29 December 2008

My Year in Review, Movies

As I said before, I didn't get to see too many movies in theaters this year, and thus don't feel comfortable really putting together a "ten-best" list of movies made in 2008. I did, however, see dozens of movies through Netflix, and have decided to put together a personal ten-best list based on the movies that I saw during the year 2008 that I rented from Netflix. If you go back and look at the full list of movies I quoted in the earlier post, you'll notice that many of the films I saw this year are recognized masterpieces, which made it very difficult to pick just ten (plus a handful of honorable mentions) that really stood out from the rest. To that end, I've decided to pick ten that meant something to me personally, or movies that stood out from the pack and stuck in my head more than the others.

Other than the top three or four on this list, it wouldn't be that hard for me to change my mind. Certainly I wouldn't argue that some of these picks are better than some of the others I didn't place on the list, but the essence of making this kind of list is making decisions, so here are the ten that I'm picking, in reverse order.

10. A Fish Called Wanda (1988). Now, I'm not saying that this film is better than Stray Dog or Do the Right Thing, but it's certainly funnier. Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis join about half the cast of Monty Python in a modern (okay, modern for the 1980s) take on a classic screwball comedy-slash-crime caper. The double-crossings come fast and furious, no one's motives are quite what they seem, and the physical comedy is some of the best ever filmed. Kevin Kline in particular is superb as a thief with delusions of intellectual grandeur and pretty much steals the show out from under the feet of the rest of this amazing cast.

9. Lake of Fire (2006). Tony Kaye's three-hour abortion documentary was nearly two decades in the making, and while the photography may be black-and-white, the nuance and moral complexity is all about shades of gray. The long running time gives the viewer time to settle in and get comfortable with the pace, to meet the people on camera and begin to understand each viewpoint before moving on to the next person. I got to the end of the film and couldn't imagine how anyone could ever think that Lake of Fire ascribes to a pro-life position -- I've read reviews from the other side of the aisle that indicate viewers who disagree with me on the subject of abortion tend to feel the film takes their side instead. Kaye's film includes some startling imagery of actual aborted tissue and contains its fair share of vulgar language, but no one can argue that this film treats its subject with anything other than dispassionate humanism. A must-see for anyone who cares about the abortion debate.

8. In Cold Blood (1967). This adaptation of Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" is one of the greatest crime dramas ever made. Forget the fact of its verisimilitude and its attention to the details of the actual crime -- In Cold Blood gains its power by showing exactly how two nobody small-time crooks managed to commit a horrific crime. It humanizes its protagonists without ever excusing their crime. And yes, it becomes a bit of an anti-death penalty screed towards the end, but you can excuse some of the preachiness and just focus on the brilliant performances, direction, and amazing cinematography by Conrad Hall. (Original review here.)

7. Nashville (1975). Possibly Robert Altman's greatest film, which is saying something. Another three-hour chair-buster, Nashville uses its running time to introduce us to a huge cast of characters in the titular city, and provides a dozen or so musical set pieces that altogether probably comprise a full hour of the film. Watch it at least twice; while it may seem like this movie is almost entirely plotless, tiny threads move throughout the film and what seem to be meaningless details eventually add up to become amazingly detailed plot threads. Robert Altman, you will be missed.

6. Chinatown/Knife in the Water (1974, 1962). Two films from Roman Polanski that I saw for the first time this year, both so good I can't choose just one. Chinatown is a note-perfect noir made thirty years after noir was king with a breakthrough performance by Jack Nicholson and an ending that curdles the blood. Knife in the Water is a masterpiece of low-budget film -- it takes place almost entirely within the confines or immediately outside a small sailboat and has only three actors.... but they have enough psychological and sexual tension for six or even sixteen. Both are brilliant and deserve inclusion but if you asked me to pick just one it'd be Knife.

5. Double Indemnity (1944). Possibly the noir picture. An insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) and a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) conspire to do in her husband. She wants the money; he wants.... We never really find out what he wants, probably mostly just the satisfaction of getting away with it. Edward G. Robinson plays a smart fraud agent at the insurance company and has a knack for finding just the wrong time to ask just the right question. A film so modern in its approach that it could be made today... but no remake could ever even attempt to topple the original.

