Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Ten Best Films of 2008

First off, my apologies to 2007. I had previously stated that year wasn't a great one for films. How wrong I was. What do Into The Wild, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, I'm Not There and Michael Clayton all have common? Well, they're all better than every single film on the list you're about to read. And in retrospect any year that finds No Country For Old Men, Grindhouse, The Lookout and The Mist all MISSING my top ten has to be considered pretty impressive. Even throwaway guilty pleasures like Alpha Dog and Smokin' Aces left a more indelible print than could have reasonably been expected. 2008, on the other hand, truly was a bad year and it's unlikely my opinion on that will change anytime soon. Compiling a list of the finest cinematic endeavors in a year this unfulfilling was a challenge.

It was also a year where I massively overpraised so many undeserving films that if there were such a thing as a critic's license, mine should have been revoked. I've since learned my lesson. In my defense though a critic is almost forced to give an impulsive response to a picture upon a single viewing without taking into account how the film will age in your mind after that viewing or hold up on repeated ones. So, AT THE TIME the analysis was right on the money. Now...not so much. Obviously, problems arise when you revisit certain films and realize they were far less than they first appeared.

Waiting until June to compile the list had a devastating effect for many of the movies that made the cut and made this process substantially more interesting. Is it really too much to ask that a movie holds up on a second or third viewing months later? Apparently so. Picking the top film was much easier than expected. All I had to do is watch many of these movies again and see them drop like flies. Only one survived. After years of doing this I think I've finally figured out the secret formula to determining the year's best film. I ask myself the following questions:

1. Is it a feat that can be duplicated? (if it is, chances are it isn't the year's best)
2. Can I watch it over and over again, discovering something new on each viewing?

3. Do I want to watch it RIGHT NOW? (regardless of the mood I'm in)
4. How difficult was it to execute?

5. Does it say something, meaningful, lasting and important?

Obviously, there's some wiggle room with those questions but they succeed in being objective, while still taking personal preference into account. Just reading them gives a major hint what that movie is this year. The truth is 2008 is likely to be remembered more for great performances than films. Sean Penn in the otherwise sour Milk. Micky Rourke's career resurrection in The Wrestler. Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. And of course, you know you know what. Those performances will stay with us. The films probably won't. I kept waiting for something brilliant to come out of left field and reaffirm my love for movies. I waited. And waited. But nothing.

It was a year where even the #1 film on my list was a disappointment of sorts and fell short of reaching its full potential. I'm not at all surprised what that film is, so much as the tumultuous road it took to get there. It's a tainted victory, but a victory nonetheless. Taking all this into account I've gone with a slightly different approach this year in adding a "WHAT'S WRONG WITH IT?" section for each selection to reflect the creatively uneven output of the past year. These films will justifiably be praised, but not without measured criticism that reflect the discoveries I made on subsequent viewings (most of which were negative).

It's time to right some wrongs. And now the next time someone asks me why I own so few DVD's I can just show them a list of last year's theatrical releases because this just proves how difficult it is for a movie to hold up on a second viewing, much less a third or fourth, and to do it years (or in this case even months) down the line. If you dislike brutal honesty I suggest you stop reading now. These are the best films of the year...and I'm using the term "BEST" very loosely.

10. Definitely, Maybe (Director-Adam Brooks)

Crafting a smart and entertaining mainstream American romantic comedy is becoming a lost art. Depending on which day you get me on I'm either really proud or profoundly embarrassed to say I'm a fan of the "chick flick." This is a reminder that in the rare cases it's done really well there's no shame at all in enjoying one (even if you're a guy). A rom-com mystery that kind of plays like a feature length film version of How I Met Your Mother, there's genuine doubt as to the film's central question of maternity. And who would have guessed Ryan Reynolds could be this likable as a lead?

You actually care about the lives and personalities of all three of the women (played by Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher) and anyone watching is bound to have a rooting interest in who he ends up with. Interestingly, I found my allegiance on that issue has shifted since the first viewing. There's no obvious "wrong choice," which is why Adam Brooks' underrated script works so well. The early to mid-90's setting (often under-represented in movies) only helps its cause. It's the kind of movie where you can just shut off your brain and have a great time.

What's Wrong With It?
Chalk it up to extremely low expectations but, surprisingly, not much other than it's too lightweight to be considered anything meaningful. It touches on some life issues, none of which you'll be contemplating long after the film ends. But this isn't that kind of movie, nor does it need to be. It's one of the best romantic comedies to come around recently, but in just about any other year it wouldn't be cracking the top 10.

