In 2008, the Weekend Warrior saw over 300 different movies, some of them more than once, and has written about at least a few hundred more that he didn’t see. Now it’s time to look back and reflect on the best of the best, the ones that made it into the top 8%. We’re doing a couple things different this year, the main one being that the documentaries are being folded into the main list rather than being handled separately as they have in previous years. It’s extremely hard to compare non-fiction films with narrative ones, though the latter are being filmed to look more like docs just as docs are being edited more like narrative films, so it just seemed like the right time.
Magnolia Pictures got the most love this year with four pictures on this year’s roster, followed by Paramount with three and then the fledgling Oscilloscope Pictures, formed by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, getting two as did Zeitgeist Films. Hopefully, you’ll have a chance to check out some of the smaller movies from the latter you may have have missed when they were in theaters. Other than that, one of the interesting trends on this year’s list is the number of French films that have snuck onto the list, and not the normal ones you’ve probably seen on many other Top 10 lists (The Class, Tell No One and A Christmas Tale).
One thing that all the movies on this year’s list have in common is that every single one of them received at least a 9 out of 10 rating from the Weekend Warrior, even if not all of them received full reviews on the site. You can find some reviews by clicking on the titles, though almost all of these were written up as part of my weekly movie preview and box office analysis column The Weekend Warrior, when they were picked as “The Chosen One.” That said, it was as difficult as always to figure out the proper order, because all the movies below are recommended wholeheartedly however they ended up being placed. (And remember, these are the Weekend Warrior’s “favorite” movies based on his own taste and your mileage may vary, so let’s not be too hasty with the derogatory comments, okay? Thanks.)
#25 – The Reader (The Weinstein Co.) – As a huge fan of The Hours, the previous collaboration between screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry, I was excited to see their latest venture, although at this point, I still haven’t read the book by Bernard Schlink. Because of that, I went into the movie not knowing a thing about the plot, and quickly found myself absorbed into the story of Michael Berg and his relationship with the significantly older Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet). From an affair when Michael was just a teenager to later in life, when he’s trying to justify that romance after discovering Hanna’s dark and horrifying secret, the movie is romantic without being overly sentimental plus it deals with something I’ve long pondered being the son of German Jews: after WWII, how were Germans able to deal with the guilt they faced about what happened under their noses? (And yes, there have been a lot of movies about Nazis and the Holocaust and the German experience, but this one was clearly the best.) It’s probably better not knowing much more than that before seeing Daldry’s film, but you can expect performances every bit as good as those in The Hours including the role of Kate Winslet’s career and a breakthrough performance by newcomer David Kross, having to deal with a lot of difficult emotional scenes as the younger Michael Berg. (Ralph Fiennes plays Berg later in life.) It’s an unforgettable film that’s full of the type of rich artistic depth we’ve come to expect from Daldry, and I’m bummed that I never got around to actually writing a review for the film (or see it a second time.)
#24 – Jellyfish (Zeitgeist Films) – This Israeli film by Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret I saw at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films series, and it’s the type of “chick flick” that I wish more Hollywood studios and filmmakers were making. It’s just an incredibly original experience to watch three women from different walks of life experience a journey that brings them together in an unexpected ways. It’s not the easiest thing to figure out what is going on at times, but the strangely moving results shows the type of originality we rarely see in Western films these days. Taking full advantage of the gorgeous city of Tel Aviv, Geffen and Keret have created something that few who had a chance to see it will ever forget.
