Thursday, September 23, 2010

Year in Review: 2008

2008 was a decent year for movies, and yet I still feel that there was no one film that stood head and shoulders over the rest. While my top four have not changed in the nearly two years since the year ended, I still feel that they are all roughly equal in quality. That isn’t a bad thing, but I always do like it when there is a film that I just go completely nuts for – and this year didn’t quite have that.

10.Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Director Steve McQueen’s debut film is one of the most haunting films of the year. It is a film that slowly builds its eventually overwhelming power. Michael Fassbender got his breakthrough role here as an IRA prisoner, who is tired of being treated like an animal by his British captors. The first half of the film basically shows us this story – how the IRA are treated, and the dehumanizing effect it has – not just on the prisoners, but also on the guards themselves. The second half is about a hunger strike led by Fassbender, where he slowly fades away into basically a skeleton. Separating these two halves is perhaps the single best scene of any movie this year – a long conversation between Fassbender and a sympathetic priest, Liam Cunningham, who disagrees with Fassbender’s method. This scene is shot in one, long unbroken shot that simply observes these two men talking. McQueen favors these long shots (another haunting one is simply of a man moping the floor of the prison) and there is something genuinely thrilling about these shots – perhaps because so many other filmmakers feel the need to edit their shots together so rapidly that you become disoriented. Hunger established Steve McQueen as one of the most promising filmmakers out there – and got the career of one of my favorite current actors off the ground.

9. Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Leave it to the Coen Brothers to follow up perhaps their most acclaimed film to date – the serious, bleak drama No Country for Old Men – with a wacky screwball comedy. And yet, while on the surface the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar, both certainly share pessimism about humanity. Every character, save for one, in this film is a complete idiot – it doesn’t matter if they are a treasury bodyguard, CIA agent, lawyer or gym employee, each one seems equally clueless as to what to do. The lone character in the movie with any brains is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA agent who gets fired because he’s become an alcoholic. In reality, Cox is simply frustrated with all the idiocy that surrounds him, and he finally simply snaps. George Clooney plays a treasury bodyguard, who says he loves his wife, but sleeps with anything that moves – including Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) and a gym employee (Frances McDormand), who somehow comes into possession of Cox’s memoirs, and mistakes it for classified information, that she tries to sell off to the Russians to pay for her plastic surgery. Into her plan, she brings in a co-worker (Brad Pitt), who is gloriously stupid. These characters, and more, circle around each other, as the plot gets more complicated, and no one wants to admit they have no idea what the hell is going on. The Coens have a sixth sense for casting, so newcomers like Malkovich, Pitt and Swinton, fit in effortlessly with their stock company like Clooney, McDormand, Richard Jenkins (so selflessly in love with McDormand, who remains blind to his affections) and JK Simmons (whose final scene is simply hilarious). But no one is better than Pitt, dancing around like an idiot, but constantly smiling, no matter what is happening. If there was justice in the world, he’d get a supporting actor nomination, but there isn’t so he won’t. But Burn After Reading is a brilliantly misanthropic comedy of errors.

8. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Rachel Getting Married is about the messiness that comes with being part of a family. It is also about how your family is really all you have – they are the people who love you, no matter what terrible things you have done. The movie opens with Kym (Anne Hathaway) getting let of rehab – again – this time on a weekend pass to be able to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Although Kym is the older sister, Rachel has pretty much always played that role – taking care of Kym when she needs it. Kym is an attention hog, who doesn’t seem to be happy, unless she is at the center of everything. She knows just how to play their dad (Bill Irwin), so that no matter what is going on, she becomes the focal point. The mother (Debra Winger), has divorced their father, and remains emotionally distant from everyone. The movie is essentially made up of scenes of the family going at each other – sometimes joyously, sometimes with anger and resentment. The climax is one of the happiest weddings I can recall seeing in a film. This is not a film where anything is really solved. Like most families, old wounds never really heal; people just have to learn to live with them. Hathaway has grown as an actress by leaps and bounds since her days in The Princess Diaries, and this is a magnificent performance. She is always at risk of losing our sympathy, but never does. DeWitt matches her at every step, as a woman who is tired of taking care of everyone else, and just wants to be taken care of herself. Irwin delivers the type of subtle performance that is always overlooked, but he brings depth to the man who is desperately trying to hold everyone together. And Winger has a few short scenes, where you can tell just how her daughters ended up as they were. Director Jonathan Demme has a return to form here, capturing all the overlapping dialogue in a handheld camera style that for once is not a distraction. And Jenny Lumet’s brilliant screenplay captures life as it truly is. This is a truly unique film.

7. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s Che is one of the best films of the directors career. Split into two parts – each around two hours long – Soderbergh tells the story of Che’s rise and fall, not by concentrating on the inner man – which is how most people would have approached the subject – but by looking solely at his actions. Benicio Del Toro gives a marvelous performance as the Argentinean revolutionary, who is adopted into the fold of the Cuban revolution, and becomes its most important strategist and solider. The first film is more of your traditional biopic – flashing back and forth in time to show how Che got involved with the Cubans, the revolution itself, and his famed visit to the UN in New York. Soderbergh uses different visual looks for each of these segments, but remains focused on Che the entire time. The second film, set in Bolivia where Che went to after Cuba (and a trip to the Congo in Africa, which Soderbergh had wanted to make, but couldn’t), plays almost like a horror film. The widescreen photography of the first movie is gone, and it seems like the edges of the frame are closing in on him – just like the Bolivian soldiers who will eventually catch and kill him. The film is epic in length, but is never boring. The two films complement each other perfectly – so much so that it is now hard to imagine one without the other. Few directors would try something this epic, but Soderbergh and company pull it off brilliantly.

6. Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes)
On the surface, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road resembles his Oscar winning debut film, American Beauty. But this is a much darker, much deeper film, about a troubled marriage in 1950s suburbia. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as Frank and Alice Wheeler, a seemingly perfect couple who couldn’t possibly be more miserable. He commutes to New York everyday to work as a glorified salesman for a business machines, and he hates every minute of it. She stays at home with the kids all day, and is slowly being smothered by the weight of raising a young family. For a few brief shining moments, they seem truly happy, when they decide to chuck it all and move to Paris, to live the life they feel they are entitled to. But life has others things in store for them. DiCaprio has never been better than he is here. Gone is the young heartthrob, and in his place is a man who is cracking under the pressure of his life. And Kate Winslet is simply amazing as April. There is a lot of stillness in her performance, with subtle changes going through her face. But when she lets loose, she really lets it fly. The key supporting performance in the film is by Michael Shannon, as the son of another couple who has just got out of the insane asylum. He is the only one who supports the Wheelers in their plan to move to Paris, which should let you know just how crazy it really is. But he also sees things more clearly than anyone else in the film - and the only one willing to speak his mind. The film - written by Justin Haythe based on Richard Yates brilliant novel - gets all the small details right. The fights that start off as small things build and build until they cannot be contained. Adultery isn’t about passion, or even sex, but is a futile act of rebellion. This is the best film yet from director Mendes. While it doesn’t offer a very hopeful portrait of marriage for someone heading down the aisle next year, it is an accurate depiction of a certain kind of relationship. With a few small changes, this film could be set in 2008 without missing a beat.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
There was no greater technical achievement this year than David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Telling the strange story of a man who was born an old man and grows younger with each passing year, Fincher and his crew take visual effects to an entirely new level. All the other technical aspects - the cinematography, editing, art direction, costume design, make-up and score are also top notch. Yet, if this was solely a technical achievement, it wouldn’t be as great as it is. It is a story about what it means to be human. While Benjamin Button may have an affliction that no one in real life has ever had to go through, he still goes through the same things that everyone else does. He falls in love with Daisy when they are both children (although, of course, Benjamin is in an old man’s body) and spends his life trying to win her over. Brad Pitt delivers a truly remarkable performance as Button - going from bewildered child, to wise old man, in reverse. In many ways, Cate Blanchatt has an even harder role, being the woman who must decide whether to let this man into her life, knowing what the ultimate result is going to be. In the hands of another filmmaker, this film probably would have been overly sappy and sentimental - trying hard to milk tears from the audience. But because Fincher takes a step back, and is more detached in his style, when the tears do come in the movie, they are earned, not manipulated. This is a film that grows and grows in your mind for days after watching it. A remarkable achievement.

4. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
In the 1980s, Mickey Rourke was set to take the mantle from actors like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, to become one of the biggest stars in the world. And then, he blew it. Time has not been overly kind to Rourke in the years since he was the next big thing. But that makes him all the more perfect for the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Randy was once the biggest star in the world of wrestling – think Hulk Hogan – but as he aged, he didn’t know when to let go. Now 20 years past his prime, Randy still wrestles every weekend, in front of smaller and smaller audiences. He is broke, still taking steroids much to the chagrin of his body, which is gradually giving out on him, and has no one in his life that cares about him. His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates him, with due cause, because he was never there for her, and doesn’t really feel like opening herself up to be hurt again. But in Roxie (Marisa Tomei), he finds a kind of kindred spirit. She is a stripper, now pushing 40, whose body is also making her chosen profession more and more difficult for her. For a while, it seems like Randy may be able to get himself back on track. He seems genuinely happy for a few brief shining moments, before it all comes crashing down around him. Darren Aronofsky directs this film with more down to earth style than he has evidenced in the past. This is stripped to the bone filmmaking. One thing that doesn’t change is his ability to illicit great performances from his actors. Tomei’s performance is excellent – another in a string of great ones she has delivered this decade. But this is Rourke’s show, and he delivers what is probably the best performance of the year, in any category. He makes Randy’s pain hit the audience hard. By the end of the movie, you’ll be surprised just how moved you are by Randy’s plight. A truly remarkable performance, at the heart of a truly great film.

3. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
Truly great films of any genre are the ones that stretch the boundaries of what that genre can be. Such is the case with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which takes what Nolan did in Batman Begins, and builds on it even more. Not content with simply making another superhero movie, Nolan has reinvented the Batman mythology, and made it relevant to modern times. At the heart of the movie is a fundamental moral question – how do you fight an enemy who is not bound my any morals, without losing your own? This makes it an interesting companion piece to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which essentially asked the same question. Is The Dark Knight any less serious a film because it deals with a man who dresses up like a bat, fighting an evil clown, instead of rustic cowboys? No. It takes the questions it raises seriously, and because the movie does this, it allows the audience to take it seriously as well. The Dark Knight is very much a sequel to Batman Begins, and yet unlike most sequels, it doesn’t look to simply replicate its predecessor’s success, but instead looks to build on it. We couldn’t have had this movie unless Nolan laid the groundwork of the Bruce Wayne/Batman character in the first film. The film is a technical marvel, with each element playing off each other just about perfectly – highlighted by Wally Pfister’s excellent, dark cinematography. For those who thought that Batman couldn’t get any darker than the Burton films, this one proved you wrong. And of course, there are the performances. All the attention (deservedly) went to Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker – the best we’ve seen yet and one of the creepiest, scariest, most evil villains in screen history. But all that attention overshadowed a cast of great actors at the top of their game – Christian Bale channeling his inner Clint Eastwood, Gary Oldman making ordinariness seem extraordinary, Aaron Eckhart’s moral struggle as Harvey Dent and two old timers – Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman having fun in their roles. Maggie Gyllenhaal – taking over for Katie Holmes – is stuck with an underwritten role, but even she has one marvelous moment. Overall, The Dark Knight sets the new standard for all superhero movies that come after it. It is one of the few towering achievements of 2008.

2. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)
Who would have guessed that the most touching love story of the year would be between two animated robots in a film aimed at children? But that is precisely what Wall-E is – a love story that has its roots in the earliest silent comedies. Wall-E is a robot, whose job is it to clean up earth, after humans have essentially destroyed the planet and fled on a giant spaceship. Wall-E used to have the company of others like him, but now he’s the only one still going. Then a spaceship arrives, and along with it, another robot. This one is obviously far more technological advanced than Wall-E, and is named Eve. The two robots bond, and when the spaceship arrives to take Eve back to the humans, Wall-E refuses to let go. The bond – you can call it love if you want – between these two robots is far more touching, and dare I say romantic, than any other two characters this year. Pixar has always been the best at computer animation – and not just because their films look better than anyone else’s (although they do), but because they spend just as much time working on the screenplay as with the animation, and because they trust children to be able to understand some rather complex themes. Wall-E serves as an environmental wake up call, and isn’t afraid to call the human race fat, lazy and selfish in the process. Wall-E is one of the best films of the year, because it understands cinematic history and respects it – how many other films this year referenced both Chaplin and Kubrick – but also because it builds on it. Wall-E is a magical film, and you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it.

1.Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is like no other film I have ever seen. It centers on one man – Caden Cotard played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman – as he tries for decades to make sense of his life, and create a piece of everlasting art. When we meet him he is a successful theater director, married to Adele (Catherine Keener) and has a young daughter. But then Adele leaves, and takes their daughter with her, not to return for years on end. Caden moves on, gets married again, has another child, and gets left again. The only woman he really loves is Hazel (Samantha Morton), but she always remains just out of reach. Somewhere along the way, he gets a genius grant, which allows him the freedom to create whatever he wants to. He sets himself up in an abandoned warehouse, hires a cast of hundreds, and sets about creating his work of art. This play, which starts as being about everything, eventually comes down to being about Caden and his life. He casts actors to play him, and the other people in his life, and he plays out the conversations he had the previous day in exact replica sets. Soon, he’s hiring actors to play the actors he has cast, and this is only the beginning. The film starts as comedy, but by the end, has become about nothing less than human existence and what it all means. Kaufman isn’t egotistical enough to think that he’s figured it all out, but the fact that he’s posing the questions makes the film all the more interesting. The film takes bizarre jumps from the surreal to the real, from the funny to the tragic and through it all; Kaufman never loses sight of his aim. There was not a better ensemble cast assembled this year – Hoffman, Keener, Morton in addition to Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Wiest, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis and everyone else – seems to know exactly where they fit into this crazed world. Does anything in this movie actually happen, or is it all some wild fever dream of Caden’s as he lies dying of a brain tumor? I cannot say for sure. What I can say is that Kaufman’s movie gets to the heart of human nature better than any other film this year. That it will likely anger or bore as many people who it enthralls only makes it all the more interesting. We ask our artists to examine the world around them, and our place in it, with wit, insight and ambition. No one did that better this year than Charlie Kaufman, which is why Synecdoche, New York is my favorite film of 2008.

Just Missed The Top 10: A Christmas Tale (Arnaurd Desplchein),The Class (Laurent Cantet), Doubt (John Patrick Shanley), Gomorra, Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh), In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson), Milk (Gus Van Sant), Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichert), W (Oliver Stone).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
Slumdog Millionaire was such an irresistible story that the Academy could not resist – and I am talking not just about the movie itself, but the process it went through to be released. The film was dumped by the studio that financed it, and was thought to be heading straight to video. Then the film became a HUGE hit on the festival circuit (I was at one the screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, and I have never been in a screening where the audience exuded that kind of energy), and went onto become a box office, critical and finally Oscar hit. The film has an energy all its own, and certainly is a film bursting with charm from its immensely likable, though unknown, leads and the story is so heartwarming that you would have to be one cynical bastard to truly hate the film. I don’t think that it deserved to win the Best Picture of Director Oscar, but then I was kind of far off the consensus this year, so what I do know? I did highly enjoy it thought, so I won’t complain about it.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Milk is a very interesting film for director Gus Van Sant – because it comes at the end of a decade long experiment he was doing with films like Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park – all decidedly non-commercial films about young men and death. Milk is a departure from that – it is a mainstream, fairly standard biopic of a gay politician in 1970s-80s, but like those other films, the specter of death hangs over the entire movie. Yes, I prefer Van Sant’s experimental films, but that doesn’t mean Milk isn’t a great film (it would be #11 on my list by the way), and most of the credit for that has to go to Sean Penn. Penn is such a larger than life presence in most of his roles, that even when he is great, you still know you are watching Sean Penn acting. But in Milk, he disappears inside the role. He changes his voice, his mannerisms to match the real Harvey Milk, but that’s just the start, as he truly does get under his skin. Personally, I think Mickey Rourke delivered the best performance of the year in The Wrestler – in fact, it’s one of the best performances of the decade in my mind – but since he lost to a great performance likes Penn’s, I won’t complain.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Kate Winslet’s win for The Reader represents the only time in Oscar history that I can recall anyway, where I feel that they gave to the right actress, in the right category, in the right year – for the wrong movie. Winslet’s performance in Revolutionary Road was absolutely brilliant – perhaps the best of her career, as a headstrong housewife before her time, who feels trapped by her life. She is dynamic in that movie. Her performance in The Reader is also quite good – treading tricky moral territory as a former concentration camp guard in Nazi Germany, on trial for war crimes, but too embarrassed to admit she cannot read. It is a great performance as well – far and away the best thing about the movie – but I still feel that it was a supporting role – after all, the movie is called The Reader, not The Read To. I think Streep gave a better performance in Doubt – one of the very best in her career in fact – that Winslet did in The Reader, but not Revolutionary Road. I guess I’ll take what I can get.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight transcends the comic boon genre, just like the movie itself does. Nolan treats the movie like it could believably happen in the real world, and Ledger follows that lead, creating an insane villain, but one that is still recognizably human – evil, but human just the same. Yes, I think Ledger would have had a more difficult time winning this award had he not tragically died before the film was released, but that certainly doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve the award – his The Joker has already become the definitive version of the most famous villain in comic book history, and his performance is dynamic, darkly humorous and brilliant. This is that rare case where the Academy voted for a performance for other reasons than the performance, and got it right.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Penelope Cruz is a talented actress – especially when she is working in her native tongue of Spanish, which although Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is mainly in English, she does here. She is a sexual firecracker in this movie, coming in during the films last half and stealing the movie, and adding an additional layer of sexual intrigue between the three main characters. Having said that, I cannot help but think that the performance – no matter how charismatic, sexy and funny – is rather one note. For my money, the film’s best performance is by newcomer Rebecca Hall, who has a much more difficult, more complex role to navigate. Considering her competition included Marisa Tomei’s heartbreaking stripper and Viola Davis’ fiery one scene performance in Doubt, I would have rather the Academy give to one of those two performances – and save Cruz’s Oscar win for a more complex role, that I’m sure someone (perhaps Almodovar) will give her at some point.

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