Sunday, February 15, 2009

My 2008 Top 10 movies (with honorable mentions)

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Below I have listed my top 10 films of 2008, along with 4 honorable mentions. I believe I saw close to 45 films in the theatre, on dvd, and on-line, making for a a very good sample size. I would love to hear any thoughts you have, positive or negative, or just questions, so please e-mail me at if you would like a response. Many of the reviews are re-posts, but a few are re-touched and one is brand new, so here we go:

Honorable mention #1 (Appaloosa)

Not too much happens in the Old Western Town of Appaloosa. Sure, people get shot and drunk and punched and pay for female companionship and break people out of jail and a whole lot more, but generally speaking, not a lot happens in Appaloosa.

That is not to say this film is boring. For my tastes, this movie verged on being great, but ultimately too much in the detail was left out for it to break beyond a simple good movie.The town is being run over by Rancher Randall Bragg, played with a flair by Jeremy Irons and played quite well, however he seems to have taken too much of a liking to the outstanding performance of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and I could not get past it the entire movie.Along to save the day are Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), two lawmen who, after being given the power to run things their way, do just that, and the town is slowly brought back to order.

The arrival of Mrs. Allison French (Renee Zellweger) adds some interesting character development to the two men watching over the town, particularly to Cole who quickly falls for her womanly charms like he has never done before. Zellweger’s character, though frankly played very annoyingly early on, actually redeems herself later on by becoming a much more complex role that adds multiple layers to the underlying story.

Throughout the movie there are the slow, sweeping scenes of a dead town and the long, drawn out silences that accompany men who do this type of work. Fair warning to all who do not enjoy slow-paced movies without a lot of bang, relying more on characters and substance, for this movie is not for you.

For my money, though, Harris and Mortensen more than make up for the price of admission, and by the end of the film I feel like both roles were developed nicely and left me with a feeling that the film was complete. To be sure, there were quite a few shaky edits and plot holes that left me feeling a bit bewildered, but overall I enjoyed the genre and the performances.

Honorable mention #2 (Wendy and Lucy )

In a small, run-down town, somewhere in Oregon in some form of present day, is where we witness a few days in the life of Wendy (Michelle Williams). Travelling from Indiana, and most likely somewhere before that, and somewhere before that, she is making her way to Alaska. Her car has been running on life-support for some time, ever since a mechanic in another town told her it was only a matter of time, and it is at this point in time that it decides to make its final stand. Low on cash and in desperate need for a shower, Wendy finds herself being fingerprinted for shoplifting some dog food for Lucy, her travelling companion.

The film is a look into the life of Wendy as she waits out her car problems and searches for Lucy, who was no longer where she had been tied when Wendy was taken away in the back of a patrol car. It is also a look into the life of a girl who represents an often overlooked sect of our society – the young vagabond. Not conforming to the norms of society, she wants something else in life. For Wendy, something else is Alaska. For a few of the other travelers she meets briefly, it is leaving Alaska. There is no end to the journey of the Wendy’s of the world, only the journey itself.

An outdoor security guard (Wally Dalton) offers the only form of companionship and compassion to the distraught girl as she waits day after day for news of her lost friend. He offers her his cell phone and words of encouragement. Every day from 8-8 he stands there, one of the few jobs in the town to be had. He represents the inherent good in people, that something that you don’t always see in people, but you secretly hope it is there. His final gesture of good will is touching and sad, and it sums up the entire situation in which all the characters in this film find themselves.

Only one other character plays a role in this film, a mechanic (Will Patton) who is the bearer of bad news for Wendy as he gives her broken car the once-over. He represents much of what the security guard is not, but we find it hard to be angry with him. He seems to be a product of his environment.

Touching at times, Wendy and Lucy is the story of a girl searching for more than just her dog. Williams puts on a fantastic portrayal of a competent, yet struggling young American just trying to find some meaning in life, whether it be through her dog or thousands of miles away in Alaska, and her lonely countenance in many scenes and voice of despair in a brief call home really will stick with me for some time. With slow movement and little action, the film will not be for all tastes, but for those who enjoy a character piece with social implications (though hardly preachy) this film might just be an overlooked gem in the rough.

Honorable mention #3 (Pride and Glory)

Pride and Glory is a film that has been on my short list to see for some time now, but was seemingly relegated to limited screen time nationwide. Only two theaters within 50 miles of me have showings, and only 2 separate viewing times, late at night. This generally means one of two things in the movie industry:

1. It is a new release with a lot of hype potential that will explode late in the year to a huge audience or,

2. It didn't work out so well and nobody is showing it anymore. I'm not sure this particular movie falls under either category, oddly enough, so I'll create a third:

3. Wonderful gem, with little or no hype, that has been passed by and sent to die a slow death in dark movie houses with artificial popcorn and less than 80 seats per screen.

