It’s honestly kind of difficult to pin down what 2008 was as a year for cinema. I feel like wherever I look I find such a varied spectrum of movies both in terms of genre and quality as virtually anything and everything seemed to emerge over the course of 12 months, with nothing beyond limits and with no regard to whether it was for better or worse. As ever there was a healthy mix of both experience and newer filmmakers showcasing the best of their talents, from the utterly provocative to the exquisitely crafted.
Though this was the last year in which the Academy only nominated 5 movies for the Best Picture category in favour of increasing the total number to 10 in order to honour more movies, the Oscar contenders were still strong overall. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ showed Danny Boyle at his most inspirational and crowd pleasing, to great results. ‘Milk’ gave us a powerhouse performance by Sean Penn that earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor, whilst Kate Winslet was equally brilliant in the performance that earned her an Oscar for ‘The Reader’.
But it’s not just the Oscar winners that are worthy of praise. It may have been a little short changed at the awards circuit but Clint Eastwood’s ‘Changeling’ allowed Angelina Jolie to deliver a highly endearing performance in an already fantastic film. But if that wasn’t enough Eastwood also managed to bring forth another brilliant piece of cinema with ‘Gran Tornino’ that same year. ‘Doubt’ also gave us a whole plethora of stunning performances as Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davies all shine in the movie.
Any attempt I made to try and categorize these honourable mentions has already deteriorated, which I guess goes to show the variety of movies in 2008. There were terrific comedies in the form of ‘Burn After Reading’ and ‘Tropic Thunder’. Jon Favreau and Marvel Studios delivered a hugely entertaining and well-made superhero film in the form of ‘Iron Man’. But then on the other end of the scale we had sobering documentaries like ‘Waltz With Bashir’ and ‘Dear Zachary’, however there was still room for the truly inspirational as ‘Man on Wire’ proved. Then who could forget ‘Bronson’.
Finally, I want to honour a movie that transcends almost anything else on this list. Even if it’s ambition ultimately escapes its grasp I think few filmmakers in their whole career could ever come close to the withering heights that Charlie Kaufman achieved in his directorial debut ‘Synechdoche, New York’. A sprawling epic character study about death, art and the longing of life, Kaufman’s film is one that can be endlessly analysed and dissected. It’s a movie that continues to grow on me with every re-watch, and therefore maybe after a hundred viewings I’ll finally come close to scratching the surface of its genius. For now it remains a distant and flawed entity for me, but one that’s absolutely worthy of admiration.
10: Funny Games
Michael Haneke said of his original 1997 version of ‘Funny Games’ that the films intended message (or part of it at least) was to highlight the pointlessness of violence in the media, so what better way to further reinforce that message than to remake the exact same movie ten years later. There are some noticeable differences in that the cinematography is vastly improved and with the talents of Tim Roth and Naomi Watts at hand, so are the performances. But the central themes and messages of Haneke’s vision remain intact, a movie intent on deconstructing its own genre whilst commenting upon the larger role that genre plays in society. By switching to the English language ‘Funny Games’ comes even closer to blurring the lines between itself and its intended subject, with Haneke’s cold and clinical visual delivering a taught, highly intense and deeply visceral experience that will undoubtedly provoke a lot of discussion.
9: Revolutionary Road
It takes two actors of immeasurable talent to make me as fully immersed and invested within an onscreen relationship as I was in ‘Revolutionary Road’. It’s not just about making an audience believe that those characters are real in the moment, it relies of them feeling fully realised and embodied, to come across as real living entities that have a history together that goes far beyond the mere parameters of a movie. That is precisely what Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio achieve in this devastatingly brilliant drama that fully captures the weighty ideas of the novel it is based upon. Sam Mendes was the perfect fit to direct this story, as not only does it feel thematically reminiscent of ‘American Beauty’ but his deft touch allows the actors to flourish even amid the lush cinematography and lavish environment. It is both naturalistic and artful, gripping yet melancholic and heart-breaking in the way it depicts characters who can’t help hut betray themselves.
8: Rachel Getting Married
There’s something so wonderfully authentic about Johnathan Demme’s drama about a rehab patient being let out to attend the wedding of her sister. Part of that is down to Demme’s fantastic direction which employs hand held camera to a great extent, making the preparation to the titular event as well as the big day itself almost feel like a well-produced home movie. There’s a rawness to Demme’s visual approach that never fails to make the movie feel utterly humane. The screenplay by Jenny Lumet is also fantastic, presenting each character as a flawed but rounded individual, conveying the whole spectrum of human emotions. Certain scenes in the movie find such joy in details as small as loading a dishwasher, only to then deliver a gut punch and remind you of the unbearable pain lying at the movie’s core. Anne Hathaway delivers a stunning and endlessly endearing performance, a beautifully flawed but wonderfully sympathetic character study to say the least.
Mike Leigh’s sweet comedy proves that a film need not be downbeat to present us with high drama. ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ may represent Leigh at his most complex, as his protagonist navigates life in a series of joyful (as well as a few not so joyful) encounters as her attitude is contrasted with that of the world around her. There’s something inspirational and life affirming about how Sally Hawkins infectiously happy Poppy goes about her daily business, conveying a whole plethora of emotions from humour to heart break, and undercurrents of oddness that tie it all together. None of these elements ever feel at war with one another as Leigh’s screenplay perfectly integrates them all. ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ is a film that manages to be meaningful without ever insisting upon itself. It is subtle enough to warrant a deeper reading but also entertaining enough to be enjoyed on whatever level you feel best suits it.
