Monday, December 22, 2008

The Best Movies Of 2008

Screw top ten lists... ten is an arbitrary number that would exclude many great films I loved this year. This is a list of the best films of the year, and I'm going to put as many as I see fit, damnit.
2008 was a rough year for me personally, but it was more than decent cinematically. How can you complain about a year in which two of the biggest blockbusters were also as deeply felt, poetic, and thought provoking as anything to come out of the indie world in years? How often do you see big name directors taking such big, ambitious risks with studio movies, allowing themselves to fail a little bit in order to achieve so much more? Indie movies are in trouble to a distressing degree, but when there are still filmmakers pushing the boundaries of the medium, telling deeply personal stories, taking hugely ambitious risks that don't always pay off, using their unique perspectives to show us sites we've never seen before, and getting major studios to foot the bill for their sometimes subversive, often obsessive, and always deeply personal visions, then movies are not in bad shape, as an art form.
Here's my list of the best of 2008.

(Dir. Jon Favreau, Wri. Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway)
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. completed his career and personal redemption with a triumphant year that included this fun comic book romp and his hilarious turn as a white actor playing a black man in "Tropic Thunder." But it was "Iron Man" that relied most fully on Downey Jr.'s considerable charms, as the entire movie hinged on him. Downey Jr. took a B-list hero and shot Tony Stark straight to the A-list with this fun action adventure. The sequels promise to deliver even more fun in this instant franchise.

(Dir. Jonathan Demme, Wri. Jenny Lumet)
A comeback for Jonathan Demme, who shakes off his recent spate of failed big budget, slick remakes of classic films to craft an intimate, handheld indie family drama. Anne Hathaway is a revelation as Kym, an angry, narcissistic, and very fucked up recovering drug addict who leaves the isolation of her rehab facility to come home for her sister's wedding. Kym descends on the happy weekend like a hurricane, leaving a trail of emotional destruction in her path. Demme, the director of "Stop Making Sense" and other classic concert films and a massive music fan, intercuts Kym's breakdown with joyous world music performances from wedding guests to cut the building tension. Kym wins a bit of redemption by the end, but it's a hard and intense fight with very small victories. A nice little movie with an honest and heartbreaking lead performance from an actress I never thought of as more than a (very) pretty face.

(Dir. Martin McDonagh, Wri. Martin McDonagh)
Colin Farrell,Brendan Gleeson,Ralph Fiennes
I've been feeling down about indie movies lately. It doesn't seem like a whole lot of fresh filmmakers are making interesting movies with unique voices in the post studio indie shingle era. I mean, when the "indies" getting the widest distribution are emptily "quirky" comedies starring big name TV stars and directed by the sons of A-List Hollywood filmmakers, you know that independent cinema is in a bit of a bind. That's why Martin McDonagh's hit man comedy/ drama/ buddy film/ crime flick/ morality tale is such a breath of fresh air. The trailers made it look like one of those quirky and too clever by half son of "Pulp Fiction" crime flicks about pop culture obsessed, nihilistic killers who do their jobs without blinking an eye... but it turns out "In Bruges" is very much about guilt. Colin Farrell is touching as a sweetly naive hitman who is sent to the medieval town of Bruges with his partner (the always great Brendan Gleeson) to await instructions from their boss. Farrell becomes bored while Gleeson enjoys sight seeing in the historic town, but the two slowly develop a friendship in a very organic way... until their boss, played by Ralph Fiennes, informs Gleeson that the mission is to take out Farrell. More said would ruin the movie's unpredictable digressions and impressively executed tonal shifts. This is an immensely impressive first feature from playwright McDonagh, whose talent and wicked sense of dialog burn brightly. If there were more first time feature directors making movies half this accomplished, the indie world would be in much better shape indeed.

