Best of 2008

Diamonds In the Rough — The Best Movies of 2008

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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:

MILK
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.

THE WRESTLER
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:

IN BRUGES
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 MATADOR
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.

LATE FRAGMENT
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.

TRANSIBBERIAN
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.

The Wrestler

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Randy “The Ram” Robinson is an over-the-hill professional wrestler living in a trailer park, and scraping by on his earnings from weekend matches and from his shifts at a grocery store, where he’s lorded over by an insufferable weasel of a boss. Once the king of the ring, Randy (Mickey Rourke) still elicits the love and respect of his wrestling peers and his fans, all part of a culture on the fringes of American life.

Now a battered heap of a man, one senses that Randy’s ample humility and graciousness are the end result of hard knocks and decades of reckless living. He makes halting steps towards courting a woman, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) — a stripper at a local club, herself a bit past her prime — but she resists, determined not to get attached to a “customer” and to put her stripping days behind her. A prime casualty of his rough-living years has been Randy’s relationship with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). They haven’t spoken or seen each other in years, but when, after a particularly brutal match, Randy suffers a heart attack and nearly dies, he decides to seek her out and make amends. She isn’t so willing. And it soon dawns on Randy that the world is crueler and lonelier than he ever figured, and that it’s only in the ring where, ironically, he feels “safest,” and where he belongs in spite of risks posed to his own life.

On paper, The Wrestler is about as conventional a redemption story as there is. It’s the old chestnut about a social underdog who tries to repair all his missteps by doing what he does best one last time. But, having said that, The Wrestler is also about the most impassioned and sincerest film made in 2008, boasting a performance from Rourke that is the living embodiment of an actor’s absolute conviction to a role.

The script by Robert D. Siegel may trade in overly familiar “sports movie” tropes, but he and director Darren Aronofsky together prove that, regardless of its familiarity, a story lives in the details. The specificity of details — in this case, the details of Randy’s hand-to-mouth lifestyle, the often gritty and desperate world of professional wrestling — brings this story to life. There’s so much blood-and-guts vitality to The Wrestler, with its alternately exhilararting and heartbreaking details of life in and out of the wrestling ring, that it feels utterly original. So immersive is Aronofsky and Rourke’s contract with this material, rich with depictions of wrestlers’ backstage rapport, of steroid injections and bodybuilding, of skid-row strip clubs and trailer-park life, that to watch the film is to live this story alongside its characters.

There is one dominating shot in The Wrestler, a tracking shot that follows from behind Randy as he approaches and enters a new space. The effect is of an athlete or a gladiator walking through a corridor, about to enter an arena, bracing for the battle ahead. For Randy, all of life is a battle — whether it’s charging between rows of fans towards the ring, or through the aisles of the grocery store where he works, or up the path to his long-estranged daughter’s house — every destination presents a challenge and demands a hero’s courage. Life is a test, and Randy feels he’s at the losing end of it. It’s a brilliant motif, and Aronofsky employs it skilfully, even once for Cassidy as she readies to enter the stage to perform her routine. Indeed, both Randy and Cassidy are at the end of their ropes — The Wrestler finds each at the verge of taking a leap of faith, into the darkness that will be next chapters in their lives.

The Wrestler is unsparing. It’s violent and visceral on both physical and emotional levels. The scenes of wrestling are raw and direct; bodies slam onto canvas with convincing realism. And, likewise, the scenes of interpersonal confrontation — between Randy and Cassidy, and Randy and Stephanie pull no punches; characters wound each other out of self-defense, the need to survive. Aronofsky’s film demands much from its audience but, unlike the great majority of films, it repays with its tenderness of heart and soul, its wrenching and disarming sincerity. It’s that sincerity, the devotion of a filmmaker and an actor to their story that makes us look past the story’s conventionalities. Indeed, the conventions loom as large as billboards along a highway, but, with this caliber of talent guiding us, we’re grateful to take the journey with The Wrestler nevertheless.
Grade: A-

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Robert D. Siegel
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Even Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller
Rated: R
Runtime: 109 min.

