Friday, January 2, 2009

End of 2008 wrap-up Part IV - The Best/Favorite Films Of 2008

The Ten Favorite/Best Films of 2008

by Scott Mendelson

Now that I’ve seen pretty much every piece of end of the year Oscar-bait, I realize that I could have written this list over Thanksgiving and been pretty on the mark. Many of the awards bait films were good, but none of them were truly great. So, with most of the major films in the bag, I can officially write the ‘best films of the year’ list (Rachel Getting Married and Tell No One). However, as always, this is a list of my favorite films, not the ‘best’. I guarantee there were better films in 2008 than at least a handful of entries here. But these are the most enjoyable, most moving, most compelling, and most intriguing movie going experiences from 2008. Here we go…

10. Lakeview Terrace
A social drama disguised as a popcorn thriller, this surprisingly potent film is actually a study in racism, class, and the frailty of moral absolutism. While Samuel L. Jackson has a few over-the-top moments as a racist cop who targets the mixed-race couple who moves in next door, he spends the majority of the film playing a simmering, angry man who is too proud to admit that his worldview is bathed in bitterness rather than conservative moral superiority. Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington play a young, idealistic stereotypically liberal couple who discover ugly truths about themselves, as well as the practical limits of their progressive pacifism. Like all good social criticism, in the end, no one’s hands are clean and everyone is wrong. Like a few films on this list, this one is better than its reputation.

9. The Bank Job
Finally, Jason Statham gets the opportunity to do his thing in a film of real quality. Based on a true story of the Bakers Street bank vault heist, this 1970s period piece is awash in British politics and rich character work. Roger Donaldson re-establishes himself as a director of top-notch thrillers, and this film stands tall as the best caper film in many years.

8. You Don’t Mess With The Zohan
The years happiest surprise, this stunningly optimistic and surprisingly thoughtful Adam Sandler comedy confronts the Israel/Palestine conundrum head on and decides to ‘give peace a chance’. Starring Sandler as an ex-Israeli soldier who fakes his death and moves to New York to become a hair dresser, this film takes equal comic potshots at Israelis and Palestinians and dares offer gentle, but pointed criticism of both cultures’ inexplicable need to murder each other over a random patch of land. Writers Sandler, Judd Apatow, and Robert Smigel add a sharp, socially conscious wit to the usual Sandler buffoonery. I am not a fan of Adam Sandler comedies, but this is the best film he has ever made.

7. Wall-E/Kung Fu Panda
Two great cartoons from the two biggest animation houses in the business. One is an artful, socially minded fable that is as touching and sweet as it is mournful and haunting. The other is a rip-snorting action film that happens to feature Dustin Hoffman’s best performance since Moonlight Mile, as well as Jack Black’s best film work ever. Wall-E takes the classic Pixar morality play (‘Do I merely survive in safety or truly live in danger?’) and applies it to the entire human race, a struggle seen through the eyes of two lonely robots who find love on a decimated Earth. Kung Fu Panda dares to be a real action drama, with expertly staged and emotionally intense combat scenes and the character development to match. Both films are character rich and visually gorgeous. They couldn’t be more different, but they are both incredibly potent family entertainments. Why choose one?

6. Hancock
One of the more divisive movies of the year, this thoughtful and touching fable of a man in search of his own identity is cleverly disguised as a wham-bam super hero comedy headlined by the biggest star on the planet. Whether taken as a metaphor for America’s relationship with the rest of the world, or simply taken as a friendship between two men who both sincerely want to help the world, this is a messy, imperfect movie that is absolutely a piece of art. Jason Bateman gives one of the best performances of the year, and Will Smith never holds back the sadness and self-pity that form the core of his ornery, irresponsible super hero. I’ve seen this movie a few times and it gets better each viewing. Don’t hate it because of what it's not. Love it for what it is.

5. Frozen River
Melissa Leo, from Homicide: Life on the Street, finally gets a film role worthy of her talents. She and Misty Upam (no slouch herself) anchor a strikingly sparse, but brutally powerful film about the pain and stench of poverty and the desperation of the working poor. Leo stars as an impoverished mother of two, who turns to smuggling illegal aliens across the border in order to feed her family. The film works fine as a slow-paced thriller, but its core value is a stark depiction of a world all too hidden in modern America, where dinner consists of popcorn and tang, ambition consists of being promoted to full time at the Dollar Store, and families dream of living in double-wide trailers so they can be just a little warmer at night. It’s a dark, morality play set in a world where people have no bootstraps to pull themselves up by in the first place.

