Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Best Films of 2008

I couldn't think of a better way to kick-off my new blog than a best of list, so without further ado...

1. In Bruges

In Bruges is probably the most under-seen and under-rated movie of the year. This gem of a film from the award winning playwright Martin McDonagh is his first feature length endeavor, having already won an Oscar for his first short film, “Six Shooter.” The style of In Bruges, as well as the humor and dialogue, seem to be heavily influenced by two of the greatest directors of modern gangster flicks, Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino, yet the film has a heartbeat of its own. The story of two hit-men hiding out in Bruges after a botched job during which a child was accidentally murdered is equal parts hilarious and poignant, with characters just as deep as they are entertaining. Collin Farrell as the distraught, first time assassin, Brendan Gleeson as the hardened, yet conflicted criminal, and Ralph Fiennes as their foul-mouthed, belligerent boss all give brilliant performances, making the sometimes ridiculous, surreal scenarios seem plausible. I think the highest praise I can give this movie is to compare it to Pulp Fiction, in that it gets better and better every time I watch it.

2. Let the Right One In

This Swedish vampire story told through the eyes of a child and set against bleak snow covered landscapes, this film addresses the usual issues of love, morality, and mortality, but in a completely fresh way. The boy, Oskar, lived with his mother and sometimes visited his dad on the weekend, but was completely alone in his world of fear and loneliness. Fear of the merciless bullies at school, and lacking any friend or companion with which to share his pain. When Eli (the vampire) moves in next door, the relationship that grows between them is poetic on one level and somewhat unsettling on another as you contemplate her motives. Driven by her need to survive, Eli begins a recruitment process of sorts, although I believe in the end there is genuine love and compassion, as well as utility. The conflicting feelings of suspense, hope, dread, and elation create a unique portrait, both beautiful and haunting.

3. The Wrestler

Everyone has heard about Mickey Rourke’s tremendous performance in The Wrestler as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, but don’t let this hype overshadow the incredible job done by everyone attached to this movie. Darren Aronofsky does a perfect job nailing the gritty realistic environments in this movie while capturing the intense emotions of the characters, which never seem contrived or melodramatic. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are both incredibly believable as the women in Randy’s life, each damaged in their own way. The story is tragic, as this lonely guy discovers he’s a failure at everything in his life, except wrestling. He’s a “one trick pony” fulfilling his destiny in the ring, but the simultaneous message of hope being delivered by Mickey Rourke in this mighty comeback performance is a powerful combination. Long after the screen goes black and Springsteen’s song begins to play over the credits, this film will stay with you.

4. Tell No One

Tell No One starts almost like a typical murder mystery, but quickly evolves into an intricate thriller, with incredibly shot action sequences and breathtakingly suspenseful scenarios. There isn’t a dull moment in this movie, and when the big reveal comes towards the end, it’s incredibly satisfying. It earns every twist by delicately building the foundation with well acted, multi-layered characters and an original premise that constantly keeps you guessing. I don’t think there was a more exhilarating movie going experience this year.

5. Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood continues to amaze me with his versatility and efficiency in film making, with four movies in the last three years, three of which were nominated for multiple Oscars. However, the one that affected me the most was Gran Torino, a small movie that received no recognition from the Academy, that starring Clint himself along side a handful of unknown Hmong actors. This film is dark, and surrounded by death, racism, violence and hatred; yet, at its core there is hope, friendship, and sacrifice. I couldn’t help but laugh at the insane amount of racial slang spewed by Eastwood’s character during the majority of the movie, but the true heart of his character is on full display after a crucial point in the movie when the mood changes drastically, setting up one of the best endings to a film I’ve seen in a while.

6. The Dark Knight

There’s not anything I can write about this movie that hasn’t been written a hundred times already, good or bad. This film was the movie event of the year, turning into one of the highest grossing films of all time. It’s no surprise it was a tremendous success, with the combined critical success of Batman Begins mixed with the haunting performance of the recently deceased Heath Ledger. Beyond the hype, this film is unprecedented in its realistic take on a super-hero story, and under Christopher Nolan’s outstanding direction, it is a unique blend of crime, action, and suspense that often forgets where it came from. This movie is great because it does so much, so well; from the cinematography to the acting, to the music and sound, this movie is a cinematic treat. The one issue that I have with The Dark Knight, that keeps it from the top of my list, is that the story seems to come apart at the end, whereas it was so tightly wound during the first few acts. Whether they tried to do too much with too many villains, or some of the scenarios were just too contrived, I found myself no longer able to suspend my disbelief and was even slightly annoyed at certain points (i.e. the ferry scene and the cell-phone sonar device). That being said, this movie was an event of the greatest proportions and deserves to be seen by everyone, at least twice.

