Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pack up all my cares and woes...

It can be a critically dangerous act to reach for any tangible links or themes between a year's great movies--even more suspect to make a link between a year's movies and the real world in which they were produced. Certainly any movie is in large part a product of the world that surrounds it, but to find an overarching theme that connects a spate of disparate films can be an act of critical laziness.

But if you'll allow me this mild generalization, the characters in a large majority of the best films of 2008 were lost souls. They were men, women, and yes sometimes children trying to figure a way out of their situation--or into a new one. Recent history and today's news would suggest that we are doing the same. Yet in all these films, there seems to be at least a glimmer of hope, that the trouble we take to get out was and is worth the struggle. They are not the bleak laments of many of the better films of the past couple of years. Maybe it's because we now have hope ourselves. But here I go generalizing again.

Before I get to my top ten films, a few that just missed the cut. A little primer:

Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the most talked-about movie of the past year--and perhaps the most polarizing. It's detractors are as staunch as those that sing its praises. I happen to agree with the latter. Danny Boyle turns what is actually quite a traditional story by using his kinetic and frenetic style and giving us a glimpse into a culture many of us don't often see in films. It's glorious and exciting. And what many find cliché about its story and themes are comforting and familiar.

Nearly a year ago now, I attended the 17th annual Florida Film Festival, three movies in particular stood out to me. One was the charming and funny black-and-white romantic comedy In Search of a Midnight Kiss (Alex Holdridge) about a couple who meet off an ad on Craigslist and spend one unpredictable night together--New Year's Eve. On the flip side was Chris Eska's quietly observed August Evening, centering around the strained and difficult familial relationship between Jaime, an undocumented Mexican worker in South Texas, and Lupe, his widowed daughter-in-law. Holdridge's film has echoes of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset movies and Eska's of some of Yasujiro Ozu's work, yet each manages to create something fresh and original. (The third FFF standout you'll read somewhere below.)

Last summer I wrote about Anton Corbijn's Control and Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor in terms of their meditations on art. What I didn't mention was how they are both carried by two smart and carefully modulated lead male performances, Sam Riley and Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, respectively. While Riley's is intense, Jenkins's is subdued. One's a newcomer and one's an old vet, but each is able to register emotion often without even uttering a word.

The idea of the circle of life is as old as The Lion King. Actually, I'm sure it's before that. Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven is not without its share of tragedy, but like I said above, it's also not without its share of hopefulness. Life has its way of flipping you upside down and a way of helping you land on your feet at the same time.

The most unlikely romance of 2008 is also probably the most touching because it takes place between two 12-year-olds. Well, one's a 12-year-old and the other is actually a vampire. It sounds creepy and, well, it is. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson), though, avoids being either smarmy or cloying by understanding the loneliness and awkwardness it is to be a 12-year-old and what I guess would be the same for a supernatural being who is trapped in the body of one.

The first half of Andrew Stanton's Wall-E is so sublime and beautiful that I sometimes wish it was the entire movie. It stands up as one of the truly great extended set pieces of modern cinema. I freely admit to being a person who has never been that big a fan of animation, but Pixar to this day, without exception, has never let me down.

Two otherwise mostly dissimilar films have the unique distinction of being about men who age backwards. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher) is for the most part a generally straightforward Hollywood epic romance. Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola), on the other hand, is a challenging, slightly experimental work. I happen to think neither of them fully work, but it's interesting to see two master directors tackle a similar topic in such different ways that it would be a bit of a shame to dismiss either.

Now the top coat...

10. Chop Shop

Unflinching and matter-of-fact, the dreams of youth collide with the bitter reality of adulthood, as Alejandro, a child who works in a garage saves his money to buy a mobile food van he wishes to run with his sister, Isamar. Ramin Bahrani's camera doesn't sensationalize--it barely even comments. It simply observes.

