20 February 2009

2008: The Year in Film

In preparation for the end of awards season, here are my selections for favorite films of 2008, ranked alphabetically.

I have ten left that I still would like to see: Ballast; The Class; A Christmas Tale; I've Loved You So Long; My Winnipeg; Reprise; Still Life; Synecdoche New York; Tell No One; and Trouble the Water. I'll be doing my best to catch up on these blind spots as soon as possible, but consider this list as something organic and under a constant state of evolution until then.

The list:

Boy A
(d. John Crowley / UK)

Now here is a movie that will break your heart: the story of a young man named Eric who, as a boy, was implicated in a highly publicized vicious crime and spent all of his adolescence in a juvenile detention center. Now 24-years-old, he is content to have nothing but the bare essentials as he makes his reintegration into society under a new identity, seeking a job, friends, and romance for the first time in his life. Eric is played with such utter pathos by Andrew Garfield, a young and remarkably talented British actor, and the performance is so true to what the character must experience in all emotional facets. As the film progresses, you can't help but root for the Eric yet you can't help but feel fate conspiring against him. In this unsung film, director John Crowley sets us up for tragedy and then unblinkingly delivers.

(d. Steven Soderbergh / USA)

The very elements that could have made Steven Soderbergh's Che unbearable are handled with great aplomb: four-hours long, in Spanish with subtitles, often detached and equally dispassionate. Guevara is played in an earthy and nuanced performance by the magnificent Benecio del Toro, who walks a thin line between hope and disillusionment. Soderbergh reveals the man to us through a series of momentous occasions, including the 1959 Cuban revolution, a visit to the United Nations in 1964, and a failed attempt to bring the revolt to Bolivia and South America as a whole. He gets great biographical mileage out of these events and fashions each section in its own specific style. Read review »

Chop Shop
(d. Ramin Bahrani / USA)

American cinematic realism experienced a muscular revival in 2008, and the top film of the pack — which included prestigious offerings such as Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy — is Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop, the story of a young boy named Ale (Alejandro Polanco) living inside an auto repair facility in Queens, N.Y., doing odd jobs for cash and saving to buy a food service van so he and his older sister (Isamar Gonzales) can escape their poverty. The van becomes an important symbol for both Ale and us—the pursuit of the American dream in a society that aggressively seeks to push you back and prevent you from leaving your situation. The temptation to call this quiet, low-budget, gritty urban tale the "anti-Slumdog Millionaire" is somewhat overwhelming; Bahrami lets the story flow from moment to moment with casual but controlled elegance, and the hand-held cinematography is successful enough to create a connection between the audience and the characters that reaches a highest levels of empathy and will exhaust your soul.

The Dark Knight
(d. Christopher Nolan / USA)

My respect and admiration for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight has not abated from my first screening of it. It's an uncompromising overload to your movie-watching senses: your eyes are inundated, your ears are submerged in an ocean of sound, your conscience gets spun like a bottle, your muscles tighten and release, your foot swiftly bobs as you paw at the frayed hems of your jeans. Halfway through and I was already wondering what I was going to pick up the next time I watch it. Nolan created a movie that is tight, crisp, and self-contained, with the ability to plunge us directly into the conflict of its characters and the action at its core. What continues to thrill me is that it functions as multi-faceted pop art, and allows its characters to embody uneven moral planes, save one character, for whom are no gray areas. Heath Ledger's celluloid-bending performance as the Joker is viral, and its effect on the movie writ large — paradoxically loose but coiled — assists in the success. Even removed from its initial rawness in the midst of the summer, it's a rare film where the hype felt warranted, the appeal was far-reaching, and the payoff was well-deserved.

Flight of the Red Balloon
(d. Hou Hsiao-hsein / France)

Talk about beautiful. Hou Hsiao-hsien's first western film, the French-language Flight of the Red Balloon, is an homage to the short 1956 French film The Red Balloon, but it's so much more. As a film about motherhood, loneliness, and urban singularity, it is all together engaging and moving, spearheaded in a great performance by Juliette Binoche. As a visual poem, it is utterly masterful, and the light-as-a-feather camerawork imbues the film with a blend of astounding movement and discreet stillness. There's so much mysticism and beauty within this film, particularly the relationship between the young boy and the dancing red sphere that possesses soul-warming sentience, that I could have watched it for hours and hours and never regretted a moment.

