Need more proof of film culture’s fractured state? Twenty-three different titles grace the 30 slots on the three Top 10 lists that follow, and only two — Man on Wire and The Wrestler — appear on all three.
But is that a surprise? With more than 600 films released in 2008 (about half of which opened in Cincinnati), there is bound to be a diverse array of movies that struck a chord with our writers.
Then there’s the subjective conceit of Top 10 lists in general. While this year’s cinematic crop was not as strong as 2007’s, at least a half-dozen other films could have easily found their way onto my list. And what about the well-regarded films that I wasn’t able to catch this year — a group that includes, among many others, Still Life, In the City of Sylvia, Let the Right One In, The Class, Ballast and Hunger?
Alas, we must draw a line somewhere. Here are our favorite films of 2008.
My 10 favorites In alphabetical order:
Che: A two-part (each 131 minutes in length) biopic of Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (a restrained Benecio Del Toro), Steven Soderbergh’s Che is the kind of cinematic experiment all but extinct in today’s risk-averse era. As a relative Guevara novice, I found it fascinating not in its ability to deliver a definitive biography but instead as an intimate look at what it takes to fight a guerrilla war. This enigmatic double-shot grows in stature the farther if fades from my mind’s eye.
A Christmas Tale: French auteur Arnaud Desplechin’s latest again immerses its characters (and its audience) in a corrosively funny web of familial angst. The strong cast — which includes Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos of the director’s stellar Kings and Queen — is led by a rueful Catherine Deneuve as the ailing matriarch who oversees a Christmas gathering marked by secrets, melodrama and dysfunction. Universal and utterly singular at the same time, this elegant, unpredictable tale cements Desplechin’s reputation as one of our most talented filmmakers.
Man on Wire: It’s remarkable that Philippe Petit’s story — he traversed the World Trade Center’s twin towers via a tight rope in 1974 — hadn’t made it to the screen before now. Even more impressive is the tension documentary filmmaker James Marsh generates in his deft re-creation of the event. Petit’s daring act was much more than a publicity stunt — it was a piece of performance art.
Momma’s Man: Azazel Jacobs takes naturalism to the extreme in this modest, sweetly rendered film about a thirtysomething man (Matt Boren) who yearns for a return to the simplicity of his childhood. Clearly autobiographical, Jacobs filmed Momma’s Man at his parents’ sprawling, densely furnished, endlessly curious boho loft in Manhattan. The kicker? He cast his own mother and father (avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs) to play the parents, a move that gives this wistful film another layer of authenticity.
My Winnipeg and Bigger, Stronger, Faster: While Guy Maddin’s inventive, stylistically daring techniques might be the polar-opposite of Christopher Bell’s more populist approach, both of these crafty, immensely entertaining documentaries use personal history as a way to investigate larger sociological issues.
Reprise: Norwegian Joachim Trier’s directorial debut is a doozy — an exuberant ode to youthful ambition that tweaks the French New Wave playbook with stylistic panache and narrative daring. Reprise ably captures the ineffable, often narcissistic nature of male camaraderie and the triumphs and disasters of young men interacting with the opposite sex. The party sequence featuring Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” left me in a prolonged state of bliss.
WALL-E: Part slapstick comedy, part unlikely romance and part ecological warning shot, writer/director Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E leaves one both in awe of its visual wit and sober amid its prediction of our bleak future. And who thought a lovelorn animated robot could give such an expressive, oddly touching performance?
Wendy and Lucy: Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to the excellent Old Joy tells the simple story of a girl (a never better Michelle Williams) and her dog in rural Oregon. Reichardt’s ultra-minimalist aesthetic yields a nearly unmatched intimacy — one that conveys the harrowing aspects of economic hardship on the fringes of American life with acute sensitivity, grace and insight.
The Wrestler: Best known for complex, visually arresting films like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky scales things back (think the Dardenne brothers) for this engrossing tale of a Hulk Hogan-esque wrestler (Mickey Rourke) 20 years after his career apex. I couldn’t help but be seriously moved by Rourke’s subtle, go-for-broke performance and Aronofsky’s astute, authentic use of 1980s pop-cultural touchstones.
There were, as usual, plenty of highlights and disappointments this year. On the negative side were terribly disappointing Indiana Jones and James Bond films, Judd Apatow wearing out his welcome and the most boring remake of a sci-fi classic possible (The Day the Earth Stood Still). I even thought, beyond Heath Ledger’s unsettling and spooky turn as The Joker, The Dark Knight was overkill. But there were some very good films, too. Here is my Top Ten.
1. Frozen River: Writer/director Courtney Hunt’s first film initially seems to be a mood piece/character study about an economically struggling mom (a fantastic Melissa Leo) facing a bad Christmas in cold upstate New York but slowly turns into a tight, compelling suspense film about smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border. It’s a film about America today.
2. Slumdog Millionaire: Director Danny Boyle, a restless artistic spirit, takes his high-def cameras to Mumbai for an engaging mix of verite-style muckraking and Bollywood-style colorful romantic melodrama, set to a sizzling musical beat and a smart screenplay by Simon Beaufoy. The use of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as a plot device is very clever.
3. Man on Wire: This taut-as-a-tightrope documentary by James Marsh, about Philippe Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974, implicitly makes us think about this act’s parallels with 9/11. Only Petit’s illegal act was intended to give pleasure — and make art.
