Best Films of 2008

Order is tough for these, they were delightful in so many different ways and inspiring in more ways than I can count. I'll keep the descriptions to paragraph length as I already made as big a deal as I could over my favorite film this year. At the bottom are Mr. Danvers' choices.

Slumdog Millionaire
by Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle is one of my favorite directors, has been for as long as I’ve loved film. Trainspotting was one of the first films I saw and viewed as something brimming with artistic merit. 28 Days Later is still one of my favorite movies; Millions is one of the most thoughtful family films I’ve ever seen; Shallow Grave remains one of the most auspicious feature debuts of all time. Slumdog Millionaire is a stylish genre bender of sorts – Danny Boyle is famous for them by now - part travelogue, part diary, part romance, part message movie. We follow the tragic love story of Jamal and Latika, two hopelessly poor, hopelessly scarred youths in the slums of Mumbai. The MIA-Heavy soundtrack is playful yet conscious, like most of Slumdog. Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera brings out the life and color of India at a pace no cinematographer has yet captured. Boyle’s characters are caught in a sweltering climate of social unrest and overwhelming odds and the worst parts are when they resign themselves to their fate as it is, quite simply, inevitable. Inevitability and destiny are under the microscope and it wouldn’t be a Danny Boyle film without a killer ending = and he more than delivers. Sometimes what you need to see are two lovers running headlong toward one another.

Let The Right One In
by Tomas Alfredson

Tomas Alfredson is some kind of genius. I wrote pretty extensively about this film after I saw it the first time and my suspicions were confirmed when I went to see it again (incidentally this was the only film this year that I felt compelled to see twice simply because I was awed by its quality. It's also one of the few that, as soon as it ended, I knew it was one of the best films I'd ever seen and felt compelled to tell any and everyone about it). This is a magical little story, one that combines filmic prose with extremes in innocence and guilt, both pulled off with ease. The story of a young vampire, the only vampire film since Near Dark with believable protagonists and vampires you could understand and sympathize with. The Twilight comparison is both inevitable and poignant; that such a brainless attempt to invent youth culture tackled the same subject matter as a little movie with a fourth of the budget and subtitles is really proof that Americans are the last people to understand what makes a good movie. Back to majesty of this yer film. Let The Right One In is a gorgeously composed movie that’s unsettling for nearly every second of it’s running time. Even during the tenderest of moments there is a feeling in the pit of your stomach like the rug’s going to get pulled any second. Tomas Alfredson is clearly a gifted man, who else could make even the most light-hearted moments feel like white-knuckle suspense. The film has you by the collar and never lets go – which is why it’s ending is so perfect because it releases you in the most perfect way.

by Gus Van Sant

Milk is a film in the finest tradition of films. Milk will be remembered as a film as grand and gripping as The Crowd, Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Godfather, and Last of the Mohicans. Before you jump down my throat, let me clarify by saying that I don’t attempt to make quality comparisons here, I simply mean to say that it’s a sprawling political epic with a truly awesome cast of characters and a nicely winding story. It is as satisfying a filmic experience as the aforementioned classics. To watch Gus Van Sant’s best films is really something. Milk bridges the gap between his quieter films and his sappier films and is easily his best. At each turn, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black raise the stakes everytime there’s even the slightest lull and each actor adds to the conflict in their own unique way. Sean Penn is remarkable and more than reminds everyone why he was once considered the greatest American actor alive – he still is. When he’s directed by the best and has such a likeable character to inhabit, Sean Penn is a maelstrom. By the film’s inevitable conclusion – which is handled with the grace of an aria – it’s still heart-breaking and mesmerizing. Milk is a special achievement.

Rachel Getting Married
by Jonathan Demme
It’s almost not a movie – were it not for Demme’s cheating the Dogme manifesto by making one half of his film’s titular marriage a musician, you could almost not tell that this was staged. Jonathan Demme is a pretty excellent filmmaker and this may just be his crowning achievement as a director of actors. Anne Hathaway in particular is stunningly human – friends of mine criticize me for this, but when it appears as though you’re watching people do things, that’s when I feel an actor has done his or her job. A lot of people expect grand playing and soliloquizing or strange behavior from performers. For me it’s all in the realism. Here, some of our greatest performers – Anna Deavere Smith, Deborah Winger, Rosemarie Dewitt, Tunde Adebimpe – disappear inside their roles. Bill Irwin is never not Paul, Rachel and Kym’s anxious father plagued with troubling memory, his excitement almost frightening because of the man’s intensity. Tunde Adebimpe, an infectiously funny man in person, is the reserved husband to be, just trying to fit in and not get brow-beaten at his own wedding. Anne Hathaway. Anne Hathaway where have you been all this time? Good god, you’ve been wasting yourself! It’s a movie that takes your hand and guides you through one of the most entertaining and troubling weekends ever filmed.

