28 Dec 2008

Movies of the Year - 2008

Before we get to my favorite movies of the year, a quick word about this year's mission. My friend Cameron e-mailed me a couple of months ago to ask if I wanted to participate in a sort of joint Best Movies of the Year list with him and six (movie-loving) friends of his. Cam and I do a "Best Movies" blog posting every year and he thought that this year it would be a good idea to, when we post our Best-ofs, post links to the other Best-ofs from our small cabal of film experts.

I thought this would be a good idea for no other reason than to provide different perspectives on what we deem as the best films of the year and to see where several film buffs agreed and/or disagreed.

So, along with my top 10, I'll be linking (at the bottom of this post) to some other views on the movies of the year. Hopefully, my list (and the other top 10s) will make you want to seek out what we deem as quality cinema (especially those movies that appear on multiple lists).

On to the top 10. Unfortunately, this is an incomplete list...for now. There were movies released this year that I didn't get a chance to see, but would probably be on this list. For example, I'm almost positive Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler and Revolutionary Road would be here somewhere. As with previous years' lists, this list is a work-in-progress that will only be truly "complete" when I've seen all of the above. After all, my list last year wasn't really complete until March.

Probably because of this, there aren't actually 10 movies on my list, only eight. Though I've seen plenty of movies this year, only eight (so far) warrant a mention on a 10-best list. For example, I liked Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Incredible Hulk (to name but two) but I don't think they're good enough to be on a 10-best-of-the-year list.

At the bottom of the list, I'll mention some movies I saw this year and liked, but that weren't good enough to be in a top 10 (like the above two).

1. The Fall

As I mentioned in my review here, this was one of the most original movies I've ever seen. A strange, weird and wonderful R-rated amalgam of The Wizard of Oz, Life of Pi and The Princess Bride, The Fall is the result of director Tarsem Singh (The Cell) being given complete creative control (and what looks like a substantial budget) to make whatever movie he wants.

It isn't often that we mention art direction as the main reason to watch a movie, but with this film (which also boasts stunning visual effects, fantastic acting and a truly original script) I really would recommend it to anyone based on the strength of the visuals alone. I don't think I've ever seen a movie so close to being a living, breathing painting/work of art.

I'll be including the trailer with every movie on my list this year. For this film in particular, the trailer is stunning. I can't remember being blown away this much by a trailer since Fellowship of the Ring. I hadn't heard about this film until I saw the preview, but I sought it out immediately after seeing it.

Truly imaginative, a labour of love and a genius (yes, I said it) piece of film-making.

2. Man on Wire

It seems that almost every year, a documentary comes along that completely blows people away. It's usually the best-reviewed movie of the year (as in this case - 100% fresh rating [out of 136 critics, no less] on Rotten Tomatoes) and usually loses out at the Oscars (no surprise there, then). I'm thinking movies like Hoop Dreams, Crumb, Grizzly Man, The King of Kong, Theremin, Microcosmos, etc.

This year was no exception. Man on Wire very nearly came top of my list thanks to it's subject matter (a man walking on a tightrope between the two towers of the World trade Center in 1974) and thanks to the man himself, Phillipe Petit.

What's genius about the movie is that director James Marsh intersperses interviews with all of the involved parties with dramatised footage of the preparation and execution of one of the greatest pieces of performance art the world's ever seen. This gives the effect of the film feeling like a heist movie, which adds to the feeling of secrecy, risk and drama of the act itself.

Petit, a funny, engaging, charismatic, charming, genial and truthful interviewee is perhaps (with the possible exception of Heath Ledger's Joker) the best cinematic character of the year, an honor given more weight by the fact that he's real and really is (by all accounts) that way.

Tellingly, the movie never mentions the 9/11 attacks, instead deliberately focussing on Petit's act and that fact it's viewed as a celebration of life. Indeed, at one point in the movie, we see reporters repeatedly asking Petit why he did what he did, to which he replies that there really is no why.

3. The Dark Knight

To be honest, this, Man on Wire and The Fall were all worthy of the number-one spot on my list. I actually liked them pretty much equally. In the end though, somebody had to be number one, two and three and this is how I rank them.

I think that TDK may have made it to number one if not for one minor (but important) flaw. Christian Bale as Batman. I'm not talking about Bale as Bruce Wayne. I'm talking about Bale as Batman and his completely fucking ridiculous accent. So bad was this "growl" that it distracted me every time he spoke. Combine this with a completely one-note performance as the caped crusader (I know it's not the easiest of roles to breathe "life" into, but come the fuck on. If you read the graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, you'll see that there's more to him than a grimace) and you have a portrayal more silly than serious, more stupid than scary.

Now that that's out of the way, TDK was, in every single other aspect, a muthafuckin' masterpiece. I love the way that this "comic-book movie" was more similar to a great crime drama like Heat (its obvious inspiration) than to stuff like Superman Returns or Iron Man or Hulk (or the previous Batman films).

Performances: Ledger was absolutely legendary and gave what is possibly the best performance by ANY actor in ANY film this year, supporting or not. In any other film, Aaron Eckhart would be rightly lauded (and even possibly nominated) as Two-Face (in fact, in many ways he was scarier than The Joker). Maggie Gylenhall brought substance to an insubstantial role and Caine, Freeman and Oldman once again proved why they're among the best actors working today.

The script and direction were first-rate (in fact, this is, by some way, Nolan's best film [yes, even better than Memento]) and the action scenes were second-to-none among action movies this year, lacking complex FX and instead relying on good ol' fashioned direction and stunt work.

I honestly have not enjoyed a crime/action movie as much as this since Heat. Utterly brilliant.

4. Milk

Hey, you know what? Sean Penn is annoying. He's possibly the most pretentious, too-pleased-with-himself actor currently working in Hollywood. When he's not "arranging" photo ops of himself "helping Katrina's victims," he's spouting off about social issues that have no effect on millionaires like himself, or he's being humourless about good jokes at actors' expense (see his reaction to Chris Rock's jokes about Jude Law at the Oscars).

Unfortunately, though I want to hate him, I can't because he's one of the most gifted actors working today. If you put his tour-de-force performance in Milk alongside his Oscar-nominated (and criminally-robbed) work on Dead Man Walking or his turn as the jazz guitarist in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, you might be forgiven for thinking that they were three different actors, such is Penn's ability to lose himself in a role.

While I think his career role was in DMW, he is almost as good here as the real-life politician Harvey Milk. I actually forgot it was Sean Penn, so good and realstic he is here. For me it's going to be a straight battle between him and Mickey "the comeback" Rourke for Best Actor this year.

The first openly-gay man to be elected into public office in the U.S., Milk was a champion not only of gay rights, but of the rights of all the downtrodden minorities in California and the U.S. Regular readers of this blog will know how passionate I am in support of gay-marriage, so it's fair to say this movie hit home on a personal level. But while I think it was a worthy subject to make a movie about, I think I've tried to judge the film on its own merits.

Director Gus van Sant has done a remarkable job in making not only a movie set in the seventies, but a movie that feels like it was made in the seventies. Flawless period detail, judicious use of color filters (especially blue for exteriors and brown and green for interiors) to give it "that seventies look" and the seventies acting style of walking the fine line between melodrama (as done in the 40s, 50s and 60s) and realism all work together to make an unforgettable film about an unforgettable moment in American political history.

Of course, the recent passing of Proposition 8 in California only lends the film more poignancy as we see how little we've progressed in 30 years. Moving, inspiring and tragic in more ways than one.

5. Sex and the City

Calm down, calm down! It's position on this list is due to the fact that I'm an absolute SatC fanatic and this movie perfectly captures the essence of the show in a rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing, feature-length episode.

While I was looking forward to this movie, I was a bit apprehensive because if TV-to-film adaptations have proved anything, it's that they're very easy to fuck-up. So once I heard the (mostly) positive reviews starting to come in, I relaxed a little and started to get very excited to see it.

I wasn't disappointed. The movie perfectly carried (no pun intended) on where the series left off, not feeling trite or unbelievable. The four girls were in happy places in their lives and the scene was set for Carrie to (finally) marry Big. of course, complications, drama, tears, and much hilarity ensue before leading us to a crowd-pleasing and very satisfying conclusion.

I don't think anyone involved in the making of the film expected it to be such a huge hit, but I'm glad it was and I'll defend it's (and, more importantly the TV show's) place in the cultural zeitgeist to anyone (depsite their charges of it being degrading to women - yeah, only to those cardigan-wearing, angry women who think love of make-up, style and the desire to be in a loving relationship as opposed to forever single are negative character traits).

Possibly the most "fun" I had watching a movie all year. Bring on the sequel!!

6. Iron Man

From the moment I heard that Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Tony Stark, I knew this movie would be a better-than-average comic-book adaptation. What I didn't know, though, was just how much "better-than-average" it would be.

Unlike TDK (which I consider to be a serious crime thriller more than a superhero movie), Iron Man is possibly the perfect cinematic realisation of a comic-book movie. Smarter than X-Men 1 and 2 (the less mentioned about X3 the better), more believable than the Spider-Man trilogy and more accessible than the likes of Sin City or Ghost World, director Jon Favreau got everything just about right with his take on the Man of Iron. A quality cast giving quality performances (Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow were all great), kick-ass action (for there's no better way to describe it), cool FX (and non-fake-looking) and an absolute barn-storming performance as Tony Stark (take note, Bale) from the great RDJ resulted in the second-most amount of fun (after SatC) I had at the movies this year.

Bad. Ass.

7. Religulous

I'm an atheist and proud of it, as some of you may already be aware. I won't go into the arguments for atheism in this forum as its a movie list and also because people who believe in a "magical book" can't win the argument anyway. Just saying "because the bible says so" isn't an argument, my friends.

Another thing to get out of the way is that I am a big Bill Maher fan. I agree with about 60% of what he believes/says, but I admire 100% his balls and unwillingness to cowtow to or toe the line when it comes to not offending religious people. It's all too rare in the U.S. that someone can stand up to religious fanatics (and by fanatics I mean most religious people) and not give a shit.

