Monday, March 16, 2009

The Top 10 Films of 2008

On more than one occasion, I have been accused by different people of hating every movie I see. Granted, most of these accusations have come after my "meh" reactions to some of their favorite films, but the number of these claims got me thinking about my reaction to films. It is not that I give more lower grades than higher ones (they're about even, methinks); rather, I think it feels like I'm more of a hater because with the few films I do hate, I hate them with a passion. Most of my best/favorite reviews have been for films I completely disliked and I often complain about them for months on end. For whatever reason, I find it harder to write about the films I actually love in any given year. Now that I've diagnosed the problem, I think it's time for a change and, as we all know, living in the Obama Era is as good as time as any to start changing. From this point forward, I will devote more time to great films in addition to my constant bitching about Twilight and Mamma Mia!. The best way to start this off is with my Top 10 list of 2008 (a couple of months late, so sue me), which is also a kick off for the 2008 Diva Cup Awards! Woohoo! I know everyone is pumped for that so let's get started.

Close, but no cigar: The Edge of Heaven (Faith Akin) is the film Babel tried to be but failed so epically to accomplish; I really wanted to include Michael Haneke's Funny Games U.S., a remake of his own 1997 film, but I felt it was generally unfair since I haven't even seen the original and they're exactly identical; Shelter (Jonah Markowitz) gets points in my book simply for being miles above Latter Days and Big Eden, two contemporaries in the gay indie scene, but the goes above and beyond the call of duty in analysis of a boy torn between family obligations and a love he doesn't completely understand; John Crowley's Boy A, with the help of an incredibly game performance from Andrew Garfield, turns what may have been a fairly standard redemption drama and tweaks it in very unexpected ways.

10. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Directed by Peter Sollett
The plot of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist- two hipster teens obsessed with the same indie rock band meet and fall in love over the course of one crazy night in New York City- almost sounds like my own personal hell; it's as if the high school romantic comedy and indie rock have formed their own Axis of Evil just to spite me. When you're watching it, however, you quickly forget about all of these preconceived notions, instead getting lost in the simple yet endearingly sweet love story unfolding before you. Credit is due to screenwriter Lorene Scafaria and director Peter Sollet for taking a tired genre and squeezing something fresh out of it and the young cast, particularly the severely underappreciated Kat Dennings and the girl who reinvented "the drunk friend" role, Ari Graynor, for pushing themselves comedically and adding layers to characters that, in lesser hands, could have come off as one-note.

9. American Teen
Directed by Nanette Burstein
I'm not naive enough to truly believe that all of the footage in American Teen is truly "off the cuff"; in fact, I'm pretty sure that more than half (and I'm being generous here) of it is staged. What separates this film from the average episode of The Hills is that, either by a stroke of genius or luck, American Teen captures with an almost scary amount of accuracy just what life as a small Midwest town high school student feels like. Much more so than any other Hollywood film that claims to be the "final word" on the high school experience, American Teen feels like my own experience. The basketball players weren't big bullies who spent their time stuffing the socially awkward band nerd into lockers; they were too consumed by their own problems and pressures to spend their time falling prey to that stereotype. While Burstein's documentary does this all very well, I must admit that I loved the way it showed how these young people were growing and changing before our eyes. Seeing Hannah, the quirky girl rebounding from a case of severe depression after breaking up with her boyfriend, finally gain the courage to open herself up again to school heartthrob Mitch (who also did his sharing of growing, most notably during that fantastic scene on the school bus when he admits to his jock friends that he liked Brokeback Mountain) proved to be one of the few things in 2008 that warmed this cynic's cold heart.

8. The Visitor
Directed by Thomas McCarthy
What I loved most about Thomas McCarthy's quiet, studied and controlled The Visitor was the fact that one of its subplots was about illegal immigration, yet McCarthy DIDN'T feel the need to go all Paul Haggis on us and preach about the inhumanity of the deportation process. For that, I'm deeply grateful. The Visitor, instead, spends it time focusing on Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, a beacon of quiet suffering barely covering some deeper pain under the surface) and his reconnection to society and intimate human contact after the death of his wife. Seeing him reemerge from his life as a zombie, just going through the motions of living, to help these people he has grown to care for is one of the most poignant experiences I've felt at the movies this year; in fact, The Visitor may truly be the first film of the Obama Era.

7. Burn After Reading
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Coming after a huge Best Picture win, most directors would either take some time off or work on a serious picture that proves that the win wasn't a fluke. Well, the Coen Brothers have never been "most" directors. After the enormous success of the ultra serious No Country for Old Men, the Coens went back to their kooky black comedy origins with Burn After Reading. To describe the plot of this film seems almost masochistic because, as with most Coen comedies, the film is about the journey, not the final destination. With a cast full of intelligent actors playing some of the dumbest people you can even begin to imagine- most notably Brad Pitt, in possibly the best performance of his career, as a dimwitted gym trainer who thinks he has the skills to negotiate a high sum of money for a CD that may or may not have secret codes on it- the Coens make sure that the journey through Burn After Reading is one you will never forget.

