Continuing my look back to the years before I became the Mad Blogger What Blogs at Midnight, here’s my thoughts on the best movies of 2008. CAPS where my 2012 self felt the need to editorialize… there are about five in my Honourable Mentions list that deserved top-ten status. Oh well.
I had no trouble finding movies that came out in the past year to populate my list, but it was hard to choose just one for the top of it. I played with the idea of splitting them up between Hollywood releases and independent movies, foreign language and Canadian. I even considered the idea of leaving off the biggest box office successes of the year because I feel that my job as a film critic isn’t to give more love to the Hollywood well-marketed machine but shine a light on films you might not otherwise see. But a friend convinced me that would be pretentious.
As usual, the fact that I’m seeing movies in Halifax, Nova Scotia, The Town With No Rep Cinema, means that there were many I will have missed, indies and foreign language movies that never opened here. But I covered the Atlantic Film Festival and rented from Video Difference judiciously, even caught up with a few in Toronto over the holidays.
But in the end I went with tradition: 10 features, with documentaries + a short list of honourable mentions, a few films that disappointed especially relative to my expectations.
Here we go:
10 The Bank Job
It was reviewed by most as a serviceable b-movie heist picture. I saw a very-well made heist picture, which I think is a genre hard to do. Add to it a great sense of London of the period, the late-60s early 70s, and a sense of humour to go along with the caper, a sizzling chemistry between bullet-head Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows, and what do you have, an absolutely solid and well-made entertainment. There is nothing wrong with this movie, and that, my friends, is nothing to sneeze at.
9 Hamlet 2
Every year I try to include at least one outright comedy on my list. This year it was a tough call between this tale of a neurotic Arizona high school drama teacher and Kevin Smith’s opus Zach & Miri Makes A Porno, but this one got an edge just because it took me by surprise. It’s a bit of a mess, but it made me laugh out loud throughout, especially towards the end when the musical really takes flight, and Steve Coogan is brilliant. Plus, I can really get behind the underlying theme of the movie, that it doesn’t matter if you’re talentless if you have enthusiasm. A SPIRITUAL REMAKE OF TIM BURTON’S ED WOOD, THEN.
Doubt really surprised me with the power of the performances and the deftness of the script. I’m not convinced that it makes a better movie than it does a stageplay, from which it is adapted, and I have a little bit of an issue with the way it ends, but it wasn’t often this year I listened and watched with the kind of focus demanded of me by this film, as I struggled to determine what really is going on with these characters, and what, in fact, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) might be guilty of, with my sympathies for him and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) shifting constantly, sometimes inside a scene.
7 Tell No One
Kristin Scott Thomas—who I read recently described as “fabulously flinty,” and I can’t better express her appeal than that—starred in two films this year acting in French, this one and I’ve Loved You So Long. She’s got a much better role in the latter, but I think this is the better movie. It was actually released in France more than two years ago, so I don’t know why it took so long to get to our theatres, but I really recommend you check it out on DVD. It’s a fragmented, twisted story, with a real Hitchcockian bent, about a doctor whose wife was murdered eight years in the past, and when he starts to get emails from someone who can only be her, he tries to piece together the mystery of her potentially still being alive. It’s a gritty, brilliant thriller, and it will tangle up your head if you give it a chance.
6 Starting Out In The Evening
Only available here on DVD, this film is the epitome of an insular New York movie in 2008, which is anything but a criticism. It’s about devotion to your craft, embodied in crusty 70-something novelist Leonard Schiller, played by Frank Langella. With this film and Frost/Nixon, he is experiencing something of a career renaissance at the moment. Precocious grad student Lauren Ambrose, so awesome for five seasons on Six Feet Under as Clare, plays Heather, who wants to reintroduce Leonard’s novels to the world. My favourite scene in the film takes place early on, where Heather pleads for Leonard to let her do her thesis on him and his work, and he puts his hand across her eyes. It felt so spontaneous and intimate and wonderful. Maybe my favourite scene in movies this year.
5 Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Though to many he pales compared to his peers, the Coppolas and Scorceses of the world, Woody Allen has directed twice as many films as either of them, roughly 40 in the past 40 years, an amazing achievement in American film, and I predict his work will be more appreciated in the future, especially a few key pictures. Along with Match Point and Sweet & Lowdown, this is one of his great ones of the past decade, a sex comedy set in Spain, starring his muse of the moment, Scarlett Johansson, and two of the great Spanish performers, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. Sexy, funny, and topped with a deeply satisfying yet totally ambiguous ending, it’s a pleasure to see the Woodster in this fine form.