It would be easy to dismiss this film as just another in a long line of dirty cops getting what they deserve, but that would be a terrible injustice. Wedged within 120 minutes are some truly spectacular performances, including more than one Oscar-worthy role. The scene is New York City and the Tierney family is mixed up in varying degrees with shady cop business. From the very beginning we get what is arguably Jon Voight's finest performance in long-term memory as Francis Tierney, Sr., long time NY police office. I have no other word to describe it than gritty, for he really captures the feel of what it must be to oversee a family of cops in NY, hardened by the job but clinging to the self-imposed necessity to protect the family name. His sons Ray Tierney (Norton) and Francis Tierney, Jr. (Emmerich), and step-son Jimmy Egan (Farrell) are tough cops, each with his own demons to fight.

The amazing aspect of this film is that at no point can I clearly say who the story is about, and that leaves an impression on me, even now, as I think back to what I saw, that seemingly feels correct. A lot happens in 2 hours, and when you catch on to the director's vision it doesn't feel right to pick Ed Norton's character as the driving force, although it would seem like the way to go.This film is about ethics and morals and codes and bad cops and varying degrees of right and wrong, but it is also very much about family, in a twisted and seedy way.

Norton is fabulous in this role as the tormented son who made a tough decision years ago that still haunts him. It is ultimately he who pursues the clues that lead him to unthinkable crimes within the precinct and ultimately his own family.

Farrell, likewise, puts on a seamless portrayal of a cop with a family trying to get by, and I quickly was able to forget previous roles he played and immerse myself in his character as the step-son with a lot of skeletons to hide.

The surprise role to me was that of Emmerich, playing the ambitious son who rose through the ranks, and now must face the consequences of his actions. Known well to me for two outstanding roles in Beautiful Girls (1996) and The Truman Show (1998), both as the best friend, if I had a vote in the Academy he would get a first ballot nod for Best-Supporting Actor, as his role really cements the family together and ties the story into one cohesive unit.

Intertwined with the family are incredible supporting spots by a myriad of cops and wives and girlfriends and drug dealers. You will also find one of the most disturbing scenes of potential torture one cop uses to get a suspect to give up evidence. It was as close as I have come to actually turning away from the screen. One dirty cop, shortly before shooting himself in the head, explains that it all started for Pride and Glory, and then he is dead. That accurately describes the film's underlying theme, and though very dark and disturbing at times, it is a movie that is true to itself.

Honorable mention #4 (The Fall)

It is very rare when one can proclaim something – anything! – To be “The Best.” What’s the best car ever made? Who was the best President? Do you think it will be anytime soon that the best baseball player of all time will be determined?

And so it is that much sweeter that I am able to announce here that The Best visually appealing and graphically mesmerizing film of all time has been declared, by me, to be The Fall, directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell).

With a blitz-like array of colors and patterns, we are taken on a fantastical journey mixed with truths and lies and fairy-tale rhymes in a world both real and un-real, natural and un-natural.
The setting for this concoction of whimsy brilliance begins in a sad, dark hospital in Los Angeles around the second decade of the 1900s. A stunt man, Roy Walker (Lee Pace) has had his legs paralyzed from a fall and now lies in a bed awaiting care. A little girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) with a broken arm looks to make friends with the man, and so approaches and begins a conversation.

What transpires next and throughout the film is the tale of a man telling a child a story, something that has happened and will happen many many times. Only this time it is magical.
Alexandria, who is played wonderfully by a Romanian actress, listens to Roy’s story and begins to take it all in, and suddenly we are aware that we are viewing the story from the mind of the child, and a child’s mind is a mysterious and grasping place.

We come to learn the story of a band of 5 misfits, each intent on revenge towards the evil Governor Odious. The group consist of: An ex-African slave, an Italian bomb expert, an Indian (told to us that he is from India), Charles Darwin and his pet monkey, Wallace, and lastly the Black Bandit, who we come to realize is Roy having inserted himself into the story.

As these men begin their journey from a deserted island with the help of swimming elephants we begin to see that we cannot believe what we are seeing. Themes of suicide and anger permeate the underlying depths of the story, but it is the chemistry between the sorrowful, paralyzed actor and the immensely sweet and endearing Alexandria that holds the tale together. So wonderfully natural is the child’s acting that you feel like you are invading on a nighttime story session being told in her bedroom.

