Top Ten Movies of 2008
Splendid stories from around the globe
by Molly Templeton
Every year, it surprises me how difficult, and how personal, this task is. It’s just a list; it’s just a year’s worth of work, distilled into a few short paragraphs. I’ve never been one to believe in or care about some notion of “objective” bests, which is probably why making a top 10 list always feels like putting all my cards on the table: These are my movies, the ones that stuck with me, that shocked or surprised or delighted or horrified me in their greatness. They’re mostly foreign, as Jason noted in his introduction. And despite the usual year-end glut of prestige productions, a lot of them come from earlier in the year. (Several never played in Eugene at all.)
We had to dig a little farther, this time, to turn up the movies that were something more than just good. This year, Jason and I agree on far more films than usual, which could mean there were fewer great movies this year than in the last two — or that the best movies were simply far greater than the merely good ones. Or it could mean nothing at all; even now, finishing up, this list feels as if it could shift at any moment, a few films slipping off, slipping on, changing places. But while it holds still, here it is.
1. The Fall “A mad folly,” Roger Ebert called Tarsem’s The Fall, a movie about stories that created legends of its own. The locations. The years put into the film. The digital effects that look real and the reality that looks like digital effects. One lead (Catinca Untaru) convinced that the other (Lee Pace) really can’t walk. There ought to be a book. But for now, there’s simply the film, gorgeous and striking, simple and endlessly tangled. A wounded stuntman tells a story to a little girl. The story is a bribe; the story is the film. “Storytelling was always about who you told it to,” the director told The Guardian last fall. He’s telling a story to us, to his actors; they’re telling a story to us, and to each other; every layer shifts the meanings, shifts the images, shifts from our reality to theirs to a realm of the imagination. A mad folly? The Fall is a mad triumph. (Reviewed 6/19/08)
2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Director Cristian Mungiu called the tale told in his bleak, elegantly wrenching film “not an exceptional story.” But in telling the ordinary, horrible story of two girls in Ceaucescu’s Romania, one of whom needs an abortion, Mungiu certainly did the exceptional. None of the usual words — shocking, brave, incredible — do justice to this film, which is so believable that it feels almost like a documentary. As the camera follows Otilila from dorm hall to hotel room to dark streets, it traces a world in which everything is curtailed, nothing is easy and even the freedom to help a friend is uncountably costly. 4 Months is hard even to talk about; it leaves you in heartbroken silence as it ends. Watch. Don’t flinch. (3/27/08)
|A Christmas Tale
3. A Christmas Tale A remarkable cast and a quirky spirit make this French family tale from Arnaud Desplechin so much more than “Divided family bonds at the holidays.” Catherine Deneuve is the ailing matriarch, Mathieu Almaric her off-kilter son, Anne Consigny the quietly furious, accidental eldest of the Vuillard kids; the first son, Joseph, died at six, but his short life colored those of all his siblings. Relationships change, secrets are revealed, other movies and endless music seep into the story, a lot of wine gets drunk — yet no one ever gets maudlin. Nor does the film, despite all the dislike, despite the way history loops around on itself. It’s a movie as stuffed as a holiday turkey, and it’s a strange, cranky joy.
