As a continuation of other "year's end" wrap up posts on this blog, I humbly submit my twenty favorite films of 2008. I can proudly say that I watched more films this year than any previous year (163 total new) and I hope that carries forward into 2009. I've still got my annual "Moments of 2008" post upcoming, and then I'll be ready to venture into the vastness (aka dumping grounds) of the January and February release schedule. These 20 favorites may be someone else's twenty worst, but isn't that what makes watching movies so much fun?
20. Ghost Town- Besides being side splitting funny, watching Ricky Gervais act as a cantankerous dentist with a disdain for all other people doesn't sound like the formula for an endearing romance- yet it is. Tea Leoni is absolutely great as well. Don't let the unoriginal premise scare- man begins to see ghosts and they harp on him to right all the wrongs so they can move on- scare you away. Underneath the laborious plot, there's a genuinely moving and sweet undertone. And the final scene between Gervias and Leoni is terrific.
19. The Orphanage- The first new '08 film I saw way back in January, and it's stuck with me since then. Spanish filmmakers are creating some magically deviant scary movies right now, and Juan Bayona's film is no exception. Part psychological horror and part childhood fairy-tale, there are two or three scenes in "The Orphanage" that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
18. Tropic Thunder- Ben Stiller's parody of the war film understands comedic timing, eliciting most of its laughs out of its sharply conceived script. While most other comedies fail due to their reverence to improvisational comedy which does little more than allow scenes to run on much longer than necessary, "Tropic Thunder" succeeds in delivery and reaction shots. I could make an entire list of Robert Downey Jr's witty lines in this film, and its clearly the performance of a man (and a cast) having genuine fun.
17. Changeling- Clint Eastwood's "noble failure" by some, left in the dust from his other prestige picture this year, deserves more credit than its gotten. Angelina Jolie gives an incredibly visceral performance, and the look and texture of 1920's Los Angeles pops off the screen. While many have decried Eastwood's multi-faceted storyline that abruptly shifts gears and takes control during the second half of the film, I found the path to be an uncompromising and interesting attack on the mores of good and evil- a theme he's been working on for decades.
16. Valkyrie- Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie" is a film that understands the slow-burn pacing that marks the great thrillers, building up the evolving plot to kill Hitler through backroom conversations, hushed tones, and small almost throwaway moments of eye contact or body posture that fit perfectly in the vein of good conspiracy thrillers. Devoid of CGI effects, this is the exact type of film that John Frankenheimer might have tackled in the 70's. A true breath of fresh air in the over-hyped, overworked action thrillers of today. See Film Comment's excellent write-up on the film as well.
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days- Cristi Mungiu's Romanian film about 2 college students working arduously to seek an abortion is terrifying to watch. Not only does Mungui's camera capture so much of the action in unwavering long takes, but the oppression and collapsing social order of 1980's Romania are captured with an equal gaze. This is a great film that will only rise in stature over time.
14. The Visitor- Not only does Richard Jenkins deserve a Best Actor nomination for his performance in Tom McCarthy's vibrant, humane little drama, but I wouldn't mind seeing other noms for anyone else in this film. Topics such as immigration and varying cultures clashing together due to sitcom-style antics (in this case a confusing manner of apartment leasing) have been well tread indie subjects for years now, yet "The Visitor" wrangles this oft-used story to magnificent heights.
13. The Rape of Europa- On one level, this is a documentary about the plundering of art across Europe during World War 2 for vain and selfish reasons. On another level, this is a sobering account of cruelty and inhuman destruction that, by now, should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington or watched any documentary on Hitler and his cronies' expansion across Russia, France, Poland and Italy. But instead of wallowing in the desperation, the film takes a redemptive turn towards the end and shows us the groups of Allied men and women who spent the last year of the war (and lifetimes afterward) searching for most of the missing art and desperately trying to regain a small part of a culture that was ripped apart. Infinitely moving and educational.
12. Shotgun Stories- I'm convinced that when actor Michael Shannon blows up to mainstream audiences in the next year or two, this will be the defining performance that people flock to. Jeff Nichols' debut film is a thunderbolt of restrained violence and anger that simply melts off the screen. Unfairly compared to the works of David Gordon Greene (which even I used in my initial review), Nichols completely understands the poignant grace and sublime textures of small town America, milking Southern ennui for everything its worth. The film, which charts the escalating violence between two sets of brothers, takes the viewer down a very dark path, but its Shannon's performance that gives the film its weight. See this film at all costs.
11. My Blueberry Nights- Marginalized and forgotten upon release, Wong Kar Wai's first American film maintains the dreamy, vibrant atmosphere of his Chinese films and manages to be sensual without doing a whole lot. Wong understands how to film body language, silences, and his camera is there to encapsulate these mute feelings in swooning slow motion and patient lateral pans. There's a single scene, between cafe owner Jude Law and an old girlfriend that speaks volumes about our fragile connections with old flames, and how devastating it can be when they swoop in and out of our lives. Norah Jones, too, swoops in and out of Law's life (and all around the country) meeting various vagrants of the American landscape including Rachel Wiesz, David Straithern- who deserves a supporting actor nomination work for his turn as a tormented alcoholic in Memphis- and Natalie Portman. This is basically a road movie as only Wong Kar Wai could make... full of speed up landscapes, fluorescent subway trains and life observed from the outside looking in through glass windows.
