Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Best Films of 2008

1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Both a sensitive depiction of loneliness and a stinging rebuke of consumerism, WALL-E is an ambitious family film with plenty of humor and a cute-as-a-bug protagonist to amuse the kids and thougthfulness to engage adults. WALL-E is packed with physical comedy and sight gags as old as the silent films that provide inspiration for a hero in the tradition of Chaplin's Little Tramp. The sleek space-age design and graceful moments of quiet, such as a lovely robot dance among the stars, give comfort and peace from the heavy themes. WALL-E'S echo of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY--call it the second dawn of man--serves as a cunning tribute to Kubrick's film and an optimistic note for the future of slumbering mankind. Writer-director Andrew Stanton packages the fun and high-mindedness in dazzling ways to make WALL-E successful as popular entertainment for all ages and art that merits serious discussion.

2. THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

THE DARK KNIGHT upends the traditional view of the blockbuster as possessing all brawn and no brain. Director Christopher Nolan administers the visceral stimulation required of an action movie and contemplates the urgent questions regarding the use of power to combat evil and the importance of imagery in the fight. Heath Ledger's riveting turn as The Joker, a sociopath conducting fear experiments on the public for his anarchic amusement, provides a terrifying reminder that the social fabric can be easily torn.

3. WENDY AND LUCY (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

A simple story of a woman on the verge of losing everything, WENDY AND LUCY gains quiet power in how director Kelly Reichardt depicts the immediacy and peril in living day-to-day. As Wendy, a strapped young woman driving across the country in search of work with her dog her lone companion, Michelle Williams gives a heartbreaking performance. While the film deals Wendy the indignities of her economic situation, acts of decency and compassion provide the most stirring moments in a gorgeously photographed film.

4. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (Jonathan Demme, 2008)

The challenge of a drug addicted past and family tensions in the present is beautifully elucidated in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. The handheld camerawork draws us into an intimate and suffocating look at what it can be like to hurt many people and desire redemption. The stylistic choice allows the camera to get close while having the freedom to wander within a confined setting, which is precisely the situation Anne Hathaway's Kym finds herself in. Director Jonathan Demme unfolds RACHEL GETTING MARRIED like a novel that gives the immersive experience of being in an environment. The wedding and reception scenes are, in a sense, superfluous to the main narrative, yet this multicultural celebration of community and family is precisely what Kym feels outside of even while in its midst.

5. FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 2007)

Provocateur Michael Haneke didn't need to remake his 1997 Austrian thriller, especially a decade later as an English-language clone, but as multiplex performance art FUNNY GAMES is a wickedly amusing joke on viewers not expecting a film to toy with them so mercilessly. Coming on the heels of the torture porn trend in horror movies and amid countless reality TV programs, the timing couldn't be better for Haneke's stern lecture decrying the audience's bloodlust and the phoniness and debasement passing for realism in pop culture. Uncomfortable yet ultimately exhilirating, FUNNY GAMES uses suggested violence, intense moralizing, and dark humor to jolt modern moviegoers into recognizing what we consume for entertainment and question whether it's edifying.

6. MAN ON WIRE (James Marsh, 2008)

It's clear from the beginning of the documentary MAN ON WIRE that French wirewalker Philippe Petit survived the forty-five minutes he spent performing on the cable strung between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers without a net or any safety measures, but knowing this doesn't diminish the tension. Director James Marsh employs a heist film's structure to lay out the specifics of how the high wire artist and his friends schemed to get to the top of the towers, let alone pull off this inconceivable feat. Recreated scenes, home movies, and photographs are expertly edited together to heighten the sense of daring and danger.

7. A CHRISTMAS TALE (UN CONTE DE NO√čL) (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)

French auteur Arnaud Desplechin makes gloriously messy films about human interactions, so what better hothouse of domestic clashes is there for him to examine than the dysfunctional family Christmas movie? Featuring a who's who of France's finest actors, including Catherine Deneuve as the clan's matriarch and Desplechin surrogate Mathieu Amalric, A CHRISTMAS TALE unpacks a familial history of grudges, joys, disappointments, and fears that would keep a psychoanalyst busy for decades. For as brutally honest or supposedly truthful as the characters are with each other--with Desplechin it can be hard to discern between the real and the imagined--the airing of grievances is quite playful in tone and the director's inventive cinematic techniques.

8. TRANSSIBERIAN (Brad Anderson, 2008)

Emiliy Mortimer and Woody Harrelson find more adventure than they desired during a week-long trip aboard the Trans-Siberian Express in Brad Anderson's Hitchcockian thriller. TRANSSIBERIAN is a superb suspense film with plenty of intriguing developments to challenge the characters and keep viewers on the edges of their seats. As usual Mortimer is terrific playing a woman struggling to resist indulging her wild old ways as temptations and pressures mount.

9. DOUBT (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

Writer-director John Patrick Shanley's moral drama actively involves the viewer in assessing the truth of a nun's allegation of a priest. In DOUBT the truth gets tossed about like a kite on a blustery day. It shifts direction abruptly, is difficult to control, and gets battered in the process. However, Shanley's film is not an argument against doubt but a reasoned case for a healthy dose of skepticism to balance out faith, even if such thoughts are unsettling. DOUBT inspires more uncertainty than it resolves, but unquestionably it houses philosophical inquiries and top-notch acting from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis to mark it as a compelling piece of cinema.

10. AMERICAN TEEN (Nanette Burstein, 2008)

Nanette Burstein's sharply-felt documentary about Warsaw, Indiana high school seniors visits the hallways, bedrooms, and basements where the formative years are spent and finds things are not all that different regardless of when one is a teenager. The primary participants resemble their fictional teen movie analogues--Hannah, the artistically-minded outsider; popular mean girl Megan; Colin, the star basketball player in a hoops-mad community; and lovelorn band geek Jake--but are depicted with greater complexity than their central casting counterparts often receive. Burstein captures teenage angst and hope with such emotional potency that it is unlikely to make viewers wistful for a frequently idealized time in life.

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