Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Best of 2008: Performances and Creative Achievements

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Best of 2008: Performances and Creative Achievements

As I continue reviewing the best that cinema had to offer in 2008, I'd like to pause before listing the 10 best movies of the year this Friday, and reflect on some individual achievements today. Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler - It is a bravura performance that reveals enough about Rourke to dispel any questions about the limitations of his expressiveness due to the punishment his face has taken over the years. Best Actress: Meryl Streep, Doubt - Streep is so convincing that she convinced her writer/director to rethink the point of his Iraq war parable. Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight - Some wonder whether this performance would be awarded the amount of recognition it has received if Ledger hadn't died. But even if the spectre of his death did not haunt the film at its edges, it would still be the spookiest submergence of an actor's personality in a role that I've seen all year. Best Supporting Actress: Chiara Mastroianni, Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) - Mastroianni charms the viewer with her portrayal of Sylvia, the beguiling daughter-in-law that discovers her life might have been different had she known earlier that two of her husband's relatives competed amongst themselves to win her heart. Even resignation to being a housewife is not enough to mask her incandescence, not an easy achievement when sharing the screen with her legendary mother - the great Catherine Deneuve. Best Ensemble Cast: The cast of Rachel Getting Married - Whatever my problems with its phony setting, Anne Hathaway's tour-de-force performance is still not enough to steal the spotlight from the rest of this film's supporting players. Bill Irwin and Debra Winger - playing her divorced parents - and Rosemarie DeWitt as the titular older sister Rachel give raw improvisatory performances that illustrate the love and recriminations that bind a family. And even the minor players in the film seem to have a life beyond the confines of the movie. Best Newcomer: Laura Ramsey, The Ruins - In what could have been the thankless role of whining victim that seems to always be the center of attention during the early parts of a horror film, Ramsey instead gets sympathy for refusing to play the character as weak. With more spunk than any of her fellow monster fodder, Ramsey's character manages to be the one that the viewer can most identify with in this surprisingly effective, underrated thriller. Best Comeback: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler - My own review for the film points out how it's not really a comeback if you haven't gone anywhere. And Rourke has been very present and engaged in his career for quite a few years, now. But let's just say that Hollywood has finally let him out of the doghouse. Be glad that he is now more marketable than ever, and he can start playing some leads again. Best Animated Film: Wall·E - I talked about this film in Monday's post, but I'll reiterate. This one is strong enough to be counted alongside some strong competition for best movie of the year. Best Documentary: Waltz with Bashir - A documentary that is totally justified in its animated presentation. The truth being revealed here is not about the Israeli director's involvement in a disturbing attack on Lebanese. It is about how his mind fails to reconcile his participation in the attack with his own opinion of the violence he's capable of. Best Foreign Language Film: Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) - Desplechin captures everything that drives this traditionally American genre, the family reunion film; adapts it with an eye to French sensibilities; remembers to give it visual and aural flourishes; and does it in a completely realistic way. Aside from its performances, Demme's Rachel Getting Married compares pretty poorly to this film. Best Cinematography: Colin Watkinson, The Fall - A stunning visual achievement that eschews CGI marvels for actual in-camera artistry. Best Original Score: Grégoire Hetzel, Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) - The lush score serves as a warm counterpoint to the sharp squabbling that pervades this film. Best Original Song: Bruce Springsteen, The Wrestler - The devastatingly tragic Randy "The Ram" Robinson is captured by this simple lyric, "...Then you've seen me, I always leave with less than I had before..." Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Truly supporting the story, the effects are marvelously picaresque when depicting Button's travels, and unusually subtle when illustrating his gradual decline into youth. Best Adapted Screenplay: Nicholas Meyer, Elegy - Best known for his Star Trek films, Meyer succeeds at adapting Philip Roth, an author whose sensibility has been notoriously difficult to capture. Based on The Dying Animal, the film is an example of Meyer's theory on the central appeal of a movie, "A good story to me is one that, after I’ve told it to you, you understand why I wanted to tell it.” Best Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York - Kaufman's creations are always wildly original. But this movie consistently inverts expectations in a way that would both impress and confound screenwriting teacher Robert McKee (the real-life one, not the Brian Cox character from Adaptation). A downbeat look at one artist's impulse to make a mark in life that celebrates the mundane and condemns the obsessive pursuit of creative accomplishment. Best Director: Steven Soderbergh, Che (Roadshow Version) - Soderbergh takes pains to present an objective film about a controversial historical figure in the most unexpected way possible. He makes two movies about him. The first part, The Argentine, builds Guevara up to be a revolutionary hero. The second part, Guerilla, tears him down by demonstrating his arrogance and remoteness towards his comrades. Together, they form a well-rounded look at why Guevara is both glorified and demonized. On Friday, I'll post my top 10 films of the year. But because I don't want to address the following in that post, here are the worst films I saw this year, in alphabetical order: A Corte do Norte (The Northern Land), dir. João Botelho - Visually sumptuous, but pretentious to the extreme, this Portuguese film was stultifyingly boring. Flawless, dir. Michael Radford - Demi Moore should never play a Brit again, but especially not in a period drama opposite Michael Caine. Hounddog, dir. Deborah Kampmeier - Dakota Fanning should never be raped in a film again, but especially not in a period drama that pretends it has something important to say about exploiting children. Pineapple Express, dir. David Gordon Green - I admire David Gordon Green's films. Judd Apatow's films make me howl with laughter. But David Gordon Green directing a Judd Apatow film? Not so much. Slumdog Millionaire, dir. Danny Boyle - That Gran Torino is being accused of racism for wearing its controversy on its sleeve while Boyle's celebrated film is practically drowning in white ethnocentric prejudice is the real crime. For more on the Best of 2008: Best of 2008: Animated Features Best of 2008: Oscar Nominations Open Thread Best of 2008: The 10 Best Films of the Year