10. Burn After Reading- Just like the Coen Brothers to keep us guessing after the brooding masterpiece that was "No Country For Old Men". I suspect that with time, "Burn After Reading" will take its place next to "The Big Lebowski" as one of their most treasured (i.e. cultish) works. I was laughing through every frame of this film. The cast is perfectly delirious, the narrative is bonkers (yet makes perfect sense when watched again) and the ending is just as unexpected as the contemplative final scenes of their previous Oscar winner.
9. Summer Palace- Lou Ye has long been a favorite of mine, and with "Summer Palace" he's created a dizzying ode to youth and love during the seismic changes of China in the late 80's. Following four students (two couples) as they maneuver through various beliefs and movements, "Summer Palace" is an extension of Ye's affection for grand romances pitted against the politics and cultural shifts of history.
8. Tell No One- Guillame Canet's superbly paced, intricately plotted (so much so that you've got to pay attention early or very small details may pass you by and leave you in the dark when the conclusion rolls around) thriller is exciting as hell. There are two scenes here- a rush to an Internet cafe tuned to a song by U2 and a chase across a busy French beltway- that are some of the most exciting moments I've seen on screen all year. This is the type of film where the lone image of a computer screen trying to connect to its server makes one hold their breath- it's that flawlessly executed. I look forward to whatever Canet does next- and the inevitable Hollywood remake?
7. Boarding Gate- Olivier Assayas' abstract thriller that breaks apart the genre and strips it down to its barest essence. Asia Argento stars as the heroine running from something or somebody.. maybe because of her relationship with shady businessman Michael Madsen or maybe not. The film does explain a lot if one pays attention in the final scene, but everything up until that point is a refraction of the usual tropes and filmed in Assayas' usual reliance on whip pans and handheld camera that provides fragments of faces and information. "Boarding Gate" is yet another brilliant entry into the career of a French filmmaker who manages to hop from genre to genre with style and intellect.
6. Slumdog Millionaire- The backlash has already begun on Danny Boyle's heart warming tale of star-crossed lovers, game shows and Mumbian thugs. Spliced together like a music video at times, the film's real verve comes in the final act when it builds to a crescendo that had me gripping the arms of my chair in anticipation.
5. Let the Right One In- Descriptions of Thomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In" could encompass so many genres- horror film, suburban teen angst (albeit in a very cold, nontraditional setting), awkward adolescent love story, coming-of-age melodrama... everything fits and evokes a specific reaction. So many ideas and emotions are crammed into the film that choosing any one of these would be sufficient. But what resonates most is the tender relationship that forms between a bullied boy and a vampire trapped in a 12 year old girl's body. Austere, tender and framed with a precise sense of camera placement, this is a new benchmark for the vampire film- one that dares to wrap a beating heart around the age old myth.
4. The Dark Knight- Christopher Nolan's film is not only a good entry into the caped crusader chronicles but its a terrific crime film, echoing the vibrancy of Michael Mann with its opening heist and sweeping helicopter pans through urban downtown. Refusing to let off the accelerator as Batman and The Joker use Gotham as one giant sprawling playground of excess from the very beginning, "The Dark Knight" is a breathless exercise in continual climax. And those eyes of Heath Ledger.... spilling out with evil and hatred will never be forgotten.
3. Inside- Julien Maury and Alexander Bustillo's "Inside" is terrifying. After so many of the recent wave of French horror films missed the mark, Bustillo and Maury take a simple premise- a pregnant woman home alone on Christmas Eve, ready to give birth the next day, and the emergence of a sadistic other woman (simple billed as "the woman" and played to feverish perfection by Beatrice Dalle) trying to get to the unborn baby- and wrench every bit of tension and disturbing psychology out of it. But this isn't just a gore-fest. Bustillo and Maury's attention to editing and camera placement are first rate and the film deserves a long life in Midnight movie circles.
2. The Wrestler- Darren Aronofsky's double edged sword tribute to a fictional character and real-life Mickey Rourke are only the stepping stones to this beautifully realized film that tosses a scruffy, hand held aesthetic at the viewer and then makes us completely forget we're watching a fictional story. Mickey Rourke is incredible, yes, but what really makes this film tick are the supporting performances by Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei as women fighting away the same demons of self-destruction as Randy The Ram. And for a film that looks and feels so simple, its a deceptively complex study of connection and growing old made all the more poignant (and open ended) by its closing shot.
1. Rachel Getting Married- Armed with a witty, biting script from Jenny Lumet, Jonathan Demme's chamber piece is a brilliant evocation of the type of film John Cassavetes used to shoot on the fly. As Kym, the drug-addled sister left out of rehab to visit her sister on the weekend she's getting married, Anne Hathaway is a revelation. Demme immerses the viewer in a sea of characters over the course of the weekend, dwelling on the rehearsal dinner and the post wedding bash. "Rachel Getting Married" feels like one long unedited take from a cousin's home video camera, capturing overlapping dialogue, a dance party that shifts from belly dancers to hip hop with ebullience, and long speeches by the family members that radiate warmth and knowledge. "Rachel Getting Married" earns every second of its running time, brimming with life and affection.
Honorable mentions and near misses- Doubt, The Bank Job, Surfwise, The Counterfeiters, Transsiberian, American Teen, Milk, Boy A, Young @ Heart, Lakeview Terrace, Baghead, A Christmas Tale