Sunday, January 11, 2009

Top Ten Films of 2008

2008 seemed like a banner year for film across the board, so it was difficult to narrow a list down to ten favorites (which is why there are eleven). I've seen pretty much everything I'm interested in by this point, even if that doesn't include Gran Torino or Che, but I know myself pretty well, you know what I mean? We're in the second week of January, which actually isn't that bad for one of these year-end lists. I'm used to waiting for the best stuff to trickle out to New Orleans in late-February, if at all. Fortunately, I won't be living in Philadelphia much longer, and the one thing I might miss about the hellhole is bragging to friends about seeing Frost/Nixon a month before them. Anyway, since there were so many fantastic movies, honorable mentions go out to the following:

Doubt- John Patrick Shanley
Funny Games- Michael Haneke
In Bruges- Martin McDonagh
Iron Man- Jon Favreau
Let the Right One In- Tomas Alfredson
The Promotion- Steve Conrad
Tropic Thunder- Ben Stiller

10. (tie)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button- David Fincher
Synecdoche, New York- Charlie Kaufman

When I was home for Christmas, my dad asked me why I wanted to write a whole book on a Lil' Wayne CD that I'll admit is flawed and imperfect, and the only real answer I had for him is "I'm not interested in art that's perfect." What I meant by an answer that seems faux-intellectual at best is that art--especially film--is alive in its choices and flaws. Show me something that is ironed-out and "perfect," and I'll show you something staid and unchallenging and uncomplicated. Although I love them, both Synecdoche, New York and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are flawed and uneven. They don't compromise, they don't take the easy way out, and they try--with varying degrees of success--to express profound statements of love, death, and loss. Their detractors get hung up on the elements of the works that fall flat, but they don't give credit to how moving and striking and unique the films are when they're at their best. In that way, these visions belong in a tie, not only because of my preference, but because they have so much in common as well. Both these movies will get their due years from now, and I'll be glad they were on my list.

9.

Rachel Getting Married- Jonathan Demme

With Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme and Jenny Lumet, the writer of the luminous screenplay, mix the familiar with the unconventional, and it's that mixture that gives the movie all of its energy and verve. Demme decided to shoot the film in a verite style, completely hand-held and improvisational, recording all the music live. This key decision adds to the unpredictability of the piece, the feeling that anything can happen on this wild weekend, but it was definitely already there because of what amounts to a pretty conventional three-act structure in the script. Theory and execution combine for a really satisfying, detailed movie with rich characterization and performances. Most of the most important things that happen in the movie are left unsaid. Anne Hathaway is devastating in the lead, but everyone in the cast, including the criminally under-appreciated Bill Irwin, delivers.

8.

The Visitor- Tom McCarthy

The Visitor is an increasingly rare thing in our current marketplace: a movie for adults. I don't mean that in the way you would prohibit a child from watching something--it's actually pretty clean and inoffensive, which is refreshing in and of itself. I mean that it's mature and deliberate. Its subject is one that is often neglected: the choices a man makes at that crucial point in his late-fifties when he can keep changing and growing or start to shut down. It builds organically and earns its payoffs, people behave convincingly, the conflict is compelling and realistic. What's more, the movie never condescends to you, and, even when it seems very tempting to do so, it resists preaching to the audience about its message. The engine for all of this is the understated but inspiring performance of Richard Jenkins. A character actor for decades, he finally gets his due with a lead role and knocks this everyman portrait out of the park.

7.

Wall-E- Andrew Stanton

If you were to describe this movie to someone who had never heard of it, it would sound more like a daring art film than a summer kid's movie. The first half functions as a silent picture because the main character is inhuman; the second half is a bitter satire of our own laziness and insensitivity set hundreds of years in the future. The greatest trick the gorgeous, touching, genuinely funny Wall-E pulls is that it manages to be a summer kid's movie and a daring art film at the same time and never even makes that balance seem tenuous.

6.

The Wackness- Jonathan Levine

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that seems to be made exactly for you. This year, The Wackness was my movie. Coming-of-age story? Check. Subtly dry humor? Check. '90s period piece with a soundtrack full of Wu-Tang and Biggie Smalls? Check. Few films were as much fun as The Wackness, and I'm excited to see whatever Jonathan Levine's fresh voice comes up with next. I said it before, and I'll say it again: The Wackness is Garden State for dudes who aren't pussies, and it just came out on DVD. Pace it.

