Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From the Archive: The Top Ten Films of 2008

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original "Top Ten Films of 2008" Article

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“The Top Ten 
Films of 2008”
Originally published December 31st, 2008

Well…I’ve just broken my ankle after slipping and falling in my Uncle’s yard…in Des Moines, Iowa.  And the next day we had to make the ten hour drive back to good old Colorado.  It sucks big time, but I assure you that a broken ankle hasn’t diminished my love of film.  Still, there’s very little I can do with one good leg, and my film-going schedule has been severely affected.  I didn’t get to see all the films I wanted to, but my annual tradition is to publish my Top-Ten list on the last day of the year; thus, when and if I ever catch up on everything, I might re-post this list if necessary with revisions.    

2008 has been the best year in film I’ve ever experienced.  Usually, the best films of the year come at the end, and then you have to wait for them to come to your city (if they arrive at all); mainstream blockbusters usually suck.  But 2008 was different; some of the best films were mainstream was, and during the summer months, many blockbusters were released that were simply excellent.  Comic book films became intelligent and deep, there were more quality animation films, and while there were plenty of awful comedies, there were some very good ones as well.  Now we’ve reached the end of the year, and it’s time to pick the best ten films and rank them; this was no easy task, as my short-list for the top ten had twenty movies on it.  To be eligible for the list, the film had to be released in commercial venue in the United States sometime during 2008.  So, without further ado, here are the ten best films of the year.  I can’t recommend any of them highly enough.

Click on the title of any movie to read my original review of the film

James Marsh directed this spectacular documentary about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center.  The sheer grandeur of the story would be amazing in any form, but Marsh’s film is immensely creative in the way it expertly relates the story.  Petit and others involved in the operation narrate (Petit himself is delightfully energetic and engaging), and archival footage and photos are mixed with staged re-creations to make the movie flow as well as anything scripted.  From the beginning, the audience knows the outcome, but that doesn’t stop the film from being edge-of-your-seat with tension.  The musical score, which mixes classical music with a recent instrumental album, is as much of a character as anyone else.  The eventual fate of the World Trade Center is never discussed, allowing the towers and the dreams they inspired to live again for a glorious 90 minutes.  Man on Wire is absolutely spellbinding filmmaking, and one of the year’s most inspirational stories.  It is currently available on DVD.          

John Patrick Shanley wrote and directed this film adaptation of his acclaimed play, and while the film doesn’t manage to escape its stage-like pacing, the deep, powerful thematic material and amazingly sharp dialogue remain in-tact.  Complex issues of authority, morality, kindness, religion, and acceptance make the film immensely compelling, but it’s the ensemble cast and the exceptional performances they give that makes Doubt one of the year’s best; Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (who has quickly established herself as one of cinema’s best younger actresses) are all excellent in the lead roles, and Viola Davis gives a strong 12-minute performance as a conflicted mother.  The mixture of strong acting and a delicious, food-for-thought story makes Doubt a must-see.  It is currently playing in theaters everywhere.             

I think that this is a spectacular film, but I know that some will disagree with me.  The film gives you a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a wedding, where the presence of the unstable bride’s sister Kym causes cataclysmic family friction.  Jonathan Demme’s expert direction makes you feel like a member of the wedding party, and that’s a hard feat to accomplish.  Yes, some scenes of toasts or celebrations seem endless, but if you were as involved as I was, you didn’t care.  That’s a sign of magical filmmaking.  Anne Hathaway absolutely deserves the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Kym; she does plenty with dialogue, but Hathaway’s talents shine brightest with subtle gestures or expressions.  It’s a masterful performance, and the rest of the cast is great as well.  I can’t guarantee this is a film you will love like I did, but give it a try; it’s one of the year’s best.  The movie isn’t currently playing in Denver, and no DVD release date has been announced, but I’m guessing they’ll get it on DVD near Oscar-time.