9. Gran Torino (Director-Clint Eastwood)

While other dramas this year strained to find social relevance or force fed a preachy message down our throats, star and director Eastwood actually bothered to intelligently explore some real issues that speak about the world we live in now. And he did it in a way that didn't condescend to the audience or over-sympathize of the situation, which would have been an easy route to take given the difficult material.

As the tough-minded, racist, Korean War Vet Walt Kowalski who begrudgingly takes a shy Hmong teen (Bee Vang) under his wing , Clint never tries to get us to like him. Instead he plays Walt as a man so stubbornly set in his ways that we have no choice but to accept him as he is, at the same time acknowledging what a damn fool he is by acting the way he does. We're just waiting for him to catch on and when he does the film enters unexpected suburban Dirty Harry territory. I have to be careful in calling this a "drama" because the film has more laugh-out loud moments and situations than the past few Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell comedies combined. Clint does a lot more than just grunt and grimace through this, although there's still plenty of that if you're interested. He even sings over the closing credits.

Nick Schenck's script walks a really fine line with the comic relief and it's destined to offend some, but Eastwood pulls it off. Christopher Carley is fantastic as the young priest who won't give up on Walt, when all signs say he should. I'd congratulate Eastwood for directing and producing two major films (this and Changeling) in the past year at almost 80 years old but he's one guy I don't want to get angry. So let's just say it's an impressive feat for someone any age.

What's Wrong With It?

Is it a comedy? A drama? A biting social satire? It's about a million things at once and while it's Eastwood's most interesting directorial effort since 1993's A Perfect World, it's all over the map in terms of what it's trying to be. Not to mention it's just plain strange and uncomfortable at times. We know what Eastwood is going for, but when the xenophobic slurs are THAT FUNNY and delivered with such impeccable comic timing by Eastwood doesn't the message get muddled...just a little bit?

8. WALL-E (Director-Andrew Stanton)

The first time I saw Andrew Stanton's WALL-E, I was blown away. The second time, much less so. But I'll always have that initial viewing for when just a few hours after leaving the theater I thought I had witnessed the kind of magical movie (reminiscent of early Spielberg) that just can't ever be topped. Then reality set in about a week later. You could argue Pixar bit off more than it could chew with some really deep material for a family film but that's preferable to condescending to your audience. While I don't know of any small child who could sit through it without getting restless, for fans of animation and Sci-Fi this was pretty much a cinematic dream come true.

What's Wrong With It?

I was SHOCKED how poorly this held up on a repeated viewing. So poorly that this went from being one of my favorites of the year to just barely making the list. Taking into account the film runs only 97 minutes, the story seemed to drag a little in the third act, making me wonder if those who claimed that Stanton couldn't deliver on the promise of its nearly silent opening 4o minutes may have been right. As "perfect" as all these recent Pixar movies seem to be and how everyone says they're breaking new ground, I have to ask why so many of them have a shelf life of a single viewing? And why do they FEEL so long despite barely clocking in at an hour and a half? While technically brilliant and emotionally satisfying, I'm starting to think they represent a "one and done" experience.

Is it possible that Pixar is just replicating the same movie over and over again with different characters but a similar recipe? It sure seems like it, although that's not such an insult when you consider how good they are at it. Their latest, Up, opened to predictably glowing reviews and massive box office, but I'm surprised just how little interest I have in seeing it. I'm Pixared out. Don't get me wrong though. Wall-E is easily one of the year's best and a tremendous film, just not nearly as tremendous as I originally thought.

7. Pineapple Express (Director-David Gordon Green)

Finally, the question is answered as to what would happen if a really gifted filmmaker "lowered" himself and decided to direct a stoner comedy. That filmmaker is David Gordon Green and in a year where nearly nothing met expectations the results are even better than we could have hoped. It's a buddy film. It's an 80's action movie. It's flat-out hilarious. Seth Rogen gives his most likable performance yet as slacking process server while James Franco's should-have-been-nominated supporting turn as the stoned out (but surprisingly good-hearted) Saul shows us all how funny he was capable of being if just given the opportunity. Its final act accomplishes what 2007's Hot Fuzz did, but much better.

What's Wrong With It?
No matter how well executed it is, it's still just a really hilarious (if extremely well-made) stoner comedy. That's it.

