10. W. (Oliver Stone)
Many critics questioned Oliver Stone’s wisdom in making W., his George W. Bush biopic, while the man was still in office. I couldn’t possibly disagree more. What better time than now to examine the man who got America into a war they didn’t want or need, and has destroyed their reputation worldwide. But Stone’s film is not merely a hatchet job on Bush – something that I think disappointed people on both sides of the aisle, Liberals because they wanted to see Bush eviscerated and Conservatives because they wanted to disembowel Stone for being unfair – but Stone sticks mainly to the established facts. He tells the story of an average man – not a stupid one, but not one who is exceedingly bright either – who grew up in a family where nothing but greatness was acceptable. Eventually, he gets into politics, which eventually leads him to being President, just to show up his father. The movie actually leads you to start feeling sorry for the poor bastard by the end, as even he starts to realize that he is a failure. The performances are all excellent – Richard Dreyfuss is obviously having fun playing Dick Cheney, James Cromwell makes a surprising believable George Bush Sr. and Jeffrey Wright allows Colin Powell to maintain his dignity – but this is really Josh Brolin’s show. He doesn’t merely go for an easy impression of Bush, one looking to mock the man, but rather he gets the voice and mannerisms just right, so that you will accept him as Bush. Then he gets under his skin, and delivers one of the very best performances of the year. After more than a decade of making sub par movies, W. marks a welcome return to form by Oliver Stone.
9. Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Leave it to the Coen Brothers to follow up perhaps their most acclaimed film to date – the serious, bleak drama No Country for Old Men – with a wacky screwball comedy. And yet, while on the surface the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar, both certainly share pessimism about humanity. Every character, save for one, in this film is a complete idiot – it doesn’t matter if they are a treasury bodyguard, CIA agent, lawyer or gym employee, each one seems equally clueless as to what to do. The lone character in the movie with any brains is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA agent who gets fired because he’s become an alcoholic. In reality, Cox is simply frustrated with all the idiocy that surrounds him, and he finally simply snaps. George Clooney plays a treasury bodyguard, who says he loves his wife, but sleeps with anything that moves – including Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) and a gym employee (Frances McDormand), who somehow comes into possession of Cox’s memoirs, and mistakes it for classified information, that she tries to sell off to the Russians to pay for her plastic surgery. Into her plan, she brings in a co-worker (Brad Pitt), who is gloriously stupid. These characters, and more, circle around each other, as the plot gets more complicated, and no one wants to admit they have no idea what the hell is going on. The Coens have a sixth sense for casting, so newcomers like Malkovich, Pitt and Swinton, fit in effortlessly with their stock company like Clooney, McDormand, Richard Jenkins (so selflessly in love with McDormand, who remains blind to his affections) and JK Simmons (whose final scene is simply hilarious). But no one is better than Pitt, dancing around like an idiot, but constantly smiling, no matter what is happening. If there was justice in the world, he’d get a supporting actor nomination, but there isn’t so he won’t. But Burn After Reading is a brilliantly misanthropic comedy of errors.
8. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America. That it took until the 1970s for this to happen, and only in San Francisco the most Liberal of Liberal cities is somewhat sad. Gus Van Sant’s film tells his story, starting as he decides to change his life at the age of 40. Until then, he was a closeted Republican in New York, but when he falls for a younger man (James Franco) the two of them decide to head to San Fran. It’s there where Milk finds his true passion – fighting for the rights of the massive gay community, not just in San Francisco about across the country. Sean Penn gives one of his best performances as Milk – truly one of the first times I can recall Penn truly disappearing into a role. The movie is filled with excellent supporting turns, by Franco as the supportive boyfriend, Emile Hirsch as another activist and especially Josh Brolin, as Milk’s rival on city council, who will eventually snap. The movie marks a stark departure from Van Sant’s recent work – films like Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park, which where decidedly anti-commercial. Here, he follows the standard biopic pattern, but is still able to craft a film that stays with you. The fight for gay rights in America is one that is still going on today – as evidenced by the passage of the hideous Gay Marriage Ban in Milk’s adopted state of California in November – but it has come as far as it has in part because of people like Harvey Milk. It’s impossible to watch this film and not get choked up a number of times. In a year full of political biopics, this was the best.
7. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Rachel Getting Married is about the messiness that comes with being part of a family. It is also about how your family is really all you have – they are the people who love you, no matter what terrible things you have done. The movie opens with Kym (Anne Hathaway) getting let of rehab – again – this time on a weekend pass to be able to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Although Kym is the older sister, Rachel has pretty much always played that role – taking care of Kym when she needs it. Kym is an attention hog, who doesn’t seem to be happy, unless she is at the center of everything. She knows just how to play their dad (Bill Irwin), so that no matter what is going on, she becomes the focal point. The mother (Debra Winger), has divorced their father, and remains emotionally distant from everyone. The movie is essentially made up of scenes of the family going at each other – some times joyously, sometimes with anger and resentment. The climax is one of the happiest weddings I can recall seeing in a film. This is not a film where anything is really solved. Like most families, old wounds never really heal; people just have to learn to live with them. Hathaway has grown as an actress by leaps and bounds since her days in The Princess Diaries, and this is a magnificent performance. She is always at risk of losing our sympathy, but never does. DeWitt matches her at every step, as a woman who is tired of taking care of everyone else, and just wants to be taken care of herself. Irwin delivers the type of subtle performance that is always overlooked, but he brings depth to the man who is desperately trying to hold everyone together. And Winger has a few short scenes, where you can tell just how her daughters ended up as they were. Director Jonathan Demme has a return to form here, capturing all the overlapping dialogue in a handheld camera style that for once is not a distraction. And Jenny Lumet’s brilliant screenplay captures life as it truly is. This is a truly unique film.
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
There was no greater technical achievement this year than David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Telling the strange story of a man who was born an old man and grows younger with each passing year, Fincher and his crew take visual effects to an entirely new level. All the other technical aspects - the cinematography, editing, art direction, costume design, make-up and score are also top notch. Yet, if this was solely a technical achievement, it wouldn’t be as great as it is. It is a story about what it means to be human. While Benjamin Button may have an affliction that no one in real life has ever had to go through, he still goes through the same things that everyone else does. He falls in love with Daisy when they are both children (although, of course, Benjamin is in an old man’s body) and spends his life trying to win her over. Brad Pitt delivers a truly remarkable performance as Button - going from bewildered child, to wise old man, in reverse. In many ways, Cate Blanchatt has an even harder role, being the woman who must decide whether to let this man into her life, knowing what the ultimate result is going to be. In the hands of another filmmaker, this film probably would have been overly sappy and sentimental - trying hard to milk tears from the audience. But because Fincher takes a step back, and is more detached in his style, when the tears do come in the movie, they are earned, not manipulated. This is a film that grows and grows in your mind for days after watching it. A remarkable achievement.
5. Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes)
On the surface, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road resembles his Oscar winning debut film, American Beauty. But this is a much darker, much deeper film, about a troubled marriage in 1950s suburbia. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as Frank and Alice Wheeler, a seemingly perfect couple who couldn’t possibly be more miserable. He commutes to New York everyday to work as a glorified salesman for a business machines, and he hates every minute of it. She stays at home with the kids all day, and is slowly being smothered by the weight of raising a young family. For a few brief shining moments, they seem truly happy, when they decide to chuck it all and move to Paris, to live the life they feel they are entitled to. But life has others things in store for them. DiCaprio has never been better than he is here. Gone is the young heartthrob, and in his place is a man who is cracking under the pressure of his life. And Kate Winslet is simply amazing as April. There is a lot of stillness in her performance, with subtle changes going through her face. But when she lets loose, she really lets it fly. The key supporting performance in the film is by Michael Shannon, as the son of another couple who has just got out of the insane asylum. He is the only one who supports the Wheelers in their plan to move to Paris, which should let you know just how crazy it really is. But he also sees things more clearly than anyone else in the film - and the only one willing to speak his mind. The film - written by Justin Haythe based on Richard Yates brilliant novel - gets all the small details right. The fights that start off as small things build and build until they cannot be contained. Adultery isn’t about passion, or even sex, but is a futile act of rebellion. This is the best film yet from director Mendes. While it doesn’t offer a very hopeful portrait of marriage for someone heading down the aisle next year, it is an accurate depiction of a certain kind of relationship. With a few small changes, this film could be set in 2008 without missing a beat.
4. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
In the 1980s, Mickey Rourke was set to take the mantle from actors like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, to become one of the biggest stars in the world. And then, he blew it. Time has not been overly kind to Rourke in the years since he was the next big thing. But that makes him all the more perfect for the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Randy was once the biggest star in the world of wrestling – think Hulk Hogan – but as he aged, he didn’t know when to let go. Now 20 years past his prime, Randy still wrestles every weekend, in front of smaller and smaller audiences. He is broke, still taking steroids much to the chagrin of his body, which is gradually giving out on him, and has no one in his life that cares about him. His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates him, with due cause, because he was never there for her, and doesn’t really feel like opening herself up to be hurt again. But in Roxie (Marisa Tomei), he finds a kind of kindred spirit. She is a stripper, now pushing 40, whose body is also making her chosen profession more and more difficult for her. For a while, it seems like Randy may be able to get himself back on track. He seems genuinely happy for a few brief shining moments, before it all comes crashing down around him. Darren Aronofsky directs this film with more down to earth style than he has evidenced in the past. This is stripped to the bone filmmaking. One thing that doesn’t change is his ability to illicit great performances from his actors. Tomei’s performance is excellent – another in a string of great ones she has delivered this decade. But this is Rourke’s show, and he delivers what is probably the best performance of the year, in any category. He makes Randy’s pain hit the audience hard. By the end of the movie, you’ll be surprised just how moved you are by Randy’s plight. A truly remarkable performance, at the heart of a truly great film.
3. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)
Who would have guessed that the most touching love story of the year would be between two animated robots in a film aimed at children? But that is precisely what Wall-E is – a love story that has its roots in the earliest silent comedies. Wall-E is a robot, whose job is it to clean up earth, after humans have essentially destroyed the planet and fled on a giant spaceship. Wall-E used to have the company of others like him, but now he’s the only one still going. Then a spaceship arrives, and along with it, another robot. This one is obviously far more technological advanced than Wall-E, and is named Eve. The two robots bond, and when the spaceship arrives to take Eve back to the humans, Wall-E refuses to let go. The bond – you can call it love if you want – between these two robots is far more touching, and dare I say romantic, than any other two characters this year. Pixar has always been the best at computer animation – and not just because their films look better than anyone else’s (although they do), but because they spend just as much time working on the screenplay as with the animation, and because they trust children to be able to understand some rather complex themes. Wall-E serves as an environmental wake up call, and isn’t afraid to call the human race fat, lazy and selfish in the process. Wall-E is one of the best films of the year, because it understands cinematic history and respects it – how many other films this year referenced both Chaplin and Kubrick – but also because it builds on it. Wall-E is a magical film, and you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it.
2. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
Truly great films of any genre are the ones that stretch the boundaries of what that genre can be. Such is the case with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which takes what Nolan did in Batman Begins, and builds on it even more. Not content with simply making another superhero movie, Nolan has reinvented the Batman mythology, and made it relevant to modern times. At the heart of the movie is a fundamental moral question – how do you fight an enemy who is not bound my any morals, without losing your own? This makes it an interesting companion piece to last year’s No Country for Old Men, which essentially asked the same question. Is The Dark Knight any less serious a film because it deals with a man who dresses up like a bat, fighting an evil clown, instead of rustic cowboys? No. It takes the questions it raises seriously, and because the movie does this, it allows the audience to take it seriously as well. The Dark Knight is very much a sequel to Batman Begins, and yet unlike most sequels, it doesn’t look to simply replicate its predecessor’s success, but instead looks to build on it. We couldn’t have had this movie unless Nolan laid the groundwork of the Bruce Wayne/Batman character in the first film. The film is a technical marvel, with each element playing off each other just about perfectly – highlighted by Wally Pfister’s excellent, dark cinematography. For those who thought that Batman couldn’t get any darker than the Burton films, this one proved you wrong. And of course, there are the performances. All the attention (deservedly) went to Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker – the best we’ve seen yet and one of the creepiest, scariest, most evil villains in screen history. But all that attention overshadowed a cast of great actors at the top of their game – Christian Bale channeling his inner Clint Eastwood, Gary Oldman making ordinariness seem extraordinary, Aaron Eckhart’s moral struggle as Harvey Dent and two old timers – Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman having fun in their roles. Maggie Gyllenhaal – taking over for Katie Holmes – is stuck with an underwritten role, but even she has one marvelous moment. Overall, The Dark Knight sets the new standard for all superhero movies that come after it. It is one of the few towering achievements of 2008.
1. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is like no other film I have ever seen. It centers on one man – Caden Cotard played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman – as he tries for decades to make sense of his life, and create a piece of everlasting art. When we meet him he is a successful theater director, married to Adele (Catherine Keener) and has a young daughter. But then Adele leaves, and takes their daughter with her, not to return for years on end. Caden moves on, gets married again, has another child, and gets left again. The only woman he really loves is Hazel (Samantha Morton), but she always remains just out of reach. Somewhere along the way, he gets a genius grant, which allows him the freedom to create whatever he wants to. He sets himself up in an abandoned warehouse, hires a cast of hundreds, and sets about creating his work of art. This play, which starts as being about everything, eventually comes down to being about Caden and his life. He casts actors to play him, and the other people in his life, and he plays out the conversations he had the previous day in exact replica sets. Soon, he’s hiring actors to play the actors he has cast, and this is only the beginning. The film starts as comedy, but by the end, has become about nothing less than human existence and what it all means. Kaufman isn’t egotistical enough to think that he’s figured it all out, but the fact that he’s posing the questions makes the film all the more interesting. The film takes bizarre jumps from the surreal to the real, from the funny to the tragic and through it all; Kaufman never loses sight of his aim. There was not a better ensemble cast assembled this year – Hoffman, Keener, Morton in addition to Emily Watson, Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Wiest, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis and everyone else – seems to know exactly where they fit into this crazed world. Does anything in this movie actually happen, or is it all some wild fever dream of Caden’s as he lies dying of a brain tumor? I cannot say for sure. What I can say is that Kaufman’s movie gets to the heart of human nature better than any other film this year. That it will likely anger or bore as many people who it enthralls only makes it all the more interesting. We ask our artists to examine the world around them, and our place in it, with wit, insight and ambition. No one did that better this year than Charlie Kaufman, which is why Synecdoche, New York is my favorite film of 2008.