The Top Ten Films of 2008
From the very opening shot of Carlos Reygadas’ sublime “Silent Light,” we know we’re in for something special. Fading in on a night sky, Reygadas pulls his camera back for minutes on end, revealing a breathtaking, almost real time sunrise. It is a harbinger of the hushed, solemn nature of the film to come, which traces the lives of a family of German Mennonites living in Mexico, whose patriarch is struggling with issues of God and faith, brought on by an illicit affair with another woman. Paying honor to Carl Dreyer’s classic “Ordet” both in theme and in its miraculous, haunting finale, “Silent Light” still manages to stand alone as a masterpiece in its own right, exploring the depths of human nature and its connection to the divine through the power of sheer silence, and the smallness of human problems in the awesome face of nature. No other film this year probed so deeply.
There is some minor disagreement between critics and journalists over what year this film belongs in, after a one week, one theater Oscar qualifying run in Los Angeles last year. But what is not under debate is the film’s greatness. Cristian Mungiu’s brilliant “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” is a staggering achievement, a disquietingly understated drama about a young woman and her best friend trying to procure an illegal, back street abortion in Communist era Romania. Both pro-choice and pro-life camps have tried to claim this film for their own devices, but what both sides seem to miss is this really isn’t a film about abortion so much as oppression. Mungiu deftly avoids politics to craft an unnerving, psychologically brutal landmark in the burgeoning Romanian New Wave (which has previously spawned such excellent films as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “12:08 East of Bucharest”), that stands proudly on the vanguard of one of cinema’s most exciting new movements.
Certainly the year’s most ambitious film, acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is also one of its most divisive. It’s hard to deny the scope of Kaufman’s vision, which plays out like a quirkier, more downbeat version of Federico Fellini’s “8 ½” – a sprawling, introspective narrative that folds in on itself more times than it is possible to count, but showcases an artist at the height of his powers. Few subjects inspired self-indulgence more than an artist’s examination of his own craft, but Kaufman’s wild soul searching is the heartbreaking examination of a tortured artist, both impenetrable and instantly recognizable. “Synecdoche, New York” is a beautiful conundrum wrapped in an enigma that makes for one of the year’s most rewarding cinematic experiences.
There are few actors who could have pulled off the foul mouthed, unapologetically racist Walt Kowalski, the central character of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” other than Eastwood himself. But true to form, he pulls it off admirably, both as an actor and a director. As a director, Eastwood has turned this simple tale of a salty old Korean War vet’s redemption through his friendship with a Hmong family under siege by a dangerous group of gangbangers into a perfectly modulated, unsentimentalized reflection on a career spent playing tough guys and killers. “Gran Torino” is a perfect summation of Eastwood’s career as an artist up to this point, setting aside the iconic Dirty Harry persona and finding something much deeper - an ideal for an America that no longer exists, and hope for a future of a country lost and looking for absolution.
When was the last time a kid’s movie made you think? The animation wizards at Pixar have always been reliable to turn out top quality children’s movies that can appeal to everyone, but nothing could have prepared us for this. “WALL-E” is part silent comedy in the tradition of Charles Chaplin and Jacques Tati, part science fiction epic, part environmental warning, and all heart. Through the use of some of the most gorgeous animation ever seen (and classic tunes from “Hello, Dolly!”), “WALL-E” is more than just a cute movie about funny robots, it is a tender love story featuring some of the most disarmingly human characters of the year, in the form of a little trash compacting robot named WALL-E and a plant seeking probe named EVE, whose love for one another rescues our ruined planet hundreds of years in the future.
There is a reason this film is racking up critics awards by the truckload this season. “Slumdog Millionaire” is a crowd pleaser in the very best sense of the word – a classic rags to riches story with a rousing Bollywood bent. It takes real talent to turn the story of a boy who goes on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” to reconnect with the lost love of his life into pure cinema magic, but Danny Boyle pulls it off with the help of winning performances from a cast of unknowns and A.R. Rahman’s exuberant Bollywood infused score. The end credits sequence alone will send you soaring out of the theater.
The words “animated” and “documentary” aren’t usually heard in the same sentence, but Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” is a very rare hybrid. Following the director’s quest to uncover repressed memories about Israel’s war against Lebanon in the 1980s, “Waltz with Bashir” is a haunting journey into the dreams and nightmares of soldiers who have seen the face of death.. The animation is lyrical and often surreal, taking elements both absurd and tragic, and fusing them into one of the year's most endlessly fascinating and compelling films. It is an elegy not just for the innocent civilians who lost their lives in a violent conflict, but to the young men who lost their souls along the way.
Director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain”) trades in his trademark surrealism for raw, gritty realism in this hard hitting drama about Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed up, has-been former pro wrestler who now lives out his days working as in a grocery store stock room while doing low rent matches and autograph signings at American Legion posts just to get by; but when the chance comes up for a rematch with his old nemesis, he jumps back in the ring for one last chance at glory. Mickey Rourke is a marvel as Randy, summoning up the soul of a man who may be down but not out. This is not a typical “Rocky-esque” underdog story, Aronofsky instead makes it about a man willing to do anything to able to do what he loves, to overcome hard economic times (a recurring theme in many of the year’s best films) and rediscover the man inside the shell. It’s a remarkable film and a performance for the ages.
It’s ironic that the year that gave us “Twilight” also gave us this film. While millions of screaming teenage fans lined up for that film, another, far superior, vampire love story slipped quietly into theaters. The story of a timid, bullied 12 year old boy and the androgynous little vampire girl he falls in love with, “Let the Right One In” is a much deeper kind of romance. Where “Twilight” is chaste and shallow, “Let the Right One In” plays out like a snow swept gothic fairy tale, as dark and macabre as it is tender and beautiful. It is a perfect blend of horror and romance, taking the age old vampire myth and making it feel fresh and new again. Never has a bloody massacre been so heartwarming.
Made in 2006, but not released in the US until 2008, “Still Life” is about two people searching for their estranged spouses in the flood zones created by China’s Three Gorges Dam, the largest engineering project in the world, that is damming up the Yangtze river and swallowing entire towns its rising waters. This film, along with the excellent documentary “Up the Yangtze,” takes a poignant look at the families and lives displaced by floods, in the name of meaningless progress (the dam, when completed, will only supply 3% of the nation’s energy). It is with that mournful construct that Zhang forms his simple, finely tuned narrative of people attempting to rebuild their pasts, and turns it into something deeply moving and instantly accessible, even to foreign eyes. “Still Life” is more than just a window into a disappearing world, it is a requiem for the soul of a nation.
THE READER (Stephen Daldry, USA)
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (Sam Mendes, USA)
THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, USA)
WENDY AND LUCY (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Werner Herzog, USA)
XXY (Lucia Puenzo, Argentina)
MAN ON WIRE (James Marsh, UK)
THE BAND’S VISIT (Eran Kolirin, Israel)
PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE (Steven Sebring, USA)
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (David Fincher, USA)
MILK (Gus Van Sant, USA)
HUNGER (Steve McQueen, Ireland)