When compiling a Best of Film list, it’s always difficult to remember the ones that came at the beginning of the year. Learning from past mistakes, I kept a list of every film I saw in 2008, noting the ones that had an impact. All of the ones listed are either four or five star films, and are in no particular order. Since the Oscars are quickly approaching – tune in Feb. 22 – I indicated which ones were nominees.
– A genuine “experience” film about New York City under attack. J.J. Abrams conceived of this after a trip to Japan, and it was his attempt at an American “Gojira.” It worked for me. I recently rewatched it on DVD, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I still enjoyed it. My experience was enhanced by watching the DVD extras.
– The only summer blockbuster that delivered. Excellent special effects, delirious action sequences, and the smart aleck charm of Robert Downey Jr. Who expected this from Jon Favreau?
Nominated for two Oscars.
– A hit man film with a great big heart and a whole lot of blood. Excellent chemistry between Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. The best part is that you get an armchair tour of Bruges, Belgium.
Nominated for one Oscar.
“The Forbidden Kingdom”
– I’m a “Journey to the West” nerd, so even a very loosely based, American take on the Monkey King is welcomed. I also love kung fu, so I was thrilled to see the long awaited fist and foot showdown between Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Any film that features a villainess (Bingbing Li) fighting with her long, white hair cannot be passed up.
– A cleverly written film that combines gritty realism with Bollywood conventions. Think “Salaam Bombay” but with a dance number at the end. An additional plus is the score by A.R. Rahman. Powerful direction by Danny Boyle.
Nominated for a whopping 10 awards.
“Kung Fu Panda”
– Love “Wall-E” all you want, but I much preferred this side-splitting animated homage to kung fu. Jack Black is hilarious, but my favorite performance comes from Randall Duk Kim as Oogway.
Breaks my heart that it has only one Oscar nod.
– A gritty, stark, powerful, disturbing and depressing film about an illness that brings out the best and worst in humanity. I live for films like this. I’ll buy it when it comes out on DVD.
– Bill Maher has his doubts about religion, and he explores them in this must-see documentary. The result of his inquiry is frequently hilarious.
“The Midnight Meat Train”
– An unusually meditative splatterfest that is based on a short story by Clive Barker and stylishly filmed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Too bad Lionsgate dumped it into second-run theaters. I can’t wait for the DVD release. I know it won’t happen, but I hope there is a director’s commentary.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
– Even though this is technically a Holocaust film, it transcends its genre, dealing with larger issues of intolerance and hatred. It seemed to me a feature length exploration of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem “First They Came For …”
“Let the Right One In”
– How do you make the vampire film fresh again? Let the Swedes take a crack at it. It’s a love story. It’s about the awkwardness of being an adolescent. And it has several scenes that will make even the hardest core horror fan wince. Rumor has it that an English-language remake is in the works. Why, I have no idea.
– A well-acted and written film about pedophilia, homosexuality and gender inequity in the 1960s era Catholic Church. It reminded me of several other films I love, including “Mass Appeal” and “Priest.” Meryl Streep would deserve an Oscar for her performance as the tough-as-nails nun Sister Aloysius Beauvier.
Five Oscar nominations.
– A historically accurate film about one of the most notorious assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler’s life. Well-paced, written, directed and acted thriller, starring Tom Cruise, in a surprising performance as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, and many British acting greats, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and Terrence Stamp. Even if American audiences weren’t all that enthused, the Europeans have been eating it up. Surprisingly, the Germans who, early on threw a fit about Cruise’s involvement, are making this a box office hit.
– An engrossing drama about a poverty stricken woman who begins smuggling illegal immigrants into Canada via a frozen river in Mohawk territory. Melissa Leo is an amazing actress. What a find.
Two Oscar nominations.
– While watching this film about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, and the struggle of the gay community during the 1970s, I couldn’t help but get a crushing sense of déjà vu. Intolerance funded by religious fundamentalists? A man bringing a message of hope? Propositions that eroded the civil liberties of “the other?” Sound familiar? I applaud director Gus Van Sant for making this very important film. Sean Penn’s best performance to date.
Eight Oscar noms.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
– I expected to hate this film, as it’s written by Eric Roth, the man behind “Forrest Gump,” a film I positively loathed. And if you look hard enough, you will find “Gump” moments, but for the most part, “Benjamin Button” is its own man. And it’s a brilliant, aging in reverse one. It has a captivating fairytale quality to it, with fantastic performances by Taraji P. Henson and, of course, Brad Pitt. David Fincher demonstrates once again his ability to transcend genre. (Wish he could give one-trick pony Guy Ritchie some pointers.)
Nominated in 13 categories.
– Another film that I hadn’t expected to enjoy, if that’s the word you can use, but I did. The main performances by Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet are riveting, but they are overshadowed by Michael Shannon, who plays an uber-perceptive mentally ill man. If you have ever grown up in the suburbs, you might mistake “Revolutionary Road” for a documentary as it hits every nail on the proverbial head. The ending is crushing and profound. This should be recommended viewing for anyone wanting to get married.
Three Oscar nominations.
– Not a perfect film, certainly, but it has one thing no other Holocaust film does – Jews fighting back. Based on a true story, “Defiance” focuses on the three Bielski brothers – Tuvia, Zus and Asael – and their attempt to survive in the woods in Nazi-occupied Belarus. Great performances by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber.
Nominated for one Oscar.
– Based on the true story of Christine Collins, a single mother whose son was abducted in the 1920s. The kicker is that she was given a “replacement” son by the Los Angeles police department. When she protested that this wasn’t her “Walter,” she was committed to an insane asylum. The only one who believed in her and supported her was a head strong pastor. This film has everything – drama, suspense, and even some unpleasant, disturbing violence. Angelina Jolie is very good, but John Malkovich is even better. I found myself outraged by this story, which was so amazingly written by J. Michael Straczynski. Why he didn’t get an Oscar nod is beyond me.
The three Oscars are for art direction, cinematography, and Jolie’s performance. Clint Eastwood, who directs, is like a fine wine. He just keeps getting better.