Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Year In Review: The Best Film of 2008

In a word: movies are my favorite. When I write or make lists about music, it's only because I like listening to it, not because I imagine I actually know anything about the medium itself. Now, I don't necessarily know any more about film per se, but I do pay attention to it with an eye ever-seeking to learn how to knowledgeably and sympathetically critique it. That is, when I watch movies I want to both enjoy them for what they are and learn what it means and takes to make a good movie. What is it that makes a movie "good"? I take it so seriously that, had I not felt called into (the ministry of) teaching, writing, and doing theology, I would have majored in film in college. I may have the worst directorial eye in the world, but it is a lingering sadness that I will never explore the possibility.

All that to say: I take movies seriously. But I also love them! So, two things before we get going, a caveat and an entreaty:

1) I didn't mention this yesterday in my post on music, but I intentionally differentiate between "Best" and "Favorite." Unbreakable is one of my favorite all-time movies; that doesn't mean I think it was the best movie released in 2000. Neither is Schindler's List one of my "favorite" movies, in that sense; but I do believe it to be one of the best movies released in recent decades. I find this distinction to be both helpful and more honest.

2) Get in on the fun! As I said Monday, lists are only worthwhile insofar as they elicit conversation and cross-list sharing. I want to know what you think -- what I got wrong, what I got right, and what I'm completely missing. I pronounce welcome on your additions and subtractions to my pontifications.

And now, enjoy.

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Top 10 Best Movies of 2008

Blind Spots: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu); Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani); Doubt (John Patrick Shanley); A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin); The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin); Firaaq (Nandita Das); Frozen River (Courtney Hunt); Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh); Milk (Gus Van Sant); Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols); Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen).

Honorable Mention: Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard); Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood); Iron Man (Jon Favreau); Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson); Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green); Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster); Snow Angels (David Gordon Green); Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris); Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman); The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy).

10. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

From my original review:

Encounters is properly Herzogian in its character exactly because it continues to witness to his wonderful embodiment of openness toward -- indeed, radical welcome of and hope for -- happy accidents. Herzog's movies never end up being about what his (goofily serious, Germanly self-deprecating) narration sets us up for at the beginning. We might think Grizzly Man is about a man who died living with and studying wild bears; instead it transforms into a movie about what it means to love, to live, to know or experience nature, to approach the terrifying and the beautiful. Herzog's telos is always shifting; better put, his telos is the shifting. Whatever stories, whatever characters, whatever images introduce themselves into his path -- that will be the focus now. The point is that the path is intended to find and to gather and to put into focus these scattered, tattered, strewn-about, glory-filled points of holy reference. Signs of the wonder of the universe, signposts on the way to life. Encounters at the End of the World is just such a wandering way, and to be sure, Herzog finds his signs. Whether gazing at the alien underworld beneath the ice or peering over the edge of a volcanic cliff -- all scored to otherworldly, cosmically beautiful choirs and strings -- Werner Herzog's indomitable spirit proves, once again, a worthy leader through the dark and awesome wonders of the earth.

9. Redbelt (David Mamet)

With some movies you just know. Redbelt was one of those movies for me. From the very first preview I saw, I was hooked; it was only a matter of time before the already-initiated connection would lead to fully-immersed love. In normal Hollywood terms, there is little "exciting" about Redbelt -- but from the first drumbeats, from the first flashes of black and white balls plucked from a bowl, I was captivated. Rooted in the ever-dependable writing of David Mamet (who also directs) and in the rock solid performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor (quickly becoming one of my favorite working actors), the film tells interlocking stories centered upon Jiu-Jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Ejiofor) and his spiritual quest to be pure to his art/sport/code/way. The obstacles are real and seemingly immovable: friendships, the law, organized crime, greed, corruption, the system, violence, love, dishonesty, ingratitude, suicide, betrayal, fame, purity, honor, authority. Somehow, Mike finds his way, and his story is one of the most unsung cinematic triumphs of the year.

8. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle's previous effort, Sunshine, lacked neither vision nor craft, but its third act fell in upon itself and ultimately marked the film as a magnificently constructed failure. With Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle continues his trend of scattershot and unbounded genre-jumping, but fortunately, the risks inherent to this project (greater even than science fiction's) -- sentimentality, liberal guilt, Western triumphalism, greed-as-virtue celebration, etc. -- are happily bypassed in the wonderful (love) story of a boy from the slums who makes it to the final question of India's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. Along with The Dark Knight and WALL-E, Slumdog Millionaire is one of the year's most audience-friendly critical achievements. No need to know anything beyond that; just go see it, and cheer for Jamar!

7. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)

I have described Let the Right One In to friends in two different ways. The first is simple: "A Swedish vampire movie." The second is by analogy: "Imagine Twilight, but terrifying, realistic, and starring 12-year old Swedish children." That about sums it up, but I'll go on: Let the Right One In is at once a profound vampire tale, a thrilling horror movie, a simple love story, and a moving window into social ostracization and friendship. The film's look is stark and independent, and the first murder intimates more the feeling of a lonely serial killer than a mythological creature. But even then the terrors of the film are greatest in the smallest moments and most mundane situations: a lonely boy cuts his hand to shake intimately with a new friend, the red droplets float to the ground, and a little girl's eyes flash with hunger; a drunk man nears the dark corner of an overhang where a little girl's whimpering calls; the slow circling of a gang of bullies and the bullied's unflinching stance of suffering courage. Wildly, Tomas Alfredson posits the question, Which rejection, which isolation is harder: a bullied child, or one forced to kill others for sustenance? Connecting the experience of social seclusion equally in teenager and vampire alike is Alfredson's genius.

6. Man On Wire (James Marsh)

My wife suspects that I have Man on Wire this high on the list -- and particularly above Slumdog Millionaire -- for two reasons: first, Slumdog has become too popular, and second, a black-and-white documentary is a bit more "legit" for a year-end list. It is indispensable for me to hear her voice, which constantly reminds, "Don't take yourself so seriously!" So, it is certainly possible that that is what's going on here. But -- I don't think it is. Instead, I think that James Marsh's rapturous telling of Philippe Petit's daring, successful attempt in 1974 to string a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and walk it back and forth for 45 minutes is, simply, masterful. The reenactments play like a heist movie, and Petit's excited storytelling invites us into the raw emotions of such a (literally unbelievable) performance of art. (This is not even to mention the haunting, but never manipulated, images of the towers still standing.) Why did he do it? To do something beautiful. So the same for Marsh's similarly beautiful film.

5. The Wrestler (Darren Aranofsky)

Talk about a hard movie to watch. I had no idea beforehand, but this fourth directorial outing by Darren Aranofsky (following his previous compelling triad of films: Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain) is, in a word, graphic. Aranofsky returns to an aesthetic closer to that of Pi, gritty and grainy like a documentary, often following a character from behind, seeing the world as he or she sees it. The central "he" in this case is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, as played to extraordinarily ubiquitous acclaim by Mickey Rourke. (I have etched into my brain the quote on every poster: "Witness the resurrection of Mickey Rourke." What an incredible recommendation!) To add my small voice to the grand chorus, I need only say that he does, in fact, fulfill the (almost impossibly high) expectations. What I didn't know to expect was the central role his body plays: some combination of movie magic, makeup, and Rourke himself taking on the real rigors of wrestling coheres to produce a visual testimony to the previously unexplored world of the gladiator-like brutality that is popular wrestling today. In any case, what emerges is a uniquely human story told without flinching or sentimentality. Resurrected, indeed.

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)

Epic. That is the word that comes to mind in reflecting on the strange, wonderful story of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Epic and lifelong. David Fincher's steady hand would not have been my first guess for a movie like Benjamin Button, but it is exactly his eyes and ears for honesty, narrative, and patience that drive this tale from start to (lengthy) finish. I am not an avid admirer of writer Eric Roth's work on Forrest Gump, but every pitfall of that similarly eventful story of a simple man is gracefully avoided in this one. Whatever combination it is of Fincher, Roth, and Brad Pitt that keeps the rudder straight, turning neither to the right (exploitative tears) nor to the left (meaning-sapping coincidences), it is a terrific success. Speaking of Brad Pitt, it is essential to mention him because he is literally the anchor to the entire voyage. Somehow -- though, yes, with the help of so-good-you-forget special effects -- we have to believe that this middle-aged man is "growing young" and experiencing the trials of life through his own quiet, observant way. Just like WALL-E (below), though, at its heart Benjamin Button is a love story, told over a lifetime and with ups and downs; and that is how it has stayed with me in the weeks since I saw it. The power of its message about time and loss, death and family -- all perplexingly staged against the impending backdrop of Katrina's landfall -- is to be found only in its love story, and one we have to buy into. The magic is that we actually do believe.

3. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)

I have already written at length about my love for Pixar's work, and WALL-E is only one more deposit in that ever-growing reserve of gratitude and respect. One part love story, one part silent comedy, one part human tragedy, one part cosmological warning sign, one part love letter to earth, one part clarion call to get up off our butts -- WALL-E is more than the sum of its parts without losing any of the parts' necessary ingredients. I was worried heading into the summer that, with the supposed diminishing returns of Pixar's product (relatively speaking, and according to the pundits), an animated movie with two main characters who literally do not speak through words would not exactly ... smash box office records. But what a wonderful sign it is that audiences American and the world over -- and children! -- could become so enthralled by the beeps and boops of a little trash-compacting robot and his universe-sprawling love story. I should also note that I believe that WALL-E and The Dark Knight (below) form a profound one-two punch in that they were released weeks from each other and speak to the same America (and world) in the same time and context, only from vastly different perspectives and in markedly different ways. That an animated "children's movie" (though of course we know it is not that) could speak so germanely to our world today is a testament to the virtues of Pixar's work and art.

2. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

Through the end of 2008 this was the best movie I had seen, and since the end of the summer I had felt sure that it would end up as #1 on my eventual list. It may have slipped one notch, but that fact has nothing to do with any dearth of quality or fall in stature; only with the marvelous impact the top film had on me. But enough with apologies! Who would have guessed the return of Batman would have elicited this kind of response from both public and critics alike? For me, it was a perfect storm: 1) I have been a fan of Christopher Nolan's from the beginning, which for me was when I (and my date) had an older couple in line buy our tickets to see the R-rated Memento in its opening weekend at the Arbor in Austin, because, though we were too young, I was determined to get in; 2) I am a Batman fiend; 3) Michael Mann's Heat is my favorite movie. How does Heat come into play, you ask? Because The Dark Knight is, in all its complexity and originality, an homage to Heat. From the opening bank heist (whose shotgun-wielding manager is the central character Roger Van Sant in Heat) to the star-studded ensemble to the circuitous Shakespearean morality plays to the mirror-image, each-the-other-side-of-the-coin "good" and "bad" main characters to the center-of-the-film, unexpected conversation showdown to the dramatic and upending third act finale. One of my ultimate standards for the lasting endurance (and singular quality) of a great film is whether or not it could be made at any other point in history. My answer for The Dark Knight is a flat no. The reason for its unparalleled success, in all forms, here and throughout the world, is precisely because it is a creation of its time and place, and its evocative images, dialogue, story, and questions speak directly to where we are as a people. Batman, The Joker, Two-Face, and the city of Gotham somehow, mysteriously or miraculously, embody what it means to be American, and to live in the American context, in 2008. The Dark Knight, honored or ignored by the Academy this week, rightfully takes its place next to Battlestar Galactica as one of the most potent and important works of art post-9/11. Now then ... good luck with the sequel.

1. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)

Without a doubt, I did not see this one coming. The only reason I made a point to see it before I constructed my final list was because Ed Gonzalez over at Slant Magazine named it his best film of the year. Gonzalez and his crew at Slant are remarkable lovers and critics of film, and while often they seem to lean toward the latter identity more than the former, I always make sure to seek out obscure or ignored movies per their recommendation. And how glad I am that I did with Rachel Getting Married! It is more than possible that I am simply in a stage of life perfectly situated to be touched by this film: I just celebrated my one year anniversary (after a 13-month engagement, and thus, 13-month wedding planning); beginning last October through this upcoming October I will have been in four different weddings of lifelong friends; and when I saw Rachel I had just returned from Austin, where my wife and I visited the chapel where our ceremony was held as well as the restaurant that hosted our rehearsal dinner, not to mention seeing all of our family (immediate and extended). That is to say ... I might be in a unique position in being hit square in the chest by Jonathan Demme's film. On the other hand, as Drew McWeeny notes in his review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we can see movies no other way! We are decidedly contextualized, situated, storied people; if a certain piece of art speaks to us right where we are because we are where we are, that is exactly how it ought to be. And so it is with Rachel Getting Married. I did not watch a trailer and I recommend you don't either. It is a hard, hard thing to watch; it is real -- I promise you, it is real -- and the pain the various family members experience and inflict upon one another is difficult to accept, much less step into. But if you can, it is worth it. Jonathan Demme finds a way -- though not without his magnificent cast, including the incomparable Anne Hathaway, whose performance grounds every second -- to capture what it is to live the messy, funny, ugly, loving, exhilirating and debilitating human existence called family. And I can think of no greater achievement.

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