Friday, May 1, 2009

My Favorite Films of 2008

This is admittedly a bit late for a top 10 post. In coming years I will do this in February, around the time of awards season when the cinematic year is coming to a close. But since this blog didn't exist this past February, May will have to do this year!

Bear in mind while reading this that I don't even come close to seeing every single movie that's released in a year. I'm very particular about the films I'll watch. I don't watch anything directed by Michael Bay, and tend to steer clear of familiar-looking romantic comedies, and never, under any circumstances, pay to watch Will Ferrell make a fool out of himself.

I do, however, take in quite a few arthouse films, foreign-language pictures, and festival flicks throughout the year. I watch every movie in the Best Picture race at the Oscars, and even went so far last year as to see every single Academy Award-nominated performance. Generally I see any film generating even the smallest bit of positive buzz. My tally at the end of each year is usually about 100 films. So here are the ten best, in my opinion, of 2008.

10. Happy-Go-Lucky.

This film was my first experience with the work of British director Mike Leigh, and I fell in love. Mike Leigh works in an unusual way. He and his actors meet, collaborate, and improvise until they hammer out their characters and story arc, and then he writes the script. This film stars wonderful newcomer Sally Hawkins as Poppy, a perpetually cheery schoolteacher whose upbeat outlook on life is constantly challanged but never changed. Among the hardships the sunny central character faces are a crabby driver's ed instructor, a back injury, a bully in the elementary class she teaches, and a judgemental older sister. In an early scene, Poppy comes out of a bookstore and discovers her bike has been stolen. Her reaction is the easiest way to explain who this woman is. She smiles bemusedly and says, "I didn't even get to say goodbye."

9. The Class.

The Class is a captivating and original French film about one school year in an urban high school. One of the best things about this movie is that there's no added drama. It simply follows a French class over the course of one year. The young actors playing the often rowdy students are incredible, hardly seeming to act at all. The setting is sometimes excrutiatingly realistic. Too often I recognized my high school peers and found myself overjoyed to have those years behind me. The movie skips the cliches of drugs and teen violence, focusing more on an array of true-to-life behavioral issues and the all-too-familiar power struggles that occur between teacher and pupil.

8. The Dark Knight.

I thought the first film in Christopher Nolan's re-imagined Batman franchise, Batman Begins, was pretty good. I enjoyed the new, darker tone and thought Christian Bale was the best actor to don the batmask yet. I was seriously disappointed by the casting of Katie Holmes and the weak, muddled fight sequences, though. Sequel talk rarely excites me, and when jaws started flapping about The Dark Knight being the best comic book movie ever made, I chalked it up to sentamentalist hype in response to star Heath Ledger's unfortunate death in January of last year. I was wrong. Brilliant performances from every cast member (especially Ledger, who earned one of only two posthumous acting Oscars ever awarded for his iconic and definitive performance as The Joker) and Nolan's astonishing elevation of typical superhero movie material made The Dark Knight unmissable. It was not just good guys vs. bad guys. It was about which side of a man wins out in a broken and brutal society. His goodness or corruption? His honor or anger? I'm still not sure that I know the answer.

7. Let the Right One In.

To put it simply, Let the Right One In is the best vampire movie ever made. It's a Swedish film that sadly wasn't widely distributed. A shame, since it's easily one of the best horror films of the last decade or so. It's about a 12-year-old boy named Oskar who is regularly bullied and friendless until Eli, also 12 and alone, moves is nextdoor. Her arrival coincides with a series of gruesome attacks, and though Oskar realizes there is something different about her, he befriends her. The loneliness they both feel is the only thing strong enough to unite them despite the vastly different worlds they inhabit. The flm is a wonder to make a vampire movie and a tale of innocent childhood friendship fit together so beautifully.

6. Frost/Nixon.

I thought this movie was going to be boring. I mean, if I cared so much about the David Frost radio interviews of Richard Nixon I could just listen to or watch the real things somewhere. But leave it to director Ron Howard to take a well-known historical event and make it cinematic and interesting. The cast deserves some heavy praise too. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, both of whom starred in the original stage production, knock their roles out of the park, and the supporting cast is stellar as well.