6. In Bruges (Director-Martin McDonagh)

The most underrated film of the year. Actually, the ONLY underrated film of the year. I saw this the same week I saw The Dark Knight and just never got around to reviewing it, something I've regretted since. That's ironic because Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's debut feature about two hitmen (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) looking for redemption in the small, boring Belgium town of Bruges as they await their next job, stayed with me longer than so many other 2008 releases. I had literally no interest in seeing it but did so on the basis of universally glowing recommendations. They were right.

The Oscar-nominated original script (HOW DID THIS LOSE TO MILK?) is an example of great screenwriting at its very essence. I cared about every character. The dwarf. The girlfriend. Ralph Fiennes' brilliantly rendered hitman who hates his wife. Even the town of Bruges feels like a living, breathing character. But more than that, I felt sympathy for their situation. Earned sympathy. There's a code of morals and ethics...even among contracted killers. McDonagh and his actors somehow find the humanity in this. And that bell tower

The Oscars may have gotten it all wrong but the Hollywood Foreign Press got it right recognizing this as one of the year's best and rewarding Farrell, who gives the performance of his life here. Anyone doubting this guy's chops as an actor needs to see this movie right now. And anyone still questioning the power of voice over narration as a storytelling device will be blown away by the powerful monologue that closes the film, as its the best piece of screenwriting this year.

What's Wrong With It?
There actually isn't much wrong with this picture. While this isn't so much a knock on the film per se, the crime/gangster genre has been revisited ad nauseam ever since Pulp Fiction was released in 1994. Did we really need another one of these? The film, as good as it is, is more an achievement in screenwriting than anything else and unfortunately just not big enough in scope or importance to rank anywhere near the top of this list.

5. Frost/Nixon (Director-Ron Howard)

Far from the stuffy Oscar bait it was promoted as, this was one of the most surprisingly taut and exciting pictures of 2008 and an intriguing look into the psyche of one of our most misunderstood historical figures. It's not that we were ever wrong about who Richard Nixon was or what he did, but I don't think we were ever quite sure exactly why he did it. The answer to the question is deeper and more complicated than it first appears and it's all contained in the Oscar nominated performance of Frank Langella as the disgraced former President and the equally impressive Michael Sheen as David Frost, the reporter who pushed him to the breaking point in a series of television interviews in the late '70's.

Adapting historical events to film is hard. Adapting them from a stage play might even be harder. The film's success is less dependent on Ron Howard's direction (which is fine but nothing special) than a complete embodiment of these men by the two actors. It's almost eerie how as the story wears on Langella seems to transform himself physically and emotionally into the President to the point where in the finals scene we feel like as if we're watching Nixon. Peter Morgan's script leaves us with the the feeling that these two almost needed each other in a way, wanting to take the other down to cleanse themselves of their own failures.

What's Wrong With It?
It's a history lesson. The more movies I see based on historical events the more I start to think that there won't ever be one that could top a year-end list (and I'd even go so far as to include Schindler's List in that club). Howard avoids the usual pitfalls of the genre and crafts an exciting piece of cinematic non-fiction but that we already know the outcome (and how little it yielded) hangs over the film like a dark cloud. We go to movies to escape from the real world, not immerse ourselves in a dramatic recreation of it. "Based on true events" is a tough label to shake.

4. The Wrestler (Director-Darren Aronofsky)

Welcome back Mickey Rourke. If years down the line no one remembers much from the last year in film (which is sadly a real possibility) they'll at least never forget Rourke's eerily personal and emotionally scarred portrayal of washed-up '80's wrestling superstar Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood shine, but Rourke is this movie. The thought that Nicolas Cage could have actually been cast in the title role instead is a scary possibility not even worth contemplating. We know who was born to play Ram. Aronofsky (in his most emotionally effective film to date) pulls back the curtain to show us how the wrestling business can chew up and spit out its performers and how for one of them leaving it is more painful than staying in, even if it could cost him his life.

The infamous "deli scene" is either my favorite or least favorite movie moment of the year, depending on whether you enjoy watching people struggling to survive in the most uncomfortable social situations imaginable. The saddest part of that scene isn't how it ends, but that Ram was actually really good at that job and almost seemed to enjoy it up until that point. How he translated his skills as a performer to the deli counter. It makes you wonder what else he could have been good at. If scenes like that don't win you Oscars, what does? Sorry Sean but that statue belongs to Mickey.

