Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Top 10 Films of 2008

2008 was a wonderful year for movies. To celebrate tonight's Oscar ceremony, here are my picks for the top films of '08 (you can find my '07 list here).

Honorable Mentions (all great, but didn't quite make the list): In Bruges, The Wrestler, Milk, The Fall, Iron Man, Revolutionary Road, The Dark Knight, Waltz with Bashir, Kabluey, Burn After Reading.

Also, I didn't have time to see Frozen River, The Class or Wendy & Lucy, any/all of which may have made the top 10. Now then. Here we go:

10. The Reader
The Reader tells the story of a teenage boy and his secret affair with an older woman. At first. And then it takes a series of surprising turns, each of which deepen their relationships and our understanding of these characters. But none of it would work without Kate Winslet's beautifully layered performance, which anchors the film and gives it a hearty dose of emotional resonance. Deceptively complex and rich, and BONUS! - Lena Olin has two scenes as two different characters, the second of which is worth the price of admission alone.

9. Frost/Nixon
I'm not generally a fan of political anything, but Frost/Nixon is too compelling to pass up. Ron Howard wisely chose to eschew big name stars in the leads and went with Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost: the two men who played these roles in the stage play. This choice paid off in spades, as Langella and Sheen infuse these characters with an astounding level of detail and realism. It's an amazing acheivement that two hours of political talk manages to feel like a thriller.

8. Doubt
Sensing a theme? Another talky play-turned-film with riveting performances, Doubt asks many intruiging questions and provides few answers. This film ends up being a personality test of sorts: your answers to these questions say more about you than the movie. Add to the mix some of the finest actors of our generation, and tense direction by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote the screenplay based on his original play) and you've got yourself a winner. Also, my buddy Ben worked on it!

7. Slumdog Millionaire
I was hesitant at first. As I watched each traumatic event batter these characters bloody, I considered checking out. But Slumdog won me over with its beautiful story of redemption and loss and television and poop swimming. You can't help but root for Dev Patel's sweet, naive protagonist. This movie is an incredible accomplishment: a gritty, disturbing foreign film that is also an uplifting crowd-pleaser. How did that happen? Oh right, cause Danny Boyle is a genius, and this is the biggest triumph of his amazing career.

6. Wall-E
Pixar is magic. Everybody knows it. But nobody was expecting Wall-E. Not content to follow the same old Pixar formula and rake in the dough, Andrew Stanton and his crew challenged themselves by doing away with cute talking animals, and centered this kids' movie on a garbage-recycling robot with very few facial features. In addition, the first 30 minutes contain nearly zero dialogue. It should have been a disaster, yet kids and adults alike were completely taken by this beautiful love story about machines, which also happens to be a legitimate cautionary sci-fi tale.

5. Happy Go Lucky
Poppy is unlike any movie character I've ever seen. She is an eternal optimist, full of joy and naivete. And ten minutes into Happy Go Lucky, I had already fallen completely in love with her. Of course, being a Mike Leigh movie, she still lives in working class London, surrounded by volatile timebombs like her new driving instructor, played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan. There's no plot per se, but it's fascinating to watch Poppy interact with the cynical world around her and learn why she is who she is. This is truly a feel-good movie, and had me on a high for days.

4. The Visitor
From the director of The Station Agent, comes a similarly heartfelt, detailed character study. It focuses on a complacent college professor and his re-awakening to life, inspired by a chance meeting with a stranger. Richard Jenkins is a one of our best character actors, but he shines here in a rare (now Oscar-nominated) leading role. Despite dealing with some heavy political post-9/11 themes, the movie's tone is sweet and gentle and gorgeously life-affirming. This is the kind of movie some people call "little" ("a nice little indie"), but that just means they're not paying attention to all the meticulously observed details. It's already on DVD, and you owe yourself to seek this one out.

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
You may be surprised to see this so high on my list. I'm aware that a lot of people don't like this movie, calling it cliche, overlong, a Forrest Gump ripoff, etc. While it does tread some Gumpy ground (and is unfortunately from the same writer -- maybe he needs to try something new), it is also full of emotional resonance, captivating performances, remarkable visual effects and sharp direction from David Fincher, from whom this kind of romantic story is a complete surprise. Yes, Benjamin Button is a passive character; a blank slate of sorts, but that's partially the point. Even this blank slate deeply effects the lives of every person he meets.

2. Rachel Getting Married
I was not an Anne Hathaway fan. Consider me a convert. Hathaway's Kym is a ragged ball of misplaced anger, neediness and tension. Watching her, you can't help but oscillate between empathizing and cringing. Shot like a home movie, with the musical score provided only by on-site musicians, Jonathan Demme makes us feel like guests at this wedding, and by the end, we truly feel like we know every member of this family, and love them despite their faults. Propelled by a powerful ensemble cast (including Rosemarie Dewitt, who I have a huge crush on), this is one wedding I actually want to relive.

