Sunday, January 18, 2009

Best of 2008

TOP 10 OF 2008
This is the first time in several years that my best film of the year won’t be nominated for best picture (if I’m wrong, then that’d be great).

It was a year of simple, not sensational, films with the exception of a few, of course. Sensationalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but most of these films conveyed subtle, powerful messages by letting the audience become completely immersed with the characters.

I’ll dub 2008 the year of great character studies, and what’s better than that?

10. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh, the often serious, always genuine British director crafted one of his best films yet with this peppy look at a girl full of impossible optimism. The film didn’t have a shred of plot, but it actually made me feel good. Good about myself, about others, about life in general. How many films can do that?

9. The Dark Knight
Because it redefined what a summer popcorn movie can be. Because it lived up to the hype. Because it didn’t insult your intelligence. Because it’s thrilling as all hell. Because Heath Ledger’s performance is better than any fancy adjective you can assign it. Because after multiple viewings of this two and a half hour movie, you’re never bored.

8. Revolutionary Road
Not nearly getting the credit it deserves, Sam Mendes directs this all-too-real film of a crumbling marriage in 1950s suburbia. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give the best work of their respective careers. This is serious stuff, but well worth the melodrama.

7. Tell No OneThis little-seen French indie was some of the most fun I had at the movies this year. Its intricate and merciless plot is comparable to Hitchcock. The acting is top notch from every twisted character involved. Catch this multi-genre’d wonder on DVD in March.

6. Man on Wire
Picture this: as Philippe Petit finally takes his first steps on to the tightrope he has set up between the two towers of the World Trade Center, the film looses all sound. No narration, no musical score, no moving picture. Instead, director James Marsh makes the bold decision to let the still images in his documentary speak for themselves. No scene knocked the wind out of me more this year. The fact that the film does not once mention 9/11 is a testament to its individuality. When you watch this film, you watch them stand tall once again.

5. The Edge of Heaven
Released overseas in 2007, it blows my mind why this film was barely released in the US this year. Like Babel, this multilayered film fuses together a variety of people. The only catch is that most of these people don’t know the others exist. It demonstrates a great message (better than Crash did) on how something we do can change the life of a complete stranger, even if we don’t realize it. This is real, emotional stuff. If you can’t pick it up at Blockbuster, then just buy it from, you won’t regret it.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
Remember that thing I said about this year’s films not being sensational? That doesn’t apply here. Visionary director Danny Boyle presents one of the most sensational delights in recent cinema history. Flawless in its execution, this movie will make cringe, cheer, and most importantly, think. For the cynics that bitch that cinema is dead, that no original ideas are left, I present you with this breathtaking film that pulses to life with remarkable energy and fierce originality.

3. Rachel Getting Married
Perhaps the most emotionally accurate film of the year. Watching this movie, we are let into the lives of one very dysfunctional family. In the extended scenes of candid conversation I often felt uncomfortable. Not because what the characters are saying is disgusting, but because what they are saying is so real. You actually feel like you’re in the rooms of their house, sitting next to them on the couch, waiting for the perfect moment to sneak off into the kitchen unnoticed. If a film can make you feel like an eavesdropper, then it has done its job.

2. Milk
Sean Penn gives the best performance of an already perfect career in Gus Van Sant’s best film to date. The film is executed to subtle perfection, never making its dramatic scenes over the top. Boasting the best cast of the year, Milk is a film that touched a nerve with its relevancy. Pay attention to the often off-focus camera work, Danny Elfman’s beautiful, quiet score, and the crisp lines of dialogue from Dustin Lance Black’s original script. A new kind of bio-pic, one with a pulse.

1. The Wrestler
Picking the best film of 2008 wasn’t easy. For the longest time, it was a toss-up between Milk and Darren Aronofsky’s masterwork about a washed-up professional wrestler. I finally decided what film should get the number one spot by analyzing each film’s lasting power. Which one did I think about more? Which stayed with me the longest after leaving the theatre? I first saw The Wrestler on Halloween night at the Virginia Film Festival and was completely blown away. I tried hard to convince my girlfriend, who was off-put by the film’s violence, that it was a modern masterpiece. It’s true, The Wrestler may not be for everyone. The violence is sparse, but gut-wrenching. The body of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is a canvas for pain. Not just physical brutality but emotional agony as well. Mickey Rourke gives the performance of his life, and the best acting of 2008, as a man who only knows one thing. He still lives in his ‘80s hey day. Listening to the same hair-metal music, playing the same video games, wearing the same outfits, the same hair, etc. He’s a little boy buried deep in a huge mass of a man. I didn’t care about any character more this year than I did for Randy, or should I say Rourke? The man is so synonymous with the character that it’s hard to tell the difference. Good movies stay with you, and believe me, The Wrestler has yet to leave.