What's Wrong With It?
It's so depressing you'll want to hang yourself after the credits roll. Rourke's performance curbs a lot of that but if a movie is going to be this dark it better be full of huge ideas and big issues to think about when it's over. There really aren't any here. It's pretty cut and dry and doesn't lend itself to any kind of deep analysis. The film is primarily a showcase for Rourke, even though he does an incredible job in making it feel like it isn't. Looking back, Tomei's performance isn't the slightest bit Oscar-worthy. Also, while the film is technically superb, Aronofsky doesn't break new ground as the low budget indie faux-documentary style has been beaten into submission (cheap pun I know) by other films

Maybe it's just the wrestling fan in me talking but I can't help but think this movie was released about a decade too late, which could explain why it didn't quite strike the mainstream chord it should have. And while it brought some much needed attention to what wrestlers really do and sacrifice, it did so at the cost of reinforcing the worst stereotypes people have about professional wrestling.

3. Slumdog Millionaire (Director-Danny Boyle)

Last year's Best Picture Oscar winner about a peasant from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and find his lost love is a tale of two movies. The one Danny Boyle actually made and the one the media and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences want to believe that he made because it fits so nicely into their perfectly shaped box of what crowd-pleasing, inoffensive entertainment is supposed to be. It's both the year's most overrated and underrated film at the same time. Simon Beaufoy's script (adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel, "Q&A") is ingenious in how it seamlessly shifts back and forth through flashbacks to reveal how 18-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel) knew the answers to all those questions and dissenters of the screenplay's supposedly "manipulative" structure forget that all the queries on a show like that are dependent on someone just simply paying attention to everything that's around them.

Though it didn't garner a single acting nomination, the performances are universally strong across the board with Anil Kapoor's work as the arrogant host going criminally overlooked by nearly everyone. Frieda Pinto does a good enough job looking pretty and seeming just unattainable enough. The best edited and scored film on this list by a landslide. That train sequence (set to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes") is one for the vault. And regardless of what's been said everywhere it's not the fluffy "feel-good movie of the year." There's a lot more substance to it than that...I think.

What's Wrong With It?

When I watched this a second time I found myself staring at my watch waiting for key events to happen and when they did, the emotional reaction I had the first time was absent. I'd be curious to know if anyone else tried that and had the exact same "been there, done that" response I did. This tells me the script is primarily dependent on surprises, revelations and plot turns rather than real emotional truth. The movie seemed more mechanical and choreographed to me the second time, making me wonder if there is some truth in those plot manipulation claims.

And don't even get me started on the film being referred to as the "Obama of the Best Picture nominees," or worse yet, that we should all just embrace it because we're in a recession. Sure, it won the Best Picture Oscar...but FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS. It's been just a few months and it already hasn't aged well. Unfortunately, the only thing people are talking about now in regards to the film are what prices the child stars are going for and how they can further be exploited.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Director-David Fincher)

Just for the record, as a self-professed Fincher fanatic, here's where I stand: Better than Alien 3, Se7en and Panic Room. Worse than The Game, Fight Club and Zodiac. So no, despite my initail glowing overreaction this isn't going to be remembered as our greatest living director's masterwork. But I love it and it's a hell of a lot better than it's been given credit for. Haters of the film could only keep coming back to one argument: It reminded them of Forrest Gump. That's pretty weak. As if being reminded of that great film is a capital offense. It's an obvious shot at screenwriter Eric Roth, who penned both, and I can kind of see where they're coming a point. Luckily the Academy got wise for once and ignored all of them, showering the film with 13 nominations. Their motivations behind that may be suspect as usual, but when it comes to rewarding the long overdue Fincher, I'll take it.

By taking what COULD HAVE BEEN another Forrest Gump in the hands of anyone else and making it darker and sadder, Fincher turns a movie about life into one about death. A protagonist aging backwards should be a showy gimmick and the film could have easily collapsed under the weight of its groundbreaking digital effects but because of Fincher's vision (and the nuanced performances of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) it becomes something much more. For proof of just how much more, read F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story from which its based and marvel at how he and Roth took a somewhat meager and unformed conceit and turned it into an epic journey.

What's Wrong With It?
Not nearly as much as you've heard, but Roth's script is clearly the weak link here. The film is so technically well made that at times it's painfully obvious that Fincher's skills are far above some of the trivial circumstances presented in the screenplay (i.e. the sea boat captain stuff). While this had one of the better second viewings on the list I couldn't help but think I was completing a homework assignment while watching it just from the sheer density of it all. Movies today are just too long and we can probably add this to the long list of films that would be greatly improved by cutting just 15 or 20 minutes.

