Before you read my list, I should let you know that 2008 wasn’t the best year for my checking out movies in theaters. By the end of June, I had only seen a handful of movies on the big screen. This was, in parts, due to laziness, lack of time or preoccupations with moving to a new apartment and an incredibly important election. Those reasons were certainly my doing, but I also have to say in my defense that I had seen a lot of shitty trailers this year, so hopefully you can forgive me for lacking the excitement of viewing films that didn’t do a great job of convincing me to see them.
This poor theater attendance, of course, left me playing catch-up with films once they had been released on video. Among the films I really wanted to watch but couldn’t were Tell No One and Dear Zachary.
With that said, I was able to watch 80 films*
(* The criteria for watching films–because I do have a life to live outside movies–was to watch a film for at least 20 minutes. If a film was too mediocre to make either the best or worst list, I went to the next video. Films watched in theaters were seen in their entirety, sometimes unfortunately.)
Here’s my list of The Best of 2008:
10. Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa
The best documentary of 2008 will not win an Oscar this year, and that’s really a shame as it sheds light on a part of America completely unknown to many people. An uninhabitable region of New Mexico stretching several hundred square miles is home to about 300 or so people who, for various reasons, want to live there. Some are Vietnam Vets with PTSD unwilling or unable to get medical treatment, some have extreme political views eschewing the American government (whether left-wing or right-wing), some have financial difficulties and so on. This amazing documentary by Jeremy and Randy Stulberg looks at the lives of about a dozen or so of these residents. Despite the difficulties of retaining fresh water, obtaining food and seeking medical attention, they seem to enjoy the freedom. That is, until these extreme individualists–living without a functional government nor even a police force– need to band together during a crisis. A surprisingly heartwarming film at times, the movie takes an unusually positive view (for the most part) of people who rough it out for their idea of an idyllic life.
I generally don’t care much for Ron Howard’s superficial approach to important topics, but thanks to his astute direction, Peter Morgan’s great screenplay (based on his own play), and Frank Langella’s astounding performance as the former President, this film really did work on me. The film is not so much about whether Nixon answers questions the nation needs to hear about Watergate. Quite honestly, you can get those from YouTube or the original David Frost interviews. This movie, instead, is about the intense preparation between two men each with a great deal at stake. Nixon is disgraced into making tacky speaking engagements and in need of money. Frost feels the need to prove himself beyond the endless fluffy celebrity interviews making him famous on British television but unheard of in the U.S. It’s a boxing match of psychology, tension and sheer hutzpah. Langella, despite being heavier and seemingly taller than Richard Nixon, is utterly convincing, even more so than the Oscar-nominated Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s disastrous film Nixon.
8. Save Me
2008 has turned out to be a pretty good year for gay-themed movies. It’s too bad that, aside from Milk, you probably won’t be able to see them until they get released on DVD. Among the best were Le Leon from Argentina and this terrific low-budget film from director Robert Cary. Chad Allen stars as a young gay man, completely out of control with his drug and sex addictions. After he nearly overdoses one wild night, his exasperated strict Christian brother sends him to dry out at a ranch ministry specializing in “saving” homosexuals. The conflict between religious intolerance and gays has been covered before in such narrative films as But I’m A Cheerleader and Latter Days, but this is the first film in recent years that has handled this issue seriously with intelligence and a careful evenhandedness. Cary’s direction is well-paced and Judith Light (yes, that Judith Light of TV’s Who’s the Boss) playing one of the co-founders of the ranch gives the best performance of any actress I’ve seen on screen this year. I’m not kidding.
7. The Visitor
Here’s an example of a film released with perfect timing. During an election year in which the issue of immigration played a part, this wonderful film reflects on how small incidents can turn worlds upside-down for citizens and immigrants alike. Richard Jenkins, in a superb Oscar-level performance, plays Professor Walter Vale, an embittered widower stuck in a mundane existence and barely caring about his work. When forced to attend a conference in New York City, he discovers an immigrant squatter couple (Haas Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira) living in his practically abandoned apartment. Allowing the couple to share the living space, he becomes involved in their lives, opening a new chapter in his life and inviting further complications. Thomas McCarthy wrote and directed this great examination into injustice and the rejuvenation of one’s life. I’m glad this became a hit in Chicago, running on the big screen here for months.
6. Dante’s Inferno
For all the (worthy) praise given to major animated features like Wall-E, I was much more impressed by this low-tech animated feature. Have you seen Dante’s Inferno? Probably not, but luckily this incredible movie, using hand-painted paper cutout puppets, has been released on DVD. Director Sean Meredith combines a graphic novel sensibility with a Victorian toy stage setting for a retelling of Dante Alighieri’s classic novel. Dermot Mulroney provides the voice of Dante, presented here as a young Brooklyn guy waking on a city street after a night of carousing and taken by Homer (James Cromwell) into the underworld to shake him to the core. Writers Meredith, Sandow Birk and Paul Zaloom update the story with modern day figures suffering ingenious and hilarious eternal torments. Not only was this a tour-de-force for DYI animators and a true inspiration for low-tech future artists, but it was also one of the funniest films of the year. Rent this now!
