Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Best Movies of 2008

As promised, here is the list for my favorite films of 2008. Why so late, you may ask? Well, as awesome as Chicago is, we still have to wait like the rest of the country for a lot of movies to get wide releases. In order to make the eligibility deadline for the Academy Awards, studios often release films in New York and Los Angeles, where a lot of the voting contingent resides, just so they can qualify. So while a handful of films make critics' year end list all across the board, the rest of the country usually has to wait about a few weeks to a month until they actually see some of those films at a theatre near them. It's an effective strategy for less commercial films that need all the word-of-mouth buzz they can get and to gain that all important momentum during awards season. All this means is that I had to wait a little bit longer to view some of the movies I was looking forward to seeing and why this list comes to you now in early February.

I've been doing year end lists for movies for a few years now, but this is the first time I've done it for my blog. Here are my previous number one movies:

2007: Persepolis
2006: Children Of Men
2005: Good Night, and Good Luck

I can never understand how anyone says that a year is a bad one for movies. Not every year is going to be a canon year like 1999 or 1974 and it's only about once a decade where we get a special year filled with masterpieces and popular works that redefine cinema. The high standards that a lot of us hold for a year in cinema often overshadow the number of terrific films that are released every year. Would I consider 2008 a canon year? Probably not. One thing I will say that might have a lingering effect is the high IQ of some of the year's biggest blockbuster. Wall-E, The Dark Knight and Iron Man proved that you don't have to dumb it down to reach a wide audience. Who knows? Maybe studio execs will take more chances in the future. While I wouldn't consider 2008 a special year, it was still a great one for me at the theatres. Here are the reasons why.

1. Wall-E

No other movie this year amazed me more than Wall-E. The first half of the movie gets most of the attention and deservedly so. It follows a lonely waste management robot in the future longing for company on a deserted Earth, but the way it unfurls is as cinematically beautiful as anything animated or live-action. It's storytelling at its basic form and without much of the pizzazz most audiences have become accustomed to. Dialogue is sparse. There is little action. Shots linger on for so long that it's easy to forget you're watching a movie targeted towards kids. The patient style results in many surprisingly emotional sequences, considering that much of the affection is between two robots, and will resonate with anyone that has two eyes and a heart. The second half eases in gradually and reveals itself to be a sly satire on consumerism, managing to still stay true to the movie's dark and high emotional elements displayed earlier. I've come to expect nothing but greatness from Pixar, but Wall-E came along and the bar has now been set at a new high.

2. Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

You might think the story of a friendship between a young boy and a girl vampire would not be one of the most heartfelt movies of the year, but that's exactly what this export from Sweden is. Director Tomas Alfredson has created the anti-Twilight with a movie that naturally combines scenes of cringe-inducing violence and romantic gestures with subtle ease. Most notable is Lina Leandersson's performance as Eli, the mysterious vampire who befriends a neighboring boy. It is without a doubt one of the most impressive performances by a child this decade. There is always a certain distance in her face that is believeable as she portrays a being that is not quite dead but not quite alive. Let The Right One is at times chilling and brutal but the romantic arc feels more realistic than most so-called romance movies.

3. The Wrestler

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a smark, and while my knowledge of the business may have enhanced my enjoyment of this movie, it does not in anyway change the fact that this is still a great film. I don't need to be a fan to be affected by the pain on Mickey Rourke's face that follows him in nearly every frame of the movie. And you neeed to know nothing about wrestling to relate to the story of this battered and broken down star who has tragically fallen from grace. The Wrestler is unflinching in its honest depiction of a man destined to screw up everything in his personal life and only has the ring to live for. In that sense, it's not your average underdog movie and its portrayal of human life will make you wince at its truths, which it makes all the more easier to appreciate what director Darren Aronofsky has achieved.

4. Rachel Getting Married

There were many times during the rehearsal and wedding scenes where I forgot that I was looking at a movie. Director Jonathan Demme quietly brings a documentary style of filming to these sequences and the result is that you often feel like an observer living there in the moment. The viewer gets a sense of everything that's going on in the room without fancy camera cuts and I clapped, laughed and cringed along with everyone on screen as if I was there. While some may have found those scenes indulgent, I felt they were a proper build up to some of the uncomfortable moments that followed. Demme pulls back the camera a little for other scenes, but the feeling is still very of the moment and is made all the more realistic by the excellent performances. Anne Hathaway gives the performance of her career as a recovering addict home from rehab for her sister's wedding. While Hathaway got the Oscar nod, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin and Debra Winger were just as worthy. With everyone hitting the right notes, it was easy for me to be engaged in the movie without being aware that it actually was one.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky

Sally Hawkins gives one of the most memorable performances of the year as Poppy, an eternally optimistic schoolteacher living in London. Hawkins turns a character that could easily be ditzy and annoying into a lovable and smart woman whose personality strikes more than just one-note. Happy-Go-Lucky is a string of sequences filled with a brightness that's easily contagious and also balanced quite well whenever the film needs to get serious. As much as I loved Hawkins' performance, it is still Eddie Marsan as her driving instructor that has stuck with me the most. He is Poppy's polar opposite and the explosive climatic scene between the two of them towards the end of the movie should have punched him a ticket to the Academy Awards.

