Because I have decided to list my top 20 films of 2008, in descending order, I decided to do it in two different posts. This one has numbers 20-11. Part Two is also posted, and will go into movies 10-1.
20. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
There were few movie going experiences this year more joyous than this one. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was the unlikeliest of feel good stories, centering on an orphan who grew up on the streets of India who somehow ends up competing for 20 million rupees on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The film is really about destiny, and love. Jamal has been in love with Latika (Frieda Pinto) for his entire life, but one thing after another keeps getting in the way of their love. Finally, out of desperation, he goes on the show, and each question seems to be personally designed for him – he knows the answers, and can tell you how he knows them, by referencing his own life. Boyle’s hyper-kinetic filmmaking style, the constant beating music by the brilliant AR Rahman, and performances by the entire cast that can only be described as joyous, make Slumdog Millionaire probably the best feel good movie of the year.
19. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
On the surface, it may seem like Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is a departure for him, as it concentrates on a character that is ceaselessly cheer-y is pretty much every scene in the film. But Leigh’s films, even when they are dark, have always bristled with the highs and lows of human life. Think of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the teacher at the centre of this film, who is always looking at the bright side of things, as the contrast of the hero of Leigh’s 1993 film Naked, who didn’t allow himself, or anyone else, any happiness, and you have the idea. But simply because Poppy is cheerful, it doesn’t mean that Happy-Go-Lucky is any less true to life. Leigh turns his gaze on this character, and in a fearless performance, Sally Hawkins makes Poppy into one of the year’s most interesting characters. Even when confronted with a driving instructor (Eddie Marston, also brilliant), who seems to be Hitler in his painting years, Poppy cannot help but be happy. That she destroys him, without ever trying to, or even thinking about it, is one of the fascinating aspects of the movie. You can never be sure what effect your seemingly innocent actions will have on other people.
18. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy tells an incredibly simple story, but one that builds its power slowly, scene by scene, until we are left emotionally drained at the end. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman traveling across the country in her ancient Honda Accord on her way to Alaska, where hopefully she can get a job. Her traveling companion is her beloved golden retriever Lucy. In Oregon, her car breaks down leading to one terrible thing after another, as she becomes increasingly desperate. Like her last film, the equally brilliant Old Joy, this isn’t a film that relies on false drama or screenwriters tricks to build up its drama, but rather just fixes its camera on its subject and observes them. Michelle Williams carries the film with her hugely expressive face. There is not an ounce of vanity in her performance, but rather she simply inhabits her character. With the economy crashing, there are probably going to be a lot more Wendy’s in the next few years.
17. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
Not many horror movie directors attempt to do anything new these days. We are stuck with sequel after sequel to the Saw movies, and lots of “torture porn”. But Tomas Alfredson’s wonderful vampire saga Let the Right One In, is completely different. It tells the story of a lonely 12 year old boy with no real friends, who suddenly finds someone he can talk to. That the girl he befriends is a vampire, shocks him at first, but soon he comes to accept her. In the broad strokes, this may sound like a Swedish version of Twilight with the genders switched, but this is an intense, intelligent horror film. It also has one of the very best endings of any movie this year.
16. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
No one makes movies quite like Arnaud Desplechin. His latest is a perhaps the strangest film you will see about a family get together at Christmas. Catherine Denueve is the dying matriarch of a dysfunctional brood, who needs a bone marrow transplant. For the first time in years, all her kids, grandkids, and a beloved cousin are together in one place. It quickly becomes apparent why they don’t get together more often. The film is about this dysfunctional family, who has had to deal with so much in their lives dealing with even more. Deneuve is radiant and wonderful - speaking her mind bluntly, but with honesty. Mathieu Almaric gives a wonderful performance as the child that Deneuve never wanted. And Anne Consigny is great as the self obsessed daughter trying to protect her son from everything. But the whole cast is great. And Desplechin keeps the audience on its toes with his shifts in tone - from the funny to the tragic, some times incredibly at the same time. For a two and half hour French drama, where nothing but talk happens, this films goes by remarkably quickly.
15. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Steve McQueen’s Hunger is one of the best movies I have ever seen about the “Troubles” in Ireland. It is not a movie that either glamorizes or demonizes the IRA or the British, but rather looks at them all of victims of a system that pits the people on both sides against each other. People on both sides are dehumanized by the cycle of violence and hatred that filters down from the top (a famous speech of Margaret Thatcher’s is heard in bits in pieces throughout the movie, although she is never seen). It tells the story of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), a prisoner who decides that he wants to take his protests to the next level by going on a Hunger strike - and he is prepared to die to make his voice heard. At the heart of the movie is a remarkable scene between Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham), also a Republican, debate the merits of the strike. Shot in one unbroken 18 minute shot, the scene is perhaps the most mesmerizing of any scene in a film this year. Co-writer director Steve McQueen makes one of the most remarkable debut films of the year. This marks him as one of the most visually interesting, intelligent directors out there today - and I cannot wait to see what he does next.
14. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley)
Doubt is a film that straddles two time periods just about perfectly. Set in the 1960s, it presents the view of a local Catholic Parish in the Bronx as an almost hermetically sealed environment – what happens on the outside doesn’t matter as much as what happens on the inside. Yet, it also functions as a devastating critique on the American involvement in Iraq. From its opening scene, where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivers an eloquent sermon about the country coming together in grief and uncertainty the previous year after President Kennedy was assassinated, it is clear where writer/director John Patrick Shanley is going with the film. When Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) enters, so sure and confident that she is right about everything, you know it’s only a matter of time before her and the younger, hipper priest have a conflict. She wants him out from the beginning, but needs some ammunition. Sister James (Amy Adams) provides her with that when she tells him about a strange sequence of events involving Flynn, and the school’s one black student. There is something undeniably creepy about Flynn – he does seem to take perhaps a too personal interest in his students (and all the talk of his fingernails certainly doesn’t help his case). But as these two butt heads, the real victim in the film gets forgotten by all sides – that young African American student, who everyone claims to be thinking of, and yet is constantly shunted to the side. There is an amazing sequence where Sister Aloysius meets with the child’s mother (Viola Davis who is simply amazing in her one scene), who explains to the nun that no matter what happened, her son only has to endure it until June – and anything that she does will simply make it worse. The acting is uniformly excellent, especially Streep, who isn’t afraid to rip into her very theatrical role, and Hoffman, who is always brilliant, who seems to elevate his game to match hers. The writing is filled with great dialogue, and these actors relish it. I wish that director Shanley would have eased up on all the weird angles, but that is small complaint in what was one of the most absorbing films of the year.
13. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)
In Bruges is a fast paced, profane crime thriller in the Quentin Tarantino mold. But writer/director Martin McDonagh may actually do Tarantino one better, by also being morally aware along with the violence and constant swearing. The movie is about two hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason), who screw up an assignment and is sent by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) to Bruges to lie low for a while. With not much to do in Bruges, except look at one castle after another, Farrell soon gets himself in more trouble. The movie moves at a wicked pace, but gradually it does let you into the characters world. The performances are all top notch – especially Farrell as the seemingly more carefree of the two assassins, who is really reeling over his actions, and Fiennes, who plays a villain who may even scare Lord Voldemort.
12. The Class (Laurent Cantet)
Most movies about teachers are either sentimental tripe or dark portraits that paint them as pedophile, drunks or worse. But Laurent Cantet’s The Class is completely different. Based on the book by Francois Begaudeau, who also co-wrote the screenplay and essentially plays himself in the film, The Class is the most realistic portrait of teaching I have ever seen in a movie. Teaching at an inner city school in Paris, Francois is confronted with the reality that not all of students can, or want to be, reached. For every breakthrough, there is a least a couple of setbacks. There are conflicts with parents, with other teachers and most of all the students. They question everything he tries to teach them. Some are limited in their potential, some are gifted, but all are distracted. Essentially, the film is a series of classroom scenes between Francois and his students that becomes quietly gripping. Many of the students are immigrants, or children of immigrants, and they don’t understand why they have to learn what he has to teach them. The film doesn’t set up any phony conflicts - they conflicts that arise come from the characters themselves, not a screenwriter’s playbook. This is the best foreign film of the year.
11. Che (Steven Soderbergh)
You have to hand it to Steven Soderbergh – he is perhaps the most ambitious American filmmaker working today. While I have not been on board with a lot of his experimental films (which were all style over substance), with his two part, four hour Che biopic, he has constructed one of his best films to date. The first film, titled The Argentine, is a more standard biopic, covering the period of time from when Che first joined the Cuban revolutionaries to the time period when he left. Flashing back and forth through time, Soderbergh gives you a portrait of the man at the height of his power. The second film, titled Guerilla, is all about his failed attempt at repeating the success of Cuba in Bolivia. Unlike the first film, which plays more like a standard issue biopic, although expertly done, this half plays almost like a horror film. Eschewing the widescreen photography of the first film, the second is shot in a much narrower aspect ratio, as if the screen is closing in on Che, much like the Bolivian army. Throughout the entire four hours, we hardly ever leave Che’s side, and it is a testament to the performance of Benicio Del Toro in the title role, that he commands the screen in each scene, especially since the movie is not really an interior portrait of the man. This film never really glamorizes Che, and nor does it demonize him. It shows him as a man driven to do what he did, consequences be damned. This film divided critics, but I think the esteem for the film will grow in the years to come.