2008 was the year of the auteur. It was the time for the mind behind the lens. While previous seasons have seen hit or miss offerings from the best and brightest of the artform’s directorial gods, this year was different. Original celluloid voices like Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy II), Clint Eastwood (Changeling) and Michel Gondry (Be Kind, Rewind) delivered some of their finest flourishes, while new voices like Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), Steve McQueen (Hunger), and screenwriter turned filmmaker Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) brought their new and novel ideas to the motion picture party. In 2008, it was all about the vision, storytelling supported with big ideas, wild ambitions, and all the technical tools one could muster to realize both. Yet there was also room for more personal approaches, pictures where the only moviemaking magic needed was a great cast, a solid script, and someone to make sure both got showcased.
In looking over the 200 plus films SE&L reviewed this year, a few that didn’t make the final ten deserve more than an honorable mention. Man on Wire proved that individual drive and daring-do can overcome even the most outsized architectural aims, while Trouble the Water offered a searing documentary denouncement of the post-Katrina relief efforts of the Bush Administration. Iron Man catapulted Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Marvel Comics to the frontlines of the Summer popcorn parade, while Tropic Thunder and The Pineapple Express proved that comedy didn’t have to be pretty, or always joking, to make its merry point. We even got the final installment in Dario Argento’s long gestating Three Mothers trilogy - and wouldn’t you know it, The Mother of Tears was a terrific return to form. Even the universally touted titles that didn’t come close to breaching the Best (Frost/Nixon, Doubt, The Reader) argued for the talent of the individuals calling the shots.
While you may argue with a few of the choices (and the placement of a couple more), the following collection of neo-classics represents SE&L‘s selections for the year’s superior cinematic experiences. They may not all be serious. Some may cross the line when it comes to movie mastery. And at least one is oft cited as one of 2008’s worst. But for our metaphysical money, these were the titles that made the year in film worth watching, starting with:
#10 - Zack and Miri Make a Porno
In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.
#9 - Speed Racer
Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece, no two ways about it. Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a living, breathing comic book, complete with nods to psychedelic pen and ink designs, four panel editing, and overflowing visual pizzazz. Anyone who can’t see the brilliant blockbuster fun the brothers are having with this material has spent one too many hours staring at gloomy independent dramas about siblings struggling to deal with their dysfunctionality. This is filmmaking as fireworks, directorial innovation that, while not as media morphing as The Matrix, stands as the highest level of celluloid creativity. From races that routinely flaunt the rules of realism to a story that stresses the noble over the nasty, Speed Racer soars to the highest levels of movie magic.
#8 - Wall-E
By its very definition, imagination is limitless. The only true restrictions to the notion exist in the connection to actual human thought. Clearly, whoever is hiring (or perhaps, cloning) the creative forces at Pixar have found a way to circumvent said biological boundary. In an artistic endeavor where there are no sure things, this astounding animation studio has that most unprecedented of reputations - they never make a mistake. Not only are their films fantastic examples of motion picture craftsmanship, but they keep getting better with each and every new offering. Take their latest, the special sci-fi allegory WALL*E. It a stunning achievement in computer generated imagery, and once again expands the company’s range in dealing with subject matter both speculative and wonderfully sly.
#7 - The Dark Knight
Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.
#6 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a movie made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like director David Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence, basic camera tricks and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control. But this is where Fincher shines - bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of masterpiece.
#5 - Milk
So much about Milk speaks to our current Prop 8 poisoned society that it should be studied by anyone wondering where hate and bigotry get their clear eyed cravenness. Mirroring the main character’s rise from activist to Establishment, director Gus Van Sant wisely juxtaposes archival footage of former Miss America and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant as part of the perspective. Militant in her narrow-minded opposition to equal rights, she’s Sarah Palin sent back in a time machine, a smiley faced whack job that preaches Christian charity while targeting her baseless Bible at an entire underclass. Her moral majority preaching, position as part of what will eventually be the religious right rejuvenation of the Republican Party, is frightening, and reminds us that Milk the man truly laid his life on the line for the cause.
#4 - The Wrestler
Taking its tone from Rod Serling’s memorable Requiem for a Heavyweight while utilizing a breathtaking neo-realistic approach, Darren Aronofsky’s sensational The Wrestler marks a major comeback for Mickey Rourke and ‘70s style filmmaking in general. Offering up characters of quiet charms and deep emotional pain and a cinema verite cinematography that frequently feels like a documentary, this is a tour de force of acting, directing, and stripped down motion picture passion. It’s rare when a film can make you feel such emotional extremes. On the one hand, the story of The Ram’s rise and fall is truly heartbreaking, helped in no small part by Rourke’s Oscar worthy performance. But there is so much more going on here, from the concept of a career lost long ago to an attempt at redemption that almost anyone can relate to. It makes for a truly remarkable entertainment experience.
#3 - Slumdog Millionaire
There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.
#2 - Let the Right One In
With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Thomas Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told. It’s like A Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace with night stalkers.
#1 - Revolutionary Road
Apparently, in order to enjoy Sam Mendes take on Revolutionary Road, you have to (a) have never read the Yates’ book it is based on, (b) never watched an episode of AMC’s au courant revisionist hipster drama Mad Men, and (c) believe the filmmaker’s previous Oscar winning effort, American Beauty, was not some award season anomaly. Add in the “isn’t that cute” conceit of having three members of James Cameron’s Titanic back onscreen (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates) and the pedigree everyone involved provides, and you’re either drunk on the idea of the film, or failing to see the true mess that Mendes has made. Actually, none of this is true. In a season which sees underage sex with war criminals celebrated and old racists made warm and fuzzy, Revolutionary Road stands as a bold bit of filmmaking. It’s not always pleasant, but then again, neither is life.