6. The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
The most interesting thing about The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky's back-to-basics redemption drama after the surrealistic Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, is that it can be appreciated by different people for completely different ways. Personally, I was fascinated by the fact that Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel treat professional wrestling, a sport I grew up watching, with the respect it deserves, instead of making fun of its theatricality or for being "fake." But then, soon after watching it, I was having a conversation with Nick about The Wrestler and while he had no idea about any of the wrestling stuff (he wasn't privileged enough to grow up with it), he was fascinated by it in a very different way. The Wrestler works on so many levels- character study, sports film, father/daughter drama, Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle, budding romance between two vulnerable people- there's something for everyone. And this doesn't even begin to describe the powerfully subtle and deftly handled performances from Rourke , Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, who all wisely dodge whatever clichés their roles/personas throw at them; I think this is probably the closest any film came to "realism" in 2008.

Directed by Andrew Stanton
Animated films are for kids, or so we've been programmed to believe all of our lives. You're allowed to love and/or be obsessed with Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, etc before you hit puberty, but after that, it's just "weird" and "immature." Thank the Lord then for Pixar and their contributions to the animation renaissance. Starting with Finding Nemo and with each film thereafter, they have continually expanded the audience for animated films and allowed people to start taking these films seriously as actual pieces of art (although it could be argued that Miyazaki's 2002 masterpiece Spirited Away could have gotten the ball rolling, too). Everything came together for Pixar in 2008 with Andrew Stanton's visually stunning WALL-E. You would think that an epic love story between two robots set during a time in the future when Earth becomes inhabitable for humans with an opening 30 minutes that are generally wordless would be a tough sell, but Stanton makes WALL-E a completely enthralling experience from the opening frame to the last. The world Stanton creates is simply astounding to look at, prompting "oohs" and "aahs" at any given moment, and the love story that takes place in this world between the endearingly determined WALL-E and the kick-ass EVA makes every other romantic plot in any film you've seen in the past decade look absolutely dire in comparison.

4. Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme
The spirit of Robert Altman's best works are alive and kicking in Jonathan Demme's deceitfully simple but really painfully complex depiction of family struggling to deal with an attention-seeking drug addict who happens to bring out the worst in all of them. Demme weaves in and out of different threads and characters of the film as skillfully as Altman did in Nashville and, like that film, most of these threads hinge on the actions of one character. The "Barbara Jean" of this film is said drug addict Kym, played by Anne Hathaway, who proves that all of her hard work these past eight years has not been in vein. Rachel Getting Married has more going on than this Kym storyline- hello, there's a wedding going on!- and there are some that don't directly involve her, but Kym will be damned if she somehow can't turn every fleeting moment into something about her. This is exactly what Rachel Getting Married will do to you for days after you see it: turn every thought you have and direct it somehow towards the movie.

3. Reprise
Directed by Joachim Trier
From the opening shot onwards, you can practically feel all of Joachim Trier's influences on this film: the ice cold starkness that permeates throughout the compositions from Ingmar Bergman, the role of fate and chance in seemingly everyday occurrences from Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, the idea that young men can just sit around and talk about nothing in particular from Barry Levinson's underseen Diner, etc. What Reprise does so well, and hence it's placement so high on this list, is that it takes these influences and creates something refreshingly new and personal with them. As I'm growing into my 20's, I can relate to the trials and tribulations of maintaining a longtime friendship as we grow into people that would have been unrecognizable just a few years ago. Reprise captures this complex fact of life with a precision and grace that is rarely discussed in cinema.

2. In Bruges
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh's first obstacle to overcome in In Bruges: making the overused "hitman's redemption" plot line seem fresh and spontaneous while turning the numerous clichés on their head. Martin McDonagh's second obstacle: delivering a dark comedy that deals with the serious issues in a mature and complicated way but also knows how to step back and laugh at them. I'm sure it goes without saying just how difficult it is to do this properly. Martin McDonagh's third obstacle: getting a rich, deeply layered performance from the normally disconnected and generally uninteresting Colin Farrel as said remorseful hitman, a role that requires both excellent comedic timing (something we had never seen from Farrel before) and the ability delve into a pathos-driven moral minefield. The fact that McDonagh surmounts all of these seemingly impossible obstacles with the grace and ease of a veteran filmmaker makes In Bruges even more special.

1. A Christmas Tale
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Dysfunctional family dramas are, along with inspirational teacher dramas, one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Give me some beautiful people with big problems, high-strung emotions and a couple of choice quips preferably taking place over a major event like a holiday or funeral and I'm perfectly content. So, it should come as no surprise that Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, with it's cast of beautiful French actors including the legendary Ice Queen Catherine Deneuve, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Almaric, Melvil Poupaud, Emmanuelle Devos and Chiara Mastroianni (and that's not even including the warm and fuzzy father figure Jean-Paul Roussillon and up-and-comer Emile Berling), would be warmly received by me. What took me by surprise was just how much of a wallop A Christmas Tale packs. Days passed and all I could think about was the film's intricate, absorping plot that's so overstuffed it could have collapsed with one false move, Desplechin's ability to capture years of backstory with just one look or line of dialogue and the way he relishes these moments more than the big emotional outbursts, the depiction of a family falling apart for reasons, beyond their control, that can't even begin to be put into words, etc. As you can see, I can talk about this film for days, and that's precisely why it's the best film of the year. It can stand up to weeks of scrutiny in my head and still reign supreme over all other films. This is the true test of genius and, ladies and gentlemen, A Christmas Tale has it and more.


nick plowman said...

Fabulous write-up Dame JH! There isn't a film on that list I don't love - aside from your number 1 which I have yet to see sadly. Fabulous, just fabulous.

William said...

Well, I certainly had to laugh at a few. But that was a good list. I think you are creative and your writing shares that.

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