It's commonly understood that not all great movies are necessarily great-time movies, and I think we can all agree that not all great-time movies are necessarily "great." (Formally brilliant and historically essential though they are, I'm not sure I could summon the energy to sit through Intolerance or Triumph of the Will again, and while I love Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle to death, you'll never read 2,000 words on it in Cahiers du cinéma.)
So for this annual roundup of what I consider the best films of the previous year, I offer 10 entertainments that were all extraordinarily great times, even if the films' actual "greatness" remains questionable. (I'm still not crazy about that last half-hour of The Dark Knight, but considering how astonishing its first two hours are, who cares?) Sure, several of last year's movies - James Marsh's Man on Wire, Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park - may have been "better" than the ones I've selected here, and, along with most of the country, I've yet to catch such 2008 titles as The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road, and Waltzing with Bashir. But the following are works I'd happily watch again and again ... even without 3D glasses (see number seven).
We start, though, with the one 2008 achievement that I feel is a new film classic, although I doubt I'll have to work very hard to convince most of you of that ... .
1) WALL·E. For Pixar's lovable trash compactor unwinding with, and pining over, a VHS tape of Hello, Dolly! For the 'bot gently rocking himself to sleep. For him not knowing what to do with a spork. For the cockroach finding an imperishable home in a Twinkie. For EVE's dreamy flight as she begins her "directive." For her refusal to reveal her directive. ("Classified.") For her destructive attempts at dancing. For "Ta da!" For Fred Willard describing space as "the final fun-tier!" For the multi-tasking humans who can no longer stand upright. For Sigourney Weaver offering lunch ... "in a cup!" For the robotic beauticians. ("I know, honey, I know ... .") For Jeff Garlin seeking the definition of "hoedown." For the psych ward of malfunctioning robots. For WALL·E misconstruing EVE's cleanup procedure. For MO. For MO's official introduction to WALL·E. ("WALL·E." "MO." "MO?" "MO." "MO.") For the possibility of sustainable life. For the possibility of "pizza plants." And for director Andrew Stanton and the whole, glorious, hilarious, moving, beautiful, unforgettable achievement that is WALL·E. Sometimes it only takes a moment to find a film you'll love a whole life long.
2) Happy-Go-Lucky. Sally Hawkins, giving the year's bravest, funniest, most endearing female performance (see number six for the male equivalent), is the relentless optimist Poppy in writer/director Mike Leigh's rightfully acclaimed British comedy, and rarely has a movie character, or a movie, been more aptly named. Leigh's famed directorial style - in which a script is crafted after weeks of intense improvisation with the cast - appears superbly utilized in this comic tale of a half-full surviving a world of half-empties; your initial fears for Poppy's safety, and sanity, eventually give way to absolutely relaxed, rapturous pleasure. The film's most telling scene, and perhaps its most beautiful, is a brief throwaway when Poppy gazes out a window and remarks on what a lovely day it is. We hear her comment before we're actually shown what she's looking at, and when Leigh cuts to the view, we see a typical urban skyline with a batch of low-hanging clouds - unthreatening, yes, but hardly lovely. Look closer, though. It's not that Poppy doesn't notice the clouds; she's just focusing on the sliver of blue above the clouds. Happy-Go-Lucky is a triumph of positivity; I freaking love this movie.
3) The Dark Knight. A week-and-a-half after first seeing Christopher Nolan's feverishly exciting Batman sequel, I saw it again, alongside a few hundred others, at a packed Tuesday-night screening. And for most of the film's length, I heard something you almost never hear amongst a crowd that large: absolute, overwhelming silence. From its first heart-stopping seconds, with the Batman logo appearing and promptly vanishing in a veil of smoke, Nolan's film grabbed audiences like few movies have this decade, and during its best scenes - and there were loads of best scenes - you barely wanted to breathe for fear of loosening its hypnotic grip. The cinematography and production design were amazing, and while Heath Ledger ensured his legend with his ferociously feral turn as the Joker, the other members of the year's finest cast were no slouches, either. (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal gave perfectly realized comic-book performances, and Morgan Freeman made up for years of lackluster work with his perfectly cadenced, "Good luck.") Since purchasing The Dark Knight on DVD I've watched it, I dunno, a million times, and I'm not nearly done with it.
4) Gran Torino. The previews - in which Clint Eastwood, shotgun in hand, hisses, "Get off my lawn!" - did not fill me with hope. Nor did the movie's basic conceit, in which Eastwood's surly bigot learns to make nice with the Hmong neighbors next door, and becomes a reluctant father figure to the family's sullen teenage boy. It's Dirty Harry meets On Golden Pond!, I thought. Run for the hills! But Eastwood's latest turned out to be almost indescribably entertaining, so emotionally honest and straightforward that it leaves you not just moved but shaken, and so spectacularly funny that I'll need to see it a second time just to hear the lines I missed from laughing so hard. In the performance of a lifetime, Eastwood says more about the frustrating hell and bittersweet acceptance of aging with one squint and one cranky, hilarious "Gr-r-r!" than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button manages in 165 minutes. And he kicks major ass. I saw Gran Torino during the holidays in Barrington, Illinois, and most of the audience applauded at the end. They were right to.
