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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  1. slumdog at 7? i would have to disagree. however i did not see your number 1 pick.
    btw, i saw coraline in 3d and it was waaaay better than expected! my favorite part is when she is in the purple tunnel. That was ridiculously stunning!!

  2. Your reviews are compelling. I've seen a few of these, but you and the Academy Awards make me want to go check out the others.

    I'm glad Revolutionary Road at least made an honorable mention. I thought it was good despite what the press was saying about it.

    I also want to check out The Class...

  3. Hey Mike!

    Speaking of movies, will you and the whole band be at the HM the movie premiere in April?

  4. Victoria: Yeah, I loved Slumdog, but I loved those other 6 movies more. Glad you enjoyed Coraline! Quite a treat.

    Janie: Let me know what you think of them.

    Bigpaul: Don't know; hope so.

  5. Hey Mike! Hopefully you can clear some stuff up for me.

    1. Since you are auditioning for Miranda's band, does that mean you plan on leaving Miley's band?

    2. Did Kay Hanley really leave Miley's band?