4 Synecdoche, New York
Probably the most polarizing movie of the year, I found Synecdoche an ambitious, self-indulgent, hypnotic mess that I couldn’t stop thinking or talking about for days after. Charlie Kaufman is the master of the meta, self-referencing post-modern screenplay, and here in his first directorial effort, he goes further into his own navel than we’ve seen previously. I enjoyed the trip very much, almost more so after the film was over than during the screening and I’m looking forward to seeing it again on DVD. Oh, and he assembles the greatest female cast in any film this year (or most others), including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis and Michelle Williams.
3 The Dark Knight
I’ve said a lot about The Dark Knight, so I’m not going to go much further here, but to admit that I found Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie to be the most satisfying cinematic escape of the year, a total and utter blast, even as I had a few quibbles with the plotting. I loved this movie. I had to take my ass out to the IMAX to see it there, and that was the right thing to do.
2 The Wrestler
Opening on Friday in Halifax, this is a great movie. The fourth film by Darren Aronofsky confirms that he is comfortable in many different aesthetics, from Pi to Requiem For A Dream to The Fountain. Here he makes a gritty, hand-held camera docudrama, not a far cry from Rocky or Straight Time or Fat City or Slap Shot, but what he has going for him here is a star whose personal career in Hollywood somewhat mirrors the state his character finds himself in, a journeyman performer who once was huge now struggling to continue to do what he does. Now, Mickey Rourke actually has a career that many would envy, with starring roles in movies as varied as Man on Fire, Sin City, Domino and Once Upon A Time In Mexico. But he hasn’t had a role that has fit him as well as this for awhile. He gives a totally honest, unselfconscious performance that I guarantee you will earn him an Academy Award nomination, and if there is any justice, there’ll be a Supporting Actress nod for Marisa Tomei, who is also great in it, as the stripper that he falls for. It’s a bloody film, and I suspect Rourke does most of his own stunts in it, which is also astonishing. There’s a lot of laughs in the picture, which I really appreciated, as we follow Randy “The Ram” around as he gets his hair dyed and his fake tan applied. And maybe this kind of story is a little clichéd, the gone to seed athlete/rock star/whatever who just wants one more shot at stardom, but Rourke is so great in it that any sense of familiarity is just burnt away by his intensity. Amazing stuff.
1 Fugitive Pieces
In the three years I’ve been compiling this list, this is the first time a Canadian film has made my number one, and I’m happy and proud to have chosen it. It’s an extraordinarily sad and touching story of a man unable to let go of his past, haunted by the ghosts of his family. Born a Polish Jew, Jakob’s parents are killed and his sister abducted by the Nazis while he hid. He is saved by a Greek archaeologist Athos and spirited to a remote Greek island where he spends the war before Athos accepts a position at the University of Toronto. Jakob grows up a Canadian, and becomes an academic and a writer, marrying the beautiful Alex, but he grows to resent what he calls her “shameless vitality” and their relationship suffers as a result.
Stephen Dillane is amazing. As Jakob, you understand his pain, but you also clearly see the damage it does to his first wife, Alex, the wonderful Rosamund Pike, who was in the film version of Pride and Prejudice, Fracture with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling and in one of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. Here her character is sweet and giving and Jakob just can’t open up to her. When she proposes to him on a street corner, it’s absolutely one of the most romantic scenes I’ve seen in an age. There’s a spontaneity to it, which must be credited to the director.
The theatrical version of the film ends a bit sooner than the one I saw the AFF in September 2007. It moves away from the book version, a darker, sadder ending. This one is a little more hopeful for Jakob and the new woman in his life, played by the stunning Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who most western audiences would remember as Eric Bana’s pregnant wife in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. I haven’t caught it on DVD yet, but I hope both versions are on it. I wasn’t unhappy to see the more upbeat ending in cinemas. Either way, a beautiful film, a real tearjerker that earns its tears, and the best Canadian drama I’ve seen since Away From Her, and my favourite movie of the year. I STILL LOVE THIS FILM, BUT WAS DISAPPOINTED THAT THE DVD DIDN’T INCLUDE THE ALTERNATIVE ENDING.