4. Downfall (2004). This was the film of a thousand Youtube parody videos, but the original retains its power through sheer storytelling. This story of the last days of Hitler is possibly the most disturbing and depressing piece of cinema ever made, but lovers of cinema will be energized by the amazing cast, cinematography, and direction. Bruno Ganz is electrifying as one of the most evil men in history -- Downfall is worth seeing for his performance alone. A must-see for film fans and/or history buffs. (Original review here.)

3. Dawn of the Dead (1978). Not the first of Romero's zombie movies, but the best. Dawn of the Dead starts with a society in chaos from the zombie apocalypse and never takes its foot off the gas pedal. Romero uses his zombies to examine the effects of racism and sexism, of class and social standing, of consumerism and of desperation. Combine this with the fact that Dawn is easily one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had (with many of the most tension-filled sequences played out in full light, at that!) and contains some truly horrifying examples of zombie gore and you have what is bar-none one of the finest films I've ever seen.

2. City of God (2002). This was a late entry for me -- I saw it only days before writing this list. Nevertheless this crime drama from Brazil is definitely one of the finest films I saw this year; a sort of bleak Brazilian Goodfellas that has the kind of assertive and propulsive energy you'd expect from a much more experienced filmmaker. The violence and dread of violence is punctuated by a coming-of-age tale (that somehow never grates) and sequences of great humor, but at all times City of God reminds its audience that death and destruction can be just around the corner. Go into it knowing as little as possible and I promise you won't be disappointed.

1. Once Upon a Time in the West. (1968). I don't usually like Westerns, but I absolutely loved this Western. Sergio Leone makes one of the most elegiac films I've ever seen, a long song, even a hymn, to the Old West. As Society and Civilization invade the wide-open spaces of these characters' lives, we see how some of them can deal with it while others can't. The cinematography captures some of the greatest images ever put on film, and Ennio Morricone's score is so amazing that I've been listening to it regularly ever since seeing the film. The Western you should see even if you hate Westerns. (Original review here.)

(But, but... what about Wings of Desire and Stray Dog and and and.... Forget it, I've already gone one over already.)

Okay, fine. A few more that I loved -- here I'm focusing on genre pictures, films that fill a niche perfectly rather than films that really deserve inclusion. Four more, in no particular order:

Bound (1996). Lesbian noir, how can I say no? Before the Wachowski brothers were pretending they knew how to philosophize and do kung fu at the same time, they made this low-budget indie masterpiece. Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly play lovers who steal millions from mobster Joe Pantoliano. It's the kind of premise that sounds like a "gay cowboys eating pudding" movie but the plotting and script are first-rate, the performances are mannered but great, and the Wachowskis show they have a great sense of style when they don't let their own computer fetishes get out of hand. Oh, and the sex scenes are some of the hottest ever put on film.

Martin (1975). Three years before returning to the zombie movie with Dawn of the Dead, George Romero gave the world his take on vampirism. Is the titular character really a vampire, or just a fucked-up kid? Romero never really supplies an answer, and this low-budget horror film works just as well as a character study of a young man who can't quite come to grips with who (or what) he really is. It all leads to a finale which has to be seen to be believed.

Ravenous (1999). Oh, what happened to you Guy Pearce? This might be the movie with the hokiest premise (well, except for Six String Samurai) I saw all year: vampire cannibals in the 1840s. What starts off as the story of a disgraced military officer slowly becomes one of the great genre movies of all time as the mystical powers granted by the eating of human flesh become known to the characters. Standout performances by the aforementioned Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Werner Herzog goes to Antarctica. He meets crazy scientists and sees some amazing sights of the natural world. What else do you need? Go rent it.

Okay, that's my list for 2008. Hopefully in 2009 I can do a lot more to get to write up regular reviews of the films I'm watching so that these sorts of lists will have more meaning. I'm aiming for two a week, but I don't think there's a chance in hell that I'll actually make that kind of schedule.

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