A lot of critics hated this movie, and those who gave it a positive review were only lukewarm towards it; I don’t think critics have mislabeled a movie this bad in years, because Australia is fantastic.  It’s an epic made in the style of classics like Gone With The Wind, and at nearly three hours long, director Baz Luhrmann packs in an incredible amount of story without ever making the film seem long.  Australia is a film that has everything; there’s an epic story, a top-notch cast (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are excellent in the lead roles, and David Wenham gives a chillingly effective performance as the villain), gorgeous cinematography, a beautiful and moving musical score, an epic romance, nail-biting action, complex themes of equality, lots and lots of cattle, fascinating aboriginal culture, history, fiction, happy moments, sad moments, and nearly everything in between.  The movie is truly a spectacle, spellbinding from start to finish, and if there’s any justice in the world of cinema, it will become a classic.  Oh, and at number 7, we’ve already reached the point on this list where the films are better than my number one pick of 2007.  The film is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

The behind-the-scenes drama of the historic interviews Richard Nixon gave to talk-show host Richard Nixon amount to two hours dialogue, and yet it’s one of the most compelling, riveting stories told this year.  The film is set up like a boxing match; Frost is the underdog and Nixon is the champ, but somehow, the underdog is going to come out on top.  It’s fascinating from start to finish, and the characterization is one of the best elements, as brought to life by the wonderful cast of actors.  Michael Sheen is terrific as Frost, but Frank Langella is the stand-out as Nixon; this is one of the year’s best performances, more of an embodiment than an impersonation.  It’s a great historical film, one that goes beyond a simple recreation of events and analyzes the characters, managing, through a mix of fact and fiction, to humanize Nixon in a profound way.  It works as a piece of history, a character study, and a dialogue-based thriller, with humor thrown in at various places along the way.  Ron Howard might have made his masterpiece.  The film is currently playing at a few select theaters in Denver; I’d recommend going to the Landmark Greenwood Village Theater.

Few other films have so expertly mixed humor with drama; In Bruges can be side-splittingly hilarious one moment and depressingly serious the next.  The film centers around two hitmen hiding out in the city of Bruges, Belgium, after a botched assignment.  The nature of sin and redemption are the primary themes explored, and writer/director Martin McDonagh explores them masterfully.  On initial viewing, the plot can never be predicted and is immensely enjoyable and exciting.  On repeat viewings, one can discern even more about the story and characters and appreciate the terrific use of foreshadowing.  The cast is excellent; Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson share wonderful chemistry as the leads, and Ralph Fiennes is both hilarious and threatening as their boss.  I love this film with a passion; the characters, story, and gorgeous setting of Bruges make it a magical experience, even if there is some pretty graphic violence.  It pains me to put this at number 6, because in any other year, it would be at number 1.  The film is now available on DVD.     

This is without a doubt the most important and powerful film of the year; the film traces the life of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk from his move to San Francisco in 1970 to his assassination in 1978, and what an amazing story it is.  So amazing, in fact, that even if very little effort went into it, this would still be an inspiring film; but that is not the case.  From beginning to end, Milk is obviously a labor of love, detailing not only the life of Harvey Milk, but the entire gay-rights movement.  The whole cast is excellent, but Sean Penn deserves to be singled out and awarded with an Oscar for his stunning performance, which transforms him into Harvey without any trace of Penn left behind.  The film is incredibly relevant after recent events in California, but even if Proposition 8 was never proposed, this was a film that needed to be made.  Its greatest accomplishment is to show that sexual preference, like race or religion, should never dictate how we view a person, and that being gay didn’t stop Harvey Milk from becoming one of the true heroes of modern times.  The final scene, in which 30,000 people participate in a candlelight vigil for Milk, is the single most powerful scene in a movie all year.  It is currently playing at three of Denver’s four Landmark Theaters, among others.     

