Thursday, December 10, 2009

My (and only my) best movies of the decade: The 2008 edition

OK, I should probably address the elephant in the room before I get into the 10 movies that made my best of 2008 list: Though it did the first time I did this list at the end of 2008, "The Dark Knight" no longer makes the cut.

Does that mean Christopher Nolan's great movie has somehow gotten worse with time? Of course not. It just means that I've watched all of the movies that make it at least twice since they came out in theaters, and some have just lasted with me longer than that one, for whatever reason.

Overall, I'd say 2008 was kind of a down year for movies, though I was certainly happy to see Danny Boyle win the big prize for "Slumdog Millionaire." It just wasn't as deep a field as usual for movies that really won my heart and mind, but still one featuring plenty of winners.

And it was indeed hard to get it down to just 10 movies. Here are the ones, along with "The Dark Knight," that just missed the cut: "In Bruges", "Under the Same Moon", "The Visitor", "Man on Wire", "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "The Class."

As usual, please feel free to add any movies you think I might have snubbed or just tell me I'm all wet with this list, which begins now.

"The Fall"
Going into Tarsem's odd but very endearing movie, all I had heard was about the stunning visuals, and how they had been created without the use of any CGI. Well, it is indeed gorgeous to look at, but the movie itself is even better in its story, which is all about the power of storytelling. Lee Pace of "Pushing Daisies" (rest in peace) stars as an injured stuntman who tells a fellow hospital patient, a young girl played by the thoroughly charming Catinca Untaru, a tall tale about five mythical heroes. It just gets crazier and crazier, and though it gets more than a little out of control, I still found it to be nothing but fun to watch.

"Frozen River"
Immigration makes a great movie subject because of the obvious human factor involved, and 2008 was a banner year for flicks on the subject. "The Visitor" and "Under the Same Moon" worked very well, but "Frozen River" stands above because of its steely, almost noir feel as it tells the harrowing tale of a woman in desperate circumstances who teams up with a Mohawk Indian to get into the business of transporting immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border. It's just a fantastic debut from writer/director Courtney Hunt, and you can feel the pain of former "Homicide" star Melissa Leo in every frame (and she certainly should have won an Oscar for this.)

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"
A silly choice? Sure, but also a sweetly and smartly funny one, and how well director Peter Sollett knows New York shines in how he manages to capture the young bridge-and-tunnel set. Michael Cera again, and I would tell him he needs to finally grow up if he didn't have such a winning streak playing teenagers. It certainly continues here, and he has a natural chemistry with Kat Dennings, giving this flick a surprising amount of both heart and soul.

"Happy Go Lucky"Can you really make a movie in which the lead character is thoroughly annoying and yet still have your audience rooting for her? That's the accomplishment of director Mike Leigh's little movie and even moreso of British actress Sally Hawkins, who dives right into Poppy's exasperating optimism. If you stick with it, I can guarantee that even the most cynical of moviegoers (I'm often among them) will warm to the story as we watch Poppy adapt to the world (and her to it), and slowly find out just why she acts so oddly. And Eddie Marsan, who has at least a small part in the upcoming "Sherlock Holmes" flick, is perfectly menacing as Poppy's nemesis of sorts, an extremely angry driving instructor.

"Slumdog Millionaire"
Though, as you'll find out at the end of this, there are at least two movies from 2008 I rate higher than Danny Boyle's Oscar magnet, he and this flick were still very deserving winners. In a story that's most obviously Dickensian in its roots but eventually sprawls to work in some fitting aspects of classic American gangster movies too, Boyle just imbues "Slumdog" with an extremely strong sense of place, in this case India. The overarching game-show structure starts to wear thin by the end, and Dev Patel's performance robs some of the passion out of the love story at its core, but it earned the smile that was on my face by the time the entire cast breaks into that dance routine to A.R. Rahman's "Jai Ho." (And, as an aside, if you like silly teen shows, which I sometimes do as mindless fare to wind down my workday, "Skins," which in its first two season starred a young Patel, is surprisingly good, and you can get it from the Netflix.)

Though it can't shy away from the grand political themes that surround the life of the late Harvey Milk, Gus Van Sant's movie shines brightest when it looks at politics on the micro level, in Harvey's many attempts to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It's also not terribly surprisingly a very tender movie at times, and the thanks for that go as much to Oscar winner Sean Penn as to James Franco, who portrayed his lover, Scott Smith, and certainly should have won the Supporting Actor Oscar for this. The movie also just ends nearly perfectly (where it by force had to, of course), leaving us but not forcing us to think about what was to come with AIDS and its effect on gay people.

