Sunday, February 8, 2009

WTSOYF Top 10 of 2008

Now, keep in mind, I live in a nice size city but don’t have the ability to see every independent and foreign film. I tried as best as I could, but I couldn’t get around to a lot different films.

Additionally, my rules on my Top 10 don’t allow me to include documentaries in the countdown. That doesn’t mean I really liked some of them. Man on Wire and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired were some of the best this year.

Anyway, let’s start out with some Honorable Mentions that don’t get any commentary, in order from worst (relatively) to best: W., Valkyrie, Tropic Thunder, Defiance, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Frost/Nixon, Appaloosa, Changeling, Slumdog Millionaire, Burn After Reading, Iron Man, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Anyway, on to the Top 10!

10. Doubt
d. John Patrick Shanley

Some people have said this film felt forced, but even though it was handled by fairly inexperienced director (and it showed), the actors are of such a caliber that they could handle the script (which John Patrick Shanley is obviously better at) and direct themselves to elevate the caliber of the film. As good as Hoffman, Adams and Streep are, they pale in comparison to the best non-Ledger supporting performance of the year in Viola Davis. The smartest thing that Shanley does in the course of the film is keep the camera on Davis for her brief but powerful scene. When the camera cuts to Streep, she looks almost amazed that she’s getting upstaged. I would have personally liked a little more closure on the film than what happened, but that’s the way the play was, so I’ll live with it. The bottom line is that the actors did the work that the director should have done. Highly entertaining nonetheless.

9. Elegy
d. Isabel Coixet

This was a movie that I fell into almost by accident. When it first came out, I was nowhere near a place I could watch it. I did see the restricted trailers, which at least intrigued my adolescent side. Then, I had the opportunity to see it and didn’t really have any expectations. That being said, I was blown away. I have mixed feelings on Ben Kingsley because he seems to take any job that pays enough. Sometimes that works out with Sexy Beast and Lucky Number Slevin (an underrated favorite of mine), but also gets involved in Thunderbirds, Bloodrayne and A Sound of Thunder, which might be the worst performance in the worst film I’ve ever seen. But that’s for another day. Kingsley conveyed every subtext and underlying emotion of his character. But, I believe the true greatness of this film is the way Kingsley acts in unison with his costars. Without Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Sarsgaard, his character becomes one-note and boring. Cruz brings the spice, Clarkson brings the sexy and desire for the lost, Hopper brings the intellect and Sarsgaard brings the angst. Besides the cast, the thing that elevates this film over others is not what is said, but what is implied in the silence. Coixet should get a more commercial job for the job she does, but I’m not sure how well it will translate to big budget.

8. The Reader
d. Steven Daldry

This is the first movie I ever went out of my way to see when it I truly believed it wasn’t coming to my area. It was two hours away and I made plans to take my wife to see it on the last day it was in theaters. That day, it was nominated for five Oscars and it is currently at both the major theaters in my city. It was still worth the trip. Everything that has been said about Winslet doesn’t need to be extended any further except the fact that she deserves the Oscar she will probably win. The thing that stood out for me was David Cross. When I first saw the film in production, I thought it was the comedian, but to my relief, a young German boy graced the screen as an acting equal to Mrs. Winslet. Ralph Fiennes also puts in some quality supporting work as does the great Lena Olin, but I think this film rests on the shoulders of Cross. His personality fits his motives as a young body with an adult mindset. Perfectly suited to the character and perfectly cast. If Daldry can pull off an Oscar nomination for his upcoming The Adventures of Caviler and Clay, he should be put into the discussion of the top directors of the 21st century.

d. Andrew Stanton

The day Pixar comes out with a huge dud of a film, will be the day I give up on watching animated films. The difference between Pixar and other animation studios is their faithfulness. Do you realize that only four directors have ever done a Pixar film? John Lasseter (Toy Story 1&2, A Bug’s Life, Cars), Brad Bird (The Incredibles and Finding Nemo), Pete Docter (Monster’s Inc. and the upcoming Up) and Stanton, who co-directed A Bug’s Life and presided over Finding Nemo. There is a reason all these films are classics. They find a talented director of either underseen classics or brilliant shorts. Stanton delivers the most emotionally charged and understated of all the classics. The thing that makes WALL-E so wonderful is the fact that it takes you so low before it lets you get back to the high. It’s hard to watch it again because the happy ending doesn’t resonate, it’s the extreme sadness and despair near the climax. It doesn’t mean I didn’t love the film, I think the reason I didn’t put it higher was how real it felt and I couldn’t reach onto it like I should. The other thing that resonates is the great characterization of robots over the humans. Don’t you feel like you know what WALL-E or EVE wants or how they feel more than a person would? This is the type of film I could talk about four 20,000 words and still not get down to the core of things. That is what makes a great film and that what makes an animated film a classic.

6. Revolutionary Road
d. Sam Mendes

I am a staunch Mendes defender. American Beauty is one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years, Road to Perdition is extremely watchable if anything, Jarhead is misunderstood brilliance and this will go down just the same. First off, let it be said that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio should be in every movie possible with each other. They bring out the best in each other. As much as I liked Winslet’s performance in The Reader, this might be the best female performance I’ve seen in the last five years. She’s a mirror of whatever emotion best suits Leo. Layered, complex, complicated, brilliant. I can’t finish talking about this film without mentioning the supporting cast. Not only the manic and fantastic Michael Shannon, but the two characters that make the film work almost better than any other characters, Milly and Shep Cambell (played with every bit of humbleness by Katherine Hahn and David Harbour, respectively). They see the Wheeler family as the ideal, watch them unravel and then try to shun the pain they’ve viewed. The thing I wanted more is backstory, though it probably added to the allure of the characters and the story in general. I know many can’t stand it, but I couldn’t sit back in my seat because I was glued to the edge.

