The Top Ten Best Films of 2008
The end of the year is always my favorite time for film. Not only are the final three months packed with the finest of the bunch, but also I get to revisit some of the year's very best as I create my best of lists. This year was quite odd, though. Not a particularly excellent year for film, and the usual struggle to fill ten spots with an amount of finalists that almost triple that was made easy. There was only a small handful of extra films that could not find a placement on my list, but are easily there in my "Honorable Mentions" section.
In addition, I did not see as many films in 2008 as I did in 2007. In 2007, among the festivals and the massive amounts of free time, I managed to go to a theater about 430 times. In 2008, with school, not going to Toronto, and the less amounts of money, I only managed to go 247 times-this includes old films I see on the big screen, or anything I see a second or third time. And to make things even more interesting, there are several films on the list that reach back to the beginning of the year-films that left a huge impact on me months ago enough for me to honor them at year's end. Lastly, as for any hidden gems that go under the radar throughout the year, there are not a whole lot of those this year, and last years "King of California," "The King of Kong," or "12:08 East of Bucharest" managed to find a small audience with my constant recommendations. This year's list is somewhat standard in terms of films that did have wide appeal, but what can I say? They are the best films that I saw this year.
I'll start with my honorable mentions, which this year clocked up to 41 films-films spanning from good to great that could not find a spot on my list, but that I found something special it-if its just a performance that elevates standard material, or a minor masterpiece that deserves its attention. The link brings you to a review of the film if I did review it, to allow you to learn more about it. If you've never heard of the film at all, and I did not review it, I urge you to search IMDb, or even Netflix to get it to you soon enough. So in alphabetical order, thirty eight other worthy films from 2008:
Baghead (Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, USA)
The Black Balloon (Elissa Down, Australia)
Blindness (Fernando Meirelles, Canada/Brazil)
Bottle Shock (Randall Miller, USA)
Boy A (John Crowley)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman, UK)
Burn After Reading (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, USA)
Changeling (Clint Eastwood, USA)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
The Class (Laurent Cantet, France
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA)
The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Germany)
Elegy (Isabel Coixet, USA)
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, USA)
Finding Amanda (Peter Tolan, USA)
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, USA)
Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowsky, Poland)--NO USA RELEASE
Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, USA)
Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, USA)
Ghost Town (David Koepp, USA)
Hamlet 2 (Andrew Fleming, USA)
Henry Poole Is Here (Mark Pellington, USA)
Horton Hears a Who (Jimmy Hayward, Steve Martino, USA)
Married Life (Ira Sachs, USA)
Moscow, Belgium (Christophe Van Rompaey, Belgium)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)
Nothing But the Truth (Rod Lurie, USA)
Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, USA)
Role Models (David Wain, USA)
Roman de Gare (Claude Lelouch, France)
Sangre de mi Sangre (Christopher Zalla, USA/Argentina)
Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)
Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, UK)
Stuck (Stuart Gordon, USA)
Stuff and Dough (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
Towelhead (Alan Ball, USA)
Transsiberian (Brad Anderson, UK)
The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
What Just Happened (Barry Levinson, USA)
Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith, USA)
For the first time, there was a film that I found real special that I could not bring myself to just throwing on the honorable mention list. It was on the top ten for the year, but taken off, put on again, and taken off again. So because of that, I have decided to give a special eleventh place spot to:
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is Woody Allen's return to form, at least in terms of crafting an entertaining, witty, and very sensual romantic comedy. Once again staying in a foreign country, this time Spain, Woody tells the story of two women who start an affair with a rather insane artist and his even crazier ex-lover. Filled with some great performances by Penelope Cruz-a possible future Oscar nominee-and rising beauty Rebecca Hall, Woody's fantastically witty and engrossing screenplay is hopefully going to get futhur attention during the awards season, and certainly is one of his best in years. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is highly entertaining, but it wasn't until I was watching the credits roll that I realized how much I missed these characters and their interactions with each other. Much like Allen's characters in "Annie Hall" or "Manhattan," I could have listened to their romances and their jokes all day long.
And without any further ado, the ten best films of 2008:
The Secret of the Grain (Abdel Kechiche, France)
A second viewing of "The Secret of the Grain" was enough for me to know that this little gem is a masterpiece of realism and a stunning portrait of an immigrant family living in France. Without the real central conflict coming out until the second hour of this 154 minute film, its amazing how much hook there is in extended scenes of watching the family eat and discuss their lives. Kechiche also creates great atmosphere with almost constant diegetic music playing in all the scenes, and the finale is a somewhat ironic downer, but the only way for the film to really end. There are also some great performances by everyone around, with the highlights being the leads Habb Boufares and the young Hafsia Herzi, who provides so much energy and complexity for such a young character. This is a real special film.
Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, USA)
Sam Mendes crafts his best film since "American Beauty," giving another view at the suburbs through the perspective of the failing relationship between Frank and April Wheeler, who intended on settling down after April's pregnancy, but then try to get out of the delusion to retreat to Paris, a dream that quickly vanishes. A lot has been said about how this is DiCaprio and Winslet's first film together since "Titanic," but both of them have grown very much as actors since then. DiCaprio, who I enjoy when he plays more human roles as opposed to the "badass" he tries to be in films like "Blood Diamond" or "Body of Lies," is excellent here, perhaps giving his best performance, and also his only performance that I believe actually warrents Oscar attention. Winslet is also something special here, as she often is, as the trapped April. Beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, and with a screenplay so depressing in its honesty of a relationship deteriorated, I found "Revolutionary Road" a very powerful look at a theme repeated in cinema so often, but done in a more realistic way than the other suburban commentary "Towelhead," oddly enough helmed by the other "American Beauty" vet, Alan Ball.
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
My relationship with Darren Aronofsky is interesting, as he never made a film I truly loved until "The Wrestler." While I found works like "Requiem for a Dream" well acted, but somewhat manipulative, or "The Fountain" ambitious and wonderful to look at, but I never found myself emotionally involved in its romance, but every note of "The Wrestler" rings true-not a film about wrestling, but about a lifestyle that fully completes the character of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke who just disappears into the role. The simple act of him working at a deli counter was engrossing and entertaining. It's a performance that I never expected from the actor, whose work I'm only minorly familiar with but never really cared about getting to know him more. The film deals with subjects that are tried and true-the stripper girl with a family of her own that the lead cares about, the fractured daughter, the man who cannot do what he loves because of health issues, etc-but the third act puts a fitting end to all of these plots, none of them ending in a common Hollywood way. When the screen went black, I was surprised that it was over. Aronofsky goes a different route with this film, shooting with natural light and with handheld camera instead of creating the visual feasts that he normally does, but its only to fit the stark realism of the characters and the performances. And the wrestling scenes, which gave me more cringes that any horror film in a long while.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, USA)
Only last week did I see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and it swept me away in its epic grandeur and beauty. It's the film so large in scope that its probably what was wished to be accomplished with the disappointing "Australia," a real accomplishment considering the very short length of the source material. A comedy during its original writing, David Fincher and Eric Roth made it an epic fable about life and death, and how no matter which direction is taken through life, there is always the same result. Made tragic by the love story between the titular Benjamin Button and his beloved Daisy, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett handle it beautifully, interesting in the fact that Brad Pitt also gave one of the funniest performances of the year in comparison to more heavy material presented here. It is basically the story of a life, presented in a unique way, and its unlike nothing I have seen before-both cinematically and emotionally, and I was absorbed in every minute of it. David Fincher has made two great films in a row, and I almost want him to explore this genre more than his crime drama/thrillers.
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, USA)
I'm very saddened to see less attention for Sally Hawkins and Mike Leigh's masterful comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky" than there was a few months ago. Less of a plot than a series of vignettes, "Happy-Go-Lucky" tells the story of the extreme optimist Poppy. In Mike Leigh fashion, we see Poppy at her normal routine, teaching young children, drinking with her friends, and finding romance. A loose plot that emerges during several extended scenes show Poppy learning how to drive, and the effect that her personality has on the driving instructor, Scott. Scott is the extreme foil to Poppy's upbeat personality, and Eddie Marsan's is absorbing in his performance. Their scenes together almost seemed too short because I enjoyed them so much, and their final confrontation turns this film into something real and emotional. It was painful, and awkward, and the best work Marsan has done that I've seen. I had a special love for this film, and its a character that grew on me as it went along, which is interesting as it fits how other characters react to her.
Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, USA)
Easily the best animated film of this year, and of many years prior, "Wall-E" is both entertaining and informative. The best film I've seen that highlights the global warming problem by not lecturing to its audience, but making the audience actually want to see the world as it could be. A scene that has the human's rediscovering things from our present day is beautiful, as is a dance among the stars between the robot Wall-E and his beloved Eve. Not only visually appealing, but a touching love story to boot, its yet another gamble from Pixar (especially not having any dialogue for nearly forty minutes) that surprised me by being massively successful.
Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, USA)
I saw "Snow Angels" for the first time in June of 2007, before it had distribution, and it haunted me for the nine months in between before I was able to see it again earlier in March. Not knowing what I was in for, or even knowing what it was about, I listened to the opening band's version of "Sledgehammer" with laughs, only seconds later hearing a gunshot and going back in time a few weeks. The rest revealed itself to be a powerful drama, spanning various stages of relationships. The centerpiece is Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale, the former giving yet another amazing performance, as separated couple, Glenn and Annie. A former boozer, turned Jesus-finder, Glenn wishes to be a good father to their young daughter, until tragic events unfold. The less known, the better. To compare this is the relationship between two teenagers, who are discovering love for the first time. As sweet and hopeful as it is, one cannot help to wonder if they will become anything like Glenn and Annie in the future. The third act is highly emotional, and the final scene, which is surprising in its sudden change of setting, is the only real way to end this highly layered story. A year and a half later since I first saw it, and 'Snow Angels" still effects me in the same way.
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, USA)
I had to see "Synecdoche, New York" twice before I could begin to wrap my fingers around it, and I intend on seeing it many more times upon its video release. A film so rich in concepts and ideas, all blown together to form this rather interesting study of a man facing his own mortality. It allowed me to look at my own morality, and my own quirks, and my own depressions. I'll put up a link to my review for the film, because I think I did the best that I could do in describing my feelings for the film directly after I saw it, and that'll do the best I can for the writeups. So that is HERE.
In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, UK)
Some may question my placement of "In Bruges" so high on the list, but I loved it in February when I saw it, and I've loved it every time I've watched it since. Martin McDonough's winning screenplay takes a repeated theme-the existential crisis' of hitmen-and makes it feel new again. Colin Farrell gives the best work he's ever done as Ray, a hitman who botched up his first job, and him and his partner Ken hole up in Bruges while they await instructions from their boss, Harry. "In Bruges" had a strange emotional effect on me, one moment making me want to cry and the next making me laugh until my sides hurts. Beautifully shot in Belgium, and some images having a dreamlike atmosphere-or as the film said giving it the appearance of "a fucking fairy land," "In Bruges" is a wonderful yarn that whittles its way through a slow, but carefully written first half, before its completely unpredictable, yet fitting and ironic, second half, which for some reason many found contrived or extreme. I found it brilliant.
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, USA)
With a similar backdrop and relationships as Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding," "Rachel Getting Married" triumphs that awful film with characters that I can see actually cared about each other, and a screenwriter who actually cared about her characters. This is a family whose, by films end, you actually believe you are a part of, and with the exception of a few extended wedding scenes (which do, I'll admit, create a more realistic feelings, as we've all been to weddings that dragged) were almost exactly like watching a home video of the event. Anne Hathaway gives a brilliantly subtle performance, and even a simple act of her watching wedding toasts tell so much about the strained relationship between her and her sister, played also with perfection by Rosemarie DeWitt. The music is also given special attention, as the live band plays almost constantly behind the action, creating a haunting melody as the soundtrack to this fractured family. "Rachel Getting Married" is possibly the best depiction of a family that I have seen in many years.
1) Charlie Kaufman-"Synecdoche, New York"
2) Jonathan Demme-"Rachel Getting Married"
3) Martin McDonagh-"In Bruges"
4) David Gordon Green-"Snow Angels"
5) Sam Mendes-"Revolutionary Road"
1) Colin Farrell-"In Bruges"
2) Mickey Rourke-"The Wrestler"
3) Sam Rockwell-"Snow Angels"
4) Richard Jenkins-"The Visitor"
5) Philip Seymour Hoffman-"Synecdoche, New York"
1) Anne Hathaway-"Rachel Getting Married"
2) Sally Hawkins-"Happy-Go-Lucky"
3) Michelle Williams-"Wendy and Lucy"
4) Samantha Morton-"Synecdoche, New York"
5) Kate Winslet-"Revolutionary Road"
1) Ralph Fiennes-"In Bruges"
2) John Malkovich-"Burn After Reading"
3) Michael Shannon-"Revolutionary Road"
4) Eddie Marsan-"Happy-Go-Lucky"
5) Bill Irwin-"Rachel Getting Married"
1) Penelope Cruz-"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Voice Over Work-Jeff Garlin in "WALL-E"
Foreign Language Film-"The Secret of the Grain"