This is a somewhat reworked repost of my 2008 end-of-year wrap-up, originally published on 1/23/09. The main difference is my inclusion of Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys) on the list instead of as an honorable mention. It replaces a television show (In Treatment) I included on the original list; not because I regret the original decision to include it, but because this series is really dedicated to discussing the decade's cinematic offerings.
I started blogging in 2008 so you should see a marked difference in my selection of films. This isn't by design, necessarily. 2008 just afforded me the opportunity to watch more movies through press screenings, screeners, and invitations to film festivals, now giving me additional access I wouldn't normally get in Atlanta. Some reminders: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I haven't seen it; also, if I already wrote a review for it, I'll include a link back to the original review.
And now, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2008...
Che (Roadshow Edition), director Steven Soderbergh - Review here. 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 greater potential for controversy. Shot like a traditional war movie, it depicts Guevara as a 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 - Reviews here and here. Desplechin's look at family dynamics is the best film I saw this year. And even though the members of this movie's family share some disdain for each other, one gets the feeling that each loves each other in a way one could understand only when one is part of such a group. Both bitter and warm.
Elegy, dir. Isabel Coixet - Review here. 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—is also quite illuminating.
The Fall, dir. Tarsem Singh - Review here. Simply the most visually stunning film I've seen since Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
Gran Torino, dir. Clint Eastwood - Review here. 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.
Shotgun Stories, dir. Jeff Nichols - Review here. 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 which a man can cause by abandoning one family to start another.
The Strangers, dir. Bryan Bertino - Review here. 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 - Review here. 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.
Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys), dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan - Review here. Quite an Antonioni send-up, Üç Maymun even has its own Monica Vitti in female lead Hatice Aslan. Her performance is the linchpin around which this exceedingly atmospheric—and near silent—neo-noir from Turkey is hung on.
Wall·E, dir. Andrew Stanton - An unusually resonant film, it is an even more amazing feat once one remembers that the main characters are computer generated robots.
Honorable Mention: Burn After Reading, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Happy-Go-Lucky, Iron Man, Rambo, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, 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
For more of this ongoing series on the Best Films of the 00s, click here.