The Tens: Best Of Film 2008

Before I started my own entertainment-related blog, my Top Tens had to whore themselves out on my friends’ pages. This one was originally posted on Justin Plus One.

As usual with my Top Tens, I have preserved them as they were, even if, in hindsight, I may disagree with some of my own choices. (Did I really exclude a Darren Aronofsky movie in favor of Iron Man? Gosh.)

Now here we are in 2012, and some of these have had sequels already. One of them has even had a sequel and another almost-sequel with a starring role in The Avengers.

This year was the last in which the Oscar nominees had just five prestigious slots open for Best Picture, brought about at least in part because of The Dark Knight‘s perceived snub. It was a year that took superheroes to the next level, and in which a strange, starless movie set in Mumbai centered on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? trumped typical Hollywood fare at the Oscars.

So let’s relive 2008, shall we?

10. IRON MAN

Two superhero movies in my Top 10 for 2008? Must’ve been a rough year for drama. While artsier fare like The Wrestler duked it out for the tenth slot on my list, ultimately including Iron Man just felt right. Robert Downey Jr.’s star turn as Tony Stark is every bit as crucial as Mickey Rourke’s performance is to The Wrestler, though he makes it look effortless. His Iron Man isn’t the first time a studio has hired a bona fide actor to play a costumed comic book hero (see Batmans Michael Keaton and Christian Bale), but those movies liven up when the cape and cowl are donned. In Iron Man, the alter ego is the star. Iron Man himself is just a bonus.

It’s readily apparent that everyone involved did their part to elevate this material above the mediocrity that bogs down most other comic book movies. Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts is particularly winsome – I hope they find a way to keep the sparkle in her relationship with Tony Stark in the sequel. I can’t help but admire Iron Man for fulfilling its genre obligations while also serving up a slice of entertainment that smart people with good taste can enjoy. Given the pressures on mega-budget films like this, Jon Favreau must be commended for proving that in a blockbuster, big need not necessarily be synonymous with dumb. Now can they keep it up?

9. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY 

Mike Leigh’s virtually plotless character study of a woman named Poppy has been classified as a comedy  –  which might be accurate, since there are funny moments peppered throughout. Just watching Sally Hawkins’ awkward, borderline-obnoxious performance is bound to provoke laughter – but what I found while watching it is that I laughed in places others did not, and vice versa. Like most great comedies, the humor is derived not from setups and punchlines, but our own identification with the protagonist and those around her, the truth we find in these situations. Everyone is bound to connect to a different moment, often in uncomfortable ways.

It’s all because, like most of Leigh’s work, this unique film refuses to take any conventional path, instead challenging viewers to spend two hours alongside a very cheerful woman with the most positive attitude… forcing us to reckon with our growing desire to punch her in the face. It brings up questions about our own happiness – and how much we’re willing to tolerate in others. Why is good cheer so obnoxious? Why are we so inclined to dislike anyone whose disposition is sunnier than our own? Is human nature fundamentally in opposition to contentment? Golden Globe-winner Sally Hawkins has a well-deserved shot at an Oscar for Best Actress, which ought to give her something else to smile about. (And something else the rest of us will want to punch her for.)

8. BOY A

There’s at least one on my list every year. You probably haven’t seen Boy A, or even heard of it. Too bad for you! Andrew Garfield is superb in a breakout performance as Jack, a likable 24-year old coming of age – contending with his first job, first date, first kiss, first adult beverage, and so on. Why is Jack such a late bloomer, you may wonder. Well, that’s because he’s been in prison up until this point, for the brutal murder of a young girl. (Just what his involvement is isn’t shown until near the end, but the film doesn’t let him off the hook easily.) Yet despite this atrocious act, you can’t help but empathize with Jack at what follows.

Jack’s parole contact Terry (Peter Mullen) serves as mentor and father figure, guiding Jack through everything from losing his virginity to ordering a meal in a restaurant for the first time – and he’s the only person in Jack’s life who knows that he’s really the child killer known as “Boy A,” now being hunted by the media. With insightful flashbacks, assured direction, and all-around solid performances, Boy A is quiet and unsensational despite the juicy subject matter, even when the new life Jack’s built suddenly collapses like a house of cards in the film’s tragic denouement.

7. THE DARK KNIGHT

Why so serious? The titular darkness of Christopher Nolan’s gothic drama makes Tim Burton’s Batman films seem as light and frivolous as, well, Joel Schumacher’s. In a twist that shocked everybody, it turns out the public likes their superhero movies pitch-black, thought-provoking, and “so serious,” to the extent that a comic book action hero sequel became the second-highest grossing film of all time (trailing Titanic). With its near-epic running time and emphasis on tortured souls and tragic character arcs, The Dark Knight has scope more akin to The Godfather than Spider-Man (if not quite the nuance or gravitas).

Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (replacing Katie Holmes) all do solid, if not astounding, work. Of course, what pulls it together is Heath Ledger’s magnificent, magnetic turn as The Joker – there’s no way he’s not winning the Oscar. And he deserves it, living or dead. There will almost certainly be another Batman film, but I’d wager there will never be another one with a performance like this. The Dark Knight is a cinematic milestone that may allow more mega-budget blockbusters to be moody, thought-provoking, and, hey, perhaps even Oscar-worthy. (Though I still say nothing beats the Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin in Batman Returns.)

6. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

Kate & Leo! Together! Surviving! Living happily ever…oh, wait, no. This is not a love story a la Titanic. It’s a hate story – or rather, a story in which we watch love dissolve and eventually succumb to loathing, as “the American dream” strangles a young couple’s more intimate, individual dreams. Based on the peerless novel by Richard Yates, that perfect dream becomes a nightmare, a trap that seemingly no one can break out of.

If Revolutionary Road doesn’t exactly break any new ground in portraying the suburbs as a place where brittle facades just barely cover secret longings and infidelities (see Little Children and American Beauty, for starters), it certainly delves even deeper into the loneliness, the sacrifice, the misery, the hunger for more… the dark heart of suburban America. By using the iconic 50’s as the backdrop – a time we’re more likely to associate with smiling housewives and happy-go-lucky husbands returning home from a hard day’s work than the very modern quarrels these two have – Revolutionary Road is all the more shattering in depicting the perfunctory dysfunction at the core of our tried-and-true tradition of love, marriage, and child-rearing.

Sam Mendes echoes his skillful work in the sublime American Beauty, directing wife Kate Winslet and her best friend Leonardo DiCaprio, tackling uglier extremes than they’ve been asked to explore. Kinda makes the death-by-hypothermia conclusion of Titanic‘s lovestruck duo seem like the happier ending after all.

5. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

A curious case, indeed – the big studio movie that boldly explores themes like mortality without playing it safe or laying on the sap. It’s easy to imagine Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, or even Steven Spielberg going astray with this material – tugging the heartstrings a few too many times, getting caught up in the sweeter moments. David Fincher, on the other hand, turns out to be the perfect shepherd for this brand of magic realism, not only because of his mastery of the film’s astounding aging and anti-aging effects, but also because of the darkness and gravity of his oeuvre, the weight he lends this subject matter. There’s no sugar added to the film’s examination of what it means to get older, or the inherent tragedy that is (for Benjamin, and for all of us) the inevitable decline back toward a state of infancy.

That’s what’s remarkable about this story. We’re so used to the natural aging process, it takes a curiosity like this to let us see it with fresh eyes. As an elderly Cate Blanchett takes care of Brad Pitt in his final years, as a young boy and finally a baby, Fincher makes the heartbreaking point that the nature of love changes as we do – the lovers of our youths end up serving as nurses and mother figures once we’re again feeble-minded and helpless.

At nearly three hours, Benjamin Button doesn’t feel long at all – in fact, spanning the entirety of a man’s life just makes you want to see more of every moment. (I could have done with a little less childhood and more of Benjamin’s later life, and not just because that CGI-youthed Brad is just so pretty.) A Hurricane Katrina backdrop and the casting of a big star like Pitt lend an extra air of despair – if not even Brad Pitt can escape getting old and less hunky, what hope is there for the rest of us?

4. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

The awkward title sets the offbeat tone for this intimate family drama, in which the characters feel so lived-in it’s hard to believe you’re not sitting there with them. As if to prove that point, a couple sequences are frustratingly long, giving us a hint of the boredom we might feel if we actually were at the wedding. When the dancing starts, feel free to refill your popcorn, go to the bathroom, validate your parking – it goes on awhile.

More than that, though, Rachel Getting Married features some of the best performances of the year, unlikely to be recognized by the Academy. There’s plenty of buzz around Anne Hathaway, who we watch like a train that’s about to derail at any moment (and rest assured, it does). But just as good are Rosemarie DeWitt, phenomenal as the titular Rachel, who inhabits the role so well she feels like your own sister, and Debra Winger in a briefer but no less acute appearance as the girls’ distant mother (in the film’s most electrifying scene, she’s the one that causes that  train wreck). Jenny Lumet’s observant screenplay and Jonathan Demme’s fly-on-the-wall direction deserve equal credit for pulling off this sharp character study that captures heightened family drama in a natural way few other films manage.

3. WALL*E

A truly visionary piece of work, WALL*E manages to be a crowd-pleasing family film featuring two robotic leads with little conventional dialogue, at the same time delivering a not-at-all-subtle environmental message. No small feat.

Here, Pixar’s standard of visual razzle-dazzle is matched by a story that feels just as groundbreaking as the animation. It should come as no surprise that these talented animators make a love story between two robots feel not only credible, but incredibly moving; even so, WALL*E takes romance to new heights using a starry backdrop and repurposing the Hello, Dolly! soundtrack. (Recycling – how green!)

