In these hard times, you deserve two "best films" lists for the price of one. It is therefore with joy that I list the 20 best films of 2008, in alphabetical order. I am violating the age-old custom that film critics announce the year's 10 best films, but after years of such lists, I've had it. A best films list should be a celebration of wonderful films, not a chopping process. And 2008 was a great year for movies, even if many of them didn't receive wide distribution.
Look at my 20 titles, and you tell me which 10 you would cut. Nor can I select one to stand above the others, or decide which should be No. 7 and which No. 8. I can't evaluate films that way. Nobody can, although we all pretend to. A "best films" list, certainly. But of exactly 10, in marching order? These 20 stood out for me, and I treasure them all. If it had been 19 or 21, that would have been OK. If you must have a Top 10 List, find a coin in your pocket. Heads, the odd-numbered movies are your 10. Tails, the even-numbered.
I have composed a separate list of the year's five best documentaries. They also may be described as "one of the year's best." And this year's Special Jury Award goes to Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg," which stands between truth and fiction, using the materials of the documentary to create a film completely preposterous and deeply true. Another of "the year's best."
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"Ballast" A deep silence has fallen upon a Mississippi Delta family after the death of a husband and brother. Old wounds remain unhealed. The man's son shuttles uneasily between two homes, trying to open communication by the wrong means. The debut cast is deeply convincing, and writer-director Lance Hammer observes them with intense empathy. No, it's not a film about poor folks on the Delta; they own a nice little business, but are paralyzed by loneliness. At the end, we think, yes, that is what would happen, and it would happen exactly like that.
"The Band's Visit" A police ceremonial band from Egypt, in Israel for a cultural exchange, ends up in a desert town far from anywhere and is taken on mercy by the bored, cynical residents. A long night's journey marked with comedy, human nature, and bittersweet reality. Richly entertaining, with sympathetic performances by Sasson Gabai as the bandleader and Ronit Elkabetz as the owner of a local cafe. Written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Was at Ebertfest 2008.
"Che" The epic journey of a 20th century icon, the Argentinian physician who became a comrade of Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolu- tion and then moved to South America to support revolution there. Benicio del Toro is persuasive as the fiercely ethical firebrand, in a film that includes unusual and unfamiliar chapters in Che's life. Steven Soderbergh's film is 257 minutes long, but far from boring. (Opens Jan. 16)
"Chop Shop" The great emerging American director Ramin Bahrani finds a story worthy of "City of God" in a no-man's land in the shadow of Shea Stadium, where a young boy and his sister support themselves in a sprawling, off-the-books auto repair and scrap district. Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales seem to live their roles, in a masterpiece that intimately knows its world, its people and their survival tactics. It will be featured at Ebertfest 2009.
"The Dark Knight" The best of all the Batmans, Christopher Nolan's haunted film leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. The "comic book movie" has at last reclaimed its deep archetypal currents. With a performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker that will surely win an Oscar, a Batman (Christian Bale) who is tortured by moral puzzles and a district attorney (Aaron Eckhart) forced to make impossible choices.
"Doubt" A Catholic grade school is ruled by the grim perfectionist Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), whose draconian rule is challenged by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A young nun (Amy Adams) is caught between them, as the film shows how assumptions can be doubted, and doubted again. Viola Davis, as the mother of the school's only black student, has one significant scene, but it is long, crucial and heartbreaking. Davis goes face to face with Streep with astonishing conviction and creates reasons for doubt that may be more important than deciding the truth. John Patrick Shanley directed and adapted his Tony Award-winning play. (Opens Friday)
"The Fall" Tarsem's film is a mad folly, an extravagant visual orgy, a free fall from reality into uncharted realms. A wounded stunt-man, circa 1914, tells a story to a 4-year-old girl, and we see how she imagines it. It has vast romantic images so stunning, I had to check twice, three times, to be sure the film actually claims to have absolutely no computer-generated imagery. None? What about the Labyrinth of Despair, with no exit? The intersecting walls of zig-zagging staircases? The man who emerges from the burning tree? Filmed over four years in 28 countries. It will be at Ebertfest 2009.