I think one of the best displays of how talented a director really is, depends upon how they choose to shoot a simple conversation. On that front Ron Howard has worked wonders with his historical drama ‘Frost/Nixon’. It works as a brilliant character study of two very different men, each with similar goals of seeking out what they believe is right through the art of conversation. Howard is able to stage the famous interviews as a psychological battleground and succeeds in making a question and answer session feel nail bitingly suspenseful. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella are fantastic in their respective roles, fully embodying each opposing figure in this conflict, with a script that gives each of them plenty to work with. As the movie progresses we grow to understand just how much each man has stakes in this seemingly simple TV interview, and to see their interactions restaged in this dramatic form is absolutely fascinating.
There’s an unconventional rawness to Steve McQueen’s recount of this tumultuous chapter in British/Irish relations. I think it’s inaccurate to say this movie is about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands because although that is featured within the movie, it’s just part of its broader portrait. It tells a story about the inhumanity on both sides of this conflict, without ever seeking to pass judgement on which side is in the right. We see law officers gunned down, prisoners beaten and living under inhuman conditions and a portrayal of Sand’s death that is not heroic but drawn out and painfully long in its suffering. McQueen’s craftsmanship is impeccable, somehow striking an excellent balance of being distant and restrained but also highly involving and humanistic. Michael Fassbender delivers a fantastic performance, as does Liam Cunningham, particularly in a scene where the two actors go face to face in a conversation shot in a single long take over 17 minutes. It’s a film far more concerned with the personal that the political.
4: In Bruges
There’s a lot about Martin McDonagh’s writing that feels reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s best work. He takes despicable characters and endears us to them with their cleverness and humanity. There’s an inner darkness to the comedy of ‘In Bruges’ that sounds as if it would never work as a concept, and yet McDonagh’s writing defies all preconceptions as he endows his characters with such depth and complexity. There’s such an inner and profound pain to their struggle and those flaws are exactly what makes their plight so empathetic. McDonagh is also lucky in that his dialogue has been put in the hands of actors who can convey its meaning perfectly, with Colin Farrell delivering a subtly masterful performance alongside Brendan Gleeson and the scenery chewing Ralph Fiennes. It’s a movie in which very little seems to happen in a broad sense, and yet so much is discovered and explored through this finny, dark and humanistic masterwork.
3: The Wrestler
Looking at his past filmography, ‘The Wrestler’ seems like an odd fit for Darren Aronofsky. His films that are about the existential weight of life and the inevitable suffering the goes with it (fun stuff) is starkly contrasted by the flamboyant world of professional wrestling. But therein lies part of the brilliance of this movie. He seems to approach the subject from an outside perspective and yet fully captures the passion and euphoria each character expresses for their own self defined life purpose. His protagonist in ‘The Wrestler’ continues to cling to his wrestling career in an effort to reclaim his heyday, despite his failing health. It’s a role that allows Mickey Rourke to deliver the best performance of his career, as well as the best performance of the whole year. He carries such an sense of world weariness mixed with an unyielding passion that makes his character utterly endearing. Beneath its flashy exterior ‘The Wrestler’ is one of the most beautiful and intimate portraits of a man’s internal paradox ever committed to film.
2: The Dark Knight
When a movie comes along that not only transcends its genre, but manages to elevate its source and instil new meaning into a figure so deeply rooted in the public consciousness, well then basically you have Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’. Redefining the superhero mythos is no easy feat, and yet Nolan does just that with a movie that could sooner be categorized as a crime drama than a comic book movie. ‘The Dark Knight’ takes the Batman mythos and uses it to tell a story of Shakespearean tragedy concerning the cost of heroism, the sacrifices made in its name and the corruption that seeks to consume those heroes. Nolan directs with a masterful touch, rarely putting a foot wrong in how he stages and executes each unfolding set piece, making each one as involving and as invigorating as the last. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is nothing short of mesmerising. It’s all-star cast that includes Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart are all fantastic. But we all know who the real standout is. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is rightfully iconic. It’s intimidating and visceral, theatrical yet masterfully subtle and has cemented itself as one of the best antagonists in cinema history.
1: Let the Right One In
There are certain movies that are so good that they almost seem to exist as a paradox. How can a single film be so chillingly visceral and yet so heart warningly intimate as Tomas Alfredson’s artfully rendered horror classic. 90 years after FW Murnau originally sparked cinema’s obsession with vampires, Alfredson takes the mythos and reinvigorates it in a way that no other filmmaker has before. It’s ironic that a movie about vampires ends up being the most deeply human film of the year, one that tells a compelling story of innocence, isolation and friendship better than most films in recent memory. It’s a gotic romance, a twisted coming of age tale, but still very much a horror movie at heart. Alfredson employs great restraint when it comes to the violence of this story as it clearly is the aspect he’s least interested in, but that approach does nothing to lessen the chilling nature of the violence when it occurs. It’s beautiful to behold both on a visual and emotional level as it distils centuries of mythology down to a simple childhood romance, but integrates the two in order to make each aspect feel completely immersive and fulfilling. Its characters are fully realised, its vision unflinching and its message so moving that it has to be my favourite film of 2008.