I sometimes hate making year-end best-of lists, because I feel as though I'm cheapening the films. However, taking stock of the year's best is all too necessary, so that others might catch up on what they missed. Bearing in mind that every film on this list would be a 3 1/2 - 4 star film, here is first half of my list of the best films of 2008, in descending order:
20. A Christmas Tale - Arnaud Desplechin's film about a beyond-fractured family reconvening for one final Christmas together when they discover that the matriarch (Catherine Denueve) is dying works on a myriad of levels. It works as a fractured family story in the vein of "The Royal Tenenbaums," as a holiday comedy, a dark comedy and even a meditation on the fragility of all bonds and the power of misguided grudges. Dropping the pretense, though, it's also just an impeccably acted, touching film, with Mathieu Almaric the standout performer in a film full of them, as the manic-depressive oldest son who storms the reunion like a drunken, bug-eyed hurricane. His toast to his dying mother at Christmas dinner is an absolute showstopper.
19. Australia - Even if you didn't like Baz Lurhmann's attempt to direct his own "Gone With The Wind," credit must be given where it's due. Right down to the cheesy dialogue, he absolutely nailed the vibe and style of a Golden Era Hollywood epic, and for the flaws this film has, it's also breathtaking to watch such a passion project come to life. Nicole Kidman is the most likable she's been in any film since Lurhmann's "Moulin Rouge" as the spirited English lady who travels to the savage Australian outback to retrieve her womanizing husband, and Hugh Jackman is the perfect foil, nailing the old-style tough guy role to a T. There's a twinkle in his eye during every scene, which should normally be decried as poor acting, but is authentic to what the film sets out to accomplish. The film was called racist for depicting aboriginal natives as shamen, but it's supposed to not only be a homage, but a testament to the power of fantastical storytelling. When did every movie start having to be taken so damn seriously?
18. Repo! The Genetic Opera - And now, the year's most undeservedly maligned movie. From the moment that Paris Hilton was cast, the writing was on the wall. Critics trashed the film just for her presence (take a look at the incredibly intelligent argument Rolling Stone's Peter Travers makes against the film) and Lionsgate pretty much dumped the movie in theaters. The public took it over from there, and so this delirious acid trip of a musical (or, I'm sorry, rock opera) featuring Alexa Vega from "Spy Kids" as the dying daughter of Anthony Stewart Head (Giles on the "Buffy" TV series) in a future run by an organ-lending corporation found new life. Look for this film on the midnight show circuit for years to come; if the showings I've attended are any indication, "Repo!" might just be this generation's "Rocky Horror Picture Show."
17. Frost/Nixon - Though Ron Howard's dramatic retelling of the famous post-Watergate TV interviews between David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) does embellish some facts, so do most biopics. Once you look past this, you find one of the year's best-acted films. Sheen plays Frost as he was, an English fish in American waters who set out to become an international celebrity and ended up delivering one of the most cathartic moments for the American public in history. Langella is stunning as Nixon, imbuing him with the quiet sadness of a man who was forced to cope with being caught red-handed and losing the notoriety associated with being the most powerful man in the world. The phone conversation between the two near the end of the film should be shown to theatre students as an example of dynamic acting that doesn't require theatrics to be memorable.
16. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Rarely does an American film move at such a measured, quiet pace without attempting to slam the audience with awe-inducing plot turns in the third act. David Fincher's last film, "Zodiac," did this, and he does it again here. The story of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a man who is born elderly and ages in reverse, is reminiscent of "Forrest Gump" in the way that the overarching point of the tale is not where the journey of life leads, but how you spend that journey and the things you learn along the way. Cate Blanchett, as Button's lifelong love, is sad-eyed and beautiful; the film's climax, when they are both aged in their own way, is among the year's most poignant.
15. Gran Torino - Clint Eastwood's rumored last film as an actor is an appropriate swan song for the longtime tough guy, a tale of violent redemption and a musing on the importance of passing the torch to the next generation, the right way. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski as the 70-year-old version of Dirty Harry Callahan and The Gunslinger combined; he's ornery, racist and refuses to cave to the changing times, even as they threaten to overtake him. Through a pair of Hmong children living next door, Walt finds his means of making an impact on the lives of the young that he never found with his own family. A local priest (Christopher Carley) charged with watching Walt after his wife's death also learns something about the nature of life and death through him.
14. Tell No One - This French thriller about a man being pursued by police after mysterious emails from his long-dead wife begin to surface deserves all the comparisons to the greater works of Alfred Hitchcock that it's recieved. There's a plot turn seemingly every two or three minutes, but at no point does the film allow itself to fall into logical holes; all is explained at the end, and when you leave the theater, all the convolutions make perfect sense. There's also the twenty-minute chase scene on foot, which begins with a man jumping out of a window and ends in a full-blown gang riot, that instantly establishes itself as one of the most compelling action sequences in recent memory. If it seems as though I'm being cryptic in my praise of this film, it's deliberate; the less you know about this film going in, the more satisfying it is.
13. The Band's Visit - For a quiet film about the unceremonious arrival, occupation and departure of an Egyptian police band from a tiny town in Israel over the course of a day, there's a lot going on here. This doesn't become clear until the film is further reflected upon, but few films this year had a bigger heart. As the inhabitants of the town's local cafe take the band in for a night, the film allows us into their lives, which are filled with banality and melancholy. We see the dreams of both involved parties briefly come alive again through one another, and though we are never told whether this has any real effect, that's not the point. Like a chance meeting on a train or a conversation in a smoky bar, the most unseeming moments in life are sometimes the most memorable.
12. Man On Wire - Watching this film, I couldn't help but wonder how Phillipe Petit isn't dead today. In 1974, he strung a tightrope across the Twin Towers, aided by a motley band of dreamers and burnouts, that wasn't even set up properly, and yet he spent nearly 45 minutes strolling back and forth, even pausing to lie down on it at one point. The film, a wild documentary about the event, is composed of photographs, re-enactments and narration from all those involved. It's also absolutely riveting; so much so, that when we see the first pictures of Petit stepping out onto the wire, we are convinced that he's about to meet his demise, forgetful of the fact that he's been narrating the entire film up to that point.
11. Zach and Miri Make a Porno - Should this film be this high on my list? Maybe, maybe not. Being that such lists are of a subjective nature, I was pressed not to put it even higher. The story of Zach (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), lifelong platonic friends who shoot a porn film in a coffee shop to bail themselves out of severe debt, is potentially the best film Kevin Smith has ever made, in a long line of them. I might have a soft spot for both "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy," but this film takes the go-for-broke audacity of the former and the genuine heartwrenching realism of the latter and combines the two into something truly beautiful. There are still dick jokes and naked women galore, but "Zach and Miri" manages to do something that few comedies do: Not only does it make you laugh, but it genuinely might teach you a thing or two about life and love.
Coming Tomorrow: #10-1.