Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Best of 2008: The 10 Best Films of the Year

Friday, January 23, 2009

Best of 2008: The 10 Best Films of the Year

Wrapping up this week's Best of 2008 series, I present my top 10 films of the year. While the first half of 2008 was somewhat weak, I managed to find some underrated gems released during that period. And I think that the year in general was not as bad as some other recent ones. It was hard enough to narrow the list down to 10, so I didn't try to rank them in anything but alphabetical order. I also list 10 additional films I feel deserve an honorable mention. You might be surprised at how wide I cast my net in deeming some of these entries as films, but I prefer to be as inclusive as possible. Of course, my list's only requirement is that the film be released in the U.S. (in a festival, at the very least) sometime in 2008. If the title is hyperlinked, you'll also be able to see what I wrote when I first reviewed it which should be interesting as I've only been blogging for about a year. Feel free to post your own list, and agree - or even better - disagree with any of my selections. Che (Roadshow Edition), director Steven Soderbergh - A gutsy attempt to shed light on a polarizing figure, Che is actually two movies that must be seen together. The first part, The Argentine, is surprisingly the more marketable, despite being the one with potential for controversy. Shot like a traditional war movie it depicts Guevara as the hero of Cuba's revolution. The second part, Guerilla, is the more damning and difficult movie. Here, Guevara is a remote and weak character, stubbornly pursuing his lost cause. Together, they give us an understanding of why he is seen as both hero and monster by so many. Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), dir. Arnaud Desplechin - Desplechin's look at family dynamics is the best film I saw this year. And even though this family shares some disdain for each other, one gets the feeling that they love each other in a way that one can understand only when one is part of such a group. Bitter and warm. Elegy, dir. Isabel Coixet - This is the first time I think I ever saw a sign of the real Ben Kingsley in a performance. And it was truly fascinating to watch. The story of a womanizer and his greatest character flaws - insecurity and possessiveness - was also illuminating. The Fall, dir. Tarsem Singh - Simply the most visually stunning film I've seen since Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Gran Torino, dir. Clint Eastwood - From a response I wrote to a reader's criticism at Some Came Running:
Allow me to reference "The Searchers" in order to make another point, and I preface this by asserting that I am in no way elevating "Gran Torino" to the same class as that classic film. In Ford's film, John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is the protagonist, is a racist, frequently uses epithets against the Native Americans in the film, yet still musters the tolerance to work with Jeff Hunter's Martin - a half-Native American - to pursue his quarry. For about 115 minutes of its running time (and years, in the film), Edwards is committed to killing his own niece (Natalie Wood) simply for being presumably defiled by the Native Americans who kidnapped her. And then in the last few minutes, Martin convinces Edwards to let her live. Happy ending, save for Edwards extricating himself from the life he can't be a part of due to his inherent and unresolved feelings for the Native Americans. The plot remarkably tracks similarly with "Gran Torino". So why can we give Ford a pass for the "bait-and-switch" at the end of "The Searchers"? Or the comic relief that Hank Worden's Mose so jarringly injects into every scene he's in? And why can we be so cavalier towards Ethan Edwards' own racism yet admire his heroism? Is it because the fact that Ford's film is a Western it adds another layer of distance or archetypal reduction to the events in "The Searchers"? Had "Gran Torino" been a Western with Native Americans replacing the Hmong would we even be having this conversation? I found Eastwood to be unusually direct and economical in his storytelling, a relative rarity in his recent films. And I applaud the fact that he trusts us to do the heavy lifting, rather than get anymore on-the-nose than the movie is already accused of being.
In Treatment, producer and developer, Rodrigo Garcia - Yeah, I know... it's a TV series. But its curious format is what made it compelling enough to list along with these fine films. Gabriel Byrne plays a psychologist with marital problems. Each weeknight, the show would follow him with a different patient, except for Friday when he would see his own psychologist (Dianne Wiest) to discuss his relationship issues. If you only cared to follow his sessions with Patient A, you'd only have to tune in on Monday nights; Patient B on Tuesday nights, etc. But for the complete picture, and to really get to know the psychologist, you would watch all week, as one session often impacted others during the week. A series that truly demonstrates what the long form is capable of exploring. Shotgun Stories, dir. Jeff Nichols - Nothing much happens in it... externally. But the internal is what's interesting in this one, and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) acutely conveys so much of the devastation that one man can cause by leaving one family to start another. The Strangers, dir. Bryan Bertino - It is a truly terrifying film in which the camera forces you to be an unwilling accomplice. Not innovative per se, but that perspective has been sorely missed in this age of "torture porn". I'm gratified to see such a style make a comeback. Synecdoche, New York, dir. Charlie Kaufman - This mindbending indie pushes the limits of how far imagination can take you on a limited budget when a writer like Kaufman is given the keys to the car. Wall·E, dir. Andrew Stanton - So many of us were touched by this film, an even more amazing feat once one remembers that the characters are computer generated robots. Honorable Mention: Burn After Reading, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Happy-Go-Lucky, Iron Man, Rambo, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, L'Heure d'été (The Summer Hours), Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys), Waltz with Bashir, The Wrestler For more on the Best of 2008: Best of 2008: Animated Features Best of 2008: Performances and Creative Achievements Best of 2008: Oscar Nominations Open Thread


