Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

My Top 10 of 2008; or, Come Back Val Kilmer, All Is Forgiven

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 9, 2009

Well, it’s that time of year once again, friends and neighbors. Time to regurgitate the best of the past year in film, from my own warped personal vantage point of course. This is the best part of having your own movie-review website – you get to call attention to the 10 films you really loved in a given year, including those little gems that knocked your socks off but didn’t get any love at the boxoffice. It’s my sincere hope that whoever reads this will check out a couple of films on this list that they might not otherwise have seen. And I truly hope that my list doesn’t look just like everyone else’s; what fun would that be? If a couple of my picks don’t make a few people go, “what is that doing there?” then I’m not doing my job.

Most of you know the drill by now, but I’ll repeat myself for those unfamiliar with my annual list. The reason my list comes so damn late is because, well, I live in the middle of nowhere, and it takes awhile for a lot of films to come out here (and many never do, which banishes them to DVD). For those of us not living in a major city, January is the month in which many of the Oscar-nominated films start rolling out to the boondocks, which means I can’t exactly cut off my movie year at Dec. 31st. For the past month, I’ve been catching up on many of last year’s films, via theatrical release and Netflix. Basically anything that I was able to see, that I thought might actually have a shot at making my list, I have devoured hungrily. I’m happy to say that 9 out of the 10 films listed here, I was able to see theatrically. The way movies were meant to be seen.

Sadly, my movie year is still not quite complete. I missed out on several critically acclaimed films that never showed anywhere near me. Would my list be different if I had seen all of these? Probably. But I have to work with what’s available to me. And because of these limitations, I actually think my list is more representative of what’s available to the majority of people in a given year, much more than big-name critics who get anything and everything screened for them. The theater chains have to make room for the likes of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, right? Among the films that never made it to my little corner of the universe: Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, Che, Rachel Getting Married, Synedoche, New York, I’ve Loved You So Long, Religulous, Revolutionary Road, Frozen River, Happy Go Lucky, Towelhead, Wendy and Lucy, Waltz With Bashir and Snow Angels. If you have a favorite on that list, don’t be outraged; I just wasn’t able to see them, and I would have if I could have. I’ll catch up with them eventually, don’t you worry. Don’t blame me, blame their distributors. On the other hand, I did see several films theatrically this year that I never thought would open here at all, so hurrah for their distributors (the Weinstein-less Miramax seems particularly good about this, so good for them).

Despite those omissions, I think 2008 was a damn good year for both “movies” and “films”, however you want to make those distinctions. We had several excellent movies this summer, and several excellent films during the serious fall and Oscar-bait winter. You’ll find some of each on my list. What more can any real movie geek ask for? On the other hand, every year has its share of stinkers as well. I generally don’t do a Worst list, because I try very hard not to see 10 films a year that I know I’m going to absolutely hate. I don’t get paid for this, and there’s no amount of money that could entice me to suffer through the likes of Meet the Spartans or Disaster Movie. But there were a few that I saw theatrically that I regretted immensely, and those would be, in no particular order, 88 Minutes, The Love Guru, Death Race and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Those, to me, are the absolute dregs of the year, the worst of the worst that I subjected my eyes and ears to. I would seriously question the critical judgment of anyone who actually liked even one of those sorry excuses for cinema. These weren’t just “bad movies”, my friends, these were jaw-dropping stink bombs that were quite amazing in their utter awfulness. My only consolation is that I snuck into two of those. If it says something to you that two of them are remakes, well… there you have it. I didn’t see Prom Night, but I have a feeling it would’ve made the list if I had. There’s one bullet I managed to dodge.

But let’s forget about the stinkers (I’d certainly like to). Before I get into my Top 10, let’s talk a little bit about the critically acclaimed films that I did see that won’t come anywhere near my list. I’m genuinely baffled by these films, and some of them are nominated for Oscars this year. I seriously want to know how this happened.

First, let’s talk about Clint Eastwood’s overwrought Lifetime movie Changeling. Now, I like Angie and I worship Clint as a god, but I don’t know what the hell what was going on when they made this thing. Seriously… people actually thought this was good?

Wow. OK, let me get this straight: this woman leaves her kid alone all day, every day, and then is surprised when something bad happens to him? Were they not familiar with the concept of babysitters in the 1920s? Even as the script piles tragedy after tragedy upon this woman, all I could think was, “none of this would have happened if you hadn’t left your damn kid alone all day long!!!” Am I really the only one? Yes, what happened to the boy is quite horrible… but it’s her fault, not the LAPD’s. But we’re supposed to admire the “strength” and “courage” of a woman who was apparently incapable of taking care of her own child. Give me a break! And then you seriously expect me to believe that the cops went to all this trouble to perpetuate this conspiracy against her, for no other reason than to cover up a simple mistake? Come on. I know it’s supposedly based on a true story (very loosely, from what I hear), but as presented on screen, it’s simply not believable in any way. I was expecting there to be some deeper, darker reason for all this nonsense, but no – she was just stupid and the cops were just assholes. That’s it. That’s the movie. I know this movie has its defenders, but for me, Changeling possesses all the realism of a “big bad men treat poor helpless woman real bad” TV-movie. The acting ranges from simply average (Angie) to quite horrible (everyone else). Jolie getting an Oscar nom for this mess just shows what a weak category she’s in. I seriously believe that Clint only made another film this year (the much better but still not quite great Gran Torino) because he knew he’d blown his Oscar chances with this one. Even the great ones mess up once in a while. It happens. What’s sad is that the critics are so far up Clint’s ass that they can’t even see when he’s blown it.