Man on Wire
I went in thinking this would be another strange subculture doc that attempts to explain why people feel the need to endanger their lives by walking on tightropes between buildings. Instead I was treated to a documentation of one of the great performance art events of our time, told and paced like a heist picture. Totally brilliant.
Encounters At The End of the World
Strangely moving, Werner Herzog explores both the doctoral misfits who live and work in Antarctica and the strange natural phenomena that takes place there. We may not last on this planet, but the planet will be fine, I think is what Herzog is getting at. It’s strangely comforting.
Of All The Things
Another documentary, about the legacy of Dennis Lambert, 1970s AM radio songsmith and his lasting success in the Philippines, as directed by his son.
Israeli drama about three women and their intersecting lives in Tel Aviv. A universal tale of children and their parents, allegorically and beautifully told. Look for all the ships in bottles in the movie.
I’ve Loved You So Long
Kristen Scott Thomas gives the performance of her career in a French melodrama about a woman with a secret, the kind of story that would seem way over the top if it was in English. For some reason I forgive it the scenery chewing because it’s in French.
Rachel Getting Married
An awesome performance from Anne Hathaway roots this dysfunctional family drama, but the real news is Jonathan Demme making relevant and interesting feature films again.
Deservingly on many top ten lists this year, I enjoyed the hell out of this movie and consider it another classic from the talented Pixar people. Like Ratatouille last year, I can’t say why it slipped off my top ten. When it comes down to it, I give animated fare a tougher ride.
Let The Right One In
The antidote to Twilight, a real teen romance vampire movie from Sweden. Stockholm in December, daylight lasts from 10:30 until 3:30. Think about it. THIS IS A HORROR CLASSIC AND DESERVED TO BE IN MY TOP TEN.
On any year except this one, there’d have been no greater comic book movie than this, due to the seamless FX and the Oscar calibre cast, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and especially Robert Downey Jr, who convincingly makes with the charm. AND THIS IS A SUPERHERO CLASSIC. OR WILL BE RECOGNIZED AS SUCH IN THE FUTURE.
My Blueberry Nights
Wong Kar Wai has been making these mood pieces for years, but when he tried to do it in English he gets no love. Well, I liked the movie a whole bunch and so will you if you give it a chance.
Zach & Miri Make A Porno
Kevin Smith continues to do what he does best: body function humour, pop culture, sex and a wicked ear for dialogue. I could live without a sentiment at the end, but I’ll forgive him, given that spectacular anal sex gag.
Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under‘s ghostly father) is brilliant as a man who is drawn into the lives of illegal immigrants squatting in his Manhattan apartment, and starts to understand how human rights have been squashed in Bush’s America.
The Band’s Visit
A sweet, simple story of an Egyptian police band that was to have played at the opening of an Arabic cultural centre in a small Israeli town but it gets lost and winds up in the wrong town. A movie full of delightful little moments of understanding across cultures.
In one of the most peculiar black comedies of the year, two British hitmen cool their heels in a gorgeous Belgian town for a week. Slight and occasionally mean-spirited, I had a lot of fun with it.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Del Toro gives us another romp with Mike Mignola’s demonic hero, with added creatures.
Down To The Dirt
Newfoundland’s Joel Thomas Hynes stars in a film adaptation of his own novel, which he also performed on stage. Turns out he’s pretty damn good at all of it, though maybe not a movie for cat lovers.
Surprisingly suspenseful and fun, an account of the series of interviews where the perceived lightweight British interviewer Frost made his name as a serious journalist by getting Nixon to admit culpability in the Watergate scandal.
This makes my list mostly because I’m such a sucker for a good British period drama, and since the heady days of Merchant Ivory, there’ve been so few good ones. Nice to see Emma Thompson in the pearls again, too.
MOST DISAPPOINTING IN RELATION TO EXPECTATIONS
X-Files: I Want To Believe
What a missed opportunity.
Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The first act, until Indy and the kid go to South America, was brilliant. Loved the warehouse opening, loved the atomic bomb, loved the motorcycle stuff. Great to see the man with the whip again. My goodwill utterly soured by the third, with the monkeys, the Tarzan silliness, the waterfalls and the general George Lucas script laziness.
Paul Gross makes the most expensive Heritage Moment in Canadian history, which would be fine if he didn’t make his own self-sacrificing gesture the climax of the film. Despite what may have been very good intentions, the picture winds up being painfully self-serving.
Young People Fucking
The best title of the year to the most uninspired sitcom of a sex comedy in years. Canada, we can do better than this.