Last wrap up of the year, I promise. And this is the one nearest and dearest to my heart. I had something of a breakthrough in film watching during the course of 2008. I’m not sure exactly what it was but in previous years I would be hard pressed to come up with 10 films I saw worthy of praise and this year I have a solid top 20. It’s possible I’m easing up on my snobbery or it’s possible that I’m becoming more in tune with what I like to see in a film and am able to seek it out. Attending a few film festivals during the year certainly doesn’t hurt. No matter the case, I consider 2008 to be the best year in a long time despite many critics insisting that it’s a pale comparison to the riches of 2007. So, before we get to the top 20, a few other quick notes.
My votes for the top 5 posters of the year are as follows. (Click to see)
3. The Bank Job
I’m no Bat nut but the marketing campaign that Warner Bros. put together for that film was outstanding. It made me totally forget how boring Batman Begins was and my anticipation for the follow-up grew with each new bit of leaked promotion. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one. Now, the other piece of the marketing puzzle is the trailer and although the one for Bruce Wayne and company was pretty damn good, it’s not my pick for the best of the year. This is.
Alright, alright. There’s movies to endorse so I’ll get cracking. I should mention to start out with that there are a couple of movies that I think could crack this list if I had only seen them. They are Momma’s Man, Ballast, The Class and Dear Zachary. Anything else that I see in the future and love will be a complete surprise. Sooooooo……..
LUKE AND BRIE ARE ON A FIRST DATE
Okay, okay. I directed this movie so I didn’t want to include it on the chart with the rest of the real movies but I’m sure I’ll already get accused of some kind of narcissism for even mentioning it like this. It’s not that I necessarily think it’s as good as the rest of the movies that I saw this year, but there’s no doubt that when I look back on 2008 from the future, the film that will define the year for me is this one. And I think it’s pretty good. There. Now that’s out of the way.
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
Directed by Errol Morris
What could easily have been another in a long line of anti-George Bush political documentaries released to capitalize on declining public approval ratings is instead a fascinating study on the power of photography and images. The Abu Ghraib scandal is one of the darkest moments in modern American history and all the major players get a chance to tell their side of the story, which doesn’t wind up doing much to change our opinion of them or their actions. It does, however, wind up becoming a sharp, percipient look at how warfare and accountability is evolving in the digital era.
YOU, THE LIVING
Directed by Roy Andersson
I won’t pretend to know what Roy Andersson is getting at throughout the course of this film. He calls it “a film about the grandeur of existing” and it may well be as pretentious as that makes it sound. But actually, I wouldn’t blame someone for leaving this film thinking that Andersson hates people and wants us to laugh at them. Finding humor in tragedy and loneliness is really one of the only things that ties the series of vignettes together but it’s so watchable because I’m in love with the aesthetics of his films. Beautiful static frames and very deliberate blocking that can get a laugh out of someone just appearing in a doorway. The sound design, the editing, the timing of the dialogue is all slightly surreal and it’s not for everyone but I could watch it all day.
Directed by David Gordon Green
When trying to figure out which films were gonna make this list and which weren’t I got stuck comparing this to “Burn After Reading”. While I had ultimately viewed “Pineapple” as a disappointment, I left the theater after seeing “Burn” begrudgingly admitting that it was an above average film. But David Green’s film, for all of it’s flaws, is infinitely more likable because when it hits, it soars. Seth Rogen and James Franco combined to make a formidable comic duo with Franco especially knocking his contribution out of the park. As a film about friendship and marijuana, it’s a masterpiece. As an action film, it’s less interesting and successful, but still laugh out loud funny.
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Another film that was ultimately a bit of a disappointment but only because it couldn’t compete with its own brilliance from the first half to the second. A nearly flawless thirty minutes is spent on the development of characters and relationships using nothing but sound, beahviour and clips from Hello Dolly. Things go awry when humans enter the picture and the film becomes too plot-heavy for its own good but whenever it’s just a couple of robots expressing all they can for each other, the movie is dynamite. And it goes without saying that the visuals are beautiful.