Then there’s John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (spoilers ahead). Now, in no way is this a bad movie, and I wouldn’t try to convince you that it is. But I strongly believe that it’s marred by one central performance – that of one Meryl Streep. You may have heard of her. The film is basically a series of dialogues between three characters, and the other two – a likable priest played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a naïve young nun/teacher played by Amy Adams – are written and played dead on. But it’s Streep’s Sister Aloysius that completely blows the sense of balance for me. In a strange way, Streep is too good in the part, so good she’s bad for the film as a whole. Her pinched, repressed, intolerant old nun is such an unbearable cunt that it’s difficult to even look at her without wincing. And because her entire point of view seems so wrong, we know (if we’re paying attention) that her suspicions about Father Flynn are going to turn out to be right. So what we have here is basically a film that validates blind accusation, regardless of evidence. You know… I’m not too down with that idea. I don’t think we’re necessarily supposed to like Sister Aloysius, and I don’t necessarily have to agree with the point of view of every fictional character. But by making her right, Shanley essentially validates not only her point of view and her demeanor, but also her blindly executed witch hunt, perpetrated without evidence, logic or reason. She knows because she “just knows?” I’m sorry, I think that’s a bit dangerous. What if we all went around accusing people of heinous crimes without evidence, and everyone just believed us and convicted the accused without trial or due process? That’s the kind of world Sister Aloysius would have us live in, apparently. And even when she’s right, she’s still wrong. Perhaps another actress could have sold this part, but Streep just made me want to punch her in the face whenever she was on camera. I’m sorry, but as a thinking person I don’t believe that people “just know” the truth of anything, be it of this life or the afterlife. I believe that people think they know the truth, which is not the same as actually knowing it. The truth, as I believe it, is that the Sister Aloysuises of the world don’t know shit. And the entire problem with Doubt is that there simply isn’t enough doubt.

And don’t even get me started on Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. Hoo boy. Did the Oscar voters actually watch this thing? (Again, spoilers ahead) The insane logic of this film just astounds me. The term “morally baffling” comes to mind. This is a film that asks us to believe that a murdering Nazi is worthy of sympathy and compassion because she’s illiterate. That’s right, she never learned to read!!! Didn’t Mike Myers make fun of this kind of story in 1992? My question is, so fucking what? Even one of the film’s characters says that’s no excuse for having put 300 Jews in a gas chamber. So why does the film work so hard to convince us otherwise? Even leaving aside the whole underage-sex thing (which you can bet would have caused serious outrage were the genders reversed), there’s some seriously twisted thinking going on here. Hannah’s defense of her crimes as “it was just my job” (like that means anything); her absolute shame, not at being a Nazi prison guard who killed people, but at not being able to read (yeah, that’s so much worse); and the script’s insistence on us feeling something for her, even though she’s done absolutely nothing to deserve such a reaction. Why we’re supposed to care about her, or any of this, is beyond me. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t get why being illiterate justifies any crime, much less one this severe. And if Hannah were a man, we’d all be rooting for her swift and violent death. Nothing in this film convinced me that she didn’t deserve to spend life in prison, at the very least. And no one should feel the least bit guilty for putting her there. I wasn’t moved in any way by The Reader. Nor did it make me think about anything other than how ridiculous and insane it was. I have no doubt that Kate Winslet will most likely win the Best Actress award, but if this crazy film wins any other major awards… I will lose my damn mind. Maybe I’ll go commit murder and tell the cops I don’t know how to read. Let’s see how that works for me.

So… those are the films you definitely won’t see on my Top 10 list. Let’s get to the ones that are, without further ado. Once again, I want to state that this is my list of personal favorites, and is not meant to be anything other than that. As with any such list, it is purely subjective and based solely on my personal tastes. Having said that, I’ve given it a lot of thought and I believe I’ve come up with a very good group of films. Feel free to come up with your own. It’s fun! So here are the 10 films that rocked me the most this past year:

10) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – that’s right, I said it. Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and George Lucas brought back Indy and came roaring back with the best pure entertainment movie of the year. The only film this year that I actually saw twice in a theater. Crystal Skull is just supercharged fun, brought to you by the masters. I have yet to hear a single valid argument against it – OK, maybe the CGI isn’t perfect. Who really cares? And to all the detractors, I can only say this: you are all fucked in the head. Just kidding. Well, maybe a little.

9) Son of Rambow – the one film on this list that I saw on DVD, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it made it here. Garth Jennings’ Brit comedy-drama about a shy kid whose life is changed by an accidental viewing of First Blood is a beautifully spirited tribute to the power of childhood, imagination and guerrilla filmmaking. And it really nails the 80’s aesthetic in a way that few films have. Great, hilarious, sad and wonderful.

8) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – of all the WWII/Nazi/Holocaust movies this year, this is the one that moved me the most. Taken from the point of view of a young German boy who inadvertently befriends a Jewish boy, then discovers his father happens to be the head of the concentration camp in which his friend lives. The boy’s innocence is gradually shattered as he finds out what really goes on in the camps, and what his own father is really responsible for. At the same time, his mother (the excellent Vera Farmiga), who’s also been sheltered from the harsh realities of the camps, eventually has to confront her husband’s atrocities. Yeah, it sounds like a real downer, and it is. But sometimes the hardest things to watch are the most necessary. Underrated British director Mark Herman walks a delicate balancing act with this material and pulls it off beautifully. There have been plenty of Holocaust movies over the years, but never one taken from this particular point of view, and I found it absolutely heartbreaking (and just for the record, the kid’s not a murdering Nazi, his father is). Pajamas pretty much got buried in the onslaught of serious Oscar bait films this past fall, and undeservedly so. Powerful, moving and profoundly sad – everything The Reader simply is not.

7) Blindness – Yes, I’m aware it was booed at Cannes, and the critical reaction generally was not so good either. I think they’re dead wrong. Fernando Meirilles’ film about a mass outbreak of blindness, a sort of art-house Dawn of the Dead, is simply a gut-wrenching experience, the kind of trip some people just don’t want to take. But if you can stomach it, you’ll see human beings at their absolute worst, and their absolute best. Terrific performances by Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover and Alice Braga. Tremendously disturbing and fucked-up, yet alternately beautiful and mesmerizing at times. I believe this one will stand the test of time.

6) Slumdog Millionaire – yep, I’m on the bandwagon too. Danny Boyle brings Bollywood to America with high style. Fresh and funny, with star-making performances from Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, Slumdog lets us enter a part of the world few Americans ever get to see. And it’s absolutely the best use “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” has ever been. Hugely enjoyable, pure cinema bliss.

5) Milk – after several years of wanking off in the art-house wilderness, Gus van Sant comes charging back with his best film ever. He finally has a worthy story to tell here, and he does it extremely well. Sean Penn is just fantastic as Harvey Milk, a gay camera-shop owner who became the first homosexual elected official in the United States. There are very few films that I would legitimately call “important” in the grand scheme of things, and this is one of them. Brave and spellbinding, with great work from a first-rate cast. An absolute must-see film, and I don’t say that lightly.

4) The Dark Knight – Christopher Nolan and company dropped a gigantic megaton bomb (in a good way) on mainstream audiences with this provocative masterwork. Heath Ledger’s inspired performance as the Joker pretty much nailed the character once and for all. But I think it’s really Aaron Eckhart who’s the heart and soul of the film – his Harvey Dent is a good man who becomes tragically and permanently corrupted. Easily the superhero movie of the year, and one of the best films, period.

3) Let the Right One In – The most criminally under-seen film of the year. Tomas Alfredson’s dark, disturbing tale of a shy young boy whose friendship with a vampire has life-changing consequences proves once and for all that horror films can be art. A brilliant piece of work, atmospheric and mesmerizing, with two great child performances at its center. Don’t wait for the remake – this is too good to miss.

2) WALL*E – Pixar and director Andrew Stanton’s excellent animated film pretty much knocked me on my ass, as I was expecting a typical kiddie flick and received much, much more. Part science fiction, part love story and part social commentary, WALL*E is just pure great cinema, period.

And my personal favorite film of the year is… (drumroll, please)

1)The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – as much as I hate to agree with Ben Lyons on anything, David Fincher has made my favorite film of the year for the second year in a row. Is there any way we can keep this streak going, Dave? Yes, one can easily make comparisons to Forrest Gump, but I honestly think this is a much stronger film that will hold up much better as time goes on. I think it’s a quite beautiful film about a man for whom, because of his condition, nothing can ever truly be permanent. Which is pretty much the human condition, is it not? The criticism of it being “too anecdotal” is rather ridiculous, as it is the story of a man’s life (albeit told backwards), and such a story would naturally not have the typical Hollywood narrative through-line. I think the performances and the effects work are both excellent, and I actually found the film as a whole quite moving and profound. A truly magical work of art – I don’t really know how they did it, and I don’t want to know. I just want to love it for what it is. Isn’t that the whole point of cinema?

So, that’s it then. No runner-ups, no ties, no “almost made it” entries. These are the 10 films that I loved the most. You may agree, disagree or curse me out as you wish. Looking forward to exploring the new year and all the films it has to offer. Talk to you later!

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