Dead Pan said...

Hey tony,

the only films of these I have seen are Wall-E and Synecdoche, New York. Those were my top 2 of the year over at my blog, although now that I have seen The Wrestler, it would be fighting for number 2. I am very excited to see the rest of them though, particularly Che, A Christmas Tale and The Fall.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for chiming in Dead Pan. Synechdoche was probably my #2 after Christmas Tale, but I hate ranking for that reason. At any given moment my opinions change slightly regarding which one is better and for what reason. These 10 are up there because they were clearly better than my honorable mentions.

Stella said...

The Fall! Yes. Visually stunning but also a very good story, quite affecting. Your comments about each film are illuminating and I am adding them all to my own ever-growing list of films to see.

And THANK YOU for noting the wonder that is In Treatment. Season Two starts in April and we can only hope that the magic will return as well (the new cast looks great and Byrne and Wiest are back, so all in all things are looking good).

Tony Dayoub said...

Thank you, Stella.

And any Gabriel Byrne fans out there should check out Stella's site,

Anonymous said...

Interesting list. I'm surprised to see The Fall and especially The Strangers on here as they haven't been too terribly well-represented on many lists that I've seen.

As for Gran Torino, I was liking it quite a bit until the blunt messianic symbolism irked me. Wall-E and Synecdoche will definitely be making my list though (in about a week).

Tony Dayoub said...

Jacob, I admit those choices are outside the norm. But I feel both are deserving. One for packing such a visual wallop, and the other for a visceral one.

As for Gran Torino, the symbolism is blunt, but I've argued that the bluntness reflects the iconography and world view of the movie's old-fashioned protagonist. Obviously Eastwood has rarely been this ham-handed, so I chalked it up to a stylistic choice.

And far be it for me to be judgemental, but this year, if Wall-E and Synecdoche aren't on someone's list, he/she better be able to justify why.

T.S. said...

Great list, sir, full of welcomed surprises and, indeed as you say, some essentials (Wall•E chief among those). I'm also glad to see the love for Che, which I've been saddened to see absent from so many best-of lists this year. I'm still catching up with many of the films on your list, but they've been given that extra boost of being imperative because they're here.

Paul Kell said...

i'm curious...isn't che technically a 2009 release? i've only watched part one, but i agree that it's very good

Fletch said...

"Simply the most visually stunning film I've seen since Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut."

Eyes Wide Shut was visually stunning?!? Seriously? Which part - the orgy or the ceremony after the orgy?

Sorry, I don't mean to be crass, but to me that would be like someone praising the three-note, never-ending piano score for Eyes. A re-watch is indeed overdue, but I can't recall much of anything "stunning" about it, other than the prostitute's naked body...

All in all, a top-notch list. My only real quarrels would be the inclusion of Gran Torino and Elegy, but we've discussed our differences on at least one of those already... :)

Jason Bellamy said...

Good list. Glad to see some love for "The Fall," which I enjoyed, though not to top-10 fashion. "WALL-E" is certainly on the list too, and must be. "Synecdoche" doesn't make my list because, well, I think it doesn't just stretch the limits, it breaks them. I love Kaufman, alas this one is a failure for me.

At least it's a bold failure though. Not to seem like the guy who can't let it go but ...

I enjoyed reading your defense of "Gran Torino," and this line struck me:

"I applaud the fact that he trusts us to do the heavy lifting, rather than get anymore on-the-nose than the movie is already accused of being."