9. Milk

Biographies are always difficult films to pull off. They often tend to simply be a laundry list of the highlights of the subject's life. Often they tend to reach for some buried meaning, some big bang theory that explains the trajectory that his or her life would take. But Milk, about the first openly gay man to be elected to a major public office, does none of that. From the beginning, director Gus Van Sant, writer Dustin Lance Black, and actor Sean Penn create Harvey Milk as a fully lived-in human being. In the film, he doesn't exist as some unreachable icon, some paper moon we admire from afar, but instead as three-dimensional character whose purpose in life was bigger than his own. The film pays its reverence to be sure, but only after it is earned, for there were more important things on the agenda.

8. In Bruges

A ballet of curse words and a symphony of violence, In Bruges (Martin McDonagh) is the classic buddy film turned on its ear. It's sad and tragic, funny and exciting. Its beauty exists in its cacophony, yet its heart exists in its growing friendship created between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

7. The Fall

Part Wizard of Oz, part Pan's Labyrinth, director Tarsem Singh's overdue follow up to The Cell, is as visually sumptuous as that earlier film, but possesses a whimsy the other lacked. Catinca Untaru's performance as Alexandria is at times hilarious and heartbreaking. A lovely not-quite-fairy tale.

6. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

What could have easily been an over-the-top or two-dimensional performance ended up being my favorite individual piece of acting all year in the body of Sally Hawkins. Unyieldingly positive, Hawkins's Poppy is a force of nature and she never once makes you feel like she's putting on an act. And Eddie Marsan as the bitter and angry driving instructor is the perfect gin to her tonic. I'm still chanting "En-ra-ha!"

Before I give my top five, let me say that the rest of the films exist in a virtual tie for my favorite film of 2008. The following will be ranked, yes, but it's like throwing them all in a bag and randomly picking them out. If you asked me tomorrow, they might be in a different order...

5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's best movie since a string of great ones in the early to mid-90s, it explores issues of sexual morality familiar to many of his other works, but does it in a way that's fresh and new even for him. The change in scenery and the projection of his artistic and romantic psyche onto and in between two very different female characters add a different slant to both the typical romantic comedy and the typical Allen film.

4. Disfigured

To me the standout of the 2008 Florida Film Festival was Glen Gers's film about two women who become friends after meeting in a fat acceptance group. Lydia is actually overweight, but Darcy joins because she's a former anorexic. This is the type of movie that teeters of the edge of being smug or condescending, pretentious or maudlin, but at every moment takes the right turn. It's surprisingly smart and delicately written and acted. It's a small, modest film and may be difficult to find, but I implore you to search it out.

3. Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman out Charlie Kaufmans himself in a movie about a play about a play about a... well, you get it.

2. Man on Wire

James Marsh's documentary has a style, confidence, wit, and certainly bravado matched only by its subject, tightrope walker Philippe Petit. Dubbed the artistic crime of the century, Petit walked across a high wire tied between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. And then he walked back and stopped in the middle to hang out and walked back again. A combination of talking head interviews, re-enactments, and found footage, Man on Wire is endlessly fascinating both as the biography of a "heist" and as an affirmation for living in the clouds.

1. Rachel Getting Married

Kym, a recovering 12-stepper temporarily leaves rehab to attend the wedding of her older sister, Rachel. This tag line could've left us with a broad wedding farce or a morose tragedy about addiction. That Jonathan Demme's film (from a brilliant script by Jenny Lumet) is able to pull elements from both and explore everything in between is only part of the reason this ranks as my top film of the year. Another is Anne Hathaway's Oscar-nominated performance as Kym. And as great as Hathaway is, the movie is made by its unequalled ensemble, especially Rosemarie DeWitt as her sister Rachel, Tunde Adebimpe as her betrothed, Sidney, and Bill Irwin as their father Paul.

For a movie full of tragedy, sibling rivalry, family dysfunction, and angst-ridden emotional blowups, no other movie was full of more love, affection, and bonhomie. It's a movie that attacks you with open arms, waiting to embrace you. And that's all we can hope from any movie.