Ok, I realize this list is coming about a month and a half (or more) too late for anyone to really care. Even with the extra time I still didn't get to every movie on my to-see list. This may not be among my strongest top 10 lists, but those top four can hold up to any other year. Let's get to it.
1. The Dark Knight
The Academy may have dropped the ball, but The Dark Knight is still the movie of 2008. Sure, Heath Ledger's Joker is already one of the greatest movie villains of all time, and yes, Christopher Nolan managed to make perhaps the most politically resonant movie of the year using comic book characters. But the real reason The Dark Knight is my #1 is because when you rewatch it, and see how all the instantly iconic scenes build and build for two and a half hours, it's clear what the movie is: a classic.
2. Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog may just be the straight-up most enjoyable movie of the year. Blending Dickensian storytelling, Bollywood dancing, and just the tiniest dash of neorealism, it ends up transcending all labels. All those torture and eye-removal scenes just make the fairy tale ending all the more satisfying.
The other brilliant blockbuster of 2008, Wall-E somehow managed to be a biting critique of civilization while simultaneously showing hope for humanity...and did so with robots in love. With only a few well-placed "Waaaall Eee"s and "Eeeeeeevaaaas" for dialogue, Wall-E and Eve were the most touching couple of the year. Pixar has animated many things - fish, cars, toys - but it was the low-vocabulary robots that really came alive.
How often does a movie make you want to go out and take action at exactly the right moment in history to do so? The passing of Proposition 8 may have given a somewhat tragic air to Milk, showing how little has changed in the past 30 years. But there's just so much hope, and belief in the power of the political process, that you know Harvey Milk's story isn't over yet.
5. The Wrestler
For me, The Wrestler is at its most powerful in that final scene. We've gotten to know Randy so well and seen so much of his life in the past two hours, that we know exactly what that final Ram Slam means to him, heading into that heartbreaking Springsteen title song. A look at the fakery of pro wrestling and a career-best Marisa Tomei add to the movie's greatness, but it's Mickey Rourke's incredible performance that anchors it.
6. Revolutionary Road
Revolutionary Road may be the anti-Titanic, bitterly showing the dissolution of love instead of its beginning, but what better way to take advantage of the chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet? Forget Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, this was the powerhouse acting battle to watch in 2008. With beautiful production values and a scene-stealing turn by Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road shows how to turn an unadaptable literary novel into a great film.
7. Synecdoche, New York
This movie is so deeply flawed that I can't wholly stand behind it. The second half doesn't even make any sense. But the parts that do work are just so brilliant that it's impossible to ignore. Whether a surrealist comedy, a serious meditation on life and death, or a brainteasing puzzle, Synecdoche, NY was easily the most original movie of the year. And confusion goes down a whole lot easier with such a talented ensemble cast.
8. Rachel Getting Married
It's not just the handheld camera that makes you feel like you really attended this wedding. As dysfunctional as it may be, the family feels more believable than in any Hollywood wedding movie I've seen. Black sheep Kym could easily shatter that authenticity, but Anne Hathaway plays her so genuinely that you believe every drug-addled story about her you hear. Playing against type never felt so good.
The better of the two theatrical adaptations, Frost/Nixon wins by taking advantage of the screen. The "how he did it" before the interview is engaging enough, but it's the key moment when Nixon falters that makes the movie. Like all good history tales, it works past and present: Frank Langella will make you completely rethink Nixon while letting you imagine what it would be like if someone nailed Bush the same way.
10. Burn After Reading
The Coen Brothers love to play with old Hollywood genres, replacing Bogart with The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Well, here the concept was "what if we took a spy movie and made the McGuffin worthless?" Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and the rest of the top notch cast take that concept and run with it, making for one of the Coens' funniest movies. CIA Chief JK Simmons' line pretty much sums it up, "Report back to me when it...you know...makes sense." That wouldn't be nearly as fun.
Best Picture: The Dark Knight
Runners-Up: Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E, Milk
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Runners-Up: Sean Penn, Milk; Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
Best Actress: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Runner-Up: Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Runners-Up: Emile Hirsch, Milk; Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Supporting Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Runners-Up: Samantha Morton, Synecdoche, NY; Viola Davis, Doubt
Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Runners-Up: Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight; Gus Van Sant, Milk
Best Original Screenplay: Rachel Getting Married
Runners-Up: Milk, Wall-E
Best Adapted Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Runners-Up: The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon
Best Animated Film: Wall-E
Best Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Runners-Up: The Dark Knight, Milk
Best Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Runners-Up: The Dark Knight, Wall-E
Best Original Song: "The Wrestler," The Wrestler
Runners-Up: "Down to Earth," Wall-E; "Jai Ho," Slumdog Millionaire