- Favorite Films of 2008
1) Wall-E 9/10
Unlike other Pixar films, I went into this one knowing next to nothing about the characters or storyline. I was absolutely floored. The film reminded me of Kubrick's '2001' and Chaplin's 'City Lights' and 'Modern Time' with Wall-E as the cute Chaplinesque robot on a mission of self-discovery and love. How often can a film, much less an animated film, mesh romantic silent film with sci-fi, consumerist satire, and post-apocalyptic dark comedy all in one? 'Wall-E' is hands-down the greatest animated film ever made.
2) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 9/10
'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is tragic, humorous, enlightening, heroic, and life-affirming. The film is based on a book by former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby. It is a triumph of the human spirit, having been written after he suffered a massive stroke (presumably pontine stroke leading to "locked-in syndrome"), and only because he undertook the arduous effort of communicating by blinking his left eye, the only movement that was preserved. The film opens with a first person POV from the protagonist, drawing you into his claustrophobic world, then expands the story to explore how he relives his past and finds humor in the day-to-day in order to inspire himself in the present. Amalric, von Sydow, and the lovely Anne Consigny give terrific performances.
3) The Dark Knight 8/10
What can I say. Heath Ledger's performance is scary good, literally. It alone elevates 'The Dark Knight' above all other Batman movies. The film is disturbing not only for Ledger's portrayal (in light of his untimely death); it also explores the concept of what a society should accept in trading freedom for 'security'. I'll leave it at that without ruining the plot. If you ignore the allegorical angle, it still is the best action blockbuster of the year with terrific performances from Eckhart and Bale.
4) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 8/10
'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' is a devastating film about a woman helping her friend obtain an illegal abortion in 1980's Romania. The development of the story seems pedestrian at first, but the long takes are highly effectively as the story builds, particularly in the harrowing hotel room scene and the almost unbearable tension of the boyfriend/family dinner sequence. Marinca, Vasiliu, and Ivanov (as the uber sleazy Bebe) are excellent in their roles. 2007's well-deserved Cannes Palme d'Or winner.
5) Still Life 8/10
'Still Life' was the 2006 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner, but it's taken a while for it to be released here in the states. It is an enlightening depiction of life in a rapidly developing China, following the lives of a man and woman searching for their lost spouses in Fengjie, a town that is about to be wiped out by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the recently completed, and now, largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It effectively depicts with its nonprofessional cast a microcosm of the social effects of the rapid economic and environmental changes underway right now in China.
6) Vicky Cristina Barcelona 8/10
Yes, I would have ranked this just as highly without Penelope and ScarJo's tasty makeout scene. Barcelona and Oviedo provide a beautiful cinematic backdrop for this dark romantic drama, which offers a commentary on the ennui of the wealthy and the romantic plight of artists. It's better than 'Match Point' and is probably Woody Allen's best film since 'Crimes and Misdemeanors'. Javier Badem cleans up nicely as the estranged artist (after his 'No Country For Old Men' role). Penelope Cruz turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as the neurotic ex-wife of the artist. Rebecca Hall does a fine job as the sensible fiancee and ScarJo isn't bad either as the open-minded romantic free spirit.
7) Slumdog Millionaire 8/10
Like a cross between 'City of God', 'Quiz Show', and hmm, 'The Usual Suspects', 'Slumdog Millionaire' is Danny Boyle's ('Trainspotting', '28 Days Later') best film to date. Set in the slums of Mumbai, the story traces back through each successive game show question from Jamal Malik's (Dev Patel) tragic childhood in abject squalor, through his life as a teenager in the slums with his criminal-minded brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and Jamal's pursuit of lifelong crush Latika (the incredibly beautiful Freida Pinto). It starts off auspiciously and ends somewhat conventionally and a little trite, but it's impossible in this case not to root for the underdog. The soundtrack features famed Indian producer A.R. Rahman and M.I.A. This will be on the short list for Best Picture Oscar.