When Benjamin and Daisy end up "meeting in the middle" and we head into the brilliant final hour the film soars to heights so high that the earlier portions can't help but be damaged in comparison. Because we expect nothing less than perfection from Fincher each time out he'll always be in competition with himself, forcing us to compare this to his previous output. Such a comparison does this movie no favors. Despite these issues I desperately wanted to put this in the #1 spot, but doing so would be an endorsement of my favorite director's resume rather the actual film.

1. The Dark Knight (Director-Christopher Nolan)

It's overlong. Some of the action scenes are sloppily edited. The plot's too convoluted. Bale's performance is just adequate. It didn't meet the massive expectations. And, sorry, it's no masterpiece. So what is it about Nolan's film that sets it a league apart from every other movie released this year? It has just as many flaws as any other film on this list, but with one key difference: It's flaws MAKE IT A MORE INTERESTING FILM and add to the overall experience. They're the result of a filmmaker's reach exceeding his grasp in a brave attempt to give us something we've never seen before. For the most part he succeeded. Nolan should take a bow because he crafted the only film this year that gains in power with each viewing and the first movie in over ten years to top my list that didn't earn four stars from me when I saw it initially. Go figure. It was just that kind of year. Truthfully, after re-watching all the films on this list, I'm still not sure if any of them are deserving of four stars (as silly as that whole rating system is anyway).

In an unfortunate circumstance, when I saw The Dark Knight last summer it ended up being the single worst theater going experience of my life. I doubted the film could ever recover. But recover it did...and then some. The flaws I saw the first time haven't gone away exactly. They just mean less in the overall scheme of things. I've accepted that I'll never love this film as much as everyone else, but there's no question it was the most ambitious and important achievement of the year and a landscape changer. For a moment in July, 2008 that barrier separating the critical from the commercial briefly disappeared for the first time since the release of Titanic in 1997. Everyone was a part of something, regardless of race, age or gender. When I think back on all the most memorable film moments from 2008, all of them can be found in Nolan's film (including the one above).

For a while, even while my appreciation for the somewhat messy, overly ambitious film increased, I was still unsure whether it was really "robbed" of a Best Picture nomination. Watching the actual telecast I made up my mind. It was. Flaws and all, this was still a better movie than the other nominees. But one Oscar it should have never been up for is Best Editing because this movie is a great example of how lost time in the editing booth can stop a great film from being a masterpiece. Questionable choices in this area still prevent me from being on board like I want to be and I still say the movie doesn't really get going until the corpse of that crook dangles outside the Gotham Mayor's window (which still caused me to jump even on a fourth viewing).

Most feel the third act involving D.A. Harvey Dent's transformation into Two-Face is what should have been left on the cutting room floor or saved for another film, but I don't completely agree. There's too much over-explanatory mob focus in the first hour that could have easily been given the ax instead. Besides, it's hard to argue less screen time for Aaron Eckhart who leaves painful memories of Tommy Lee Jones in the dust.

What amazed me most were the surprises. The fate of the Joker. Of Rachel. Of Harvey. Of Jim Gordon. Writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer subverted all expectations of how we thought things would go down. And who could have guessed Gary Oldman would have given us that much in what was just expected to be a minor, throwaway role? His delivery of that speech at the end? Chills. Gyllenhaal for Holmes? A fair trade, but a much narrower victory for Maggie than anyone predicted.

You can't discount the role Heath Ledger's death played in the prism through which we view the film. To do that would be flat-out denial. So would be denying that his Oscar winning portrayal was worthy of all the hype accompanying it, regardless of the tragic circumstances. This is not one of the decade's best films. Not even close. But few performances this decade, supporting or otherwise, were as powerful and demonic as Ledger's. It was the one aspect that turned out better than anticipated, if that's possible.

Usually I'm not a huge fan of superhero movies, which is a good thing since this isn't one. Nolan directed a crime drama played completely straight and stripped of all the usual conventions associated with the genre. Hopefully we do get a sequel because I think he's capable of crafting something even better than this. Yet at the same time I'll admit to being kind of curious as to the direction another filmmaker could take the franchise. Now almost a full year removed from its release The Dark Knight plays as well as ever. It isn't perfect but it is groundbreaking, reaching higher and accomplishing more than any other film in a weak year.

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