Runnin’ on empty: the best films of 2008

Posted by · 9:25 am · December 15th, 2008

Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina BarcelonaJust to say it once more, because I’ve certainly brought it up enough, 2008 was not a good year for film-goers.

That’s an incredibly subjective quip, of course, but I certainly found myself struggling with the level of quality on display with each and every screening, the oasis of the Oscar season ultimately proving to be a trickster mirage on the horizon as contenders ultimately fell flat or disappointed in various ways. And suddenly, we’re two weeks away from 2009.

Who let the goods out?

But a year lacking broad quality can be a fun “Where’s Waldo” for the impassioned film lover, and so it is that I found some truly wonderful, praise-worthy work from a number of driven and creative filmmakers this year. But a peculiarity began to arise as I sifted through the year’s offerings: What a load of downer cinema.

I first noticed it in the documentary offerings, heavier on morose subject matter than any other year I can remember. Depictions of the horrors of Katrina, the passionate life and tragic death of a Neil Diamond impersonator, the work of a journalist obsessed with his own inevitable suicide, the nation’s stance on the death penalty, the life and times of a child molester, a heart-breaking family drama in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a national economy on life support, despicable soldier etiquette at our global detention facilities -– it is hardly surprising that the most well-received documentary of the year is a celebration of an “artistic crime” in James Marsh’s “Man on Wire.” But how odd that the genre’s resident cynic, Werner Herzog, was responsible for one of the few other positive doc titles that made the rounds this year?

Moving into the realm of fiction, even the usually jubilant folks at Pixar couldn’t help but crank out their most sobering film to date, a cautionary tale wrapped in the guise of a love story that conveyed a creepy sense of inevitability despite a hopeful denouement.

I bring these observations up for a reason, and that is to add some perspective to the list you’ll find below. 2008 was a bellwether for me personally as I began to let the idea of “best” as a definitive slip away and become something more akin to a solid if flexible representation of the times, and how those times affect the viewer.

That’s really all it can be. Even the greats go back on what they think is “best” this year or that. Just take a look at Roger Ebert, who once considered “Raging Bull” his #2 film of 1980, just below Carol Ballard’s “The Black Stallion,” only to later consider Martin Scorsese’s film the best of the decade, while Ballard’s film was nowhere to be found.

And really, we should both allow and account for that kind of give and take, because that is what makes all this silliness so engaging, so wonderful and so meaningful.

I found myself drawn to films this year that could make powerful statements without losing sight of the medium’s tendency to captivate, inspire awe and outright entertain. But I also couldn’t ignore a great number of those expertly crafted efforts that pop up year in and year out like well-oiled machines. And when I finally settled on the 21 films below, I found a way to ignore the year’s shortcomings and revel in the delights these efforts, and those responsible for bringing them to the screen, came to afford.

So with that, my list of the year’s best, starting with the 11 films that fell just short of the top 10:

The easy anticipation is that Chris Bell’s consideration of steroid abuse in America (and the nation’s insistence on being all three superlatives of the title) would be a by-the-numbers cross section of all the data we already know. But cleverly combining the numbers with the priceless power of a family drama, Bell taps into a different level of showmanship and brings a rather compelling documentary into the fold. Let it be said that personality and personal perspective go a long way in the realm of non-fiction (more on that later).

In perhaps his greatest success since “The Bridges of Madison County” 13 years ago, director Clint Eastwood conjured a 1920s Los Angeles enveloped by a thrilling narrative and sporting a fine central portrayal. Angelina Jolie’s performance as a woman left childless, and eventually, helpless (as a result of an incompetent Los Angeles Police Department), never boils over when it threatens to do so. The effort stays on track and becomes one of the more fully realized films of Eastwood’s career.

One of the most exciting movie-going experiences of the year, for those able to stomach the dizzying camerawork, of course, had to be this bit of sci-horror-comedy fun from producer J.J. Abrams. Using the medium in creative ways despite a paradoxical sense of derivation, Abrams and his director Matt Reeves constructed a thrilling piece of cinema at once engaging as a piece of pulp and arguably brilliant as an exercise in the manipulation of the senses.

