Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best of 2008: Film

10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This film succeeds both in spite of and because of its excess. At almost three hours, it’s about 20 minutes or a half hour too long, there’s a lot of material that while interesting in and of itself distracts from the film’s core. The center of the film is the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy, and that works wonderfully. The two actors are great as they deal with the frustrating impossibility of being together, as well as the joy of the brief moments when their lives overlap and they can be together. That stuff all works wonderfully, the material surrounding it ranges from strong to distracting. The old age Benjamin stuff works well, but goes on too long, and I found the constant cut backs to the present day framing story distracting. But there’s a haunting magic to the final hour or so that few films can match. I think it’s simultaneously been over and underrated by the film critic world at large, but it’s certainly a top 10 worthy film.

9. Wall-E

Pixar’s second best film (behind only Toy Story 2) is a remarkable piece of visual storytelling. Drawing on the visual language of silent comedy, the film is a cautionary tale about the world we live in, as well as a touching romance, and galaxy spanning sci-fi story. There’s moments of such pure joy in the movie, it’s more exuberant and exciting than anything else this year. I think the film does dip in quality a bit in its more conventional second half, but that’s only because the first half is so strong.

8. Synecdoche New York

Charlie Kaufman’s distinct cinematic voice goes in a more extreme direction than ever before in this film. I think it’s one of the best films of the year, but also extremely flawed in many ways. The second half goes rather off the rails, repeating the same beat over and over again, but the first half is uncanny in its ability to create a really unnerving vision of everyday life. There’s moments that are just disturbing, and the passage of time serves to disorient you in interesting ways. There’s very little difference between dream and reality here, is it a surreal world or are we experiencing the psychotic mind of the film’s protagonist? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The film is an experience, and I’ll definitely give it another look when it turns up on DVD.

7. The Wrestler

It’s less ambitious than the previous three films, but The Wrestler still stands out for its ability to make the everyday life of its protagonist into an epic struggle as large as anything on screen. Cinema can do so many different things, create so many different moods, and put you in different worlds. Most films you talk about in the context of world building are fantasy or sci-fi movies, but Aronofsky is as precise with his details as a Peter Jackson or George Lucas. The choice of music and props places you in this guy’s life, in the ever-growing distance from his glory days. It’s a really well made story that turns everyday life into something huge and meaningful.

6. The Dark Knight

I still have strong feelings against Batman Begins, but this film won me over, primarily due to the chaos incarnate performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker, but also Aaron Eckhart’s virtuous and troubled Harvey Dent. It’s an epic summer blockbuster done in the style of a 70s crime film, and the fusion really works. I don’t think all superhero films should have the self-seriousness of this one, but it works here. The story is epic, it doesn’t always make sense, and there’s some issues with the ending, but the overall takeaway is pretty phenomenal.

5. My Blueberry Nights

Yeah, there’s a lot of haters out there on this one. Even I will concede that it’s not at the level of Wong Kar-Wai’s other films, but there’s still wonderful moments that no one else can create. Wong Kar-Wai uses a different cinematic language than everyone else, and I love the chance to dip into his world for a while. I think he got a bit lost trying to capture some imagined idea of Americana, but there’s a great romanticism to the film, and some of the most beautiful images captured on film this year. And I still love the voiceovers that everyone else called pretentious or overwrought. Just get lost in the movie and then they’ll make sense.

4. Rachel Getting Married

Like The Wrestler, this film uses a ‘realist’ handheld aesthetic, but still manages to turn everyday events into consistently memorable film moments. It’s one of the most exciting and energetic films of the year, ably shifting from deep emotional moments to the simple joy of being together with everyone you know for a wedding. That’s what life is like, it’s not one tone, there’s a lot of emotion inherent in every experience, and we run the full gamut here. Great stuff.

3. Let the Right One In

Vampires have so much metaphoric resonance. On some level, we all exist as drains on the people around us, and the mix of violence and sex inherent in their bite has fueled millions of romances. This film de-dramatizes the traditional vampire narrative and uses it as a way to connect two isolated teenagers in Sweden. Visually, the snowcovered landscapes of the town are amazing, creating this incredibly stark world for everything to happen in. The relationship between the two kids is perfectly realized, and so subtle. It’s not played as a horror story, it’s just these two peoples’ lives, and there happen to be horror elements there. Things happen in a dreamy almost slow motion cadence, and that pace helps draw you in and lets you get lost in the film’s world. It’s one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen.

2. Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone

This is a hard film to categorize. Is it something new? Is it a remake? Is it a sequel? I think to some degree, it’s all three. It’s a more focused, emotionally clear take on the series’ first six episodes, and it was one of the most exhilarating, emotional experiences I had with a film in 2008. It doesn’t reach the heights of End of Evangelion, but it does a great job of clearing up some of the strange logic issues the series had, and making the emotional arcs a lot clearer early on. I don’t think it replaces the series, but it’s a great supplement, and if I had to start someone with the show, I might just show them this movie first. The animation was beautiful, and the final moments of the film are as haunting a closing as anything on this list. I can’t wait to see where they go with Rebuild 2.0.

1. Australia

This is a film that didn’t get much love from the critical community or audiences, and it baffles me why. No film was a more absorbing emotional experience for me this year than this one. Baz Luhrman has an uncanny ability to create signature movie moments, building the images and music together to sublime emotional crescendos. It was three hours, but still zipped by, and even though the “two films in one” structure meant there was a slight drag in the middle, I was riveted for the vast majority of this film. I don’t think it had the deepest characters or most challenging narrative, but emotionally, the film hit me like no other, and that’s what the best movies do.

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