James Hansen said...

Great list. I'm glad to see CHE get some recognition, as it oddly hasn't during awards season. I have mixed feelings about A CHRISTMAS TALE and WALTZ, but I do want to see both of them again and see if my objections still hold. Don't wanna get into them too much though, as I'm afraid of spoiling the experience for others.

I look forward to the top 10! Ours are still in progress, but will be up in the next couple weeks.

Fletch said...

"Boyle's celebrated film is practically drowning in white ethnocentric prejudice is the real crime."

Can you please expand/explain this? I re-read your review, but nothing of it there.

I have no problem with Gran Torino's use of racial slurs, as they were in the service of the characters and the story. What bothered me was the crappy acting, paper-thin characters, weak script...

I'm on board with just about every other choice you made save the one for Elegy. Here's what I took away from Elegy:

"Hey. You. You like beautiful women? Well, guess what? You should love them for their brains and spirit and chutzpah and all that crap, too. Oh, and while you're doing that, we're gonna parade around a half-naked Penelope Cruz for half the film*. Because that would be ironical...yet deep, somehow."


* Not that there's anything wrong with that, in and of itself. ;)

Tony Dayoub said...


I would be curious to hear more about your feelings towards both of these films. Just preface them with a spoiler warning. But I certainly believe you sometimes must spoil a film to give a proper analysis.


Regarding Slumdog, it just seems like it plays bait-and-switch with its audience. It pretends to offer a glimpse at the true India, but it offers a western capitalist game show as the only way out for a young Muslim living on the streets. Add the fairy tale romance as his life long ambition, and it seems like we are seeing a very ethno centric view of what would be good for this young Indian.

You're right about not finding much of that in my original review. I link to my previous reviews mostly so you can get a sense of what my immediate thoughts on a movie were, and compare that to the thoughts that have developed over time. A lot of my opinion on Slumdog was refined and developed further after reading Out 1's take on it, here.

I couldn't disagree with you more on Gran Torino, and I'll explain more in Friday's post.

As for Elegy, I'll give you that the movie is contradictory, up to a point, about Kepesh's (Ben Kingsley) view towards women. But I think it's totally in line with his character. I think the real copout would have been to pretend this womanizer could change overnight. His evolution is that he seems to finally acknowledge his chauvinism. And I think you're stretching it when you say Cruz is naked for half the film. I only remember two scenes.

Fletch said...

Well, yeah, I'm obviously exaggerating in stating that Cruz was naked for half the film. Maybe it was the length of those two (? Seemed like more, but I can't offer a firm number) scenes, or the way that the camera lingered on her, or the way that Kingsley drooled over her. What can I say - the movie left me with a creepy feeling.

Speaking of stretches...

Am I mistaken? Was Slumdog truly intended to be documentary-realistic in its portrayal of young Jamal's rise to millions? You said it yourself - it's a fairy tale. And I must debate the western capitalist viewpoint stance. Though I think they were remiss in not showing his residence at the time, it seemed as though Jamal had already made it out of the streets by the time he was working at the call center. He appeared to be doing pretty well for himself - making money, getting educated. The TV show was but a vehicle for him to gain exposure to his brother and lover (in terms of the film's use). I hardly thought the money was presented as the end-all, be-all to his happiness. To the contrary, he seemed to care little about it and more about just doing it.

Tony Dayoub said...


You're probably right on the money with your feelings about Kingsley seeming to "drool" all over her. The character behaved like a 20-year-old in a 60-year-old body, which I sort of took to be the point. His son feels betrayed by Kepesh's immaturity. SPOILER... Dennis Hopper's death feels like a mortality wake-up call. Roth's books all seem to acknowledge this (although it's clearer because they are largely internal monologues).

As for Slumdog, I felt like it was trying to have it both ways, docu-realistic in its choice to shoot mostly handheld, and depict the problems of the lower-class. When robbing a tourist, one of the characters even says, "This is the real India." But the Bollywood dance at the end seems to signal that the movie is a fantasy. So which one is it really? Boyle chose to cover his bases and make the film both, which struck me as lazy.

Anonymous said...

Good list of movies.