Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Best of 2008

It may seem a little late, but a top 10 list, like fine African cacao, takes time to grow.  It needs to be cultivated, nurtured and ultimately proffered without regrets.  Besides, if Roger Ebert -- the only film critic to have ever won a Pulitzer prize -- couldn't even narrow his list down to ten films this past year, I still feel like I'm ahead of the curve.  The ten best films I saw last year are:

10. The Wackness
Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck generate fireworks as a psychiatrist and teenager trading therapy for marijuana.  Writer/Director Jonathan Levine keeps us constantly off-balance, lacing every moment of his odd-couple story with the humor and pathos of the unexpected.  

9. White Night Wedding
Chekhov's Ivanov becomes the inspiration for the biggest local box-office hit in the history of Iceland.  Straddling a fine line between comedy and tragedy, the story follows a professor who leaves his wife to marry his student on a strange island where the sun never fully goes down. Watching the various townsfolk react to their new visitor makes for some of the funniest moments of any movie this year.  The climax is shattering yet buoyant.  

8. American Teen
Nanette Burstein's knockout documentary American Teen transports us to a small Indiana town in the Midwestern United States and grants us unprecedented access to a group of teens dealing with uniquely contemporary problems.  The teens share their innermost feelings with disarming candor.  Marketed as "the real Breakfast Club," this one packs a punch.

7. Tell No One
Gritty, authentic and stylish.  This unlikely French adaptation of the Harlan Coban novel by the same name is a roller-coaster ride of twists and turns anchored in the suspense of the human heart.  Dr. Alexandre Beck believes his wife to be dead, until he receives an email with evidence that she is still alive.  Whether or not she is actually alive forms the basis for one of the best post-Hitchcock thrillers ever.  

6. The Visitor
Richard Jenkins stars as an emotionally remote College Professor who arrives in New York City for a conference and finds two strangers living in his apartment.  He also finds redemption in the unlikely friendship he forges with them -- learning to play the drums and relearning how to let others into his heart.  It may sound maudlin, but it is the most subtle and understated drama of the year.  

5. Wall-E
This artful, endlessly imaginative meditation on ecology and society's future is visually arresting and narratively elegant.  For 80 percent of the movie we are held spellbound without a single line of dialogue, as the last robot on earth searches for his electronic soul mate.  

4. Changeling
Angelina Jolie is just one standout in a triumphant ensemble cast, as Christine Collins the real life mother whose son was kidnapped in 1928 Los Angeles.  When the police "found" her boy, she insisted he wasn't hers -- instigating a relentless chain of events that are all the more harrowing because they are true.  Director Clint Eastwood's characteristic mixture of bluntness and restraint are put to fine use in this, one of his most accomplished pictures.  

3. Slumdog Millionaire
The feel-good movie of the year is also a stylistically daring, high-adrenaline juggernaut that has the audacity to sell us a fairy tale message laced with unflinching brutality and stark social critique.  The movie has become a phenomenon and deservedly so.  It will be remembered for many years to come.  

2.  The Wrestler
Bracing honesty, raw emotion and the poetry of suffering, fuel this complex and unforgettable character study.  The actors are the show here.  Mickey Rourke inhabits and owns the screen as Randy "the Ram" Robinson.  Marissa Tomei continues to reveal new layers of vulnerability and depth as an actress.  Evan Rachel Wood embodies the Ram's tragic past effortlessly.  Ranks with the very best of American Independent cinema.

1. The Dark Knight
The biggest hit of the year is also one of the greatest popcorn epics of all time.  I don't use the word "masterpiece" lightly, but TDK inspires such praise.  No other film since The Godfather has found such profundity in a mass entertainment.  

Honorable Mention  
At any given moment, there are thousands of little Joe Frankels in my head, making last minute insertions and substitutions to the above list.  Each of these fierce iconoclasts might make a case for the following films:

Quantum of Solace: the best action film of the year.  Critics complained that Bond was trying to imitate Jason Bourne.  Ludicrous.  This film builds on the legacy of Casino Royale with an equal reverence for Ian Fleming's original conception of the character -- and better stunts.  

In Search Of A Midnight Kiss: epitomizes the reckless, youthful, spirit of no-budget Independent filmmaking, with sharp dialogue, evocative on-the-fly visuals and offbeat casting. Current without being trendy.  This one is a gem.  

Vicky Christina Barcelona: Woody's favorite themes are put to fine use in the most entertaining picture of his late career.  Sly, witty and unexpectedly exotic.  

Gran Torino: Clint's second movie of '08 is also one of the year's best, offering a complex meditation on old age, gang violence and racial discord.  Juggling a variety of disparate tones with surprising grace, Gran Torino is a jazzy, elegiac, reflection on a lifetime of playing Dirty Harry.  

Rachel Getting Married: Jonathan Demme's best movie in years, unfolds like a series of home movies and invites us to be a fly on the wall during a tension filled weekend in the life of a dysfunctional family.   Anne Hathaway delivers the best lead performance by an actress this year and the movie lingers in the memory long after the end credits have rolled.    

JCVD: Arguably the most memorable movie of the year for those who saw it.  Jean Claude Van Damme reinvents himself by playing...himself.  Nobody saw it coming, but the man can actually act!  The movie plays like Jean-Luc Goddard crossed with Luc Besson and it's delightful from start to finish.