and wrong long after a movie is over, then don't miss Slumdog Millionaire.

Rating:  PG (for epic battle action and violence)
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For many of us here, Walden/Disney’s first foray to the land of Narnia with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, fell closer to bland than exciting.  But in almost every way that Wardrobe tried (or didn’t) but failed, this second trip to Narnia, Prince Caspian, succeeds. What was originally slavish adherence to the source has now become inspired cinematic faithfulness.  Characters and relationships that lacked emotion and complexity now come to life with camaraderie and depth.  And most importantly, the Aslan-as-Christ metaphor that seemed to be drawn merely out of obligation is now fully embraced.  Poignant and memorable, Prince Caspian is a major step forward and represents the Narnia we’ve truly been waiting for.

Rating:  PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content)
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Taking a page of notes from the action packed Bourne movies, this second installment in the new James Bond series does not disappoint. Quantum of Solace executes a compelling adventure while de-emphasizing some of the more objectionable elements of the Bond character.  This quest boasts the requisite thrills, spills and chills, all as impressively staged as anything currently seen on the action landscape.

Rating:  PG-13 (for brief strong language)
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With a brilliantly subtle performance by noted character actor Richard Jenkins, The Visitor tells a story about illegal immigrants through the relatable medium of relationships, rather than debate-the-points rhetoric.  Jenkins portrays a withdrawn college professor who discovers a couple squatting in his New York apartment.  When it becomes clear that they have no place to go, he let’s them stay, and eventually they become friends.  The Visitor is a touching, entertaining celebration of life and friendship that examines the immigration issue from a unique angle, providing plenty of fodder for later conversation on the topic.

Rating:  PG-13 (for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content)
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The Marvel entry in 2008's blockbuster summer went up against D.C.'s Dark Knight and did more than hold its own, in some ways running parallel (hero with unlimited resources and extreme intelligence) and diverging in others (more light than dark, more hope than despair).  Robert Downey Jr.'s turn as profiteer-turned-philanthropist Tony Stark was inspired, and apparently will help spawn a series about not just Iron Man, but other heroes that comprise Marvel's Avengers.  For the Christian mind, Stark's crisis of conscience hits all the right notes of redemption, putting away the old life, and embracing the greater good.

Rating:  PG-13 (for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking)
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Often a movie invites you along on a fascinating journey without much comment on the decisions of its characters.  And in the quasi-fantastical The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we have just that.  In one of the year’s most original films, the protagonist Benjamin Button is living his life in reverse:  born an old man, he grows physically younger as he ages.  Numerous decisions Benjamin and other characters surrounding him make in their lives are clearly problematic to a Christian worldview.  But the film has many touching moments, as Benjamin wrestles with the implications of what his odd life truly means for him and those he loves.

Rating:  R (for violent and disturbing content, and language)
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Changeling is a story of faith, hope and love in the face of oppression and despair.  Oscar winner Angelina Jolie portrays a working-class mother in 1928 whose life is turned upside down after her son disappears.  High praise is in order for Jolie’s moving performance, but that is just one element of a film that also features lush cinematography and potent Christian themes.  Changeling is deeply troubling in spots and is not for younger viewers—but for those who can absorb the horrors of the story, it is ultimately an edifying experience.

10.  DOUBT
Rating:  PG-13 (for thematic material)
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One thing’s for certain:  Doubt runs deep with the complexities of the human condition and unadulterated, great performances.  As Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx circa 1964, Meryl Streep commands every scene she inhabits.  While Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the likeable, albeit unorthodox, Father Flynn) and Amy Adams (as the wide-eyed, innocent Sister James) are worthy and talented thespian counterparts, it is Streep who shines most bright as a nun on a mission to oust a priest suspected of abusing one of his pupils.  Based on the play by John Patrick Shanley (he also directs and wrote the screenplay), Doubt is more visually sparse than other contenders—but a welcome addition, nonetheless, for those who love good acting and thought-provoking themes.


This year for our “honorable mentions” category, we’ve asked each of our film panel voters to make the case for one film on their personal list that didn’t get enough votes for the main list.  Here is what they said ...

Burn After Reading
Stephen McGarvey, Executive Editor

Watch any movie by Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen, and you will usually come away with the same message:  be sure your sins will find you out.  And although this year’s Burn After Reading is heavy on the objectionable content, the sins of these characters are never portrayed positively.  Like a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, this film is a poignant and witty look at how uncontrolled greed leads to disaster.  The Coen brothers certainly know how to put together an effective cautionary tale, and on that front, Burn After Reading does not disappoint.

