Friday, February 27, 2009

Reelin' in the Year's Best - Updated

2008: A Top 20 Films Countdown

Addendum: Going through my film journal (yes, I keep a film journal - I'm that much of an obsessive-complusive/anal-retentive geek!), I realized I completely missed - and hence inadvertently dissed - a number of great films I saw over the last year that I must add to my Top 20 countdown. Not that anyone cares, but at least it'll assuage my (obsessive-complusive/anal-rententive) conscience. There, I feel much better now.

OK, for what's it worth, here are my picks for the best movies I saw in 2008. If you don't see any comments after the title, it's because the critics have already done my work for me.

1. Slumdog Millionaire
(UK, 2008, dir. Danny Boyle) - quite simply: a masterpiece
2. Gran Torino
(USA, 2008, dir. Clint Eastwood)
We all know Clint Eastwood's "Walt Kowalski" character - every family's got one, the curmudgeony old John Wayne red-white-and-blue conservative. In fact, Clint's retired Korean War vet/Detroit Factory Worker grump is a throwback to John Wayne's obsessive
xenophobic soldier in John Ford's The Searchers: a hateful, ugly racist - who comes around to seeing the folly of his ways and appreciating the beauty of cultural differences (though John Wayne and Walter would never put it that way!). Product Placement Bonus: Clint drinks nothing but Pabst throughout the movie!
3. The Wrestler
(USA, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Rocky with brains, professional acting and a rockin' '80s hair metal soundtrack.
4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
(USA, dir. Woody Allen)
Beautiful city, beautiful people and an introduction to an amazing new actress, Rebecca Hall. What's not to like?
5. The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)
(Germany-Turkey-Italy, 2008, dir. Fatih Akin)
Another gem examining East vs. West cultural mores from the Turkish-German director of Head-On. Plus iconic Fassbinder vet Hanna Schygulla!
6. The Orphanage (El Orfanto)
(Spain, 2007 but released here Jan. 2008, dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)
A woman brings her family back to her childhood home, where she opens an orphanage for handicapped children. Before long, her son starts to communicate with an invisible new friend - then goes missing. As the freaked out mother Belen Rueda (The Sea Inside) gives a career-defining performance better than any Oscar-nominated actress this year.
7. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
(Sweden, 2008, dir. Tomas Afredson)
Forget Twilight; this was the year's best vampire film, a creepy and thought-provoking cult film that had me scratching my head and inspired friends to seek out the novel to try to figure it out. We're still talking about it.
8. Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne)
(France, 2006 but released here 2008, dir. Guillaume Canet)
Fantastic French thriller that borrows The Fugitive motif of a wrongfully accused doctor out to set the record straight about his dead wife, with a fascinating foray into France's displaced ethnic subcultures.
9. Transsiberian
(UK-Germany-Spain-Lithuania, 2008, dir. Brad Anderson)
This criminally under-marketed international thriller from the director of The Machinest (El Maquinista, 2004) and Next Stop Wonderland (1998) boasted an all-star cast of Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara and rising Spanish star Eduardo Noriego (check out his starring turn in 2002's cerebral sex romp Novo). Why did I have to see it at the little second-run Rotunda Theatre? As Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt observed, the film is a throwback to "the thriller-mystery set aboard a train" genre, which has almost disappeared from movie subgenres in the Jet Set Age, but Brad Anderson "brings it back to robust life in Transsiberian, a vigorous, fast-paced tale that entwines plot with character and psychology set against an incredibly exotic backdrop." And Ben Kingsley's got the Eastern Euro Badass Thing down pat.
10. The Savages
(USA, 2007 but released here Jan. 2008, dir. Tamara Jenkins)
Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play a sister and brother facing the realities of "family responsibility" when they have to care for their ailing father. As we age, it's something we all have to think about - if not deal with - and is hardly the type of escapist yarn people go to the theatres for, but it's real life, and I like that. The performances are powerful and Jenkins masterfully offsets the emotional with humor to deliver a film that is about real people and real life dilemmas that we can all relate to. The hospital scene at the end made me cry, recalling a similar beside moment when they pulled the plug on my mom. Not for everyone, though, in a way, it really is.
11. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon)
(USA, 2007 but screened here Jan. 2008, dir. Julian Schnabel)
