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Register film critic Steven Greydanus picks 2008’s best movies.
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
It was a
bleak year at the movies. I don’t mean the
movies weren’t good. I mean that even the good movies
were often remarkably dark.
Take the year’s biggest film, the
critically acclaimed The Dark Knight —
probably the grimmest, least escapist superhero movie ever made. Or take the
year’s biggest family film, the similarly lauded Wall-E,
with its dreary, uninhabited post-apocalyptic world and vision of mankind
reduced to passive, nearly helpless blobs — one of the bleakest family films
ever and probably the bleakest cartoon ever released under the Disney banner.
How bleak was the movie year 2008?
So bleak that the film styled by
critics the “feel-good movie” of the year opens with a
police torture scene and involves the mutilation and prostitution of children (Slumdog
Other films notably honored on
critical Top 10 lists include an excruciating drama about an illegal abortion (4
Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), a wrenching documentary about survivors
of a terrible plane crash who survived for months only by eating the dead (Stranded),
and any number of stories about individuals and families who are variously
broken, lost, struggling, mourning, loveless or hopeless (a sampling might
include The Wrestler, Rachel
Getting Married, Revolutionary Road, A
Christmas Tale, Wendy and Lucy, Ballast
and Shotgun Stories).
There were bright spots. Iron
Man offered rousing escapism with some heart. Family audiences
enjoyed the uplifting and joyous Horton Hears a Who!
as well as the funny and furious Kung Fu Panda.
In fact, it was a good year overall
for family films — but, again, even the good family films weren’t all sweetness
and light: One of the best was the dark and scary, but morally rewarding,
fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Below, in alphabetical order, are 10
films I consider deserving of special recognition, followed by 10 more also
worthy of note. Not all are for all tastes or viewers, but there’s something
here for nearly everyone. All 20 films are available on DVD.
10 That Stood Out
August Evening: An
extended family of Mexican Catholics living (presumably illegally) in southern
Texas grapple with loss and the obligations — and limits — of filial piety in
Chris Eska’s low-key, Spanish-language domestic drama. A father-in-law/daughter-in-law
relationship is the unusual focal point of a story about an elderly farm
laborer and his dead son’s widow. A foul-mouthed supporting
character; references to a premarital pregnancy. Subtitles. Might be okay for teens.
The Dark Knight: The
darkest superhero movie ever is also the most sophisticated and morally
serious: a superhero movie for grown-ups who know that “heroes” — from soldiers
to saints, policemen to priests, presidents to popes — are fallible human beings
like everybody else. Yet, amid this virtual symphony of ambiguity are ringing
notes of grace and redemption. Heroes may not be untarnished, but heroism is
still possible. Intense menace and psychological
intimidation; some brutal violence; a number of gruesome (mostly non-graphic)
deaths; some grisly images; a few profane and crass references. Mature viewing.
The Fall: Tarsem
Singh’s visually dazzling, mad folly is a breathtaking excursion into a
dreamlike alternate reality as majestic and luminous as the psychic landscape
of the director’s earlier The Cell was
repellent. A hospitalized silent-era Hollywood stuntman spins an outlandish
tale of epic derring-do for a precocious young girl. Too weird for some, it’s a
messy, extravagant, creative act of love — the kind of bravura moviemaking Baz
Luhrmann was trying to do in Moulin
Rouge. A few stylized images of
grotesque violence; minor profanity; attempted suicide; brief sexuality
explicit). Mature viewing.
4 Months, 3
Weeks and 2 Days: One of the most
important films of the year — and one of the hardest to watch — Cristian
Mungiu’s wrenching drama about two college students who set out to procure an
illegal abortion in the communist Romania of the late 1980s is too disturbing
for a blanket recommendation, but its uncompromising acknowledgement of the
human cost of abortion is worth recognizing, even if it isn’t for many. Extensive, explicit depiction of the procuring of an
illegal abortion; brief nudity; disturbing sexual themes; a lingering shot of a
post-abortion fetus; some obscene and profane language. Subtitles. Extreme
Ghost Town: Not since Groundhog Day has a high-concept romantic comedy so successfully blended hilarity
and redemptive uplift. Writer-director David Koepp’s best film to date stars
English funnyman Ricky Gervais as a dentist whose antisocial tendencies and dry
wit equal Bill Murray’s weatherman and who gets a similarly paranormal cross to
carry: A near-death experience leaves him seeing ghosts — who need his help. A
terrific comedic cast including Téa Leoni, Greg Kinnear and Kristen Wiig make
the material sparkle. Some
sexually related humor; references to infidelity. Teens and up.
