This list is accurate as of post-date. So many films and not enough time to see them all, the potential for future change is inevitable, but as of today here are the best …
I don’t know what precipitated 2008 being the year of the World War II movie, but of the 100+ releases I saw, six of them concerned it in some regard. The year saw more than its share of war from all decades with Che, Stop-Loss, Waltz with Bashir, and even Tropic Thunder, however, the Holocaust spent a lot of time on top of the list for movies on the verge of award glory. Only one received a nomination for the coveted Best Picture Oscar, and it was one of my least favorites, The Reader. The two that really impressed me with their fresh take on the psychology of the genocide, Adam Resurrected and Boy in the Striped Pajamas saw no love, but then that’s why I make my own top ten list. A film may be well-made, perfectly acted, and precisely paced, but to me technical genius isn’t the end all be all. No, to me, I need to be touched emotionally somehow, either by the story or the visuals. My favorite films of 2008 were the ones that I left the theatre contemplative and altered in some way. You won’t see many at the Oscars this year, but that’s ok … I can watch and shake my head when lesser films take the golden bald men my ragtag bunch of cinema deserved.
Films not seen yet that have potential of creeping into the top 10:
Appaloosa; Changeling; Frozen River; Happy-Go-Lucky; Saibogujiman kwenchana [I’m a Cyborg]; My Winnipeg; Surveillance; Synecdoche, New York; Towelhead; Transsiberian
Honorable Mention (in reverse order):
Milk, review: In a genre that doesn’t usually appeal to me, Milk really did it right. Showing just a specific period of Harvey Milk’s life, without boring us in mundane details or glossing over important facts to fit in more life-story, Gus Van Sant tells the tale with love and objectivity. Sean Penn deserves Best Actor; I just hope he doesn’t win it, (but more on that later).
Son of Rambow, review: Garth Jennings shows the heart he infused Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with, only on a more touching scale. It portrays two boys living out their imaginations and a surprising friendship to make their lives meaningful amongst the hardships of growing up. Funny, touching, and inventive—it’s British all the way and great throughout.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, review: A staggering documentary showing that even a planned film can take turns no one could expect. What was to be a story documenting a fallen friend becomes a letter to a son that would never see his father. And then, in a disturbing twist of fate, becomes something completely different. Needs to be experienced firsthand to fully grasp the devastation and hope for the future.
The Dark Knight, review: Could it be the best superhero movie of all time? Yes, it can, if I could truly call it a superhero film. The Dark Knight rises above those conventions and stereotypes to become a magnificent feat of cinema. And with a stirring portrayal of chaos by the late Heath Ledger will be very hard to top, even for Chris Nolan if he decides to make a third.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, review: Yes, I’ve heard and understand the comparisons to Forrest Gump, but I believe that even if this is a copy, it is a better one. You must buy into the fantasy of it all to enjoy it, however, with the performances, stunning visuals, and incomparable special effects in aging, it’d be hard to not believe it all.
The Top Ten of 2009 (in reverse order):
10. The Brothers Bloom, review: Rian Johnson follows his stellar debut Brick with something that may at first seem lighter, but ends up being just as taut a suspense thriller. A memorable addition to the “con-man” genre of crime capers, the humor and heavy emotional drama meld together perfectly.
9. My Blueberry Nights, review: People tell me I should not like this film, that it is lesser Wong Kar-Wai and doesn’t even deserve mention. However, despite a couple flaws in acting, I was enthralled throughout. Both mesmerized by the stunning cinematography and the subtle beauty of Norah Jones, it grabbed a hold and never let go.
8. Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In), review: Complete with possibly the best sequence shot all year—a static frame of a school swimming pool, you’ll understand when you watch it—the atmosphere is so cold and sterile that the creepiness of this vampire film never lets up, especially with the warmth and love attempting to come across between our two young leads.
7. Snow Angels, review: It will land a devastating blow to your stomach as the bottom finally drops after over an hour of tense set-up. A tragedy by the definition of the term, I am so glad this was my introduction to David Gordon Green and not Pineapple Express (although I loved that one too).
6. Seven Pounds, review: I know I shouldn’t have this film so high on my list. I know it’s sentimental and contrived and tugs at the heartstrings. However, I’d be lying to myself if I left it off. Will Smith shines and the story stayed with me well after the credits rolled. And for me, that means so much more than whether it was original or substantial in an artistic sense.
5. Revolutionary Road, review: A powerhouse performance from Kate Winslet, (more deserving of an Oscar nomination than her turn in The Reader), and the supporting role of the year from Michael Shannon if not for Ledger’s sure win, Sam Mendes got the emptiness of suburbia as well as, if not better then, contemporary Todd Field. A character piece more than a plot-based narrative, you will see yourself superimposed in these lost creatures and hope you find a way to get your life on track so you don’t suffer their same fate.
4. Slumdog Millionaire, review: Feel good movie of the year? Most definitely. Danny Boyle can do no wrong as he takes a script that actually uses contrivances and “lazy writing” to make it succeed. A boy’s life had just the right experiences in it to answer the questions on a game show to win a million dollars and find the love of his life. It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t take us for an amazing journey, and yet it is all the more successful because it does just that.
3. Rachel Getting Married, review: Was there an accidental family murder caused by drug abuse in my family? No. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t see myself, and my immediate family members, transposed over the characters in Jenny Lumet’s screenwriting debut. At times hard to watch and at others tough to get the smile off your face, Jonathan Demme crafts a film so real that you feel as though you just watched your own home movie.
2. The Wrestler, review: Is the story any more unique than the last down-on-his-luck ex-celebrity clawing his way back into the one thing he’s ever been good at? Absolutely not. But when you watch Mickey Rourke play that part, a mirror image of his own resurrection in Hollywood, you can’t help but believe it is. My hope for Best Actor and a continuation of Darren Aronofsky’s perfect filmography, The Wrestler shows us how we all live in multiple worlds and, while we hope they can all go on simultaneously, we know that in the end one must be chosen. Life is only worth living if you can find love somewhere in it. If it’s from your family, your lover, your fans, your dog, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you learn to love yourself and what you are as a testament to it.
1. The Fall, review: Tarsem Singh creates a visionary epic that he himself says in a documentary on the DVD will fail if the hospital scenes do not work. Without the success of Roy and Alexandria’s relationship to make the fantasy sequences relevant, the film would be nothing more than a long music video. Fortunately, young Catinca Untaru is marvelous and her journey with Lee Pace’s Roy in reality and in their minds envelops you completely. Stunning from start to finish, if it really did take Tarsem three years to complete, I congratulate him for sticking with it, because he molded a masterpiece.