Tuesday, February 3, 2009

He Said: THE BEST OF 2008

One Man Pays Tribute to His Favorite Films of the Year

By Philosophizing to No End

Here's the bottom line: the goal of this list is to find each film’s essence, to very clearly state what the films mean to me. These are not reviews—some of them don’t even mention what the damn films are about. And that’s okay with me, because hopefully you will read how special these films are to me, and go seek them out to have the same experience. Or have an experience of your own, because I don’t think any year in recent memory has underscored the ambiguity and, more specifically, the subjectivity of film appreciation and film analysis than 2008. One great film reminded me of this very simple fact that I have always strove to uncover in my own screenwriting work: we are all the main characters in our own story.

From my story—from my point of view—these are the best ten films of 2008, with all runners-up included.

The Ten:

One of the funniest lines in any 2008 movie took place near the beginning of Burn After Reading, when a bearded, dorkified George Clooney stuffs his face full of cheese and crackers, looks down, and says with tacky sincerity, “Wow…those are nice floors!” Yes, I know…it probably doesn’t make much sense to read it now. Until you see it.

This film is brilliant, inspired lunacy, pure and simple. The best Coen Brothers films—even at their most serious—are the ones that blend the sinister with the ridiculous and turn them into grandiose spectacles of the absurd. Fargo did that. The Big Lebowski did that. Yes, even No Country for Old Men did that. Burn After Reading does it, too.

It was easy for most critics—coming off the seriousness and profundity of No Country last year—to write Burn off as lightweight. And in the most literal sense, it is lightweight: the entire basis for the film is…nothing. This is essentially a film about idiots running around in circles. The most substantial aspect of the film is the mutual density of each of the characters. But the Coens, as usual, turn idiocy into an artform. They understand that sometimes the magic of the cinema does not lie in the storytelling—it lies in the audience’s collective laughter, joy, fear, even revulsion. That, in a nutshell, describes the pleasure of Burn After Reading—it is a pure, ridiculous joy.

A very simple film that communicates a very profound message. Our society is emerging from an age of cynicism, and there is no greater film that promotes the forthcoming Age of Optimism than Mike Leigh’s story of a woman who is, very simply, happy. She is not suppressing inner demons. She is not putting on a front. She is not disguising a deep psychosis. Poppy, in fact, is a lot wiser than most of us. She chooses to be happy, in spite of the world—perhaps because of it. She chooses to spread joy. She chooses to love. And for her beautiful character, no matter what challenges she faces, she succeeds.

This is brilliant, eloquent filmmaking from Leigh, and features one of the year’s most special performances by Sally Hawkins (the saddest, most astonishing Oscar snub of them all). Happy-Go-Lucky is that rare film that truly inspires our better angels.

Not unlike Burn After Reading in its relentless quirks and dark screwball humor, but touched with a beautiful, undeniable sensitivity. Here is one of the most profane, violent films of the year, and yet at its core is a story of guilt, regret, and despair.

How is such a delicate balance created? It took the work of the newly-minted, wholly-deserving Oscar nominee Martin McDonaugh, whose script toes the line between pitch-black whimsy, hard-boiled crime drama, and soul-searching character study. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of hit men stuck in a heinous tourist trap—one is at peace at the end of his career, and the other is struggling to exorcise the inner demons that have been plaguing him to no end. Their stay in Bruges is marked by violence, oddity—and yes, dwarfs—but somewhere along the way, these characters come to terms with their place in the world. By the end they know what they want, what they need, and what they must do to forgive themselves.

That rare film that stands outside the safety net of deconstructionism. I am still wrestling—seriously, believe me, no pun intended!—with the conclusion of The Wrestler. Why do these characters make the decisions they make? What do those choices mean for the overall fabric of the film? I feel like I need to hear it from the filmmakers. But while my questions remain, the mere fact that I have such lingering curiosity—a nagging need to know—indicates the venerable complexity of the film, and my passionate interest in it.

Randy “The Ram” has survived solely on the nostalgic power of the illusion he once was. He is a character living in “the show.” His opportunity to enter the real world, and the choices he makes when given that opportunity, is where the film touches the soul.

Working from a beautifully spare script by Robert Siegel, the ever-brilliant, ever-sensitive, ever-insightful Darren Aronofsky abandons all flashy stylistic pretenses and lets us feel the raw, bare bones power of the characters’ humanity. Mickey Rourke is an unmatched revelation, playing a character who could easily be seen as an idiot, an oaf, un unsympathetic loser. But in Rourke’s hands, Randy “The Ram” is a mythic hero, a sad, terminally-wounded giant whose heart has been ripped out but whose soul is still holding on for dear life. His journey is relentlessly engaging in its simple power. His choices are at once endlessly frustrating and wholly true. His life was a show, and he may be incapable of surviving off the stage.

A broken man returns to his long-vacant New York apartment. When he arrives, he discovers an unexpected tenant. His first reaction is typical—fear, anger, a lack of understanding—the unmistakable traits of American hubris. But for some reason—be it careful discernment, a broken-down will, or just simple desperation—he calms himself. He opens his home…and eventually his heart. Out of this unexpected visit, this unlikeliest of friendships, the man is able to find the will to live once again.