"Frost/Nixon" The story of a duel between a crafty man and a persistent one. How many remember that the "lightweight" British interviewer David Frost was the one who finally persuaded Richard Nixon to say he had committed crimes in connection with Watergate and let his country down? With his own money riding on the interviews, Frost (Michael Sheen) is desperate after Nixon finesses him in the early sessions, but he pries away at Nixon's need to confess. Frank Langella is uncanny as RMN. Ron Howard directs mercilessly. (Opens Friday)
"Frozen River" Melissa Leo should be nominated for her performance. She plays an hourly employee in a discount store, struggling to support two kids and a run-down trailer after her husband deserts her with their savings. After making an unlikely alliance with a Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) who was stealing her car, she finds herself a human trafficker, driving Chinese across the ice into the United States. A spellbinding thriller, yes, but even more a portrait of economic struggle in desperate times. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt. It will be at Ebertfest 2009.
"Happy-Go-Lucky" Here's another nominee for best actress -- Sally Hawkins, playing a cheerful schoolteacher who seems improbably upbeat until we win a glimpse into her soul. No, she's not secretly depressed. She's genuinely happy, but that hasn't made her stupid or afraid. Mike Leigh's uncanny ability to find drama in ordinary lives is used with genius, as the teacher encounters a driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) as negative as she is positive. Not a feel-good movie. Not at all. But strangely inspiring.
"Iron Man" Like "Spider-Man 2" and "The Dark Knight," another leap forward for the superhero movie. Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau reinvent Tony Stark as a conflicted, driven genius who has a certain plausibility, even when inundated by special effects. So successful are they that in the climactic rooftop battle between two towering men of steel, we know we're looking almost entirely at CGI, and yet the creatures embody character and emotion. Downey hit bottom, as everyone knows. Now he has triumphantly returned.
"Milk" Sean Penn, one of our greatest actors, locks up an Oscar nomination with his performance as Harvey Milk, the first self-identified gay elected to U.S. public office. At age 40, Milk was determined to do "something different" with his life. He's open to change. We see how the everyday experiences of this gay man politicize him, and how his instincts allow him to become a charismatic leader, while always acknowledging the sexuality that society had taught him to conceal. One of the year's most moving films.
"Rachel Getting Married" After seeing this film, people told me, "I wanted to attend that wedding" or "I wish I'd been there." It's that involving. Jonathan Demme doesn't lock down one central plot, but considers the ceremony as a wedding of close and distant family, old and new friends, many races, many ages, many lifestyles, all joined amid joyous homemade music. His camera is so observant, we feel like a guest really does feel. Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel and Anne Hathaway as her sister generate tricky sibling tension.
"The Reader" A drama taking place mostly within the mind of a postwar German who has an affair at 14 with a woman he later discovers is a war criminal. Her own secret is so shameful, she would rather face any sentence than reveal it. The film addresses the moral confusion felt in those who came after the Holocaust but whose lives were painfully twisted by it. Directed by Stephen Daldry, with David Kross as the younger protagonist, and Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes as the older ones. (Opening Dec. 25)
"Revolutionary Road" The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his wife find hell in the suburbs. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, in two of the best performances of the year, play a young married couple who lose their dreams in the American corporate world and its assigned roles. Sam Mendes reads minds when words aren't enough, and has every detail right -- including the chain-smoking by those who find it a tiny consolation in inconsolable lives. (Opens Jan. 2)
"Shotgun Stories" You'll have to search for it, but worth it. In a "dead-ass town," three brothers find themselves in a feud with their four half-brothers. It's told like a revenge tragedy, but the hero doesn't believe the future is written by the past. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, it avoids the obvious and shows a deep understanding of the lives and minds of ordinary young people in a skirmish of the class war. The dialogue rings true, the camera is deeply observant. The film was the audience favorite at Ebertfest 2008.
