Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 - The Year in Review

Brains Before Beauty

...So is the theme of my list of the Top Ten Films of 2008. Surely any movie that hopes to achieve greatness needs to possess both attributes, and every title I've chosen is indeed a pleasure to behold, but each is more notable for its thought-provoking impact than its jaw-dropping aesthetics. I've long considered myself a hopeless sucker for gorgeous, widescreen spectacles, but what moved me most this year did so not with sweeping, sun-drenched shots of the outback, but with unanticipated jolts to the psyche. Be them tales of unlikely heroes, heated debates, challenged friendships, or humanity at its best, my favorite films of 2008 cracked me up, choked me up, fired me up, cheered me up, and, above all, smartened me up.

*For more info on each of the films selected, click on the title.



I would have given this aptly titled and altogether delightful movie a higher initial grade had I known how much my love for it would grow with time. Written and directed with free-flowing zest by Mike Leigh, it's light but never superficial, airy but never air-headed. As Poppy, the film's blithely irrepressible heroine, Sally Hawkins gives an unforgettable breakthrough performance that critics and audiences alike have embraced as a life model.


Deftly directed by Ron Howard and adapted by Peter Morgan from his Tony Award-winning play, “Frost/Nixon,” an acute dramatization of the 1977 television interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, is a seat-pinning locomotive of a movie, breathlessly paced and hypnotic to watch. Frank Langella's human-yet-despicable turn as the disgraced ex-president is towering and spellbinding.


This Norwegian import, a disarming meditation on the romanticism of youth and its bittersweet departure, focuses on two young authors and best friends whose lives head in vastly different directions once their work is published. Featuring a freshly observant script and imbued with the immortal sensibilities of the French New Wave, the film, directed and co-written by Joachim Trier, is an invigorating valentine to writers everywhere and a cumulative work of art.


The debut feature from UK filmmaker Martin McDonagh, “In Bruges” (pronounced broozh) is a brazenly irreverent and unexpectedly warm-hearted twist on the all-too-common buddy flick, set in about as appealing a location as one could ask for. I championed this savvy, underrated gem back in March when it saw wide release and it remains the year's most rewarding discovery.


Brimming with passion, James Marsh's thrilling documentary on Phillipe Petit, a French tightrope walker who danced on a cable between New York's Twin Towers in 1974, is a poetic treasure, thoroughly devoted to its subject and seamlessly weaved together from a grab bag of mixed media. It's the most celebratory World Trade Center-themed film to be released post-9/11, making no mention of the tragic attacks and instead observing the powers of artistry and accomplishment.


The greatest triumph to date from the unparalleled wizards at Pixar is at once an intergalactic adventure, a frank commentary on our self-destructive society, a coming-of-age character study, an affectionate throwback to the comedies of the silent era, and one of the most instantly classic love stories of our time – all told with robots. And the film is so flawlessly drawn, with such astonishing photo-realism, that when the gelatinous, bone-mass deprived humans show up, you think, “what are these cartoons doing in my movie?”


Jonathan Demme's poignant domestic drama about a dysfunctional family and its tempestuous black sheep emits such ample amounts of life, love and brutal honesty, it leaves the viewer yearning to hug someone just to share the emotional load. Elevated by Jenny Lumet's alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking script, career-defining performances by Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, and a liberating directorial style that invites us to join the party, this blunt examination of the human condition unfurls with a naturalness that feels organically cultivated by all involved.


Writer/director Christopher Nolan's all-consuming second stab at the Batman franchise exceeded the massive amount of hype surrounding it, thanks to a brilliantly detailed script, equally meticulous production design, and a shockingly strong cast highlighted by soon-to-be posthumous Oscar-winner Heath Ledger. Dark, sprawling, and psychologically complex, “The Dark Knight” isn't just one of the best movies of the year, it's the best superhero movie ever made.


A showcase of magnificent acting, John Patrick Shanley's big screen translation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning morality play boasts the year's most intensely talented ensemble, headlined by the incomparable Meryl Streep. It's also the bearer of the year's most densely layered screenplay, the ingenious ambiguities of which effectively polarize the audience and send the mind reeling. Unblemished, ungarnished, and uncompromising, this enigmatic stunner begs to be seen again...and again.


When it comes to complete realization of vision, hopeful and purposeful determination, socio-political relevance, and sheer emotional heft, nothing edges out “Milk,” American auteur Gus Van Sant's rousingly inspirational and deeply moving biopic of slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. In the title role, Sean Penn gives the year's best male performance, digging deep and finding the gay rights activist's soul. A modern masterpiece, “Milk” is the only film of the year that brought me to tears and brought me to my feet in applause.


The Wrestler, The Visitor, Slumdog Millionaire, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Wanted, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Burn After Reading and Pineapple Express, Planet B-Boy.

Iron Man, The Fall, Mongol, Kung Fu Panda, Be Kind Rewind, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Smart People, I.O.U.S.A., Sex and the City and The Women, A Girl Cut in Two, The Last Mistress.


If this shameless patchwork of southern fried, shell-shocked soldier cliches is the best that writer/director Kimberly Pierce could come up with to address the war in Iraq, I'd hate to see what she left on the cutting room floor. When a single pre-credit, on-screen statistic regarding the title's real-world casualties is more profound than the entire film that preceded it, why even bother?

Habitual video game adapter Paul W.S. Anderson's heavy-handed retooling of Roger Corman's “Death Race 2000” caters to those who like their action fast, noisy, and brainless – and that's about it. Frenetically photographed and edited to a headache-inducing extent and laced with harsh, hackneyed dialogue, the film isn't an entertainment, it's an assault.

Mike Myers' pitiful attempt at a career comeback – a Frankenstein's monster of Deepak Chopra spirituality and scraps from Bollywood's garbage dump – is an offensive, infantile mess in which the once-groovy funny man serves up one gross gag after another. The saddest thing to watch is the 45-year-old's pure, aloof joy in it all, proving he's his number one (and only) fan.

I suffered through this plodding, pretentious bore of a documentary about the aging rocker when it was screened as the closing night selection at the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival. When it finally ended, Smith appeared for a Q&A and a live performance. She entertained. Her film did not.

Gone is the off-the-wall quirkiness of the first installment of this bumbling ethnic duo's misadventures and in its place is dreadfully unfunny humor that ranges from misogynistic to racist to homophobic to idiotic – sometimes all at once. By the time a six foot bag of pot is personified as a sexual being, the embarrassment of simply being in the audience has long set in.

Will Ferrell's latest and most loathsome exercise in selling out lacks a single clever moment and seems to exist solely to perpetuate the former SNL star's insistence on regurgitating the same over-expressive schtick he's been pushing since he left late-night TV. I'd tell you how this nonsensical send-up of the now-defunct American Basketball Association ends, but I walked out halfway through.

Want More? Read LAST YEAR'S LIST.


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