Saturday, January 3, 2009

Top Ten Films of 2008

It was a curious year for movies. As always, studios saved their Oscar-bait films for the end of the year with late-November and December release dates. But, four of my top ten were released in the summer or earlier, including my number one pick, which was the best of the year when I saw it and remained in that spot for nearly nine months.

Then, among the most recent releases, there has been much with which to be disappointed. But, we can dwell on those films later. This space is dedicated to the best of the year. So, with no further introduction, the best of 2008:

10. Changeling

Clint Eastwood directed two films this year: this one and Gran Torino. And, if there were a #11 spot on my list, Gran Torino would likely occupy it. But, Changeling is a superior script and features the superior performances (although Eastwood’s acting has almost never been better than in his other film).

Filmed in Eastwood’s usual desaturated colors, the 30s are depicted with nearly every spot-on detail intact. The costume design and art direction are wonderful here in that they add to the story rather than distract from it.

Angelina Jolie is remarkable as Christine Collins, a woman whose son is kidnapped only to be replaced by an impostor. Jolie’s performance reminds me of Faye Dunaway’s performance in Chinatown. She is subdued and reserved until it is time to not be subdued and reserved, and when that time comes, her subduers had best watch out.

Eastwood was known as only an actor for so long that it is easy to forget that he has been directing films for nearly 40 years. His experience pays off in his steady and sure-handed camera work, and when the screenplay wanders briefly, the audience remains confident that Eastwood will get back to the story. Because that is what he does, he finishes things.

9. Revolutionary Road

The film is based on a classic 1961 novel by Richard Yates. It is all but inadaptable, and this shows in how the screenwriter, Justin Haythe, and director, Sam Mendes, choose to portray certain events. What they, and Mendes in particular, have done is much more difficult than adapting a novel-- they have adapted the essence of a novel.

As we have grown accustomed to with Mendes’ films, there are shots in this movie that would be beautiful stills, and watching them in motion simply makes them more admirable. When Frank Wheeler gets off the train, he is not Frank Wheeler. He is a faceless hat and coat. He is lost in the rest of the nameless hoard. That is Mendes’ feat-- depicting isolation, loneliness, and despair with solitary fleeting images.

The feat of the actors is as remarkable. Kate Winslet, as April Wheeler, lives in the skin of her character, and at times, it seems like the actress may lose herself and the character will be all that is left. She is that convincing. And, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank so close to the bone that it hurts.

The film is missing that which the novel spends most of its length on: the characters’ inner monologues. However, those monologues are written on the faces of the actors in this film, and even without the exposition, no action seems unmotivated and no moment seems out of place. And, despite this flaw in the screenplay, or perhaps because of it, Revolutionary Road approaches near perfection.

8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Woody Allen’s latest is proof of just how far a good script can carry a film. Along with Billy Wilder in his prime, Woody Allen is one of the great screenwriters in Hollywood history.

His Vicky Cristina Barcelona marks another milestone in an already distinguished career. It’s a comedy but not in any conventional sense. It bears no resemblance to his “early, funny films” nor does it feel like his more cerebral comedies like Annie Hall and Deconstructing Harry. No. This is something different. There is a fluidity and a passion to Barcelona, which serve to make it the most enjoyable Allen film in years.

The gorgeous Spanish locations lend much to the storytelling, but as always, it is the characters and particularly their dialogue that make the movie work. Penelope Cruz has garnered much attention and praise for her work in the film, and she deserves all the accolades she receives. It is a fine performance. But, the real standout here is Rebecca Hall.

As Vicky, Hall portrays a woman who has only observed passion in the life of her friend, Cristina (Scarlet Johansson) but never experienced it herself until this trip. Watching her desperately try to grasp at the flicker of romance that enters her life but remains elusive is heartbreaking, and it is her character that best represents the film. Let the artists have their dysfunctional romance and whimsy and let the rest of us dream of being artists.

7. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle never ceases to amaze me. He has spent a career making genre pieces without confining himself to the conventions of genre. His 28 Days Later may be the best modern horror movie this side of Romero, and his last film was the underappreciated sci-fi masterpiece Sunshine. But, this year, he has made a film so versatile and impressive that it defies genre and categorization.

The story is a relatively simple one: the life of the ultimate underdog is told in flashbacks related to his participation in a game show. The conceit is interesting enough to carry the film through and simple enough to grab the audience from the beginning. But, if the film were just an idea, it would fail. What makes Slumdog Millionaire work are the performances of the young cast and the all-seeing eye of Danny Boyle.

First-- the performances: The whole movie rests on the performance of Dev Patel as the oldest incarnation of the titular slumdog, and the success or failure of the films rises and falls with how well the audience can sympathize with him. It is to Patel’s credit that he makes his character instantly lovable without being cloying.

But, like I said, this is the director’s movie through and through, and without Danny Boyle’s guiding presence, it would be an average movie with a good story and good performances. Instead, Boyle puts the solid story and steady performances in the context of a great film.

6. Doubt

Meryl Streep. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Amy Adams. Viola Davis. And, that’s the movie. Except for the child actors, who may as well be part of the set design, these are, essentially, the only performances in the film. The script comes from a play by John Patrick Shanley, the film’s director and adapter. Being very aware of Frost/Nixon, Shanley’s Doubt is the best play-turned-movie of the year.

Like Frost/Nixon, the movie is mostly a sparring match between two strong-willed individuals, but the key difference is that there is no right side in this film. The audience knows going in that Richard Nixon is a criminal and that David Frost wins the fight. Here, we don’t know and will never know if Streep’s Sister Aloysius or Hoffman’s Father Flynn is right, and in truth, both could be wrong.

