Although it was remarkable in many other ways (elections, the economy), 2008 was a fairly typical year for movies: no indisputable masterpieces, but quite a few solid achievements (along with some ripe stinkers). And unlike 2007, when the heavily praised (and awarded) No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood seemed to me seriously flawed and a misuse of great talent, this year the most acclaimed movies are mostly pretty good.
There are a few that I think have been overrated: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Waltz with Bashir, to name three, but those are still reasonably good movies, as is the likely Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Slumdog is a fine evening’s entertainment, even though it’s a bit thin and superficial and predictable. But there are at least twenty movies I liked better in the past year. Here are some of them.
Best Features of 20081. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button2. Milk3. Paranoid Park4. WALL-E5. Synecdoche, New York6. Rachel Getting Married7. The Edge of Heaven8. The Dark Knight9. In Bruges10. Frozen River
Runners-up:Wendy and LucyGran Torino
Taxi to the Dark Side
Man on Wire
Trouble the Water
Biggest Disappointments: Che; Revolutionary Road
The Worst (that I saw): Speed Racer; Sex and the City; Mamma Mia!
Twice in a row now, David Fincher has delivered the movie of the year. Zodiac and Benjamin Button couldn’t be more different – one a deliberately chilly and alienating thriller, the other a large-scale, smash-hit Hollywood romantic fantasy. What they share is Fincher’s mesmerizing sense of composition and rhythm. Button’s script is of variable quality – but Fincher ensures that the film is constantly gripping and profoundly moving. The central idea – what it really means to live and die – is powerfully rendered through masterful visual storytelling. Claudio Miranda, in his first major feature as cinematographer, delivers an extraordinary-looking film. And the score by Alexandre Desplat (The Golden Compass, The Queen) is beautifully effective.
Sharing honors with Fincher as director of the year is Gus Van Sant, with two fine and very different movies. Milk is a superior biopic, a superior political movie, and a superior period piece, and it has more first-rate performances than any other movie this year. It’s also an audience pleaser – you can feel the energy in the theater as you watch. Paranoid Park, in contrast, is one of Van Sant’s I-don’t-really-care-if-you-enjoy-this “experimental” movies, in the same vein as Elephant, Last Days, and Gerry. This one has a somewhat more conventional narrative than those three, but it's definitely an “art film” in the best sense. Van Sant is a poetic visual stylist and a brilliant editor of sound and image. Paranoid Park (a moody tale of violent death and teen anomie) and Milk (the story of a gay rights hero) demonstrate his gifts in pleasingly different ways.
WALL-E doesn’t quite match the narrative grace and wit of the last Pixar movie, Ratatouille, but its first hour is stunningly beautiful and innovative. The second half, still entertaining and funny and thoughtful, is a bit more conventional and contrived. But this story of a lovesick robot on an Earth desolated by pollution is a wonderful movie.
Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, is a mysterious and beautiful thing. It doesn’t always work (though viewers may well differ widely about which parts do or don’t ring true), and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of oddness. But the breadth of its ambition and imagination is exciting in itself, and often enormously moving. Kaufman is still learning as a director, and this might have been better in someone else’s hands, but it’s a startlingly personal fantasia. Synecdoche is much better experienced than described: Philip Seymour Hoffman (as marvelous here as he is disappointing in Doubt) plays a stage director whose biggest production turns out to be his own life story – and eventually the play, enormous in scope and years in preparation (never quite ready for an audience) becomes indistinguishable from his life, and vice versa. And perhaps it all takes place in his head during the moment of his death. Or not. At any rate, this deserves to be seen.
The Edge of Heaven was too little seen in its limited theatrical engagements, but it’s available on DVD – and you should rent or buy it as soon as you can. It accomplishes in an extraordinarily gripping and moving way what some earlier, over-hyped movies like Crash and Babel attempted — telling multiple stories whose characters and plots gradually merge into one narrative. It takes place among the Turkish immigrants in Germany, as did Fatih Akim’s previous Head-On, also worth checking out. Akim’s beautifully controlled and perfectly cast film takes on love and lust and cultural identity in ways you won’t soon forget.
