Friday, January 23, 2009

Wrestlers, Addicts and Brangelina, Oh My! The Best Films of 2008

I am going to go on record right now and say that I was not a big fan of 2008. Sure 2008 gave us a president we can believe in and it even gave us gas prices below $2, but I’m not sure that it gave us the most amazing slate of movies ever. Maybe it just couldn’t compare to the year that was 2007, which gave us Into the Wild, Juno, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly and No Country For Old Men. With a strong list from last year, I’m not sure that many of the films that make my list this year would even make it to my list last year. That being said there were some outstanding acheievments so without further ado I present my list of the Best Films of 2008.

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher) From the director of Fight Club and Seven comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the magical story of a man born as an old man who ages backwards and becomes young as everyone else grows old. You’d never in a million years guess that someone who is responsible for such dark thrillers would be able to tell such a moving and enjoyable fable. This is the type of fantasy film that I find fascinating. It tells an original tale with rich characters and enjoyable performances all told in a realistic way. Fincher makes the impossible possible with standout performances from the likes of Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and little known Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin Button’s surrogate mother. This film is as visually dazzling as it is emotionally wrenching.

2. The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky) I never thought in a million years that I would have a film starring Mickey Rouke as one of my favorites of the year. But I can’t deny it. The Wrestler is definitely one of the most amazing films I’ve seen this year. Everyone can agree that Rourke has never been better as this film was tailor made for him. What I want to highlight is Aronofsky’s brilliant direction with is raw and has serious bite. The techniques he employes are simply too amazing to describe in words. This is a film you must witness. The story of an aging wrestler at the end of his prime and his friendship with a lonely stripper (Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) makes for one of the year’s most brilliant cinematic experiences. The Wrestler is a winner.

3. Revolutionary Road (dir. Sam Mendes) Some may call this film “American Beauty” without the laughs and those people are half right. There are many similarities between Revolutionary Road and Mendes’ previous groundbreaking suburban hell masterpiece, but I think this film which reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a suburban couple who should have never gotten married in the first place, is just as worthy as one of the year’s greatest films. This a beautiful film that looks at the cracks in a couple’s marriage. And boy are there a lot of cracks. Everything isn’t perfect in 1950s Connecticut and the tensions rise between Frank and April who can’t seem to fit in to roles that are expected of them. They figure that picking up and moving to Europe is the key until everything starts going wrong. This is a film that gets everything right. The performances, the photography, the music and everything else we see onscreen just comes together magically. This is a captivating piece of modern filmmaking.

4. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard) This movie is based on a stage play, which was in turn based on an interview. An interview. This is a fascinating, suspenseful and raw look at the groundbreaking interview between British journalist David Frost and ex-president Richard “I’m not a crook” Nixon. The film features two standout performances by Michael Sheen (as Frost) and Frank Langella (as Nixon) and a strong supporting cast. Frost was determined to go one-on-one with Nixon who he believed never got any punishment for deceiving the American people. What follows is a battle of wits between two men with more low blows and tension than a boxing match. This is riveting entertainment from start to finish.

5. Changeling (dir. Clint Eastwood) The 78-year-old Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood gave us two of the best films of 2008. One of them is Changeling, a heart-breaking true story of a woman in search of her missing son in Los Angeles circa the 1920s. Eastwood manages to get a beautiful and emotionally charged performance from Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie as the stressed out mother who insists the boy that the police have returned to her is, in fact, not her real son. Eastwood always manages to direct films that have stories in which you cannot tell where things are going. Changeling is a powerful and altogether entertaining drama with great performances, stunning production values and gripping drama.

6. Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme) Who knew that Anne Hathaway was such a strong actress? I guess like most big stars, she just needed the right role. She takes her make-up off and lets her hair down to play Kym who is an addict who is let out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sister’s wedding. What follows is a weekend of tension and family secrets that come straight to the surface. Kym throws a wrench into the entire family’s dynamics and seems to cause trouble for everyone. Demme’s shaky, cinéma vérité style adds to the drama, and makes the whole thing seem like the most heart wrenching home video you’ll ever see. The ensemble cast is right up there with Hathaway who all seem to be so real that you almost feel like a voyeur who wasn’t invited. This is powerful stuff.