#23 – A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Magnolia) – Wayne Wang’s return to lower-key Asian-centric indie dramas after making high concept studio rom-coms like Maid in Manhattan and Perfect Holiday is a poignant character study like Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, though one that seems far more personal and close to home. Based on the short story by Yiyun Li, it essentially deals with the relationship between an older widowed Chinese man (Tony O.) who comes to America to spend time with his divorced daughter (Faye Yu). With the minimal of dialogue (and almost none of it in English), Wang and Li have masterfully relayed one aspect of the Chinese immigrant experience–the cultural differences between the younger Americanized generation and the older traditional viewpoint–that really intrigued me unlike other similar slice-of-life films this year. Maybe it’s just that having lived in Chinatown for 15 years, I’ve always wondered what must be going through the minds of some of my neighbors, and Wang and Li just nailed this one. (Sadly, I never got around to watching the film’s follow-up Princess of Nebraska when it aired on YouTube.)
#22 – I’ve Loved You So Long (Sony Pictures Classics) – Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in French novelist Philipe Claudel’s directorial debut has gotten a lot of kudos and rightfully so, as she plays a woman released from prison after 15 years trying to reconnect with her younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein) and the outside world, something that’s hard considering the horrifying act she committed to be imprisoned in the first place. It’s one of the many strong dialogue-driven films on this year’s Top 25 list, and Claudel proves that he can direct as well as he writes by bringing out some of the best acting of the year, particularly Thomas, who delivers many emotional scenes without saying a word. This probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea–being a very traditional French film in some ways–but the strength in the storytelling and acting is undeniable.
#21 – Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot (Oscilloscope) Beastie Boy Adam Yauch directed this documentary about the first-ever Elite 24 Hoops Classic where 24 of the top high school basketball players gathered at Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park to play an unprecedented game of streetball. Even though I’m not even remotely a basketball fan, I was really impressed by how Yaunch filmed and edited the game footage together with portraits of all the high school basketball players, covering a lot of different angles of the business of basketball that’s felt even by these talented teens. To me, this is what a sports doc should be, something interesting and exciting, that keeps you riveted to the screen even if you’re not a fan of the sport, and Yauch’s experience directing the Beasties’ music videos certainly came into play in terms of making this a unique looking doc.
#20 – Milk (Focus Features) – If you’re as old as me then you probably remember hearing the news about the shooting of Harvey Milk but unless you lived in San Francisco or were already one of the oppressed homosexuals in this country at the time, you probably didn’t know much about why he was so important for making the lives of gay men and women easier due to his achievements. It’s a very different movie for Gus Van Sant after his recent experimental phase, as it shows Milk’s rise through the San Francisco political system, but more than anything else, it’s about Sean Penn’s ability to transform into this character that’s so different from what we’ve seen from him in the past. Really, the only thing keeping the movie being higher on my list was Diego Luna’s annoying performance as one of Harvey’s needy lovers, but otherwise, the movie is well worthy of the accolades it’s received and will receive in the next few months.
#19 – Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (THINKFilm) – It almost seems ironic that this ends up right above Milk, since Polanski was just as enigmatic a figure if you were growing up in the ’70s, and of course, most people know about how he moved to France after being accused for statutory rape. Not everyone knows the full story behind the trial, but Marina Zenovich’s documentary, which I first saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is another example of how movies can really make a difference, going by the recent announcement that Polanski might be allowed back in the country based on evidence unveiled in it. It got a minimal theatrical release after playing on HBO so hopefully enough people saw it to finally learn the truth about the Polanski case that was mostly forgotten beyond the original criminal act.
#18 – Tropic Thunder (DreamWorks) I certainly was skeptical when I heard that Ben Stiller was directing himself and Jack Black in a war comedy, and then there was that whole business of Robert Downey Jr. in black face, which got a lot of “what the ?!?!” reactions. Amazingly, this works, not really as a spoof of war films as much as a war film gone horribly wrong, and it’s already up there with Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin as one of my favorite comedies. The opening war sequence is really impressive, but when it gets into the relationship between a group of actors stranded in a South-Asian jungle filled with armed drugdealers and the behind-the-scenes of making such a film, that’s where the movie delivers the best laughs of the year. Robert Downey Jr. as Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus playing a black soldier was particularly genius–well worthy of what looks to be another Oscar nomination in the fallen actor’s comeback year–but it was the work of the ensemble as a whole that made the movie so funny, from low-key straight man Jay Baruchel to Danny McBride as the pyro expert, Steve Coogan as the incompetent director, and of course Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey as the studio head and kiss-ass agent. More than anything, this comedy proved that it sometimes takes a comedian at the helm to make a really funny movie and Stiller proved himself to be a filmmaker that should be taken seriously.
#17 – In Bruges (Focus Features) – Another movie first seen at Sundance way back in January, which was strong enough to sustain itself until the end of the year. A remarkable feature film debut from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, this crime comedy had Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as British assassins on “holiday” in Belgium after a hit gone wrong, and Ralph Fiennes as their boss who shows up to clean up loose ends. It was one of Farrell’s best performances and just an extremely cleverly done film with a lot of real heart. The only thing I regret is not having had a chance to see this movie again since seeing it at Sundance, because I have a feeling that I’d enjoy it more with each viewing.
#16 – The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) – I’m sure someone (or everyone) is going to complain about this not being higher on the list and to them, I say, “Get out and see more movies, fanboy!” Yes, Christopher Nolan did a fantastic job with this crime thriller set in the world of the Caped Crusader, and if you didn’t see the movie in its IMAX run then you didn’t see the movie as it was intended to be seen. Nolan created a great new origin for the character with Batman Begins, and he followed it with a tense crime thriller that effectively broke away from the stigmas and formula of superhero movies. The results are so dark and grim and they get so far away from the comics (and the previous movie) that it’s jarring. Still, there’s no question this is a great movie, one that can be watched and analyzed for Nolan’s mastery of storytelling and filmmaking, and even more so, for Heath Ledger’s vivid portrayal of what many will consider the new definitive version of the Batman’s main villain, the Joker. Tragically, it would be Ledger’s second to last film role, which just added another layer of poignancy to the character.
#15 – Roman de Gare (Samuel Goldwyn) – A far superior and intelligent film to the highly-overrated thriller Tell No One, this is a French film that the Coen Brothers should look into remaking. It stars Dominique Pinon, possibly one of my favorite French actors going back to The City of Lost Children (one of my all-time favorite movies) as a man driving alone on the road who picks up a beautiful woman (Audrey Dana) at a rest stop: he might be a serial killer or he might be the ghost writer for a famous author (Fanny Ardant) or he could be the husband of the woman we see alone at home. Either way, you will have no idea where this movie will go from the first ten minutes and director Claude Lelouch proves that he continues to be a master even forty years after his Oscar winning screenplay for A Man and a Woman.
#14 -Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Magnolia Pictures) – Christopher Bell’s personal look at his family’s history with anabolic steroids was as impressive for its achievement as was any of Michael Moore’s movies or Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me.” There were a lot of interesting things shared as Bell tried to debunk some of the myths behind the drugs, but more importantly, he used the film to deal with his two brothers’ use of the drugs in their personal and professional careers. (In some of the saddest new of the year, it was just reported a few weeks ago that wrestler Mike Bell, Chris’ often-depressed steroid-using older brother recently passed away of unknown circumstances.) If Bell can make another documentary this strong then he’s well on his way to becoming one of those rare investigative filmmakers like Owen Morris and Michael Moore who is well worth following.
#13 – Stranded (Zeitgeist Films) – Yet another doc that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and in fact, I remember very specifically seeing this and the Roman Polanski doc on the first Friday morning of the fest. The story of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes Mountains back in the early ’70s is an amazing one, and director Gonzalo Arijon, who knew a lot of the survivors personally, found a new way of telling their story in a detailed way yet being extremely sensitive to the survivors when dealing with the fact that they had to survive by eating the dead. It’s an amazing story of survival, one that deserved to be told in such a strong narrative way.