6. Waltz With Bashir

Some of the most harrowing moments in film this year came courtesy of Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary about the experiences of the Israeli army during the war in Lebanon. It adds a new dimension to the world of animation and what it can achieve. Some of the horrors that go on in the movie may have been too much for live-action and are still difficult to grasp even when animated. In filmmaker Ari Folman's hands, the subject matter is handled with maturity and an artistic perspective that is emotionally and visually stunning. It all makes for a very gripping experience that sticks with you long after the credits are rolled. All throughout the movie, I felt that I was in the presence of mastery and was consistently in awe of how each scene unraveled.

7. Slumdog Millionaire

As soon as the final dance sequence ended, I felt I could stand to watch Slumdog Millionaire again right away. It was one of the most endlessly entertaining movies that I watched all year, even if it felt familiar at times. After the similarly feel good Millions, director Danny Boyle has really found his strong suit when dealing with tales of hope instead of despair. The movie is about the tale of a young Indian man's journey from growing up in poverty to landing on India's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? As fun as Slumdog Millionaire can be at times, I admire that the movie is not afraid to tackle what it's like to grow up in poor in India and there are definitely some terrifying moments to keep things in perspective. It's that authenticity which keeps Slumdog grounded and will probably help it endure for years to come.

8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the rare movie that is heavy on sex appeal without being overbearing. Its charm lies in the beautiful locale of Spain, which itself is a beauty to marvel at, and the funny and intelligent dialogue. Everyone in the cast is on their A-game here in this story of two American women in Spain for the summer whose views on love could not be any different from each other. As great as the cast is, there is always an automatic electricity whenever Penelope Cruz is onscreen that makes it hard for you to take your eyes off of her. A lot of that comes from the unpredictable emotional state of her character, but it isn't a showy role and it felt completely natural for her to be dynamic as an extremely passionate artist who lives for painting and her ex-husband. The movie as a whole made me smile as much as anything I saw this year and was just a beautiful experience overall.

9. The Dark Knight

Oh, how I longed for a blockbuster to engage me the way that The Dark Knight did. I couldn't remember the last time that a big budget movie was so entertaining, so thrilling and so smart, but The Dark Knight came along and exceeded all my expectations and managed to earn a spot on my year end list. The best comic books have a subtext and motivation as to why the heroes and villains do what they do. By understanding the source material, Christopher Nolan was able to craft a world that satisfied fanboys, but could easily be a part of our reality. The parallels to the U.S. and terrorism made this an action movie with universal appeal and provided discussion about the movie beyond just the action sequences. As a Chicagoan, I'll admit to succumbing to multiple moments of pride during some of those sequences, but even if I had never stepped foot in this city, I would have still held my breath at the sight of Batman riding a motorcycle through Millenium Station or at the mayhem caused by the Joker on Lower Wacker Drive while trying to kill Harvey Dent. What I loved about the movie is that the action served the story and vice versa. Usually one suffers in order for the other to thrive, but so much attention and detail were paid to the characters that it was hard not to be more wrapped up in the action scenes than on average. It's also hard not to mention The Dark Knight without talking about Heath Ledger's performance of the Joker, who probably gave as realistic a portrayal of a supervillain that anyone could come close to without swallowing scenery whole. His performance truly scared me in the sense that I would not want to be sitting in the same room as him. The last time I was genuinely scared like that by a movie character was Denzel Washington's Alonzo Harris in Training Day, a role that is seen as one of cinema's all-time great villains.

10. Speed Racer

I don't think there was a more misunderstood movie this year than Speed Racer. One does not need to have been familiar with the cartoon the movie is based on to enjoy this movie—although it certainly helped me understand The Wachowski brothers' approach, you just simply have to accept that fun is the main goal of the film. Speed Racer takes place in a futuristic world that features racecars so tricked out that it would drive Xzibit to tears of happiness. The story centers on the title character and his desire to be the best racer in the world, but that's only secondary to the technical dazzle that is on display. The Wachowskis have effortlessly created a live-action cartoon full of vibrant colors and sugar-fueled camera movements that's a joy to revel in. What they've accomplished is nothing short of incredible when taken into consideration how stale most film adaptations of cartoons turn out. Speed Racer lives inside its own reality and once you've accepted that unique and outlandish world, the movie and its game-changing visuals are that much more enjoyable. Fans of the cartoon will appreciate it even more as they will notice how perfectly captured the spirit and the rhythm of the show are.

And the rest...

11. Miracle At St. Anna
12. Pineapple Express
13. Frost/Nixon
14. Milk
15. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
16. W.
17. Kung Fu Panda
18. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
19. Doubt
20. Bolt

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