For Oscar weekend, I’ve made a list of my favorite movies of 2008:
1. “Slumdog Millionaire”
What most impressed me is that this is a drama, with the emotional depth of the greatest of dramas, but that it also gave me the ecstatic, roller coaster feeling I get while watching the greatest of action movies. “Slumdog” just went places that were completely risky and surprising, starting with the little kid diving into the outhouse — the most glorious feces scene I’ve ever seen. It’s gross-out humor that tops the best of the Farrelly brothers and their ilk.
A very, very close second. I am continually impressed by Pixar’s batting average, and each hit isn’t just a single, it’s a home run. How is that possible? No screenwriter or director is that consistent. How can a studio be more consistent than the most consistent filmmaker? Every joke is perfectly timed, from Eve completing the Rubix Cube to Wall-E finding the engagement ring and throwing it away the ring in favor of the box. And that whole business with the holding hands always threatens to spill over into sentimentality, but it never does, because the emotion has been earned along the way. My theory is that “Wall-E” is the best Judd Apatow movie ever. It’s a scruffy, immature guy meets a confident, beautiful woman and she helps him grow up.
3. “Be Kind Rewind”
It’s a testament to how poor 2008 was for films that this comes in at number 3 (and numbers 3 through 9 are all pretty even with each other). But I remember really liking this modern fairy tale and laughing a lot. I was very moved by that last image, of a film about Fats Waller produced by the whole community playing on a screen draped across the window of the video store. People are watching it inside the video store, and the shot opens up to reveal that the whole town is watching it from the other side of the screen, from outside the store. The image summed up the theme of the entire film: looking at something from behind can be just as valuable as looking at its front (it recalled earlier in the film when Danny Glover wrote in the window and it could be seen from both sides of the window). I was worried about whether it was going to revel in this trendy 80s nostalgia thing that I never really get, and it didn’t do that at all — the recreations of old movies were simply hilarious. I loved Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine” and also enjoyed “The Science of Sleep,” and am continually impressed by the way he can create such idiosyncratic worlds and characters while also propelling the story forward, and how he can tackle so many themes and images and metaphors while also making the piece seem like an artistic whole. Jack Black’s gift for physical comedy was put to better use here than it was in any other film. I still have an image in my head of him walking down the street and his head having a magnetic attraction to a signpost that pulls him in all of a sudden, and the look of frustration on his face and in his body.
4. “In Bruges”
Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite playwrights, and here, in his feature film debut, he doesn’t disappoint. I love how at the end, after laughing a lot, you realize that the film is actually about storytelling itself, a subject McDonagh turns to again and again.
I’m probably subconsciously taking away points because I’ve seen the play, and so in the film, the story didn’t surprise or fascinate in the way it originally did. But it came close, and was still a fun ride. And film allowed for all those intense close-ups on Frank Langella. In the Oscars, this movie is analogous to “The Insider” and “Quiz Show” — intense, historical dramas about real-life landmarks in television history that get nominated for best picture but, in the end, don’t have enough of an epic scope to make them worthy of a win. They’re indoor movies. Best picture goes to outdoor movies.
6. “The Wrestler”
This movie reminds me of “Friday Night Lights”: It has scenes that you’ve seen many times before but that still feel fresh. It’s about people who are nothing like me, and yet it manages to feel like it speaks directly to me, allowing me to appreciate my own life.
7. “The Class”
This movie brought me back to the summer I taught creative nonfiction at Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia, where we had to coax the students into writing about themselves (though our students were a little more motivated, seeing as they paid lots of money to write for the summer). I enjoyed seeing the little joys of teaching coming out — the pleasure in telling a student’s parents that their kid is doing great, for instance. The movie’s a little slow and a little too long, and I couldn’t tell whether the odd aspects of the school were purposefully odd or just normal in French culture (students sitting in on meetings while teachers candidly discussed other students?). But I enjoy movies about schools, and I just like seeing students express their own little quirks, and the quirks here all felt very true.
Again, a lot of the magic and mystery was taken away because I’d seen the play, but the story is still very fun. And Meryl Streep shows that it’s amazing what a Bronx accent can do.
Everything that people say about this movie is true: it was a respectable treatment of a historical figure who deserved the exposure, it felt relevant to today, it’s tame and unsurprising, Sean Penn is great. I did not like that they repeated this biopic trope of having the subject talk about his life into a tape recorder, even if Harvey Milk actually did do that right before he was shot, because some of us, like me, don’t know that it actually happened, and were annoyed throughout the film.
10. “Synecdoche, New York”
I didn’t like this one as much as Charlie Kaufman’s other films, but it was different in an interesting way. “Being John Malkovitch,” “Adaptation,” and “Eternal Sunshine” each set up a world that was strange but that had well-defined rules, and then those rules were eventually bent and broken. In “Synecdoche,” the rules were ill-defined. You never quite knew where you were in these layers upon layers of the lives of the characters. You never quite knew where you were, literally — where you were in space, within the city. I think the fuzziness of the rules was the movie’s strength (it continually surprised us, and adeptly conveyed the idea that life is hard to grasp and understand) and its downfall (it’s tough to discern whether Kaufman meant for the rules of his world to be hazy or whether the concept was too ambitious for him to make everything tie together in the way his other films did).