"Cadillac Records"
I'm pretty sure this Darnell Martin movie didn't make this list the first time I did it, but like the music it celebrates, "Cadillac Records" just gets better with time. Rather than tell the straightforward story of Chess Records, writer/director Martin instead wisely focuses on the personalities of the musicians that made the Chicago label so successful for a short time. Jeffrey Wright gives Muddy Wolf a quiet pride, but the surprise here is that he's at least matched by Beyonce (yes, really), who makes you feel the pain in Etta James' tortured life, and Columbus Short, who takes over the movie for the short time he gets to play harmonica man Little Walter. Martin is only listed as having directed some TV shows since this winner, which is a genuine shame.

"The Wrestler"
Darren Aronofsky's movie does indeed follow the tried (and tired?) pattern of rah-rah sports flicks like "Rocky" and many clones that followed it, but none of them since "Rocky" had a hero worth cheering for as much as Mickey Rourke's titular grappler. It can indeed be very hard to watch, both because the wrestling itself can be extremely bloody and because our hero is pretty much a complete failure at everything in his life except when he's in the ring, and it can be heartbreaking to see how hard he clings to it. My mother rightly pointed out that there's no way someone could have a heart attack and climb back into the wrestling ring so fast, but it is just a movie after all, right?

"Tell No One"
OK, these last two are indeed my two favorite movies of 2008, and coincidentally enough, I saw them both ("Tell No One" for the second time) at the 2008 Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival. I assure you, however, that that had little to do with how highly I hold them in my heart. Guillaume Cantet's "Tell No One," based on the novel by Harlan Coben, is a mind-bending film noir of sorts that's full of fantastic twists and fits well in the French tradition of psycholigical thrillers. It also contains, in the drawn-out "reveal," my single favorite scene of 2008. I had to watch it the second time to make sure it all adds up, but it indeed does, to a thoroughly engaging movie. And finally ...

"Let the Right One In"
Any one who's been here before knows how much I love this movie, and it has sat comfortably in the top spot for 2008 and as easily one of the best flicks of the past decade. Tomas Alfredson's movie, often as chilling as the bleak Swedish winter in which it takes place, works as both a first-rate horror story and a charming coming-of-age tale about first love - which just happens to be with the girl next door who is also a vampire (OK, I know that's a spoiler, but it's revealed very early on.) And the scene that best rivals the "reveal" of "Tell No One" is what happens when Eli, after teaching young Oskar to stand up for himself, finally has to step in herself at the community swimming pool. Just a perfect horror shot, and one of many that will stick with you for a long time. I shouldn't be surprised by anything by now, but it still just angers me to no end that both "Let the Right One In" and "Tell No One" are set for English-language remakes, in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Though I've said it at least a hundred times, I'll leave you with another plea to please go see the originals instead of these soon-to-come pale imitations.

So, there you have it. It may be a while before I do the 2009 list, because it of course wouldn't be fair to do so without having seen all the movies I can, but I can tell you that right now "Inglourious Basterds", "The Hurt Locker" and "Sugar" hold the top three slots.

Please feel free to chime in with any of your opinions, and have a perfectly endurable Wednesday. Peace out.


dbackdad said...

Love your lists. It's an interesting intellectual exercise to go back and re-evaluate the lists you made then. I've made lists every year for about the last 4. I think they would definitely change.

I just got around to watching The Wrestler a couple of weeks ago. What a raw, beautiful movie. It reminded me of Leaving Las Vegas in how the main character is set on a path of destruction, realizes it, but finds some kind of peace in that realization.

Reel Fanatic said...

That's a great comparison, dbackdad ... I know some people who just can't stand "The Wrestler," but I certainly can't understand way ... Mickey Rourke is amazing, and you're just right about the path his character takes

Anonymous said...

Technology truly is an inescapable aspect of our daily lives, and I am fairly certain that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.

I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside... I just hope that as technology further advances, the possibility of copying our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could encounter in my lifetime.

(Posted from ZKwa for R4i Nintendo DS.)

watch movies said...

Hey, It is nice to know about the good movies of the year 2008. Certainly, I love watching movies and would surely go for it soon. Me and my boyfriend both love watching movies :)