5.

Boy A- John Crowley

Boy A's premise--the rebuilding and shrouding of a man's new life after spending most of his childhood in jail--is so simple that it obscures how complex a character study it is at its core. As Andrew Garfield pushes the movie along with his mannered but damned, heartbreaking performance, the conflict builds to a fever pitch. The action escalates so naturally and engrossingly that we never see the strings. It's simple, relatable, and powerful, and there should be more films like it.

4.

The Wrestler- Darren Aronofsky

Writing about an actor's performance never makes for good film criticism. Everyone thinks he knows what good acting is, to the point where that's the only element the average person can use to justify liking a film. But analyzing The Wrestler without discussing Mickey Rourke's vulnerable, virtuoso performance is unthinkable. He is Randy the Ram, beyond any of the washed-up-dude-redeeming-himself-in-real-life parallels that critics are seizing upon. What you don't realize at first is how much he does without dialogue. The physicality of the performance, besides how old-man-jacked he is, is the secret weapon. The doughy face that can transform from a harlequin to a goblin without warning, the wounded, downcast eyes that seem to always be pointed and never be searching. Even the way Aronofsky shoots Rourke, in full shots or three-quarter close-ups as he negotiates his way into a room, from behind on tracking shots, hiding that face until he has to employ its use, it's clear who is the center of this whole film. It is impossible to take your eyes off Mickey Rourke's unflinchingly honest turn in The Wrestler, and this wrenching, detailed parable could never be made with anyone else.

3.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father- Ken Keunne

I cried my eyes out watching this. I don't want to say much about it because the less you know going in, the better. What the documentary begins as, a testimonial of a man's late life for his young son to remember him by, is radically different from the terrifying, enfuriating, but ultimately redeeming film it becomes. The best non-fiction films morph into something the filmmakers never could have envisioned when they started shooting, and that's definitely the case here. The most raw, emotionally-affecting movie of the year is worth searching out.

2.

Slumdog Millionaire- Danny Boyle

There are certain movies that can serve as tests. When I worked in a DVD store and people blindly asked for a recomendation--it happens more than you would expect--I would often point them to Three Kings. Many people haven't seen it, it's moving, it's funny. If an older person can make it past the violent head shot at the beginning, he'll end up loving it. Recently, I've been using Slumdog Millionaire as a similar test. If you don't like this movie, you do not possess a human heart. It's that simple. When the zombies come, just be like, "Would you care to watch a flashy Danny Boyle romance?" If they grunt no, stab them immediately. This is a dazzling, soaring, uplifting odyssey that has inventive ways of telling a classic story. Richard Corliss called it a "buoyant hymn to life," and I can't think of a better way to describe it. If you can make it past the kid swimming in poo-poo, you'll love it.

1.

The Dark Knight- Christopher Nolan

It used to be that you couldn't trust an expensive blockbuster to be any good. So much was at stake that the product was marketed, focus-tested, and compromised until there was no way it could have any of the life and artistic signature that kept it exciting and true. Now so much money is at stake that there's no way a studio would put someone in charge who wouldn't get those things right.

Such is the case with the atmospheric, timely, contemplative The Dark Knight, but calling it a commerical triumph is demeaning. I'll admit that the plot is convoluted. (Joker planned on getting himself arrested on purpose, then knew he would be able to implant a phone in a dude, then had not one but two explosions rigged across town from each other? And he's just "a dog chasing cars"?) But where The Dark Knight impresses is its scope. For instance, the prisoner's dilemma type trick of criminals and innocent civilians debating whether or not to detonate each other? In other hands, that could have been an entire movie in its own right. For Christopher Nolan, it's an adequate third act subplot. This was a movie that was so anticipated it was bound to be disappointing, and instead it was better than we could have imagined.

For too long, superheroes were seen as cartoony, when they really represent archetypes that teach us more about life's ideals than we care to admit. The symbiotic relationship of Joker's aburdist chaos theory and Batman's noble savage heroism has never been depicted in strokes as bold and clear as the Nolan brothers do here. If the Joker died, it would only prove that he was beyond redemption, and if Batman died, it would be in misunderstood vain that the existentialist Joker would delight in. Neither crusader can exist without the other. If they no longer existed, it would only prove their adversary's ethos. What I'm saying is that the stakes at work in The Dark Knight are more important than life and death. When's the last time any movie could convince you of that? Cartoony my ass.

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