7. Milk (dir. Gus Van Sant) Thankfully this film is a wonderful slice of American history. Van Sant lets us forget that he made that dreadful Psycho remake by unleashing his filmmaking talents by telling the true story of Harvey Milk who was a pioneer in the gay civil rights movement. Taking place in San Francisco during the 1970s Milk seems just as relevant today as it did over thirty years ago. But the issues aren’t the most fascining thing. It is the strong level of Oscar-worthy performances from the likes of Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch that elevate this film beyond just strong politically minded filmmaking. Van Sant manages an inimate atmosphere yet the film seems larger than life. While a film like Brokeback Mountain opened the door, a film like Milk leaves it open and will mark it’s place in history as a mesmerizing piece of American filmmaking.

8. Funny Games (dir. Michael Haneke) Critics mostly railed, unjustly, against this terrifically terrifying film about a family who is held hostage in their summer home by two deranged young men. The ever creepy Michael Pitt highlights the scary duo, dressed in preppy tennis gear, complete with white gloves, who force their hostages, including the brilliant Naomi Watts and her husband (Tim Roth) and young son to play sick games. It turns out the entire point of the film is to ridicule the audience for enjoying it all. Haneke’s direction is purposely misleading and mean-spirited yet down right brilliant. He never lets you forget you’re watching a movie. Leave it to a shot for shot remake (of his original Austrian film) to be one of the year’s most original creations. This is a truly disturbing and fascinating film.

9. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan) Who didn’t see this movie this year? Who didn’t like this movie? This is one of the most critically and commercially loved films of all time. I think most of that has to due with Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as the villainous Joker, which will stand as one of cinema’s most memorable bad guys. Nolan’s vision of Batman’s world is realistic and simply astounding. This film is just as much a Scorsese crime saga as it is a comic book flick and you better believe that it's as technically proficient as it is entertaining. The cast who appeared in the so-so "Batman Begins" returns to tell the story of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman and how he must clean up the evil crimes in Gotham City. Themes of terrorism, loyalty, and political corruption fill out the “important issues” in a film that just so happens to be the second highest grossing movie of all time.
10. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood) Clint Eastwood is back again with another great film from 2008. This time he stars as Walt who is a grumpy old man, a racist, and a Korean War vet; not all necessarily in that order. He’s estranged from his family after his wife dies and his neighborhood has become overrun with dangerous gang activity. He dislikes his Asian neighbors but soon befriends a teenager after he attempts to steal his classic Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation. It turns out Eastwood still has a little bit of Dirty Harry still in him. Eastwood manages to take an easy to despise character and make him completely likable. He’s the hero of the film and his blooming relationship with this boy is truly touching. It’s a journey that is worth taking. Eastwood is amazing in front of and behind the camera.

Honorable mentions (aka #11-15):
WALL-E – Another magical winner from Pixar about a lonely robot. It’s nearly a silent film yet its emotional impact is extraordinary. It’s out of this world.

Iron Man – The year’s other brilliant comic book film. This is more “fun” than The Dark Knight and is highlighted by a terrifically engaging performance by Robert Downey Jr.

Tropic Thunder – One of the year’s funniest comedies is a sharp look at the film industry. Another great turn by Robert Downey Jr. was so great even the Academy couldn’t resist.

The Reader – Headlined by Kate Winslet’s amazing performance as a former Nazi guard who has an affair with a young teenager. This is a haunting and powerful film.

The Strangers – Easily the scariest film of the year. In fact it’s so scary that I simply can’t recommend watching it alone. Creepy and disturbing, this story of a couple terrorized by three masked strangers is a truly frightening experience.
Dishonorable mentions (some of the big stinkers of 2008)
Australia - long & boring
Eagle Eye - unbelievable
The Love Guru - unfunny
Meet the Spartans - stupid
Quantum of Solace - not exciting
Speed Racer - headache inducing
Superhero Movie - missed opportunity


Kevin's Film Blog said...

I'm sorry for bashing Benjamin Button all the time, but for as much as I illustrate my dislike for it what bothers me the most is that so many people do like it. It makes me feel unconnected like everyone is in on some joke that is over my head. To me it's just an emotionally half-baked Forrest Gump remake, but I have to learn to accept that many people found the movie moving and interesting and move on. We can't all love something like Australia either, right? Maybe it's just a love it or hate it type of movie. I never meant to bash it to personally piss you off or anything and for the record I don't think Apocolyto sucks...I just can't help but take the first part too seriously, but I do like the movie.

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