1. Synecdoche, New York
This movie is a foolishly ambitious dream about foolishly ambitious dreams. Everything about this film is a risk, except for the lineup, which was pulled straight from my dreams: the cast features Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Hope Davis and Samantha Morton. It is written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (one of the greatest screenwriters of all-time), and scored by Jon Brion (who I am slowly trying to become). The film centers on theatre director Caden Cotard (played by Hoffman), and his life-long quest to capture truth in art. This may sound like a simple setup, but it grows increasingly surreal and complicated, until Caden is building sets the size of New York City (literally) and begins hiring actors to play the actors playing the actors. It's all incredibly meta and incredibly brilliant. Oh also, it's hilarious. Granted, it's a very very dark brand of humor, but I laughed for nearly the entire length of the movie, unaware it was simultaneously breaking my heart, until the end when the laughs slowly tapered off. The control of tone here is astounding. But it wouldn't be at the top of my list if this movie didn't have a huge heart, and Kaufman recognizes that everyone, deep down, wants to be seen and known. The title is a play on Schenectady, New York (where it takes place) and the word "synecdoche," which means "a part representing the whole, and the whole representing a part." As the end credits play, a woman sings, "I'm just a little person, one person in a sea, of many little people, who are not aware of me." Unlike Caden, Charlie Kaufman's foolishly ambitious dreams have been realized, and we are all better for it.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

For the Chuckles

Here are some things I've been laughing about lately:

And an all-time favorite, for anyone who's ever had to suffer through Dora the Explorer:

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Let the Firetrucks Bring Us Together

I love it when a fire engine is sirening its way down the street and everyone pulls to the side of the road and freezes.

For a moment, everyone puts aside the enveloping sagas of their lives and works together toward the common goal of getting the truck to its destination quickly.

It's such a beautiful simple moment where suddenly everybody, regardless of politics, religion or taste, is on the same page. A rare moment of grace.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

A Handmade Horror Movie for Children

I've always been a sucker for creepy kids movies. As a kid, I loved Beetlejuice, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Nightmare Before Christmas... So of course, I adored Coraline, which I saw in 3D last night. Most kids movies nowadays have become incredibly watered-down with scatological humor and celebrity talking animals, but this movie remembers that kids have an attention span, and that they like to be a little scared, within the safe confines of a movie.

Button Your Eyes

This is my favorite Coraline trailer, which focuses more on how it was made than on the movie itself.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Brilliance in Your Eardrums

In case you missed the Grammys the other night, this is what magic sounds like:

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Monday, February 9, 2009


Flashback: Paris. On day 3, Jaco, Candice and I went to Versailles to explore the palace.

Seriously beautiful and seriously over the top.

The trees were manicured to within an inch of their little twiggy lives.

No Photoshop, Seriously

The palace itself was a testament to excess and royal insanity.

At odds with the beautiful gold-leafed everything was an art exhibit, unnerving in its randomness. You see, this palace-wide sculpture installation might have been cool... Somewhere else. Somewhere that wasn't the friggin' Palace at Versailles.

What was this installation, you ask? Balloon animals. Made of steel.


Quite modern and cool actually, but not when standing in front of a gorgeous mural from the French Revolution.


And, as if things couldn't get more arbitrary, one piece was a steel sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles.

Which of These Things is Not Like the Other?

Then we frolicked through the gardens of Marie Antoinette. That party princess had a serious party house with a serious party yard.

Jaco took a pic of me with my serious face:

Don't Mess with the German-Egyptian Frenchman

One more beautiful night in Paris, and then we flew to London to finish the Eurotour with Miley (to be continued).

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

EXTREME Home Makeover of the Sad Kind

You may have heard by now that our gig with Billy Ray didn't go exactly as planned. Witness for yourself:

What is it with me and fire!?

Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the building was a total loss.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Microchips Make Joy Machines

I got a Nintendo DS for Christmas. And I love it. It teaches me how to cook, I can compose music on it, bring Mario with me, shorten a long plane ride with a deep Japanese RPG... it's a glorious thing. A glorious thing that fits in my pocket. Dee-lightful.

Also, I have a soft spot for touch screens... and stylus pens for that matter, though I realize they are "so five years ago." Come on. You can write on the screen!

What was your favorite Christmas gift in '08? Hit me up in the comments.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Love Stinks, for Free and with DJs!

In addition to the Love Stinks playlist I spoke about yesterday, CDBaby is featuring my song "The House We Built" on their very special Anti-Valentines Day edition of the Music Discovery podcast. This is an awesome podcast that I listen to regularly, so it's quite an honor. Check it out.

Available here:

You can also listen and/or subscribe on iTunes:
CD Baby - CD Baby Music Discovery Podcast

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Love Stinks

In honor of Anti-Valentines Day, CDBaby has created the Love Stinks playlist, featuring my album "The House We Built." In their own words:

"Do you think candy hearts and pink balloons are for sentimental suckers? Here are some songs about loneliness, breakup, and divorce for those of us that love to hate Valentine's Day."

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