As troubled as this year was, the same audacity of hope that drove people to the polls in November also fueled some of my favorite films of 2008. In the spirit of bi-partisan generosity, I refrain from listing my least favorite films of the year. This is no time to gloat over the losers; instead, let’s pull together for a brighter movie year in 2009!
THE FALL In 1915, injured movie stuntman Lee Pace spins magical stories, Scheherazade-like, to a rapt little girl in filmmaker Tarsem’s visionary epic. Both fairy tale and coming-of-age drama, it combines stunning visual beauty and a beguiling storyline in a witty and artful homage to both the early days of moviemaking, and the power of storytelling. Shot in exotic locations in 18 countries worldwide, this is pure cinema alchemy; prepare to be enraptured.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE What’s an uneducated teenager from the slums of Mumbai doing one question away from a twenty million rupee payoff on a TV quiz show? Dickensian in scope, incisive in its portrait of low and high life, tragedy and comedy, in India’s modern urban sprawl, Danny Boyle’s irresistible film tells an often heartrending story in marvelously buoyant and spirited terms. An amazing story of survival, courage, love, and hope.
MAN ON WIRE A man dances across the sky without CGI effects in James Marsh’s riveting documentary. In August, 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit took his high-wire act to the Twin Towers of the newly constructed World Trade Center of New York City— without a permit, or a net. That we know he makes it in no way lessens the drama, the awe, or the sheer exhilaration of Petit’s extraordinary feat.
YOUNG @ HEART The idea of a chorus of men and women in their seventies to nineties, singing music by the Clash, Coldplay, and James Brown may sound like a Monty Python routine. But Stephen Walker’s backstage documentary about the venerable Northampton, Mass, community chorus adds up to an enormously moving film experience.
IN BRUGES Martin McDonagh’s crime thriller about a pair of Irish hitmen sent to the Belgian city of Bruges to chill out is a moving, cynical and effective morality play. It’s also a subversively funny black comedy of very bad manners, an absurdist riff on the gangster melodrama served up with deadpan aplomb by pros Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes. No movie this brutal and bloody should be this much fun.
MILK Sean Penn’s engaging, heartfelt, humorous performance introduces a new generation to the ebullient Harvey Milk, whose journey from scruffy shopkeeper in the Castro, to openly gay SF Supervisor, to murdered icon helped transform gay activism into a human rights crusade that continues to this day.
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY That it’s so worth the effort to discover the humanity and depth beneath the goofball exterior of a working-class grammar school teacher is due to a faultless performance from leading lady Sally Hawkins, and the skill with which veteran British filmmaker Mike Leigh tells her story—suggesting it’s up to each of us whether we choose to embrace life with tolerance or waste it in fear.
THE BAND’S VISIT A goodwill mission goes askew in this humane, slyly comic fable from Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin, in which the members of an Egyptian police force band encounter one snafu after another when they arrive for the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in a small Israeli town. The theme of finding common humanity in whatever circumstance as a balm for loneliness gives the film a powerful resonance.
FUGITIVE PIECES Jeremy Podeswa’s beautifully rendered adaptation of Anne Michaels’ novel concerns a young Jewish boy smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Poland by a Greek archaeologist (the fine Serbian actor Rade Serbedzija), who attempts to both honor and escape the memories of his past as a young man. An eloquent, passionate rhapsody on whether the past haunts us, or the other way around.
I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG The assurance of French filmmaker Philippe Claudel’s storytelling is matched by an exquisite performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as a prodigal sister on a wary collision course with family life after 15 years in prison. She infuses the screen with steel and grace in this tender, tough-minded meditation on love, loss, and the nature of forgiveness.
GONZO: THE LIFE AND WORK OF DR. HUNTER S. THOMPSON Celebrated journalist Thompson not only got the story, he was the story, as portrayed in this provocative, entertaining Alex Gibney documentary.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN What better place for a vampire than the almost eternal night of a Swedish winter? An achingly sweet, deeply subversive coming-of-age tale whose horror elements sneak up on the story like a shadow in the dark.
WALL-E Future humans are indolent blobs so coddled by robotic servants we no longer use our decorative legs. It’s up to a plucky little trash-compacting robot with a yen for 1950s pop culture to revitalize humanity and save the planet in this sweet, incisive, very funny Pixar family toon.
THE DUCHESS Bracing and absorbing in its view of the sexual politics of its era, this gorgeous-looking historical drama about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 18th Century ancestor of Diana Spencer, is directed with wit, asperity and finesse by Saul Dibb.
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA Woody Allen’s bittersweet romantic comedy boasts strong, likable characters, and a gorgeous locale. Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and sizzling Spaniards Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz give the comedy its pizzazz.
They Coulda Been Contenders
THE DARK KNIGHT Cool, formidable Christian Bale returns as Batman at war with his own methods. The irreplaceable Heath Ledger delivers a perverse, insanely funny performance of pure rampaging id as the Joker, but it’s all swamped by Christopher Nolan’s dense narrative, incomprehensible action, crashing battles, and thunderous music.
REDBELT The effortless gravity and grace of Chiwetel Ejiofor as a modern jujitsu master on a journey to fulfill his personal warrior code almost convinces us we’re watching something special. But the idea that a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do hardly qualifies as motivational logic.
BURN AFTER READING Basically the same plot as the Coen Brothers’ last movie, No Counry For Old Men, done as slapstick farce: no one has a moral compass, violence is random, greed prevails. Too bad a deft cast led by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand couldn’t make us care about any of it.