5. The Wrestler.

Mickey Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a burned out pro wrestler who decides to make a comeback both in the ring and in life, makes this movie. Randy reminds me of people I've known in real life. So much potential and yet they can't help but piss it away every chance they get. Director Darren Aronofsky's film is a study of a doomed man, and it's fascinating. Every single piece of Randy's life - his relationships with his estranged daughter and a stripping single mom (Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei, respectively), his job at a deli counter, his wrestling career - is destined to disappoint, but you just can't make yourself look away.

4. Milk.

All of the movies on this list have some amazing actors, but it's in Milk that the cast is the strongest. Led by Sean Penn, who plays gay rights activist Harvey Milk, the wonderful ensemble cast includes Josh Brolin, James Franco, Diego Luna, Emile Hirsch, Victor Garber, and Allison Pill. Each one turns in a pitch-perfect - and in Penn's case, Oscar-winning - performance. First-time screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's moving script has moments of stunning depth and easy humor and Gus Van Sant's direction seems effortless. The combination of real footage from 1970s San Francisco and acting works wonders and is certainly relevant in the current political climate. Van Sant has made a beautiful film both entertaining and educational, and one I'm sure Harvey Milk would be proud of.

3. Rachel Getting Married.

When I go to the movies, I don't want to see something I've seen a hundred times already. Rachel Getting Married, thank goodness, is a wholly unique film. I honestly can't compare it to anything else I've ever seen. The movie centers on a dysfunctional family gathered to celebrate the wedding of eldest daughter Rachel. The main source of dysfunction is her little sister, Kym, a former model and recovering drug addict on leave from rehab for her sister's big day. Rosemarie DeWitt and Anne Hathaway play Rachel and Kym, and they're perfect in the roles. Hathaway has great moments as the self-obsessed and desperate-for-love Kym. Her horribly awkward rehearsal dinner toast to Rachel and her fiance made me want to take my skin off. The film was the first from screenwriter Jenny Lumet, and while it lacks a clear beginning, middle, and end, Jonathan Demme's direction is flawlessly matched with the script, and you get the sense that the finshed film is exactly what everyone involved was going for.

2. Slumdog Milllionaire.

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old from the slums of Mumbai who has reached the final question on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He is arrested on suspicion of cheating, and as he explains how he knew the answer to each question, he tells the story of a life of hardships and of an undying love that knows no boundaries. This movie is stunning. A rags-to-riches love story sounds like the most tired premise around, but in the hands of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle, and set against the backdrop of the colorful Mumbai, it became something entirely new. Boyle and his expansive cast wove several short stories into a perfectly-crafted film about overcoming unthinkable tragedies in the name of true and life-long love.

1. WALL-E.

The best animated film of the year and one of the best of all time was also the best film of the year. Period. Andrew Stanton's animated masterpiece tells the story of WALL-E, the last of a line of trash-compacting robots tasked with cleaning up Earth after the human race trashes it and runs itself into space. It'a a pretty lonely existence until a newer, sleeker robot, EVE, is sent to Earth to search for signs of life. WALL-E falls nuts-over-bolts in love with her and inadvertently finds the key to man's survival on the way. What makes WALL-E such an accomplishment is that it's more than great animation. It's also a deeply-engaging love story and a first-rate science fiction film. There was not a more lovable character or hero than WALL-E in theaters in all of 2008, and there probably won't be for years to come.


Danny King said...

Solid list. The only one I strongly disagree on is, ironically, your #1 choice, WALL-E. I am sorry to say that it just didn't work for me. I'm still not quite sure why, I just wasn't moved by it. It was certainly loved by critics and audiences alike, but not me for some reason.

As far as Frost/Nixon goes, I thought Langella was crazy good, but I don't know if it was Best Picture good. Still a solid film.

Rae Kasey said...

WALL-E was funny like that. It was adored by most, but those who didn't fall in love with it seemed to really, really dislike it. It's odd for such an acclaimed film to be so polarizing.

It happens, though. To each his own. :)

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