The Visitor is a masterpiece of subtlety, one that quietly touches the heart and gracefully celebrates the unexpected joys of life, the saving graces of friendship, and the inescapable truth that life can be simultaneously beautiful and unfair. Tom McCarthy’s film captures the fragility of the human soul with such piercing accuracy that at times it is difficult to bear. But in the clarity of its humanity, the depth of its soul, the pitch-perfect insight into the small moments that reinvigorate the human spirit, The Visitor is truly one of the most deeply hopeful films of the year. Life is not easy. Life is not always happy. But in the connections we make, in the moments that define us, in the smallest openings of our heart, we can find our peace.

The message is baked right into the title—doubt is the essential human characteristic. From doubt comes debate and compromise. From doubt comes skepticism and dissent. Certainty is false in such a subjective world; doubt is, in the end, what we should strive for. John Patrick Shanley’s film, adapted from his play, is powerful precisely because it acknowledges a cold, hard truth: we are all clueless, lost in a sea of fragmented events, trying to put the pieces together. We are blinded by our certainty, yet afraid to admit that we really don’t know anything unless we see it with our own eyes—and even then we can’t be 100% certain. Does Sister Aloysius know that Father Flynn is a child molester? No. Can Sister James be sure of his innocence? No. Only he can know his own truth, but that is beside the point—he is merely a test of Sister Aloysius’ soul. She has encased herself in a soapbox of certainty, and only if she questions herself can she truly be free. Only if she doubts can she attain that most precious of traits: humanity.

Shanley’s direction is brilliant in its simplicity—he gets out of the way and lets the actors engage in some of the most razor-sharp, hyper-intense verbal combat ever to flicker onto the screen. Meryl Streep gives her best performance of the decade. Phillip Seymour Hoffman strikes the perfect balance between sympathy and villainy. Viola Davis is remarkable in her 10 flawless minutes. Amy Adams is bright-eyed and hopeful, but gradually peels back the layers to reveal a conflicted soul.

All in a film that very simply but very forcefully shows us that doubt is one of our most precious human commodities.

To understand the power of who Harvey Milk was and what he did, look back no further than three months ago. As our country rode a wave of Change into a hopeful future, one of our most open and liberal states passed a proposition banning gay marriage. Thirty years earlier, Harvey Milk fought for gay rights legislation that actually came to pass. He succeeded that long ago, and we can’t fully accept gay partnerships now, in the Age of Obama? At the time of his murder, Milk presided over the most forceful and influential gay movement in U.S. history. He began what we all need to finish.

Gus Van Sant’s Milk is one of the year’s greatest achievements not only because it perfectly captures the powerful life and work of the first openly gay man elected to public office. It is great because it so artfully fuses the facts of a “biopic” with the passion and urgency of an experimental gay film. Van Sant has always been a filmmaker with incredible versatility—he has achieved success as a mainstream studio filmmaker and as an avant-garde artist. Milk is his greatest synthesis, a film that tells a powerful story but also—perhaps more importantly—takes the audience on a lyrical emotional journey and lets us all feel the tension, the fear, the joy, the enthusiasm of a defining moment in American history.

“What is your play about?” one inquisitive crew member asks Caden Cotard. Caden muddles back, “Birth…death…life…all that.”

If ever anyone posed the question, “What is Synecdoche, New York about?” that line of dialogue is the most perfect response. Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is one of the most densely ambitious films of the decade, and its central theme is the inherent self-centeredness of humankind, the tortured labyrinth of an artist’s soul, and the jolting realizations that remind us how strange and transient life really is.

We are all the protagonist in our own stories. Therefore, we are all entitled to our own opinions. Each is just as significant—and just as meaningless—as any other. Our existence means everything, and means nothing. That is truly one of the most powerful and profound cinematic statements in years.

Here it is, the Film of Destiny. It is destined to win the Oscar. It was destined to be released in the Year of Obama. It was destined to fall into Danny Boyle’s lap, and he was destined to take the material and turn it into one of the most joyous, kinetic, heart-rending, stand-up-and-cheer film experiences of the decade. This is his masterpiece; this was his destiny.

Slumdog Millionaire is a vibrant prayer, a positively vigorous celebration of life and love. It exposes a land most Americans are not familiar with—the slums of Mumbai—but does so with equal parts horror, humor, and heart. It is a fairy tale with guts and muscle.

The film speaks to that most universal human theme: the power of love. It is love that makes a boy like Jamal survive under the harshest of circumstances. It is love that drives him to make the choices he makes. It is love that leads to the 20-million-rupee question. And it is love that saves his life.

Slumdog Millionaire is, in many ways, the ultimate film experience. It unfolds with heedless forward motion. It tells a powerful human story. It provides the audience a discovery of new places, new problems, new people. And it holds you in its grasp all along the way. It is the most triumphant tear-jerker ever made. And cry you will, if you open your heart and let the film cascade in.

