Sunday, January 18, 2009

Top Ten Films of 2008

A little late like usual. As per tradition, the Oscar contenders all came out in bulk around Christmas and trying to see them all is a bit like drinking from a firehose...especially when it can take them weeks to open in CT. The year as a whole wasn't especially filled to the brim with great films, and indeed for most of the year the cinematic landscape seemed somewhat barren. However, the movies that were great...were really great, and by the time I was ready to write this up, I had a respectable list.

10. Frost/Nixon - Frank Langella's Richard Nixon vividly illustrates the contradictions that defined our nation's second most reviled president, the offbeat charisma that allowed him to make his way up the political ladder and the deep-seated bitterness and paranoia which led to his downfall. Ron Howard directs Peter Morgan's adaptation of his own play about the famous interviews of Nixon conducted by British journalist David Frost shortly after the president's resignation. Frost/Nixon is not a documentary; Morgan's script takes liberties with the true story and turns up the "epic" dial more than is probably warranted. Yet the movie is very valuable as an examination of the symbiotic role the media and politicians in shaping the public's perception of history, especially recent history.

9. American Teen - I sure don't miss high school. Nanette Burnstein's documentary followed a group of students through their senior year of high school in Warsaw, Indiana. It often feels like "reality" television, and thus has to be taken with a grain of salt...the camera does have a tendency to always be in the right place at the right time. Yet even if the entire thing were scripted, it would be the most well-written teenage drama in some time. There's a timeless quality to the dilemmas these characters go through, but the genuine emotion within this film elevates these scenarios, as the audience becomes attached to real people with real flaws, all amplified by the stress of adolescence.

8. Iron Man - The character has never achieved the same kind of widespread adoration as Superman or Spider-Man, but this film stands out in this decade's deluge of superhero films. Iron Man's effectiveness owes a big debt to Robert Downey Jr's performance, and director Jon Favreau deserves big kudos for pushing the studio big-shots to cast the right man for the job. Downey's Tony Stark is drastically different from his brethren, a materialistic SOB who slowly discovers that he "really does have a heart." In addition to that, the movie delivers first-rate action without overdoing the effects. A great piece of well-crafted fun.

7. W - A few years too early? Maybe, but Oliver Stone's movie does provide a unique catharsis after eight years of political frustration, and anyone who has followed the news over that period of time will have a pleasant familiarity with the detailed events being discussed in the movie's script. Brolin digs deep as the title character, while a superb supporting cast fills out the rest of the cabinet. The war-room showdown between Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell and Richard Dreyfuss's Dick Cheney is one of the most riveting scenes I saw in the movie theater this year.

6. Gran Torino - Now older and wiser, Clint Eastwood now seems to find the ethics behind his own famous "Dirty Harry" persona questionable, and Gran Torino is the latest examination of the fine line between tough talk and actual violence. Directing himself as an old curmudgeon living in a racially diverse neighborhood, his latest film is both hilarious and very poignant. Surrounding Eastwood is a mostly nonprofessional cast of Hmong actors, providing a truly unprecedented insight into a group of people who have never been presented on screen. Gran Torino manages to be both highbrow and totally entertaining.

5. The Wrestler - If you've read anything about this film, you've no doubt heard that the on-screen story of a former icon who trashed his own career though a series of bad choices parallels the life of its star, Mickey Rourke. But don't worry - There are plenty of non-meta reasons the movie is so effective. Director Darren Aronofsky packs his usual visceral punch, but this emotional story is quite different from his other more abstract work. The drama here is so intense that you may find your stomach in knots during certain scenes, and the ending is both triumphant and achingly sad. Rourke's comeback is just a nice bonus, I've been rooting for it since his awesome work as Marv in Sin City.

4. Milk - A movie of breathtaking importance, probably more than its creators even intended. If you think Proposition 8 is bad, wait until you learn about Proposition 6, which would likely be law now if it weren't for the efforts of San Francisco businessman Harvey Milk and the group of gay activists he inspired. Sean Penn's sensitive performance has all but guaranteed him another Oscar nomination, and it's a fascinating departure from the actor's usual work. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Director Gus Van Sant don't seek to define Harvey Milk by just his untimely end, but as the happy warrior he was in life. America needs to hear this man's story now more than ever.

3. Slumdog Millionaire - This movie blindsided the awards scene this year and will likely have a Best Picture Oscar to show for it. Danny Boyle's terrific film would be a deserving winner, it's beautifully shot, ingeniously written and unashamedly romantic. The story of a poor boy in Mumbai whose youthful experiences contribute just the right amount of knowledge to perform well on a game show is an engrossing fable which has already touched audiences everywhere. I guarantee you've never seen anything like it.

2. Wall-E - The artists at Pixar must enjoy getting on this list. Their films seem to consistently pop up here. Where do I even start with Wall-E? It's some of the most gorgeous CG I've ever seen. It defies audience expectations and relies on ingenious character animation to carry viewers through a dialogue-free first act. Its story has ingenious and penetrating satire about a pampered society that indulges its inhabitants into passivity. It builds to a stunningly moving finale. It's an incredible work of art. It rules.

1. The Dark Knight - I realize it's not the most original choice. I concede that this choice is informed by my own lifelong fondness for both Batman and The Joker. That said, I walked out of this one knowing that not only was it the best movie I'd seen this year, but one of the best films I'd seen this decade. Not only is it an uncannily gripping new vision of this classic conflict, but it's so full of ideas that a convincing case can be made that the movie is both liberal and conservative. Director Christopher Nolan has created a crime drama for the ages, led by a fantastic cast, including the late Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime. His legacy (something tells me nobody will attempt to play The Joker for at least 20 years), and the movie will endure.

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