What an amazing film.  It’s impossible to describe, in words, the incredible range of emotions felt while watching Slumdog Millionaire.  I suppose the best way to describe it is to think of the emotions felt while watching It’s A Wonderful Life; the plots aren’t similar, but the level of inspiration is equal.  The film tells the story of young slumdog Jamal, whose incredible life story supplies him with the answers for Who Wants to be A Millionaire.  I’ve been a fan of Director Danny Boyle for a while now, and this is his masterpiece; acting, writing, music, editing, etc…it all comes together perfectly.  The film gets better with each passing minute until it reaches its incredibly inspiring conclusion.  I truly believe that in fifty years, this will be a classic on the level of It’s A Wonderful Life, the kind of movie that you watch when you feel depressed so you can be uplifted to a blissful level of happiness.       This is what filmmaking is all about, and again, in any other year, this would easily be at number one.  The film is currently playing at many theaters in Denver, including Landmark’s Esquire and Greenwood Village theaters.    

Few films have ever touched or effected me as much as WALL-E; I had heard great things, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I sat down to watch this back in June.  This is a film that relies on emotions, images, and themes rather than dialogue, and those elements come across so incredibly strongly that it becomes nearly impossible to describe the film up with mere words.  Everything I love about this movie, though, can be rolled up into two words: Hello Dolly!  The use of the musical as a method of character development, mood-setter, and link between WALL-E and EVE epitomizes the creativity and heart that the film is bursting with.  Andrew Stanton and his team at Pixar, the greatest movie studio on Earth, have crafted a true masterpiece that doesn’t make a single mistake from start to finish.  Kids will love it for its truly spectacular visuals and humor, and adults will find a treasure trove of meaning and depth while viewing.  WALL-E is as close to perfect as any film ever made, and is possibly the best animated movie ever created (and coming from a die-hard Disney fan, that’s no easy praise).  The film is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and this is a movie worth buying and HDTV for.    

And the best film of the year is…

I know that this is a fairly predictable choice for number one, but how could I choose anything else?  Christopher Nolan has made what is easily the best comic-book movie ever made, and in the process re-defined what a mainstream blockbuster can be.  The Dark Knight is proof that the best movie of the year can also be the highest grossing, something that has never before seemed possible.  Dark Knight packs an incredibly epic and sweeping saga of a story into its two and a half hour run time, and still manages to feel an hour shorter than it actually is.  Nolan has taken one of America’s most iconic fictional heroes and put him in a world that is almost entirely realistic, adding a level of credibility never before seen in a film like this.  Thus, when Nolan tackles issues like the nature of evil and what must be done to stop it, the messages hit home even harder.  The film works on so many levels; it can thrill you with its action and put you close to tears with its drama. 

The ensemble cast is the best one compiled this year.  Not enough can be said about Heath Ledger, whose Joker just might be the best screen villain of all time; without the Joker, the story wouldn’t work, and I doubt that even Nolan expected Ledger to make the story work so well.  Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman are all excellent in their returning roles, and newcomers Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal fit themselves perfectly into the cast.  The music, by composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, is so good that it becomes a character itself.  The cinematography is breathtaking, with the IMAX sequences breaking incredible new ground.  I could write for days and days and never dish out all the praise I have for this film.  And again, one of the film’s chief accomplishments is its decisive display of how a blockbuster can be as smart, detailed, and well-made as any independent movie.  This is a classic for the ages, and the clear choice for the best film of the year.  It is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Well, there you have it; the top-ten films of 2008.  I strongly urge you to find and see all these movies, because they are the best of a year bursting with greatness.  Other excellent films that didn’t make the cut but must be seen are Iron Man, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Burn After Reading, Tropic Thunder, Kung Fu Panda, Quantum of Solace, and more.  I’d like to thank each and every one of my readers for supporting me all year long; without you, I couldn’t do this.  I look forward to another year of doing what I love most: discussing film.  If 2009 is even half as strong a year of film as 2008 was, then it will be another fun 12 months.         

No comments:

Post a Comment