Sunday, February 08, 2009

Best Movies of 2008

I posted a preliminary list at the end of the year, but there were still some films I wanted to see. Here's my official list:

1. Slumdog Millionaire

Three movies this year really stood out as being superlative. With a slight advantage for originality I give Slumdog Millionaire my top spot. I thought the film was really engrossing, harrowing, and ultimately uplifting. I really liked how it used the convention of a game show very familiar to westerners to draw us into the unfamiliar world of the India's poor class. Like the Booker-winning novel White Tiger, the India of Slumdog Millionaire is in transition and not as golden as the image the country is trying to sell.

2. Milk

The next really outstanding film of 2008 was Milk, the biopic of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to hold a prominent office in the US. Sean Penn is mesmerising as the title character and the film is full of other great supporting turns from James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch. I really liked how the film portrayed being involved in politics, showing Milk's critical grasp of both the power of grassroots organizing as well as the importance of theatrics.

3. Gran Torino

The third really excellent film of 2008 was Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, where Eastwood plays a curmudgeonly old guy estranged from his family living in a neighborhood now populated by Asian immigrants threatened by gangs. The movie is surprisingly funny and heartwarming and the Hmong actors--mostly unknown--were fantastic, especially Bee Vang as the neighbor boy Eastwood befriends.

4. Doubt

This 1960s story about a Catholic church and school is a duel of wits between the school's nun-principal Meryl Streep and the young priest Philip Seymour-Hoffman. I really liked the philosophical examination of the basis of doubt versus certainty.

5. Man on Wire

A poetic documentary about Philippe Petit's 1974 stunt to walk across a high wire strung between the Twin Towers. Interesting and a fitting tribute to the World Trade Center.

6. The Visitor

Richard Jenkins stars as a washed up college professor whose passion is reawakened when he tries to help an immigrant family he finds squatting in his Manhattan apartment. The was a real surprise of last year--eye opening.

7. Frozen River

To describe this movie makes it sound like a farce: a working class white woman teams up with an American Indian woman to shuttle illegal immigrants across a frozen river from Canada into America so she can raise money to buy her family a double wide trailer after her husband runs out on them. It's really not funny though, and quite a well done indie. Melissa Leo is excellent as the desperate mother and I liked Misty Upham as her accomplice.

8. The Reader

Kate Winslet shines as the former Nazi who embarks on an affair with a teenage boy (David Kross- a real find) who later observes her trial when he's in law school and much later forms a second relationship with her in the time just before her release from prison.

9. Revolutionary Road

Kate Winslet is also amazing here as an unhinged suburban wife who feels like she is no longer living the life she wants with her husband (Leonardo DiCaprio), who himself suffers in job he hates. Michael Shannon steals the show as the mentally ill adult son of the neighbor realtor (Kathy Bates).

10. The Wrestler

Michael Rourke excels in this honest and brutal portrait of a former pro wrestler trying to pick up the pieces of his failed life.

Honorable mentions:

  • Burn After Reading (Nice to see the Coen Brothers make a comedy I actually liked, and Brad Pitt was great here)
  • Rachel Getting Married (Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt were both remarkable in this difficult film)
  • I've Loved You So Long (Slow but powerful and Kristin Scott Thomas shines)
  • Vicky Christina Barcelona (another fun Woody Allen romp)
  • American Teen (revealing documentary about American youth)
  • In Bruges (comedy film noir)
  • Happy-Go-Lucky (another great Mike Leigh film with Sally Hawkins as the upbeat to the point of aggravating lead)
  • Sex and the City (respectable TV-to-movie translation)
  • Wall-E (visionary animated film)
  • Iron Man (surprisingly good action/superhero movie)
Disappointments and overrated:

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (pointless and unrelatable. Gorgeous but bloated film that reveals little about the human experience)
  • Frost/Nixon (fine movie, but offers little that the play didn't)
  • Tropic Thunder (what's so great about this? I thought it was silly)
  • The Dark Knight (not a bad movie, but very overrated, overlong, and too busy)
  • Quantum of Solace (Casino Royale was brilliant, but this follow-up had little going for it beyond some clever set pieces)
  • W (Says little about Bush as president, a missed opportunity)
  • High School Musical 3 (lacks the charm of the previous TV versions)

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