In discussing these movies, I won't give anything away.
1.  Tropic Thunder
Comedies are underrated---they're considered "cute," while dramas are "deep." Comedies never win Best Picture. But which movie has worn better on you: Amadeus (1984) or This Is Spinal Tap (1984); The Last Emporer (1987) or Raising Arizona (1987)? Good comedies must be hard to make, since they're rare.
Tropic Thunder is a Ben Stiller comedy about a bunch of actors making a Vietnam War movie. As in Galaxy Quest (1999), the actors are forced to become their characters, being thrown into a real-life jungle-war conflct. Robert Downey Jr. played the funniest role in 2008: an Australian actor playing an African-American (you would never recognize him behind the blackface). According to the IMDb, Downey was reluctant to take the part, but once he did, he got into it, staying in character between scenes a la Sean Penn as Spicoli (1982) or Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman (1999). In the movie, Downey's character was shadowed by an actual African-American (Brandon T. Jackson) whose running commentary took the sting out of any possible offense. Ben Stiller did draw criticism, however, for the scenes in which his character plays "Simple Jack," a buck-toothed man with obvious cognitive deficits. I think Stiller was actually making fun of actors, not the mentally challenged, but good comedy often walks a line. Also hysterically funny was Tom Cruise playing a repulsive, mean, hairy, and sometimes dancing, Hollywood producer. The make-up job on him was incredible. Given Cruise's wooden performance in Valkerie (2008), one hopes he gets more comic roles.
2.  Standard Operating Procedure
This is Errol Morris's disturbing and profound documentary about Abu Grhaib. It perfectly illustrates Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil"--we see normal Americans recounting god-awful acts of cruelty with no remorse and no understanding of what the prisoners went through. The word 'torture' is almost absent from the movie, since everything is presented from the viewpoint of the torturers, who don't conceive of themselves as such. Standard Operating Procedure doesn't delve into the larger political picture, unlike Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), which I also recommend. There is nothing here for conservatives to argue with. This is the culture their leaders created, and if they want to see what it was like, they can.
I could easily have made this #1 on my list. Why on earth did it not receive an Oscar nomination, much less an Oscar? Why, for example, did Herzog's bland Encounters at the End of the World get nominated for Best Documentary, while this one didn't? To answer that question is to understand why Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld will never pay for their crimes against humanity: because people don't want to know. The members of the Academy couldn't possibly have judged Herzog's movie as better than this; rather, they must not have seen this. Standard Operating Procedure made a pitiful $229,000 at the box office, while Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull made $783 million. Apparently, Hollywood liberals want to avert their eyes from the torture just as much as the Fox News crowd does. I can't blame Obama for not wanting to seek justice in this cultural climate.
3.  Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr. plays playboy-tycoon-turned-superhero Tony Stark in this comic book adaptation. Tom Cruise and Nicholas Cage wanted the role, and if they had gotten it, Paramount might've lost $100 million in the bargain. Downey makes the movie---I had no idea how cool he was. Between this and Tropic Thunder, he must be considered the top actor of 2008.
To my mind, Iron Man is better than any Batman, Superman, or Spiderman movie---it's tops in the genre.
4.  Kung Fu Panda
A delightful animation about an uncoordinated, overweight panda who is tapped by fate for a martial-arts showdown against super-villian Tai Lung. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, much as I did Over the Hedge (2006). The only other 2008 movie that made me cry was Milk.
My fiancee thinks I'm crazy to put Kung Fu Panda on my list but not WALL-E. Admittedly, WALL-E is more subtle and original. But I have to be honest about which I enjoyed more.
5.  Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story
An entertaining documentary about the wimpy little guy from South Carolina who scaled the Republican fence to run George Bush Sr.'s 1988 presidential campaign. According to Atwater's friends, he rarely told the truth, and he had no real political beliefs---he just wanted his man to win. I like to say that Robert McNamara was the Donald Rumsfeld of the 1960s. One might also say that Lee Atwater was the Karl Rove of the 1980s. Without Atwater, Michael Dukakis would probably have become president, thus altering the whole course of world events. How strange it is to think that such an individual could have such an impact on world history.
The movie title comes from the odd fact that Atwater liked to sing the blues.
6.  The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke plays an aging wrestler whose lifestyle has caught up with him. It's a grim masterpiece. Take both words seriously: "grim" and "masterpiece."
7.  Burn After Reading
I love almost everything by the Coen Brothers. This isn't their best comedy, but it has enough Coen-Brother touches that I really enjoyed it. George Clooney is fun to watch, and Brad Pitt plays a good dope. According to the IMDb, Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the script as they wrote No Country For Old Men (2007). Geniuses at work.
The plot involves political intrigue in some ordinary--even boring--settings. Most movies fail at the end, but the second half of this one is much better than the first. I didn't like John Malkovich's bitter, unpleasant character, who dominates the early bits. There is a scene in the middle in which Brad Pitt is hiding in a closet--from that moment on, I loved the movie.