Frozen River
(d. Courtney Hunt / USA)

In this stupendously mature directorial debut of Courtney Hunt, a lower-income woman (a powerful performance from Melissa Leo) struggles to make ends meet for her two sons in upstate New York, and, in a moment of sheer desperation, reluctantly begins driving illegal immigrants across a frozen river from Canada into the United States. Ice is used so wonderfully here as a narrative device, allowing for mystery, imagery, emotional symbolism, and metaphoric resonance. Hunt wrote the original screenplay as well as directing, and it tenderly weaves the themes of survival and motherhood, all while the desolation pulses in the frosty air and the icy earth. Read review »

In Bruges
(d. Martin McDonagh / UK-USA)

Playwright Martin McDonagh's debut feature film, In Bruges – about two Irish hitmen on mandatory hiatus in Belgium after the death of an innocent – is darkly funny, patently twisted, and curiously sympathetic. This is a comedy, yes, but one that thrives on wit and subtlety in a way that slowly creeps up on you, morphing itself into irony and absurdity. But it wouldn't be fair in the least to leave the film in the category of comedy; in a wonderfully unforeseen way, it reveals a great deal about humanity. Read review »

(d. Gus Van Sant / USA)

The best biopics have a style that live up to their subjects. One of the best films of 2007, I'm Not There, was as convoluted, complex, and unconventional as Bob Dylan himself. Gus Van Sant's Milk hews a little closer to conventionality than I'd prefer, but I think the film's greatest success is that it is as bombastic, flamboyant, and emotional as its subject, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official in U.S. history. Some have said this film could have done more with Milk's life, but I admire the recent trends (such as in 2005's Capote and 2006's The Queen) to hone in a particular slice and let a remarkably gifted performer — in this case, a very Oscar-worthy Sean Penn — deliver the depth and nuance of an entire life in only two hours. This is a tightly constructed film, and it soars from joy to sorrow with the elegance of great film-making.

(d. Andrew Stanton / USA)

Andrew Stanton, one of the founding fathers of Pixar, has said the idea of his film Wall•E predates even the studio's first feature, Toy Story, in 1995. That it was produced and released only now, more than twenty years after the company's inception, is not surprising. It is smart, savvy, empathic, and philosophical, and certainly untraditional in the sense of what audiences expect from animated features. It makes an impassioned plea for sane environmentalism and takes note of all our post-apocalyptic fears while lampooning a tech-dependent culture, all while making passing reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey and the silent works of Chaplin and Keaton. On paper it might not have seemed as if it would work as box office gold or even a critical success. (Reportedly Pixar was worried Wall•E might be the film that would break its incredible 8-0 run of successes. Hardly.) Its behind-the-scenes production history easily draws comparison to the giant Hollywood directors who were allowed to make their more artistically inspired films after they made a film or two that was assured to be profitable (in Stanton's case that certainly applies to his previous feature, the colorful and spirited Finding Nemo, one of the highest grossing animated films of all time and the best selling DVD of all time). This feeling alone helps give Wall•E the authenticity and genuineness the best independent films have. How Stanton and his co-writers, Pete Docter and Jim Reardon, were able to imbue two robots with so many emotions and instantaneous personalities is an utterly spectacular feat of storytelling and characterization. (Reminiscent, I think, of how Dumbo was so tender and touching with no words spoken between child and mother.) But this is one of the best love stories of the decade and one of the most beautiful animated films I've ever seen. It shouldn't be surprising I consider it the film of the year.

The Wrestler
(d. Darren Aronofsky / USA)

The best character studies — like Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler — invest themselves so much into a particular life that you wish you had either been watching the film unfold in real time over the last twenty years, or you wish the movie would kept playing in real time for the next twenty years. Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler out of his prime who played with brutal dignity by Mickey Rourke, is a fascinating character because of his simplicity. (Complication, after all, is borne out of simplicity.) Aronofsky's direction is delicate and never showy, and although the film looks great, the medium takes second-chair to the material. The director and the writer, Robert D. Siegel, are wise enough to understand the most interesting elements of entertainment occur when no audience is watching, and in its quieter moments, its moments of desperation, it reaches profundity. Randy knows he is good at wrestling and good at entertaining, and is determined to do those two things past the point when most of us would stop — and why shouldn't he? Even before the film starts he seems to understand life is nothing but moving forward, and in that way, he'll always be slightly ahead of the curve no matter how far behind he seems.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
(d. David Fincher / USA)

David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is tragic and gorgeous technical achievement, prevented only from being considered a great film by its wooden and problematic script that dabbles in too many ineffective devices and clich├ęs. But despite all those issues, I could never shake the feeling that its orbit brings it closer to something more than mere worthwhileness. As a purely cinematic experience—emphasis on the visual storytelling techniques—there wasn't a more enthralling and engrossing film for me. I willingly surrendered my imagination to Fincher and let him take me where he saw fit; and, script aside, so much of the journey was magical. Read review »

(d. Steve McQueen / UK-Ireland)