What is most fascinating is watching Aloysius and Flynn fight, not so much for the soul but, for the heart of Sister James, played with a beautifully subtle touch by Amy Adams in a career-best performance. Adams conveys just the right amount of innocence in her suspicions, and it is through her that audience experiences its catharsis.

Really, though, the film is not about catharsis. It is about the lengths to which one will go in the throes of righteousness, misplaced or not.

5. The Visitor

The Visitor is a low-key film from a subtly brilliant screenplay featuring three of the best supporting performances of the year from unknowns-- Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass. But, it is Richard Jenkins’ show, and he is great in it.

Watching Jenkins’ character transform from a buttoned-up, shut away professor to an emotionally available and empathetic “musician” is magical. This is not because his transformation is so vast but because it is so small. The change is almost all internal, but Jenkins is so good in this role that the internal changes become outward displays of subtle characterization.

This is Thomas McCarthy’s second film as writer-director after the equally understated The Station Agent. Here, he broadens his scope into a portrait of America at a crossroads. The film is a not a cheap liberal picture by any means; it goes beyond the political and aims for the human.

As Professor Walter Vale, Jenkins represents the average American who must come to terms with the changing global cultural landscape. He responds to the challenge in the way that we all should and wish we could: by taking the time to understand those around us and to truly listen to our own humanity.

4. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

I admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for schlocky horror movies. They are goofy and predictable and cheap and a hell of a lot of fun. This is not one of those movies. This film is the way horror movies should be.

Often referred to as “that Swedish vampire movie,” Let the Right One In is all mood, and that mood, established early and maintained throughout by director Tomas Alfredson, is pitch perfect. This starts as a dark film and sinks into blackness.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie is frightening and contains some genuine thrills, which is a higher compliment than it sounds. With the blood and gore of the Saw films and the emptiness of B-movies like The Strangers, real thrills are hard to come by, and Alfredson’s film provides them.

Ultimately, though, the film is a love story in the same way that last year’s Once is a love story. It is about two lonely souls who need each other, find each other, and do everything in their power to stay together. The fact that the kids are twelve and one of them is a vampire is almost beside the point-- until its feeding time. Then, all bets are off.

3. Rachel Getting Married

It has been nearly two decades since director Jonathan Demme gave the world The Silence of the Lambs, which won five Academy Awards, including best picture. His Rachel Getting Married could not be more different, and it is a far better film.

From a screenplay by Jenny Lumet (yes, of those Lumets; she is Sidney’s daughter), the film is an honest and heartfelt evocation of family, pain, loss, and culture that never goes for easy sentiment but, instead, earns every tragic and beautiful moment.

When you see the film, as you certainly should, if you can watch the dishwasher scene without getting a lump in your throat and a twinge of pain in your heart, then you have never experienced true loss. Those who have will recognize the bitter heartbreak that the scene evokes.

Similarly, the principle actors in this film give everything they have and strike every right note. Anne Hathaway finally grows up and gives the performance she was always capable of, and Rosemarie DeWitt is brilliant at the titular sister who must share her big day with a firestorm known as sisterhood.

With a handheld camera and a magnificent ensemble of unknown actors, Demme is an invited guest at this wedding and the audience is his “plus one.” As a result of this intimacy, every moment of the film rings true and affects us way that more movies should.

2. Synecdoche, NY

This is the most complex and beautiful portrait of the artist’s mind since Adaptation, which is no surprise since both films share the common thread of a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. This film is also Kaufman’s directorial debut, which allowed him to explore exactly what he saw in his mind.

What he saw in his mind was a sprawling epic of misanthropy that is truly funny. In fact, it is probably the funniest film ever made about the imminence of death, the impotence of art, and the ignorance of artists.

Surrounded by one of the most talented female ensembles ever put together (Samantha Morton, Diane Wiest, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, et al), Phillip Seymour Hoffman stands in for Kaufman and should win the award for best performance in a deathly somber role. I reiterate: this is a comedy.

Hoffman trudges around, dying from the inside out while the rest of the world dies from the outside in. His performance is the glue that holds Kaufman’s ambition together and when the playwright wanders around his empty, deserted life within a life, no matter how lost we may think we are, something inside us knows the whole truth.

1. In Bruges

The greatness of this film starts and stops with Martin McDonagh’s screenplay. From the patient, sure-handed storytelling to the whip-quick dialogue that is as vulgar as it is intelligently observational. As a director, he allows his actors room to breathe, even in claustrophobic hotel rooms and churches.

The city of Bruges becomes a character, informing nearly every part of the story. The architecture provides a beautiful yet haunting backdrop for the most comic tragedy about hit men yet committed to film. Or, perhaps, it is a tragic comedy.

Colin Farrell gives a blistering and volatile performance as a first-time hit man who doubts his qualifications for the job. But the standout in this film is Brendan Gleeson. His sobering, world-weary contract killer perfectly displays the depth, warmth, and internal conflict inside the man who earns his living with death: he has no qualms about murder, but whom he can murder is of the utmost importance. And, this is all on Gleeson’s face.

The music is great, the camerawork is luscious and self-assured, and lightening-fast editing moves the story along at a brisker pace than at first it seems. Everything coalesces in a necessarily abstract and viciously haunting ending sequence. For a first feature, McDonagh’s film feels remarkably confident, and it is to his credit that his ambitions never out step his limitations. What’s more: he has made a perfect film.

In List Form:

10. Changeling
9. Revolutionary Road
8. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
7. Slumdog Millionaire
6. Doubt
5. The Visitor
4. Let the Right One In
3. Rachel Getting Married
2. Synecdoche, NY
1. In Bruges

Check in tomorrow for a review of the best acting performances of the year.

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