5. Milk
d. Gus Van Sant

This is the film, more than any other on the list, that I thought I would hate more than any other. What made this film great, besides the performances, was the possibility of this being an over-indulgent puff piece that glorified everything about the man. Generally, it focuses on Harvey and his struggles, but it occasionally goes into, not Harvey’s faults, but his blindness and general over abundance of trust of everyone. It leads to not only his initial democratic failures, but his eventual death. It’s been said that the definition of a great performance is when you don’t realize the actor is acting and you just see the character. I believe it becomes great when you think back to the film and continue to see the character. Even seeing the actor on television, I see Sean Penn, then I see Harvey Milk. Josh Brolin, James Franco and Emile Hirsch add to the story and move it to a surprisingly watchable film. I’m still amazed at the pace and rhythm of this film. My surprise of the year and the ensemble of the year.

4. Rachel Getting Married
d. Jonathan Demme

I’d like to thank my wife for the opportunity to like it as much as I did. She saw it about a month-and-a-half before I got the chance to, and she did not have high praise for it. That’s the kind of film it is. It divides family, pitting brother against father and husband against wife. Her words against it brought my expectations down. When I finally got the chance to see it, I was blown away. The thing I loved about it more than anything else is that it doesn’t shy away from reality. From the cringe-worthy rehearsal toast to the little games that the family plays, the little things make it realistic over other films. Though many find Anne Hathaway’s character annoying, I find her searching for acceptance over the constant attention she’s always had, which can sometimes come across as annoying. The supporting cast does a wonderful job in facilitating the conflict for the main characters, from Rosemary DeWitt’s sister, to Bill Irwin’s dad. The reality of the film speaks true, from the lingering pain of the lost little brother, to the absolute lack of stereotypical family-movie problems. It’s real, and rings true as such.

3. In Bruges
d. Martin McDonagh

This took a second try to really appreciate this film. It seemed uneven and too slow for the first two-thirds and then the last act came together for a great ending. Upon a second viewing, the first two acts came together. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was the understanding of what was happening to the characters with the motives and backstories put more into perspective. Either way, the only thing better than the script is probably the acting. Career best performances from both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, which includes one of the best monologues of the year by Farrell who goes on about how life will be different for the family he affected because of what he did. Add to that a wonderfully menacing and hilarious (if too short) appearance by Ralph Fiennes, and you have yourself a cast. The stars aren’t the only ones who shine. Unknowns like Jordan Prentice add to the fun as a drugged up midget…I mean, dwarf actor who gets a little too high now and then. Clemence Poesy brings the adorable as Farrell’s love interest as well. The thing that makes this film more memorable than others is the fact that the film leaves a very happy memory of the experience, despite having very bleak moments, like Farrell’s monologue, and even a violent and bleak ending. I don’t think I could explain it, but I just know that I love it.

2. The Dark Knight
d. Christopher Nolan

The poster to the left sets the perfect tone to this film. The thing that hasn’t been publicized enough about this movie is that it’s not a comic book movie. It’s a crime/action drama that happens to involve a character who originated in comic books. Seriously, at what point in that film can you freeze frame it and it looks like a comic book? The thing that amazes me when you look back on it, you care so much about all the characters, if you name them in order, does Batman/Bruce Wayne make the top three? How about the top five? The Joker, Two Face/Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, Lucius Fox…hell, even Rachel Dawes is more characterized in this film. You can blame Batman Begins for that one. In the first film, it took over half of the film to explain how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, how he gets his “wonderful toys,” his karate, his philosophy…and this film relies on the fact that you’ve seen the first film. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m saying that this is the biggest asset of this film. It’s had the chance to give the backstory so Nolan can delve into everyone else. And everyone knocks it out of the park. Ledger (of course), Freeman, Eckhart, Caine and especially Gary Oldman, who really needs more quality work. I’m a little worried about the prospects of a third film in this series. The point of a sequel is to either elaborate or improve on the previous. If the third film can beat this one, then the movie-going public is going to be in good shape.

1. The Wrestler
d. Darren Aronofsky

If there was one word to describe this film, it would be desperation. Desperation, not only for the characters, but for the filmmakers themselves. Everyone by now has heard the story of Mickey Rourke and his rise and fall and rise again, but Aronofsky is no different. His previous film, The Fountain was wildly misunderstood and underappreciated. His onset differences with Brad Pitt took the luster away from the film and took away much of the confidence studios had in him. Therefore, he had limited resources and opportunities, and knocked it out of the park with this spectacular character-driven piece. Rourke and Randy both were desperate to turn around their careers. Marisa Tomei’s stripper character was desperate to go back to the way things were when she was younger and the characters as a whole were desperate for another chance to make things right. You can feel the desire for redemption, for financial stability, for equality. They just want things to be easy as opposed to the struggle that they are. This is Aronofsky’s second top spot on my end of the year lists after his unbelievable sophomore effort in Requiem for a Dream. I’m not saying he topped that, because I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that can top that. The performances are as perfect as they can be. Rourke and Tomei do everything they need to, with Evan Rachel Wood topping it off in a too short but crucial part as Rourke’s daughter. The most efficient, most poignant, well acted and best film of 2008.

And that is my Top 10 Films of 2008. What do you think?

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