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A Local Look at the Best Films of 2008

by Stephen Becker 30 Dec 2008 10:21 AM

We’ve hit that time of year again – the time for lists. It’s a fun way to look back at the year that was, and a good exercise to see how the current year stacks up against years past. Lists of the top 10 movies of the year are the most prevalent each year, so […]


We’ve hit that time of year again – the time for lists. It’s a fun way to look back at the year that was, and a good exercise to see how the current year stacks up against years past.

Lists of the top 10 movies of the year are the most prevalent each year, so Art&Seek asked a few of our local film experts to compile their lists of the best in film. Stick around to the bottom to see my personal top 10.

Participating this year are James Faust of the AFI Dallas International Film Festival, Julie Hwang of the Asian Film Festival of Dallas and Bart Weiss of the Video Association of Dallas. It seems that all of us agree that Slumdog Millionaire, the story of a young man who goes on a remarkable run on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has a place on the list. From there, the paths diverge.

Our three guests have seen films both large and small, at cineplexes and on festival screens. Here, in no particular order, is what they deem to be the best of 2008:

James Faust

Slumdog Millionaire – Danny Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting. A true film experience. I mean, death, slave trade, gangsters, poverty and yet, I left that film (twice), feeling happy and wanting to change the world.

The Dark Knight – I am a huge Batman Fan. It is way beyond the greatest comic book movie of all time. The late Heath Ledger is unforgettable as the Joker. He has set the psycho villain bar so high, they are going to need a fancy bat glider to top it.

The Wrestler – Welcome back, Mickey Rourke. We’ve been waiting for you since Barfly. Darren Aronofsky’s film is quietly deafening.

Synecdoche, NY – Either the worst script ever written or the most amazing script ever written. Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is the largest thing I’ve seen on screen since … (see Batman: The Dark Knight). An amazingly detailed painting on screen. It was like watching and listening to Georges-Pierre Seurat. I love the park and burning houses. (NOTE: Kaufman discussed the film on an episode of Think earlier this year.)

The Visitor – If you didn’t catch this film, you have missed out. Richard Jenkins should win the Oscar for his performance as a beleaguered widower who befriends a couple of unintended squatters. I was really into quiet films with big ideas and big hearts this year. This is definitely the immigration story the world needs to see.

Waltz With Bashir – Might be the first triple threat winner from Israel. This animated documentary is so powerful that it had a room full of usually animated French critics stone-cold quiet at Cannes. Should get an Oscar nod for best foreign film, best animated film and best documentary. Should win all three (my apologies to Wall-E).

Medicine for Melancholy – Small film picked up by IFC. Imagine Before Sunrise. Insert an African-American couple, place them in San Francisco and turn up the sexual and Bay Area political tension. The result is a real hard look at modern relationships that unfolds over 10 hours. I love fresh new directors.

Tropic Thunder – This is just funny. Robert Downey Jr. has had a great year. I love “YOU” people. This film is a treat for Hollywood insiders and the general fan.

Mermaid – Should be a shoo-in for a best foreign language Oscar nomination. This bittersweet Russian film has daring cinematography, wildly vibrant hair and a gut wrenching ending that sticks with you.

And a tie for the 10th spot:

The Black List – The most important African-American film since Malcolm X.

Doubt – Hoffman is good. Streep is good. Viola Davis is outstanding. If you loved the play, go see this film. Davis spends less than 20 minutes on screen and turns in the performance of the year.

James Faust is Director of Programming for the AFI Dallas International Film Festival.

Julie Hwang

The Dark Knight – Fine performances from the cast, including the late Heath Ledger. Christopher Nolan’s grown-up take on Batman makes this an extremely good film and fine follow-up to Batman Begins.

The Fall – Director Tarsem Singh’s ambitious and visually stunning fantasy is anchored beautifully by the sweet relationship between a little girl and a depressed, storytelling stuntman, both in the hospital after accidental falls. The Fall is all the more remarkable for the effortless performance of 6-year-old child actress Catinca Untaru and for using real settings for its fantasy storytelling sequences. The world is more beautiful than you imagined.

