Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Best of 2008: Films

'Milk': Timely, and Hap's pick for No. 1 film of the year.

By Hap Erstein
After viewing some 300 movies last year, it all comes down to these:

1. Milk (dir. Gus Van Sant; w/ Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin) Beyond a biography of rising and eventually slain San Francisco politico Harvey Milk, this film tells a parallel tale of the rise of the gay right movement in America. And it is surely no coincidence that Milk’s most hard-fought ballot battle eerily echoes the recent struggle over Referendum 8 in California. Featuring a startling starring title performance by Penn, without his usual angst and anguish.

2. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard; w/ Frank Langella, Michael Sheen) The back story of the verbal tug-of-war and prize fight between celebrity interviewer David Frost and disgraced but unapologetic former President Richard Nixon in a series of taped chats in which each seeks salvation. Langella is a wily Nixon, Sheen highly flappable as Frost, reprising their Broadway performances and Howard opens the play up, making it more lively and involving.

3. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle; w/ Dev Patel, Freida Pinto) Out of the squalor of Mumbai comes a lowly tea boy named Jamal to reach for the top prize on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He then is forced to tell his gritty life story to the police as his explanation for how he knew the answers and did not cheat. Boyle (Trainspotting) directs with high energy and velocity, from a sly screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), resulting in a grime-caked feel-good film.

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir: David Fincher; w/Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton) Curious indeed is this epic tale of a lad who is born old and grows younger with age, a fate with tragic consequences as it turns out. Fincher lightens his usual touch, masters the digital imagery necessary to spin this yarn persuasively, but never lets the effects overshadow the story. Pitt has never been better and the always impressive Blanchett is heart-breaking. Truly unlike anything you have seen before.

5. The Reader (dir: Stephen Daldry; w/Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes) Bernhard Schlink’s post-World War II coming-of-age story takes a dark turn when a German teen initiated into the wonders of sex by a strong-willed streetcar ticket taker (Winslet) grows up and learns that she was a former concentration camp guard. Winslet’s performance is Oscar-worthy with its expressive, inward emotions and Fiennes underplays expertly as the adult, damaged central character.

Philippe Petit walks on a high wire at
the World Trade Center in 'Man on Wire.'

6. Man on Wire (dir: James Marsh; w/Philippe Petit) An ingenious documentary of high-wire walker Petit, who famously walked between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. But this film is more interested in how he and his team sneaked into the building and got their equipment up to the roof. Marsh turns their story into a pulse-quickening break-in saga and Petit recalls and recreates the walk in poetic detail.

7. The Visitor (dir: Tom McCarthy; w/Richard Jenkins) A character study of a dissatisfied professor in mid-midlife crisis suddenly turns into a political portrait of how our government treats illegal aliens detained inside our borders. Jenkins, the perpetual character actor, gets a rare opportunity to be the center of attention and he delivers a performance of exquisite subtlety.

8. American Teen (dir: Nanette Burstein; w/Hannah Bailey, Mitch Reinholt) A clinical look at the high-pressure high school life for a handful of Indiana senior year students who grapple with their social lives, college applications and the big game and it is surprising how much we become invested in their aspirations and exasperations. It would be hard not to identify with these kids or to see how trivial some of their worries will soon be to them.

Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley in 'Elegy.'

9. Elegy (dir: Isabel Coixet; w/Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz) Based on a Philip Roth novella about an academic lion-in-winter (Kingsley), a professor/predator who regularly beds his female students and thinks nothing of it until he starts having feelings for one (Cruz). As the title suggests, death and dying will play a part in the story, but in unexpected ways. After several small character roles recently, Kingsley gives a major, steel-infused performance and Cruz has never been more vulnerable.

10. Wall*E (dir: Andrew Stanton; w/ voice of Ben Burtt) Pixar has long been pushing the bounds of digital animation and seeing what inanimate objects it can make cuddly. The studio succeeds again, this time with an eco-friendly trash-compacting robot out to clean up the planet who manages to find love along the way. Technically impressive, it aims for an emotional response and gets it because of strong storytelling. The musical quotes from Hello, Dolly! are just an bonus.

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