2008's Top Ten Films

When I think about film today I worry. Now some of that is just me. I come from a long line of Jewish worriers. That’s just part of our DNA. The classic Jewish telegram is “Start worrying. Details to follow.” But there’s good reason to worry. The film industry was hit by the writers’ strike and may be hit again with an actors’ strike. Major studios are laying people off. Independent distributors and studios’ art-house specialty units are folding. Much of this was happening even before the recession and the nation’s economic downturn will only make these problems worse.

To top it off, 2008 was not a great year for films. Up until the fall/winter Oscar season, the pickings were often slim. Many of the art house theaters shuffled films in and out so quickly that by the time you heard about one, it was gone.

Still, I am writing this column in the wake of the inauguration, and in that spirit I am trying to be positive. Overall, the year did have plenty to offer. Sometimes you had to really look for the gems, but they were there. And thanks to Netflix and other similar services, it’s never too late to make new discoveries. There are some good ones in my Honorable Mention list:

Burn After Reading
The Dark Knight
The Duchess
Gran Torino
I’ve Loved You So Long
The Reader
Tropic Thunder

My top ten, as always, are an eclectic bunch. Many emphasize character, while others have ingenious plots. Some are uplifting, while a couple break your heart. What unites these films is a refusal to play down to the least common denominator. Through their stories, their design, and their craft, they show a true respect for their audience:

10. Timecrimes (dir. Nacho Vigalondo) – Timecrimes, from Spain, slipped in and out of theaters almost unnoticed. That’s a shame, because this thriller is one of the most intriguing looks at time travel. It takes both a micro and a macro look at the concept. It’s micro in the sense that all of the action and all of the time travel takes place within one day. It’s macro in the sense that it begs the question of whether you have free will if the future is predetermined. Writer-director Vigalondo tells the same story from three different vantage points. Each time around is more gripping then the first, because you are filling in what you know from before. Vigalondo also challenges the audience by changing what you think about the characters. Is the lead a hero or a villain? Either way it’s a bravura performance by Karra Elejalde, one that adds to the stellar work of Vigalondo. This masterful film should not be overlooked, and I hope it will get a second chance on DVD.

9. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (dir. Marina Zenovich) – Like many, I knew the basic facts about the Roman Polanski statutory rape case, but this engaging and comprehensive documentary provides a whole new understanding. Zenovich does not try to excuse or justify Polanski’s abhorrent acts. Instead, she shows how his case became a miscarriage of justice. Zenovic skillfully builds her own case against Polanski’s judge, a publicity hound who let his own prejudices cloud his judgement. She does this by including not only Polanski’s lawyers, but also the prosecutors. Together they all show how this misguided judge served neither Polanski, the victim, nor justice itself.

8. Revolutionary Road (dir. Sam Mendes) – Some critics described Revolutionary Road as another film critique of suburbia, but it’s much more than that. At its core the film is an arresting portrayal of a disintegrating marriage. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play a couple that is, in many ways, charming and attractive. It’s a tribute to these actors talent that they can slowly strip away the surface and expose the emptiness underneath. It’s also a testament to Justin Haythe’s excellent screenplay, adapted from the novel by Richard Yates. Mendes creates a stark, antiseptic environment that completely accents the characters. Michael Shannon deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination for his scene stealing turn as a mental patient who tells the unforgiving truth. Revolutionary Road never takes the easy way out and becomes a quintessential American tragedy.

7. Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme) – A prodigal daughter returns to her family from drug rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. It’s easy to think of the ways this story could have been preachy and melodramatic. Rachel Getting Married avoids those traps and feels authentic from beginning to end. Jenny Lumet’s script works by establishing the characters and than drawing the story from them. Anne Hathaway has garnered much of the attention for her complex, layered performance. But the film works as much due to the superb supporting cast including Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Rosmarie DeWitt and Debra Winger (nice to see her back on the screen). Demme’s documentary-style hand-held camera work gives the film a “fly on the wall” quality that fits the story perfectly. You feel like you know this family. Warts and all, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

6. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle) – Who would have thought that the “feel good movie of the year” would be set largely in the Mumbai slums? Boyle never trivializes the hardship and squalor of the setting. In fact, he shot much of the film in the slums and used many of the local kids. But from these slums, he is able to draw out magic and romance. His brisk style keeps the film vibrant and fun. The cast is a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, but they all inhabit their roles so well that you can’t tell the difference. Simon Beaufoy’s script, based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, cleverly uses a game show as a framing device to show how an orphan in the slums survives and pursues the love of his life. When the film becomes sentimental it feels right because it's earned, not forced.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher) – Just the digital effects here are worth the price of admission. Fincher and his crew make Benjamin Button age backwards so convincingly that you almost stop thinking about it. But the film is so much more. As Button, Brad Pitt is often contemplative and restful. While an interesting character in his own right, he also becomes the vessel for this meditation on life’s fragility. Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson also shine in key supporting roles. In other films, Fincher excelled at showing darkness in men’s souls. This time he is no less capable with a more benign type of darkness, the reality that “nothing ever lasts.” Eric Roth, with Robin Swicord, wrote the script from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story. Roth also wrote the script for Forrest Gump, and you will recognize many common elements between these two films. While this journey has the heart and emotion of Gump, it is still unique and it definitely stands on its own.

4. The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky) – Yes, it’s Mickey Rourke’s comeback. Much has been made of the parallels between “Ram” Robinson, Rourke’s role in The Wrestler, and Rourke’s real life. But what’s really important is how raw and courageous he is on screen. He bares his character’s soul in a performance completely free of vanity. Raw also describes Aronofsky’s direction, with none of the flourishes he showed in his earlier films. Besides Rourke, Aronofsky gets strong work from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Aronofsky also wrote the film, which is not only a character study but also a fascinating exposé into the world of professional wrestling, including the subculture and camaraderie among wrestlers. The Wrestler shows how this “sport” chews up its participants and spits them out. Yet somehow Aronofsky and Rourke make you understand why the “Ram” is so drawn to that world. In a sense The Wrestler is a requiem for any athlete who just can’t walk away.

3. Man on Wire (dir. James Marsh) – How can a documentary be so suspenseful when you already know the story’s outcome? Philippe Petit and his friends snuck into the Twin Towers one night in 1974. They stretched a wire between the two towers and Petit walked across it. Petit himself narrates Man on Wire. His enthusiasm and charisma permeate the whole film. Marsh is meticulous, taking you step-by-step into how the plan was conceived and executed. He also interviews the rest Petit’s gang, giving the story more depth and context. Man on Wire makes you feel Petit’s passion for the walk and his joy when he finally makes it. It’s rare to describe a documentary as exhilarating, but the word fits here.

2. WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton) – That Pixar is so good so consistently has almost become boring. Luckily, their films haven’t. Once again, they use the latest in computer animation to tell a story of basic human emotion. That much of the human emotion in WALL-E comes from a robot is even more remarkable. That it’s from a robot who doesn’t talk is astounding. Besides the animators much of the credit goes to sound designer Ben Burtt (who earlier worked on the Star Wars trilogies). He enables the robot to convey more through beeps and chirps than many human actors can through lines of dialogue. WALL-E shrewdly combines the tender, funny love story with a not-so-subtle satire of rampant consumerism. It’s also a beautiful, dazzling film that appeals to the eyes as well as the heart.

1. The Visitor (dir. Thomas McCarthy) – McCarthy, as he did with his first film The Station Agent, shows a talent for picking lesser-known but talented actors and giving them roles that let them flourish. This time it’s Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale, an emotionally distant college professor befriending a pair of illegal immigrants he finds in his apartment. Vale learns African drumming from one of them, and gradually gets a new focus on life. The drumming could have been gimmicky but instead becomes a true means of self-expression. Then after Vale’s friend is detained by the INS, he develops a relationship with the young man’s mother, played by the marvelous Hiam Abbas. The Visitor does criticize immigration policy, but it’s really a more personal film. Jenkins gives a career performance, relying on small looks and gestures as much as dialogue. He slowly peels the layers away from Walter so you can learn who the man is and feel for him. It’s a treat seeing Jenkins and Abbas work together, as these old pros feed off each other, making their scenes memorable. As much as I enjoyed The Visitor, I was disappointed when it ended because I wanted to spend more time with these characters. I could offer no greater tribute to this remarkable film.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2009

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