5. London to Brighton
Anyone, I mean anyone, who wants to try his or her hand at making a crime thriller involving pimps and prostitutes had better damn well watch this film from writer/director Paul Andrew Williams. Kelly (the excellent Lorraine Stanley) is an aging prostitute battered and bruised with a black eye. She, along with the 12-year old Joanne (Georgia Groome), are on the run from a pimp they’ve double-crossed. As the movie progresses, we learn in piecemeal the details as to why they’ve dashed from London to Brighton. This is a story tailor-made for great low-budget filmmaking with incredibly taut storytelling and fantastic acting, including Sam Spruell who plays Stuart Allen, the man behind a flesh transaction and probably the most frightening character in a movie this year. Shocking, brutal and riveting from beginning to end.
4. Boy A
Harkening back to the days of England’s “kitchen sink” dramas, this intense story, based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell, is evocatively realized by writer Mark O’Rowe and director John Crowley. It tells the story of Jack, a young man (Andrew Garfield in a heartbreaking performance) returning to society after being in prison for 14 years for a murder he committed as child. With a new identity and people generally supporting this shy, introverted ex-con, things seem to go pretty well until an unexpected event brings about a major change in attitudes. This is one of the most insightful films I’ve seen lately examining the subject of criminal punishment and how much right society has in forgiving or not forgiving wrongdoers. Along with Garfield, Peter Mullan deserves some award attention for his portrayal of a social worker and parole contact helping Jack.
I heard a gay rights activist once say that after many years of ignoring serious homosexual stories, Hollywood will come up with a positive one catering to all viewers and will congratulate itself for coming up with it. I have a feeling Milk is that film, but any Oscars it wins will be well deserved. There are no adequate words to describe Sean Penn’s portrayal of the slain gay civil rights leader. He effortlessly inhabits the man’s soul. But this movie is much more than the life of this great individual. It’s a testament to the monumental force of organizing ordinary citizens who have no real institutional backing and even those who may not seem like your allies, and starting a movement that radiates far beyond what one could imagine. Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black were right in creating a film bio with an epic scope. It all works, especially with the fine supporting help of Emile Hirsch and James Franco. By the way, did you know that the original idea (conceived more than a decade ago) of filming a biopic of Harvey Milk had the possibility of Oliver Stone directing and Robin Williams portraying the lead? I think we got lucky.
2. The Fall
Years from now, I think a lot of people will wonder just what it was that turned critics off to this astonishing feature from Tarsem. I just don’t get it: praise for a film like Slumdog Millionaire which I think exploits children for cheap emotions and relies on cliches like the Oliver Twist-type flashback sequence and the search for a lost love. The Fall, on the other hand, gets criticized for being pretentious when, in fact, it’s much more honest in dealing with a child and eventually becomes the most genuinely positive film of the year. Critics, get your heads out of your asses! This film tells the story of two patients who become friends in a Los Angeles hospital during the 1920’s. One is a stunt man named Roy Walker (Lee Pace) who ends up there after an accident and the other is Alexandria, a little girl recuperating from a broken arm. To pass the time, Roy relays an epic adventure to the fascinated little girl and wins her trust. However, he misuses that trust for his own pernicious means as both use the tall tale as metaphors for their own lives. Colin Watkinson’s cinematography is quite simply the best this year and the remarkable acting debut of 11-year old Catinca Untaru deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She is that good.
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
No crime thriller, no horror film and no explosive actioner put my ass on the edge of my seat and kept it there for an entire 113 minutes like this masterpiece from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. Set in Romania 1987, the film opens with a young woman trying to help out her college roommate with a problem. Eventually, we realize exactly what the problem is–she needs a late-term abortion in a country where all abortions and contraceptions were illegal at the time. What transpires in the following two hours is a harrowing, nail-biter of a film that shows the bravery and sometimes callous wrecklessness of these two frightened young women and the extent in which they must immerse themselves in a society steeped in black market corruption. Like Save Me, this film handles both sides of a controversial issue in an even-handed way and without judgment. The startling images and great performances alone speak volumes. Absolutely R-O-B-B-E-D of an Oscar nomination last year for Best Foreign Language Film.
Runners-Up (in alphabetical order)
Beauty in Trouble
Body of War
Burn After Reading
Encounters at the End of the World
Full Battle Rattle
Let the Right One In
Man on Wire
OSS-117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
Standard Operating Procedure
Synecdoche, New York
The Tiger’s Tail
The Year’s Most Underrated Film: The Fall
The Year’s Most Overrated Film: Slumdog Millionaire