Craig's Best Films of 2008

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By Craig Phillips
GreenCine Editor

While, in retrospect, this was a better year overall than some complainy critics are positing, I have to admit that the sheer number of bad American films also out in 2008 certainly gives one pause, and it wasn't a particularly easy year to pull out ten clear cut favorites. But this kind of moaning and handwringing happens every year. There are bad films. There are great films. Every year. And 2008 was good for International film, and especially French cinema, as well as comic book adaptations, documentaries, and there were even a few good comedies (amidst the morass of drek).

As with any of my "Best of" lists, these are the films that left the most indellible impression on me, films that opened up a world new or unfamiliar, that At any rate, I do regret missing quite a few more that could very well have been added to this list. This list is not in an absolute order; I could change my mind about a "favorite" every day. But because we all love numbered lists, here we go.

My Ten Favorites -- A List That Actually Goes Up to 11*
*(12, actually, counting the tie)

1. Let the Right One In: Swedish director's Tomas Alfredson's film is one of the better vampire films in recent years, and yet it to call it merely that or merely a coming of age film is to downplay its originality and the impression it leaves on your soul. Wintry landscapes a perfect setting for the utter loneliness both protagonists feel as well as for the occasional shocks of bloody horror (though those scenes are few, if memorable). Doe-eyed Lina Leandersson as Eli, the lonely (eternally) 12 year old vampire and Kåre Hedebrant's Oskar are an unforgettable pair and you won't shake the ending any time soon.

2. Edge of Heaven (which didn't get a US release until this year): Alternatively heartbreaking and breathtaking, Fatih Akin's interlocking narrative is set in Germany and Turkey. Alongside his Head-On, marks the filmmaker as one of the world's most interesting -- one with both a vision and a voice, and his films are exhilarating.

3. The Wrestler: I wrote more about this film on my blog but besides Mickey Rourke's astonishing performance, as well as Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood's excellent support, it's one of the most memorable American cinema character studies in recent memory. Working with documentary DP Maryse Alberti, Darren Aronofsky does well to film it in immediate and straightforward style.

4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Easy to forget that this was an 08 release in the States, given the buzz it received last year abroad, but regardless, it remains one of the stronger dramatic films in ages, a pitch-perfect, realistic, oft-horrifying but mesmerizing film set in Romania in the final days of Communism, centered around an illegal abortion and the chain of events set off in pursuit of it. A stunner.

5. Hellboy II: Golden Army: Probably seems surprising to have this on the same list as some of the others above, but for sheer jaw-dropping visual creativity, Guillermo Del Toro's film, the superior sequel to the 2003 film, is tops. One memorable setting and set-piece after the other and while it takes itself seriously, it doesn't take itself too seriously.

6. La France: Serge Bozon’s extraordinary, odd, poetic WWI film owes a debt to the musicals of Jacques Demy (in that the soldiers here occasionally burst, or slide, into song), but Bozon's film is full of despair. The deadpan cast is marvelous, including Sylvie Testud as the woman who poses as a man to join an infantry in her search for her missing husband. Spare but profound.

7. Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog's gorgeous documentary about the people (and creatures) who live at least some of the year on (and under) Antarctica, may not have the shock and drive of his Grizzly Man, but it's a poignant and even haunting work nonetheless.

8. Ballast: Lance Hammer's startlingly good independent film, his feature debut, set in a place usually ignored by filmmakers, Mississippi. As beautiful as the film is, it's a challenging work -- its emotions, and the audience, are kept at a certain distance. But the ambiguity and the unpretentiousness make it all the more precious. The film has been compared, not incorrectly, to the Dardennes brothers and even new Romanian cinema (see 4 Months..., above), but I also saw some of Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), too.

9. Wall-e
The Dark Knight (tie)
The former was visually groundbreaking (just when you think Pixar couldn't top themselves); a stunning silent comedy in the early going and a surprisingly moving environmental/science-fiction tale. And romance! In short, impressive. I wavered about the latter at first, but surprisingly to me, after watching it again recently appreciated it even more --- including a renewed appreciation for one of the more unforgettably dark chase scenes in recent memory and unusually deep character development for a "comic book movie." And of course Heath Ledger's performance, posthumously at the center of it all. It's overlong, but a damned smart work and hard to top.

10. Wendy and Lucy: I wrote more about this one here, but suffice to say I found this one far more moving than a thousand Marley and Mes. Kelly Reichardt's follow up to Old Joy manages to be sad yet hopeful in the smallest of ways -- hopeful for change, hopeful about there still being good people out there. While it's in some ways "happy," the ending is emotionally devestating -- and perfect. You'll want to come home and hug your pet.

11. Tell No One: Harlan Coben's best selling thriller is adapted in perfect form by Guillaume Canet. Canny and sharp, with Francois Cluzet intensely perfect in the lead.  (Out on DVD in late March.)

Honorable Mention
(And quite honestly a number of these films could just as easily be in my top ten, depending on my mood and whims.)

  • Milk: A close call for me, as I found the film a fascinating glimpse into an important political history centered in my city, SF, brought fully to life by a superb cast. I also tired a bit of some of the standard biopic structure, the "this happened and then this happened" checklist of scenes. But even within that framework it comes alive, and Sean Penn's transformation is remarkable -- he is Harvey Milk.
  • Frost/Nixon
  • Frozen River
  • Battle for Haditha
  • The Visitor
  • The Orphanage (first released days before the end of '07 but widely early this year, when I saw it; 11 months later I'm still haunted by it) 
  • Iron Man
  • Roman de Gare
  • Man on Wire
  • Reprise (which I saw in '07 but got official US release in '08 and certainly deserves a mention; provocative Scandinavian film)
  • Happy Go Lucky 
  • Ghost Town: Farces get short shrift come time for year end lists and Oscars, but while Ghost Town has a few predictable moments overall it's both terrifically funny and even moving. Ricky Gervais is a feat of nature.  

Best films you probably didn't see:

Medicine for Melancholy (dir Barry Jenkins); Liberty Kid (which is on DVD now and might get a theatrical release soon)

The "Wish I'd Seen..." List:

Waltz With Bashir (which hasn't opened here in SF yet)

The Class (!!)

A Christmas Tale (!)

Hunger

Gran Torino

Flight of the Red Balloon

I've Loved You So Long

My Winnipeg

Gomorrah

Trouble the Water

Silent Light

 

Guilty Pleasures:

Tropic Thunder

King Fu Panda

Role Models

 

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And the frustration of doing year-end lists...

...when you realize you haven't yet seen everything you'd hoped to sets in. I had an especially frustrating experience trying to see Maddin's My Winnipeg, both instances something came up or I couldn't get in, won't bore you with the details but then it went away and I didn't get it on DVD and yadda yadda here we are. So I can see myself looking at this again in a few weeks and finding a few more films I'd like to add -- maybe I'll do an addendum or something later. But I'm happy with all these films at least. Would love to see what your favorites of 08 were, people.

It's so true about Ghost

It's so true about Ghost Town!

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