Friday, February 27, 2009

The best films of 2008

Here is another attempt to get some sort of dialogue with friends and companions going about film. Reid and I decided we'd each do a "best of" list for 2008 to get things going.

I should mention that my movie going zeal has lessened considerably with age and I have therefore not seen some of the most critically acclaimed films of 2008. These include The Readerand Slumdog Millionaire, both films that did well at the Academy Awards. At the risk of sounding prejudiced I must admit that I find it unlikely that I will appreciate either of them to the extent of placing them among my favorite films of the year. This is mostly due to a gut-reaction of the type of films they are and the critical reaction to them.

That being said, and without further ado, here are what I consider to the best films of 2008 (in no particular order):

CHE - Steven Soderbergh

An astounding film, poetic and beautiful. Equally a meditation on the life of a complex, fragile human being and an attempt to recreate a time and a place. There is no attempt to vilify Guevara nor to make him into a hero (much less into the pathetic joke of a cultural "icon" that he has been relegated to by t-shirt wearing hipsters). Del Toro's acting is so flawless that it's artistry is almost entirely invisible. He is, first and foremost, a presence throughout the film, both personally and philosophically. His portrayal of Guevara attempts nothing more nor less than to show a man at the crossroads of history, someone who transcended his individuality (for better or worse) to become a symbol for thousands. The film has, sadly, been cut into two parts (respectively named "The Argentinian" and "Guerrilla"). This seems like absolute folly to me as the two parts, though vastly different in theme and tonality, complement each other in deep, complex ways. The tragedy of the Bolivian revolution can not be fully appreciated without first seeing Che's success in Cuba. The film does have its fair share of kinks and quirks. The music often fails to fully meld into the film and Soderbergh's directing occasionally becomes overly fanciful. But these are minor complaints of a film that is bound to become a classic, watched and studied for generations to come.


I absolutely loved Allen's Match Point and I believe this film comes close to mirroring its artistry, even though the films could not be further apart thematically. A simple, unassuming story of two American college students traveling to Barcelona, the film is first and foremost a thoughtful and generous character study, along the lines of the great tradition of 70's American cinema. Allen's greatest strength in this latter part of his career is that he genuinely seems to care for his characters, to think of them as flesh and blood human beings who may teach us something meaningful about who we are and where we are going. In this respect he is a kind of Dostoyevsky of cinema, someone who's greatest aspiration as a director is to give his characters space in which to live and breathe. The acting is wonderful, especially by Bardem and Cruz, and the directing is among Allen's best.

WALL-E - Andrew Stanton

Perhaps Pixar's greatest film so far, a beautiful, poetic social satire that can truly be called philosophical. The film asks basic yet revealing questions about what it exactly is that makes us human. We have become so addicted to machines and their ability to afford us with comfort and pleasure that the machines, through their "struggles" and "suffering" are perhaps becoming more human than we are. Is humanness not ultimately a matter of spirit, of hopes and dreams, fears and desires? What if we lose these, in our ever-more desperate attempts to satiate our physical desires and to live lives of comfort and ease? At that point a little robot who has courage and love can certainly teach us quite a bit.

THE VISITOR - Thomas McCarthy

A note-perfect film that is like a symphonic whole. All the parts - script, direction, acting, editing - work together to form a seamless tapestry that is moving, beautiful and touching without ever coming close to being sentimental or emotional. Jenkins was rightfully nominated for his role here, probably his best in a long and illustrious career. The true joy of the film is to watch the shell around Jenkin's subdued, defeated college professor break apart as he comes alive through music and love. The films script fails to fully flesh out the characters of the young Tarek and his girlfriend but when the focus moves to the budding romance between Jenkins' Walter Vale and Tarek's mother, Mouna (played by the beautiful Hiam Abbass) the film never plays a false note.

I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG - Philippe Claudel

Kirsten Scott Thomas is amazingly forceful in this film, a woman filled with so much sadness and hurt underneath her quiet surface that she seems ready to explode. The acting by all involved is quite wonderful but equally good are the script and directing. There is something very simple and beautiful happening in the quiet spaces of this film; the silences speak more than the words, and that is a difficult thing to pull off. The film is quite moving but ultimately its strength lies in ability to reveal to us something essential and timeless about family, suffering and love.


RL LePage said...

We're going to have some of the same films. One that we don't share is Vicki Cristina Barcelona.

I will certainly agree that it's a good movie. And I think if I watched it at a different time, then I might like it more. But when I did watch it, I wasn't in the mood to watch a movie full of wealthy and attractive people complain about their "problems." I really didn't care about any of the characters, so it was hard to care about what happened to them. You don't always need to care about a film's characters for it to be good. But in this case, I think it would have helped me.

My biggest problem, which you know already, is Scarlett Johansson. She is not a good actress, and I often find this to be so much the case that her characters are distracting in movies. I think this another case of Woody directing with his penis. That's right - I said it.

agust symeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
agust symeon said...

Woody Allen's penis has more talent than most American directors working today.

Scarlett Johansson is problematic, I'll admit that. Her delivery is stilted beyond belief and she makes Keanu Reeves seem like a broad actor in comparison to her limited range. But I still think she's good when cast well. Woody Allen knew exactly what he was doing here. Her awkwardness and slow-motion delivery contrast beautifully with the rapid-fire exchanges between Bardem and Cruz. She's the straight person, the Bing Crosby to Bob Hope, Dean Martin to Jerry Lewis. She's there to look pretty and to provide a spingboard for the drama around her. But, interestingly, I also think her character is enormously sympathetic because of her inability to express her feelings or to know what she wants out of life. Johanssons (arguably limited) style of acting actually makes the character more human and real to me.

RL LePage said...

Fair enough. But I'll stick to my opinion.

Then there is Che.....Che, Che, Che.
I did enjoy the movie, just not as much as you did. My problem was that I just didn't connect to it. I didn't feel vested in what was happening on the screen.
I also do think that Che is portrayed as a heroic figure in the movie. But as I wrote for Milk, I don't think this is necessarily a problem.
I think I should watch this again, but it may be a decade before I feel up to it.