"Slumdog Millionaire" Danny Boyle's improbable union of quiz-show suspense and the harrowing life of a Mumbai orphan. Growing from a garbage pit scavenger to the potential winner of a fortune, his hero uses his wits and survival instinct to struggle against crushing handicaps. A film that finds exuberance despite the tragedy it also gives full weight to. The locations breathe with authenticity.
"Synecdoche, New York" The year's most endlessly debated film. Screenwriter Charles Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich"), in his directing debut, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director mired in a long-running rehearsal that may be life itself. Much controversy about the identities and even genders of some of the characters, in a film that should never be seen unless you've already seen it at least once.
"W." To general surprise, Oliver Stone's biography of George W. Bush is empathetic and understanding, perhaps because Stone himself is a blueblood Ivy League graduate who could never quite win his father's approval. Josh Brolin gives a nuanced portrayal that seems based on the known facts, showing the president as subservient to Vice President Cheney and haunted by old demons.
"Wall-E" The best science-fiction movie in years was an animated family film. WALL-E is a solar-powered trash compacting robot, left behind to clean up the waste after Man flees into orbit. Hugely entertaining, wonderfully well drawn, and, if you think about it, merciless in its critique of a global consumer culture that obsesses on intake and disregards the consequences of output.
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Every year I name a winner of my Special Jury Prize, so named in honor of the "alternative first prize" given by juries at many festivals. This year (roll of the drums) the honored film is:
"My Winnipeg" Guy Maddin's latest dispatch from inside his imagination is a "history" of his home town, which becomes a mixture of the very slightly plausible, the convincing but unlikely, the fantastical, the fevered, the absurd, the preposterous, and the nostalgic. Oddly enough, when it's over, you have a deeper and, in a crazy way, more "real" portrait of Winnipeg than a conventional doc might have provided--and certainly a far more entertaining one. Will be at Ebertfest 2009.
Five documentaries in equal first place:
"Encounters at the End of the World" Werner Herzog moseys around to see who he will meet and what he will see at the South Pole. The population here seems made of travelers beyond our realm, all with amazing personal histories. In a spellbinding film, Herzog finds a great deal of humor, astonishing underwater creatures, permanent occupants such as seals and penguins and the possibility of a bleak global future.
"I.O.U.S.A." A film to make sense of the current economic crisis. The U.S. national debt has doubled in the last eight years, we can't make the payments, the world holds our mortgage, and it can't afford for us to default. So the same unsupported currency seems to circulate one step ahead of disaster. Not a partisan film. Experts of all political persuasions look at our bookkeeping and agree it is insane.
"Man on Wire" On Aug. 7, 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit, having smuggled two tons of equipment to the top of the towers of the World Trade Center, strung a wire between them, and walked back and forth eight times. The doc combines period footage and re-created scenes to explain how he did it, and mystically, why. We know he made it, so how does this film generate such suspense?
"Standard Operating Procedure" About what photographs are and how we see them, focusing on the infamous prison torture photographs from Abu Ghraib. Errol Morris' scrutiny reveals what was really happening, and why, and how the photographs do not always show what they seem to. He introduces the name of Charles Graner, who always stayed in the shadows, but without whom there might have been no photos at all.
"Trouble the Water" A few days before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a young couple from the Ninth Ward named Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts bought a camcorder. As the rains began to fall, they began to film, even while trapped by rising waters inside their attic. Their astonishing footage, unlike any other, is incorporated by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin into a documentary that shows why Brownie was not doing a great job, not at all. This film also will be at Ebertfest 2009.
Looking back over the list, I think most moviegoers will have heard of only about 11, because distribution has reached such a dismal state. I wrote to a reader about "Shotgun Stories," "I don't know if it will play in your town." She wrote back, "How about my state?" This is a time when home video, Netflix and the good movie channels come to the rescue. My theory that you should see a movie on a big screen is sound, but utopian.