By now many have added their two cents to the inevitable “Slumdog-is-the-Obama-movie” conversation. But it is an undeniable fact: here is a film about the most unexpected of triumphs, in the unlikeliest of places, coming together because It Is Time. It Is Destiny. It Is Written.

Slumdog Millionaire is a classic.

Talk about a classic. Years from now, WALL-E will go down as a landmark film, one so brilliant in its storytelling, so breathtaking in its vision, so effortless in its human observation (in robots…go figure) that it is positively Chaplin-esque. It is also an incendiary commentary on the degenerative state of the American people. It also might just be the most moving romance of the decade.

Now the eternal question is: can an animated film really be that good?

The liberal, open-minded film lover answer must always be a resounding “YES.” But I don’t think even I truly believed it to be possible…until WALL-E.

I was captivated the moment I first witnessed WALL-E add one man’s trash to his burgeoning collection of treasures. I smiled warmly when I watched WALL-E clasp his metal claws as he was moved by Hello, Dolly! I fell in love when WALL-E cuddled up next to a hibernating EVE and took care of her even when he couldn’t communicate with her. I knew this was the year’s best film during the film’s most beautiful sequence—a romantic, balletic dance through the stars as WALL-E and EVE celebrate their love. I knew the film was an unmitigated classic when its end credits not only told a creative, engaging, visually-innovative story, but held the capacity to move me as much as the film itself.

I knew seven months ago that WALL-E was the best film of the year. Nothing has changed.

What brilliance. What beauty. WALL-E will be around forever.


The Number Eleven Film on the List

A big, huge spectacle that reaches far beyond what any other “superhero” film ever has. It is the Godfather of superhero sagas, and it will likely never be matched.

The runners-up, presented in alphabetical order:

DEFINITELY, MAYBE, which still lingers in my mind as an enduring delight. Ryan Reynolds is a movie star, Isla Fisher is electric, Rachel Weisz is otherworldly, and Elizabeth Banks is now one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood.
THE DUCHESS, one of the most affecting period dramas in recent years.
FROST/NIXON, which gave us more intense conversation.
FUNNY GAMES, an American remake that worked even better than its foreign original—because this film, sadly, was made for us.
GHOST TOWN, which is sweet and lovely, and serves as a reminder to us all that Ricky Gervais is a genius.
MARLEY AND ME, which I love. It is smart and engaging and wonderful…much more than a Cute Dog Movie.
NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, a breath of fresh air, and a celebration of youth, love, and New York City.
PARANOID PARK, Gus Van Sant’s other great film of the year.
SEVEN POUNDS, which nearly landed on the Top Ten…there is so much more here than most gave it credit for…Gabriele Muccino is a fantastic filmmaker, and Will Smith deserves a medal of bravery.
SNOW ANGELS, David Gordon Green’s most straightforward film…and a blunt kick to the stomach.
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, Woody’s best film of the decade.
THE WACKNESS, in which the level of filmmaking was so incredibly high that I stood in awe of Jonathan Levine’s talent…another film that nearly cracked the Top Ten.

Awarded to the film and/or filmmakers who created something so special that it deserves recognition in a category of its own.

The yearly honor bestowed on films that highlight the collective joy of movie-going.

Normally, I list films alphabetically on this list, and I will do so again this year. But in what turned out to be a fabulous year for Audience movies, there was one that stood above all the rest as the perfect audience experience:

The rest, in alphabetical order:

Awarded to great or near-great 2007 films that did were, for the most part, ignored by mainstream audiences. It was mainstream audiences’ loss.

This year, two very ambitious films landed in theaters with equally large thuds, two of the year’s most expensive films that drew some of worst responses and paltry box office returns of the year. Many were turned off by their sheer audacity; some referred to them as disastrous. I’ve seen them each on a handful of “Year’s Worst” lists, and I want to give them their proper space here, in a celebration of film rather than a cheap shot against it. The two films selected for this year’s “Non-Audience Award” are:

Reserved for those films which tackle important issues that we as a people deal with on a daily basis…or that we should be paying much more attention to. In alphabetical order:

(Believe it or not…)


the WIZARD, fkap said...

What a superb, superb entry and analysis! I heartily AGREE with your choice of WALL-E as this year's best. It is a stunning work of art and a great movie on so many levels!

Sadly I've not seen four of your Top 10: 9. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, 8. IN BRUGES, 6. THE VISITOR, and 3. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.

Having said that I would not put Burn After Reading on my list. I really did not like that film. Forced, not funny. And miscast actors, too.

And Milk would be a close second place film for me. It is a great movie on so many levels.

I have so more observations about movies not on (most) lists later.

Keep up the great work!

J McKiernan said...

"Burn After Reading" seems the most controversial title on the list as of right now. I feel like "Synecdoche, New York" might usurp that title, if only people were given the chance to see the damn movie. But it was so odd and so small that it never made it past about 100 screens. It is an absolute must-see. After you see it, you can reserve the right to hate it...but you have to see it.

"Burn" amused me the first time I saw it. It made me laugh out loud several times the second time. Then, on the third, I was so overcome with its ridiculous genius that I knew it needed to be put on the list.