Sunday, January 11, 2009

My top 10 films of 2008

1. Milk

Last year, it was hard to pick my #1 film. This year? No contest. As I wrote the day after seeing it, Milk is for Gus Van Sant a potent stylistic and thematic compromise between his more mainstream phase (which included Good Will Hunting and To Die For) and his experimental phase, which began in 2002 with Gerry and lasted until 2007's Paranoid Park.

Dustin Lance Black's superb script helps to rein in the director's sometimes self-indulgent flourishes while grounding him in territory he knows, including the world of gay male hustlers -- Emile Hirsch's character, Cleve Jones, inevitably brings to mind the protagonists of My Own Private Idaho, the film that put Van Sant on the map in the indie world. Milk uses a framing device (the title character is recording a series of tapes about his life, in case he's assassinated) to tell the story of a vibrant, important figure in a way that's suitably lively but never heavy in the way biopics can be. That Van Sant touches on timely ideas (the film came out very soon after California's Prop. 8 passed) is certainly worth noting, but his real achievement lies in both capturing the San Francisco setting so evocatively and in creating a well-paced cinematic biography that's never less than entertaining, and in which every moment serves a purpose.

Danny Elfman's score contributes a lot to the final product, too. Like Bill Lee's music for Do the Right Thing, which helped make the goings-on in one small part of Bed-Stuy seem universal, Elfman's rhapsodic score argues that Milk is the story not simply of an activist politician who advocated based on a particular minority affiliation but rather a fundamentally American story, with a classically American hero at its center.

That such an efficient picture feels so free and alive -- that accomplishment should be attributed largely to Sean Penn's remarkable performance, which may be startling in its excellence even to longtime fans of the actor. Penn moves so completely into the role, and his development of the character is so virtuosic, that it's sometimes hard to remember whom we're watching. (Last year's equivalent performance would have to be Daniel Day-Lewis's in There Will Be Blood .) Penn seems like a shoo-in for an Oscar, and I'd love to see Milk avenge Brokeback Mountain's loss to Crash for Best Picture in 2006. Now that we have an African-American president-elect, it would be nice to see a movie with a gay protagonist win the big trophy.

2. Let the Right One In

This is the year I began to seriously investigate horror movies, and this Swedish import was an unusually strong entry in the genre. But it was also a coming-of-age story, a love story, a melodrama, to some extent a character study, and both a tone piece and a meditation on isolation and loneliness. Still, it fiercely insisted on being a horror movie, complete with bloody misfortune for many and an overarching sense of dread. I don't have high hopes for the 2010 remake by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, especially because Lina Leandersson's performance as Eli, the vampire who wins the affections of a lonely boy named Oskar, was so beautifully restrained without ever failing to exude low-level menace.

The movie has other strengths, including a willingness to remain ambiguous about certain aspects of its story and a way of presenting its supernatural elements as magical realism, strange but not entirely surprising events happening in an almost palpably real suburban Stockholm. (Another of the film's virtues: It adheres to classic rules of vampire lore without ever seeming anything less than bracingly contemporary in its approach to the subject.) Even its triple-entendre title (into your heart, life, and room -- vampires can only enter a room if invited), taken directly from the novel it's based on, distinguishes Let the Right One In from lesser works of horror and, for that matter, lesser coming-of-age tales. And even though the ending might seem predictable, the way it unfolds really startled me. Maybe not a date movie for everyone, but perhaps a good choice once you've let the right one in. (Sorry about that.)

3. The Wrestler

Much has been written about the parallels between Mickey Rourke's character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, and Rourke himself. They've both had a fairly rough two decades, for one thing. The Ram fell from professional wrestling glory into poverty and relative oblivion; Rourke went from wielding Brando-level potency (at least in some critics' eyes) to making a trashy sequel to his best-known work (Love in Paris, a follow-up to 9 1/2 Weeks) and participating in such ridiculous horror fare as They Crawl, a tale of mutant cockroaches.

As in Darren Aronofsky's film, it wasn't that our hero wasn't getting work, it was that he wasn't working up to his potential. The Wrestler isn't a case of an actor disappearing into a role, but rather an instance of actor and role dovetailing so beautifully that you feel no one else could have played the part. The script falters on occasion, and Aronofsky, as Lane points out, can get sentimental, but what drives the movie is not just Rourke's tremendous performance but also the fact that the film is, as my housemate Joel observed, fundamentally about work. I've rarely seen such a moving depiction of a working-class character; to be sure, there are many other good ones out there, but my viewing habits haven't tended to include them. I felt the familiar ache of class guilt watching The Ram work at a meager little grocery, scooping potato salad and cutting ham for sullen customers.

