Friday, January 16, 2009

2008: Year In Movies (Part IV: Top 10)


My Top 10 was delayed a bit this year, with all the studios deciding that late-December, early-January releases were the way to go (I've spoken at length about this in previous "2008: Year In Movies" articles). Alas, though, I've seen everything that I've wished to see--you'll notice that I'm doing this list before I see Last Chance Harvey or Defiance, please forgive me for that. So, that being said, here's the ten best films of 2008. (*note: You may notice the indie-heavy lineup. This is not meant to be a statement against studio films, but I think it's worth mentioning that they did very little work in supporting more personal films)


WALL-E is officially the most adorable robot in cinematic history--not that he's had much competition (perhaps R2-D2 or Jonny-5 from Short Circuit?). That alone, though, is not the reason why WALL-E is the best film of 2008. It captures that recognition because it is easily the most effective love story to hit the screen since 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It also earns it because it is the first film that truly breaks the barrier between animated and live-action, with characters so entrancing that the few live-action moments in the film blend in with no awkwardness. It is also the best because it is impeccably made, with director Andrew Stanton using astonishing visuals to add rich texture to the future world it takes place in. The film is simply intoxicating in all the ways a film can be, and even with its sub-plot dealing with human will and environmentalism, it never sacrifices its innocence.

2. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's bare-bones film drips with torment and redemption. How do people live when their lives are comprised of abuse and pain? Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) knows about hard times, especially in the shadow of the good times. Rourke gives a punishing (literally) performance as Randy, a professional wrestler who can't help but crawl back to the only place that makes sense to him: the wrestling ring. With career-topping work from Rourke, and an equally astonishing performance from Marisa Tomei--as a stripper Randy falls in love with--the only thing that could make The Wrestler a better movie is a theme song written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. Oh, wait, it's got that too.

3. Rachel Getting Married

After a good deal of clunkers, Jonathan Demme has finally re-emerged into the film world with this beautiful film. As Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) prepares to get married, her only worry is that a visit from her troubled sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) might open some old family wounds. Using a documentary style, Demme's atmospheric filmmaking literally brings us into this dysfunctional family, including a meddling father (Bill Irwin), as well as a distant, secretive mother (Debra Winger). We become a part of this wonderful, entertaining, and particularly ethnic wedding, and find it hard to let go even when the characters do. Orchestrating a spectacular ensemble performance, Demme wins us over with a lovely film that has as much to do with guilt as it does about family.

4. In Bruges

Not since Pulp Fiction have two hitmen been so charming. After they foil a job badly, both Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent off to Bruges, Belgium to hide out until the smoke clears back home. What is there to do in Bruges? Well, according to this film, there really isn't much of anything, and as the two of them fight boredom--and guilt for their crimes--they encounter many strange people, including a drug dealing young women, a principled and pregnant hotel manager, and a bitter, racist dwarf. If things couldn't get any stranger, things go really hay-wire when their hot-headed boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), comes to Bruges to join in on the fun. Written and directed by the award-winning playwright Martin McDonaugh, In Bruges pulls off the perfect balance of hilarious dialogue and bleak, dark themes; and possesses wonderful performances from Farrell, Gleeson, and Fiennes.

5. Milk

What relevance a film like Milk has in this day and age. As gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, Sean Penn gives a beautiful performance, encompassing a man who spent the last decade of his life fighting to bring equality for homosexual men and women. After becoming the first-ever openly gay elected official, Milk was assassinated by another City Supervisor Dan White. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film has a real heart at the center of the character of Milk, but is careful not to lionize the man, always giving a careful eye to his exuberance as well as his neediness. With a handful of wonderful supporting performances--including Josh Brolin as Dan White, James Franco as Milk's lover Scott, and Emile Hirsch as the enthusiastic campaigner Cleve Jones--the movie is a testament to a great man. Luckily, the testament is a great film as well.