I'm curious, what's the heavy lifting we're trusted to do? Maybe my lack in identifying that (I agree with the on-the-nose part) is part of the reason I can't understand the critical acclaim for the film. (Audience acclaim, I get. Clint is just so damn likeable.)

Tony Dayoub said...


Thank you, sir. All readers should check out T.S.'s wonderful site, Screen Savour for a wonderful Hitchcock series he is in the midst of running.


I actually saw Che at the NYFF in October, and it began its official run December 12th.


Eyes Wide Shut was visually stunning?!? Seriously? Which part - the orgy or the ceremony after the orgy?

Sorry, I don't mean to be crass, but to me that would be like someone praising the three-note, never-ending piano score for Eyes. A re-watch is indeed overdue, but I can't recall much of anything "stunning" about it, other than the prostitute's naked body...

For imagery that I believe may compel you to rewatch it sooner rather than later, go no further to our fellow LAMB Ed Howard's Only the Cinema and read his post Films I Love #14: Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) a post accompanied by some of the dreamiest sights cinema has ever offered.


I think that in the future Synecdoche will be reassessed as an overlooked classic.

Regarding the "heavy lifting," I'd refer you to the conversation that was going on in the open thread I quoted from in my post. In it, I had already offered my theory on Eastwood's approach to the racism in the film (which is lengthy so I won't repeat) to a commenter earlier in the thread. Said commenter then responded by accusing critics of defending Gran Torino by going "...out of their way to do the heavy lifting for Eastwood and screenwriter Eric Schenk." And my response to that comment was what I partially quoted in this post.

I'd be interested in finding out what your take is after you read the entire thread.

Joel Bocko said...

An interesting list, though I have only seen one of your titles. I suspect February will be for catch-up though sadly, WALL*E is no longer in theaters. In 2008 I continued the lamentable trend of not seeing a Pixar film in its original theatrical run - I swear it's not intentional, but it keeps happening! (The only exceptions to the rule are the two Toy Storys and A Bug's Life ten years ago).

Mark me highly skeptical on Gran Torino. The trailer looks faintly ludicrous (it's also sloppily edited) and I think Eastwood has a tin ear (eye?) when it comes to screenplays.

Synecdoche was remarkable (it's the only one on your list I've seen) though very flawed too, I think - it awaits a second viewing before I write on it, but hopefully that will be soon (I doubt there's much time left, if any).

Not sure about Che either. Aside from the politics, and I find Che irritatingly overrated as a "progressive" (as do you, if I recall) and even as an interesting figure (Castro is ten times more compelling, by my reckoning) - anyway, aside from the politics I find Soderbergh to be an extremely capable and prodigious filmmaker but one who rarely compels me on any deep level. Facile but facile, perhaps (a bit harsh, but I couldn't resist the wordplay).

I'm very intrigued by The Fall, especially because it was savaged by many critics but seems to have found a cult following in the blogsophere.

Montgomery said...

Was The Fall by Tarsem better than The Cell with Jlo?

Tony Dayoub said...


It's hard to respond to your comment when you haven't seen most of the films. Confining myself to Synecdoche, it took me a long time to arrive to where I'm at with it. In my experience, that usually ends up being a good indicator that the film is a provocative one worth revisiting again and again.


The Fall is WAY better than The Cell, a visually interesting film, but a hollow one.

James Hansen said...

Our lists are finally up at Out 1! Woo hoo!

Joel Bocko said...

I saw Synecdoche a second time and will probably be writing a reviwe this week. Originally I wanted to ignore most other writing on the subject and write on my own reactions, but now that I have some distance (and a very different viewing experience second time around) that doesn't seem as feasible, so I'm planning to read your (and everyone else's) perspective on it before recording my own, which will hopefully in part be a reaction to and commentary on other viewpoints. Stay tuned...

Paul Kell said...

i finally got around to seeing the fall and i have to say, while it truly WAS visually stunning, IMHO it suffered from a painfully trite story. while nowhere as awful as tideland, it does share a lot in common (flaw wise). i've yet to watch the cell, but based on your assessment i'll steer clear of it.

Tony Dayoub said...


There's a great review of The Fall that proved to be illuminating. You can find it at Dean Treadway's Filmicability. It might change your mind.

Paul Kell said...

nope...dean didn't change my mind at all. in fact, i left a lengthy comment in defense of TDK and further trashing the fall. i guess this one just wasn't for me. it seems audiences either champion it as a masterpiece or they call it another style over substance spectacle.