Genre entertainments invariably rake in more money than heavyweight film dramas — that's what they're made for. The striking thing about 2008 wasn't just that the popcorn movies had more explosions and sight gags, but that they had more to say than the theoretically more substantial films. Movies about monsters, robots and caped crusaders seemed more engaged with present-day issues than the work of such celebrated filmmakers as Ron Howard, Sam Mendes, Clint Eastwood and the Coen brothers.
Iron Man and The Dark Knight both depicted costumed zillionaires fighting injustice, but also contained pertinent metaphors for the duties of the individual in the face of urban and global problems. In the bright, frequently funny Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. offered a playful but revelatory turn as a weapons-building industrialist reassessing his company's – and, implicitly, his country's – influence in the world. The Dark Knight's knotty, expansive crime story became an increasingly fraught exploration of the risks of imposing civic order, unleashing chaos and taking responsibility for collateral damage. The film's tragic dimensions were only heightened by the late Heath Ledger's compelling portrayal of the Joker as an anarchic psycho.
Audiences have come to expect annual masterpieces from the computer-animation geniuses at Pixar. WALL-E offered no exception in its unlikely love story about a cute robot, but director/co-writer Andrew Stanton delivered some of the most sharply satirical themes of any Pixar film. His story pointed out that rampant consumerism could have apocalyptic consequences for the planet and infantilizing effects on the human race.
The stark storytelling of Denmark's Let the Right One In would've offered one of the year's most powerful treatments of alienation and friendship even without the revelation that one of the adolescent protagonists was a vampire. A different kind of monster movie, Cloverfield, offered the year's biggest adrenaline rush. Even if it wasn't particularly deep, it preyed on post-9/11 anxieties similar to how 1950s sci-fi touched on Cold War paranoia.
The obscure French gem OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies seemed to be a pleasant trifle – a spoof of 1960s spy films far more shagadelic than any Austin Powers comedy. In portraying Western ignorance and arrogance in the Muslim world, however, OSS 117 offered some sharp commentary on pre-Sept. 11 attitudes. James Marsh's exciting documentary Man on Wire revealed suspense worthy of a heist film. It showed how French acrobat Philippe Petit planned and executed his 1974 high-wire walk across the World Trade Center buildings, and serves as a tribute to the Twin Towers without ever mentioning the attacks.
Even the two liveliest of the year's "prestige films," Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire and Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, rely on some old-fashioned melodramatic tropes. Slumdog Millionaire transplants a manipulative, Dickensian rags-to-riches tale to modern-day Mumbai, while The Wrestler relies on (but also inverts) B-movie boxing movie clichés that predate Rocky.
Meanwhile, well-crafted would-be Oscar contenders such as Frost/Nixon, Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road offered surprisingly simplistic messages about the personal flaws of Richard Nixon, the self-defeating nature of bigotry, and the emptiness of the suburbs, respectively.
Gus Van Sant's Milk rises above some tired biopic conventions thanks primarily to the strength of Sean Penn's performance as gay rights activist Harvey Milk and, unfortunately, its timeliness following the victory of California's Proposition 8. Last year's Oscar winners the Coen brothers juxtaposed espionage with Information Age romance in Burn After Reading for funny but minor-key results.
Fortunately, Charlie Kaufman's darkly comic head trip Synecdoche, New York offered more ideas and intellectual rigor than any 10 other films. Two other highbrow highlights included Kate Winslet's The Reader and the masterful Czech film I Served the King of England – one a weighty drama, the other a cautionary comedy – in which protagonists face the consequences of getting into bed, literally and figuratively, with a Nazi.
Perhaps the 2007-2008 Hollywood writer's strike had a ripple effect that postponed some of the richer, more challenging projects to next year. One can only hope so: The superheroes may not save the day in 2009.