A handful of movies released in 2008 will stay in my mind for the forseeable future (and perhaps even beyond), movies that broke from the pack of mindless mediocrity pressed into our collective viewing experience between the months of January and December.
There were only two releases — both American — that, to me, deserve to be ranked as the best of the bunch. Otherwise, I’d like to dispense with numbering the rest of the batch — all strong movies, all of which captured the beauty and power of the movies in their own singular ways.
You may not have heard of a few of the titles below (I only caught Late Fragment, Shot In Bombay, and The Matador at the SXSW Festival this past March, but none of them as far as I know received significant buzz theatrically). But do give them a chance on DVD or online. Nowadays, there’s always a way to watch:
THE TWO BEST OF 2008:
I wonder what it was like to be in the presence of Sean Penn’s performance while making Milk, Gus Van Sant’s valentine to the political rise of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk in the 1970’s. Penn’s work, his best since 1995’s Dead Man Walking, had a Brando-esque audacity and poetry about it, an immersion into a role so complete that you see it happen only rarely. Everything about this film, from the performances to the gorgeous evocation of the 70’s Castro, radiated pure love and conviction from a filmmaker in peak, purposeful form. Read my full review here.
In Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke was not only re-born, but his masterful turn made him the King of All Cinematic Comebacks. The Wrestler could so easily have become an embarrasment for all concerned, but the results were just the opposite: Thanks to the daring and singular commitment of Rourke, Aronofsky and supporting performers Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood — both fabulous here — The Wrestler was a warm, soulful exercise in humanism and vivid proof that American cinema, when done right, is the best stuff on Earth. Read my full review here.
THE REST TO REMEMBER 2008 BY:
Bruges, Belgium, a medieval masterwork of a city was rendered as both hopelessly kitschy and spookily gothic in Martin McDonagh’s comic thriller In Bruges. McDonagh’s terrific writing and directing kept Colin Farrell at his lunatic best while his co-star Brendan Gleeson became the film’s center of gravity in this tale of thugs who think they’re hiding out when in fact they’ve made themselves sitting ducks for Ralph Fiennes’ deliriously evil mob boss. In Bruges was one of 2008’s most hilarious and refreshing genre surprises.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
Tomas Alfredson’s weird, wonderful coming-of-age vampire flick felt like an immaculately made Swedish domestic drama — intelligent, the yearings of its adolescent boy and girl only barely expressed until bursts of violence knocked us out of that reverie. You really weren’t sure what you were watching, yet you were enraptured by the movie’s strange friendship and Alfredson’s brooding tone, the sudden supernatural flare-ups of vampiric bloodletting, dismemberments and defenestrations. In 2008, the gallery of bloody good vampire cinema found a new inductee. Read my full review here.
The poetry of cinema was transfigured into the poetry of the bullring in this excellent documentary about the rise of one of Spain’s premier bullfighters. Directors Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey captured the rigors and glory of the ring, but this wasn’t a paean to animal cruelty and primitive bloodsport. The Matador was also a skillful portrait of a culture’s modern reckoning with an enduring yet morally problematic aspect of its ancient history. Read my full review here.
SHOT IN BOMBAY
No slumdog millionaires here, only bigtime Bollywood ones in this funny, instructive, fascinating behind-the-scenes portrait of the making of a Bollywood thriller. Director Liz Mermin gets into the trenches of Bollywood filmmaking, along with the legal troubles of one of its heavyweight stars dogging the production, making for illuminating interviews and lessons in resourceful filmmaking. Read my full review here.
From Canada arrived a unique experiment in interactive cinema and New Media filmmaking. The directorial trio of Daryl Cloran, Anita Doron and Mathieu Guez managed to craft an engaging exercise in eliciting audience involvement (we used a remote control to guide the course of their web-like narrative at key points) without losing the essentially mesmerizing nature of the unfolding narrative — intertwining dark stories of murder, abuse and guilt, all beautifully acted and executed. Read my full review here.
Brad Anderson’s tribute to Hitchcock paid off handsomely in this far-flung thriller about an unwitting American couple caught up in drugs and murder while aboard the titular train barreling through Russia’s frozen wilderness. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer gamely played the victims in Anderson’s underworld parable, but it was Ben Kingsley as a steely-eyed Russian narc (or so he claimed to be) who stole the show to make Transsiberian 2008’s noir to remember. Read my full review here.
THE DARK KNIGHT
The most intelligent, morally resonant and dramatically ambitious superhero film perhaps ever made (well, at least since Sam Raimi’s underrated Darkman from 1990). Heath Ledger deservedly got all the actorly attention (though Christian Bale did rock the cape, and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman were a pleasure to watch as always) as The Joker in a towering performance that put Jack Nicholson’s lampoon in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman venture in its cartoonish place. It was sadly Ledger’s swan song, but, paired with his achingly beautiful turn in Brokeback Mountain, the actor etched his place in the pantheon of our very best contemporaries.