The Home Song Stories – This Australian film screened at AFI Dallas earlier this year and was critically lauded across the Pacific last year, especially for star Joan Chen’s performance. Told with frankness but undeniably with love, The Home Song Stories is based on director Tony Ayre’s childhood experiences with his mother, a loving though disruptive and likely manic depressive woman. Chen, as the mother, gives a remarkable performance as a woman who can be so wonderful and damaging at the same time.

Iron Man – I was an Iron Man newbie but quickly bought into the Iron Man mythology. A great and engaging superhero movie.

Milk – Beautiful, and unfortunately still extremely relevant today. Milk is inspiring in that it can show the difference one person can make, and heartbreaking in showing how easily one person can be destroyed.

Mamma Mia – I admit publicly, I love ABBA and I have for years. It was a joy to see stars like Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan singing my favorite Swedish pop hits and going for it, crazy costumes and all. For more ABBA enjoyment, I also recommend Muriel’s Wedding.

Ping Pong Playa – This film felt absolutely true in its depiction of Asian-American home life and was actually funny as well. A refreshing foray in Asian-American cinema, which can sometimes take itself a little too seriously. Also, who doesn’t enjoy a good underdog sports film?

Red Cliff (Chi bi) Part 1 – I was lucky enough to catch Part 1 of this historical epic on a trip to Taipei over the summer. Red Cliff marks a return to Chinese cinema for John Woo, and it is spectacular. Yes, there are white doves and other classic John Woo trademarks, translated surprisingly well into the world of ancient China. But the film also has a greater sense of storytelling, character development and perhaps pride that rounds it out and makes it extremely satisfying and even a little awe inspiring. The entire story is divided into two parts, covering the two major battles at Red Cliff, one on land and one at sea. Part 2 will open in Asia in January, and a condensed combined version is due to be released in the U.S. next year. I’m dreading the condensed version, as it means the U.S. audience will likely be losing at least 90 minutes of the story.

Slumdog Millionaire – I wrote about this film around Thanksgiving as well. It is such a marvelous piece of work – vibrant and redeeming in ways that are unexpected and also welcome.

Wall-E – Glorious, stunning and moving, especially the first part of the film in which no human dialog is uttered or needed. I love that little robot.

Julie Hwang is the Director of Public Relations for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas.

Bart Weiss

For the movie movie experience nothing can top Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a visual masterpiece that is not dependent on a digitally created universe. It is a rare treat these days, and make sure you stay for the credits!

Manny Mendoza and Mark Birnbaums’ Stop the Presses (shown at AFI Dallas) is a mediation on the decline of the newspaper and what it means for democracy.

The King Of Texas, a documentary about legendary Texas filmmaker Eagle Panel, played at the USA Film Festival this year. Eagle’s films started the whole idea that you could make films outside of Hollywood, and they could be about real people.

Synecdoche, NY – Charlie Kaufman’s post post post post-modern film keeps your head spinning. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, I kept thinking what was the pitch like and who thought that you could make money on this?

Of course one needs to have an animated film on this list, and Wall-E is the obvious choice. But everyone else will pick that (see how it goes), so I will go with Persepolis. Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, it’s a relatively lo-tech look at Iran and fundamentalism.

The Visitor humanized the practice of deportation and included a drum circle in Central Park.

And finally, a holiday film that was not a concept film, a sappy film, a sassy film or a feel good experience. A Christmas Tale is a French film with Catherine Deneuve that has a real edge that transcends the daze of the holiday, and does what good films do.

In a bit of hyper self-promotion I would like to pick a few things I programmed:

In the Video Festival’s new video art series called The Program, I loved Meiro Koizumi’s The Human Opera XXX. In this short, the Tokyo-based artist invites a man to tell a sad story to the camera but keeps interrupting him, humiliating him and attaching ridiculous props to him to the point where the story disappears and all that is left is the humiliation of the interview.

And at the Video Fest, we showed Moral Kombat, Spencer Haplin’s look at the power and impact of video games on our culture. This is not an easy “nasty video games are bad and are the cause of the destruction of man” type of video. It is very thoughtful, very thorough and it definitely presents both sides of the argument. The film is incredibly well-produced and directed, melding the interview into hi-res images from the games. The film makes you understand what video games are really like while you’re hearing about their effects; it’s very powerful and a must-see.