4. Revolutionary Road: Director Sam Mendes’ careful adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel about disaffected suburbanites in Eisenhower-era America suffers in comparison to TV’s more revelatory Mad Men, but it contains Kate Winslet’s phenomenal performance as a housewife/would-be actress who wants more out of life than her husband (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to provide.
5. The Wrestler: Mickey Rourke is so good — so wisely aware of what makes his character human — as an aging, beat-up pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson that the downbeat film is an elegiac joy to watch, even if director Darren Aronofsky and writer Robert Siegel allow a few scenes that don’t ring true.
6. Happy-Go-Lucky: The driving-instructor character is over the top in Mike Leigh’s latest film, but Sally Hawkins is so, well, happy-go-lucky as the lovable, free-spirited school teacher Poppy that it’s still an immensely pleasurable film.
7. Wendy and Lucy: Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) might just be America’s Robert Bresson in the way she lets this subtle, seemingly straightforwardly naturalistic story of a young woman (Michelle Williams) and her dog stuck in a drab Oregon town build to an unexpected but powerful emotional climax.
8. Milk: This biopic about Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s (and America’s) first openly gay elected official who was murdered (along with the mayor) by a rival ex-city commissioner, nicely mixes the personal and political in director Gus Van Sant’s hands. Acting is all-around good, especially Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as his killer, Dan White.
9. Synecdoche, New York: I don’t fully get it, either — maybe it’s just a really contemporary adaptation of Our Town — but director/writer Charlie Kaufman gets wonderful performances out of his cast, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman as the stage director, and the fantastical set inside the old hangar is visionary.
10. Tell No One: The French do Hitchcockian suspense better than anyone these days, and director Guillaume Canet successfully adapts Harlan Coben’s novel about a pediatrician who believes his murdered wife may be alive. Not all the plot twists are plausible, but Francois Cluzet is great — like a young Dustin Hoffman — in the lead role.
The best of the best, in no particular order.
The Visitor: College professors have become the go-to characters for redemption on the American landscape. What is it about these learned cultural elites that has transformed them into Everymen (they are exclusively male and white, so maybe that’s the draw)? No matter, the best and most compelling of the bunch this year was Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins). This was a one-man show, and Jenkins was more than man enough for the job.
The Dark Knight: It would be simple to dismiss the comic-book adaptation, a reboot of a sequel that has become the second-highest-grossing domestic release in history. But dig deeper. This movie sought to question the heady topics of justice and celebrity, the costs of both and, whether Christopher Nolan wants to say so or not, shine a light on whether leaders can justify infringing on civil liberties in pursuit of a greater good. It is darkest before the dawn, and this Knight led us to the heart of it.
W: The story of George W. Bush is still being written, but Oliver Stone couldn’t wait to put his two cents into the mix (thankfully). I’m willing to argue that the film itself doesn’t even matter, despite some fascinating performances and bits of speculation about what propelled this man to center stage. Real consideration should be given to the fact that W needs someone to stand up and have a beer with him because he still doesn’t have the one thing he fought so hard for (his father’s approval), which makes him a tragic figure for the ages.
I’ve Loved You So Long: I’ve loved Kristin Scott Thomas in her career highlights (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral) as well as her lows (Under the Cherry Moon happens to be a campy favorite of mine), so I’m certainly predisposed to expecting greatness from her. But to focus so much attention on her lovely work here neglects the powerful drama of a film that is no one-woman or one-note show.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: When F. Scott Fitzgerald penned this curious little one-off tale about a man who ages in reverse, it was all about the Benjamins. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t inspiring enough to grab the attention of David Fincher, Eric Roth and Brad Pitt, who along with Cate Blanchett, breathed life into Benjamin Button — an extraordinary life that elevated the pursuit of happiness above the larger historic context.
Slumdog Millionaire: Can a young man born in the ghetto (hence the slumdog label) be a lucky genius who cheats fate along long the way as he aspires to claim the love that is written in his stars? You will want to believe it’s possible and it’s thanks to Danny Boyle (the British Steven Soderbergh). What’s next, you might ask, but what does it matter? He will continue to earn the respect of millions.
Synecdoche, New York: With Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman takes control of his own narrative destiny and leads audiences down the rabbit hole into his ever-inwardly spiraling mind. There are many tangents to explore in this messy, multi-layered world of ideas, but the romantic element touches the rawest nerve. Sometimes love and passion can only be expressed intellectually, and nobody knows this better than Kaufman.
Man on Wire: Man on Wire makes us forget the obvious fact that we’re watching a historic event whose outcome has already been written and recorded. The viewing experience comes down to our suspended hopes balancing on that wire with a brilliant and daring performer. That’s what drama is all about.
Rachel Getting Married: While bemoaning the sorry state of American film, praying for realistic portrayals of people and families engaged in the messy conflicts of everyday life, we would be remiss in letting an answered prayer slip by unacknowledged. Thanks, Jonathan Demme, and thank you, Anne Hathaway, for giving us a worthy companion to I’ve Loved You So Long.
The Wrestler: The pitch for The Wrestler sounds like Requiem for a Dream meets Rocky Balboa. Yet Darren Aronofsky entrusted Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei with the keys to a movie that is gritty and so much more than the sum of its hackneyed parts.