(Dir. David Gordon Green, Wri. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
Seth Rogen,Danny McBride,Danny McBride,James Franco,Pineapple Express
The Judd Apatow comedy machine just keeps rolling. This year, Team Apatow delivered the sweet, funny, and nakedly honest breakup comedy "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," but then really kicked it up a notch with the stoner action comedy "Pineapple Express." Most of Apatow's productions have been more funny on the script side and a bit lacking on the cinematic style, but "Pineapple" was helmed by indie darling David Gordon Green, who brought a fluid style behind the camera that really raises it to cult comedy status. Seth Rogen does what Seth Rogen does best, while James Franco surprises everyone who only knows him from his wooden work in the "Spider-Man" trilogy by proving that he can be intentionally hilarious as a sweet and natured pot dealer, in a buddy cop movie that replaces the cops with bumbling stoners. But it's "The Foot Fist Way" star Danny McBride who really steals the movie as the redneck dealer Red who sells out his friends... but comes back to help them even after they have a knock down, drag out, completely brutal fight... because that's what friends are for. "Pineapple Express" is like nothing you've ever seen before, but it's a movie I'll be watching on DVD over and over again. It's just really damned funny.

(Dir. Tomas Alfredson, Wri. John Ajvide Lindqvist)
Eli,Let the Right One In
"Twilight" got all the attention, but this is the vampire romance to see from 2008. This shivery Swedish film is equal parts creepy and sweet, as it tells the strange tale of a young vampire girl and the awkward and put upon boy who loves her. This one isn't for the faint of heart... unlike in the swoony teen romantic hit, the vampires in "Let the Right One In" can't ignore their lust for blood. I've already written about this wonderful and strangely beautiful movie, but it deserves to be mentioned again at the end of the year.

(Dir. Darren Arronofsky, Wri. Robert D. Siegel)
Randy "The Ram" Robinson,Mickey Rourke,The Wrestler
Darren Arronofsky was beat up pretty bad by critics for making his (underrated) time spanning philosophical romance about death "The Fountain," and star Mickey Rourke has been pretty beat up by life for over two decades now. So the two of them coming together to collaborate on "The Wrestler," about a former pro wrestler whose life and body are a complete wreck looking for a big comeback fight was obviously a match made in movie heaven. "The Wrestler" has a pretty standard sports movie narrative, but its lifted by Rourke's amazing performance and Arronofsky's gritty and visceral direction. This movie might be slightly overrated and just a tad conventional, but as three comeback stories in the fictional and real world merging together, it's nothing short of remarkable.

(Dir. Woody Allen, Wri. Woody Allen)
Javier Bardem,Penelope Cruz,Scarlett Johansson,Woody Allen,Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Critics have been dubbed almost every Woody Allen film this decade a "return to form," but his latest is the first to truly live up to the hype. While the Oscar nominated "Match Point" was a ponderously awkward, overrated rehash of Woody's brilliant "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is the real deal. The story of two American girls (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) experiencing a summer of love in Spain, the movie is funny and natural in ways that Woody's films haven't been in years, buoyed by charismatically magnetic performances from Javier Bardem and Penolope Cruz, as a passionate and feuding former couple. This is Woody's best script in years, and even though it's his lightest and funniest work in nearly a decade, it also breaks your heart a bit by the end. Finally, a new Woody Allen movie I can love and place in the same category as "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Everyone Says I Love You," and "Deconstructing Harry." And between the gorgeous Spanish locations and the equally gorgeous cast, it ain't a hard movie on the eyes, either.