Yet unlike the director's second feature, Requiem for a Dream, which may go down in history as one of the least happy movies ever made, The Wrestler doesn't put its title character through the wringer just to see how much he (and we) can take. On the contrary, there's enough hope and humor here to sustain us (and him). Requiem's characters were losers, or losers in the making, on a serious downward spiral. (I referred to it recently as "emotional torture porn.") The Ram, on the other hand, is a good man who still has some painful lessons to learn, both in and out of the ring. Like his love interest (played with equally convincing pluck and sadness by Marisa Tomei), we come to care more about his struggle than we thought we would. Tomei's character is another of the film's many small triumphs: a stripper with a heart of gold who isn't simply a conglomeration of Hollywood clichés. Her character, like The Wrestler itself, really lives and breathes -- and stays with us after the credits roll.

4. American Teen

The genius of Nanette Burstein's multilayered documentary isn't easy to explain. Most obviously, there's the bravura editing, which -- as The Stranger noted in its SIFF review -- makes this nonfiction film feel scripted (in a good way). American Teen doesn't document the reality of contemporary high school so much as it crafts a hyper-real summation-- a concentrated blast of nearly everything grades nine through twelve are about, packaged efficiently in 95 riveting minutes. Burstein recorded many, many hours of footage at a school in small-town Indiana before deciding to focus her story on five seniors who fit Breakfast Club-style stereotypes. There's Hannah, the "weird," arty girl (and the film's de facto protagonist); Colin, the jock; Megan, the bitchy popular girl; Jake, the geek; and Mitch, the ladies' man. (Colin, for all his jockness, isn't on the dating scene much during his senior year, so all-consuming are the demands of varsity basketball.)

Of course, Burstein is playing with these stereotypes as much as she's suggesting that there's truth to them, and part of the joy of watching the movie is seeing where the kids conform to their assigned roles and where they break free. Jake, for example, has romantic ambitions, and his struggle to find the right girl by senior prom is ten times more enjoyable and endearing to watch than any recent (or not-so-recent) teen comedy about the same thing. Hannah's artistic aims aren't just "cute" or "endearing"; there's a lot of real passion behind them, and it's genuinely thrilling to watch her talk about them. When she described her desire to become a filmmaker, and to make a movie that will be remembered forever, I got a kind of emotional shiver of recognition -- this impulse, to create something lasting and meaningful, is something we as adults so often struggle to remain in touch with, but Hannah is still vitally connected to it.

It's a testament to the film's unusual quality that when we finally find out why Megan treats others so badly, what's revealed doesn't just feel like a hackneyed, stale excuse; instead, it's a sad, stinging truth, and we're left unsettled. Much like Milk, American Teen is never anything less than thoroughly entertaining, so it's possible to miss how much of its material has real weight. John Hughes, eat your heart out.


I'm a sucker for Pixar, but that's because they keep turning out beautiful, funny, substantive movies that I'd be proud to take my (hypothetical) kids to see. And they did it again with WALL·E, which imagines a future covered in trash without totally denying all cause for hope. Putting the robotic hero of the Short Circuit movies to shame, the titular trash compactor faces epic dilemmas (is a spork a spoon or a fork? Both? Neither?) and absurd puzzles (if you press the "unlock" button on an automatic car key and a car goes "beep-beep" somewhere under a pile of twisted metal, is there any way to find the car?) even before he's visited by Eve, a much more high-tech machine whose appearance brings to mind the newest shiny white gizmo from Apple.

What ensues is a tender, funny love story no less romantic and engaging for its almost complete lack of dialogue. By the time the humans arrive to complicate the plot, we almost don't want them around, so lovable and amusing are our electronic protagonists. Perhaps the cinematic year's most touching relationship moment comes when Eve awakens from a long shutdown and reviews hours and hours of video, which her hardware automatically recorded while she "slept," documenting WALL·E's loving, meticulous care of her. The person next to me in the audience teared up, and I get a little mushy inside just thinking about it.

6. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Maybe if Woody Allen continues to travel throughout Europe, making romantic comedies with dark edges or romantic thrillers with comic touches, he'll pull off the most graceful late period of any American director. Picture it: Natalie in Hungary! Czech Mate! Vatican City Blues! I didn't have the highest expectations of Allen's Spain-set, bittersweet ménage-à-trois comedy, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Javier Bardem brings tremendous suavity and vigor, por supuesto, to his role as the man who sets the romantic antics in motion; Scarlett Johansson returns to the kind of role she's best at (the young, unabashedly sexual woman who still exudes a kind of innocence); and Rebecca Hall serves as the Woody avatar without making it too obvious (restraint in the script helps, too). Patricia Clarkson has a nice, memorable turn in a small role (does anyone do that better?), and as many critics have pointed out, Penelope Cruz practically sets the film on fire when she appears as Bardem's nutty, sexy ex.

I was worried that Allen would drag us into Dirty Old Man territory, but it never feels as though he's exploiting the slightly scandalous premise. Indeed, sex is mostly hinted at in the film rather than depicted, and the subject is human relations rather than carnal ones. I was also concerned that the writer-director would push things too far, moving a light, delicate comedy with dangerous undertones into outright melodrama. Again, Allen knows precisely where to stop -- Vicky Cristina Barcelona is hardly a tragedy, but neither is it a typical romantic comedy. (It also didn't hurt that Allen riffed hilariously on his own production in a New York Times piece.) Instead, it's a work of an older, richer, quasi-Shakespearean sort, the kind that simultaneously laments and celebrates human foolishness in the overlapping realms of love and lust.

7. Iron Man

When was the last time you saw a superhero movie in which someone actually got to act? Well, okay, this was an unusual year -- a year in which Heath Ledger will almost certainly win the Best Supporting Actor statuette for his role in The Dark Knight. But before that weighty picture rolled into town, there was a gleeful, irreverent, damn fun flick called Iron Man. And before Mickey Rourke made his stunning comeback in The Wrestler, Robert Downey, Jr., became a box-office hero without selling his dignity to the highest bidder. Not that he didn't clean up royally from the summer movie season's first big hit; he just managed to inject so much humanity and humor into his character, billionaire playboy Tony Stark, that what could have been a guilty pleasure became just plain pleasurable.

It didn't hurt that Jeff Bridges refused to chew the scenery as Stark's longtime mentor (and eventual rival), emanating menace instead by underplaying until the time was right for kicking his performance up a few notches. Gwyneth Paltrow was perfectly fine as Stark's assistant/love interest, and director Jon Favreau's playful sense of humor served him even better here than it did in Elf. As with my #10 pick, it's hard to say whether Iron Man will stand up to repeated viewings, but as an unusually clever crowd-pleaser, it more than pulled its weight.

8. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle's Indian epic moves seamlessly from an agonizing first chapter, in which adults and children alike are tortured, maimed, or killed, to a busy middle phase, and finally to a breathless, life-affirming finale that isn't even the real finale -- you have to wait around during the end credits for that. As Reed, who saw the movie with me, rightly pointed out, Boyle is a great director of children; anyone who saw his underrated family film Millions already knew that. His decision to work with an Indian co-director to make the film as authentic as possible (and presumably to make the many sequences in Hindi go smoothly) was inspired, and even the subtitles are innovative in their design (they move around the screen depending on where the action is, and they're always readable, since they're part of the film itself, not a post-facto overlay).

The director is as comfortable with awesome long shots of Mumbai as he is racing along beside running children, and the story's Dickensian nature (which Anthony Lane referred to in his review) is nicely juxtaposed with Boyle's bracing, state-of-the-art visuals. Slumdog is first about surviving extreme poverty and hardship, and then about what you do when you've survived. It may be a fantasia, a projection of wishful thinking on the part of slumdogs the world over, but it's only playing by the crazy rules that globalization has already put in place.

9. Man on Wire

You may or may not consider Philippe Petit, the protagonist of this beautiful documentary, to be a hero, but there's no denying the audacity of his feat. He gained fame and a touch of notoriety, too, by walking on a tightrope from one Twin Tower to the other on an otherwise typical day in 1974. Made especially poignant by 9/11, the sight of him moving slowly and carefully, then freely and happily, between the sky-high buildings is hard to accept as reality, but the footage is real. Once you become more familiar with Petit's adorable but extremely idiosyncratic personality, his achievement becomes easier and easier to buy as fact. That's just one of the film's many beauties.