8.  Pineapple Express
"The first marijuana-themed comedy to gross over $100 million worldwide," says the IMDb. Judd Apatow wanted a $50 million budget but got only $25, due to the drug content. Seth Rogen plays the straight role, and James Franco plays his unkempt drug dealer. Pineapple Express has no sentimental subplot, which for me is a plus---thus I prefer it to Apatow's Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005).
I just read that 40% of Americans now believe pot should be legal--an all-time high. Apatow can be proud.
9.  The Hurt Locker
This may be the most realistic war movie I've seen. It's about an American bomb-defusing unit in Iraq. There are many tense moments. There's not much plot, but when the movie is over, you think, "Yep, I'll bet that's what Iraq was like." If you want a taste of why I dislike old movies, compare this one to The Great Escape (1963), a movie in which American POWs during WWII taunt their German captors and seem to be running the camp.
10.  Food, Inc.
A documentary about the callous industrial system that produces our food and hopes we don't ask questions. A must-see for people who eat.
Honorable Mentions: Recount; Milk; Elegy; Frozen River, Gran Torino; Frost/Nixon; I.O.U.S.A.; WALL-E; and Hancock. Also, Bolt and Role Models were sweet movies, though I didn't like them quite as much.
Recount, by the way, is an HBO movie about the Florida recount of 2000. The cast is great. Kevin Spacey stars as Ron Klain, a campaigner for Gore, and Laura Dern plays Katherine Harris, who is portrayed as a self-consumed dipstick. The movie seems accurate; I remembered most of it from following the news in 2000. The world hung in the balance, and the bad guys won. John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson were good as Warren Christopher and James Baker.
Slumdog Millionaire (which won, somehow)
I don't understand why people like this movie. I'm really at a loss. The plot was contrived; the Indian slum scenes were unrealistic and depressing; the movie's great romance involved two people who didn't know each other; and--hello?--"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire??"--who has seen that show since 2002, and who ever wants to see it again? When Slumdog won at the Golden Globes, I could chalk it up to the same tragically hip electorate that gave us Atonement last year. But when it won the Oscar ... well ... "Bitch, pleeze???"
Milk  (one of my Honorable Mentions)
Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, the charismatic camera-store owner who becomes the first openly gay man to hold public office in America. Milk is much like The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), a documentary which is even better. The scenes set in Milk's apartment were shot in Milk's actual apartment, and the scenes in Milk's camera store in The Castro were shot in Milk's actual camera store (which is now a gift shop).
Sean Penn got the Oscar for Best Actor--rightly so, I think, even though Mickey Rourke (as The Ram) and Frank Langella (as The Dick) also gave Oscar-worthy performances. The moment I heard Penn's voice, a big smile came to my face--he sounds so much like Harvey Milk. When I rewatched The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), I was reminded that the real person was even cooler than Penn's portrayal. I had the same experience watching Andy Kaufman after seeing Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon (1999). Oh, by the way--Josh Brolin also played a mean Dan White.
This was my favorite nominee, but there were 11 movies in 2008 I enjoyed more. It was a poor year for the Oscars.
Frost-Nixon   (one of my Honorable Mentions)
This tells the story of David Frost's 1977 interview with Richard Nixon. The acting is a joy to watch: Director Ron Howard, who voted for Tricky Dick in '72, insisted that Frank Langella and Michael Sheen be allowed to reprise their stage roles as Nixon and Frost. It's an enjoyable movie. The only flaw is a bit of Hollywood scripting: we are beaten over the head with the theme. Can David Frost--the unprepared pretty-boy lightweight joke--outwit the great doctor of spin, R. M. Nixon? The answer may not surprise you.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ever year, it seems, some movie gets nominated for Best Picture by sheer force of studio will. Benjamin Button is a big production: it cost $150 million to make, and I'm sure Warner Bros. wanted their investment to pay off. The plot is based on a gimmick: Brad Pitt plays a man who is born old and gets younger and younger until he dies. I correctly guessed, during the movie, that Benjamin Button had Forrest Gump's screenwriter. Like Gump, the dull and unassuming Button keeps finding himself improbably connected to historical events. Also, people in the movie keep dying, which we're supposed to think is profound (compare Forrest Gump's constant references to how people he meets later die: John Lennon, Elvis Presley, John Kennedy--and then, in a moment of thanatosic stream-of-consciousness, Gump also talks about Bobby Kennedy's death, giving us two profoundities for the price of none).
Let me back up. I actually like Forrest Gump (1994), which works for me on an emotional level. And I didn't mind Benjamin Button. But the movie is pointless, and I won't watch it again.
I haven't seen it.*************************************************************
My 2008 Award for Please Stop Playing This Character
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche, New York (2008). Hey! Let's go see Philip Seymour Hoffman play a dumpy, self-loathing, sniveling loser! Betcha didn't see that one coming!
My 2008 Award for Biggest Missed Opportunity
The first thirty minutes of Wanted (2008) were fantastic--exciting, edgy, and electrifying! But then it morphed into every other action movie. I vaguely remember Angelina Jolie being in it.