Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Top 10

OK, my 10 favorite movies of 2008.


* Appaloosa: Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen play gunmen for hire in this Western that -- while not the equal of modern classics like David Milch's HBO series "Deadwood" and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" -- is one of the most accomplished films of 2008. Reunited after explosively facing off a few years back in David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" (written by Josh Olson), Harris and Mortensen this time are on the same side of the law, two gunslingers that troubled frontier towns call upon to restore order when things get rough. In this case, "rough" is played by Jeremy Irons as the leader of a band of thugs. Confident direction by Harris, terrific guy chemistry between he and Mortensen, and an assured, leisurely pace are the hallmarks of this fine genre entry. Ignore the presence of Renee Zellweger.

* The Dark Knight: Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan is one of the most talented and tasteful filmmakers working today. Like a superstar basketball player who lights up the league as a rookie and then extends shooting range or develops a new go-to move before the start of each succeeding season, Nolan has improved on his dazzling feature debut ("Memento") with an increasing level of confidence and maturity over the four movies that followed, culminating in his 2008 masterpiece. He somehow managed to take on critically relevant political and social issues -- like the nature of democracy, free will, and how an allegedly enlightened and free society reacts to terrorism in its midst -- within the dramatic construct of a super hero movie. I'd love to see Nolan really sink his teeth into that subject matter in a direct fashion, as opposed to grafting it into the subtext of a live action comic. I can't wait for his next work.

* Doubt: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis star in John Patrick Shanley's bigscreen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. While it's true that Shanley's directorial skills won't leave Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet nervous about losing future work, the story remains strong, and the performances -- particularly Streep's powerhouse lead as a nun steadfast in her convictions about the propriety of a progressive priest's relationship with a young student -- are all top-notch.

* Frost/Nixon: As someone who (1) is a political junkie, (2) is a fan of origin stories, and (3) has worked in and around media all of his professional life, I couldn't have been more excited to see this picture. Throw in my admiration for the previous collaborations between writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen ("The Queen," "The Deal"), and it was tailor-made for me. That said, "Frost/Nixon" didn't end up being an all-time classic on the level of a "Network" or "All the President's Men," but it is a very solid, dramatic and surprisingly entertaining look at the battle of wills between a fairly lightweight British broadcaster and his idealistic production team vs. the disgraced ex-President, brought to life by the tour-de-force performance of Frank Langella.

* I've Loved You So Long: The stunning Kristin Scott-Thomas stars here as a woman released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence for a crime unknown, at the outset, to the audience. Over the course of two hours, this lovely film quietly and deliberately examines the way Juliette (Scott-Thomas) re-enters society; re-establishes a relationship with her sister, Lea (played by the terrific Elsa Zylberstein); and begins to rebuild her life.

* The Reader: A highly controversial Best Picture nominee at this year's Oscars, "The Reader" finds Kate Winslet once again reminding filmgoers why she is the best actor of her generation -- male or female -- and the rightful heiress to the acting throne upon which Meryl Streep sits. Critics have said this film trivializes the Holocaust and puts the audience in the unenviable position of trying to find sympathy for a perpetrator of the most heinous of acts. I declare the first charge laughable and reject the second charge as completely missing the point of the film, which is to show the crushing effect a passionate but confusing love affair has on the life of a German man (played by David Kross as a teen and Ralph Fiennes as an adult).

* The Visitor: I run out of superlatives when trying to describe the work Richard Jenkins delivers in this beautiful gem of a film about a widower college professor whose life is turned upside down when he finds two immigrants squatting in his New York City apartment. What happens next will challenge your preconceptions about life, love and politics while, hopefully, renewing your faith in humanity and decency. A must-see from writer/director Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent"), who's also a pretty damn good actor ("The Wire," "Syriana").


3. The Wrestler: Darren Aronofsky breathed life into the career of Mickey Rourke by fighting to cast him in this terrific film, and Rourke paid his director back in spades by delivering an instant classic performance that will go down as one of the strongest in the last 30 years. A heartbreaking look at people not often glimpsed in movies, living on the margins and just trying to survive and connect with others. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are outstanding in supporting roles, and Bruce Springsteen's original song of the same name is haunting and evocative. The biggest compliment I can give this movie is that it was like seeing some of the characters from Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" or "Nebraska" albums come to life.

2. Tell No One: Released in 2006 in France and subsequently throughout Europe, the film finally bowed in the U.S. last July. It was definitely worth the wait. Based upon a novel by American writer Harlan Coben, "Tell No One" stars Francois Cluzet as Dr. Beck, a pediatrician whose idyllic life is shattered by the apparent murder of his wife and lifelong sweetheart, played by the stunning and talented French Canadian actress Marie-Josee Crozee, most recently seen in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and probably best known as the seductive Dutch assassin in Steven Spielberg's "Munich." Eight years later, Beck's life is shattered again when he receives a mysterious e-mail that suggests his wife may not be dead after all. His best friend (and lesbian lover to his sister) -- played by the luminous Kristin Scott Thomas -- thinks he's crazy, the cops now think he killed his wife, and he's soon off on a desperate quest to uncover the truth.I'm probably not doing a good job of selling this, so just trust me: It's excellent. As Kenneth Turan said in his review in the Los Angeles Times, "Tell everyone about 'Tell No One.'"

1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Yes, I realize this movie has probably not appeared on the top 10 list of too many reputable critics in the United States. I could care less. Maybe it's a bit of male fantasy. Maybe it has some portrayals of female behavior that some might find eye-rolling. Maybe it has more voiceover narration than necessary. Maybe it's set in some impossible, chamber of commerce-approved postcard view of Barcelona. All those things may, in fact, be true, but those are issues someone else will have to deal with in a more objective manner.

For me, I'm still drunk with the transporting beauty of a film that starred Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz, and yet the most attractive person in it -- for this dude -- was the luminous Rebecca Hall, whom I hadn't remembered seeing onscreen before, although tells me she was in "The Prestige," which I most definitely saw. (She's subsequently co-starred in "Frost/Nixon.") Anyway, by all means, see "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

Come for the laughs, stay for the volcanic livewire performance by Cruz that should earn her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this Sunday. It's my favorite Woody Allen movie since, probably, "Bullets Over Broadway" in 1994.

No comments: