Wednesday, December 31, 2008
My Top 10 Films of 2008
I've read grumblings here and there online about 2008 sucking at the cinema. I have to disagree. Last year I don't think I even bothered to write a Top 10 list, since I couldn't scrape together that many films I was really enthusiastic about. But 2008, she was no slouch. Without further ado:
1. Synecdoche, New York
This one comes with a disclaimer: Watching it is work. Someone on Twitter (I can't recall who) posted an "overheard" quip he or she got from another movie-goer while walking out of Synecdoche, New York. The overheard person said the film was like watching a Bjork video, but Bjork videos are thankfully only three minutes long. This film nears the three-hour mark and, I have to admit I did lapse into moments of fatigue while watching it. It's a hell of a lot to absorb. So many intricate layers and echoes of meaning. So Kaufman, so "meta." But moments after I'd heave a sigh of exhaustion, my breath would be taken away by the most surprising and profound use of an image or sound or thought.
Synecdoche is about the big stuff. Meaning of life stuff. Stuff people grapple with their whole lives and may never resolve. But this film tackles the topics with such grace, imagination and intelligence, I am sure it will become a revered film classic. The sheer scale of its ambition and the beauty of its magnificent realization makes it hard to believe it's Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut. Just one more reason it's a miracle of movie.
2. A Christmas Tale
I'm a huge fan of Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen, but this film about a fractured French family coming together under one roof for Christmas was even more satisfying. Once again, this is a movie about meaning of life stuff. Making exquisite use of an amazing ensemble cast (Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric, for starters), Desplechin and co-screenwriter Emmanuel Bourdieu lay out a wickedly witty and warm-hearted buffet of love, fear, revenge, lust, trust, manipulation, forgiveness and hope. I've heard it described as a novel on film and it is in the best way possible.
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
While Synecdoche, New York and A Christmas Tale are ambitious in scope and eloquent in storytelling, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is quietly harrowing with the sparest of productions. This story of an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania is a slow-burn that haunts with its unblinking grimness.
While some hardcore Mike Leigh fans seem disappointed by this offering, I was dazzled. Much buzz has been building over Sally Hawkin's performance, which is completely deserved, but the supporting cast is terrific, too. In one of those it's-the-notes-you-don't-play-that-matter turns is Alexis Zegerman as the roomie with a heart of gold. Remarkable. And Eddie Marsan as a driving teacher with a chip on his steering wheel is startlingly good. The film starts out feeling manic and slight, but it builds in poignancy scene by scene until it bowls you over with its stubbornly happy heart. I think Sean described the film's theme/power best: It's "optimism as a rebellious act."
5. The Wrestler
I've been a Mickey Rourke fan since Diner, with equal parts admiration for his vulnerable bad boy vibe/looks and acting skills, but Darren Aronofsky pulled off a Taratino/Travolta-level resurrection with Rourke. There's a broken-down beauty here that leaves a lingering sting, not unlike a folding chair to the head. Sure, the story is predictable in a Rocky sort of way, but, as my friend BeeDazzle said, this is an amazing character study with risky and raw performances by Rourke and Marisa Tomei. And it feels like a uniquely American film to the point where I felt Rourke's character, Randy the Ram, was almost a personification of America—a once celebrated hero that became bruised from its mistakes while bloodying others within its reach. One more note on this one: perfect closing shot.
6. Burn After Reading
Almost nothing is left unskewered here—from bureaucracy to rhinoplasty. The morality tale being told: When a me-first mentality runs rampant in a society, things go to hell in a hand-basket. And how. It seems the Dubya years and the pointedly pegged "mental recession" of our population served as rich inspiration for the Coen brothers. Yes, avarice and vanity are fair and funny game in Joel and Ethan's masterful sights. And while those targets may not send crowds into titters, at least there's something for moviegoers' minds to marinate on as they exit the cineplex. Yep, the good news here is that everyone who sees this film is gonna take one in the gray matter—whether they like it or not.
7. The Dark Knight
Just so you know, I'm not the type to seek out super-hero fare at the cineplex. So it means something when I say I really liked The Dark Knight. I really, really, really did like it. My, oh my, it was a glossy good time at the movies with a bright brain behind it all and terrific performances throughout. Much hype has been made of Heath's turn as the Joker, with good reason. He was a riveting presence and stole every scene. He also provided my two favorite moments in the whole shebang: 1) The Joker bobbing away from the hospital in his nurse's uniform (brilliant costume call), looking back at his path of destruction while fussily fiddling with his detonator; and 2) the Joker gleefully swerving down a city street at twilight with his head jammed out of a police car window like some kind of blissed-out hound of hell. Gorgeous.
8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody Allen gave straight men of the world the treat of a lifetime with Scarlett and Penelope's kiss, but he also gave his fans a funny valentine poking fun at Europe's seductive power over starry-eyed American tourists. I have to admit, my favorite part of the film was seeing the brittle and bitchy Vicky (Rebecca Hall) get her comeuppance. The film is fluffy to be sure, but the pulchritude of Bardem, Cruz and Johansson was a wonder to behold. Plus, when I walked out of the theater, I'd felt like I'd been on vacation in Spain. That's not nada.
9. Frozen River
Frozen River is a tersely told drama about a woman living in the bottom half of those "Two America's" John Edwards used to always talk about. With a dead-end job at a discount store, a gambling addict for a husband, two young dependents and a drafty mobile home, Ray is barely holding on. Suddenly crime seems like the only viable option. Writer/director Courtney Hunt clearly took her time in crafting a script that's lean and true and speaks volumes about poverty and desperation with stoic honesty, but Melissa Leo's heartbreaking, lived-in performance is what makes this film unmissable.
10. American Son
(Note: This film hasn't been officially released.)
American Son is a beautifully made film told and shot with a naturalistic grace that is all too rare on the big screen. Director Neil Abramson did a Q&A after the screening I saw at the Los Angeles Film Festival, along with cast members, and there was an air of gentle wisdom about him that came across in his work on-screen. Mr. Mariah Carey, Nick Cannon, gives an irresistible performance as a young Marine named Mike who is about to be shipped off to Iraq from his rundown town. The equally charming Melonie Diaz (Raising Victor Vargas) hits just the right notes of sweetness and sadness in the role of Mike's new love. Screenwriter Eric Schmid deserves accolades, as well, for keeping what could've played like a movie-of-the-week feeling very unaffected yet very emotional. Cinematographer Kris Kachikis brought another layer of frank freshness to the story. Keep an eye out for this one's release.