4. Role Models
The funniest film of the year, and proof that Wet Hot American Summer was no fluke. In a year where everyone wanted to be Judd Apatow, director David Wain topped the current king of comedy by toning down the smut and adding just a touch of low-key empathy to the sorts of juvenile losers that usually exist merely as foils. Any film can toss in a medieval-role-playing-obsessed nerd and a profanity-spewing African American kid, but this film dares to treat these stereotypes as flesh and blood characters, worthy of our empathy and respect. Paul Rudd (in his first lead role) and Sean William Scott (in his best work since The Rundown) bring just enough plausibility to the film, so that by the time the climactic action scene goes down (and said climax is truly the best action scene of the year), you’re laughing because you realize you‘re more invested in the ‘comic action’ than you were in the many summer action spectacles.

3. Bush’s War/ Dear Zachary
The two best documentaries of the year, period. Bush’s War is a 4.5 hour documentary originally aired as a Frontline special on PBS to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the initial Iraq invasion. However, as I said when I included When the Levee’s Broke as number 2 on my 2006 list, my list = my rules. This is a definitive time capsule of the disastrous decisions and inexplicable motives behind the biggest foreign policy blunder of our time. With countless interviews from people of all political stripes, this two-part series serves as a perfect bookend for Taxi to the Dark Side and No End in Sight. The first half covers the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the planning and run up to the Iraq War. Part two covers the results of said decisions. By virtue of its sheer length and detail, this mammoth production covers nearly everything, and it shines Frontline’s blinding light of cold objectivity on the choices that shaped the next century of global politics. This is easily the best and most important documentary of the year.

Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father is a far more intimate and singular tragedy, showing the aftershocks of a single, almost ‘normal’ American homicide. After Andrew Bagby is murdered by his mentally unstable ex-girlfriend, his longtime friend and filmmaker Kurt Kuenne sets out to make a film chronicling all of the people who loved Andrew, as a time capsule of sorts full of memories and stories of this all-too short life. The story takes a shocking turn when the alleged murderer is revealed to be pregnant with Andrew’s son. The battle between Shelly and Andrew’s parents over the custody of Zachary is an emotional firestorm and undeniably compelling. I am willing to concede the one-sided nature of this film, and I am willing to concede that the piece is often-amateurish in construction. But with a story this jolting and this effecting, the truth is all you need. This is a devastating, must-see documentary.

2. The Dark Knight
That it wasn’t a flawless masterpiece is no shame on those involved. Chris Nolan’s crime epic still stands as a powerful achievement and a grand entertainment. With this accomplishment (along with Memento, Batman Begins, and The Prestige), Nolan becomes my new favorite director. Every actor brings their A-game, from the late Health Ledger (taking his rightful place next to Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill) to Gary Oldman (in one of his very best performances) and Michael Caine. Morgan Freeman gets one of the funniest moments in his career, and Christian Bale again makes a fine Bruce Wayne (alas, the less said about his McGruff: The Crime Bat voice, the better). The labyrinth plot makes a surprising amount of sense for the first two thirds, and its third-act flaws are born of over-ambition, which is always forgivable in the service of something this good. This is a rare beast, a comic book adaptation that is a drama first and an action film second. Whether it spoke of the times we live in or was a more allegorical biblical parable, it still stands tall as the most ambitious blockbuster since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. That audiences so readily embraced this long, morose, and uncommonly thoughtful tent-pole release is a sign of hope for lovers of film everywhere. Because sometimes people deserve more… sometimes they deserve to have their faith rewarded. Warts and all, The Dark Knight restored our faith in big-budget, major studio film making.

But, it is not my favorite film of the year. It may be the best film of the year, and it is certainly the movie I will watch most often from 2008. But there is one film that gave me a rush unlike any other. I’ve only seen it once, but it was my favorite film going experience of 2008.

