So, by the end of first quarter 2008, I’d seen exactly one memorably list-worthy movie (see #7) and figured it was just gonna be one of those low tide kinda years after a pretty strong 2007 (Knocked Up, Juno, The King of Kong, Gone Baby Gone, Hell On Wheels, Zodiac, 2 Days In Paris, etcetera). And yet, looking back over the past twelve months, I have to admit, to paraphrase Charlie Brown, it wasn’t such a bad little tree, with a lot of perfectly enjoyable (if not terribly memorable) films, as well as a number of...
WILDCARDS: (potentially list-worthy movies unseen by moi in 2008): Man On Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, Waltz with Bashir, Trouble the Water, Let the Right One In, Revolutionary Road, Gran Torino
And now, the Top 10 I did see...
Usually, the top of my Top Ten list is something I’d be happy to watch again at the drop of a hat, but I suspect I’ll never, ever sit through Young@Heart again: the first time was wrenching (and memorable) enough. My wife and I saw the film at the Harvard Square Loews with my Dad, who’s been in AARP territory for quite a while now, and a theater half full of strangers. For the first thirty minutes or so, Stephen Walker’s documentary about feisty senior citizens singing ironic hipster doofus perennials like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Staying Alive” was a hoot...and then the first lovable oldster died. And then another, and another, like some horror movie of age we’re all trapped in, and suddenly every single person in the theater was getting smacked right in the kisser with the harsh realities of mortality, and nearly all of us were openly sobbing. Yet for all that, the film is never mawkish: the chorus members are presented as a platoon of happy warriors, singing at the top of their lungs as they march into the shadow of the valley of death, fighting tooth and nail for every last drop of joy they can squeeze out of life, even as their comrades fall around them. As I said before in my 2008 half-time wrap-up, I try not to judge people based on their personal tastes when it comes to movies, but if you can sit through the Young@Heartster’s performance of Coldplay’s “Fix You” (punctuated by the rasp and click of the soloist’s respirator) without a lump in your throat, you may need to check your own pulse.
While not as powerful or memorable as Young@Heart, Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky was an equally heartfelt (and far less harrowing) film-going experience, with a similar theme (not to mention a timely one, given the world’s collective George W. Bush hangover): get busy living or get busy dying. Yes, life can be tough and full of injustice and, yes, it’s easy to be aloof and snarky and negative about it, but whether or not that makes anything better (for yourself or anyone else) is the question Leigh tackles here. Underpaid elementary school teacher Poppy (the infectiously great Sally Hawkins) is a relentlessly cheery optimist, the sort of person easily dismissed as a shallow, annoying bubblehead...in fact, one guy I know found the character so irritating he ditched the film after fifteen minutes. But then Poppy encounters her polar opposite, a seething mass of bitterness (embodied in a visceral performance by Eddie Marsan) whose dismal, head-full-of-spiders malevolence provides the necessary contrast to show the true strength and value of Hawkins’ irrepressible sunbeam, raising questions (and suspense) about which of the two worldviews will ultimately triumph.
3. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Like my fellow Screengrabber Scott Von Doviak, I didn’t expect this Jonathan Demme curiosity to wind up on my Best of 2008 list. Watching it the first time, it seemed unfocused and self-indulgent with its meandering Altman-wannabe pace, its self-consciously eccentric diversity and its melodramatic Lifetime-esque family drama. Yet because of its unusual construction, Rachel Getting Married feels now like a memory of an actual wedding I attended rather than just a movie I watched, adding extra punch to my recollections of the infrequent but correspondingly vivid moments of drama like the blistering showdown between Anne Hathaway’s loose cannon recovering addict Kym (a.k.a. Shiva the Destroyer) and her mother (Debra Winger...damn!) –- though even if Demme hadn’t gotten all artsy with the structure, Hathaway’s mesmerizing performance alone would have been worth the price of admission.