7. CHE
(Dir. Steven Soderbergh, Wri. Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen)
Che Guevara,Che,Benicio Del Toro
Steven Soderbergh's anti-biopic of the revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara (brilliantly played by Benicio Del Toro, in an unsentimental performance) barely gives you any context for the nearly five hours of revolutionary guerrilla combat you will sit through if you are able to catch the "road show" version of the movie before it leaves theater. The first half of the film is about the successful Cuban revolution that Che helped Castro lead, and the second movie jumps to Che's failed revolution in Bolivia... while skipping over the post revolutionary time he spent in Cuba, in which he and his allies morphed from populists into dictators. Soderbergh made some very distinct choices in telling the story of Che as a revolutionary warrior, and his clear eyed and objective vision makes for a fascinating war movie. If you don't get to go to the two for one "road show" experience, try to see the Cuban and Bolivian halves as close together as possible... because they really do work as to halves to a coherent whole. A must see experience for anyone who is truly interested in cinema... just try your best not to make the same mistake I did and get front row seats for this five hour, hand held, subtitled war movie. Hey, at least there was an intermission.

(Dir. Danny Boyle, Wri. Simon Beaufoy)
Slumdog Millionaire,Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

I've already written enough
about Danny Boyle's Dickensian rags to riches fable about a poor boy from the rough streets of Mumbai who improbably knows the answers to every question on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," but only appears on the show in order to get the attention of his lost love. It's a heartfelt, uplifting crowd pleaser that will leave you dancing out of the theaters.

(Dir. Andrew Stanton, Wri. Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon)
The first half of the movie is near perfection; poetic, heartbreakingly lonely, disturbingly bleak, yet strangely hopeful, swooningly romantic, and beautiful. Oh yeah, and it's a kid's movie about two bleeping robots falling in love. A lot has been written about how the second half is not as strong; yes, when Wall-E and his metal love, Eve, leave an Earth long abandoned by humans to find that its former inhabitants have turned into lazy fat slobs who can no longer walk and are addicted to leisure and consumption, the satire is a bit too glib by half. But the point of Wall-E's romantic journey is to remind mankind of how to be human; it could have been better developed, but there is plenty of poetry in the second half that shouldn't be ignored. You'd have to be made of metal yourself to not shed at least one tear during Wall-E and Eve's soaring "dance" through the stars. "Wall-E" is an imperfect and ambitious near masterpiece, and it's amazing to watch Pixar, a successful commercial animation studio continue to experiment and take major risks when they could be content to pump out sequels that would make them plenty of money (the less said about the imminent "Cars 2," though, the better.)

(Dir. David Fincher, Wri. Eric Roth)
Brad Pitt,The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,Cate Blanchett
David Fincher is not a director who I ever expected to make a movie I'd describe as a "lovely fable," but the director of "Se7en," "Fight Club," and last year's masterful "Zodiac" has done just that with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Fincher has always been a visual director of the highest caliber, but his most recent output has seen a director whose early work was filled with over the top style and shock value really mature as a storyteller. "Button" tells the tale of the titular hero (played by Brad Pitt, starring in his third Fincher film,) who is aging backwards (using stunningly photo real effects.) The epic movie takes us through Benjamin's lived backward life, focusing on his decades long romance with the love of his life, Daisy (an impossibly beautiful Cate Blanchett.) Fincher, whose work has always been dark and cynical, uses the strange setup as a metaphor for how all of our lives are ticking backwards towards zero, in a movie that is very much about mortality and how "nothing lasts." But don't let his cynical perspective, ever present dark sense of humor, and obsession with death fool you... it's also a romantic and heartbreaking movie about how important living and loving life fully is. Has David Fincher gone soft? Maybe Tyler Durden would think so, but with the one two punch of "Zodiac" last year and "Button" this year, Fincher's work has evolved into much more mature, rewarding, intelligent, and emotional territory. I can't wait to see the projects he takes on next.