Milk

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Rarely has an actor disappeared into a role as completely as Sean Penn does in Milk, Gus Van Sant’s deeply affecting tribute to the 70’s era gay civil rights crusader. Penn’s performance here ranks as his very best, alongside his mesmerizing turn as a death-row inmate in Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking from 1995. Nothing the actor has done since can prepare the viewer for the miraculous gift of a performance he delivers in Milk — a gift to his profession, to his audience, but, most of all, to Harvey Milk himself. There is no Sean Penn in this film — no sense of an actor “acting,” there is no ego, no self-awareness, no flamboyance. There is only the man he portrays, and it’s a performance worth a thousand terrible ones from mediocre performers who we are regularly subjected to.

Gus Van Sant’s film is also no routine biopic. It is not so much a chronological accounting of its subject’s life as it is a richly layered portrait, an affectionate and personal poem dedicated to the memory of a social hero. That Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor and the first openly gay elected official in America, lived a controversial life in politics that ended all too briefly by assassination is not the end but the beginning of Van Sant’s telling. Milk’s death is framed in the context of sacrifice and as a tragic consequence to his years of charismatic and fearless service to the cause of bringing gay equality and civil rights to the American mainstream.

Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay focuses on Milk’s final eight years, chronicling his move to San Francisco’s Castro district in the early 70’s through his galvanic rise to prominence in the city’s — and the nation’s — political life. The Castro of that era is gorgeously evoked throughout by Van Sant’s superb cinematographer Harris Savides. It’s the exuberance of this neighborhood that draws Milk here from New York in the early ’70s. When he opens a modest camera store with his boyfriend Scott Smith (James Franco), he has no inkling of political activism till he begins to take part in mobilizing a gay-friendly business ethic in his local community. Soon, the camera shop turns into Milk’s election headquarters when he makes a series of bids for office, staffed by what would become his core political team, culminating in his winning the city supervisor seat in 1977.

Milk’s private life — his relationships with Smith and later with Jack Lira (Diego Luna) — suffer, even tragically, at the hands of his demanding public life. But the 70’s was a volatile time for the gay rights movement when such right-wing zealots as Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) were successfully mounting anti-gay movements across America, repealing referendums meant to protect gay rights. Milk was among the sole voices of anger and resistance against that tide of intolerance, the movement required his constant vigilance, and Van Sant and Black effectively paint a vibrant picture of the politically combustible gay scene at this time. The Castro was prone to uprisings — violent at times — and ugly police reprisals, it was both the epicenter of the gay movement, and a barometer of gay culture in America.

If there is any notable flaw in Black and van Sant’s telling, it may be that it is too affectionate, too titled toward the cause of canonizing Milk at the expense of fairly depicting his and his milieu’s less endearing attributes. Van Sant wants a saintly eulogy to Milk, and that deprives his subject some of his complexity — we do get a taste of his overweening egoism and manipulativeness once Milk is in office, but, for the most part, Van Sant’s portait is, above all, his bid to canonize his subject, so the Milk that we see here is a largely charming and endearing personality.

Milk is also something of a valentine to the Castro of the 70’s, alive with love and political activism, dispensing with the nastier aspects of drug abuse and decadence — the very things that fueled conservative America’s prejudice towards the gay community in the first place. As a result, many of Van Sant’s supporting characters — those in Milk’s inner circle– are rendered a bit too much like happy, enthusiastic disciples, and the community at large as the gay version of Haight-Ashbury, American’s hippie central. Josh Brolin, however, does a fine job as Supervisor Dan White, Milk’s primary political opponent — a Catholic who finds himself backed into a corner in a changing political climate, and out-politicked by Milk’s chicanery. Here, White is a weak but sympathetic figure, and the pathos Brolin brings to the role is critical in adding an even-handedness to Van Sant’s telling.

