The Year's Best Films
1. Waltz with Bashir Waltz with Bashir works equally well as a potent anti-war film and as a creative examination of the nature of memory. Mature and possessed with significant psychological depth, Ari Folman’s animated film is an autobiographical documentary as much as it is anything else. Folman, unable to reconstruct the events of his time as a teenage Israeli soldier in Lebanon, seeks out his oldest friends to sort out the past. In episodic fashion and with flexible style, Folman explores different perspectives of the shared common experience of the modern ground warrior, one the director concludes is cruel and absurdly pointless.
2. My Winnipeg A sincere "Dear John" letter to the great, tumultuous loves of director Guy Maddin's youth: his family (including his mother, played by '40s femme fatale Ann Savage) and his city, which he pegs as turning its back on its own idiosyncrasy in hopes of becoming a modern destination. Despite this “docu-fantasia”’s incredible specificity as one man's take on one city, the wistful Winnipeg achieves a powerful universality. It can be intuitively understood by anyone who's ever had a love-hate relationship with home, anyone who has obsessed over the formative years, anyone who has lived long enough to look longingly to the past and nervously to the future.
3. The Class (Entre le murs) An anthropological study of a year in the life of a school and, in particular, one class, Laurent Cantet’s The Class is a great achievement in cinematic realism, recognized with the Palme D’Or at Cannes. In a brilliant stroke, Cantet cast co-screenwriter Francois Begaudeau (on whose autobiographical book the film is based) as the young teacher struggling day in and day out to educate his students to the best of his ability. Each class period is a running debate that blurs lecture and dialogue, and as insulated as it may seem, the classroom is also breached by uncontrollable forces in the outside world. Parents, teachers, and students alike have their failings and vanities, more than their grace notes. When conflict arises, and it frequently does, the filmmakers refuse to instruct us on who’s right and who’s wrong, making the film its own kind of Socratic lecture.
4. The Dark Knight The chaos of untameable evil tests moral resolve and political ethics in The Dark Knight. Plus, Christian Bale dresses up like a bat and kicks ass. Christopher Nolan’s zeitgeist-y masterwork of pop cinema challenged us to pick a lead story: the script that turned a comic-book movie into a political allegory wrapped in a crack crime drama, Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as the Joker, or Wally Pfister’s sleek photography, groundbreaking in its use of IMAX to tell a larger-than-life story.
5. Doubt Writer-director John Patrick Shanley does a fine job of making his Pulitzer Prize-winning parable Doubt more than literally larger than life on the screen. The plot is the essence of simplicity delicately twisted into something maddeningly complicated: at a New York parish in the 1960s, Meryl Streep’s nun becomes convinced that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest has abused a black boy. The priest has a bully pulpit on his side, but the nun has seemingly unwavering conviction. The rub is that in the absence of more than circumstantial evidence we are never sure whether or not the priest is guilty, putting us in the same position as another nun (Amy Adams). Along with Viola Davis as the boy’s mother, the actors are uniformly excellent, and the film’s cause for reflection on the natures of belief, faith, guilt, and doubt are cumulatively profound. Doubt is good to the last drop: the final line is a prism revealing new facets of character and theme to ponder on the way out of the theater.
6. Happy-Go-Lucky The latest comedy-drama from the legendary Mike Leigh. Sally Hawkins’ Poppy is a lifeforce who, by nature, gives everything its most positive spin (she has fun even when being jostled on a bus or racked with back pain). There’s significant comedy in Poppy’s determination to make a joke at every possible moment, particularly in driving lessons taught by Eddie Marsan’s sour instructor, a borderline Travis Bickle. Obviously, not everything in life is fun: sometimes Poppy’s cockeyed optimism can bring light to the darkness, and at other times, she can provoke anger instead of calming it—it’s a provocative but true notion that our world is seldom prepared to handle someone who’d like to teach the world to smile.
7. Synecdoche, New York Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a theater director from Schenectady who’s dealing with artistic frustration, a failing marriage, and the onset of an undiagnosable disease. Or he’s dead already, which would explain the bizarre, dreamlike nature of his existence. Though Kafka is aptly invoked, it’s impossible not to think about 8 ½, Fellini’s tale of an artist surrounded by women (the supporting cast here is stellar: Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, and Dianne Wiest). In ruminating on the obsessive pursuit of truth in art and the disorienting nature of life and death, Synecdoche, New York seems designed to appeal to a niche audience of artists who are pathologically depressed and/or suffer from degenerative diseases.
8. The Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge) A "take-off" from Albert Lamorisse's classic short film "The Red Balloon.” Critical darling Hou Hsiou-Hsien doesn't exactly make movies for the masses—he constructs his films out of naturalistic longueurs that send some viewers for the exits. But Juliette Binoche's brilliant performance as a harried single mother (magically conjured mostly from unscripted character improv) makes Flight of the Red Balloon the director's most accessible and emotionally satisfying work to date.
9. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) This down and dirty vampire picture (the best kind) locates brilliant Gothic horror in the snowy Swedish suburbs. If this were only a story of true love between 12-year-olds, it would be original enough, but when one is actually a centuries-old androgynous vampire, you know you’re in for something special. Bullied boy Oskar naturally gravitates to Eli, an outsider with a secret. The film’s allusion to Romeo and Juliet is apt: the title alludes not only to the requirement of an invitation before a vampire can enter a home but also to the embracement of love.
10. Milk The right movie for the right time, Gus Van Sant’s political saga finally gives San Francisco politico Harvey Milk, as played by Sean Penn, the narrative tribute he deserves. Ably filmed on location, Milk daringly proves that the political trumps the personal, in art as well as in life. All bets are off with the intrusion of wild card Dan White (well played by this year’s canniest George W. Bush impersonator, Josh Brolin).
Runners-up: Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, Revolutionary Road, Wall•E, Che, Standard Operating Procedure, 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days, Frost/Nixon, Gomorra, Stranded: I've Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, Taxi to the Dark Side, The Edge of Heaven, Man on Wire, Wendy and Lucy, Beaufort, The Visitor, The Wrestler, Young@Heart, Tell No One, Paranoid Park.
The Year's Worst Films (There But For the Grace of God Go You): Prom Night, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie, Shutter, Swing Vote, Untraceable, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Space Chimps, College Road Trip, Fly Me to the Moon, 10,000 B.C., 88 Minutes, Australia, Mad Money, The Love Guru.
Overrated/Overhyped: Gran Torino, I've Loved You So Long, The Bank Job, Under the Same Moon.
Underrated/Undersold/Overlooked: My Winnipeg, The Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge), Synecdoche, New York, Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, Save Me, Ghost Town, Elegy, Then She Found Me, Towelhead, Girls Rock!, What Just Happened, Appaloosa, Battle in Seattle.
Special "Rent This" Award: Be Kind Rewind
The Yellow-Bellied Coward Award goes to the studios that released One Missed Call, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Rambo, Meet the Spartans, The Eye, Strange Wilderness, Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, Witless Protection, Doomsday, Shutter, Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns, Superhero Movie, The Ruins, Prom Night, The Happening, Mirrors, Babylon A.D., College, Disaster Movie, Bangkok Dangerous, Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys, My Best Friend's Girl, Fireproof, An American Carol, Quarantine, Saw V, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, Delgo, et al—the 2008 films not screened for critics, or screened too late for review. (A few of these charmers played for critics on the night before opening at 7:30pm or even in some cases as late as 9 or 10pm. These are the times when you see "TOO LATE FOR REVIEW" in your morning paper, though some particularly hardy internet critics will burn the midnight oil to review them.)
Coolest Titles: Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, The Foot Fist Way, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, Everybody Wants to be Italian, Trainwreck: My Life as an Idiot, JCVD, and Synecdoche, New York.
Worst Titles: The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, The Hottie and the Nottie, My Blueberry Nights, Up the Yangtze, Bangkok Dangerous, Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys, Feast II: Sloppy Seconds, RocknRolla, and Surfer, Dude.
Aptest Titles: Young People Fucking, Sleepwalking, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Disaster Movie, Max Payne.
Inaptest Titles: Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, 10,000 B.C., Made of Honor, What Happens in Vegas, The Happening.
Movies that Never Got Anywhere Near Me (damn!): Women's Team Handball, All Hat, Samiy Luchshiy Film (The Best Movie), A Man Who Was Superman, Street Bangaz, A Lawyer Walks into a Bar, Pistol Whipped, National Lampoon's Bagboy, National Lampoon's Cattle Call, Krazzy 4, Remember the Daze, Murder.com, The Legend of God's Gun, Beer for My Horses, Phoonk, Sunday School Musical, Anaconda 3: Offspring, Where God Left His Shoes, and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.
Demented Double Features/Marathon Madness:
Vomit Comets: Fly Me to the Moon/Space Chimps
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: The Wackness/Pineapple Express
Acid Trips: The Fall/Speed Racer/Horton Hears a Who!
Humerous Hardware: Drillbit Taylor/The Hammer (which opened on the same day)
Comeback, Shane, Comeback: Rambo/JCVD/The Wrestler
Hero Worship: Son of Rambow/Bigger, Stronger, Faster*/Rambo (watch in this order)
Dog Days (with more to come in '09): Bolt/Wendy and Lucy/Marley & Me
One Explains the Other: The Happening/What Just Happened
Bladder Endurance Test: Australia/The Curious Case of Benjamin Button