(Dir. Gus Van Sant, Wri. Dustin Lance Black)
Sean Penn,Milk
Sean Penn is absolutely brilliant as slain San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major office in the United States. Gus Van Sant, who has been making artful yet artificial "experimental" films for a few years now, shoots this biopic in a straightforward manner... and the film soars under his less ponderous direction. Turns out that Van Sant is a pretty good director of mainstream films, and he shouldn't fight it at all... his recreation of San Francisco in the 70s is spot on as he shows the birth of the gay rights movement, led by one charismatic, eccentric, and sometimes egotistical man. Penn and Van Sant tell Harvey Milk's story honestly and powerfully... probably the way Milk would have wanted it. It's a beautiful movie that avoids most of the problems that biopics often face, and it's incredibly relevant right now after the recent passage of prop 8 in California... but it's a beautifully told and powerful story in any era. Penn should win the Oscar for his work here, but James Franco, as Milk's longtime lover, and Josh Brolin, as Dan White, the man on a fatal collision course with Milk, both deserve praise for their work in the film as well. This is a powerful film with the potential to win a lot of hearts and minds... if mainstream audiences are willing to see a movie about a subject they might be uncomfortable with, they'll be greatly rewarded.

(Dir. Charlie Kaufman, Wri. Charlie Kaufman)
Synedoche, New York,New York,Charlie Kaufman
I have already blogged about Charlie Kaufman's astoundingly ambitious directorial debut, but there is always more to say about a movie that is about so many things. Kaufman tells the story of Caden Cotard (played by the one and only Philip Seymour Hoffman,) an obsessed playwright who throws himself so deeply into his massive theater piece which obsessively recreates his life that he forgets to actually live it in a dense, rewarding, and often heartbreaking first feature from the Oscar winning writer of "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." This is a sometimes confounding puzzle box of a movie that digs deep into your psyche and refuses to let go. It's a giant, flawed, and deeply human piece of work that sometimes flies too close to the sun, but manages to never come crashing down to Earth. Too few people saw it in theaters... but that's why they invented DVDs and Blu Rays.

(Dir. Christopher Nolan, Wri. Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan)
Most years, my favorite movie and the best movie of the year are not one and the same. A favorite movie is the one that you want to pop in on a rainy day, to make you laugh or cry... films that are objectively "the best" of a given year are more often challengingly weighty intellectual and artistic works that are not always the most watchable and entertaining flicks. So it's really rare that my favorite and the best movie of the year are one and the same, and it's even rarer still when critics and audiences can agree on the merits of a film to such a degree that they did on "The Dark Knight," which is the biggest hit of the decade and also the finest film of the year. "The Dark Knight" doesn't need qualifiers like "the best SUPER HERO movie ever made"... this film is a straight up American masterpiece, not just great among its genre of primary colored tights wearing heroes. Epic in scale, morally complex, frightening, and incredibly intelligent, Nolan's vision brings the heroes, villains, and regular citizens of Gotham City vividly to life. This is a great post 9/11 parable about how a population reacts to terror, how easily society can descend into chaos, and what heroism means in our cynical times. It's a character study, a massive crime drama, and a Greek Tragedy. It's also an amazingly kick ass piece of Hollywood pop entertainment, with stunning set pieces like the long and chaotic truck chase through the bowels of Gotham, the breathtaking opening bank heist, and Batman's rooftop extraction of a seemingly untouchable Chinese mob banker from Hong Kong. This is a movie that proves a blockbuster can have big ideas without sacrificing one bit of entertainment.
The work of the entire ensemble cast is tremendous, with Gary Oldman a standout as the film's moral compass and heart, Jim Gordon. But the performance that can't be ignored (and will not be on Oscar night, even if the Academy foolishly decides to snub "The Dark Knight" of any other, much deserved awards) is Heath Ledger's absolutely stunning live wire turn as The Joker. Much has been made about Ledger's work in the film, but there is always more to say about a performance which combines ferociously animalistic anger, a compelling self loathing streak, and nerve jangling unpredictability with a steely intelligence, an undeniable wit, and a strangely grungy charm to create a version of an iconic character with decades of history that was legendary long before the movie was released in theaters to box office records. His tragic death adds another layer to his work in the film, but Ledger's Joker would be one for the books either way... it's far and away the performance of the year in the movie of the year, from an objective and artistic standpoint and in one popcorn movie loving fanboy's subjective opinion.
The Joker