Top 10 Films of 2008.
16 July, 2009
Why in the middle of July 2009? Because I didn’t think I could put together a solid list at the end of December because I hadn’t seen enough films worthy of the distinction in what was frankly a disappointing year for cinema. Especially after 2007 with not one but three American masterpieces: There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James, and No Country for Old Men. I wanted to wait until I had further explored the year in film on DVD. Now that I have, here are my 10 picks for the best pictures of 2008:
TOP 10 OF 2008
10. Burn After Reading (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen): The Coen Brothers may not have been on their A game with Burn After Reading, and it definitely holds a lower ranking on their back catalogue, but the Coens underperforming is still better than most American filmmakers doing their best work. When it comes to comedy, nothing in the US quite came close to their star-studded sex comedy/bureaucratic satire. Their Altmanesque use of Brad Pitt was one of the ballsiest things seen in a multiplex in 2008. It was a move that irritated and delighted moviegoers in equal measure. It may be a lesser work by Joel and Ethan but it’s nevertheless an endlessly enjoyable one.
9. Encounters at the End of the World (dir. Werner Herzog): In making this documentary about life in Antarctica, Herzog actively resisted making a simplistic story about “fluffy penguins,” although he did manage to find the one lone penguin who decided to go off and survive on his own. Encounters doesn’t quite have the resonance of Grizzly Man but it does share that classic Herzogian theme of nature consisting only of “chaos, hostility and murder.” The underwater sequences are breathtaking in their surreal intimacy as only Herzog can do it. Again, not brilliant, but a worthwhile cinematic experience nonetheless.
8. WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton): In the first 45 minutes of WALL-E, I was ready to declare the latest Pixar venture my favorite film of the year. It was a majestic piece of purely visual storytelling that even brought a tear to the eyes of this embittered cynic. Something that could appeal to kids and adults in equal measure but for all the right reasons. But then they went into space, and somehow the magic was lost upon the reveal of a sea of obese Americans. The sudden pandering to children turned something downright extraordinary into just a good kids’ film. But I still had a great time with it, and on the strength of the first half, it demands a place on my Top 10 list.
7. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle): Ah yes, the film that serious cinephiles are no longer allowed to like. Before the awards hooplah started, no one had any reservations about heaping buckets of praise on Danny Boyle’s Dickensian fable. Now, 8 Oscars later, no one is allowed to like the film without adding the phrase: “But it’s not that good.” Well I’m not buying into this trend. While it might not be a modern classic, it’s still far and away the best of the nominees, and it’s all down to Boyle taking a simplistic story and making it extraordinary with his explosive visual style. It’s no Trainspotting but it still holds a place in my heart. Jai ho!
6. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood): The second worst marketed film of 2008 was Eastwood’s intelligent and surprisingly hilarious study of the nature of racism. Part of it is due to Nick Schenk’s underrated screenplay, and part of it is due to Eastwood’s understated, no-nonsense direction. He previously eulogized the western with Unforgiven, and now, he eulogizes his Dirty Harry persona in what is said to be his final screen performance. Films that deal with the subject of racism seriously are few and far between (And no, Crash isn’t one of them.), and Gran Torino will surely age well no matter how many award ceremonies ignored the picture.
5. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson): This Swedish vampire film was sold to audiences as the alternative to Twilight but the comparison is altogether unfair since Twilight has nothing to do with vampires anyway. It also has nothing to do with reality, which in my opinion, all horror must adhere to no matter how much of a fantasy the concept is. Let the Right One In imbues its lead vampire with uncharacteristic humanity that stays with you. Its acts of violence are understated and therefore scary in a way that torture porn filmmakers could never understand. If you real horror, you have no excuse not to see this film.
4. In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh): The winner of the worst marketed film of 2008 was Martin McDonagh’s terrific black comedy that was sold to audiences as a poor man’s Guy Ritchie film. In reality, it’s a laugh-out-loud funny character study that balances comedy and tragedy perfectly. It features Colin Farrell’s best performance by a mile and an astonishing, underrated performance by Brendan Gleeson. It’s not quite as powerful as McDonagh’s best plays (especially The Pillowman and The Lonesome West) or even his Oscar-winning short film, Six Shooter, but as far as comedies go, there was simply nothing funnier and edgier in 2008. I look forward to all his future films.
3. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman): Some artists are easier to take when a collaborator reels them in. Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have made Kaufman universe easier to swallow in the past, but with Synecdoche, he unleashed his mind to its fullest potential. The result understandably irritated many but I found it utterly enchanting and devestating (in a good way) when you just lost all sense of time and space and let Kaufman screw with your head. Roger Ebert rightly declared that it was a far more compelling and profound study on the nature of age and death than Benjamin Button (aka Forrest Gump 2), and went as far as to say that it will have a much longer shelf life. I certainly hope so.
2. JCVD (dir. Mebrouck El Mechri): Mickey Rourke was rightly praised up and down for his performance in The Wrestler, but for my money, the better film about a celebrity whose glory days are far behind him was JCVD. Van Damme’s performance had all the heart and grit of Rourke’s warts-and-all turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson but with one crucial difference: It’s funny. Anyone can moan but not everyone can make fun of themselves, and that’s exactly what Van Damme does for most of the film. Therefore, he earns his heartbreaking monologue towards the end in spectacular fashion. Plus, it’s just a more impressive film. It’s beautifully shot, well-edited, and fleshes out a cinematic world much more so than Aronofsky’s wandering camera. The elitist press refused to allow Van Damme the resurrection treatment that Rourke received but time will tell. Please see this.
Now, last December, I declared JCVD my favorite film of 2008. I just couldn’t conceive a film that would move me more. Well, I was wrong. The other day, I saw the best film of 2008 by far, and it is:
1. Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman): Straight away the film grabs you with its animated style reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Folman, a veteran of the 1982 Lebanon war, has no memory of the conflict beyond a single enigmatic vision. The rest of the film is a slow burn that leads directly to shocking reality of the horrors of war. While most filmmakers would strictly adhere to social realist conventions — especially in the documentary format — Folman’s use of animation fleshes out an emotional truth that is a thousand times more compelling, especially when it does briefly resort to actual footage from the war at the very end. When the film ended, I could barely move. I was speechless. I knew I had experienced the most powerful piece of cinema that 2008 had to offer. I am still shocked that the film didn’t win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and as open-minded as I am about Departures, I’ll be amazed if it comes close to the brilliance of Waltz with Bashir.
And those are the 10 finest films of 2008 according to yours truly. Remember that this is purely a matter of opinion, so don’t bitch just because I didn’t include The Dark Knight or some other favorite of yours. Still, I’d like to hear your thoughts regardless. As long as there’s no bitching…