Directed by Gus Van Sant
As a huge Gus Van Sant fan, my biggest fear was that this would be a paint-by-numbers biopic akin with Ray or Walk the Line with speeches substituted for musical performances. In truth, it kind of is and the screenplay, by Dustin Lance Black, is the weakest link in the production. Why I think it works is because of two things. First and foremost is Sean Penn’s brilliant performance, his best since Sweet and Lowdown. Playing richly against his public persona and seemingly having a wonderful time, Penn’s joy was infectuous. Second is that even though the structure of the film is borrowed from the “Wikipedia-biopics” as I call them, Van Sant was able to populate it with enough variety and authenticity that I felt I was getting something from each new speech or appearance. A greater sense of what that movement was like or what it meant to the people involved. The effect Milk was having on other people and not just vice versa. A sense of environment and place and time, something solely lacking in music biopics where performances serve to sell the cd’s more than move the story.
HOTEL VERY WELCOME
Directed by Sonja Heiss
This little ditty never saw U.S. distribution but I caught it at the Los Angeles Film Festival on a whim and left fully satisfied. Following a number of western tourists on vacation for various reasons in different eastern locations, what could have easily been an excuse to film fish-out-of-water antics in exotic locations instead becomes a restrained and fascinating film on the abuse of third world culture by first world tourists looking to “find themselves”. The acting isn’t always top notch but the paths taken by the filmmaker and her script are never the easy ones and it marks a very promising debut for the 32 year old.
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
An anti-Slumdog Millionaire focusing on the day to day life of a poor orphan in Queens working at a car repair lot and trying to save money for a taco truck he can run with his sister. Director Bahrani clearly loves his characters and treats his audience with respect by showing hardships but not worst case scenarios to drum up instant sympathy. The slice of life piece is made more believable by the fantastic performances by mostly non-actors and wonderful camera work by Michael Simmonds.
TROUBLE THE WATER
Directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
Not that I’ve seen very many, but I can’t imagine anything else rivaling this film for the title of quintessential Katrina documentary. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin should thank their lucky stars that they ran into Kimberly Roberts because her first hand footage of the disaster is leaps and bounds more visceral, interesting and emotional than anything they could have hoped to capture. Never reducing itself to over politcizing or an overkill of news clips, the film wisely focuses on just one family’s story and tells us everything we need to know. Specifics create universality and only some filmmakers seem to realize it.
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY
Directed by Barry Jenkins
A simple story about two people trying to get to know each other after a one night stand is given added depth by a look at the gentrification and racial divisions of San Francisco. What has the ingredients to be just written off as a Before Sunrise copycat instead becomes a beautiful look at finding a connection amidst the bigger concern of finding your place in the world. Beautifully shot on HD by James Laxton and featuring strong performances and pitch-perfect music selections, director Barry Jenkins has crafted something unique, both in the context of the mumblecore movement and in African American cinema in general.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Directed by Werner Herzog
I recently sat through Grizzly Man, annoyed at how Herzog insisted on inserting himself as a character and analyzing the moments on screen within an inch of their life. So I was not expecting much from his latest film, which is why it was so surprising to watch exactly what I never knew I always wanted a documentary on Antarctica to be. Inherently fascinating, Herzog doesn’t shy away from the scientific aspects of why the continent is unique but is definitely more interested in the philosophical questions that arise when confonted with the “edge of the world”. Throw in lovingly humorous looks at the locals and you have everything that a documentary should be.
THE BAND’S VISIT
Directed by Eran Kolirin
Along with You, the Living, this film is probably the strongest stylistic influence on how I want to make my next film. Every shot is beautifully economical and perfectly composed, complimenting a simple story about strangers in a strange land. The relationship that builds between Sasson Gabai and Ronit Elkabetz is one of the best all year. Unfortunately, a plot point for plot point’s sake mucks it up at the end but not enough to spoil the journey. Really, really sweet movie.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Horror movies are kind of like rap music, in that when they are done right, there are few things more visceral or exciting. Unfortunately, they are rarely done right. But here, Tomas Alfredson seems totally uninterested in scaring the audience and much more concerned with the story of a budding young romance, achieving success on both counts in the process. The look and feel of the film is so tangible that I thought I was either going crazy or someone was messing with the thermostat in the theater.