Yoav Shamir’ s Five Days, a great documentary about Israel’s evacuation from the settlements in Gaza, tells this history from three sides (shown at 3 Stars Cinema).

So there you go, I would have put in the Marfa duo No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood, but they were really last year, And I am really too ashamed to put The Dark Knight in, but I watched it twice (once in Imax) and if it came around in Imax, I would go again.

All in all, it was a great year for films.

Bart Weiss is the President of the Video Association of Dallas.

Stephen Becker

1) Slumdog Millionaire — One of the few films this year that I wanted to immediately watch again after first viewing. I did see it again the next week and enjoyed it as much as the first time. Director Danny Boyle packs a lot in — stunning visuals, comedy, drama and characters we genuinely care about. There are countless movies that end with a kiss, but few of those endings are as well-earned as this one.

2) Milk — Sean Penn delivers the performance of the year as the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. When comparing Penn’s meek and gentle Milk with his Oscar-winning turn as the tough and menacing Jimmy Markum in Mystic River, it becomes clearer than ever that there’s nothing that this guy can’t play.

3) The Dark Knight — I find most superhero films boring for all their predictability. And so it is the unpredictability of The Dark Knight that makes it thrilling. When you have a villain (Heath Ledger) who is motivated not by the traditional factors (money, power, revenge) but by the sheer joy of chaos, then there’s no getting inside his head. And so the hero (and audience) is presented with a series of trolley problems that have him (and us) squirming with moral indecision. Ledger deserves to join Peter Finch (Network) as the only posthumous acting Oscar winners.

4) Wall-E — Has a major-studio animated film ever been as daring as Wall-E? From a nearly silent opening sequence to themes above the heads of most tykes, this is animation for adults. And yet minimalism wins out over and over as Wall-E and EVE communicate a range of emotions by simply saying each other’s names.

5) Vicky Cristina Barcelona — When a free-spirited college student (Scarlett Johannson) envies her grounded friend (Rebecca Hall) and vice versa, the wheels are put in motion for each character to be transformed by a summer in Spain. The final scene in the movie is maybe my favorite of the year – the two friends walking silently alongside each other on their return trip through the airport, contemplating how experience has both taught them and confused them more than ever.

6) Frost/Nixon — Frank Langella’s late-career success (including his outstanding turn in last year’s Starting Out in the Evening) have many wondering why it took so long for this titan to gain a foothold in film. This sparring match between two highly motivated participants turns into a gripping battle of two men grasping for the same thing – respect.

7) Doubt — There are times when John Patrick Shanley’s direction can be heavy handed (do we really need a minor player bringing a cat into the church to take care of a mouse problem?). But the playwright is smart enough to know that if you lock Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a confined space and let the cameras roll, magic is bound to happen.

8 ) Man on Wire — The best documentary of the year plays like a well-crafted heist film, all suspense and sweaty palms. The story of a tight-rope walker’s daring attempt to cross between New York City’s Twin Towers will have you embracing your inner-rebel.

9) The Wrestler — In the same way that Frost/Nixon tells parallel stories, this film centers on two people (pro wrestler Mickey Rourke and stripper Marisa Tomei) who make their living by convincing an audience that something fabricated is real. You can question how much of a stretch the role is for Rourke, but it’s our knowledge of the actor’s struggles that make his character’s emotions ring all the more truthfully.

10) The Wrecking Crew — I thank Bart for programming this doc at this year’s Dallas Video Festival. It shines a light on the L.A. session musicians who are largely responsible for the California sound of rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s. Any fan interested in connecting the dots of music history needs to know this underreported story.

Stephen Becker is the Calendar and Content Editor for Art&Seek and a member of the DFW Film Critics Association.

Photos from top: Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, IFC Films, John Hibery and Warner Bros.

  • Jennifer

    I was glad to see Ping Pong Playa on Julie’s list — it had some of the funniest moments on film this year! Ditto with Tropic Thunder. I still can’t get the image of Tom Cruise dancing to out of my head.
    And I still don’t “get” Synecdoche. Maybe I need to see it again. Although I saw a lot of movies this year, these diverse lists remind me that I have several more I need to put on my “to watch” list. Thanks!

  • Grace

    Thank you so much for posting these lists and giving me even more movies to add to my Blockbuster queue. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!