A month late and, as always, several dollars short, I humbly present to you my list of the best movies from a year that’s already beginning to feel like ancient history – you know, the kind of history that Indiana Jones used to be interested in before the day he blasted off in an enchanted nuke-proof refrigerator and crash-landed in a second-rate knockoff of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(actually, I liked Crystal Skull
, but don’t be shocked that it didn’t make this list).
One caveat: I still, regrettably, have not seen one or two films that I may at some point need to retroactively add. One was Gran Torino
, which I probably couldn’t be all that objective about anyway, bearing in mind how awesome I consider Clint Eastwood’s politics, his personality, and the way he says “Get off my lawn” in the trailer
. Another is Rachel Getting Married
, which looks like a terrific film that I nevertheless didn’t feel quite up to seeing since I attended way more than my usual quota of actual weddings in 2008 (all of which, unlike that movie, were thankfully drama-free aside from one poor groom’s minor wardrobe malfunction).
But anyway, without further ado, here are my picks for the ten movies I appreciated the most last year. Feel free to debate, dispute, agree with, or respond with a hearty “meh” to them, and in the meantime I’ll get an early start to seeing the best of 2009, so maybe you’ll have next year’s list in a much more timely fashion.
10. The Dark Knight
Though a bit more convoluted than any superhero movie (or crime drama) really needs to be, The Dark Knight still overwhelmingly succeeds in its ambition to ground larger-than-life comic book action in a psychologically complex and physically believable universe. With a morally troubled hero (best-ever Bruce Wayne Christian Bale), a mesmerizingly soulless villain (Heath Ledger’s Joker), and a series of inventive and hard-hitting setpieces fleshing out their inevitable collision course – the opening bank robbery, the furiously kinetic vehicle chase, the Joker’s interrogation, etc. – director Christopher Nolan delivers blockbuster thrills without compromising his dark, complex, and operatic vision of good and evil in Gotham City. Ledger can’t be given enough credit for his contribution; his Joker is set to join Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector as one of the most memorable screen villains of all time.
9. Revolutionary Road
Director Sam Mendes explored suburban malaise with more wit and warmth in his debut, American Beauty, but Revolutionary Road is an admirable film in its own right, a dark and tragic period piece about a likable 50s-era married couple (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) who come to realize just how badly they’ve lied to themselves and each other in their pursuit of the so-called American Dream. It’s a masterfully directed, photographed, and acted film about the breakdown of a marriage – not due to a lack of love, but rather because of a lack of choices and of the courage to make the right ones. Michael Shannon gives one of the year’s best supporting performances as an unhinged yet oddly perceptive neighbor; Mendes, meanwhile, suffuses the entire film with heartbreak and raw emotion, proving once again that Hollywood “prestige pics” need not be dry, bloodless affairs.
8. Burn After Reading
The Coen Brothers’ latest certainly wasn’t the haunting apocalyptic dirge that was last year’s Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men, but it still managed to showcase the sibling moviemaking duo in near-perfect form. A low-stakes comedic spy thriller poking fun at the ineffectuality of D.C.’s “intelligence” community, Burn After Reading features a trademark twisty Coen plot, a handful of hapless characters in way over their heads (portrayed by an excellent and totally game cast that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Coens regular Frances McDormand), and one big, bloody surprise that’ll leave you dumbstruck. Funny as hell, cleverly orchestrated, and unflinchingly cynical, Burn After Reading is not the “minor” Coens effort that it’s been made out to be – personally, I think these guys just keep getting better at what they do.
7. Let the Right One In
Horror films don’t get much better than this chilling Swedish import, which – like a great Gothic novel – is as concerned with love, longing, and loss as it is with terror and bloodshed. The simple but gut-wrenching story centers on a meek 12-year-old boy (Kare Hedebrant) who reaches out to the shy, strangely daylight-averse girl (Lina Leandersson) who lives next door. She, of course, turns out to be a vampire, which casts a decidedly dark shadow over the puppy-love developing between them; the film revels in contrasting the innocence of childhood romance with the gruesome goings-on that are this genre’s stock in trade. It’s a horror movie with a heart, both scary and sad, and director Tomas Alfredson conjures up some truly haunting and frightening images along the way – some of them on the level of The Exorcist or The Shining.
6. The Fall
Little-seen and nearly unreleased in America – at least until filmmakers David Fincher and Spike Jonze lobbied to get it distributed – The Fall is an unparalleled visual tour-de-force made even more incredible by the fact that its otherworldly vistas and eye-popping compositions were created without the use of CGI. Shot on locations spanning 18 different countries, director Tarsem Singh’s abstract fairy tale about a colorful band of heroes is boosted by an affecting frame story about the friendship between an ailing movie stuntman (Lee Pace) and an innocent, precocious little girl (newcomer Catinca Untaru). The film is a dazzling tribute to the human imagination, but no imagination shines brighter here than Singh’s – his arresting, dreamlike images, which combine stunning real-world settings with old-fashioned camera trickery, elaborate costumes, and painterly production design, are this year’s best argument for seeing films on the big screen.
Overblown? Certainly. Melodramatic? Absolutely. Entertaining? Thoroughly. Director Baz Luhrman, maybe the greatest cinematic showman of his generation, rediscovered the kind of sweeping crowd-pleaser that Hollywood has long forgotten how to make with this visually spectacular, action-packed, and unabashedly old-fashioned valentine to the Land of Oz. The unfortunately maligned film is Gone with the Wind meets Red River with a hearty helping of kangaroos, billabongs, and Aborigine mysticism thrown into the mix, with charismatic performances from authentic-Aussie leads Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman and enough widescreen spectacle for a dozen movies. Audiences may not have flocked to it – people don’t seem to enjoy being entertained at the movies anymore – but I savored every extravagant, sentimental, histrionic minute of (and it ran for an awful lot of minutes). One complaint: how come the bad guy is the only one wielding a boomerang?