1. Speed Racer
The year’s most high-profile flop and the most misunderstood movie is also my favorite film of 2008. Whether too punch drunk on the visuals, or still licking their wounds from the Matrix sequels, critics descended on this film like a pack of wolves. And they were wrong. Some said there was too much racing; some said there was not enough. Some said that the plot was too complicated, while others claimed there was no story. 'Critic A' claimed that the film lacked character development while 'Critic B' claimed that there were too many ‘boring character talky’ scenes. They were all dead wrong and history will judge accordingly.

For those with the ability to see the forest for the trees, this was a wonderfully acted fable about family togetherness and loyalty during times of economic and emotional strife. Amidst the complicated plot involving business mergers and fixed races emerged a simple story about one young man who wanted to restore his family’s honor and heal the wounds inflicted by his brother’s death years before. The script never talks down for kids, and the emotional drama is played as real as any Pixar film. John Goodman does some of the best work of his career, while Matthew Fox gives his best big screen performance to date as Racer X. Villain Roger Allem has an evil monologue that is like music and even Richard Roundtree has a brief scene that reveals years of character back story with a single line of dialogue.

And oh the technical wonderland! The lights, the colors, the fight scenes with ninjas, the 360-degree panning montages (a completely new way to do expositional montages), and the races themselves, which are a chaotic blur when they are merely background for plot, but crystal clear and completely comprehensible when the outcome matters. Visually, this is unlike any film ever made, and the film works on every important level. It is well directed, sharply edited, acted with complete conviction, and a complete joy to experience. It is a peerless adventure, a rock-solid family drama, a delightful kids film, and a splendid piece of pop entertainment. That so many couldn’t see past the bright colors and fast cars only means that they cheated themselves. Don’t make their mistake.

Honorable mentions – an additional 11 films that are worth sampling

Dragon Hunters
- this French animated import has strikingly imaginative visuals and a wholly original animated world

The Family That Preys

-Tyler Perry tries Douglas Sirk and is surprisingly successful, with a great turn by Alfre Woodard.


-an exhaustive, critical documentary on the doomed life of Hunter S. Thompson

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

-a visually scrumptious fairy tale that improves on the pretty solid original film by refusing to soft-pedal the dark moral quagmires at play

Let The Right One In

-some of the most haunting, and beautiful moments of violence I've ever seen.

Man On A Wire

-a completely fascinating story that doesn’t need tricks and gimmicks.

Nothing But The Truth

-a quality adult drama with fine performances all around (Fera Varmiga deserves an Oscar nomination); it’s probably the theoretical #11.

The Ruins

-scary, because we realize that we would have made the same choices in a similar situation.

Slumdog Millionaire

-ignore the ‘Great Gatsby-ish’ romance, the core plot still works, with a wonderfully shaded supporting performance by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor.

Waltz With Bashir
- A strikingly powerful 'animated documentary' that uses the medium of animation to explore the hallucinatory mindset of young men at war; with the true-life violence being uncommonly potent when presented in the form of a 'cartoon'.

The Visitor

-character actor Richard Jenkins finally gets a lead role and runs with it in a quietly touching low-key drama.


Kyle Leaman said...

Saw Role Models at the local dollar theatre today (it took me several good reviews to go see it), and I'm sure glad I did. Your right that the final battle royal is one of the best action sequences of the year (doesn't that say alot about the state of action films in 08').

Great list but I'm curious as to your thoughts on the year in general. 2008 for me is the weakest slate of films since 2001 and quite possibly 1998 or 1996.

P.S. Any chance on a Box Office of 08' post?

Scott Mendelson said...

Frankly, I had to really struggle to find 10 films that belonged on a 10-best list this year. Lots of very good, or rather good movies (most of the Oscar bait), but not a lot of all-time great films. Granted parenthood has prevented me from going to the theaters as much, but I more than made up for it on DVD/BluRay.

As for a box office thing, my summer report was quite exhaustive and there wasn't much to report in the spring, so the only part that needs covering is the holiday season, which I will try to get to in the next week or so.


Scott Mendelson said...

Frankly, I had to really struggle to find 10 films that belonged on a 10-best list this year. Lots of very good, or rather good movies (most of the Oscar bait), but not a lot of all-time great films. Granted parenthood has prevented me from going to the theaters as much, but I more than made up for it on DVD/BluRay.

As for a box office thing, my summer report was quite exhaustive and there wasn't much to report in the spring, so the only part that needs covering is the holiday season, which I will try to get to in the next week or so.



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