6. Tropic Thunder

Speaking of relevance, not since Robert Altman's The Player has Hollywood satire been so dead-on and so hilarious simultaneously. Directed by comedic guru Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder pulls off an impressive balance of biting satire, exciting action, and cramp-inducing hilarity. Dealing with a group of primadonna actors that are thrown into the jungle to shoot an expensive Vietnam picture, the cast includes Ben Stiller as pin headed action star, Jack Black as a drug-addicted comedian, and Robert Downey Jr. as an award-winning method actor who dyes his skin brown to play an African American. With particularly brilliant work from Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder is easily the funniest film of 2008. P.S. let's not forget the surprising turn from Tom Cruise as an overweight, excessively-hairy mogul Lex Grossman.

7. Reprise

Released in Norway in late 2006, Joachim Trier's debut film Reprise never saw US audiences until June of 2008. This film involves two young novelists--Philip (Anders Danielsen-Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner)--and how each react to their separate literary success. Philip, dealing with a devastating break-up, has a nervous breakdown and becomes almost a recluse, while Erik seems to find it hard to separate his success with the mediocre quality of his writing. Documenting youthful exuberance and the enthusiasm that comes with brewing creativity, Trier's film is a stirring, excitable piece that takes full advantage of its cast of mostly amateur actors. With the pressure of success, sometimes comes your downfall--no other film sings that sermon better than Reprise.

8. Happy-Go-Lucky

In a world full of cynics, there is at least one person in the world who sees the sunny side of life, and that's Poppy (Sally Hawkins). Directed by Mike Leigh, using his usual blend of naturalistic acting and broad plo
ts, Happy-Go-Lucky is an expertly-crafted film about one person who refuses to let any one's sour mood bring her down. Guided by a superb performance from Hawkins, the movie noodles around the life and times of Poppy, not particularly sticking to any one particular aspect of its plot, but instead basking in the cheery attitude of its leading lady. The main sub-plot though, involves Poppy's volatile driving instructor Scott (brilliant Eddie Marsan). The complete antithesis of Poppy, the scenes between Marsan and Hawkins involves some of the best highlights of the film. Even when her cheekiness nearly reaches annoyance, there is no way that you could leave the film not wanting to be more... well, Poppy.

9. Revolutionary Road

Not since American Beauty has director Sam Mendes made a more fully realized film. Based on the famous Richard Yates novel, Revolutionary Road is the story of the dysfunctional Wheelers, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet). At one time a young, ambitious couple, the Wheelers are now a suburban family, trapped in every way by the conventions of societal constrictions. Mendes' film is like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on steroids, not for a second relenting on the hellish trip the Wheelers take on their inevitable downward spiral. Sparked by a spectacular supporting performance from Michael Shannon as a deranged, but truthful man who reflects the Wheelers' disappointments back onto them, the movie is a warning sign to the trials of marriage, and the consequences of marrying someone who you don't truly know.

10. Burn After Reading

When the Coen Brothers decided to follow-up their Oscar-winning
No Country For Old Men with this farce, the common opinion was that they were just taking it easy; making a romp after their exhaustive work on the unbelievably serious No Country. Those people missed an opportunity to see an incredibly intelligent satire on the greedy, image-conscious American society we know all-too-well. The film tracks the various degrees of stupidity between two gym employees (Frances McDormand & Brad Pitt), their boss (Richard Jenkins), a CIA agent (John Malkovich), his volatile wife (Tilda Swinton), and a government officer (George Clooney) with an obsession with exercise and good flooring. Also, look out for appearances from the Russian embassy and a bizarre sex toy. Will there ever be a better dissection of Bush America? I find it hard to think so.

TIED FOR 11TH PLACE (other good movies from the year)

Both The Dark Knight and Iron Man did a wonderful job resuscitating the successful, but floundering comic book genre using wonderful performances and excellent thematic writing; James Marsh's Man On Wire was not only a compelling documentary, but a brilliant recall of overbearing vanity and impressive performance art; Frost/Nixon is an exceptionally-made picture about the deconstruction of one of the most notorious men in American history; Courtney Hunt's debut feature Frozen River was a powerful film about matriarchal struggle (with a superb performance by Melissa Leo); John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his own play, Doubt, has one of the more remarkable casting ensembles in a long time, and capatalizes on it; and Phillipe Claudel's ethereal and solemn I've Loved You So Long may be the best debut film of the year (if we're counting Reprise from 2006, that is).

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