This country suffered through two recessions this past year: a financial and a creative one. The financial one we already know about in detail and who the culprits are (thanks, Barney Frank), so let’s not dredge all that up. As far as the creative recession is concerned, the Writer's Strike of 2007 really hurt the quality of films this year. We were saturated with the dregs of humanity ( SPEED RACER, THE LOVE GURU, 88 MINUTES and RIGHTIOUS KILL--- Al Pacino, what were you thinking, man?) and some that had potential, but somehow missed that magical spark which makes a film unique ( QUANTUM OF SOLACE and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL---a space ship? Come on!). And then there was that insufferable tendency to make remakes of classics ( THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL---with KEANU? What's next? 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY starring Jack Black as the voice of HAL, the paranoid computer?). I was shocked because I would usually have 20-30 films to recommend. This year, I barely made ten.
But I persevered. Although 2008 was a hard year for the film industry in terms of quality, some brilliant gems shined through. Here is my list of the Top Ten Films of 2008.
10) IRON MAN
Although DARK KNIGHT cemented the philosophy that movies based on comic books can be taken seriously, IRON MAN was the initial catalyst. And it couldn't have been done without the talented charm of Robert Downey Jr., probably one of the best actors of our generation. His comeback story connecting him to drugs, arrests, and hints that he would face the same tragic end as River Phoenix is truly an inspirational one. You can tell he's having fun in IRON MAN, and it shows in TROPIC THUNDER as well. Sharp direction and cool writing (with some creative improvisation from the star himself). I haven't seen him shine like this since his Academy nominated performance in CHAPLIN. I admit that when the end credits began, I said out loud, "Welcome back, Robert. You were missed."
9) THE READER
THE READER captured perfectly the complexities and the horrors of the Holocaust, and Kate Winslet was fantastic---as always---as a remorseless ex-prison guard who has an affair with an innocent youth. But what captivated me the most was the movie breaks the stereotypical myth about what a cool thing it is for a young guy to lose his virginity to an older woman. Although sexually graphic, it's an accurate study in how this type of sexual liaison can lead to traumatic consequences for both parties. It's been done in movies before where the older person was male and the younger was a female; never have I seen it portrayed so realistically where the older person was female. It's an example of how innocent love is soiled by the ugly aspects of sexuality.
8) THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Who would have thought that David Fincher, who directed violent sagas like SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC, could create one of the most profound, humanistic, magical tales of 2008? This story about a man who ages backwards examines the frailties of both physical and emotional mortality, and Fincher does so with an unexpected, gentle, cinematic touch. Not bad for a guy who directed ALIEN 3.
7) KUNG FU PANDA
A beautifully drawn film that turned out to be the second funniest film I have seen this year. A nice salute to the old Kung Fu films I grew up on---especially those extremely fast close-ups. A very touching movie about an underdog...er, panda...trying to succeed in his dreams as a kung-fu master. But I have to add that if a film can feature a HUGE actor like Michael Clarke Duncan to believably cry and whimper like a little girl when the psycho-villain ( Ian McShane) escapes, it's got to be good.
A beautiful combination of a Charlie Chaplin film meets 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY. The first twenty minutes (which contained no dialogue) was just as captivating as last year's Oscar winner THERE WILL BE BLOOD. The big difference is in BLOOD, we witnessed the silent demon called greed consume Daniel Day Lewis. In WALL-E, we experience a spirit called love inhabit our hearts for the film's little hero. The humor and the humanity are deftly shown in this futuristic tale about loneliness, love, and the dangers of consumerism.
Yes, a Guy Ritchie film not only made the Top Ten AND Top Five, I liked it better than WALL-E. I can hear everyone ask: "In the name of humanity, why?" Because it's the coolest, funniest film I have seen in the past few years. I saw it twice and I will buy this hysterical tale about low-end crime, greed, a pair of the scariest Russian hit men I have ever seen in my life, and a rock star who has interesting views about life. I have always been a Guy Ritchie fan (with the exception of REVOLVER and SWEPT AWAY) and this is by far the best film he has made. Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson and newcomer Tony Kebbnell shine in a story where the good guys win in the end and the bad guys get their due. The soundtrack? It provides the film's central heartbeat, and you cannot help but tap your foot along with the rhythm.
4) THE WRESTLER
Robert Downey Jr. may have won the award for “Best Comeback For an Actor” after hitting rock bottom from drugs and the overwhelming adrenaline of fame, but Mickey Rourke came to a close second in his heartbreaking portrayal as a washed-up wrestler striving for …well... a comeback after hitting rock bottom from drugs and the overwhelming adrenaline of fame. The line between realty and fantasy is very much erased as this physically and creatively resurrected actor shows the wear and tear of literally surviving one's personal hell, from his mercurial emotional range to the scars on his face and body. And yet, he displays a type of subtle humility. A truly dynamic lead performance that I consider to be the best of the year.
3) SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
This beautiful, heartwarming fantasy of an orphan trying to win on an Indian version of " Who Wants to be a Millionaire" was an excellent departure for co-director Danny Boyle ( TRAINSPOTTING, 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE). As with David Fincher, Boyle is a director of many violent themed genres---horror, drug-culture, science fiction---and this latest effort demonstrates his multifaceted talent. It's an epic in its scope because of Boyle's ability to capture the film's most fascinating character---the exotic, temperamental nature of Mumbai itself (I was tempted to say it was the game show host who had the excellent ability to be even more annoying than Regis Philbin. But, alas, I reconsidered). This lovely setting ties all the characters together, resulting in a beautiful, cinematic tapestry.
2) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
This tale about a 12 year boy in
The vampire girl, Eli, is indeed a true monster. She uses an older, human servant to kill and collect the blood in order to survive, and Lina Andersson captures her character's addictive personality perfectly. But her compassion is slowly peeled back like an onion when she encounters her new friend, Oskar. We see this friendship grow into a type of selfless, innocent love that is RARELY shown in cinema today ( SLUMDOG and WALL-E fit in that category as well). And the fact that she shows more humanity than the human bullies who torment Oskar proves this film is not only eloquent in its approach, but also touching in its theme.
I was torn between
RIGHT getting the #2 spot. Both were fantasy films that took place in an exotic location (
1) THE DARK KNIGHT
Okay, let the games begin. Why would I choose an action film of all things as the best film of the year? Let me count the ways:
a) THE DARK KNIGHT IMAX EXPERIENCE
This was the only way for a viewer to exist in this turbulent world that Director Christopher Nolan has created. Since some of the action scenes were filmed in IMAX ( DARK KNIGHT was the first mainstream movie to do this), you can actually feel yourself flying through the evening skies along with the caped crusader.
Actually, THE DARK KNIGHT EXPERINCE begins even before the movie starts. In all the screenings I have attended, the main coming attraction was the teaser trailer for THE WATCHMEN. And I have to say that watching a sultry Malin Akerman stalking through an alley, while Smashing Pumpkins' " The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" blasts throughout the movie theatre, is an incredible way to prep the viewer for the action yet to come.
b) FLAWLESS CASTING
And I mean by EVERYONE, from the leads to the cameos. Christian Bale adds more torment and complexity to his hero in sophisticated, subtle nuances, while the late Heath Ledger's magnetic portrayal of The Joker explodes on the screen with maniacal glee. This wasn't a surprise. And I can say the same for the major supporting actors returning from BATMAN BEGINS like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and ESPECIALLY Gary Oldman, who has really infused his character with more realistic, emotional power than any other role I have seen him in (maybe he should portray more normal characters from now on). And I wasn't surprised by the performance of Aaron Eckhart, who was perfectly cast as the doomed Harvey Dent, the D.A. whose personal tragedy and corruption by The Joker results in his transformation: Two Face.
The biggest surprises came from the new, major supporting actors: Eric Roberts and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I normally don't like them for their standard typecasting and acting: Roberts as a psycho, Gyllenhaal as a bubblehead. Roberts was actually impressive as a gang boss who regrets his decision hiring The Joker to do his dirty work, and Gyllenhall showed genuine conflict and sympathy as Bruce Wayne's love interest (played marginally by Katie Holmes in BEGINS). Even the cameo appearances were well done, especially by Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, and Tommy Lister as a huge, tattooed convict who plays a key role in the movie's end. An excellent job for casting director, John Papsidera.
c) WRITING AND DIRECTION
Christopher Nolan has shown his talent as a writer and director not only with BATMAN BEGINS, but with psychological thrillers like MEMENTO and INSOMNIA, as well as historical pieces ( THE PRESTEGE). However, he and his brother John created dialogue that was crisp and real, as well as choreographing the best action sequences I have seen in years. The feeling was very much like watching Michael Mann's HEAT, regarding the gritty nature of crime. But when you combine an intelligent story with superb action elements, THE DARK KNIGHT is not just another action, superhero movie; it's a crime epic in the truest sense. Coppola performed such an incredible feat with THE GODFATHER, PART TWO; Nolan did the same with THE DARK KNIGHT.
d) THE DARK KNIGHT: A MORALITY TALE AND THE NATURE OF EVIL
I have heard a lot of negative comments from my peers regarding this film, how it was too dark and violent (which is interesting considering this was a PG 13 rating and hardly any blood was shown. If it was that violent, folks, Nolan would have shown what The Joker did to Michael Jai White after he gave his "Why So Serious?" speech). One friend of mine even remarked that evil itself or the ugliness of life should simply be ignored, and that society will eventually stay on the right track to civility.
But life doesn't work that way. The best response I can give on the subject of evil is a profound line from THE USUAL SUSPECTS:
"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
It is essential for evil to be acknowledged, recognized, and confronted, especially within ourselves. How we confront that evil is a test of our spiritual evolution. What I found fascinating about Nolan's interpretation of The Joker is in the original Batman Mythology, The Joker was a petty criminal who fell in a chemical vat, bleaching his face, resulting in insanity. But Nolan made The Joker more human (no skin bleaching) and anonymous (no back story).
Simply put, folks, The Joker represents the evil ALL of us possess.
And we do possess evil, albeit, at certain levels. It can be 0.3%; it can be 10%; it can be 50%. The Joker is 100%, through and through. He is the manifestation created by the City of
And it's this totality of malevolence that provides the main test for the protagonist: what do you need to do to confront and defeat this evil without sacrificing one's own humanity. I recall that Batman has only killed two people in both films (Ducard in BEGINS and Two Face in DARK KNIGHT) and they were done in self-defense. And in three circumstances---the interrogation scene, the big truck chase, and the ending---Batman had the opportunity to kill The Joker, yet he doesn't succumb to that temptation. That illustrates the integrity of a character's strength. And the portrayal of that evil incarnate was memorably done by Heath Ledger. He possessed a fanatic charisma and by combining evil deeds with charm, you have a truly scary villain.
But it's the profound ending that cements Batman as a hero of our times. As he and Gordon stand over the body of the scarred Harvey Dent, Batman decides to make the ultimate sacrifice: to claim responsibly for the murders that Dent has committed. By keeping Dent's reputation clean, the hope of the people is still maintained: the hope that
This is not so far-fetched. During the film's release, I read a blog by a Catholic priest and saw an interview with a pastor from a Protestant church who made the exact same comparison after they saw this beautifully made epic. Hey, whom am I do disagree with the experts when it comes to religious symbolism?