(Please note: This post is part three of three of my list of the top 10 best of 2008. See part one here, and part two here.)
In an effort to preserve my sanity, to avoid having to wrack my brain to quantify minute differences in quality, and to stay away from classifying the unclassifiable, I present these in no particular order.
Man On Wire – This is a very interesting documentary about a French acrobat who walked a tightrope stretched between the tops of the two World Trade Center towers. As Forrest Gump once said, that’s all I have to say about that.
Paranoid Park – A Gus Van Sant film, somewhat similar to Elephant. It’s pretentious as all hell and rather predictable, but its naturalistic performances make it strangely enjoyable as well. I’m a sucker for Van Sant though, so take this recommendation with a huge grain of salt, especially if you’ve seen some of his other indie type movies and been unimpressed.
Milk – Oh look, another Gus Van Sant film. This time he’s put away his “look at me, I’m so avant garde” beret and put on his “I’m a serious filmmaker” fedora. All joking aside, Van Sant really does seem to have a split personality. It’s hard to believe that the same person who directed Gerry, Elephant and Paranoid Park is responsible for Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and this movie.
I don’t have much to say, really. James Franco is very good, and Sean Penn gives one of the best performances of the year as Harvey Milk, California’s first openly-gay elected official. It’s unfortunate the movie wasn’t worthy of this caliber of performance.
Regrettably, Diego Luna wins the award for most obnoxious performance in a best picture nominated film. I’m not sure if it was just the way his character was written or what, but I honestly couldn’t stand him at all, and furthermore I couldn’t believe anyone else in the movie could stand him.
The only other problem (it turns out to be a big one) is that this is pretty much a straight (not that kind of straight, silly) biopic. In a rather odd choice, it seems to follow that time-honored format for research essays: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” Which is another way of saying that the movie doesn’t give us a whole lot in the way of suspense or surprise. Still, Penn’s screen presence is undeniable, and the movie has a few genuinely emotional moments. So I still say check it out.
The Reader – I feel obliged to comment, as this was nominated for best picture. It is worth seeing, but honestly if it hadn’t gotten nominated, there’s virtually no way I would’ve ever thought to watch it in the first place. I just did not like the story. I’m sorry I can’t expand on that much more, but this movie just stretched plausibility (and my patience) a little too far a few too many times for my liking. Kate Winslet does a very fine job with the script she’s given, but that’s about the only reason I can recommend this one.
Appaloosa – This film is like the exact opposite of The Reader. Whereas with that film, Kate Winslet is one of the few good things, with this one, Renée Zellweger is one of the few bad things. And I do mean bad.
Now, I don’t have anything against Zellweger in general. She was fine in Cinderella Man, Jerry Maguire, and Chicago. But if Appaloosa were a train, Zellweger would be a rusted-out 1978 Buick Estate station wagon that’s stalled on the tracks. The minute she appeared, the whole thing just went completely off the rails.
It’s been awhile since I watched this, but I vividly recall seeing the first few minutes of the movie and thinking “This is great! Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen cleaning up the Old West! What could be better?” And then Renée showed up, and it all went to hell.
As I said before, usually I enjoy Renée Zellweger, but something about her performance in this movie absolutely rubbed me the wrong way. As with Diego Luna in Milk, it may have just been the way her part was written. I’m not sure. I still liked the movie, in the end (I am recommending it, after all), but it could’ve been so much better. I love westerns. Absolutely adore them. But they’re getting more and more rare these days, and I fear movies like this one aren’t helping the cause.
Redbelt – I saw this movie not because I enjoy mixed martial arts (although I do), but because I enjoy David Mamet. For those who don’t know, David Mamet is a writer/director who is renowned for his skill at penning great dialogue. He certainly succeeds in doing that here. As it turns out, a love of good dialogue is the right reason to see this movie – those who enjoy movies chock full of well-choreographed fight scenes will probably walk away disappointed, as there are but one or two such scenes.