On balance, the talent and dedication on hand here far outweigh any carping about Black and Van Sant’s biases. The film is as much a joy to watch as it seems it was to make. It’s filled with so much vitality, charged by the filmmaker’s inner conviction to bring this story to the screen, that one comes away admiring the filmmaking while feeling deeply touched, even inspired, by the fiery life at the film’s center.
Grade: A-

Directed by: Gus van Sant
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco, Alison Pill, Victor Garber, Denis O’Hare, Joseph Cross, Stephen Spinella, Lucas Grabeel, Brandon Boyce
Rated: R
Runtime: 130 min.

Transsiberian

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Brad Anderson (The Machinist) assays Hitchcock territory, and does a fine job in this riveting thriller about an American couple traveling across Russia on the titular express train and getting caught up in drugs, murder and the watchful eye of a suspicious detective. Having wrapped up a charity mission in China, the mid-western hayseed Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a recovering drug addict, decide to book passage on the Transsiberian and take in the famed Russian hinterland.

They end up sharing their berth with another couple — a young American runaway, Abby (Kate Mara), and her Eurotrash boyfriend Carlos (Eduardo Noriega). With his easy smile and bedroom eyes, Carlos works his scruffy, roguish charms on Jessie, who’s taken with his aura of mystery and bad-boy mischief. He’s everything she left behind in her free-living drug days, and still pines for privately. While Roy is busy doting over train engines and rail gauges (he’s a train buff), Jessie shares an impulsive intimacy with Carlos that starts a chain of consequences that ends fatally for Carlos. That’s when Anderson and co-writer Will Conroy’s plot kicks into gear.

What was a holiday one minute turns into a nightmare of paranoia, guilt, and suspicion as Jessie now harbors the secret of what befell Carlos while the two were out in the desolate country. The suspense gets racheted to tantalizing levels when Roy and Jessie are approached by Grinko (Ben Kingsley) who claims to be a detective on the hunt for drug smugglers believed to be on board the Transsiberian. When Jessie discovers a load of Russian dolls that belonged to Carlos stashed in her luggage — dolls containing heroin — she realizes the mess she’s gotten herself into. What’s more, it dawns on Jessie and Roy that Grinko’s intentions are more ruthless than he’s letting on.

Anderson and Conroy do an excellent job of drawing out the tension between Jessie and Grinko while the oafish Roy becomes the unsuspecting barrier protecting Jessie from her potential inquisitor. Jessie can’t hold out forever, of course; soon enough, the two find themselves in Grinko’s clutches.

In neat and deft maneuvers, Anderson and Conroy use the violence and desperation of their characters to drive them forward and against each other like chess pieces. The wintry Russian desolation makes for a bleak and menacing game board, for sure, of which this script and cast make maximum utility. The weakest link here — and the one factor that could’ve easily derailed Transsiberian — is the nauseating Carlos. The mystery man’s grinning, conniving persona is an unwelcome irritant, a derivative of a thousand Eurotrash cliches, and his exchanges with Jessie, while sexually charged, are generally pathetic in their see-through insinuations. While Carlos is the instigator of Anderson and Conroy’s entire premise, his character amounts to tedium which, thankfully, ends with his departure, leaving room for Kingsley to show up and take command of the narrative.

Kingsley sinks his teeth into his role, he’s clearly having a blast, and we take delight in watching the seasoned actor playing the dubious Grinko. Mortimer too comes to life once the peril to her character becomes immediate, and Anderson’s handling of Jessie’s attempts not to lose her cool vis-a-vis Grinko and Roy and to save herself from a desperate scenario would make Hitchcock smirk with quiet pride. It was the Master’s favorite set-up after all: An innocent who finds the murderer’s weapon planted in his hands, and who must now do his damndest to keep authorities off this trail.

Transsiberian never quite worked up the media attention it deserved in the festival or theatrical circuit in 2008. But as Hitchcockian thrillers go, it’s one of the smarter and more absorbing ones made in recent years. And it gives the enterprising and versatile Kingsley one of his juiciest and most memorable roles in years.
Grade: B+

Directed by: Brad Anderson
Written by: Brad Anderson, Will Conroy
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Thomas Kretschmann
Rated: R
Runtime: 111 min.