Top Ten Films of 2008 by Rishi Agrawal

by RISHI AGRAWAL

synecdoche-new-york

First of all, just to get something out of the way, a lot of people wonder why this list is coming so late. A lot of the films that I typically like don’t get released in places other than New York and Los Angeles until January or February, and it’s not as if I live in a small city. A lot of other critics that work for professional outlets are able to get screener copies of the films, but I don’t have that luxury. So, the Oscars are over and so I’m not sure if people are still interested in the Best Films of 2008, but I still enjoy the listmaking exercise, so here we go.

I don’t have a lot to say about this list. I do feel like it was a fairly weak year for film, perhaps because 2007 was so strong. Perhaps the writers’ strike created too much havoc on the movie studios. Some people will note that I have only one Oscar Best Picture nominee on this list. Most years I will have approximately three Best Picture nominees on the list. I don’t really feel the need to chastise the Academy. I honestly grow weary of the annual debate about whether or not the Oscars are relevant. I’ll just say this: I actually don’t think any of the five films were bad, but the best films of the year? Not in my opinion.

Finally, I am going to inform you ahead of time that I am going to cheat. There are a small handful of films from 2008 that I still want to see. I could admit up front that “here’s my list but I haven’t seen x, y and z” but that always strikes me as a way to undermine the validity of the list. Due to the magic of the Internet, though, there is a solution! I will watch the films that I missed and update the Top Ten list accordingly. Now, I don’t think it’s fair to leave the list in permanent limbo, so I endeavor to watch everything I need to see by the end of March. And this paragraph will magically disappear. I don’t expect this list to change much – there are honestly only three or four films that I haven’t seen that I suspect I would enjoy enough to rank with the following.

1. Synecdoche, New York

This might seem like an odd statement to make about what I am claiming is the best film of the year, but I am not sure how I feel about this film. Part of me thinks that the film is incomprehensible and that it is simply self-indulgent crap. Part of me is thoroughly and utterly infuriated by this film. I can say, without reservation, that this is a film that I would not recommend to anyone. Yet, in stray moments of quiet reflection, this film strikes me as a masterpiece. I still don’t understand the film, but this is truly unlike anything I’ve seen before. I feel that, occasionally, great art is polarizing. I often ask myself as a writer whether I would prefer to write something that everyone thought was good, but not great or something that half the people loved and half the people hated. And the truth is I would wholeheartedly choose the latter option every single time.

2. Wendy and Lucy

We go from a film that is filled with artifice and trickery to one of the most honest films that I can remember seeing in a long while. At the risk of being reductive, this film is the simple story of a young woman and her dog. There is not a single moment in this film that feels false to me, and that is a rare quality.

3. Slumdog Millionaire

This film truly runs the gamut of emotions and is punctuated with a very clever structuring device of a television game show. This film actually reminds me a lot of one of my favorite films of the decade: the Brazilian film City of God. The film is so thoroughly engrossing and entertaining that you don’t necessarily notice the artistry behind it.

4. The Wrestler

Who knew that this was the role that Mickey Rourke was born to play? So much is often said about the performances in this movie that people often neglect to mention what a wonderfully made film is behind it. Aronofsky trims his usual excesses and gives us the story of Randy the Ram. It would have been so easy to make this film into a formulaic story of redemption, but even the seemingly ordinary stories have room to surprise us.

5. Rachel Getting Married

In many ways, this is like watching two hours of someone’s wedding video, but that is simply a testament to how genuine this film feels. I normally don’t enjoy meandering films without a strong sense of plot, but the wedding provides enough of a structure to this film that I don’t mind. Add in the strong relationships between the characters, bolstered by the impeccable acting, and this is a film that doesn’t feel like it should work, but it does. And I still think of this film every time I load a dishwasher.

6. Man on Wire

My problem with most documentaries is that there is no artistry to them. It is as if most documentary filmmakers think it is enough to simply present a set of facts and, if those facts are interesting enough, then the documentary will follow suit. Or else they insert pseudo-witty commentary and hope that their cleverness will save the film. This documentary takes an approach that I have not seen before – the film is paced like a heist movie. The cinematography is especially notable – many of the key scenes are re-enacted and the film looks great.

7. The Dark Knight

I felt as though I had too many small, independent films on my list, and so I decided to go as mainstream as I possibly could. But, in all seriousness, I love this film. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I have a soft spot for superhero films, and, simply put, I think this is the best superhero film every made. Period.

8. The Fall

There are so many films that have something to say, but sometimes a film is great because it is so stylish. I am not sure if this film is style over substance or style as substance, but I am simply blown away by the look of this film. Despite what David Fincher will have you believe, this is the most visually stunning film of the year. This is not to say that the other elements of the film aren’t strong – the acting is spot on and the plot, though somewhat hokey at points, is extremely entertaining and engaging.

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

I do not want to get into a debate about whether or not this film is from 2007 or 2008, but I say 2008. If anyone wants to dispute that fact, please raise the issue in the comments and I’ll be happy to explain my reasoning. Anyway, as for the film, I think that this film about a young woman trying to get an abortion in communist Romania could easily drift into melodrama. However, by pacing the film like a taut thriller, it gives the viewer just the right sense of detachment to make the emotions in this film seem that much more poignant by their contrast.

10. Waltz with Bashir

As I mentioned in my comments for Man on Wire, most documentaries have no sense of artistry. Well, this documentary takes the construction one step further and conveys its message through animation. War becomes almost surrealistic in this film which is horrible and beautiful at the same time.

2 responses to “Top Ten Films of 2008 by Rishi Agrawal

  1. ahh i really need to see synecdoche.

    ‘rachel getting married’… very genuine yeah, and very intense, but i’m not sure i ultimately got anything out of it. i’m slightly positive towards it but mostly just ambivalent. kind of feel the same way about ‘4 months…’ actually.

    ‘man on wire’ nearly made my list, loved that scene where people keep asking him ‘why?’ and he insists there is no why. whole thing really whips itself up into a fervor, very like a heist movie as you say. i’m really glad there was no milking of 9/11 either, keeping those connotations in the background really made the whole thing more powerful than it might’ve been.

    as for slumdog… i couldn’t get over the tone, it felt kind of smug and condescending, a bit like danny boyle was lecturing westerners about their worship of money and cultural ignorance (or ‘poverty of the soul’ as he put it in an interview) from an enlightened standpoint – that “we’ll show you the real america” scene especially. might even be hypocritical if you agree with the criticisms that boyle has essentially reduced the indian slums to a colourful stylised little music video for western eyes.

  2. With Synecdoche, you go with your gut, and my gut said that Kaufman needs more editors and less yes-men. But that’s me, and I also recognize its brilliance in patches.

    Overall, it’s a good list, and I don’t really understand the outcry against Slumdog. It’s decent, but I don’t begrudge those that find it outstanding. Unlike that Ben Button crapola.

    My completely unsolicited Top Ten:
    1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
    2. Man on Wire
    3. WALL-E
    4. Chop Shop
    5. Waltz with Bashir
    6. Taxi to the Dark Side
    7. Flight of the Red Balloon
    8. Rachel Getting Married
    9. Wendy and Lucy
    10. In Bruges

    P.S. I have the same problem with ’07 releases. I also had no real desire to put 3 documentaries in, but what can I say – I liked ’em.

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