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Monday, January 05, 2009


ModFabulous 2008: The Best In Cinema

I've made no secret of the fact that I wasn't thrilled with cinema in 2008. Part of it was, perhaps, an evolution in myself, and I'll admit that I've skipped a few of the highly-praised critics' choices (see below). But the disappointment I found each time I sat down in a movie theatre was pervasive...it has been rare, these past twelve months, when I felt my intellect engaged with complex material, and rarer still when my heart was moved.

In their year-end wrapups, a few other critics have mentioned a similar disaffection, so I don't feel completely isolated. (It'll make it easier to withstand the withering comments of my film buddies, who will tell me in no uncertain terms to get over myself.) But am I alone in finding the energetic, blubbering raves for (to take but one example) American Teen symptomatic of a season utterfly defined by mediocrity, struggling to find bright spots? Maybe it's true that people found those tedious high school stereotypes enlightening. Me, I just wished I was watching The Breakfast Club.

Who in the hell was at Sundance last year, anyway? How could anyone be amused by the inane brain-dead comedy of Hamlet 2 (which wins our 2008 Biggest Waste Of A Great Premise Award)? And don't get me started on The Dark Knight; it's a good film and yes, I'm sad he's dead too. But the Citizen Kane comparisons are a bit much, people.

Ach, enough with the bitching. There were some bright spots in 2008...not as many as usual, and not as bright as in past years. Here's what I loved, liked, and loathed:

The Modern Fabulousity Top Ten Movies of 2008:

10. The Wrestler (The ModFab Review)
One of the big trends in 2008: movies that were really excuses for a character study. Few, though, examined their subject with the savagery and tenderness of Darren Aronofsky's amazing comeback drama. Much has been written about the confluence of character and actor here, and it's true that Mickey Rourke's own life bleeds subtextually into the burned-out title character. For me, however, the most astonishing realization? Rourke is one of America's finest actors, when he tries to be.

9. Australia (The ModFab Review)
For the life of me, I'll never understand the bashing Baz Luhrmann's period western took at the hands of critics and audiences alike. Were they expecting Moulin Rouge: The Gunsmoke Years? Frenetic jump cuts, musical numbers and drag-worthy costuming? Maybe. But I went looking for something with a directorial flourish, and I found it: the cinematography powerful, the actors interesting, and the resonant influences of Hollywood's Golden Age intoxicating.

8. I've Loved You So Long (The ModFab Review)
Mickey Rourke wasn't the only actor who had a stellar year...for me, Kristin Scott Thomas was the big return of 2008. As an ex-con integrating back into society, Thomas had the courage to mine deep, pervasive sadness with the proficiency of a master tragedian. Films these days often seem hellbent on happiness; I've Loved You So Long proves that other emotional states can be mesmerizing as well.

7. The Reader (The ModFab Review)
It may seem strange, but Stephen Daldry's surprising coming-of-age story reminded me most of Neil Jordan's 1992 classic, The Crying Game. The stories couldn't be more dissimilar, but the tone and the way the films changed direction mid-stream resonated deeply in me. David Kross, as the young boy enraptured by an older woman, gave 2008 its best international screen debut. And The Reader was one-half of the convincing case made that Kate Winslet is the world's greatest actress.

6. The Visitor
Watching Thomas McCarthy's assured, quirky, and surprising follow-up to The Station Agent was one of the great pleasures of last spring. Like a Russian nesting doll, The Visitor shed layers of meaning and metaphor: first a story of personal awakening, then a drama of immigration policy, then a September romance. No film in 2008 felt more like a full, satisfying meal.

5. Milk (The ModFab Review)
Like The Wrestler and I've Loved You So Long, Milk struck me as more of a showcase for Sean Penn than the well-rounded ensemble picture it halfheartedly attempted to be. But there are few heroes in the world in more need of hagiography than Harvey Milk, and more the millions who didn't previously know his story, the importance of this well-executed biopic can't be overstated.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
I sat in the darkened theatre, thinking to myself, You know you shouldn't like this. You can see the structure in the writing. The acting is fine but rarely exceptional. You can guess the ending. But then I told myself to shut up, sit back and enjoy Danny Boyle's stirring, vibrant ride. It isn't that Slumdog breaks new cinematic ground; it's that it tells some of our oldest and most important stories -- rags-to-riches, eternal romance, personal redemption -- in a new and dazzling way. Bravo.

3. Revolutionary Road (The ModFab Review)
On a different day, Revolutionary Road could have easily been my number one. Because despite its melodramatic leanings and high style, it boasts the finest acting company of the year in any movie: the stunning Kate Winslet (who deserves that Oscar, now please!), Leonardo DiCaprio (unlikeably likeable), Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Zoe Kazan, Kathryn Hahn, Richard Easton, Dylan Baker, and most stupendously, Michael Shannon (Bug), whose performance easily trumps Ledger, Brolin, Hoffman and others for Best Supporting Actor this year. Of all the films I saw in 2008, this is the one I'll probably revisit time and time again. It is a grandiloquent lesson on how not to be married...something we all need to be reminded of, ever so often.

