by JAMES BRIGHAM
The ten best films of 2008, listed in no particular order:
I’m very thankful for movies like Slumdog Millionaire. Every once in awhile after a string of mediocre theater expeditions, I begin to question my spending habits. Films like this get me excited again about choosing to venture away from the safety of my living room DVD player to see films on the big screen. The sheer bravado of this picture is extraordinary. I felt like I had been swept down upon by some magnificent energy bird, yanked off my feet and hurled into the screen. Slumdog Millionaire is kinetic – Danny Boyle’s work here is equal to his Trainspotting and 28 Days Later direction. The acting is heartfelt without being schmaltzy – I’d imagine that much of that credit goes to Boyle’s co-director, Loveleen Tandan, whose casting decisions and cultural connections were invaluable assets. It’s a shame that the Academy doesn’t recognize duo directors, because I doubt that Slumdog would have been as remarkable without such a collaboration. Its melding of British, American, and Indian cinematic sensibilities and formulae is a joy to behold, leaving you never quite sure as to what filmic conventions will be proudly adhered to and which will be blown apart in a surprising twist. Slumdog Millionaire is a textbook example of how multicultural filmmaking can produce grand art.
Speaking of multiculturalism, I’m very pleased that the Academy chose to recognize the performance of Richard Jenkins in The Visitor (pictured above). As burgeoning technology and global economic interdependence draw our world’s nations closer and closer together, I believe that it becomes all the more important for people to see past divisions of difference and seek ways to merge as new communities. This story of a lonely college professor who slowly becomes entwined in the lives of an immigrant couple is warmly earnest. We need films like The Visitor to remind us of what could be lost when we paint all people and situations with broad strokes of black and white. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch this movie post-haste. Walter Vale’s transformation from remote academic into passionate participant composes the finest character arc I saw on film this year.
It’s a good thing for live action movies that animated films are now given their own category at the Oscars. I’d wager that at least one of the nominees for Best Picture would have been ousted to make way for this PIXAR production about a scrappy waste-management droid who falls in love with a sleek iPodesque ‘bot from outer space. Their tale of romance is replete with dance routines, silent comedy bits, environmental commentary, corporate satire, and tear inducing dialogue. Bear in mind, this story primarily concerns two characters whose vocal output contains only a small handful of recognizable words. But, oh, what marvelous variety the PIXAR team crafts with those select utterances! This film is something to treasure.
The life of Harvey Milk – one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office – is informative on multiple levels. His personal and political complexity reminds us that even heroes can have flaws. The film’s in-depth exploration of 1970s San Francisco captures the raw energy of social activism and inspired my normally lackadaisical self to reflect on what issues truly stoked the fires of passion in my heart and mind. Finally, Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay movingly and convincingly makes the case for equal and fair treatment of gays and lesbians as United States citizens (and global citizens, for that matter). Milk serves as a marker of how far America has come and how far it needs to go.
The Dark Knight
I re-watched Brokeback Mountain recently, and Heath Ledger’s performance in that is masterful. It’s also 180 degrees removed from his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight and together the two roles serve as a sad reminder of what a tremendous loss his death was to fans of cinema. The versatility he exhibited is remarkable and who knows what might have been in store for him in the future? I’d hazard to say that he would have risen to an even higher echelon of Great Actor, if such hierarchies can be said to exist in the first place. His Joker is an unpredictable agent of chaos, never delivering a line or plotting a plan the same way twice. He serves as superb counterpart to Bale’s dark avenger, Batman, and Eckhart’s white knight, prosecutor Harvey Dent. The trio dance around each other in a Gotham City that seems wholly believable as a place for dramatic action and characters with three-dimensionality. This is a weighty picture that sets the bar for superhero genre comic book adaptations and it’s due in no small part to the contributions of the late, great Ledger.
Burn After Reading
The Coen brothers are amazingly eclectic. They can deliver a southern musical allegory in one film and nonchalantly follow it up with a deadpan noir homage about a barber who encounters aliens and gruesome murders. In Burn After Reading, they again flip-flop enticingly: a spy-farce gradually becomes infused with a surprisingly melancholy examination of mid-life crises, unrequited love, and misjudged marriage. There’s some laughs, blood, exercise, and sex machines. It’s atypical Coen brothers and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
David Fincher’s helming of an elongated and expanded F. Scott Fitzgerald short story proves to be a special effects and makeup triumph as well as a fine acting showcase. Pitt and Blanchett delight as a pair of star-crossed lovers who happen to be aging in different directions. Their lives entwine and separate across the decades, allowing Fincher and Pitt to play off a cast of colorful characters who stand out quite well in comparison to the supernaturally affected protagonist, thank you very much.
Quantum of Solace
“QOS” rocks. Pure and simple. The whole film is arresting: From the killer opening tune by Alicia Keyes and Jack White to the rip-roaring car chase sequences, intense opera house confrontations, and heated chemistry between Bond and the women he encounters (there’s always at least two, you know). Daniel Craig continues to flesh out his iteration of the long-running character and this film serves as a fine entry in the series, expanding upon the story begun in Casino Royale in ways that pleasingly resolve some story threads while excitedly opening up new opportunities.
Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Tom Cruise is a great actor – one of my favorites, to be exact – but I’m so glad that the rumors of his casting never came to fruition for this character. Downey Jr. is tremendous fun to watch in this role, a part that allows him to be suave, playful, depressed, and fixated all in one movie. Jon Favreau’s direction is pitch-perfect, transitioning effortlessly between gritty war scenes, polished labs, high-end cocktail parties, and four color punch-outs.
Speaking of Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise, both are very funny in this satirical sendup of the Hollywood moviemaking machine. Comedic examinations of method acting, product placement, special effects, technical consultants, contract stipulations, and drug abuse abound. It might not always be laugh out loud funny, but it’s unequivocally clever all the way through.