Like others, I am fudging the 2008 rule here. A couple films I saw at a festival in 2007 but didn't get a U.S. release until 2008, and one I saw at this year's film festival will come out in 2009. But I saw it this year, and that counts for me. That said, I will also echo the theme of disappointment with this year's selections. Nothing I saw thrilled me in its entirety, though "Milk" came close and the first half hour of "Wall-E" is fantastic. Nothing else got more than an 8 from me on IMDB - and for me that rating stands for a solid, well-made entertaining film but not much more. As a side note, I tend toward mainstream cinema when I go out to the movies and at home watch the stuff I want to watch for my own study and satisfaction, not really worrying too much about keeping up on new films. So if my list is slanted toward the American multi-plex and more mainstream entertainment, oh well - it reflects the new films I saw this year, with a few curveballs thrown in.
The least flawed film I saw this year! Not exactly the ringing endorsement I would want to give my #1 film, but it's true. That said, my complaints are minor, mainly revolving around a few scenes that get a little too heavy-handed, but the positives far outweigh them. Penn is great here - never once did I think "Here's Sean Penn playing a gay man" - and the rest of the cast is terrific as well. And heavy-handed or no, I got teary during the fight against Prop 6 and the candlelight vigil even though I knew about them going in to the film. Anyway, Van Sant's hand is light here, though he marks the film with subtle touches of his own and the overall concerns fit right within the thematic thrust of his recent works exploring the violent damage caused by homophobia and (by extension) the real danger of repressing one's own sexuality. A very good film, but short of being great for me. And still it ranks the best of what I saw in a lightweight year for films.
That first half hour, while Wall-E and Eve are on the planet is pure magic. When they get to the ship, the spell dissipates some even if it never goes away altogether. I love that they trusted their visual sense to carry the story in the beginning without ever losing the audience. And the rest if fun too, if not quite so spectacular; a great little robot love story, way better than Heartbeeps. And as a side note, I think that reading this film as a message film about capitalism or ecology is absurd - it's the backdrop of the story, not the story itself. The cutest and smartest of several cute, smart, animated films I saw this year.
3. Diary of the Dead (dir. George A. Romero) -
Less ambitious than Romero's Land of the Dead and perhaps more successful for attempting less. Easier to riff on our fascination with media's obsession with tragedy (or zombie apocalypses) and offer a hopeful alternative about mass communication via the internet than it is to create a display of the overthrow of capitalistic society via a zombie-led proletariat revolt. Still - it's fun going, like all the Dead films and just because I think it's easier to make this idea work doesn't mean it's not a good idea.
4. Chop Shop (dir. Ramin Bahrani) -Two kids working their hustle to make ends meet however they can in NYC's mean streets. Sounds like a total downer, but the film actually avoids a lot of the cliches about hard lives lived on the hard streets, keeps its youth youthful and its tone hopeful. I give it a lot of props for that, when it would've been easy to make it a big bummer.
Errol Morris let me down here, but it's still a solid viewing experience, even if it left me wanting. The film's title announces its intent - to expose a way of existing within which the dehumanization and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was, in fact, standard; nothing out of the ordinary. And the best way to depict that, the way that the "Bad Apples" he interviews in the film keep suggesting, is to keep moving up the chain to find the parties - or culture - responsible for creating those circumstances. It's here that the film falls short, stopping figuratively and (visually) literally at a closed door that Morris can't get through to interview anyone above a certain level. The Bad Apples come off as scapegoats, but each one to a person accepts responsibility for their actions and suggests that what lies beyond those closed doors is a hundred times worse than what they did. Going in, I figured the people held responsible were part of a much larger picture, and that's what the film insinuates without drawing that picture that I would have liked to have seen.
6. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson) -
I wasn't sure about this at first, but once the wheels are underway and it starts fusing its vampire story and its coming of age story, it gets really good. Never picks up the tempo, which stays at a poky pace throughout, but it keeps throwing in unexpected moments that keep it lively and fascinating - scarring by acid, attacks by cats, a great swimming pool scene, a school trip gone awry, a vampire trying some sweets to please her sweet, etc. I've never seen a vampire film quite like this, though it sticks to the conventions; I've also never seen a coming of age film quite like this, though it also sticks to those conventions. My Bodyguard meets Interview With A Vampire? Well, sorta, only not quite.
7. A Girl Cut in Two (dir. Claude Chabrol) -Enjoyably perverse attack on the values of two wealthy men who both attempt to woo - no wait, "possess" is a more appropriate word - the same woman and use every bit of influence and power at their disposal to do so. Benoit Magimel is particularly entertaining and over the top in his portrayal of the disturbed bon vivant Paul Gaudens, but François Berléand is no less creepy as famed author Charles Saint-Denis. Their never-satisfactorily explained rivalry also amuses, while Ludivine Sagnier is fine as the naive waif advertised in the title.
8. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (dir. Nicholas Stoller) -
The best flat-out comedy I saw this year, edging out Tropic Thunder by a hair. Maybe my love of all things stemming from Freaks & Geeks clouds my judgment here, but there's also something funny and almost charming about Jason Segel's self-pity that could easily have become depressing and pathetic in other hands. Or maybe it's that he knows that self-pity is depressing and pathetic and is willing to joke about it that makes it good. Or maybe it's that he's got a lot of other good players - especially Russell Brand - to bounce off here. Regardless, the loose approach to plot that Judd Apatow seems to encourage in his stable of proteges (if it's funny enough, who cares if it advances the story?) works well here for me. I had no idea I'd been waiting this long to see a fully staged puppet musical about Dracula.
Rivette isn't exactly what you'd call a plot-oriented filmmaker - he introduces his main characters and then lets their relationship(s) build, over four hours if necessary. Here, over a mere 137 minutes we meet the Duchess (Jeanne Balibar) and her object of fascination - Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), a war hero of Napoleon's army whose somewhat cold and brutish demeanor seems to attract and repel her in equal measure. The film is built around a sort of dance between them in which they play it now-hot, now-cool but keep the embers of an affair always burning. That's pretty much it as far as story goes, but Rivette has a way to spin something grand out of seemingly simple materials. Note - saw this at a film festival in 2007, but it's listed as a 2008 release for the U.S. so I count it here.
This and The Dark Knight are pretty damn similar prospects, but I'd have to give this the edge for its sense of humor, something utterly lacking in the Batman movie (though to be fair, the title probably should've given me a clue). Robert Downey Jr. is as fun to watch here chewing up the scenery as Heath Ledger is in the Bat-movie and the repeated nods to Robocop and possibly even the Venture Brothers (HELPeR seems to be in this film disguised as a mechanical arm, if I'm not mistaken) add to things for me rather than detracting. I mean, yeah, I've seen a movie or ten about an arrogant lout growing a conscience before, but this one's funnier than most all of them. For my entertainment dollar, the most fun I had at a "big" movie all year, except maybe Wall-E.