More than just a clever adventure tale, WALL*E dares ruffle up its viewers by pointing a finger back at them, depicting humans as lazy and easily distracted, if ultimately good-natured and strong-willed. It’s a highly entertaining cautionary tale – and hey, it’s never too early to get kids thinking about the environment. But WALL*E would have no right to challenge us had the movie not raised the bar itself: by exploring uncharted territory for family-friendly fare, elevating the ideas and emotions typical in an animated feature to infinity and beyond. Pixar, you’re just too good to us.

2. FROST/NIXON

It’s unlikely that even the real Richard Nixon was quite as fascinating and complicated as the man portrayed in Ron Howard’s searing drama, which is a credit to writer Peter Morgan and especially to Frank Langella’s dynamic depiction of Tricky Dick. (Morgan wrote the stage play, which Langella also starred in.) Frost/Nixon plays with history a bit, giving us insight into America’s most-despised president (until recently, anyway) – though we have no way of knowing how accurate that insight is.

It doesn’t matter. The showdown between Nixon and Aussie TV host David Frost makes for a fascinating drama, an underdog-against-all-odds story in which the stakes are truth, justice, and all that other stuff Americans hold in such high regard. (Funny, it takes an outsider to hold an American president accountable for his actions.) Michael Sheen gives a compelling performance as the man who inexplicably risks everything on a single TV interview, but it’s Langella who steals the show, commanding the screen no matter what he’s doing. (Amazing, considering that most of Langella’s more subtle work here would not have come across on stage – he must have totally reinvented his performance.)

With help from Morgan’s complex study of the man, Langella makes Nixon an even larger larger-than-life persona than he already is, lending credibility to moments and dialogue that might sound theatrical coming from a less capable actor. The movie never hits a false note – just plenty of great ones.

1. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Who’d have guessed Slumdog Millionaire would clean up so many major awards at the Golden Globes? Or that it’d be the frontrunner for a Best Picture Academy Award? Nobody – at least, not until recently.

Slumdog Millionaire isn’t the kind of movie people make thinking they’ll get an Oscar, which makes its success all the more rewarding. It’s hard to think of a director besides Danny Boyle who could have captured the energy of Mumbai in such an authentic way – I cringe to think of others tackling this material and glossing it up, Hollywood-style. It takes a rough-around-the-edges auteur like Boyle to bring such an incredible story to life, and that he does. The film is fully alive in every frame, from the cinematography to the music to the performances (mostly by unknown-to-America Indian actors).

What American audiences can connect to is the all-too-familiar format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The cheesy game show is a ridiculous contrast  to the orphaned boys’ tough childhood on the streets. Slumdog Millionaire is what you’d get if you cross Regis Philbin with an Eastern Charles Dickens and added a dose of Scorsese. It makes no compromises and fits no mold – no concession has been made to make it more palatable to the average moviegoer (you know, the ones who made Paul Blart: Mall Cop the top-grossing January opener of all time), but against all odds, Slumdog Millionaire is winning audiences over because it is fresh, genuine, and original. Let that be a lesson.

While Slumdog Millionaire does depict some darker moments – crime, torture, child prostitution – the overall tone is light; it’s an improbably fun, feel-good movie. (So there. After choosing such films as Zodiac and United 93 as my previous #1’s, I’ve finally lightened up!) Hopefully Slumdog Millionaire’s success means more daring, unconventional films will finding financing in the future. No need to ask the audience or phone a friend – Slumdog’s underdog-gets-lucky story is about to be mirrored in real life at the Academy Awards.

THE 2008 ROSTER

1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. Frost/Nixon
3. Wall-E
4. Rachel Getting Married
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
6. Revolutionary Road
7. The Dark Knight
8. Boy A
9. Happy-Go-Lucky
10. Iron Man
11. The Wrestler
12. The Reader
13. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
14. Let the Right One In
15. In Bruges
16. Doubt
17. Tropic Thunder
18. Battle in Seattle
19. Tell No One
20. Reprise
21. Milk
22. Mister Foe
23. The Visitor
24. Priceless
25. The Wackness
26. The Duchess
27. Snow Angels
28. The Edge of Heaven
29. The Bank Job
30. Wendy & Lucy
31. Trick R Treat
32. Sex and the City
33. Cloverfield
34. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
35. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
36. Pineapple Express
37. American Teen
38. My Blueberry Nights
39. Quantum of Solace
40. Burn After Reading
41. The Orphanage
42. Son of Rambow
43. Paranoid Park
44. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
45. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
46. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
47. Definitely, Maybe
48. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
49. Baby Mama
50. Valkyrie
51. The House Bunny
52. Never Back Down
53. Charlie Bartlett
54. Smart People
55. Brideshead Revisited
56. Married Life
57. The Fall
58. Hancock
59. Australia
60. Savage Grace
61. The X-Files: I Want To Believe
62. Funny Games
63. Synechdoche, New York
64. The Day the Earth Stood Still
65. Untraceable
66. Wanted
67. Eagle Eye
68. The Life Before Her Eyes
69. The Happening
70. Pretty Bird

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