7. The Visitor

The Visitor is a quiet little independent film that came out in April and not many people saw, but the ones who did see it knew that it was special. I’m so glad Richard Jenkins received the Oscar nomination for his incredible nuanced performance, because not only did he deserve it, but now a lot more people will likely check out this film. The story is fairly simple; it starts with a misunderstanding, which turns into a life affirming friendship, and then ends with another misunderstanding. Although it touches on political topics, namely illegal immigration, the focus of this movie is on Walter Vale, who teaches one class at a Connecticut university, while taking much time off to write his next book, but all the while just trying to appear to be busy. You see, he’s really not busy at all; in fact he’s not doing anything. An obvious scar remains from the death of his wife, and he can’t seem to find any motivation to disturb his lethargic existence. When Tarek, Zainab, and eventually Mouna (Tarek’s mom) crash into his life, it’s as if he wakes up, as if he was only waiting on a reason or a purpose for which to live and fight. Towards the end we see the extent to which his passion has been unveiled, and through his fury, and his hope, and his love, and complete selflessness, Walter learns to live again. Bravo.

8. Happy-Go-Lucky

There couldn’t be a more appropriate title for this movie. Poppy, the central character play ed brilliantly by Sally Hawkins, is exactly that, happy. Constantly joking playfully with literally everyone around her, he spirit is infectious. I was amazed by how invested I became in her somewhat normal life, drawn in completely by her character. The dialogue in this movie, which was masterfully composed by Mike Leigh, comes so fast and fluently that it’s hard to believe it isn’t mostly improvisation. There is a story here, and the story is Poppy. She is most certainly not defined by anything that happens to her during the course of the movie. I think most likely the story is how she affects the people around her with her constant positive energy. I must say that Sally Hawkins gives the performance of her lifetime, and in my opinion, the entire year. It is utter disgrace that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. At least the Golden Globes got it right.

9. Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire, the Academy darling, is an incredibly fun, crowd pleasing movie. From the unbelievably cute Indian kids, to the decade spanning love story, to the feel-good ending, to the line dance in the train station, this movie throws everything it’s got at the audience. It has the raw intensity and violence to please younger, edgier audiences, while also captivating the attention of those with more mainstream tastes with a premise involving a popular game show and a mood that’s always upbeat, never letting anything bother you too much. However, my only real gripe is with the ending, which didn’t move me like I thought it would. I think the set-up was way too grand for the somewhat weak conclusion, but I will say that the movie as a whole is awesome. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you probably don’t care too much about movies, but even you would love it!

10. Burn After Reading

I am an unapologetic Coen brothers fan boy, so you knew this was going to be on my list, but I’ll be the first to tell you it’s not one of their best works. However, as Premiere's Mark Salisbury puts it in his review of Burn After Reading, "A lesser Coen is, to my mind, better than almost anybody else's work." Amen to that! This movie is a crazy, hilarious, raucous good time! The cast could be the best ensemble of the year (which really is saying something) with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, and J.K Simmons all hamming it up in this ludicrous plot about lypo-seeking personal trainers and the memoirs of an ex-CIA operative. If that doesn’t make you want to see it, I can’t help you. Burn After Reading could be described as the Coens’ homage to screwball comedies, but I think “screwball comedy on crack” might be more appropriate; and yes, that’s a good thing.

And the Best of the Rest…

11. Iron Man

12. Forgetting Sarah Marshall

13. Tropic Thunder

14. Kung Fu Panda

15. Rachel Getting Married

16. Man On Wire

17. Wall-E

18. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

19. Synecdoche, NY

20. Mongol

21. Doubt

22. RocknRolla

23. The Bank Job

24. Chop Shop

25. Shotgun Stories