Ron Howard’s cinematic adaptation of the acclaimed Peter Morgan play is what I call a “guys-in-suits” movie (one of my favorite genres) where formidable, top-level professionals like Howard, Morgan, Frank Langella (recreating his Tony-winning stage performance as Nixon) and the reliably great Michael Sheen (as Frost) focus their collective talents on a film about formidable, top-level professionals (like the real Frost and Nixon), sparring and strategizing and walking quickly down hallways and corridors rattling off witty bon mots and dense bits of jargon in the midst of high-stakes negotiations and race-against-time showdowns. Some critics have noted the actual historic impact of the Frost/Nixon interviews wasn’t really all that monumental, but the film charts high on my list as an entertaining poker tournament between two fascinating characters (with extra points for Toby Jones’ hilarious cameo as super-agent Swifty Lazar).
Sometimes timing is everything. In twenty years, critics will still be praising Sean Penn’s amazing transformation from scowling, self-important killjoy movie star into sweet, gawky force-of-nature gay activist Harvey Milk, but hopefully by 2028 this film will seem like just another well-made but otherwise run-of-the-mill “issue” film about an issue that’s no longer really an issue. But here in 2008, in the wake of the Proposition 8 disgrace, Milk is still, sadly, very much of the moment, and even for some progressives, the casual man-on-man kissing and romance between Penn’s character and his lovers (James Franco and Diego Luna) is a rare enough sight to give pause. From a historical standpoint, I was horrified to learn that Dan White (well captured by Josh Brolin in a chilling “mundanity of evil” performance) could murder Harvey Milk and the freakin’ mayor of a major American city in cold blood and get just seven years in prison on a manslaughter rap...that fact, combined with the anti-gay slanders of the McCain/Palin campaign (and, really, every Republican campaign in recent memory), the controversy over Obama’s selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural and the sense of communion at the packed house screenings of Milk during its opening weekend are just some of the reasons Gus Van Sant’s good movie feels like such a great and important one now.
6. THE WACKNESS
Thoughtful, well-made coming-of-age stories are usually popular, and weed has been making a cinematic comeback lately, so I’m not exactly sure why The Wackness in general and Josh Peck’s charming turn as wistful pot dealer Luke Shapiro didn’t make more of a splash in 2008. Writer/director Jonathan Levine’s evocation of Manhattan circa 1994 feels as specific and lived-in as Ben Braddock’s Pasadena or Lloyd Dobler’s Washington suburb, and it’s hard to think of a better first-love interest than Olivia Thirlby. I posted a full review of the movie back in June when it first charmed me at the Provincetown Film Festival, so rather than repeat all that praise, I’ll just paraphrase Thirlby’s character and say the film wound up on my Top Ten because, in a difficult year, it reminded me to look at the dopeness and not just the wackness.
7. FULL BATTLE RATTLE
Full Battle Rattle is a documentary by Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber about a simulated Iraqi province in California’s Mojave desert, populated by Iraqi-American citizens and U.S. Army “insurgents” in a full-immersion training scenario where soldiers practice both their combat and diplomacy skills before heading off to the real war in Iraq. At first, it’s funny to watch battles interrupted by visits from the ice cream man as the military combines role-playing and stagecraft to create what seems like a strange, gorey theme park or game show (complete with graphically wounded mannequin “casualties,” designed to prepare fledgling medics for the realities of war). But it’s those harsh realities waiting for the participants beyond all the play-acting that provide the film with its emotional core, as we come to know the various players, including an Iraqi immigrant terrified of being deported and an American combat vet who admits, tellingly, that after returning from a tour of duty, it takes him several days to start viewing his Iraqi colleagues as people again (as opposed to potential enemies). By the time the simulation ends and the soldiers we’ve come to know say goodbye to their families and ship out to an uncertain future, the lady next to me in the movie theater was openly weeping, and there seemed to be something in my eye as well.
