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.
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA - Woody Allen
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.