8) Silent Light 8/10
This is a beautiful film by Carlos Reygadas. Though the pacing is ponderous and challenging, the development is well worth it. It's a revealing and poignant reflection on family, religion, extramarital love, heartbreak, and forgiveness.
9) Gomorra 8/10
'Gomorra' is an unglamorous neorealist depiction of the Camorra, the oldest crime organization in Italy, centered in Naples. It's realism was highlighted by the arrest of one of the main actors (Giovanni Venosa) when inmates in a Naples prison recognized him as a real mobster. I guess that art does imitate life. The film moves between characters from subject to subject in an unsentimental manner, which makes the multi-threaded plot seem meandering at times. However, the camera doesn't maintain its distance throughout. Director Matteo Garrone does bring you into the lives of a few key characters, who are all faced with life-changing dilemmas. The style is reminiscent of 'Traffic' or 'Babel' without a contrived "a-ha" epiphany at the end.
10) Milk 8/10
'Milk' may be Gus Van Sant's best film and is the perfect vehicle for Sean Penn, whose performance will surely garner him an Oscar nomination and likely win. It's the compelling story of California's first openly gay elected official, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, and how he rallied the support of his community to fight for gay rights until (highlight text for spoiler ahead) he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in 1978. Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Alison Pill are also great in their roles.
11) Iron Man 8/10
One of the best comic book-to-film adaptations I've seen. This film balances humor and action in appropriate measures, thanks in part to Robert Downey Jr.'s nuanced, versatile, and comical portrayal. Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow also give commendable performances.
12) In Bruges 8/10
Who knew that murderous hit men had such depth and humor? 'In Bruges' is an interesting part humanistic, part absurdist take on the otherwise familiar theme of criminals with principles. Farrell, Gleeson, Fiennes are terrific in their roles.
13) Tropic Thunder 8/10
Like Zoolander meets Apocalypse Now, 'Tropic Thunder' is a biting satire on Hollywood and war movies. Robert Downey Jr. steals the show, but Ben Stiller and surprisingly, Tom Cruise, are also hilarious.
14) The Bank Job 8/10
Based on the true story of the Baker Street robbery, a legendary heist in 1971 in London. Jason Statham of course plays the same character he seems to play in every film. But dress up the rest of the film with an intriguing plot, fast-paced editing, and likable characters in circa 1970's London, and you've got the best heist film in recent years.
15) Pineapple Express 8/10
It's hard to imagine that David Gordon Green directed this and the extreme downer, 'Snow Angels', below. Just add Apatow to the mix though, and all bets are off. This is a hilariously over-the-top mix of stoner comedy, cheesy action, and police chase drama.
16) Happy-Go-Lucky 7/10
Sally Hawkins plays the sweet but hyperactive Poppy, an English primary school teacher whose peppy demeanor tends to rub those around her the wrong way. What the film seems to lack in plot, it makes up for in developing Poppy with great depth, in the process investigating themes relating to education, gender roles, and societal dysfunction.
17) Cassandra's Dream 7/10
'Cassandra's Dream' is a Woody Allen drama (with a terrific Philip Glass score) about brothers in debt who venture into less familiar territory in order to make ends meet. Colin Farrell gives a solid performance as the conflicted sibling who emotionally unravels just as things appear to be working out. Ewan McGregor and Tom Wilkinson are also quite good in their roles. However, the ending is a bit mysterious and unfulfilling.
18) Snow Angels 7/10
This film is a cold, bleak, and depressing portrayal of crumbling relationships in a small town. It rises above the banality of typical indie drama fare with strong performances from Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, and Amy Sedaris.
19) My Blueberry Nights 7/10
Wong Kar-Wai's first English language film is a bit of a disappointment. Visually and aesthetically, the film is terrific. Norah Jones is decent in her on-screen debut. Jude Law and Natalie Portman are good with what they have to work with. But it seems like an inferior rehash of Wong's earlier work.
20) Teeth 7/10
Gentlemen, check your man bits after watching this film. No, it's not about the African disappearing penis myth. It's about vagina dentata. Basically, it makes 'The Crying Game' seem not so bad. Jess Weixler is terrific as Dawn, as she suffers horny creeps one after another in this campy, misandrist thriller-comedy.