#12 – Son of Rambow (Paramount Vantage) – It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I first saw this movie at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2007 and it was the top movie in my Best of the Fest that year and Once was #2. Well, last year, Once topped this list, so you’d expect Son of Rambow would do the same this year, right? Nope. Somewhere in the 14 months between viewings, this one lost me a bit. Don’t get me wrong. I still think Garth Jennings’ second film is a wonderful, quirky coming-of-age tale on par with Stand by Me, as it shows the unlikely friendship between two very different British schoolboys, played by talented newcomers Bill Milner and Will Poulter. The disappointing delay in releasing this movie by Paramount Vantage, the weak marketing campaign and the decision to release it in early May against huge blockbusters like Iron Man all added up to the fact that almost no one saw this movie in theaters, even though I’ll freely admit to having paid to see it a third time in order to share it with a friend of mine. Either way, I seriously love the guys of Hammer and Tongs, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
#11 – Frost/Nixon (Universal) – Having seen the play on Broadway, this probably was one of my more anticipated films of the year, because I couldn’t wait to see the performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella captured on celluloid. Fortunately, director Ron Howard delivered a film as good as the play, embellishing the duo’s amazing on-screen interplay with the likes of Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall and Oliver Platt, who made more out of the other roles surrounding the famous interviews between David Frost and former President Richard Nixon. (Getting to see the actual interviews released on DVD was equally enlightening.) Clearly, this is how you should bring plays to the screen to make them better.
#10 – Happy-Go-Lucky (Miramax) – If you haven’t seen Mike Leigh’s latest movie, you may be wondering why it’s gotten on so many year-end Top 10 lists, and if you have seen it, you may be wondering the same thing. This slice-of-life film from one of Britain’s finest filmmakers stars Sally Hawkins as Poppy, a far too optimistic and cheery schoolteacher who goes through her day-to-day with a bright smile and a quick quip. It was a performance that was absolutely contagious, and if you were in the right head, it was one that left you wanting to adopt and share her attitude towards life. The driving lesson scenes between Hawkins and Eddie Marsan were the best part of the movie, as Leigh brought together the happiest woman on earth and the bitterest man, and the results never go where you expect.
#9 – Nothing But the Truth (Yari Film Group) – Among the better movies seen at this year’s Toronto Film Festival was Rod Lurie’s latest, the second in hopefully a trilogy of movies about journalism and parenting (sort of), this one starring Kate Beckinsale as D.C. reporter Rachel Armstrong, whose breaking story about a soccer mom played by Vera Farmiga, who is in fact a CIA operative, puts Rachel’s own family life at risk when she’s forced to reveal her source. The amazing performances by Beckinsale, Farmiga and the men surrounding them (Alan Alda, Matt Dillon, and David Schwimmer) proved that Lurie hadn’t lost a step in the time since “The Contender” but sadly, the film got mauled in the disintegration of the Yari Film Group a week before its release. Hopefully someone else will pick it up and release it in 2009 so everyone who missed it can still see it. The movie’s just too good to get lost to the evils of bad circumstance.
#8 – Iron Man (Marvel/Paramount) – And now everyone who dissed me having The Dark Knight lower on this list will complain even more about Iron Man making my Top 10, but let me tell you something: I’ve been reading Marvel Comics since I was ten years old. While I’ve regularly read “Iron Man” over the years, he was never even close to my favorite character, mainly because there have only been two or three good runs of the comic book. On the other hand, the movie just delighted me. I saw it twice in theaters and in both cases, I had a giant smile plastered to my face the entire time because it was the first time that a director got a comic book character right the first time around. Even though I’m a bigger Spider-Man fan, none of Sam Raimi’s movies had the same impact, and it was great to have a bright and colorful superhero movie compared to all the darkness of The Dark Knight. It well deserved all of the money it made as was Robert Downey Jr. of his long-earned comeback, and I personally will be chomping at the bit for Iron Man 2, even with the sad news of Terrence Howard becoming collateral damage, since the casting and performances were so great.