To the movie. I think the trailer (below) gives a pretty good idea of how the movie will be - that is, a funny and humorous argument against religion. This is not a serious documentary (though are certainly some serious parts to it, especially Maher's closing monologue), rather a chance for a stand-up comedian to explain what only 18% of the U.S. population already know - religion is more a force for bad than for good.

Some critics (atheists and Christians alike) have deemed Maher and his film as too smart-ass and snarky. Well, duh! The guy's a comedian, for chrissakes! It's not for nothing that the movie was directed by the great Larry Charles (director of Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm). Those criticising the movie for it's lack of seriousness probably decry Iron Man for being too kick-ass!

Anyway, an extremely funny (and scary) way to sepnd 90 minutes.

8. Gran Torino

Let's get this straight. I'm a Clint fan first and foremost. I think he's one of the best American filmakers of all time, creating such diverse masterpieces as Unforgiven, Bird and The Bridges of Madison County (horrible book, fantastic movie).

Anything with a Clint label on it (be it as actor or director) and I'm there. Now, in the twilight of his career, he seems to be doing the best work of his life. The odd misstep aside (I'm thinking Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) he seems to be batting a thousand lately (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Changeling, this, etc.).

His film The Changeling seemed to garner most of the press attention leading up to the end of this year (just as Flags of Our Fathers did in 2006), but it is with this film that serious Oscar talk and critical praise have occured (just as with 2006's "lesser" Eastwood project, Letters From Iwo Jima).

For the first time in his career, there's serious talk of Clint winning Best Actor (though I'm sure the award will go to either Sean Penn for Milk or Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler). As a Clint aficionado, I can tell you that this film, while not being even in the top five of best Clint films, sees Clint give perhaps the best performance of his illustrious career. He is magnificent as an old, crusty, racist Korean War veteran. The story (old man is at first at odds with and then begins to accept his Korean neighbors while learning and giving life lessons) is pure movie-of-the-week territory; so much so, in fact, that the film didn't quite live up to my lofty expectations. What sets it apart from your average TV movie, though, is purely and simply Clint. His direction - measured, never showy - and his acting lift this so high as to earn its rightful place on my list.

Clint's never been a great actor - more a great movie star and an incredibly gifted and indisbutably great director. As I said he'll probably lose to Penn or Rourke and deservedly so (probably in Rourke's case, definitely in Penn's case). But what a way to cap an amazing career - directing yourself (at age 78, no less) to the best performance of your career. Great, great stuff.

Other movies I saw this year and enjoyed:

Cloverfield - Scary and original

Rambo - The best Rambo since First Blood and brilliantly violent!

The Spiderwick Chronicles - Probably the best kids' movie I saw all year

The Bank Job - Statham. Period.

Funny Games - Twisted and chilling thriller from the director of one of my favorite films of last year, Cache

Forgetting Sarah Marshall - Intermittently funny movie from the Apatow gang

Baby Mama - Almost good enough for my top 10 list. Almost. Amy Poehler rules

The Strangers - Good old-fashioned slasher flick

The Incredible Hulk - Very good and waaay better than the first one

The Love Guru - Yes, I actually found this occassionally funny

Wall-E - Good, but what the hell is all the fuss about??!!

Wanted - Good time-waster, nothing more, though McAvoy was good

Mamma Mia! - Cheesy and predictable but fun and loooove those songs (I fully expected this to be in my top 10 of the year, but it was just too corny)

Step Brothers - The funniest comedy of the year, for me

Pineapple Express - Good, but not as funny as Step Brothers

Tropic Thunder - See above (though Tom Cruise and RDJ were fan-fucking-tastic)

Ghost Town - A crap rom-com made much better thanks solely to Gervais

...and finally, movies I haven't seen this year but want to:

Quantum of Solace



Prince Caspian


Revolutionary Road



The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire

The Wrestler

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bedtime Stories (no, really)

The Spirit (I know it's going to be shit)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

The Visitor

As promised, the other Top 10 lists:


Joel Mayward's

Jason LaFavorite's

Charlie Basta's

Brian Humphreys'


Cam said...

I'm glad to see that our lists are fairly different. I have no doubt that Man on Wire, Milk, and Gran Torino are good movies. As for Sex and the City, well, you're on your own there. =P

Joel Mayward said...

Hi Carlos. We don't know each other apart from this movie list thing and our mutual friend Cameron. But I've got to say, great list! Visually, The Fall is far and away the best film of the year, and I loved Man On Wire.

Also, I gotta love the fact that an atheist and a pastor (that's me) enjoyed a number of the same films (while disagreeing on a few; haven't seen Sex in the City, but ask I've never watched a full episode of the show, I doubt I'll enjoy it). Looking forward to your next two lists!

Rabscuttle said...

Great list! I like Man on Wire a lot, though the pacing was a bit slow.

I have to say Tropic Thunder was one of my favorite movies of the year, and I fully agree with you regarding The Spiderwick Chronicles.

For additional great documentary fare, I highly recommend TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball (2007 but STILL!).

Happy New Year!