Late? Whatever. I don't live in New York or LA, so I have to wait for movies like Che to roll through my town before I can call for a verdict on the year previous.
First thing's first - maybe it's because I'm coming off the wondrous glow from 2007 (I was rewatching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford last night when I realized that nothing this year was as good as that is, and there were three other films from that year that were as good if not better), but 2008 felt unimpressive. The Top 7 on the following list, to me, are truly special films, worthy of high regard and endless discussion. The rest are somewhere between entertaining and really, really good.
Every year I pick an Honorable Mention (or two) that I could not possibly include in the Top 10 for one reason or another (usually coming back to the fact that it's probably not very good), but one that I feel didn't get the attention it deserved. This year, that honor goes to...
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE
It’s not that Punisher: War Zone is a bad film, although it is frequently bad in any objective, and most subjective, definitions of the word, it’s just that it’s clear where the film’s interests lie and where they really just didn’t give a shit.
The film is rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence, language, and drug use. Eliminate the last two and I’d say that’s pretty much where the interests lie. People get all sorts of killed in this film (my personal favorite…well, I’ll save it for now, but a close second favorite is a shotgun blast that removes a man’s entire head).
Places where they don’t give a shit involve pretty much everything else. Except for plot, actually. I mean, the plot’s silly as hell, but it does a great job of gradually ramping up the stakes and effectively gathering together a bunch of people for The Punisher to kill.
It's the kind of film that's loads of fun to watch and loads of fun to talk about. And it's a shame more people aren't taking part in it.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
While the screenplay prevents this film from ever being more than good, Fincher's direction, especially in his understanding of the frame and visual narrative, catapult this film to the top of the list in terms of what in 2008 was really worth going to the cinema for. And if it begins and ends, for you, with how good the movie is, then I guess that's your business, but that's too bad, because there are efforts such as this that are middle-of-the-road when evaluated as a whole, but contribute enormously to that most essential quest of cinema - giving us lasting images.
It's that quest for the indelible, endurable image that brings me back to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film absolutely rife with them and, aside from MAYBE Che, the film most committed to them and most accomplished in this respect (watch the teaser trailer again...tells the whole story of the feature at a fraction of the length and with exponentially more grace). For this reason, the film has grown very close to my heart, and I implore you - each and every one of you - to never forget that as inundated as we are with style over substance, to never forget that images matter, so long as they be solid in foundation and glorious in execution. So long as they evoke and express, so long as they contribute to, and in the best of circumstances serve as the method of delivery for the story and its themes. For those reasons I beg you...do not forget this film.
Runners-Up: Funny Games, WALL-E, Burn After Reading, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Ballast
10. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
Dismiss it as a stoner comedy all you want, because it totally works in that vein. But for those lucky enough to see past that, to see that it's the total wish-fulfillment of its cast of characters, or even those who just enjoy seeing fun, inventive filmmakers letting their imaginations run wild (on a budget), you couldn't do much better at the movies. It's not that this is a great film in spite of the fact that it makes almost no sense - it's a great film BECAUSE of that.
9. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
I'm smart enough to know when I'm being manipulated, but appreciative when a film makes me like it. It's tough to remind myself that I did genuinely like this film, because it is without a doubt the most overrated film of the year (aside from the incredibly mediocre Frost/Nixon), but dammit it's still really, really good. I'm amazed by those who found Boyle's style overcooked - I thought it captured Mumbai just as well as the critically-acclaimed City of God - and who thought it glorified poverty. There's a rich tradition in western literature of addressing the problems of poverty, but ultimately finding an odd sort of shimmer within. And even when the plot gets overly contrived and the characters continue to flatten (how does a central character get less interesting as he ages?), the story never ceased to be enrapturing.
8. THE DARK KNIGHT
One of the most controversial films among critics, but what the hell. I still love it. There's a lot worth talking about surrounding the film - about how it evokes our post-9/11 fears better than any mainstream film yet, about Heath Ledger's performance, about the effectiveness of Bale's Batman voice - but I'll make it simple. Every time I read a negative critique of the film, I remember a few specific feelings I had during the film - the sense of dread when the Joker pull up in the truck in the Lower Fifth chase sequence, for example. But no moment in the film stuck in my head as forcefully or affected me as deeply as when Jim Gordon is confronting Two-Face at the construction site, and yells at him "I'm sorry, Harvey...for everything!" Gary Oldman's voice cracks ever-so-slightly, chills run down my spine, and I know I'm watching something truly great.
7. IN BRUGES
Two of the best-realized characters of any film I saw this year. Certainly the most fully-developed relationship between two people. If Sam Fuller was right that cinema is emotions, In Bruges is cinema. Entertaining, morose, funny (very, very funny), happy, depressing, and really intriguing exploration of ideas beyond our mortal coil while still drenched in the concerns of it.
6. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
You can do worse than to have well-acted, well-directed, beautifully shot, compelling family drama. One of my friends, after seeing the film, said he didn't care about the characters. But really...who gives a shit? I didn't care one wink about Daniel Plainview, but I found his economic rise and emotional downfall captivating. Similarly, when you have actors this good (of all their crimes, not nominating Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for their roles was the Academy's gravest offense this year) tearing each other apart...the subtext might not run deep, the characters may be petty, the right answer obvious, but this was absolutely riveting. And I don't care what critic groups or the Academy said, no one directed their film this year nearly as well as Sam Mendes directed this.
It's hard to even consider this is a single film, as each part is so radically different from the other in every respect, cast aside. Steven Soderbergh has always quietly fascinated me, but with this he's proved himself (I know I'm like the last person to be convinced he's a great director, but at least I got there). No other director this year put such clear thought into each and every shot, and how it relates to the picture as a whole, as Soderbergh did here.
I really need to see it again to discuss it with a great level of authority. It took me days to figure out why Part II seemed aimless, disorganized, and flat-out confusing, but once I did, I was astounded. This may yet emerge the best film of the year, but I certainly won't know for a long time to come.
4. THE WRESTLER
On one hand, I'm glad this film was marketed solely for Rourke's performance (which deserves the Oscar, especially among such a bland field of nominees), because I was able to discover on my own that the film falls into that all-to-rare field of great films that just happen to have a great performance at their center. On the other, the film really has been talked about no only in terms of Rourke's performance, which discredits the amazing screenplay, and Darren Aronofsky's achievement in stripped-down filmmaking (every filmmaker should be put to such a test). It's hard to make formula work, much less to make it feel so fresh.
3. SPEED RACER
The year's greatest surprise - I expected the fun and exhilarating race sequences, but I didn't expect to care this much.
Even though it's a far more accomplished film than most are giving it credit for, I recognize that my response to it is personal. I just don't understand who wasn't genuinely touched by Speed and Pop's talk at the end of Act 2, or wasn't genuinely filled with joy at the end of the film. That it was a big-budget adaptation of a really awful cartoon hardly seems the point, though I have no doubt that if the characters were completely original, this would have been one of the most acclaimed films of the year. This was, hands down, the happiest I felt at the theater this year, and movies that make us really, truly happy are in short supply.
2. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
A commenter named Mark on Jason Bellamy's blog The Cooler wrote that the film is "frustrating, a bit pretentious, and ultimately depressing." I agree, except that he was mentioning these as problems with the film.
Synecdoche, New York is special, and truly extraordinary. It's the only film I saw all year, besides Speed Racer, that seemed interested in telling stories in new ways, making it easily the most essential film of the year. The film is at once episodic and continuous, and I found that - using episodes over the course of decades to not just add up to a satisfying whole, but tell a cohesive, continuous story - to be one of Kaufman's greatest triumphs. A cut from one scene to another might span years, but the mood and emotions carry through.
The moments of light in an otherwise very, very bleak film were some of the most joyous I felt all year - Caden and Hazel finally connecting emotionally, Olive remembering a game she used to play with her father. And they wildly outstrip the film's missteps (the house constantly on fire, little Kaufmanesque tricks like Caden seeing himself in ads and on websites).
I've always enjoyed Kaufman's work before, but this is the first film he's been associated with that matters. That extends beyond its clever premise to really, really matter.
1. WENDY AND LUCY
Man am I glad I saw this in time. Wendy and Lucy is, in every respect I can think of, a perfect film. I went in expecting something much more downbeat, much more depressing, but instead found one of the most quietly uplifting films of the year. Don't get me wrong, the low points are some of the lowest I saw all year, but there were few moments in the cinema this year as genuinely uplifting as when a security guard gives Wendy a few dollars.
Michelle Williams' often subdued, never indulgent or showy performance as a woman on the edge of poverty and quietly terrified of falling over is one of the best performances of the year, and finally moves her from my list of actors to keep an eye on to someone whose presence in a film automatically elevates it. Co-writer/director Kelly Reichardt made a thoughtful, enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable film with Old Joy, but this elevates her into a league all her own, not just at the forefront of women filmmakers or independent filmmakers, but simply filmmakers.
Before making this list, I was about to put Che, The Wrestler, and Synecdoche at the head of the class in no particular order. I liked them all about equally, but didn't get that feeling I got last year regarding films like The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, There Will Be Blood, or even Michael Clayton - the need to evangelize. The need to call attention to a film and tell people they absolutely, no-holds-barred, must see it. A film with a deft sense of artistry, but is easily accessible. A film absolutely united, in which any element that may stand out still serves complimentary to the picture as a whole.
Wendy and Lucy is such a film. At this moment I can say, unequivocally, that it's the best film of the year, and I feel truly privileged to have been able to see it.