#7 – Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts (Koch Lorber) – My love of rock docs is fairly legendary among those who regularly ready my column and writing here on ComingSoon.net, but to enjoy a movie about a modern classical composer as much as I did Scott Hicks’ film about his friend, New York composer Philip Glass, was somewhat surprising. As much as I enjoyed Philip Glass’ work before, without having really thought about the man behind the music, Hicks created such a rich and comprehensive look at the man’s everyday family life, his spirituality, and his collaborations with filmmakers and other musicians. It removes some of the mystery of the enigmatic composer while adding even more layers to his musical work. Sadly, this was another one of those movies that few people saw.
#6 – Dear Zachary (Oscilloscope Pictures) – Another doc from Oscilloscope and another personal one by filmmaker Kurt Kuenne as he looks into the death of his friend Dr. Andrew Bagby and the circumstances surrounding it and the custody case with his murdered friend’s parents and mother of his child. It’s a shocking story and one that’s so powerful and poignant due to the amazing interviews Kurt was able to get with Andrew’s family and friends, creating a moving portrait of his friend for his child. It’s best not knowing much about the case that forms the crux of the story and letting the story unfold as Kuenne experienced it firsthand, but more than anything, it’s one of the most loving tributes to a friend put on video tape.
#5 – Let the Right One In (Magnolia) – It’s somewhat surprising that I never got around to reviewing this Swedish vampire movie considering that I’ve now seen it upwards of four times going back to this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. On one level, it’s possibly one of the best vampire movies going back to the original Dracula, but it’s also this gorgeous coming-of-age tale of young love between a shy Swedish boy and the little girl vampire who moves in next door and agrees to be his girlfriend without either of them realizing the implications. Director Tomas Alfredson has created a uniquely moody film around his two stars Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson that’s as riveting as it is moving, and you’re not likely to forget the experience seeing this film.
#4 – Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) – I still remember the first time I saw this movie at 9AM on a Saturday morning at the Toronto International Film Festival; as it finished and I ran to my 11AM interview (I believe it was John Malkovich), I ran into director Danny Boyle casually having coffee downstairs and I stopped in my tracks and went over to shake his hand and let him know how much I loved his movie. It’s really such a beautiful film, just something very different from the British filmmaker’s previous work, mainly because of its Mumbai setting, its rags-to-riches underdog-makes-good storyline and just a lot of really delightful and exciting sequences featuring a mostly unknown cast of young newcomers, some Bollywood veterans and Dev Patel, a young British actor making his movie debut as the young man who appears on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in order to find and win back the love of his life. I honestly believe that I can watch this movie over and over for the rest of my life and never get sick of it, but more importantly, it finally means that the rest of the world is taking Boyle seriously as more than just the director of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. (And if you’ve already seen this, go rent Boyle’s earlier movie Millions already!)
#3 – WALLE (Disney/Pixar) – Pixar Animation has really been doing amazing things in the last ten years, and it’s very telling that every year, their movies move further and further up my year end list. This is the second movie from Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo, which I wasn’t as impressed with as so many others were. Going into this one, he really had a great premise, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the life of the lonely WALLE and his love for the destructive visiting ‘bot Eve. It’s just such a lovely story which requires very little actual dialogue to tell. People have complained about how shallow the humans are written once they finally show up midway through the film, oblivious to the fact that they were necessary to show how much more human the robots were, had become. This is especially true once we get to the space shuttle and we meet a crazy bunch of rogue robots, who are worthy of their own spin-off movie. Pixar’s output just get better and better and I fully expect Up to be on this list somewhere next year.