THE DARK KNIGHT
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Best moviegoing experience of the year, no contest. Sold out audience at 12:15 am and we were all blown away. Not that I think the movie is perfect but I was still blown away by how much of it they got right, and this is coming from someone bored to tears by Batman Begins. From the unconventional score to the reliance on practical effects and stunt work, I was consistently impressed with the direction that Nolan took this juggernaut of a franchise. Ledger is fantastic but it’s Gary Oldman who puts in a flawless performance as a man, like Batman, doing what he can with what he has to make the city a better place.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Most unpleasant moviegoing experience of the year, no contest. Seriously, why would anybody want to watch a film like this? To be startled by fearless direction and fierce originality. Steve McQueen creates some of the most indelible images of the year (decade?) with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and it’s a good thing too since pure visual storytelling makes up roughly 80% of the runtime. The only dialogue, more or less, all comes from one, genius 17 minute static shot. Structured in a completely unique way where the protagonist switches from reel to reel before settling on Michael Fassbender who carries us through a gutting finale, I can’t imagine a more startling filmmaking debut.
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Another depress-a-thon, and another film that showcases breathtaking economy with the shot selection. Perfectly scripted and performed and a great example of a film that knows exactly what it wants to be and can be without reaching for an inch too far. Anamaria Marinca got a lot of good ink for her performance in this but for my money, the movie belongs to Vlad Ivanov, who owns the screen every second he’s on it.
WENDY AND LUCY
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Heartbreaking portrait of life on the poverty line without really being a portrait of life on the poverty line. Literally, it’s a movie about a girl losing her dog and her car breaking down, but anybody who lives their life from check to check will find themselves uncomfortably familiar with the hopelessness that often comes along with life’s curveballs. Michelle Williams is completely natural and subdued, carrying the film with the ease of a movie star but none of the baggage. Truly a shining example of 21st century American independent film.
NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS
Directed by Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg
I happen to know Joe Swanberg and have watched his movies mature so maybe you can take this placement with a grain of salt but man this film knocked me out. As a veteran of not one, but two long distance relationships as well as a cripplingly difficult to navigate transition period towards friendship after a breakup, I felt like I was watching something a little too close to home. The performances of Joe and Greta are so natural that I honestly felt like I was seeing things I didn’t believe were possible to capture on screen. Not everyone will feel that way.
MAN ON WIRE
Directed by James Marsh
I remember reading about this film at Tribeca. “Oh, he walks on a wire between the two towers, that’s cool”. When I finally saw it at the L.A. Film Festival and it got to the part where he actually walks, I was weeping. James Marsh makes you understand what that walk really is, which is an expression of art. A dream realized. A limit undone. Cleverly staged re-enactments for once add to the documentary and not distract while the key players all retell the story with no detail forgotten. The real gold comes from Petit himself, in both the manic energy he brings to his recollections and the wonderful archive footage he had taken during the planning stages. Phenomenal use of old Michael Nyman and Erik Satie tracks as well.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Fresher in my mind than the number one choice, I was tempted to crown this the best film of 2008, but alas, it’ll have to settle for runner up. A monumental leap forward for the directing duo behind Half Nelson, there’s not a false note to be found in this wonderfully original story about a Dominican baseball player attempting to adjust to life in America and the minor leagues. More than once, I thought I had the story pegged only to discover that I wasn’t even close and the filmmakers were taking a much more challenging road and the final shot is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. Seriously, I hate baseball and I love this movie.
Directed by Gus Van Sant
It’s lame to call one film more cinematic than another but there’s something to be said for the way that Gus Van Sant uses and abuses cinematic language to tell his story about a young skater. In particular, the sound design goes leaps and bounds beyond what other filmmakers even consider doing. But the cinematography, editing and music selections are also flirting with insanity. Yet somehow it all forms a perfect whole and a telling portrait of one teenager’s psychology. It’s films like this that make me think I’m stupid for liking simplicity. For preferring everything to be rooted in reality. Because when a film like this comes along, and a filmmaker shows you how the tools that are inherently exclusive to cinema can be used so perfectly to illicit the feelings and emotions of a character, I really rediscover my passion for the art.
I said after I saw Paranoid Park back in March that if I saw a better movie this year, it would be a fantastic year for cinema. I didn’t, but it still was and I’m excited to see what people come up with in 2009. Hopefully, I can get my ass in gear and possibly have something ready myself. Just cobble together a script and a crew, shoot some shit and premiere it at Venice. Boom!
This post is really long I know but it’s about to get longer. Here now is who I would nominate if I was in charge of the Academy Awards. Winners in bold.