21) The Visitor 7/10
Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a college professor in Connecticut who attends a conference in New York City only to find a young couple living in his rarely used city apartment. Jenkins should be up for an Oscar nomination with his subtle, nuanced performance. The film explores the therapeutic and unifying effect of music and raises important questions about academia and immigration policy.
22) Frost/Nixon 7/10
An intriguing dramatization of events surrounding the David Frost post-Watergate interview of ex-president Richard Nixon. Frank Langella delivers a nuanced, complex portrayal of Nixon. Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, and Rebecca Hall are also quite good.
23) Changeling 7/10
'Changeling' is based on a true story. It's a harrowing account of a mother whose son disappears for 5 months but is subsequently returned to her, or is he? Angelina Jolie delivers one of her best performances. However, although the film is promising at first, it devolves into a diluted hodgepodge of mystery/thriller, conventional courtroom drama, and social commentary on police corruption, civil commitment, and capital punishment.
24) Burn After Reading 7/10
An interesting but uneven screwball comedy about greed, vanity, and the CIA. If that sounds pretty random, that's because it is. The film struggled to find an appropriate tone, juxtaposing funny and serious elements haphazardly. Thankfully, the all-star cast of Pitt, McDormand, Clooney, Swinton, and Malkovich isn't completely wasted. However, in the end, the viewer is left with an inconsequential, so what?
25) Forgetting Sarah Marshall 7/10
Yes, folks, more sex jokes. It's another Apatow film! Jason Segel plays the charmingly pathetic Peter; Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell are solid in their respective roles.
Paranoid Park 7/10
I can see where Van Sant was trying to go with this. It could have been more compelling if it had a less meandering plot (though this may have been Van Sant's artistic intent) and a more developed ending.
A bizarre Hungarian film featuring a series of Kusturica meets Jeunet vignettes involving an obese competitive eater, a taxidermist, and a guy who shoots fire from his penis. Yup.
Quantum of Solace 7/10
Pretty entertaining, but not as good as 'Casino Royale'. Kurylenko is hot, but her acting is rather mediocre (though much better than Denise Richards, but that's not saying much).
Prince Caspian 7/10
No, it's not LOTR, but it's a decent continuation of the Narnia series.
Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay 7/10
I had low expectations for this sequel, but was glad that the mindless, crude humor matched the original.
Role Models 7/10
Far exceeded my low expectations. Rather vulgar and funny...right up my alley!
The Incredible Hulk 7/10
Entertaining popcorn action flick with decent performances all around.
Horton Hears a Who! 7/10
Pretty solid characters and story all round, but nothing spectacular.
Pretty good, except when it degenerates into music video montage or Lifetime movie of the week.
You, The Living 6/10
I'm willing to grant Roy Andersson some artistic license, but this one was excessively tedious.
See above. Extremely boring, even for Sokurov.
Zack and Miri Make A Porno 6/10
Not all bad, but I was expecting more laughs and a more convincing ending.
Funny Games 6/10
Stick to the original, if you dare.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 6/10
Sullied by a horrible script and CGI diarrhea from the turd-eating plague known as George Lucas.
Perfunctory CGI diarrhea. 5/10 plus one for Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman.
Be Kind Rewind 5/10
Be kind to yourself and don't rent this.
Sex and the City 5/10
I'm a SATC fan, but this was garbage.
Diary of the Dead 5/10
Could have been better, but the writing and acting were rather atrocious.
Speed Racer 5/10
Please stop giving blank checks to the Wachowski brothers. Thank you.
Use the price of admission on slots instead. You'll get more out of it.
Seven Pounds 3/10
...of contrived bullsh*t.
Films I have yet to see: Australia; Che; The Class; Crossing; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Doubt; Everlasting Moments; Flight of the Red Balloon; Frozen River; Gran Torino; Rachel Getting Married; The Reader; Revolutionary Road; Synecdoche, New York; Waltz With Bashir; The Wrestler