#2 – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount) – Those who’ve been paying attention will notice something in common with the last three movies on this list. Did you get it? Yup, they all center around these epic undying love stories, and you got me: I’m a hopeless and unrepentant romantic at heart, not something very common among critics, I’d imagine. I’m also a diehard fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) and this is the closest an American filmmaker has come to creating that sort of fantastical and magical feeling in a movie. The movie covers a lot of ground and there’s a lot of depth to its exploration of life and death and love and age and youth, that it’s hard not to be deeply affected, especially by the last hour. The movie explores so many different ideas and themes–and that’s not even including the Hurricane Katrina setting used for the present day framing sequence–that I’m sure I can watch the movie over and over and get more out of it with each viewing. The 2 hours and 45 minutes go by quicker than you think–if you’re in the right head then it’s almost a spiritual experience at times–and it leaves you at the end realizing you’ve watched something unprecedented in terms of cinema that’s not likely to be repeated.
#1 – Man on Wire (Magnolia) – The only romance in James Marsh’s documentary–the only movie this year to receive a perfect score of 10 out of 10 from me–is the one between high-wire artist Philipe Petit and the thrill of the challenge, of doing something no one has ever done before and no one will ever do again. (Then again, I’ve had a long-standing analogy or test for love about one being willing to walk a wire between the WTC towers if that’s what it took to be with someone you loved.) The two towers of the World Trade Center were only three years old when Petit planned the elaborate wire walk between the towers, over 100 stories above imminent death, and Marsh’s film details this adventure, interviewing everyone involved combined with elaborate recreations of the “Ocean’s 11″ level of planning that Petit and his partners used to get him to the top of the towers, stringing the cable between the towers and taking his first steps early one morning. Petit is an amazingly lively film character, and he was able to achieve something that even 35 years later, one can’t even imagine it might be possible. Marsh’s movie includes all the film footage and photos needed to prove that sometimes magic doesn’t just happen in fiction movies.
Ten that just missed the list (in no particular order):
1. Dreams with Sharp Teeth – A really fascinating documentary from Werner Herzog producer Erik Nelson about sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison
2. Ghost Town (DreamWorks) – David Koepp’s cynical comedy starring Ricky Gervais in the romantic lead role of an anti-social New York dentist who starts seeing ghosts after a near-death experience, agreeing to help one of them (Greg Kinnear) get a message to his widow (Tea Leoni).
3. Last Chance Harvey (Overture) – Joel Hopkins’ romantic tale of two older individuals, played by Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who meet by happenstance and spend a day getting to know each other in London.
4. The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight) – Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of a has-been wrestler is clearly one of his greatest performances, an impressive comeback in this far more lo-fi movie than we’ve seen from the likes of Darren Aronofsky in the past.
5. The Wackness (Sony Classics) – Another Sundance fave, Jonathan Levine’s semi-autobiographical story set in ’90s New York City starred Josh Peck as a drug dealer, who befriends his pot-smoking psychiatrist, played by Sir Ben Kingsley.
6. Young@Heart (Fox Searchlight) – Stephen Walker’s doc about Massachusetts’ Young@Heart Choir, made up of 60 to 90 year old men and women doing choral versions of punk and alt. rock classics led by the group’s mastermind taskmaster Bob Climan.
7. Good (THINKFilm) – This Holocaust drama (opening in New York and L.A. this week) based on the play stars Viggo Mortensen as a German literature professor who gets recruited into the Nazi party, even as the life of his Jewish best friend, played by Jason Isaacs, is destroyed.
8. A Secret (Strand Releasing) – Another Holocaust drama, Claude Miller’s drama looked at the French perspective specifically about his father’s former wife and son with an all-star French cast including Mathieu Amalric, Ludivine Sagnier and Cecile De France.
9. Smart People (Miramax) – Yet another from Sundance, Noam Murro’s character drama stars Dennis Quaid as a snarky middle-aged widower trying to find love, but it was the comedic turns from Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page that stole the movie.
10. Wanted (Universal) – Russian director Timur Bekmambetov’s take on Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ graphic novel became one of the definitive action movies of the year due to the intelligent premise and great cast. (And really, this should probably be tied with Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, also from Universal.)
Look for the antithesis to this list, my year-end WORST list, the Weekend Warrior’s annual Terrible 25 list, out sometime next week.