Late? Whatever. I don’t live in New York or LA, I don’t have press passes, so I have to wait for movies like Che to roll through my town before I can call for a verdict on the year previous.



First thing’s first – maybe it’s because I’m coming off the wondrous glow from 2007 (I was rewatching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford last
night when I realized that nothing this year was as good as that is,
and there were three other films from that year that were as good if
not better), but 2008 felt unimpressive. The Top 7 on the following
list, to me, are truly special films, worthy of high regard and endless
discussion. The rest are somewhere between entertaining and really,
really good.



HONORABLE MENTION



Every
year I pick an Honorable Mention (or two) that I could not possibly
include in the Top 10 for one reason or another (usually coming back to
the fact that it’s probably not very good), but one that I feel didn’t
get the attention it deserved. This year, that honor goes to…







PUNISHER: WAR ZONE



It’s not that Punisher: War Zone
is a bad film, although it is frequently bad in any objective, and most
subjective, definitions of the word, it’s just that it’s clear where
the film’s interests lie and where they really just didn’t give a shit.



The
film is rated R for pervasive strong brutal violence, language, and
drug use. Eliminate the last two and I’d say that’s pretty much where
the interests lie. People get all sorts of killed in this film (my
personal favorite…well, I’ll save it for now, but a close second
favorite is a shotgun blast that removes a man’s entire head).



Places
where they don’t give a shit involve pretty much everything else.
Except for plot, actually. I mean, the plot’s silly as hell, but it
does a great job of gradually ramping up the stakes and effectively
gathering together a bunch of people for The Punisher to kill.



It’s
the kind of film that’s loads of fun to watch and loads of fun to talk
about. And it’s a shame more people aren’t taking part in it.







THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON



While
the screenplay prevents this film from ever being more than good,
Fincher’s direction, especially in his understanding of the frame and
visual narrative, catapult this film to the top of the list in terms of
what in 2008 was really worth going to the cinema for. And if it begins
and ends, for you, with how good the movie is, then I guess that’s your
business, but that’s too bad, because there are efforts such as this
that are middle-of-the-road when evaluated as a whole, but contribute
enormously to that most essential quest of cinema – giving us lasting
images.



It’s that quest for the indelible, endurable image that brings me back to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film absolutely rife with them and, aside from MAYBE Che, the film most committed to them and most accomplished in this respect (watch the teaser trailer again…tells
the whole story of the feature at a fraction of the length and with
exponentially more grace). For this reason, the film has grown very
close to my heart, and I implore you – each and every one of you – to
never forget that as inundated as we are with style over substance, to
never forget that images matter, so long as they be solid in foundation
and glorious in execution. So long as they evoke and express, so long
as they contribute to, and in the best of circumstances serve as the
method of delivery for the story and its themes. For those reasons I
beg you…do not forget this film.







































































Runners-Up: Funny Games, WALL-E, Burn After Reading, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Ballast





10. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS



Dismiss
it as a stoner comedy all you want, because it totally works in that
vein. But for those lucky enough to see past that, to see that it’s the
total wish-fulfillment of its cast of characters, or even those who
just enjoy seeing fun, inventive filmmakers letting their imaginations
run wild (on a budget), you couldn’t do much better at the movies. It’s
not that this is a great film in spite of the fact that it makes almost
no sense – it’s a great film BECAUSE of that.







9. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE



I’m
smart enough to know when I’m being manipulated, but appreciative when
a film makes me like it. It’s tough to remind myself that I did
genuinely like this film, because it is without a doubt the most
overrated film of the year (aside from the incredibly mediocre Frost/Nixon),
but dammit it’s still really, really good. I’m amazed by those who
found Boyle’s style overcooked – I thought it captured Mumbai just as
well as the critically-acclaimed City of God
– and who thought it glorified poverty. There’s a rich tradition in
western literature of addressing the problems of poverty, but
ultimately finding an odd sort of shimmer within. And even when the
plot gets overly contrived and the characters continue to flatten (how
does a central character get less interesting as he ages?), the story
never ceased to be enrapturing.







8. THE DARK KNIGHT



One
of the most controversial films among critics, but what the hell. I
still love it. There’s a lot worth talking about surrounding the film –
about how it evokes our post-9/11 fears better than any mainstream film
yet, about Heath Ledger’s performance, about the effectiveness of
Bale’s Batman voice – but I’ll make it simple. Every time I read a
negative critique of the film, I remember a few specific feelings I had
during the film – the sense of dread when the Joker pull up in the
truck in the Lower Fifth chase sequence, for example. But no moment in
the film stuck in my head as forcefully or affected me as deeply as
when Jim Gordon is confronting Two-Face at the construction site, and
yells at him “I’m sorry, Harvey…for everything!” Gary Oldman’s voice
cracks ever-so-slightly, chills run down my spine, and I know I’m
watching something truly great.







7. IN BRUGES



Two
of the best-realized characters of any film I saw this year. Certainly
the most fully-developed relationship between two people. If Sam Fuller
was right that cinema is emotions, In Bruges
is cinema. Entertaining, morose, funny (very, very funny), happy,
depressing, and really intriguing exploration of ideas beyond our
mortal coil while still drenched in the concerns of it.







6. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD



You
can do worse than to have well-acted, well-directed, beautifully shot,
compelling family drama. One of my friends, after seeing the film, said
he didn’t care about the characters. But really…who gives a shit? I
didn’t care one wink about Daniel Plainview, but I found his economic
rise and emotional downfall captivating. Similarly, when you have
actors this good (of all their crimes, not nominating Kate Winslet and
Leonardo DiCaprio for their roles was the Academy’s gravest offense
this year) tearing each other apart…the subtext might not run deep,
the characters may be petty, the right answer obvious, but this was
absolutely riveting. And I don’t care what critic groups or the Academy
said, no one directed their film this year nearly as well as Sam Mendes
directed this.







5. CHE



It’s
hard to even consider this is a single film, as each part is so
radically different from the other in every respect, cast aside. Steven
Soderbergh has always quietly fascinated me, but with this he’s proved
himself (I know I’m like the last person to be convinced he’s a great
director, but at least I got there). No other director this year put
such clear thought into each and every shot, and how it relates to the
picture as a whole, as Soderbergh did here.



I really need to see
it again to discuss it with a great level of authority. It took me days
to figure out why Part II seemed aimless, disorganized, and flat-out
confusing, but once I did, I was astounded. This may yet emerge the
best film of the year, but I certainly won’t know for a long time to
come.







4. THE WRESTLER



On
one hand, I’m glad this film was marketed solely for Rourke’s
performance (which deserves the Oscar, especially among such a bland
field of nominees), because I was able to discover on my own that the
film falls into that all-to-rare field of great films that just happen
to have a great performance at their center. On the other, the film
really has been talked about no only in terms of Rourke’s performance,
which discredits the amazing screenplay, and Darren Aronofsky’s
achievement in stripped-down filmmaking (every filmmaker should be put
to such a test). It’s hard to make formula work, much less to make it
feel so fresh.







3. SPEED RACER



The year’s greatest surprise – I expected the fun and exhilarating race sequences, but I didn’t expect to care this much.



Even
though it’s a far more accomplished film than most are giving it credit
for, I recognize that my response to it is personal. I just don’t
understand who wasn’t genuinely touched by Speed and Pop’s talk at the
end of Act 2, or wasn’t genuinely filled with joy at the end of the
film. That it was a big-budget adaptation of a really awful cartoon
hardly seems the point, though I have no doubt that if the characters
were completely original, this would have been one of the most
acclaimed films of the year. This was, hands down, the happiest I felt
at the theater this year, and movies that make us really, truly happy
are in short supply.







2. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK



A
commenter named Mark on Jason Bellamy’s blog The Cooler wrote that the
film is “frustrating, a bit pretentious, and ultimately depressing.” I
agree, except that he was mentioning these as problems with the film.



Synecdoche, New York is special, and truly extraordinary. It’s the only film I saw all year, besides Speed Racer,
that seemed interested in telling stories in new ways, making it easily
the most essential film of the year. The film is at once episodic and
continuous, and I found that – using episodes over the course of
decades to not just add up to a satisfying whole, but tell a cohesive,
continuous story – to be one of Kaufman’s greatest triumphs. A cut from
one scene to another might span years, but the mood and emotions carry
through.



The moments of light in an otherwise very, very bleak
film were some of the most joyous I felt all year – Caden and Hazel
finally connecting emotionally, Olive remembering a game she used to
play with her father. And they wildly outstrip the film’s missteps (the
house constantly on fire, little Kaufmanesque tricks like Caden seeing
himself in ads and on websites).



I’ve always enjoyed Kaufman’s
work before, but this is the first film he’s been associated with that
matters. That extends beyond its clever premise to really, really
matter.







1. WENDY AND LUCY



Man am I glad I saw this in time. Wendy and Lucy
is, in every respect I can think of, a perfect film. I went in
expecting something much more downbeat, much more depressing, but
instead found one of the most quietly uplifting films of the year.
Don’t get me wrong, the low points are some of the lowest I saw all
year, but there were few moments in the cinema this year as genuinely
uplifting as when a security guard gives Wendy a few dollars.



Michelle
Williams’ often subdued, never indulgent or showy performance as a
woman on the edge of poverty and quietly terrified of falling over is
one of the best performances of the year, and finally moves her from my
list of actors to keep an eye on to someone whose presence in a film
automatically elevates it. Co-writer/director Kelly Reichardt made a
thoughtful, enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable film with Old Joy,
but this elevates her into a league all her own, not just at the
forefront of women filmmakers or independent filmmakers, but simply
filmmakers.



Before making this list, I was about to put Che, The Wrestler, and Synecdoche
at the head of the class in no particular order. I liked them all about
equally, but didn’t get that feeling I got last year regarding films
like The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, There Will Be Blood, or even Michael Clayton
– the need to evangelize. The need to call attention to a film and tell
people they absolutely, no-holds-barred, must see it. A film with a
deft sense of artistry, but is easily accessible. A film absolutely
united, in which any element that may stand out still serves
complimentary to the picture as a whole.



Wendy and Lucy
is such a film. At this moment I can say, unequivocally, that it’s the
best film of the year, and I feel truly privileged to have been able to
see it.



Scott can be reached at Snye@megazinemedia.com