Julian Schnabel has always struck me as kind of pretentious art school ass, but I give props where they're due: this artist-turned-director makes good movies (Before Night Falls, Basquiat) and, with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, even great ones. Based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a worldly fashionista jetsetter who suffered a stroke and was completely paralyzed except for his left eye, it says much about the human condition and our ability to find hope in the worst of times and dignity in the smallest acts - even in the blink of an eye. Left with nothing but the inner world of his memories, Bauby (portrayed masterfully by ace actor Mathieu Amalric) has to struggle to express himself, while time allows, as he attempts to reconcile his life and say goodbye to the people and world he loves. Perhaps no one but an artist, trained to see the world in terms of light, exposure, and shades of color, could pull off the translation of Bauby's minimal words (exhaustively dictated to a secretary by a coded blinking system) except someone like Schnable, whose blurry, experimental camera techniques make us see exactly how the world must have looked to someone like Bauby. A beautiful, innovative, insightful and touching film.
12. Persepolis
(France, 2007 but opened here Feb. 2008, dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)
OK, it's really a 2007 film - in fact it was nominated for a 2008 Oscar as Best Animated Feature (losing, inexplicably, to Ratatouille!) - and I had heard about it before that from a French friend who caught it on its debut in France, but I saw it at Charles in February 2008, so there you have it. This "poignant coming-of-age story of a precocious and outspoken young Iranian girl that begins during the Islamic Revolution" was based on Satrapi's graphic novel and is brimming with humor, insight and the best ever non-ironic use of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."
13. The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret)
(Israel-France-USA, 2007 but released here 2008, dir. Eran Kolirin)
Reviewed previously in this blog; read full review here.
14. I've Loved You So Long
(Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)
(France, 2008, dir. Philippe Claudel)
Brit ex-pat Kristen Scott Thomas delivers a career-best performance as Juliette Fontaine, a former doctor recently released from prison after serving a long sentence for murdering her child. For most of the film, those cold, hard facts are all we know about her, but neither the director nor Thomas' icily aloof performance (nominated for a Cesar, the French "Oscar") attempt to soften the blow and let us sympathize with her. But we learn that nothing in life is a simple as black and white, and it's the eventual revelation of the gray areas in between Juliette's story that make this film so rewarding. After accumulating all the critical honors Hollywood and Britain had to offer (winning Olivier and BAFTA awards and getting nominated for two Golden Globe and Academy Awards), it looks like Thomas is ready to start collecting French Cesars now. No wonder the French goverment awarded her the Légion d'honneur in 2005.
15. Roman de Gare
(France, 2007 but released here 2008, dir. Claude Lelouch)
A stylish return to form for the French master featuring both beauty (hottie newcomer Audrey Dana) and the beast (Dominique Pinon, the ugly dude from Diva). Read my full review here.
16. Changeling
(USA, 2008, dir. Clint Eastwood)
Other than Angelina Jolie's fine, understated performance, Eastwood's historical drama (based on a true story about a child that went missing in Los Angeles in 1928) was virtually overlooked by the critics. I'm glad my cultivated Polish pal Dr. Durlik recommended it to me ("In Europe, Clint Eastwood is considered an artistic auteur, not just an action star") because it's a quite little gem. Basically, it's a sticking-it-to-the-man championing of little people against unchecked and corrupt authority. I think Dr. D. liked it because whether it's people fighting against a corrupt police department in Depression-era Los Angeles or Solidarity toppling a corrupt authoritarian regime in 1980s Poland, empowerment in the face of oppression is a timeless and universal theme.
17. Constantine's Sword
(USA, 2007 but screened here June 2008, dir. Oren Jacoby)
An exploration of the dark side of Christianity, based on the book by former priest James Carroll, who tries to reconcile his Catholic upbringing with the Church's involvement with anti-semitism. It still amazes me how much anti-semitism still exists in Poland, home of the most infamous death camps; for example, a young priest there who speaks out agains the Church's complicity with the Nazis during WWII is ostracized. And Carroll/Jacoby reminds us, via newsreel footage, of the Church's amazing Vietnam War championing of bombing Hanoi. Amazing.
18. Milk
(USA, 2008, dir. Gus van Sant)
Sean Penn, James Franco and James Brolin are great, but it's hard to get overly excited about this biopic if you've already seen Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Great performances notwithstanding, ain't nothing like the real thing baby.
19. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
(USA, 2008, dir. Alex Gibney)
Best ever doc on the Doc by Oscar-winner Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, Taxi To the Dark Side)
20. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
(USA, 2008, dir. Marina Zenovich)
A film so powerful, it got a California judge to consider dismissing the case if Polanski returns to LA for a ruling!