From here the story takes on a life of its own, with Roy speaking the words and Alexandria creating the fantastical pictures and story in her head. To try and do justice to the images with words is absurd, and I can only say that, maybe if you took an artist’s pallet and threw it against a Jackson Pollack, you might, just might, understand the explosion of color that will come at you from all angles.

In researching the back story to this film some incredible feats come to light. Tarsem, who created the similar world of 2000s The Cell, created this film as his passion project, his need to give something to his craft. And so, finding himself alone, sold everything and financed the three-million dollar project personally, as he shot on location in some 18 countries over many years. According to those involved, no computer-generated effects were used, which is absolutely mind-blowing considering the vast array of unfathomable scenic beauty. Were some tricks employed? I am certain, but the how and why are not important.

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, distribution became a problem. Eventually it was picked up by David Fincher and Spike Jonze, and it made its US debut in the Summer of 2008.

Along with a wonderful score and a compelling story line, this film must be viewed if for nothing more than the reason we view great pieces of art hundreds and thousands of years after they are created.

#10 (Doubt)

Going to St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960s was never easy. Speaking out of line in class would earn you a one-way ticket to Hell (not literally of course). The Hell I refer to is that of the office of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the nastiest nun you’ve ever met. Ruling with her own version of an iron fist, Sister Beauvier was the last person you wanted to see after breaking one of a thousand rules.

This was not uncommon, so I’ve been told. Catholic school is place of discipline. It is also a place that puts people in positions of power, a hierarchy, and perhaps, just maybe, it lends itself to a bit more secrecy than other institutions of learning.

And so we are thrust into this community of the church in the middle of a changing wind. A new Priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has started his time at the school and is immediately brought under the scrutiny of Sister Beauvier. Father Flynn is likeable, amicable, and smiles at all the children. She of course is the exact opposite. This changing of the times is not something she wants to accept.

But Father Flynn is not the only change. Sister James (Amy Adams) is fresh-faced and eager to please. She loves teaching History and takes pity on students with bloody-noses. As Sister Beauvier points out directly to her, Sister James is very naïve.

The story of Doubt centers on the premise that what we think we know may not always be true, and what we want to be true may not always be so. Father Flynn becomes the center of a scandal (though central only to the 3 main characters) involving the potentially improper abuses of a young boy. The boy happens to be the only black child at the school and comes from an abusive home. Father Flynn seems to take a special liking to him, at least that is what the Sisters believe they have witnessed.

It would seem that the film revolves around the classic case of he said/she said, and that would be a good way to start to think about the implications of the movie. But it goes deeper than that. Amy Adams gives an amazing supporting role performance as the nun who must decide if she is strong enough to believe in what she feels to be right. Is she just a naïve new teacher who cannot see that sometimes people are bad? Is she able to decide for herself what the truth is?

At the center of this film is the power struggle between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn, each unwilling to back down from their own assertions, each unable to produce clear and practical evidence to support his or her claims. Viola Davis plays Mrs. Miller, the mother of the young boy caught in the middle of this struggle. Her role has been applauded by award nominations, though a minor role, and perhaps rightfully so. I felt like she added a great deal to the movie in her limited time on screen with Streep, and by the conclusion I feel that her role was much more important that I originally gave it credit.

What does it mean to spread opinions based on nothing more than conjecture? How far does one go to find out the truth, and at what costs? This film comes out at a time when many question the central themes in their own daily lives. Priest abuse on children has been in the world news for years now, so it comes as no surprise a major movie would be made to discuss the topic. But this film is not simply a movie about whether a Priest abused a child, it is in fact a great study in character development and why people think and act the ways that they do. I found the ending to be a great moment in cinema.

And who would have thought the same person who directed this (John Patrick Shanley) is credited with just one other film, 1990s Joe Versus the Volcano?

#9 (Synecdoche, New York)

I felt very fortunate to recently find myself with a free afternoon near an historic theater in Cambridge, MA that had a showing of Synecdoche, New York, directed by Charlie Kaufman, well known for his writing and production credits on films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, among others, and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who needs no introduction as one of the great actors of our time. I had only heard of this “strange” film through word of mouth and decided to do something I rarely ever do: I read a full review by Roger Ebert before I saw the film.