Ghost Town
Christa Banister, Contributing Writer

When a hating-his-life dentist named Bertram Pincus (Gervais) dies for seven minutes—and is eventually revived—after a routine colonoscopy, he ends up acquiring a bizarre new skill:  seeing dead people.  But before the flick can venture into that well-tread M. Night Shyamalan territory, it takes a thoroughly entertaining comedic turn once Frank (Greg Kinnear) arrives on the scene with an intriguing proposition:  Break up the upcoming marriage of his ex-wife (Tea Leoni) to a cheesy humanitarian by attempting to make her fall in love with (gasp!) him.  While this crazy plot doesn't seem like it should work, it actually does with Bertram learning a thing or two about God's second greatest commandment—loving your fellow man.

Jeffrey Huston, Contributing Writer

For awhile you may wonder if this character study is going anywhere, and it is—dramatically so—despite the mood mostly reflecting the main character Poppy:  relentlessly joyful.  She has a gift for brushing aside life’s punches while never evading its challenges, especially regarding her hostile car-driving instructor.  The theme is best summed up when Poppy’s best friend tells her, “You can’t make everyone happy,” and Poppy’s innocent reply is simply, “There’s no harm in trying, is there?”

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Laura MacCorkle, Senior Editor

It’s certainly not “the best” offering in the Indiana Jones franchise, but there is still much here to entertain a diehard fan in this fourth installment.  At 60-plus years of age, Harrison Ford reprises his role as the globe-trotting, fedora-wearing, whip-cracking archaeologist and handles his thrill-ride action scenes and jungle-chase escapades believably well (albeit with some assistance from stunt doubles).  Shia LaBeouf adds the perfect amount of comic relief and familial friction as Indy’s son (the constant grooming of his hair with a pocket comb is quite chuckle-inducing), and Cate Blanchett is perfectly cast as the uptight villainess, Irina Spalko.  Dare I say that evil has never looked (or acted) this good?  With a better story, Crystal Skull could have earned a spot on this year’s list or become more of a fan favorite in the popular Indy series.  If there’s a fifth edition, let’s hope it returns to the quest of rescuing less bizarre—and more mainstream or interesting—antiquities.

Kung Fu Panda
Tom Perrault, Vice President of Internet Operations

My pantheon of animated features has a new addition.  While Kung Fu Panda doesn’t crack my Top 25 all-time list (or surpass the overall uniqueness of Wall•E), it was a funny and fun ride.  The cartoonish Jack Black has a certain future in animated features, but Dustin Hoffman’s turn as Shifu was even better.  The movie’s affirming message didn’t go “New Agey” overboard, and the lack of inappropriate innuendo—common among movies like Madagascar 2 and Shrek—was a pleasant surprise.  The wow-inspiring animation was suitably incredible, as the latest CG feature off the assembly line usually is.

Marley & Me
Shawn McEvoy, Senior Editor

Though improperly marketed as a sort of next-generation Beethoven about a rotten retriever with a heart of gold, John Grogan's book-turned-film is more accurately described as the archetypal history of many an American family who adopted a dog as a test run before having children.  Ergo, most people in the audience knew in advance to pack tissues. The direction is a bit uneven; much of the time, like a bad comedy, you wait for the other shoe to drop, but that never happens. Instead, several familiar career and family decisions are illustrated as the memorable moments that changed everything for a couple, for better or worse. But because commitment is such a major theme, the payoff—as in most families—is unilaterally for the better. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston each have never been better in a serious role.

Rachel Getting Married
Christian Hamaker, Contributing Writer

Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married, but there’s just one problem:  her sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), who’s just out of rehab and on her way to her sister’s big event. Watch as Rachel, in a supporting performance that catapults DeWitt to the top tier of working actresses, navigates her sister’s narcissism and her dad’s (Bill Irwin, also fantastic) efforts to try to please everyone. Thanks to the on-the-ground immediacy Director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) brings to the proceedings, the film feels much more alive than a typical dysfunctional family drama. Musical numbers are integrated naturally into a story that centers on a wedding both earthy and, in its multicultural milieu, transcendent. The film is by no means theologically orthodox—you’ll either smile or scoff when Rachel’s mother-in-law to be announces, during a toast, that “this is what it will be like in heaven.” But by the time you watch Kym say she can’t forgive herself for committing a grave sin, your heart will break.