An interview with Petit's then girlfriend reveals aspects of his process and state of mind that he likely couldn't articulate for us, but that's not because he's the silent type. Indeed, the daredevil reveals himself to be a manic chatterbox as he recreates key moments of his illegal ascent of the tower at whose summit he began his historic tightrope walk. Last year, Into the Wild made me realize how susceptible I am to films with epic stories to tell and strong messages about life. This year, my reminder came courtesy of Man on Wire. Petit, like young Hannah Bailey of American Teen, is a quirky living reminder that any limits we imagine for ourselves are simply that -- imaginary.

10. Cloverfield

Finally, we come to the choice that's liable to get me the most flak, if anybody actually reads this list. Without the giant screen and sound system of Seattle's Cinerama (or an equivalently huge theater) and the titanic amount of hype that swirled around this J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie, does it still have bite? My answer: Who cares? January is typically a cinematic dead zone except for Oscar-bait holdovers, and Cloverfield shattered January box-office records for a reason: It delivered something risky and alive and worth anticipating, as many fans (myself included) did for months. In November of 2007, I was already scanning online message boards and blogs for clues about the monster that invades New York in the film. As I wrote just before Cloverfield opened, the innovative teaser trailer and full trailer made it virtually irresistible to anyone with a taste for the horror, disaster, and suspense genres.

Critics clucked at the movie's Blair Witch-like DV conceit, but I found it tremendously effective. Since the stars were virtual unknowns, most of the hefty budget was spent on making the monster(s) as frightening and realistic as possible. So when they show up on Hud's crappy recording, they provide a much more visceral shock than they might in a movie that looks... well, like a movie. (Remember the part of Signs when a handheld-camera recording of a birthday party is interrupted briefly by an alien "guest"? Cloverfield takes the concept behind that terrifying moment and turns it into sequence after unsettling sequence.) In the dark of Seattle winter, after months of waiting and wondering and getting nervous and excited, I wanted a cinematic thrill ride that would make me and my friends grip the armrests of our seats and never let go. Cloverfield delivered, and how.

Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

Encounters at the End of the World -- Only Werner Herzog could make an Antarctic penguin into a wrenching existential figure; though not as potent as Grizzly Man, this lovely, subtly humorous documentary shows the director in excellent form.

The Fall -- Tarsem Singh finally follows up The Cell with an even more dazzling visual feast accompanied by a much sweeter story. The film's graceful ending is one of the year's best.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss -- Alex Holdridge uses the largely unexplored corners of Los Angeles, the parts of the city tourists almost never see, to create an edgy romantic fairy tale supported by gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (by Robert Murphy).

Tell No One -- If you can suspend disbelief, this twisty French thriller with a strong emotional undertow (and a few tough-to-watch scenes of violence) is a great way to spend a sleepy summer afternoon. Would also make a great winter rental.

Definitely, Maybe -- Good romantic comedies are awfully scarce these days, so this charmer felt like an oasis in a very large desert. Ryan Reynolds doesn't quite exude charisma, but his female costars more than make up for that (Isla Fisher is particularly excellent), and writer-director Adam Brooks' decision to set his story against the rise and fall of Bill Clinton is a total winner.

The Wackness -- Josh Peck carries this Giuliani-era period piece on his slouchy shoulders as an easy-going drug dealer who wants little more than to figure out what, if anything, to do with his life. Olivia Thirlby is sensational as the ultimate New York girl-next-door, and Ben Kingsley is... something else as Peck's pothead shrink.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 -- The original Pants was an unexpectedly smart, fun entry in the teen-girl-movie genre, and Pants 2 is just as surprising: a sequel that doesn't just rehash the original, and is nearly as good. A not-so-guilty pleasure.

Stop-Loss -- There was almost nothing that Boys Don't Cry writer-director Kimberly Peirce could have done to live up to the astonishing power of that Oscar-winning film, and even though Stop-Loss isn't as wrenching, memorable, and unusual, it still packs a big punch. Ryan Phillippe proves he has more chops than the average pretty-boy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in another fine smaller performance, and Channing Tatum and Abbie Cornish nail their roles to the wall.

Finally, here are some of the well-regarded 2008 movies that I missed (or will likely miss, or that haven't opened here yet):

The Class
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Revolutionary Road
Waltz with Bashir

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