Probably the closest thing to a #11 on my list of the year’s best, David Fincher’s vision of a beautiful Eric Roth script lingers in the bones long after a first viewing. It takes multiple looks to fully appreciate the delicate balance of the bizarre and sentimentality going on within the frames, but even the blind can recognize the massive leap forward for digital effects the film represents. In danger of being lost in the shuffle, Cate Blanchett gives one of the year’s most engaging portrayals.

Despite working from a by-the-numbers screenplay from Dustin Lance Black, director Gus Van Sant brought a refreshing sense of creativity to the life story of Harvey Milk. Giving his career-best work as the slain San Francisco politician, Sean Penn embodies his role, emotes his spirit and truly captures the heart. Josh Brolin may have given his own best-yet performance, creeping under the skin of what could have been just a simple villain character and adding subtlety and layers that resonate.

Louis Leterrier’s re-boot of the mean, green machine was one of the biggest, most exhausting (in all the good ways) film-going experiences of the year. But despite consciously pushing the action peddle to the metal in this effort, and therefore breeding suspicion that the filmmakers might overdo it, each set piece is more dazzling than the last. The film holds the second turtledove of a young studio’s seizure of what promises to be one of the greatest cinematic roll outs the comic subgenre has seen.

Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Marvel’s first in-house operation fits like a glove; the actor fires on all cylinders, more a machine of dramatic purpose and performing genius than a thespian simpy playing the part. For comic fanatics (to avoid the pejorative “geeks”), hair-raising joy is found in many a minor crevice of the film, but the amplified fun factors of the effort keep the concentration off of hackneyed characterizations and over-the-top villainy.

Sam Mendes’ sublime adaptation of a Richard Yates classic takes time to establish a sense of relationship breakdown, but it becomes something special because of the various perspectives a viewer can have on it, depending on age and sex, among other things. For this viewer, the film became an important analysis of two absolute cowards that understandably hasn’t found its footing with many in the film-going community, but being a chamber piece of a sort, it is perhaps the most cinematic play, of a kind, we’ve seen in some time.

Perhaps overshadowed this year by a 2007 Oscar-winning awards run and director/studio controversy surrounding its January release date and box office intake, Alex Gibney’s study of the United States’ torture practices is nevertheless a sobering piece of work deserving of year-end recognition in 2008. The film’s most cerebral moments come in an extended sequence detailing the various manners of psychological torture imposed (in our name) on numerous detainees since, and perhaps before, the events of 9/11.

An effective and delightfully self-aware comedy about the struggles of an artist and the search for inspiration, Woody Allen’s latest is, in many ways, reflective of own wanderings through the maze of irrelevance these many years. In the characters of Scarlett Johansson’s Cristina and Penélope Cruz’s Maria Elena, he tapped into an intriguing dichotomy, the back-and-forth of vision and lack thereof. Though Cruz’s work has been the most lauded, Rebecca Hall, as the title’s Vicky, deserves best-in-show honors.

All signs going into Oliver Stone’s portrait of our exiting Commander-in-Chief seemed to indicate a train wreck fast approaching. A screenplay far too on-the-nose in its depiction of a bumbling simpleton who ascends to the highest power in the land seemed rife with cliché, but somehow Stone made the pieces fit in one of the more controlled pieces of his career. Kudos to Josh Brolin for filling in the gaps with a performance that could have taken a hard left into unnecessary showmanship.

And now, the top 10 films of 2008:


Lina Leandersson in Let the Right On In

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Nothing can really prepare a viewer for the subtle, peculiar cerebral assault that is Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In,” or “that Swedish vampire movie” to those who might have heard this or that about it. Using incredibly creative in-camera effects and more than a fair share of eerie sound elements, Alfredson brought a refreshing take to an increasingly tedious subgenre of horror filmmaking. Unconcerned with teenage angst and young love, it became a welcome diversion from the likes of “Twilight” or HBO’s “True Blood.”

But that would be damning Alfredson’s achievement with faint praise. Here is a filmmaker cognizant of the power of what you don’t show an audience, but equally aware of how sporadic visual cues can resonate in that vacuum. But he is working with a pair of young actors who can pull their weight and then some. Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson work beautifully off of one another in this peculiar love story, adapted with refreshingly Spartan emotional notes by novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist.