2. Tell No One (The ModFab Review)
Released in 2006 around the world, but only hitting American shores this year, the superb French thriller written and directed by Guillaume Canet had me on the edge of my seat for most of its two-hour running time. And it did so through nothing more than taut storytelling, shaped and re-shaped to confound expectations and propel its central mystery. It had some help from its excellent cast, including two brilliant supporting turns from Marie-Josée Croze (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and, yes, Kristin Scott Thomas, in her second French-speaking role of the year. If there was ever a reason for Netflix, people, Tell No One is it.

1. Wall-E
I can't tell you how much I've fought the impulse to name Wall-E my favorite film of 2008. It's a cartoon, after all, and I suffer prejudice against the form like any respectable art snob would. But it's time I got over it; if I'm being totally honest, I only felt the rapture of the movies -- that moment where your mouth falls open in wonder, and you hold your breath in exaltation -- once this year. During the air propulsion ballet, there was a grace, a beauty, a deft understanding of the power of visual imagery, that eludes most filmmakers in any genre. Coming as that section did, after the nearly wordless first hour that blended Chaplinesque charm with ecological message, I was helpless under Wall-E's spell. It belongs not only in the canon of great animated films, but in the masterworks of all time.

Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order): Bigger, Stronger, Faster, Burn After Reading, Cadillac Records, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, I.O.U.S.A., Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, Noah's Arc: Jumping The Broom, Quantum of Solace, Sex and the City

The Ten Worst Movies Of 2008: 10,000 B.C., 27 Dresses, Cloverfield, Get Smart, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Mamma Mia!, RocknRolla, Speed Racer, What Doesn't Kill You, You Don't Mess With The Zohan

Really Wish I'd Seen These (aka, The NetFlix Queue): Ballast, Blindness, Bolt, Boy A, Brideshead Revisited, Choke, Chris & Don: A Love Story, Elegy, Frozen River, Funny Games, Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Last Chance Harvey, Man On Wire, Miracle at St. Anna, My Blueberry Nights, My Winnipeg, Paranoid Park, Religulous, Savage Grace, Shotgun Stories, Still Life, Synecdoche New York, Towelhead, Traitor, Trouble The Water, Transsiberian, Turn The River, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Waltz With Bashir, Were The World Mine

Better Than You Think: The Duchess, Gomorrah, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Pageant, Stop-Loss, Wanted

Good, But Seriously Overpraised: American Teen, A Christmas Tale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Doubt, Flight of the Red Balloon, Frost/Nixon, In Bruges, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Rachel Getting Married, Reprise, Tropic Thunder, Wendy And Lucy

Good Ideas (That Should've Been Better): 21, Baby Mama, Be Kind Rewind, Che, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Defiance, The Forbidden Kingdom, Hamlet 2, Hancock, The Incredible Hulk, Jumper, Leatherheads, Nothing But The Truth, Redbelt, Son Of Rambow, Valkyrie, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?
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Blogger Cal said...

I agree that Wall-E had that something -- a spark -- that nothing else had this year. Definitely a one for the ages.

I saw Tell No One on DVD before its U.S. release and have to admit to really being flummoxed at the acclaim it's got over there. I remember thinking at the time that it was incredibly old-school and Hitchcockian in its methods (that escape sequence in particular), but more in an unoriginal and inferior way than interesting dose of homage/modern spin.

1/5/09, 7:51 AM  
Blogger Esther said...

Hey ModFab,

I just saw The Visitor a few weeks ago and I definitely agree with you. A great story of a group of unlikely people coming together and forging a bond, a fascinating look at immigration policy. It's a small, well-told story with great acting.

And yeah, Wall-E was very sweet and beautiful. I thought I'd be bored by the wordless first 40 minutes or so, but it was captivating.

I haven't seen too many of this fall's offerings yet, but I really enjoyed Milk. I like the way Gus Van Sant made it the story of a man and of a movement. Although I knew the story going in, seeing it unfold on stage was very moving and heartbreaking. And Sean Penn was great. I also loved Emile Hirsch.

I have to agree with you on Indiana Jones. What a disappointment!

Well, you've given me a lot to put in my Netflix queue, so thanks!

1/5/09, 9:08 AM  
Blogger glamrocktiger said...

"Brideshead Revisited" is my pick for the most underrated film of 2008. Most of the critics seemed to compare it unfavorably with the British miniseries from the early 80s and it was in the theater for maybe a few hours, which disappointed me, because I thought it was quite beautiful and moving - and Ben Whishaw (who plays Sebastian Flyte) is one to watch. I highly recommend this film!

tony aka glamrocktiger

1/5/09, 9:36 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

i would say it's a bit of an off year made even worse after having such a spectacular 2007... but yeah, I think Wall-E is about the best thing that came around this year

1/5/09, 10:27 AM  

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