The plot gets a little labyrinthine at certain points, although I was extremely tired when I watched this so maybe it’s not as complicated as I’m remembering. All I can tell you is that it’s well-written and well-cast. In an odd reversal, two of the biggest roles are filled by relative unknowns. Chiwetel Ejiofor (thank God we’re in print and not broadcast) and Alice Braga play a husband and wife who own a jiu-jitsu academy. Then you have two of the smallest roles being filled by familiar faces: Tim Allen and Joe Mantegna. And those familiar with MMA will probably spot at least one or two cameos.
I’m not going to explain any plot points. Partly because I’m not sure if I could, and partly because I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say that if anything I’ve written above seems at all interesting, check this movie out.
Zack And Miri Make A Porno – I love Kevin Smith. I’ve seen every one of his movies multiple times, and I can quote the majority of them scene-for-scene. And even though I felt Z&M was closer in quality to Jersey Girl (which by the way I don’t hate like some do) rather than to Clerks, I still enjoyed it. Plus it grossed like ten dollars, so I feel compelled to plug it. If Smith keeps it up with these poor showings at the box office, no one’s going to finance him anymore, and that would be a damned shame. The good news is that he sells a lot of DVDs. So buy this on DVD. Please!
Smith’s movies may not be the most visually interesting (though to his credit he’s come a long way in regard), but he knows good dialogue. And he knows gross-out humour. This movie is filled with fine examples of both.
Gran Torino – This was actually on my top 10 (in the #10 spot) at one point, but alas. It would’ve made it, but I thought it ended a bit abruptly, and some of the actors were not great. Clint Eastwood is well-known as a director who likes to get his movies done in a hurry. If he doesn’t get it in the first couple takes, too bad, so sad, he’s moving on anyway. This works fairly well with professional actors, but when you’re dealing with people who haven’t been in front of a camera before (i.e. almost all of Gran Torino’s cast), the results can be a bit cringe-inducing at times. There’s a specific scene I’m thinking of near the end of the movie that could’ve been pretty powerful in the hands of a skilled actor, but instead provoked in me an unsavory combination of amusement, disgust, and pity. Not good.
That said, Clint rules, and he shows that even at the age of 78 (!), he’s still got it, both behind the camera and in front of it. In my opinion, although it’d be a long shot, he could’ve gotten a best actor nomination for this. Even though he’s essentially playing his usual gruff, scowling self, the character has some nice development as the movie progresses.
Frost/Nixon – It’s hard to say why this movie didn’t make the cut. I think some of it has to do with Frank Langella. Don’t get me wrong, I know seemingly everyone else loved him, so it’s quite possible I’m just crazy. I thought he was alright, but I didn’t quite buy the voice he used for Nixon, and he didn’t really seem to have the mannerisms down. His acting is fine, but when you know what the real person talks and acts like, it’s hard not to draw comparisons. If he had just been playing a fictional politician, I likely would’ve called it a great performance. As it is, knowing more or less how the real Nixon sounded and acted, I have to criticize Langella a bit. Personally, I liked Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal better in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Although Hopkins comes off far less sympathetically than Langella does, so kudos to Langella for earning our compassion while playing one of the greatest villains in American political history.
In closing, I have one final list, which I swear will be kept as brief as humanly possible: movies I didn’t see in 2008 but wanted to. I’m not going to talk about them at all, but I’ve heard they were good and I’ve not gotten a chance to watch them yet. Here goes:
-Let The Right One In
-Synecdoche, New York
With that, I’m done. Right around 5,500 words later, I’m officially tapping out. What started out planned as a single blog entry to see if I could rank my 10 best of the year turned into something twice as long as anything I ever wrote in two years of university (or a semester and a half of college, for that matter). Although this project has been a time-vampire* (you don’t even want to know how long I’ve spent compiling this list), I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with it.
So that’s 2008. That’s 25 movies that I can recommend, with varying degrees of insistence. I hope this has inspired you to go watch some great movies, or, if nothing else, has at least given you some idea of what you’re missing out on. Same time next year then?
*The expression “time-vampire” is © 2009, The Onion.