Akbar: Exuberant and
exhilarating, Lagaan director Ashutosh Gowariker’s lavish, highly
fictionalized historical epic is Bollywood spectacle at its finest: war,
intrigue, romance … and, of course, singing and dancing. A proposed marriage
between 16th-century Muslim emperor Jalaluddin and Hindu princess Jodhaa
embodies a hope for a united India with Hindus and Muslims living in peace: a
humanistic plea for respect of conscience rather than indifferentism or
battlefield violence; displays of Muslim and Hindu piety; romantic
complications. Subtitles. Might be fine for older kids.
Island: Russian Orthodox
spirituality pervades this haunting, parable-like tale of a guilt-ridden
ex-soldier who is taken in at a monastery and never leaves. Locally reputed as
a holy man, “Father Anatoli” hides his spiritual gifts, like the early
Franciscans, under outrageous behavior, embodying the archetype of the holy
fool. Simple but profound, Pavel Lungin’s film engages the supernatural in a
persuasively naturalistic way. A wartime
murder; some mature themes including low-key abortion references and a
depiction of demonic possession. Subtitles. Teens and up.
I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains: Arguably the definitive account of the 1972
Uruguayan flight disaster, Gonzalo Arijón’s powerful documentary offers a
unique window on the meaning and experience of life and death in the most
unforgiving circumstances. Faith and doubt, chance and necessity collide in
survivor interviews, photos and low-key recreations. Occasional objectionable language; disturbing subject
matter; mixed religious musings. Subtitles. Could be fine for mature teens.
Wall-E: Pixar’s most audacious film to date, Wall-E
goes where no mainstream Hollywood family film has gone before, into realms of
awe, existential longing and apocalyptic hope. Directed by Andrew Stanton, the
poetic tale of a lonely robot laboring single-handedly to clean up the earth is
at turns a Chaplinesque slapstick comedy and a scathing satire of
consumer/media culture. Mild
animated menace. Fine family viewing.
Young@Heart: One of the most potentially transformative films
of the year, Stephen Walker’s endearing documentary about a senior citizens’
chorus group may change the way viewers look at old age. Octogenarians singing
the likes of The Clash, James Brown and Bob Dylan make for much more than a
Seniors Behaving Badly conceit: The chorus is the members’ lifeline as well as
their gift. Some crass
language, frank sexual references and innuendo; issues related to illness and
death. Fine for mature teens.
10 More Worth Noting
year I had a harder time than usual deciding what not to
include in the Top 10. A number of the following titles could just as easily
have been in the list above: Ballast, first-time director Lance Hammer’s poignant
Mississippi Delta drama of despair and hope in a family shattered by divorce
and suicide (mature viewing); Dr. Seuss’
Horton Hears a Who!, Jimmy
Hayward and Steve Martino’s delightful, implicitly pro-life adaptation of the
classic storybook (fine family viewing); The Express, Gary
Fleder’s uplifting biopic of college football great Ernie Davis (teens and up);
Iron Man, Jon Favreau’s smart and silly superhero
redemption story (teens and up); Man on Wire, James Marsh’s strangely transcendent
documentary of Philippe Petit’s 1972 World Trade Center wire walk (teens
and up); Mongol, Sergei Bodrov’s fierce
barbarian-yawp biopic about the young Genghis Khan (mature viewing); Rachel
Getting Married, Jonathan Demme’s cinéma-vérité drama
of a dysfunctional, rootless postmodern family struggling through
nuptial-related togetherness (mature viewing); Shotgun
Stories, Jeff Nichol’s spare, powerful morality play about bad blood
between two sets of half brothers (mature viewing); Son of
Rambow, Garth Jennings’ quirky English tale of a problematic
friendship between a young bully and a sheltered Plymouth Brethren lad (teens
and up); The Spiderwick Chronicles, Mark Waters’
scary but substantial fantasy adventure about a goblin-besieged family going
through a divorce (too much for sensitive youngsters); The
Visitor, Thomas McCarthy’s humane drama about a withdrawn professor
who becomes unexpectedly involved in the lives of a pair of illegal aliens
More Worth Mentioning
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Kung Fu Panda, The Tale of Despereaux. Teens and
up: Be Kind Rewind, Encounters at the End of the World,
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Up the Yangtze. Mature
viewing: Alexandra, Caramel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,
The Flight of the Red Balloon, Frost/Nixon, Miracle at St. Anna, Slumdog
D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.