Sunday, February 22, 2009

Top 10 Films of 2008

It's Oscar Sunday and that means it is time for my list of 2008's top films.

First of all, what a bad year. I guess 2007 was so great that anything pales in comparison. But this is a pretty weak crop by any standards. I'm not even watching the Oscars tonight because I just don't care about any of the movies. Nonetheless, there were some good films this year. Of course, some of them I haven't been to able to see yet despite living in the Austin area. Wendy and Lucy just started playing Friday and even though I hoped to see it before I put the list up, it didn't happen. I haven't had a chance to see Waltz with Bashir yet either. But I did the best I could.

1. Tell No One. Far and away the best film of the year, this French thriller almost had me shaking in the theatre. Some have criticized it for being too complex and trying to do much but I really disagree. This was the only film I saw all year that left me fully satisfied. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. People have already forgotten about this film and I don't know why. It's really freaking hilarious. By far the funniest movie I saw this year. The scenes making fun of crime dramas with Billy Baldwin were incredibly hilarious. Almost everything about this movie works really well. Maybe it's forgotten as just another movie from the Apatow machine, but that's unfair.

3. The Edge of Heaven. This Turkish-German film is a very good meditation on immigration and belonging. I enjoyed this a great deal, though possibly not as director Fatih Akin's previous work, Head-On. Nonetheless, well acted and directed and very moving in many ways.

4. Rachel Getting Married. I don't even like Anne Hathaway, but she was really good as an utterly self-centered drug addict getting out of rehab to go to her sister's wedding. Acting was excellent throughout. The movie was mostly ignored by the Academy, which is too bad given that it was crazy enough to give Benjamin Button 13 freaking nominations. Yawn. Great music as well. I rarely expect too much from Jonathan Demme at this point, but this is a very strong film.

5. Reprise. Joachim Trier's film on two young writer friends and their ability/inability to deal with fame and life as successful writers. It would be absurd as an American film because fiction writers aren't famous. But in Norway, I'll believe things are different. These guys are jerks, but nonetheless not so loathsome that you don't somehow root for them to succeed and change their ways and learn to deal with the world. Trier is a very promising young director and I look forward to seeing his future work.

6. The Wrestler. This is just a great character study of two aging people whose live on their bodies. But their aging and they are being chewed up and spit out by society. My favorite scene is when Rourke and Tomei have a drink and talk about how awesome the 80s were. The good time 80s also led to a lot of people unable to put that aside. They've made some bad choices and now they have to live with it. I didn't know Darren Aronofsky had this kind of film in him. It makes me feel better about his future.

7. Gran Torino. People always want to attach messages to Eastwood films. Conservatives love it because it's about an old white guy kicking the asses of non-whites. Liberals say that it is about Eastwood renouncing violence in the end (which they also said about Unforgiven). I'm uncomfortable about all of this. Yes, I love to see old man Clint being a total bad-ass. That's awesome to watch. But the best part of the film is watching him and the young Hmong boy become friends and seeing Clint realize that his people are the working-class Hmong living next to him. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about this film. Eastwood's family are nothing but caricatures. There are weak moments in the film. The Hmongs in the film aren't the greatest actors in the world. Last year, this would have been an honorable mention film at best. But in a weak year, this stands out as a pretty satisfying film experience.

8. Wall-E. I was cold on this movie in the beginning, but I've warmed up to it a lot. The beginning is a homage to silent films, and while film critics love it, it also means that the film takes a while to gain momentum. I'd be curious to know how children received the film; it seems to appeal to smart adults more than kids. But the animation is great, the story comes together beautifully in the end, and the message is first-rate. Now, that it has a good environmental message is hardly a reason to recommend the film, but as our constant assault upon nature comes to bite us in the ass, it's going to be interesting to see how popular culture responds.

9. August Evening. This is really beautiful little film about a migrant Mexican-American family living in Texas. Dad and Mom live with their daughter-in-law. The son/husband was killed in a car crash some years before. The daughter-in-law has yet to recover. The parents have two other children who live in San Antonio. The daughter has tried to leave her life of poverty behind, marries a white guy and lives in the worst kind of suburban San Antonio subdivision you can imagine. The son has a family of his own and barely exists above the poverty line, but he's no closer to the parents. The mother dies and turmoil tears up the family. When they briefly move in with the son, they try and set up the daughter-in-law with a single friend of there's. Will she fall in love? What will happen with the father? This is the whole of the movie. Very simple, but also very much like an Ozu movie. The day to day life of the family is enough to keep the film going. There's no false tension and no explosive moments. This film might not be for anyone, but on its own limited terms, it's a beautiful testament to life.

10. Milk. The best of the Oscar nominated films. There's nothing really that special about Milk, but it is a very solid bio-pic, well-acted and with a powerful and timely story.

Honorable Mention:

Synecdoche, New York. I liked it when I saw it more than I do now. The more I think about, the less I care. Good enough, but not great.

Encounters at the End of the World. The Werner Herzog documentary about the Americans who work in Antarctica is quite interesting and intermittently beautiful. A little too much Werner talking about how much he hates humans though.

Still Life. An interesting and sad Zhang Ki Jia film about people who's lives are torn up by the Three Gorges Dam. Worth seeing for sure. Many people loved it. It didn't blow my mind, but I do recommend it.

Up the Yangtze. A documentary about similar subject matter. The film looks at 2 young people working on one of the boats taking people around the Yangtze. Probably the best documentary I saw this year. Some extremely powerful scenes about how the government doesn't care about the average person and about how young people react to the vast changes overtaking their society.

Paranoid Park. Actually a more interesting film by Gus Van Sant than Milk, but also a little film with some pretty poor acting. Still, it's good to get Van Sant looking at the underside of Portland again. It served him well 20 years ago and this serves him much better than much of his recent work.

Love Songs. A French musical about a threesome. It almost sounds like a joke. And it is very French. But it also works pretty well too. Plus how can you not love Ludivine Sagnier?