Rachel Getting Married is a welcome return to form for director Jonathan Demme, and a splendid opportunity for Anne Hathaway to display her acting chops. In fact, all the performances are excellent. The intensity falters a bit in the extended post-wedding scenes at the end, but this is a fine and powerful movie.
As for the rest of my top 12: The Dark Knight, the year’s biggest blockbuster, tries almost too hard to avoid superhero movie clichés. But while the result is a bit heavy and self-serious, it’s often brilliant and visually breathtaking. And Heath Ledger’s performance is already a legendary piece of acting: disturbing and funny and utterly original. In Bruges unfortunately failed to find much of an audience in theaters, although people seem to be discovering it on DVD. It’s the striking film debut of writer-director Martin McDonagh, the brilliant playwright known for startling slapstick violence and lacerating wit. Both are in evidence here, and Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes do remarkably vivid work.
Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy could both be seen as movies for the New Depression, with characters who teeter on the edge of poverty and despair. Both are directed by women and both are anchored by wonderful actresses: Melissa Leo as a struggling mother who becomes a smuggler of immigrants in Frozen River, and Michelle Williams as a drifter whose cross-country odyssey comes to a grinding and heartbreaking halt in Wendy and Lucy. Both movies are deeply touching. Frozen River has a more conventional melodramatic narrative, and more humor. Wendy and Lucy bears the very original stamp of director Kelly Reichardt, who made the festival hit Old Joy. Like that earlier movie, the new one is a miniature, a pitch-perfect short story.
Gran Torino may seem like an appendage on such a distinguished list. But this new minimalist melodrama from Clint Eastwood deserves recognition for his wonderful lead performance and his steady and skillful direction. The script and the supporting cast are uneven, but this is Clint’s best since Unforgiven.
My list of best documentaries includes movies released in theaters in 2008, so Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the 2007 Oscar, tops my list: it played at festivals during 2007 but only reached theaters in early 2008 for a very brief, limited run. (As with the foreign film Oscars, the year a film is eligible can get confusing, and can be different from the year the movie actually gets released in the US.) Despite the fact that President Obama has pledged to reverse many of the detention policies that are detailed in the film, it remains a powerful document and reminder of the disturbing occurrences at Guantanamo and in American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t let squeamishness keep you from seeing this extraordinary film, the best nonfiction feature of either 2007 or 2008.
The Oscar documentary category seems to have noticeably improved, after having ignored fine films in some previous years. The nominators are apparently expanding their universe and including more movies that really are among the best around. Two of this year’s documentary Oscar nominees also made my list: Man on Wire, the amazing story of the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the early 1970s; and Trouble the Water, a fine and deeply personal account of the aftermath of Katrina. And finally, Moving Midway (out on DVD in mid-February) is a lovely, funny, and also admirably personal account of how plantation life in the Old South permeates parts of our culture – while running headlong into 21st-century attitudes when the director’s relatives decide to move a plantation house away from encroaching suburban sprawl.
As for the most noteworthy disappointments and duds: Steven Soderbergh’s Che deliberately avoids being a traditional entertainment or a fully detailed biography – and although the first half has its moments, the second half of this four-hour-plus anti-epic becomes quite stupefying. Revolutionary Road is a misguided attempt to adapt the highly acclaimed novel of late-1950s suburban alienation; I recommend reading the book – and watching the comparable but vastly superior Mad Men – instead.
Speed Racer, for all its very expensive and flashy visuals, is all but unwatchable. We can hope that the Wachowski brothers find their way again soon, but after the third Matrix film and this one, they do seem lost. Sex and the City takes what was often fizzy and delightful in 25-minute doses on HBO and transforms it into sheer lead that goes on and on for 140 minutes. And Mamma Mia! is incompetent as well as ridiculous. I understand it’s now the biggest movie hit ever in the UK. Boggles the mind, eh?