Yes, that's right: two of the films on my list were directed by Clint Eastwood (my new favorite Yank director) and two of the French films feature Kristen Scott Thomas (I've Loved You So Long, Tell No One) - who, like Charlotte Rampling, is another Brit actress who's gone for an extended career swim across the Channel - but who's counting? (Obviously not me, as I just now realized I left out Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, which turned me on to the delightfully charismatic Sally Hawkins; all apologies!)

Addendum Redux: (3/5/09)

I didn't see Frozen River at the time of this post. I subsequently did, and it's an awesome example of what indie filmmaking's all about and also a timely picture for our current economic "tough times" (and it certainly makes this list!).

Honorable Mentions:

Many of these films were seen at the 2008 Maryland Film Festival.

1. Reprise
(Norway, 2006 but released here June 2008, dir. Joachim Trier)
Two competitive friends, fueled by literary aspirations and youthful exuberance, endure the pangs of love, depression and burgeoning careers - set against a hip Scandinavian black metal soundtrack. Variety summed it up best: "Fluent editing by Olivier Bugge Coutte and nimble structuring by screenwriters Eskil Vogt and Trier just about manage to keep script's copious subplots airborne, dropping just a few balls as it reaches the home stretch. Like many another first-time director, Trier seems to be straining to say everything he's always wanted to get off his chest in one go about his generation, creative rivalry, friendship, women (who, on evidence here, he and Vogt still don't quite get), music, and cinema. Final result, with its peculiar happy ending that may or may not be a further fantasy, may leave some auds feeling more drained than satisfied. It's a bit like spending 105 minutes with a litter of frisky, mischievous puppies." But hey, I like pups.
2. Wall-E
(USA, 2008, dir. Andrew Stanton)
You gotta love a film that depicts Americans as fat-faced chair-bound slugs subsisting on carbs and big screen TV entertainment. And I do.
3. Goliath
(USA, 2008, dir. David Zellner)
In the same year that critics went ga-ga over a film about a down-and-out slacker gal losing her dog (Wendy and Lucy), Austin's Zellner Brothers released this funny indie classic about a down-and-out dipshit losing his cat. And no one outside the festival circuit noticed. Where's the justice?
4. I.O.U.S.A.
(USA, 2008, Patrick Creadon)
Wordplay's Patrick Creadon directs this doc boasting local connections (it's based on the book Empire of Debt by William Bonner of Mt. Vernon's Agora Publishing) that depressed me beyond tears. Given our current economic crisis, I'd say it was rather prescient.
5. We Are Wizards
(USA, 2008, dir. Josh Koury)
This year's requisite "geek doc" looks lovingly (not snarkily) at the Harry Potter fan community, specifically Harry Potter tribute bands like Harry & The Potters.
6. Waiting for Hockney
(USA, 2008, dir. Julie Checkoway)
Doc about local MICA grad Billy Pappas who spends 10 years drawing a picture of Marilyn Monroe in the hopes that it will validate his career and gain David Hockney's approval is fascinating not for what it says about art or how much of a dick Hockney is, but what is says about Baltimore's tight-knit working class Greek families. Billy's mom Cookie is the real star of this doc that could have been called My Big Fat Greek Canvas.
7. The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
(USA, 2008, dir. Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath)
This doc about a family forced to emigrate from Laos after the chaos of the secret air war waged by the U.S. during the Vietnam War opened up a world I never knew before: that of Laotians and, here in America, Laotian street gangs. I later saw Gran Torino, which also confronted the issue of Southeast Asians displaced by the Vietnam War and the unfortunate appeal of gang culture to alienated Asian youths here. Nominated for both an Oscar and an Independent Spirit award, but lost out to James Marsh's way-overrated Man on Wire.


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