Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Best Films of 2008 - Part 2

Here's the final five in my best of list for 2008.

5 - Milk - A stirring, moving and inspirational film about the first gay man elected to public office in the U.S, anchored by some truly great performances and utterly sublime direction from Gus Van Sant, who proves to be one of the few film makers in America that can move effortlessly between risky independent films (Elephant, Gerry) and films with broad appeal (Good Will Hunting). Milk falls in the last category, but is not less powerful and, in its own way, risky. Sean Penn gives a great performance, bereft of his usual tragic overtones, and makes a strong case for stating that Milk was as important in his own way as any other civil rights leader. In these times, where those in the GLBT minority are struggling to obtain equal rights, a film could not be more timely.

4 - Slumdog Millionaire - Every year has a little film that could, and this is certainly the one for 2008. It's a joyful tale of love overcoming great odds, the power of fate, and the ability of a person to rise above adversity provided they have the will. I didn't fall for the film as much as others did, unable to see past a couple narrative shortcuts, but the film still manages to suck you in, particularly in its depiction of the brutal early years of its orphaned characters. The basic goodness of the central character becmomes all the more moving after becoming more familiar with his soul-crushing childhood. The story is constructed in an interesting and novel way, unspooling its revelations in an engrossing way.

3 - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - David Fincher is one of the most underrated American filmmakers. His last film Zodiac was almost totally unappreciated, and was one of the best films of last year. This year, he directs a film that is equal part fable, romance and drama. Brad Pitt gives a stellar performance, successfully conveying the vast sadness and subtle detachmnet of a man who is always out of step with those around him, even as he enriches the lives of those he encounters and allows them to enrich him. His unique condtion of aging backwards exposes the audience to the fragility of life in a fresh way that we usually don't pay attention to. Cate Blanchett is her customary luminous self, and Fincher uses high-tech visual wizardry in the best way possible.

2 - The Wrestler - Mickey Rourke gives the best performance of the year in one of the year's best films. It's a bleak, affecting and hugely emotional story of a man who comes to realize that he is truly only good at one thing in his life, and Rouke's depiction of that man's struggle and ultimate realization is made even more amazing by how incredibly honest and personal it is. It's a textbook for actors, and it's backed up by a strong script and Darren Aronofsky's bare bones direction. It's a film that avoids cliches and any sense of the Hollywood ending. Rourke's performance may be stronger than the acutal film, but as it's a character study of Rourke's wrestler, it doesn't matter in the slightest.

1 - The Dark Knight - A dark, complex and challenging film that also happens to be a Hollywood blockbuster. The Dark Knight's predecessor, Batman Begins, was well-done certainly, but it didn't rise above the level of comic book film. This film succeeds in surpassing all expectations, commenting on how society deals with threats it doesn't fully understand and can't control. It examines the lines we're willing to cross to provide security and order, which is timely in this age of waterboarding and wiretapping. Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Aaron Eckhart all give solid performances, but it is the late Heath Ledger who delivers a truly mesmerizing performance as the Joker. It sets the bar so high, one wonders if the franchise s capable of ever again matching it. It will now be the bar all other comic book movies must meet.

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