by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza

I had no expectations. I literally watched [Rec] thinking it would be passable, at best. So I watched it on my computer one night; it has yet to find U.S. Distribution of any kind. Even on youtube, even with digital cinematography and shaky-cam, even with the noise from the apartment above me this movie scared the hell out of me. If you’ve ever watched horror films – any era, any type – and wished that the people would behave like ordinary people, this is your film. Finally, reality and horrific images blend perfectly. Were it not for my knowledge of the nature of this film, I would have been fooled by its opening. A reporter and her camera man spend the evening with the firemen at a firehouse in an urban Spanish neighborhood; they kill time mostly until finally the bell rings and they go on call with Alex and Manu. They don’t find a fire, but they do find an apartment building stricken by a virus of some kind. Then the doors are locked from the outside, the whole building quarantined and the pace becomes break-neck. This film, shot on cameras that a newscrew doing a human interest story would actually use, feels like a dogme horror movie; the cutting is seemless and it hardly ever feels like a film. More so, even than The Blair Witch Project or 28 Days Later, this feels like the real thing. The way in which directors Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza utilize the space and personalities of each person is thrilling. When you can’t tell that you’re watching a film, when you are so drawn in that you hurry from one 8 minute segment to the next, when you’re terrified of an image that couldn’t be more than 17 inches long, a filmmaker has done his job.

Synecdoche, NY
by Charlie Kaufman
When I saw Synechdoche, NY, Charlie Kaufman was there to answer any and all questions we had. I couldn’t think of a single question he could answer. I was too awestruck to think of a single thing to want him to clarify. Sure, there’s plenty here that doesn’t make sense on the surface, but together all those crazy-ass elements form a movie that neatly personifies perfection despite a weirdness so overwhelming you simply have to shake your head. To watch the story of disintegrating theatre director Caden Cotard is basically to stare death in the face; that this movie started its conceptual life as a horror movie is no surprise. The movie starts inconspicuously enough; a man is married, perhaps things aren’t all well. He has a crush on the ticket girl in his movie theatre and he dislikes the work he’s doing. Just after we buy that maybe this will be an ordinary movie, Caden begins seeing an increasing number of specialists to see about his declining health (the most bizarre of them is the marital counselor with the swollen ankles who follows him everywhere he goes and gets some of the film’s best lines). It’s maybe two-thirds of the way into the movie, when a mammoth zeppelin crosses the skyline of an increasing claustrophobic world that you realize that in no way is this movie ordinary. This movie is like Sweet Movie, Metropolis, Brand Upon The Brain, and pressed in a waffle iron. It is one of the most extraordinary movies ever made and is the reason movies are made – Charlie Kaufman gives us elements that wouldn’t work as anything other than as film. To borrow a phrase from Werner Herzog, he is a ‘soldier’ of cinema.

Be Kind, Rewind
by Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry always picks the worst time to release films. When Eternal Sunshine came out in 2004, it was just about a month after the academy awards; people were worried voters would forget about it. Maybe they did; Kate Winslet was only nominated for best actress and it only won best original screenplay (right again, Hollywood!). Anyway, Michel Gondry has a much less emotional attached film, but a much more hysterical film for us. Be Kind, Rewind is a lovely movie about movies; Mike (Mos Def) is the manager of Elroy’s (Danny Glover) video rental place and things are looking bad. It’s about to close down because they’re losing business to DVD rental places. Due to a Charlie Kaufman-esque mishap, Jerry (Jack Black), Mike’s screw-up buddy, touches his recently magnetized hands to all of the video tapes and erases them. Mike comes up with a solution that will solve both of their problems; the two of them recreate each of the films they destroyed in 20 minutes by themselves. It’s probably the most creatively designed film Michel Gondry has done yet and it utilizes his flair for zany effects and found-object art. Jack Black and Mos Def, despite their character urges (Mos Def’s mumbling, Jack Black’s craziness) carry the film with no problem. Nearly every second of Be Kind, Rewind works, as Gondry fills it all with his double-take inducing production design and because the underplayed performances of everyone from Sissy Spacek to Paul Dinello; I laughed all the way through this and still felt like I was watching a movie instead of a series of crass lines stacked on top of each other held together by the most perfunctory of plots. Everything seems designed to bring out the best in Gondry and his crew’s strengths.

by Joachim Trier

Scandinavia is on a role. If you’ve never heard of Reprise, that’s not something to be ashamed of. It came to the US for the 2007 Sundance Festival and then disappeared back across the Atlantic for a full year before it finally showed up again to play tiny little theatres like the County in Doylestown, which is where I saw it. This is why a year-end tally is tough, because I can’t very well have seen the damn thing before this year, but I liked it better than easily half of the other films I saw this year. So, let’s enter the heavily stylized but still stirringly realistic world of Danish Joachim Trier’s Reprise. Philip and Erik are best friends and aspiring writers who send off their manuscripts on the same day. Philip suffers from depression and his mood doesn’t improve when he unsuccessfully attempts to get back together with his one-time girlfriend Kari. Eventually, and not without problems, the two reconcile, but it doesn’t seem made to last. Though Erik has a good many problems of his own, he tries as hard as he can to make Philip see the light and improve his mood. Neither is perfect and each has his own way of dealing with problems and it makes for a compelling character study, the simplicity and integrity of which is remarkable. Erik is motivated genuinely by friendship to help Philip and often suffers for it in slightly off-kilter ways. That’s the beauty of Reprise; it strays occasionally into the unrealistic, but it never becomes less than possible. It has a quirky sort of realism to it, uncommon to most American films. Trier has a stylistic acumen akin to his cousin Lars, but Reprise is ten times cooler and easier to watch than any film in Von Trier’s canon. It also has the distinction of featuring the greatest use of any Joy Division song in cinema; the opening montage of the parade set to “New Dawn Fades” is like a whole new manifesto, a breath of fiery, crass and undeniably human life.

Youth Without Youth
by Francis Ford Coppolla
Here's why I hate the American people. Because American studio heads don't think that the American viewing public can handle a movie without explosions. And even more infuriating than this is that, for the most part, they're right. Americans wouldn't have liked this movie, at least not the people who went out to see Hancock, just as a for example. Ok, so here's why people wouldn't like this movie: it's a Byzantinely complicated movie about Tim Roth as a mathematician and philosopher who becomes an all around transcendental genius who ages backwards by 50 years after being struck by lightning. He becomes entrenched in vague Nazi intrigue, travels the world, meets a woman who speaks in tongues that get older everynight after SHE gets struck by lightning and the ending is ambiguous and depressing. I eat this stuff up, but I'm not everybody. This film is technically a year old, but as my invitation to the Telluride film festival must have gotten lost in the mail, I didn't see it until sometime this summer. And so it makes my list and all y'all can just deal with it. And you know why, because this film is beautiful. Mihai Milamaire Jr's cinematography is flooring; it's a good sign when a third time photographer makes something that rivals the best of Vilmos Zgismond and Nestor Almendros. Tim Roth does a pretty excellent job and Bruno Ganz makes much more of this role than he does with his spot in The Reader. The beautiful Alexandra Maria Lara's performance is really something; she's high-energy and subtle all at once. Coppolla may have lost something of his once-grand hold over movie-goers, but in my mind he hasn't lost his power to enchant. This is a gorgeous story about missed opportunity and legacy. What lasts is not always what is most important, and no one knows that more than Francis Ford Coppolla. Youth Without Youth is a frenetic slice of science-fiction spun like the yarn of war-time intrigue.

Paranoid Park
by Gus Van Sant
In another festival related delay, I was only able to see Paranoid Park at the tail end of 2008 and so here it is. Thank heavens I got over myself and did actually see it, for a while I was too proud to go see a skateboarding movie. I should have known better. The last in Van Sant’s trilogy on disaffected youth (rounded out by his masterful Elephant and Last Days, which I haven’t seen yet), Paranoid Park is a wandering, anomic powerhouse, which has a bit more direction and purpose than Elephant and is one of those rare films that understands what youths actually sound and look like. Our protagonist is a mumbly, awkward skateboarder, halfway between social groups and woefully overwhelmed by just about everything. His involvement in the murder of a security guard puts his alienation into overdrive, but it also helps him sort out a few priorities he’d been willfully ignoring. This, like David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels or Let The Right One In, captures the dialect of teenagers damn near perfectly, as Van Sant’s films always do. Watch the scene where our hero falls in love - a borrowed Nino Rota cue follows his gaze upon his decidedly unfeminine crush - it's devastating and it's clever. Van Sant’s experimental films are always a pleasure as they make expert use of montage, slow motion, long takes, haziness, and jump cuts makes for a breezy viewing experience, one that sums up the joys and agonies of being that age with the precision of a bomb defuser.

Mr. Danvers says:
Slumdog Millionaire - great! fun, in a terrified-of-orphanages-in-India kind of way.

The Dark Knight - too long for me but Heath was such a good actor.

Son Of Rambow - this was extremely cute and funny! Even when there were ten year olds smoking cigarettes.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona - probably not as great as the other films on this list but it might be my personal favorite film of the year! Penelope Cruz is amazing.

Rachel Getting Married - halfway through the film I thought that Anne Hathaway was actually addicted to crack.

Happy Go Lucky - simple but fun. I'd like to see it again and get a better opinion, I really liked it when I first saw it.

Milk - this better get best picture or I'm going to cry. The whole entire theater had an emotional breakdown towards the end.

WALL-E - Who's the cutest robot ever?

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