Sean Penn’s incredible performance in the title role is just one of the elements that make director Gus Van Sant’s profile of gay rights crusader and eventual San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk such a powerful movie experience. Less a straight-up biopic than a ground-level view of democracy in action, Milk ranks with the best American political films ever made because it so effectively portrays Milk’s passionate fight to secure political representation for the gay community as a life-and-death struggle – which, in the days when openly gay people could be arrested simply for visiting a bar, is undoubtedly what it was. A terrific supporting cast, a wealth of period detail, and smart, heartfelt writing from rookie scribe Dustin Lance Black seal the deal. This is easily Van Sant’s best film since Good Will Hunting, and possibly his best, period.
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Earnest yet edgy, effects-driven but heart-tuggingly humane, Benjamin Button is a very unique tale exceedingly well-told by director David Fincher, writer Eric Roth, and star Brad Pitt, who gets the most fascinating acting workout of his entire career. As the title character, who was somehow born as an old man and is aging backward in time – growing younger as everyone around him grows old – Pitt lends believability and gravity to Ben, whose awkwardness blossoms into a wide-eyed lust for life even as he discovers that he can’t live or love quite like everybody else can. Cate Blanchett is radiant as the woman who becomes his childhood friend, his lover, and finally his caretaker; their romance is unlike any you’ve ever seen in a movie. Fincher’s rock-solid sense of visual craftsmanship is on display again, as well, aided by special effects so utterly convincing you’ll almost immediately stop noticing they’re effects at all.
2. In Bruges
Mis-marketed as a bullet-riddled black comedy in the vein of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, the feature film debut of playwright Martin McDonagh is actually a weighty and surprisingly serious morality play about guilt, sin, and the possibility – or impossibility – of redemption. Not that there aren’t several hilarious exchanges between Colin Farrell’s foul-mouthed, wet-behind-the-ears contract killer, his good-natured mentor Brendan Gleeson, and the assorted tourists and townies they encounter while hiding out in the quaintly boring title city, but In Bruges still travels a dark road toward one of the most powerful endings in recent memory. Though a relative newcomer to the cinema with only one (albeit Oscar-nominated) short film under his belt, McDonagh has an obvious gift for pacing, and delivers emotional sucker-punches with great skill. Plus, in Farrell, Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, and the great Peter Dinklage, he’s found a flawless ensemble to deliver all his whip-crack dialogue.
1. The Wrestler
The year’s best performance anchors its best film, a gritty and uncompromising underdog story about an “old broken down piece of meat” – Mickey Rourke’s far-past-his-prime professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson – making one last go at recapturing his fame, reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), and romancing a sympathetic but untouchable stripper/single mom (Marisa Tomei). I hesitate to call any film “perfect”, but so many things are right about Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler that it’s an adjective I can’t help but trot out – the fly-on-the-wall handheld cinematography is perfect, the gruesome behind-the-scenes detail of the low-rent pro wrestling world is perfect, the spare and true-sounding dialogue is perfect, etc. And then, of course, there’s Rourke, who seems to channel every bit of pain and hunger and regret he’s ever felt – or maybe even just imagined – into his role as “The Ram”, a guy we don’t just care about but come to love, flaws and all, by the time the film reaches its beautifully understated final shot. It’s the performance of a lifetime, and the movie doesn’t let it down one bit.
And now, just for the hell of it, a few honorable mentions:
Sort of the anti-Dark Knight, this freewheeling and often laugh-out-loud funny Marvel comics adaptation entirely ditches doom and gloom in favor of relentless wisecracking and gee-whiz flying ‘n fighting sequences that really do feel as if they’ve been ripped from the pages of a comic book. It maybe could have used a bit more action, but Robert Downey, Jr. keeps things fresh and furiously entertaining throughout with his witty, energetic take on billionaire industrialist/iron-clad crimefighter Tony Stark.
Despite its persistent and heavy-handed satire of consumerism – which borders uncomfortably on sermonizing – Pixar’s much-praised tale of robots in love still managed to be the most endearingly romantic movie of 2008, and its nuts-and-bolts hero might be the most lovable character the studio has created to date. The usual Pixar ingenuity abounds in both the visuals and the storytelling; it’s pretty amazing that the two main characters can’t really speak, yet we understand and sympathize with them completely.
Synecdoche, New York
As with most viewers of mind-bending screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, I was deeply confounded by the existential puzzle that was Synecdoche, New York, but I really hope that some day it’ll all make perfect sense. Either way, its themes of aging, loneliness, and insecurity still resonated with me, and the film feels as if it will get better with every subsequent viewing – especially since the less you worry about figuring it all out, the more you can appreciate its unique visual style and the performances of the year’s best ensemble cast, from star Phillip Seymour Hoffman on down.
The funniest movie of 2008: A broad and ballsy satire of Hollywood egos and my beloved action genre in particular. Robert Downey, Jr. may have stolen the show with his white-guy-playing-white-guy-playing-black-guy act, but Ben Stiller’s “Simple Jack”, Danny McBride’s mulleted pyrotechnics expert, and Jack Black as a junkie actor who’d do anything – anything – to score his next fix all generated more than their share of big laughs, as well.
I think the critics were a bit too quick to heap praise on this Mumbai-set melodrama – its premise is a little hard to swallow, and its whiz-bang visual approach to life in the slums was used to much better effect in the now seven-year-old Brazilian film City of God. But still, Slumdog is endlessly energetic and entertaining, with winning performances all around and a poignant story of love and brotherhood hiding just beneath the surface of its occasionally too-contrived setup. Danny Boyle is surely one of the most eclectic and versatile directors working today.