IFC Films' Gomorrah

Directed by Matteo Garrone

When Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone sat down to construct a film out of Roberto Saviano’s detailed and controversial non-fictional account of the Neapolitan Camorra crime organization, he couldn’t have known the universal acclaim it would receive. But such recognition was certainly a part of his (and Saviano’s) hopes as they lifted the veil of an organization that has infiltrated unknown levels of infrastructure the world over. Bringing the truth to bear was significant and righteous, necessary even.

With a healthy troupe of adapting screenwriters on board, Garrone and Saviano found the right balance. Their patchwork narrative might seem trite and even trendy at first mention, but the menagerie works because it isn’t pretentious. There is no sense of contrivance or expressed intent to make its five separate narratives comment toward one another or intersect in a nifty manner. The assemblage is borderline slap-dash and more compelling as a result, all roads leading to nowhere but a list of sobering facts over black by film’s end.


Oscilloscope Pictures' Dear Zachary

Directed by Kurt Kuenne

Going into Kurt Kuenne’s penetrating if (rightly) biased documentary knowing next to nothing of the particulars is the best way to go. The end result, if you have an ounce of hemoglobin pumping through your veins, is a parade of tears and recognition that Kuenne knows how to unfold a story. Perhaps the ultimate “family film” of all time, “Dear Zachary” disorients the viewer with an erratic editorial style punctuated by Kuenne’s own personality and emotions. But it is in the reveal, and the film’s final act, that the effort truly rewards.

Part of a one-two punch from Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Pictures (with Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,”) “Dear Zachary” is a firm announcement of a new player on the indie scene this year. But it left this viewer anxious to see what Kuenne might do next, though painfully aware of the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the narrative and, as a result, the passion that went into conveying it. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: shame on the Academy for snubbing the film early on.


Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

When director Darren Aronofsky wasn’t able to make the epic journey he perhaps would have preferred with 2006’s “The Fountain,” he surely did his share of artistic soul-searching before coming upon a modest, intriguing and certainly “indie” screenplay in Robert Siegel’s “The Wrestler.” Reaching back to his own maverick cinematic roots, those planted in 1998’s “Pi,” he has found his second wind with this incredibly moving and effortlessly poignant study of a man and his passion, and the loss that comes with it.

In casting disgraced actor Mickey Rourke in the lead roll of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Aronofsky found himself in the midst of a massive gamble, but he knew it. And Rourke loved him for it, cranking out, far and away, his finest performance to date, and perhaps one of the greatest screen portrayals of all time. Building on the mystique of his own battered career and tapping into the pains of his life, his fault or otherwise, the actor created a startling character. But supporting performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood should not go unrecognized either. It’s a tight ensemble all around.


(from left) Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in Hunger

Directed by Steve McQueen

Filmmaker Steve McQueen announced himself loud and clear as a talent to watch with “Hunger,” a visual masterpiece in many ways and a vehicle for one of the year’s most underrated performances. A cinematic account of the “no-wash” and hunger protests of I.R.A. prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s, the film’s sparse screenplay really sings, a document that must have been woefully lacking in white space with wall-to-wall action, all of which comments quite thoughtfully to the plight of the characters.

Michael Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands is difficult to watch yet impossible to ignore as his body withers away in the film’s second half. With little in the way of dialogue, beyond an invigorating 20-minute take between Sands and a priest friend, the film quickly becomes Fassbender’s stage. But it is also McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s canvas as they capture mundane and intimate moments with an epic craftsman’s touch.


Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight

Directed by Christopher Nolan

What more can be written about Christopher Nolan’s billion-dollar blockbuster? Every step of the way, this re-imagined franchise has taken the road less traveled. Risky decisions from the top on down, starting with Nolan being tapped as director, unconventional casting choices and the sheer bravery of rebooting the series less than a decade after it crashed and burned in the late 1990s -– these particulars never put the franchise in sure-thing territory.

But the film transcended the genre, no matter how cliché that kind of praise has become. Despite consistent indications from the filmmakers that their intentions were otherwise, the film captured the zeitgeist in the most wonderfully unexpected ways, drawing clear parallels to the political environment and a national sense of battered hopes. Heath Ledger’s performance will live on in infamy as not only one of the greatest screen villains of all time, but one of the most complete and spookily complete and lived-in characterizations ever.