Hunger chronicles the last days of I.R.A. volunteer Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, in a great performance), who led prisoners in a 1981 hunger strike in protest of the British government. Its director is the British artist Steve McQueen, who made a debut feature film that comes across like it might have been made by a fifty-year veteran of cinema. Viscerally physical and often almost unbearable to watch, long stretches of the film go by without dialogue, relying on McQueen's artistic eye and his cinematographer to capture startling and sorrowful compositions. One virtuosic scene is an exception: a 17-minute unbroken sequence where the camera sits still and captures a heated debate on morality between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) who visits him in prison. Read review »

Paranoid Park
(d. Gus Van Sant / USA)

Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park is a mysterious and oneiric wade through the tall grass of adolescence, expertly filmed and capable of producing the feeling that you are at once tethered to the ground and ethereally lifted. The chief overall lesson might be that more young adult novels should be adapted for the screen by talented directors willing to take risks, be mature, and not condescend to teenagers. The director liberally plays with chronology, film stock, and film speed, all as a way of showing how a symbiotic relationship forms between medium with the subject. Few directors working today can translate that as well as Van Sant. Read review »

Waltz with Bashir
(d. Ari Folman / Israel)

One of the most exhilarating sensations a person can have at the movies is the joy that comes when you wholeheartedly embrace a director's vision, which is what I felt with Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir. It is an animated documentary, an intellectually thoughtful and visually dazzling study of a soldier's trauma-induced spotty memory and the magnitude of cruelty capable in war. in this case, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This is a haunting film becomes even more emotional through the surreal power of animation. Read review »

Honorable Mentions: Burn After Reading, The Edge of Heaven, Man on Wire, The Visitor, and Wendy and Lucy.


Tony Dayoub 20 February, 2009  

I admire your list, but I'm curious to see how much it changes after you see some of the one you missed. You left some excellent ones out.

I couldn't get to all of them myself. I wonder how mine would look if I got to Let the Right One In, JCVD, Paranoid Park, and Frozen River.

T.S. 20 February, 2009  

Tony - Absolutely. The ten I missed could easily be a top-ten list unto themselves, if what I've read about them has any merit (particularly A Christmas Tale and Synecdoche New York, both of which I know you strongly stand behind). I suppose the whole list could shift once I catch the missing ten, but judging by statistical probability, I'm only assuming three or five of the ten will slip in. I'll tell ya, these lists - they're messy work.

Still, I do love the films here and am happy to run this now. Oscar weekend is as good as any for this sort of discussion; if I waited until I've seen them all, well, you know, I'd publish it in June.

Haven't seen JCVD, although a friend told me it was quite good. I thought Let the Right One In was a bit of an over-hype; satisfying, but not great. I hope you check out the others soon!

Farzan 20 February, 2009  

Good list, I have seen most of those films. 2008 was sure a good year for films.

Sam Juliano,  20 February, 2009  

MAGNIFICENT MAGNIFICENT work here and my hats off to you T.S.!!!

Your inclusions of indes like BOY A, CHOP SHOP, IN BRUGES, FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON and CHE show this a serious cinema lovers lot, but not disavowing some commercial titles either. I'll admit I am not a fan of FROZEN RIVER, nor the critically-praised metaphysical RED BALLOON, despite loving its director. But I have been told by a number of people that I need my head examined for not connecting to it...My feelings on CHE are favorable for the most part, but not strong enough to make my list. However the five-hour engagement at the IFC in December with Kaleem hasan and my colleague Allan Fish, who was here from the U.K. for three weeks make that night an unforgettable one. The trip home made for some discussion on the film...Your declaration of WALL-E as the film of the year of course, is music to my ears!!! I gleefully agree. I liked THE DARK KNIGHT, but still not enough to make my own list, but so many people I respect are with you.

I loved BOY A, CHOP SHOP, and IN BRUGES, and I commend you again for including them on this magisterial list and runners-up recap, which also included the likes of HUNGER (OK I liked it less than you) and two films I loved BENJAMIN BUTTON, which made my Top 10, and PARANOID PARK.

Of the film syou need to see by your own admission I would say SYNCHEDOCHE NEW YORK is easily the most essential, but TROUBLE THE WATER et al are solid.

I also applaud you for including THE VISTOR and THE EDGE OF HEAVEN on your honorable mention list, as they are dear to my heart and top ten finishers, with THE VISITOR at #2.

Your capsules are better-written than most people's full reviews!


Daniel Getahun 25 February, 2009  

Wow, we really shared some picks here. Boy A was #5 on my list, and Che, Chop Shop and Button were all honorable mentions. Ballast was #4 on my list, and I imagine you'll love Reprise, SNY, Tell No One and Trouble the Water. Didn't see My Winnipeg or Still Life, but really wanted to see the latter.

I just can't believe how much Andrew Garfield rocked my world. After seeing him in Lions for Lambs I was expecting much less than what he delivered. As far as I'm considered it was the best male lead performance of the year behind Rourke, but ahead of Penn, DiCaprio and Del Toro.

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