5) Rachel Getting Married. Director Jonathan Demme's supremely, joyously human drama takes place during preparations for a wedding, and by its finale - and this is cliché, but I'm going with it - you'll truly feel like one of the family; you find yourself studying background characters to see how events are affecting everyone, and laugh and cringe and well up right along with them. Anne Hathaway received the lion's share of attention for her acidic, devastating turn as a rehab patient who, despite her best efforts, just can't stop screwing up ("That is so unfair!" she blurts after learning of her sister's pregnancy), but three of her co-stars were every bit as fine: Rosemarie DeWitt, as the bride-to-be ever-alert to the changing family dynamics; Bill Irwin, as the dad whose continued good cheer occasionally gives way to embarrassed grief; and Debra Winger, as the unforgiving mom who hides her resentment behind a mask of blasé acceptance. Rachel Getting Married is a miracle of found moments and scenes to revisit again and again; never has the act of loading a dishwasher been filled with such superlative comedy, tension, and heartbreak.
6) Milk. One day, it might be considered a crime against cinema that Sean Penn didn't spend more of his screen time smiling. In Gus Van Sant's brilliantly assembled bio-pic on murdered politician and gay activist Harvey Milk, Penn not only sports a beaming grin, but appears to have discovered a looser, freer approach to acting than we've seen since his youthful glory days of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and 1983's Bad Boys; bursting with a spontaneous fervor and the heart-lifting elation of possibility, Penn gives a charming, enlivening, intensely happy performance. (Like Rachel Getting Married, Milk also boasts an unbeatable supporting ensemble, and there are expert portrayals here by Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Diego Luna, and the inspiring James Franco.) I'm enthralled by those bleak, minimalist Van Sant movies Elephant, Gerry, and Paranoid Park, but Milk, despite its tragic climax, finds its director (and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black) offering a remarkably upbeat rallying cry for hope in the midst of seeming hopelessness. The film is a magnificent reminder that Van Sant can occasionally play by Hollywood rules and still create something unusual, fresh, and (I'm guessing) lasting.
7) U2 3D. The only movie on this list I can safely predict I'll never own. Why bother? No matter how big my home-theatre screen gets, no matter how exquisite my sound system, this concert film by directors Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington won't ever be as exhilarating in my living room as it was during its IMAX release. (Plus, you know, I'd always be misplacing my 3D glasses ... .) Being a 20-year-plus U2 fan certainly didn't hurt my enjoyment any, but given U2 3D's superb sound mixing and editing, and the jaw-dropping clarity of its images, you'd have to seriously detest the band to not be wowed. (Whenever crowds are seen bobbing in time with the music, the screen seems to literally pulse.) The movie is both wildly invigorating and, viewed purely as a technical accomplishment, positively revolutionary; I might've spent the film's 85 minutes cheering and singing with the on-screen fans if I wasn't so busy giggling.
8) The Strangers. And speaking of giggling ... . I tend to laugh when I get truly freaked out during a horror movie, and I had more giggly fun at this nasty, suggestive, unexpectedly memorable debut by writer/director Bryan Bertino than I have at any scare flick since The Blair Witch Project. The first 15 minutes are devoted solely to the romantic misery between leads Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler (both excellent), and their scenes are so quiet and deliberate you might feel like screaming "Get on with the movie already!" You'll soon realize, though, that their relationship is the movie; The Strangers is a pitch-black, and pitch-perfect, horror comedy about two people who don't realize how much they love one another until it's too late to matter. With just one film, Bertino proves himself a wizard with sound and composition - the moment when that masked intruder enters the living room behind Tyler and just stands there is a masterfully sustained fright - and his spare, elegant script features the creepiest movie line of the year not uttered by Heath Ledger: "Is Tamara home?" I'm jonesing for Bertino's next endeavor, but repeat viewings of this one should tide me over 'til then.
9) Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It's a common complaint that Judd Apatow's movies - be they the Apatow-directed Knocked Up or this Apatow-produced offering by director Nicholas Stoller - are too long, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall does clock in at 112 minutes. I, personally, love that they're too long, as the extended time allows for the sorts of silly, odd, unpredictably human moments that most Hollywood comedies don't have the patience for. With its buoyant script by star Jason Segel, this gentle comedy about depression was enormously likable on a first viewing, but after several more at home, I've grown to adore it precisely because of the "unnecessary" flourishes: Paul Rudd repeatedly demanding that Segel "pop up" on his surfboard without explaining exactly what that means; William Baldwin's priceless parody of CSI-style acting; Jonah Hill bringing coconut cake to his man-crush Aldous (the laugh-'til-you-cry-hysterical Russell Brand). This quick-witted, sneakily wise entertainment is total bliss, and Hawaii has never had a more enticing advertisement than when Mila Kunis - in a stunningly poised, funny, and empathetic performance - pisses off Kristin Bell by kissing Segel, taking a beat, and purring, "I like living here." Sold.
10) Hamlet 2. In all honesty, I'd say a full third of this Andrew Fleming slapstick - a parody of every inspirational-teacher movie you've ever shied away from - doesn't work. There are lame gags and unnecessarily rude gags (the city of Tucson gets a thorough trashing that you can't imagine it deserves); there are half-hearted subplots and narrative detours with no discernible payoff. Yet the two-thirds that do work are so gloriously, ridiculously demented and satisfying that Hamlet 2 might already stand as a new comedy classic, a giddy celebration of tireless enthusiasm and talent-free ego to place beside Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman. Steve Coogan, as the hack high-school director Dana Marschz, digs so deeply into states of anxiety and self-aggrandizement that he's as frightening as he is funny, and the film is jam-packed with jokes for theatre-lovers, from the opening staging of Erin Brockovich: The Play to the climactic, musical pièce de résistance of "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus." Oh, and that finale? With the time-traveling Hamlet saving Ophelia from drowning while the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus sings Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight"? It's gonna give you chills. In a good way.