Maybe this isn’t alarming to some, to get an opinion or two before viewing a film, but I have always felt that seeing a movie and forming my own thoughts an important aspect to discovering what is and is not considered great to me. I will admit that I skim plot summaries of movies and view trailers, etc, to make sure I am somewhat interested in a film, but almost never do I read a full review with opinions that may influence my decision to see or not to see. Here is a link to the review by Roger Ebert if you are interested: - search for the title.

Now that I’ve admitted to hearing someone else’s opinion of this film, I’d like to say that I still don’t really know what to say.

On the one hand, you have a film that has a plot and is not too difficult to follow. However, as you are watching and sort of understanding what is happening, you realize that you don’t quite get what is happening, and slowly you realize that you have no idea what is truly happening, even though you may think you think you know what may or may not be happening.

Yes, I just wrote the above and I stand by it. Did I like this movie? Yes, I did. Can I explain why? I’m not sure. I think I said I like it because it feels very much like a real life in torment, and I am drawn to films that really attack human emotion and those that try to show through film ideas and notions that are nearly impossible to portray. But again, with that said, I’m not sure what to say about this “strange” film.

As Ebert writes in his review: This has not been a conventional review. There is no need to name the characters, name the actors, assign adjectives to their acting. Look at who is in this cast. You know what I think of them. This film must not have seemed strange to them. It's what they do all day, especially waiting around for the director to make up his mind.

This is pretty good stuff.

I could try to explain the basic plot: Hoffman’s character has a crappy life and the movie takes us through his tormented mind as he lives life and uses his own career as a theatre director to attempt to make sense of his suffering , or to at least organize it into something manageable. However, I don’t know if that is the correct interpretation.

I almost decided not to write anything and just let this film live in my mind as I viewed it, as a piece of art that I am not quite sure I enjoyed, but I know I did not dislike. I don’t mind “crazy” movies. They don’t bother me like they do some, as long as I am willing to take the time to try and dissect what I am seeing and hearing, it can’t all be bad. With this film I did feel like I was being asked to do a bit too much dissecting about the ¾ mark of the run time, though, and that did make me somewhat angry.

Having characters playing characters who are watching themselves in a play as characters of their real selves is ok, I suppose, but then to make timelines incomprehensible and characters coming and going without explanations, or at least logical explanations, got to be just a bit much.

Ultimately I was glad I saw this film as it renews my belief that if people continue to make projects such as this they will eventually get them right, and we will all benefit from that.

#8 (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)

There is something magical about being young and optimistic. The world is there for the taking and all you have to do is reach out and grab it – that is, as long as you can figure out what exactly it is that you want. And what if you do know what you want? Or, at least you think you do, but come to find that you don’t, and maybe, just maybe, the things you do want are not what are best for you, but how do you really know, because you’ve thought you knew what you wanted for so long?

And so we dance.

Director/Writer Woody Allen presents to us the timeless story of young people going off to a foreign land in search of something. Of course it is much more complicated than that. Through the use of a narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) we are told the story of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two young American friends with very different views on life, who travel to Barcelona to spend the Summer with Vicki’s relatives. Vicky is the safe one. She is engaged to a safe man and she spends a lot of time studying everything. Cristina is impulsive and romantic, and were she to find herself in a stable relationship for just a bit too long she would figure out what she didn’t like and move on.

The story moves forward very quickly once the two women meet a mysterious painter, Juan Antonio played by Javier Bardem, a rather interesting change from his previous role as the psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh in 2007s No Country for Old Men. Through his charm and Cristina’s need to explore, the three of them find themselves on a whirl-wind romance of mind and body, in which you the viewer is lead down a fairly certain path only to find yourself coming to a fork in the road.

I admit I am not well-versed in Woody Allen films, and what I have seen did not really blow me away. In a vacuum this movie blew me away. When I first saw this film I proclaimed that it would be in my top 5 of the year, and that is where it stayed for most of the year, although it had some very strong late competition.

Perhaps what I liked most about this film, and why I praise it so much, is that even though the story is a little far-fetched, it is totally plausible. I’m sure there are some very charming Spanish men out there meeting American girls every day, seducing them. Just as I am sure there are friends travelling together with different types of lives. I won’t give out spoilers on the Penélope Cruz character Maria Elena, but just know she is my pick for the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. She brings such a fire to this role and you find yourself thinking of people you know who act like this, and saying wow, what an impressive job she does.

The narrator’s voice over can be a bit much, for this film I did not really mind him telling us a lot of the background. Some movies need to show and not tell, but I thought this one got by just fine. I laughed a lot at this film, but I also took it to heart and viewed it as a serious piece of commentary.

#7 (Milk)

Sean Penn is Harvey Milk. At least that's what I will always remember him as, after seeing his wonderful portrayal of the gay/activist/politician who was gunned down, along with Mayor George Moscone, in 1978 by San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Dan White (Josh Brolin) at City Hall.

Like another very good film this year, Frost/Nixon, the overall story is based in fact, and the outcome is readily known. It is what the director and the actors bring to the script that makes us feel something, and is the reason we ultimately end up caring about what happens to characters such as Harvey Milk.

The film opens and closes with a 48 year old Milk speaking into a tape recorder, leaving instructions and thoughts in the (likely?) case that he is ever assassinated. In between we are taken along the previous 8 years of Milk's life, as he goes from a 40 year old gay man living in New York who tells one of his partners in bed that he has done nothing much with his life, to the 48 year old who became the first openly-gay elected politician in the United States, and the leader of a major gay rights movement in San Francisco and across the nation. Along with his partner Scott Smith (James Franco), Milk opens up a photography store near Castro Theater in a very gay neighborhood of San Francisco. Witnessing that even there they would be subject to hate, Milk begins to organize and share his views with other gay members of the community, eventually running for, losing, then winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors.

During this time we see Milk's power to bring people together, to project unity and fairness, and it is during these scenes that Penn shines the brightest. The process of getting there is the story of Milk, and with a decent supporting role by Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild; The Girl Next Door) as lost but found young gay activist Cleve Jones, Penn gives us the good, the not so good, and the very real life of a man fighting for human rights while striving to live his own life in peace - it is told to us that no less than 3 of Milk's partners have killed themselves over the years, a topic, percentage wise skewed in the gay community, not covered too much in mainstream media.

Not to be overlooked is the strong performance by Josh Brolin (W.; No Country for Old Men) as Board of Supervisors member Dan White. It is heavily implied that White's "all-American" lifestyle of family values is a cover for his actual homosexuality, and ultimately this is to be reasoned as the driving force towards his eventual murders of the Mayor and of Milk. Brolin does a very nice job as a man conflicted, a political man, and his relationship with Milk, though friendly on the surface, is wrought with tension and, most likely, anger.

In the end I found myself thinking of the film, of the performances, and more importantly of our society and how much it takes great men doing great things at the right time in history to make great changes. I'm not convinced Harvey Milk had any great aspirations, but when the chance was there he seized it and he changed countless lives for the better. I have very little to complain about with this film, but I also don't have too much over-the-top praise. It is a very good film and one worth seeing.

#6 (The Dark Knight)

There were two films I saw in 2008 that can be categorized in the ‘comic book’ genre, and both were quite good for very different reasons. The first, Iron Man, was one and a half hours of great fun and a wonderful performance by Robert Downey Jr., and 25 minutes or so of nauseating sequences. Overall, a good, fun film.

The second was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a deeper, more complex and thought-provoking film with an unforgettable performance. What ultimately lifts The Dark Knight above, say, Iron Man, is the way it moves itself slightly outside the boundary of the classic comic book film, and pulls us into a more realistic world with real life truths and consequences.

While there are the obligatory chase sequences (which are wonderful) we are not zooming around a faux-world wondering what the next zany caper will be. Instead, we are following a mad man, The Joker, played with award-winning vigor by Heath Ledger as he pushes the other characters of Gotham to the breaking point through the combination use of manipulation and brute force.

A re-telling of plot for this film feels almost irrelevant, as it is the production value that is the true star. In terms of who/what/where/when/why, it is most important to know that Batman, again played by Christian Bale, is the midst of turmoil as the citizens of his city are torn between him being helpful or hurtful. His long love Rachel, played most averagely by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is now in a relationship with the city DA, Harvey Dent, played with a flair and passion by Aaron Eckhart as he seeks to aid the Batman in his want to rid the city of crime. Commissioner Gordon’s role is reprised by Gary Oldman who always does a fantastic job, as do Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Michael Caine as Alfred. With the arrival of the twisted and psychologically provoking Joker their worlds are all put to the test.

I have never been a fan of this genre as a whole, but I try not to hold that against a film when viewing for the first time. I have seen The Dark Knight 3 times now, mainly because I found the first viewing to be a very positive experience and wanted to see what I may have missed, but also because of the haunting role of the Joker. Ledger, having passed away after production of the film was complete, puts on such a commanding performance as the villain of this film that you are drawn back time and time again to witness the genius. I don’t easily praise acting, especially one that takes place in make-up and costume, but from the very opening sequence that almost re-makes a bank heist scene from the excellent movie Heat, we are drawn to this character as he stands, shoulders slumped, on the corner of a busy city street, before walking away with the money. There are stretches in the film where the Joker is no where to be found, yet I caught myself anticipating what he was doing off screen, and when he would make his next appearance. It is quite rare for an actor to have the strong a hold over the audience, and I admired it.

There was a tremendous amount of hype for this movie, and ultimately no movie can live up to those expectations. Many have placed this film higher than I have, but this is a personal preference for the other films I saw in 2008. I can understand fully those who say this was one of the best of the year, and I agree, but ultimately it still falls under the comic book umbrella, which, for me, is not the ultimate test of a movie. What does propel this into my top 10 besides the role of the Joker, are the underlying themes of good and evil, but even more so, of the psychology of good and evil in people who are not so easily defined. Harvey Dent has a not so flattering nick name he had to earn somehow, yet he could just very well be the White Knight that Gotham needs. Bruce Wayne may put on a suit and fight for justice, but he battles his own demons. These characters have real pasts and are put to impossible decisions throughout the movie, which to me makes for a longer than average film that felt like it could have been even longer.


#5 (Slumdog Millionaire)

Jamal Malik sits back in his seat as the lights shine down upon him. The man across from him has asked a question, and now he is being watched by the man, by the studio audience, and by countless millions of people throughout India. If Jamal answers correctly he will be rich beyond fairy-tale lore, but if he is wrong he will be just another slumdog. Or will he?

Danny Boyle’s (Sunshine; Trainspotting) new film Slumdog Millionaire begins with suspense and never lets up. That the movie is a beautiful piece of art is unquestionable, and I will only venture to write that I found the scenery and rhythm of this film to be the best of the year, and so artistically breath-taking that words here cannot accurately describe what the eyes must see. The sweeping scenes of India and specifically the slums of Mumbai will leave a lasting impression on the viewer, especially if you have had little to no experience with such conditions.

With that said, this is a film that is a story within a story within a story, though all three are told fairly seamlessly and intertwined. The first story is that of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) and his opportunity to win millions on a game show. The second story is Jamal’s desperate attempts to reunite with his lost love, Latika (Freida Pinto). And the final story is that of Jamal and his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) as we watch them grow from small children to young adults, each taking a distinctly different path to get there.

The three stories unfold with the game show acting as the glue, and by which we come to learn (through multiple actors playing the Malik brothers and Latika as they grow older) how it is that Jamal could possibly go from being just another ‘slumdog’ to a multi-millionaire answering questions to which he should seemingly have no business knowing the answers.

Along this journey we are taken into the slums of India as children are forced and tortured into a Gypsy life-style. We also play witness to religious violence and the overtly stated caste system of India, in which children can live in the worst squalor next to men driving Mercedes and throwing cash away as if it is trash.

The screenplay, based on the book Q and A by Vikas Swarup, follows Jamal as he answers questions on a game show, and we are treated to flashback sequences of his life to see just how it is that a person from his background came to know answers to so many random questions. Throughout this process we are taken for a sibling roller coaster ride as Jamal and Salim take very different paths in their efforts to escape their birth conditions.

Though the love story is the driving force behind this film, and it is the central hinge for which all of Jamal’s experiences are hanging, I found the part of Latika to be the Weakest Link (pun intended) in an otherwise brilliant display of character development. Ultimately, I just didn’t believe or get or fully comprehend her love for Jamal in the way I understood his. There are also some very undeveloped roles of the goons and thugs of which I would have liked to see more, and just a few too many leaps of faith in the plot line. These are, however, to be taken as fairly minor points, and that still leaves me feeling that this film deserves a spot at or near the top of the best films of the year.

#4 (Revolutionary Road)

I think most people can recall a time in their lives when everything was there for the taking. All you had to do was put up your sail, let the wind take you, and enjoy the ride. Inevitably that wind began to die down, though, and at some point your boat was grounded again.

Such is the way of life for many people who have failed to recognize a dream, perhaps due to lack of initiative, or, more likely, just due to life’s circumstances. Ultimately, the vast majority of people go on to achieve varying degrees of fulfillment from life – some realize their dreams, others do not.

And so we come to Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), the seemingly poster couple for the American Dream in 1950s suburbia living on Revolutionary Road. Frank is “in office machines” and commutes to the city every day along with throngs of body doubles all wearing nicely pressed suits and matching hats, blissfully aware that the hours they will spend at their desks have little or no relevance to anything important. April tends to the house chores and the children, taking out the garbage and dreaming of a time when she was passionate about anything, in her case, acting.

Anyone who has seen director Sam Mendes’ fabulous film American Beauty (1999) should have no trouble grasping what sort of dark material is going to be covered from the time we meet the starry eyed lovers to the moment we realize that not all is as it seems in this cut-out cross-section of life to which we play witness. The difference with that earlier work and this, however, is the depth of deep-seeded angst and, dare I say, hatred that these two characters are asked to exude to one another and to the audience, and who better than Winslet and DiCaprio, rekindling their on-screen chemistry of a decade ago on another boat that was heading to disaster?

I prefer not to get into too many specifics as this movie unwinds so wonderfully I wouldn’t want to ruin the slow progression of despair you are made to feel as you live the lives of these characters. Rather, I’d like to simply point out that this film is most likely, sadly, not too far from the truth for many people, if not to this drastic degree of solemnity. And in that regard it will hit home with a crushing blow to some who will undoubtedly seek to search out their own secrets and opportunities lost. This movie is not for the weak of stomach, nor for the weak of mind.

We get a very solid supporting role out of Kathy Bates as realtor and family friend Mrs. Helen Givings, who one day asks if the Wheeler’s wouldn’t mind having lunch with her husband and their son, John, who has been hospitalized as a mental patient. Michael Shannon delivers the role of the man who has been shocked so many times in his brain that he has all but forgotten how to do the complex math work he so used to love. It is his performance over the course of a few luncheons that drives home much of the central theme of the movie and ultimately leads to the Wheeler’s full self-understandings of themselves. Or, perhaps, simply their non-understanding.
What do people want out of life? Does an idyllic existence exist? And if so, can it be shared with someone else?

The answers may not be given in Revolutionary Road, but the journey to seeing what happens when things go wrong is an experience in itself.

#3 (In Bruges)

Ray: Do you think this is good?
Ken: Do I think what's good?
Ray: You know, going around in a boat, looking at stuff?
Ken: Yes, I do. It's called sight-seeing.

The beauty of Bruges, the city in Belgium, is that it is “the most well-preserved medieval city in the whole of Belgium”, according to Ken (Brendan Gleeson) as he flips through his touristy books and maps. Ray (Colin Farrell) responds with the memorable line, “Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't.”

This aptly sums up the two distinct personalities of Ken and Ray, two hit-men hired to do a job that did not go according to plan. The two men are sent to the picturesque city of Bruges to wait for further instructions from their boss, Harry Waters, played wonderfully by (Ralph Fiennes). How much time they will have to wait is unknown (though 2 weeks in the same hotel room is probably a good guess) and so the two men proceed to pass the time in various ways and varying degrees of strangeness.

Director Martin McDonagh presents to us a complex film that, on the surface, you might think a fairly typical Hollywood plot. There is murder, drugs, sex, dark comedy, on-location shooting – all things you can find in any big-budget action flick. What In Bruges manages to do is to take all those components and weave them into a story about the human condition, a story told to us through the viewpoint of multiple and distinct characters, each with a set of ideals and thoughts and beliefs that may not agree with each other, but ultimately are strong enough to guide in each of the character’s convictions.

I found myself playing the role of tourist while watching this film, imagining myself climbing the towers or slowly coasting around canal corners. The scenery is breathtaking, no doubt, but it is the character driven film that makes this such a special project. Multiple supporting roles lend so much to the film that it takes some of the burden off the main two characters and allows us to remember that this is a real city with real people living real lives, even if we only get to see a glimpse of the not-so-proper ways of living.

Without giving away too much, for I found that knowing very little going in made this a special experience, it should be noted that whether you feel this is the story of Ken or of Ray, we are privy to so much from each that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Each has and will make his own decisions and accept the consequences, whatever they may be.

Ultimately it is a story of convictions for these characters – What can you live with? And what is too much to carry? This film received multiple award nominations and rightfully so. I was taken in by Gleeson’s portrayal of an introspective, mature hit-man, just as much as I was thrilled to see Farrell pull off a much more complex character than he is used to doing.

Along with an American dwarf actor and local drug-selling beauty, In Bruges managed to pull off that rare ability to make me watch no less than 3 times since its release, with an emphasis on hardly being able to wait to go back for a 4th viewing.


#2 (The Wrestler)


Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is long past his prime as a top professional wrestler. Living in a trailer he can barely afford, and driving a van that will barely start, his body is beaten, he is old, and he is alone. To earn money he works at a local store on weekdays taking orders from a frail, snibbly boss in a tie. Occasionally he signs autographs at local gyms, inking his once famous name to portraits of a former life, then stuffing dollar bills into a fanny pack. To kill time and spend the money he doesn't have, he hangs out at the local strip club drinking beer and fantasizing about Cassidy (Marisa Tomei ), and thinking of ways to take her away from it all. His estranged daughter hates him and tells him so.

But on weekends, The Ram still wrestles.

Director Darren Aronofsky presents to us the story of a washed up superstar who has burned many bridges and now, in the twilight of his career and life, is faced not only with his own mortality, but the prospect of a life alone. Mickey Rourke plays "The Ram" with an entirely too real understanding of what daily life must be like for an aging star. Rourke himself has gone through tough times in his personal life, spanning a long career that started with critical success but slowly faded out, only to be brought back to mainstream culture as Marv in 2005s Sin City.

He must have drawn greatly on his own life when making The Wrestler, and it comes across brilliantly. This film is very low on the action side of things, and other than a few stunt-doubled parts and possible CGI effects, you would never know that what you are watching is a movie, and not simply a sad real life. And that is what ultimately makes this movie work so well for me, that I completely forgot I was watching actors, and sort of just drifted away into the 'real' world of these people.

Amongst the wonderful behind-the scenes shots of what it is like to wrestle in local gymnasiums and to constantly need to inject oneself with everything under the sun, the film has the ultimate reality feel at the end, bringing this sad life to the only possible conclusion.

With a strong supporting role from Evan Rachel Wood as The Ram's daughter Stephanie, and a decent performance by Tomei (and graphically sexual), Rourke is able to deliver to us a glimpse into the life of a lonely person seeking something even he can no longer understand. In the end, will there be anybody left to care about The Ram, other than the small crowd of cheering and jeering fans?

#1 (Frost/Nixon)

Even if you know close to nothing about political history it is safe to say you have probably heard of Watergate. It is also safe to say that you correlate Watergate with the 1970s and President Richard Nixon. In Ron Howard’s new masterpiece Frost/Nixon we are taken back to the Summer of 1977 to play witness to a series of interviews between TV personality David Frost and semi-exiled Ex-President Richard Nixon. What transpires over the course of the film is nothing short of brilliance in the way of character performance, equaled shot for shot by Michael Sheen as Frost, the successful foreign showman who is trying to climb back into the NY picture, and Frank Langella as Nixon, a proud, larger-than life figure battling his own demons while trying to clear his tarnished reputation.

I am not a political historian, but in doing some basic research on the film it is apparent that liberties were taken with some of the facts and sequences, but after all this is not billed a documentary and that should not deter you in any way from enjoying this as a fictionalized piece imbrued with mostly fact, or factual like scenarios.

The movie takes you through the tormented minds of two very different people over seemingly very different issues, but ultimately, what we find, is that these two are more alike than either could have ever imagined, and the culminating scenes of the film draw us in deeply to the minds of these two as they fight man to man in a verbal battle that will ultimately lead to a staggering conclusion.

The film itself sets up as a character piece early on, in which we come to learn of David Frost and how he went from the top of the world in terms of US stature to fighting his way through talk shows and entertainment venues in Australia. He badly wants to get back to the top in the capital of the world- New York City. After the resignation of Richard Nixon and subsequent Presidential pardon, there was no closure, no apology, no admission, and simply no acknowledgment by Ex-President Nixon. He simply moved to California and did not speak of such things.

Though Sheen gives an impressive performance and is as much the driving force of the film as anything, it is simply the work of Langella that reaches out and grabs you by the neck and says “Hey! This is what acting is all about!” His portrayal of the disgraced Ex-President, looking for redemption, seeking something he cannot quite grasp, is one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on the big screen. I was captivated by his movements and even more so his larger-than-life presence. With each cut to him exiting a vehicle, or psyching himself up with a quick jog to music, I found myself feeling both sympathy and pity for this man.

I will not give out more details though it is widely known how the interviews turned out. I am simply going to say that this is an absolute must see film and is my choice for the top movie of 2008.


Other excellent movies not quite making my list, for your consideration:


Iron Man

The Reader


Movies I did not see that I will try to get to soon, but were not considered for this list:

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
A Girl Cut in Two
Rachel Getting Married
The Secret Life of Bees
Let the Right One in
Happy go Lucky

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