Man on Wire
Nights and Weekends
Wendy and Lucy
Christopher Nolan – THE DARK KNIGHT
Steve McQueen – HUNGER
Tomas Alfredson – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Gus Van Sant – PARANOID PARK
Kelly Reichardt – WENDY AND LUCY
Sasson Gabai – THE BAND’S VISIT
Michael Fassbender – HUNGER
Sean Penn – MILK
James Franco – PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
Mickey Rourke – THE WRESTLER
Juliette Binoche – FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON
Sally Hawkins – HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Greta Gerwig – NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS
Eleanore Hendricks – THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED
Michelle Williams -WENDY AND LUCY
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Vlad Ivanov – 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS
Gary Oldman – THE DARK KNIGHT
Heath Ledger – THE DARK KNIGHT
Eddie Marsan – HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Chris O’Dowd – HOTEL VERY WELCOME
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Ronit Elkabetz – THE BAND’S VISIT
Jane Lynch – ROLE MODELS
Dianne Wiest – SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Michelle Williams – SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Marisa Tomei – THE WRESTLER
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Cristian Mungiu – 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS
Eran Kolirin – THE BAND’S VISIT
Steve McQueen, Enda Walsh – HUNGER
Barry Jenkins – MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY
Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck – SUGAR
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan – THE DARK KNIGHT
John Ajvide Lindqvist – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Gus Van Sant – PARANOID PARK
David Gordon Green – SNOW ANGELS
Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt – WENDY AND LUCY
Wally Pfister – THE DARK KNIGHT
Sean Bobbitt – HUNGER
Hoyte Van Hoytema – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
James Laxton – MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY
Christopher Doyle – PARANOID PARK
Arik Leibovitch – THE BAND’S VISIT
Elliot Graham – MILK
Gus Van Sant – PARANOID PARK
Olivier Bugge Coutte – REPRISE
Mike Burchett, Kelly Reichardt – WENDY AND LUCY
BEST ART DIRECTION
Donald Graham Burt – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Nathan Crowley – THE DARK KNIGHT
Tom McCullagh – HUNGER
Bill Groom – MILK
Ralph Eggleston – WALL·E
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Burt Dalton, Eric Barba, Jim Kundig – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber, Peter J. Franklin – THE DARK KNIGHT
Jens Mårtensson, Kalle Schröder, Kaj Steveman – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Damien Canelos, Will Files, Douglas Murray, Ed White – CLOVERFIELD
Richard King, Ed Novick, Hamilton Sterling – THE DARK KNIGHT
Felix Andrew, Leslie Shatz – PARANOID PARK
Glenn Freemantle, Resul Pookutty, Tom Sayers – SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Ben Burtt, Matthew Wood – WALL·E
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer – THE DARK KNIGHT
James Newton Howard – THE HAPPENING
Danny Elfman – MILK
Jeff McIlwain, David Wingo – SNOW ANGELS
Thomas Newman – WALL·E
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Dracula’s Lament” by Jason Segal – FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
“O. . . Saya” by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam – SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
“Back and Forth” by Jon Brion – STEP BROTHERS
“I’m Amazing” by Kimberly Rivers – TROUBLE THE WATER
“The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen – THE WRESTLER
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Jacqueline West – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Lindy Hemming – THE DARK KNIGHT
Maria Strid – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Danny Glicker – MILK
Judy Shrewsbury – MISTER LONELY
Greg Cannom – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Jackie Fowler, Paul Hyett – HUNGER
John Blake, Gerald Quist – TROPIC THUNDER
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser – ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
James Marsh, Simon Chinn – MAN ON WIRE
Benson Lee, Amy Lo – PLANET B-BOY
Errol Morris, Julie Ahlberg – STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
Carl Deal, Tia Lessin – TROUBLE THE WATER
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Cristian Mungiu, Oleg Mutu – 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS
Eran Kolirin, Ehud Bleiberg, Koby Gal-Raday, Guy Jacoel, Eylon Ratzkovsky, Yossi Uzrad – THE BAND’S VISIT
Sonja Heiss, Maren Ade, Christian Cloos, Janine Jackowski – HOTEL VERY WELCOME
Tomas Alfredson, Carl Molinder, John Nordling – LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Roy Andersson, Pernilla Sandström – YOU, THE LIVING
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Mark Osborne, John Stevenson, Melissa Cobb – KUNG FU PANDA
Andrew Stanton, Jim Morris – WALL·E
BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Doug Sweetland – PRESTO
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Beinh Zeitlin – GLORY AT SEA