Friday, January 30, 2009

2008 Top Ten Films

On Tuesday's Pop Culture America with John and Dave, I unveiled my list of the Top Ten movies of 2008. For those of you keeping score at home, here they are again, in order and with a brief capsule review (click the links for rapid access to my full reviews of most of them, or if I didn't write a full review -- I'm lazy -- the film's wikipedia page).

10. The Bank Job (d. Roger Donaldson) -- A tough, taut caper movie with a superior plot and great gritty 1970s atmosphere ("Life on Mars" take note). Jason Statham's hard-bitten, no-nonsense acting recalls the best of the British New Wave and more than makes up for the way he snoozed through his other two 2008 films (Transporter 3 and Death Race).

9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (d. Nicholas Stoller) -- The Judd Apatow comedy factory showed some signs of winding down this year with the disappointing Pineapple Express and the uneven end of 2007 effort Walk Hard. But here, the formula works again and works brilliantly, buoyed by a role reversal script from star Jason Segel and magnificent supporting turns by Russell Brand and Mila Kunis. After seeing this uproarious comedy, you're sure to have "A Taste For Love."

8. Changeling (d. Clint Eastwood) -- The Eastwood film where he does NOT tell the kids to get off his lawn. It would be enough if this was only the heart-wrenching personal story of a woman who loses a child, only to have the authorities return the wrong boy to her. But that's only the beginning as individual tragedy unfolds into a story of institutional brutality and one of the most heinous crimes of the previous century. Angelina Jolie's vulnerable performance anchors a frightening film.

7. Frost/Nixon (d. Ron Howard) -- Frank Langella avoids all the obvious pitfalls of playing the most parodied President in modern history and gives us a sharp, deeply flawed man who's too smart not to see just how far he's fallen. They say, "Only Nixon could go to China" (see Star Trek VI). It's possible that only Frost could go to Nixon and get him to admit what we all suspected. The battle of wits between the two men is riveting. The abuses of power, all too relevant.

6. Rachel Getting Married (d. Jonathan Demme) -- "I am Shiva the destroyer, your harbinger of doom this evening." So begins the most awkward wedding toast in history (even worse than mine). Rachel might be getting married but Anne Hathaway as her sister Kym steals the show, arriving home from rehab and forcing everyone in her family to deal with the shear fact of her untidy presence. Jonathan Demme's verite camera makes you a member of the wedding, peering past shoulders and over heads to see the proceedings. Any wedding that has Fab Five Freddy and Robin Hitchcock playing live is well worth attending.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky (d. Mike Leigh) -- People who are constantly happy tend to annoy us, in part because it seems like they aren't paying attention. Can't they see how awful things are? The genius of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky -- and of the miraculous work of Sally Hawkins at its center -- is to present a joy rooted in the perceptive knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. This isn't stupid-happy. This is smart-happy. And it made me happy-happy.

4. The Wrestler (d. Darren Aronofsky) -- A beaten-up, broken-down lug on the comeback trail. Was Mickey Rourke even acting? The answer is "Yes, brilliantly." Underneath its sordid surface of strip clubs and down-circuit high-school-gymnasium rasslin', this is the most traditional of stories, the spiritual heir to The Champ and Golden Boy. It is Rourke's show to be sure, but don't discount the stellar supporting roles played by Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood.

3. Wall-E (d. Andrew Stanton) -- Pixar's latest masterpiece looks so good, you could swear it's not animated at all, that a film crew simply hopped in a time machine and lensed the world of 800 years hence. For the first half hour or so, it's a Buster Keaton film, with the battered little robot Wall-E diligently pursuing his clean-up job while trying to impress the sleek girl-bot EVE. Later, it's Modern Times era Chaplin with Wall-E battling to save humanity from the clutches of its own technology. The best message films are the ones that sneak in under the radar, so I won't point out that it makes a rather serious ecological point or two in the process.

2. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan) -- Our PCA friend Dann Gire of The Daily Herald calls it "The Citizen Kane of superhero films." It's not. But it does show a world not steeped in issue after issue of comic book lore that superheroic (and supervillainous) characters can be complex, challenging and disarmingly relevant. A square-jawed, justice-minded hero is confronted with a chaotic, unpredictable, unknowable adversary. SEE! how little it takes to rend the delicate fabric of society. SEE! how difficult it is to preserve that fabric, to face evil without becoming evil. SEE! the mad, maddening wonder that is Heath Ledger's Joker. SEE! ... Ah. Who am I kidding? Everyone's seen it already. Which is good.

1. Slumdog Millionaire (d. Danny Boyle with Loveleen Tandan) -- An unschooled, uneducated boy sits in the hot seat of the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and succeeds beyond most people's wildest dreams. But he isn't there for the 20 million rupees. Boyle and Tandan take us on a harrowing ride through the depths of despair among the homeless in Mumbai, to the shiny chrome sets of a slick television game show, and finally on through to a Bollywood fantasy come to life. There is humor and there is tragedy and there are all different shades of human experience along the way. The only constant is love. I think someone once said that it's all you need.

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