(from left) James Franco and Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express

Directed by David Gordon Green

Filmmaker David Gordon Green’s early career has been marked by an expressed interest in the mundane. The intimate intricacies of “George Washington” gave way to the slightly more complicated ides of “All the Real Girls.” He tried his hand at some genre play with “Undertow” and more intricate drama in “Snow Angels,” but “Pineapple Express” brought him back to his film school roots, much more reflective of the work he cranked out in the foothills of North Carolina in the late 1990s and a surprisingly secure fit.

What makes the film work as a confident thoroughbred of entertainment is how well-suited Green’s attraction to the mundane is to the x’s and o’s of the stoner comedy genre. Moments of hilarity are highlighted by surprising strokes of realism. Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen’s handle on comedy is given fuller layers of immediacy beyond the surface antics of the actor and even the thoughtful humor of the producer, while an ensemble of talent knows where the mark is and how to hit it square.


Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York

Directed by Charlie Kaufman

I typically describe Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” as “his least accessible film to date.” It’s generally in the way of warning, but for some intrepid film-goers, it’s a big, bright green light. I walked away knowing I either hated it or loved it, but whatever the case, I knew I had no choice but to respect it. And the further I spun away from this wonderfully tangled web of ambition, I grew to understand it as a definitive mark of artistry and yet another example of Kaufman’s ability to give perspective to his inner demons.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is sensational as the embodiment of how Kaufman sees himself today, just like John Cusack, Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey before him. But enough couldn’t be said of the ensemble performance around him, a who’s who of character acting talent embossed by some of the most captivating actresses ever assembled in one place. Samantha Morton is the true standout, but praise for Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Catherine Keener would not be misplaced.


Walt Disney Pictures' Bolt

Directed by Byron Howard, Chris Williams

Do not adjust your monitors. I went there. And unapologetically, because much like David Gordon Green’s “Pineapple Express,” Brian Howard and Chris Williams’s “Bolt” made for one of the most rewarding and enjoyable film-going experiences of 2008. Much as I respect the work being done at Pixar, the ambition of “WALL-E,” the mark it aimed for, that film never lived up to its potential and became an exercise in beautiful but circular storytelling as far as I was concerned.

“Bolt,” on the other hand, strayed from the formula in its own way, certainly less of a risk, but with a dose of creativity that I’m sure Pixar would have been proud to call its own. An energized road-trip film of a sort, the film captures both the vibrancy of near-delusional childhood wonderment and the possibilities inherent in marrying those concepts to an action extravaganza. In that way, the film has much in common with Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” but it is its own experience, a delightful surprise and a reminder of just how much fun the cinema can be.


Madhur Mittal in Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle

Director Danny Boyle has been working steadily toward this moment his entire career. A sunburst of promise after the genre antics of “Shallow Grave” and the riveting ingenuity of “Trainspotting” in the mid-1990s, his has been a unique vision with each and every effort. After working brazenly in studio territory with “A Life Less Ordinary” and “The Beach,” he began stretching the limits of new cinematic technology with “28 Days Later.” He delighted in the modesty of “Millions” and the ambition of “Sunshine” in recent years, but in 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” presented the perfect storm for Boyle, a project that would simultaneously nurture his excited filmmaking vernacular and his penchant for conveying the contradictions of youth, love and, in a nutshell, life itself.

It would be unfair to the film to harp on the low-key nature of the year’s cinematic output, but “Slumdog Millionaire” might not have secured this brand of classification in another, more competitive environment. In some way, that might be just as well. A year is a year is a year, and Boyle and company stood out in 2008. No other effort had the same vigor, the same immediacy, the same artistic blend of everything that makes the cinema so unique. Working with a variety of skilled craftsmen, not the least of which being cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and film editor Chris Dickens, Boyle constructed a menagerie that couldn’t have been better described than in those five words from film critic Richard Corliss decorating the film’s publicity materials: “a buoyant hymn to life.”

And…that about wraps it up. Check back Wednesday for my annual “if I had a ballot” post, and finally Friday for a list of the year’s winners in a variety of categories.

To recap, the top 10 films of the year:

1. “Slumdog Millionaire”
2. “Bolt”
3. “Synecdoche, New York”
4. “Pineapple Express”
5. “The Dark Knight”
6. “Hunger”
7. “The Wrestler”
8. “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”
9. “Gomorrah”
10. “Let the Right One In”

Have your say in the comments below! What are your favorite films of the year?

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