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Lance Carmichael’s Top 10 Movies of 2008

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

CC2K's Lance Carmichael recognizes the best, the worst and everything else of 2008.

ImageThe bad thing about having a magnificent year for film is that the next year is bound to be a letdown. 2007 was easily the best movie year of the decade, with a slew of masterpieces released at year’s end (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men) and secret masterpieces sprinkled in earlier in the year (Zodiac). So it’s no surprise that 2008 suffers in comparison. What IS surprising is how much it suffers—this was just not a good year for movies. Only one movie on my list from 2008 would have a chance of cracking the top 6 from 2007, and everything else might not have even made the top 10.

But let’s not dwell on the past. There was still some good stuff this year. Below are my top 10 favorite films of 2007, followed by some awards that need to be given out.

10. Wall-E
There’s a certain strain of movie lover calling Wall-E the best movie of 2008; I am not of this strain. I certainly enjoy Pixar pictures, but I do think people tend to over exaggerate their qualities because it’s so weird that CGI films for children could be so good. But let’s not get out of hand here. Wall-E gets points for its long stretches of sustained cinematic interest without dialogue, its inventiveness, the world it builds, and its social critiques—but if we’re letting it sit at the grown-ups table, it gets points docked for softening all those things with a huggable, soft-edged rainbow palette and gentle tone. If you’re going to claim the artistic cred you get for including heady social issues and future-building, then you can’t soft toe it. An abandoned post-Apocalyptic wasteland of trash never looked so cuddly! A dystopic spaceship full of soma-guzzling atrophied post-humans isolated from interpersonal human contact never looked so much like a toilet paper commercial! In a very weak year, Wall-E squeaks its way onto the top 10, but let’s try and keep things in perspective here.

9. Frost/Nixon
I really don’t have a whole to say about this one. Peter Morgan’s sturdily constructed play translates well to the big screen. The really good move on director Ron Howard’s part was casting the two best actors for the lead roles, not the two biggest actors.

8. The Wrestler
ImageDarren Aronofsky makes a hard left turn after his trio of miserablist auteur cinema by taking on Robert D. Siegel’s script about a professional wrestler pushing fifty on the minor league circuit of high school gyms and autograph sessions. The trailer parks, heart attacks, and graphic bodily damage still ratchets the miserablist quotient high enough to be recognizably Aronofskian, but Mickey Rourke’s big-hearted if flawed wrestler at the heart of it provides enough human warmth for several movies. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is the Willy Loman of the professional wrestling world, well-liked by all but loved by none, a man unable to accept his descent into the mediocrities and muted pleasures of middle age. The only big misstep in this movie is the casting of Evan Rachel Wood as The Ram’s estranged daughter—Wood is far too flawless and Snow White-y to suggest the lived-in, beaten down by a postindustrial New Jersey young woman who’s been let down by her father one too many times. Oh, and Marisa Tormei plays an aging stripper who’s supposed to be getting too old for her profession just like The Ram, and the only way we know this is because the actors say it—Marisa herself is still far too gorgeous to ever have any trouble being the alpha stripper at whatever club she deigned to grace.

7. Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant made a fantastic film in 2008—unfortunately, it’s not the one getting the big awards push by its studio. Milk has all the trimmings of Oscar ™ Bait—an Important Social Issue, a great lead performance by a Hollywood Icon ™–but fails to actually paint a three-dimensional, convincing portrait of its lead characters. Sure, it’s stirring agitprop, but do we really learn anything human about Harvey Milk, other than that he’s the Gay Jesus?  And did anybody really feel the Dan White portrayed by Lewellyn Moss was capable of shooting Milk and the mayor?

I’d land most of the blame for Milk on the script, not the direction…but regardless, Van Sant acquitted himself well in 2008 with one of his microbudgeted experimental mood pieces—Paranoid Park. A sort of companion piece to Elephant and Last Days, Paranoid Park eschews the lurid subject matter of a school shooting or a famous suicide to just focus on providing a subjective portrayal on what it feels like to be a teenager. Working free of the constraints of Oscar ™ Bait considerations, Big Stars, and the responsibilities of a big budget, Van Sant the experimental filmmaker gets to come out and play with the tools of the medium. Long after the celebrity-fueled hypes of Milk and Good Will Hunting fade away, this is the kind of movie Van Sant will be remembered for.

6. Let the Right One In
Foreign filmmakers usually have to do a lot with a little—even when they work in genres like horror—and Let the Right One In is a veritable workshop on how to turn limitations into great assets. This Swedish vampire movie is all atmosphere—you can almost see your breath as director Tomas Alfredson slowly immerses us in the frozen wintry Nordic village this takes place in, a post-Soviet slum of cheap public housing and trapped but not desperate lives. It’s a coming of age story between a young boy and a young-looking lady vampire, sparsely told like the atmosphere itself. It’s a mark of how successfully they pull off this genre piece that vampires seem inherently Scandanavian after you see it.