And ten more for good measure, alphabetically:

Changeling, established Clint Eastwood as a great, period director.
Encounters at the End of the World, was a pleasant gem from visionary Werner Herzog.
Frost/Nixon, is Ron Howard's best film yet, completely enthralling.
Funny Games, may be the most haunting film I've ever seen.
Gran Torino, allowed Eastwood to fuse all of his best characters together.
In Bruges, was the funniest film of the year.
The Reader, showcased the ever-terrific Kate Winslet.
Redbelt, is Mamet at his prime.
Snow Angels, was a quiet but memorable little film with dynamic acting.
The Visitor, had one of the year's most tender performances in Richard Jenkins.


Everything else that mattered in 2008...

Slumdog MillionaireTake the opening chase scene: it’s the best shot (with frequent slow-motion and fast-action pacing), best cut (with the action focusing on multiple subjects), best sounding (with its pulsing sound effects), and the best scored (with A.R. Rahman’s feverishly captivating song “O…Saya" booming over the soundtack), sequence of the year. Thank director Danny Boyle for your fascination.

Runner Up: Rachel Getting Married

Mickey Rourke as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler
This character breathes through the screen by Rourke giving him a pulse. His acting is phenomenal.
Runner up: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk

Kate Winslet as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road
Winslet gives the performance of her career as an anxious woman trapped in 1950s suburbia. She’s perfect in every scene, from her opening moments as a failed stage actress to her cooking a cleansing breakfast in the third act. Just try to take your eyes off of her.
Runner up: Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
No explanation needed.
Runner up: Michael Shannon as John in Revolutionary Road

Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel in Rachel Getting Married
The little-known DeWitt comes on like a hurricane as the older, wiser sister to Anne Hathaway’s drug addicted Kym. Sweet as can be one moment then gut-wrenchingly honest the next, DeWitt drove me to tears like no other performance this year. She’s so real, you forget you’re watching a film.
Runner up: Kate Winslet as Hanna in The Reader

“The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen from The Wrestler
I was listening to this song on my iPod the other day, to the sad lyrics of decades-old solidarity. Suddenly I realized there was no music playing. How long ago had the song ended? How long had I been alone with my thoughts? Like the film, this song has some serious lasting power. I don’t know if it’s better that “Streets of Philadelphia” which got The Boss an Oscar in 1993, but it’ll get him to the big show once again.
Runner-up: “Gran Torino” by Jamie Cullum from Gran Torino

Revolutionary Road
No, not the one you’ve most likely seen 10 times already. But this little seen teaser:
Scored beautifully to a soft version of “Sea of Love”, with almost no dialogue from the film, it did a great job of setting the haunting pace that the film conveyed.

Slumdog Millionaire
Runner up: Encounters at the End of the World

The 5 (Biggest) Disappointments of 2008

Forget the worst of the year, you don’t need me to tell you that Disaster Movie is complete garbage, instead let’s focus on the movies that shattered our high hopes.

A tasteless movie from a master director. Fernando Meirelles, the visionary mind behind City of God and The Constant Gardener delivered this cheap exposé of a world gone mad. It was trite, and at times, repulsive.

The Happening
Every one of M. Night Shyamalan’s films are worse than the one before, but for some reason I still hold out high expectations for the man that gave us The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. This film was a complete mess. His first R-rated movie? Who cares, I wanted my time back.

Miracle at St. Anna
Spike Lee got too indulgent with himself in this true story about four WWII soldiers who get stuck behind enemy lines. I give him credit for making one of the only feature films to focus on black soldiers, but for the most part, the film was long, boring, not to mention tasteless.

Seven Pounds
Probably the most dreadful time I’ve had at the movies this year. I had virtually no idea what the hell was going on for a good amount of it, which doesn’t say a lot about talented director Gabriele Muccino and star Will Smith (both did The Pursuit of Happyness). It tried to make up for its inconsistencies in the last five minutes, but it was too late, I had already emotionally checked out an hour ago.

Synecdoche, New York
This visually stunning, marvelously acted film left many people with the same feeling: Huh? What just happened? Was it real? What was with that house on fire? Oddball screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) aimed to entice audiences with his directorial debut. Instead he left most of us scratching our heads.


Couldn’t these all go to The Joker? At the risk of being repetitive, here’s a varied list of the lines that most impressed me (package nicely between two of Mr. Ledger’s best quips).

10. “Well hello, beautiful.” Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

9. “Maybe if I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t… so it doesn’t.” Colin Farrell, In Bruges

8. “Get off my lawn.”—Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino

7. “There is no situation you cannot escape from.” Chiwetel Ejiofor, Redbelt

6. “I’m saying when the President does it that means it’s not illegal!”—Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

5. “It is written.”—Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

4. “We’ve got a hell of a way to go.”—Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

3. “Without hope, life is not worth living. You gotta give ‘em hope, you gotta give ‘em hope.” – Sean Penn, Milk

2. “I’m an old, broken down piece of meat, and I deserve to be alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.”—Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

1. “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.” Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

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