4. WALL-E Who but the geniuses of Pixar could make a largely wordless movie about a lonely little robot (seemingly equal parts R2D2, E.T. and Johnny 5) and have it turn out to be one of the most beloved films of the year? Sure, there’s a good bit of commentary about the dangers of a corporate nanny-state that would like nothing more than to strap people into chairs and stuff them full of junk food, but that’s not what makes this movie so spectacular. It’s the sweet romance between a curvy iPod and a square trash compactor — not to mention that utter impossibility, an adorable cockroach, and the unforgettable visions of a trash-covered Earth — that propels WALL-E into the stratosphere. (7/3/08)
5. Man on Wire Philippe Petit’s highwire act on a rope strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center may be the best art prank ever pulled off. At the very least, it’s the best I’ve seen captured in a documentary film. Man on Wire is playful, clever, creative and as much a work of art as Petit’s “coup” atop the WTC. May it inspire a new generation of puckish artists and talented pranksters. (9/18/08)
6. Tell No One This precise French thriller may have taken its title as a direction: Tell the audience nothing. Just let hints, clues, snippets of information fall into fantastically natural dialogue until the elaborate and involving mystery pieces itself together. (8/21/08)
7. Paranoid Park Sure, Milk is lovely, a sleek biopic with a pristine ’70s sheen and a remarkable cast. But Paranoid Park was Gus Van Sant’s quiet triumph of 2008. With Milk, he took an inspiring, heartbreaking story and made a good movie; with Park, he took a middling novel and turned it into a fantastic film, dreamy and interior yet involving and dark. Simply, it’s the story of a teen whose life goes wildly and indavertently off the rails. Through journal entries read in voiceover, Super-8 images of skateboarders, a muddle of picture and sound and the occasional moment of clarity, an idea, a vision, emerges of what it’s like to be in this one messed-up, uttery ordinary kid’s head. The ordinary once again becomes extraordinary. (4/3/08)
8. Happy-Go-Lucky I expected to hate cheerful, easygoing Poppy Cross. But Poppy isn’t perky; she’s interested in things. She means well. And she’s nicely balanced by a dry roommate, a sulky sister and a handful of fully believable dilemmas, most of which seem as if they could happen in any given week. That’s the beauty of Happy-Go-Lucky: With the exception of her altercation with an angry driving instructor, it doesn’t seem as if this is a particularly dramatic moment in the life of Poppy. There will always be troubled children and bitter couples and the possibility of romance. Poppy just never takes them for granted. Too many movies would spell this out for us; Mike Leigh just lets it happen, and strikes gold. (11/13/08)
|The Edge of Heaven
9. The Edge of Heaven A dark horse that caught both Jason and me up in its knotty web of intertwined lives and parent-child relationships, The Edge of Heaven moves from Germany to Turkey and back again, tracing the lines between two single-parent families and the ways in which they overlap — or fail to. The complex plot makes Fatih Akin’s film hard to quickly summarize, but as it weaves through the characters’ connections, Heaven becomes a moody, intimate, modern look at the ways identity is shaped by family, nationality, politics and love.
|The Dark Knight
10. The Dark Knight Though I also loved that other super superhero movie of 2008, The Dark Knight is the one hanging on here at the bottom of the top 10, and not just for Heath Ledger’s stellar Joker or for that moment when a semi flips over in downtown Chicago — er, Gotham. It’s here because of the conversations it sparked, the endless debates about what Christopher Nolan meant; what Bat-tactics his film endorses or decries; what Harvey Dent’s too-simple quip about dying a hero or becoming a villain means for a vigilante who sets himself above the law; whether it’s possible to do the right thing, the smart thing and the honest thing at once. (7/24/08)
Molly’s Next 10
The Band’s Visit (3/20/08) is a graceful, quiet story of being knocked out of your everyday life just long enough to be changed upon re-entry. If you’re burnt out on WWII movies, try The Counterfeiters (4/24/08), last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, in which a master forger finds himself creating money for the Nazis. Frozen River (8/28/08) slinks around the edges of the country, where two mothers turn to quietly desperate measures to do right by their children. In I’ve Loved You So Long (1/29/09), Kristin Scott Thomas is stunning as a woman finding herself free in the world again. Atmospheric and snow-muffled, Let the Right One In (2/12/09) is a strange, sweet love story that’s utterly unlike any vampire movie to come before it. Two young novelists are differently affected by success in Norway’s Reprise, which mixes punk rock, romance and the strains of friendship into its literary pursuits. Stranded melds old photos and footage, fuzzy reenactments and the present-day testimonies of the survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes into something gentle and hopeful. Taxi to the Dark Side (4/10/08) is a riveting and horrible look at why some things went so wrong with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If I had time, I’d rewatch Waltz With Bashir, a vivid animated exploration of the way guilt blocked director Ari Folman’s memories of his part in the 1982 Lebanon War. Michelle Williams continues her string of impressive roles with Wendy and Lucy
(2/5/09), a tiny gem of a story about how little it takes to derail a life.
Looking for Jason’s Top 10? Over Here.