8. IRON MAN
I’ve gone on record about my utter bafflement over the messianic fervor surrounding The Dark Knight, a good but occasionally clunky superhero movie featuring an entertaining performance by a talented actor who died far too young. But I still don’t see why Heath Ledger’s Brad Dourif-ian performance as The Joker is considered groundbreaking or revelatory: compare its evocation of evil to Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet and then get back to me. And I’m still not really sure why Batman’s deliberations over civil liberties vs. public safety are especially more profound than Iron Man’s growing awareness of the consequences of war profiteering, except that Jon Favreau’s comic book adaptation takes itself far less seriously while delivering its tightly paced (but not over-written) action payload. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is nowhere near as flashy or iconic as Ledger’s, of course – a typical downside of playing the good guy – but it’s miles ahead of Christian Bale’s stiff-in-a-suit Caped Crusader. Downey is fun and fascinating to watch, infusing a potentially one-dimensional role with the gravity and humanity of hard-won experience, as well as the humility of a man all too aware he could very easily have shared Ledger’s fate.
9. IN BRUGES
Who is this incredibly engaging, charismatic actor named Colin Farrell, and why haven’t I seen him on the big screen before now? Oh, sure, I’m familiar with his doppelganger: that brooding, constipated Irish guy with the same name who kept threatening to be the next big thing for several years, but never quite arrived thanks to performances in a succession of mezzo-mezzo movies that never quite connected with audiences. But the Farrell who plays the guilt-ridden hit man Ray in Martin McDonagh’s funny, suspenseful crime drama In Bruges is a true movie star, well-paired with Brendan Gleeson as the soulful mentor waiting for the other shoe to drop in the titular Belgian town after a botched assignment brings down the wrath of crime boss Ralph Fiennes (who likewise has never been quite so compelling on screen). The beautiful but claustrophobic confines of the distinctive setting and the pervasive undertow of regret gives Bruges a richer flavor than, say, a fun but ultimately disposable Guy Ritchie offering like RockNRolla, even if McDonagh’s film isn’t ultimately all that much more than the sum of its high quality parts.
10. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Until three seconds ago, I was planning to include Slumdog Millionaire in the final slot of this list, if only for the energy and scope of Danny Boyle’s storytelling mojo. But as I started to think and write about it, I realized the film as a whole simply left me cold. On the other hand, there was no lack of heat in Woody Allen’s latest comeback film, which is possibly why I have warmer memories of it. Penelope Cruz's performance as the hot-blooded trois in the ménage between Scarlett Johansson’s feckless American tourist and Javier Bardem’s Spanish art stud is probably better than the movie itself, but Allen still has some interesting things to say about the chimerical nature of love, the conflicting desires of the brain, heart and libido and the way smart people consistently outsmart themselves by refusing to acknowledge what they really want, even when they somehow manage to find it. (And, of course, the fact the movie unfolds against a backdrop of gorgeous Spanish locations doesn’t hurt, either.)
Honorable Mention:Wellness, Goliath, Turn the River, American Teen, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Tell No One, Ghost Town, Burn After Reading, The Bank Job, RockNRolla, Role Models, Quantum of Solace, Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt
Worst Movies I Actually Saw: Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, What Just Happened?
Worst Movie I Didn’t See: An American Carol
Most Overrated: The Dark Knight (see above)
Most Overcriticized: The Happening
Respected More Than Liked: Synechdoche
TOPTV: The Wire Mad Men The Amazing Race The Daily Show & The Colbert Report Survivor: Micronesia & Gabon Breaking Bad The Soup Everybody Hates Chris Recount Generation Kill Project Runway True Blood
“No One” – Alicia Keyes “Pretty Blue” – Moonflower “Paper Planes” – M.I.A. “Wichita Lineman” – Glen Campbell “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” – Beyonce “Sex Changes” – The Dresden Dolls “Shoot the Runner” – Kasabian “Still Alive” – GLaDOS “Sax Rohmer, Pt. 1” – The Mountain Goats “M79” – Vampire Weekend “I Am Commando” – The NorthAtom “I’m Good. I’m Gone” – Lykke Li “Belleville Rendezvous” – The Triplets of Belleville (Soundtrack) “Happy Days Are Here Again” – Barbara Streisand