5. Four Weeks, Three Months, and Two Days
Four Weeks… is about a woman helping her friend get an illegal abortion in Ceausecu’s Romania of the 1980s. Sound fun? It’s a Martyred Woman exercise straight out of the Lars von Trier playbook (or this year’s The Changeling), and is certainly open to charges of wallowing in miserablism, but it’s director Cristian Mungiu’s shooting style that elevates the material. This is right out of the Point a Camera and Shoot school, yet what looks like the most obvious way to tell a story is in fact a series of very intelligent choices on WHERE to place that camera, WHAT section of scenes to just let run, WHEN to give out information and when to withhold. A master class in doing a whole lot with very little, one scene in particular in this movie stands out as perhaps the most powerful piece of filmmaking of the year: a long, unbroken shot of the heroine’s face as she worries about her perhaps dying friend, while an oblivious, cheerful dinner party that she can’t get out of goes on around her.


I can totally relate.

4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
The Wood-man lives! Out of nowhere, Woody Allen returns to peak form, envigorated by setting his latest romantic comedy in Barcelona (a move that was essentially forced on him as the country’s tax breaks/subsidies helped finance it—once again proving that working under certain restraints can be enormously productive for some artists). It’s a hotblooded, erotic movie about beautiful young people—which is actually extraordinarily rare for Woody Allen (Match Point, his other big late-career success—is the only other one whose cast isn’t primarily 40 or above that I can think of). It’s a typical Woody Allen sexual roundelay, set to Spanish guitar music and featuring a set of actors so delicious you almost want to get up and lick the screen—this movie is unimaginable without Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

Image3. A Christmas Tale
French director/writer Arnaud Desplechin makes as close to novels on film—messy, sprawling, bursting with life—as any director I’ve seen. A Christmas Tale comes from the hoary old tradition of dramedies about dysfunctional families all getting together at Christmas, and shenanigans ensuing. But what makes a Desplechin take on such a familiar genre so delicious is that the man’s got what has to be the world’s most sensitive cliché-detecting sonar on the planet. Almost every development or moment between characters is turned on its head here—when what looks like a brutal fistfight breaks out, one character bursts into laughter. When what would seem to be an unforgivable act of adultery is committed, people just shrug their shoulders and move on. Anchoring the movie are two French treasures with magnetic screen presences: Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Almalric. Almalric—he played the villain Quantum of Solace, if you’re strictly an Americanophile—essentially reprises his role as an unstable bad son/brother/husband from Desplechin’s last film, Kings and Queen. And here’s hoping he continues reprising him.

2. Rachel Getting Married
This is essentially A Christmas Tale’s sister film—a big, messy, big-hearted, but not sentimental drama about a large, extended family coming together at their big house, this time at a wedding. Anne Hathaway plays the Mathieu Almalric role here, as a drug addict released from rehab to attend her sister’s nuptials. Shot closer to a documentary than a conventional feature film (with cameras seemingly everywhere to capture whatever little moments and facial expressions transpire at a big wedding), the film starts off by getting by on the UK Office/ Curb Your Enthusiasm-style Theater of the Uncomfortable. Hathaway’s Kym childishly demands attention at all times, at the expense of her more stable sister Rachel, who by rights should have the spotlight on her. Then it evolves into something else. The real star here is Jonathan Demme’s generous directing style—straight out of the empathetic naturalistic school of Robert Altman. The fact that it’s biracial marriage is never commented on. The fact that the two families coming together are of vastly different socioeconomic classes is never commented on. And that’s actually a good thing here. It’s a vision of a utopia of old people, black people, Asian people, etc. etc. etc. coming together and having a good time. There’s really nothing quite like this movie out there.

1. Funny Games
This is arguably the best film from inarguably one of the most freakishingly complete auteurs working in film today, Michael Haneke. This is also the only film of 2008 that can hold a candle to the best films of 2007 (or 1997—this English-language version of Funny Games comes ten years after the original German version and is essentially a shot-for-shot remake). Both a startlingly disturbing example of torture porn and a devastating critique of it, Funny Games gets underway when Michael Pitt (the Kurt Cobain figure in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days) and Brady Corbett show up in the country mansion of bourgeois couple Naomi Watts and Tim Roth (plus their not-long-for-this-world son). The two boys speak incredibly politely, wear posh tennis whites (complete with white gloves), and sport boyish blonde hair. They’re also psychopaths. Watts and Roth slowly understand their predicament as Haneke assiduously tightens the strings on them—his command of framing and his long, unfurling takes prove maddeningly inescapable. As the movie shifts into gear, Pitt breaks the fourth wall several times and addresses the audience, sneering if they’re enjoying what they’re seeing. Haneke wants to have it both ways, and at times he feels like he’s putting himself, the auteur, as the only one above it all, but you can’t deny the man’s filmmaking prowess, and film works better as a critique in the end because it’s a thorny and ambivalent piece of work. If you’re thinking of curling up with the best movie of 2008 with your extended family this Christmas, you might want to move on down the list—this is not for the feint of heart.

And now, on to the Awards!