This is a list of the best movies I watched this year. That does not mean these films were released in 2008; it just means I saw them for the first time in 2008. Obviously I had a hard time narrowing the list down, so I created a criterion in my head. I asked myself, "What movies I watched this year am I most eager to watch again?" Here's the list, with a link to each movie's page at Rotten Tomatoes, and its "freshness" score in parentheses...
1. Synecdoche, New York: (rated 63% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) I was explaining to someone that this movie is the opposite of what most classically created dramas are. A classical drama is not over, as Chekov once famously said, until the gun hanging over the mantel in the first act is fired in the third. That is to say, everything connects in the plot, nothing is extraneous, and everything is sort of symmetrical. SNY is the opposite. It has "guns" hanging in hidden corners in every scene. Sometimes they get fired, sometimes they turn into other guns, sometimes they're not real guns. Confusing, I know, but this film deals in possibilities, shooting out ideas that might not ever go anywhere, so it ends up being an untidy mess that embodies essentially what it means to grow old. It is a hard movie to like, especially as you watch it, because it induces so many cringes, but it tried to say something difficult and true.
Another way I explained it to a student is this: There are three types of movies. The first, and by far the most common, is one that shows the world as we wish it were. These are movies with unrealistic heroes, implausibly coincidental love stories--pure escapism. The second is one that shows the way the world is--gritty reality like "Traffic" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." These movies serve a sort of social purpose, like the realist's novels at the turn of the last century. The last type, and my favorite type, is the one that shows the way we fear the world might be. Dystopian. Depressing. Empty. Movies like "Requiem for a Dream" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse." These movies are rare, because they are hard to watch. I don't know why, but I love them, and SNY might be the best of this type of movie. Writer-director Charlie Kaufman plumbed the depths of his fears and neuroses, and made a movie that dared us to tell ourselves we are not like him.
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: (93%) I saw this movie at the Magic Lantern with my friend Mark, and I loved it so much I couldn't wait to watch it again on DVD with my family. It is the best kind of inspirational movie. The inspiration is real, and it is earned. It does not tell us that "life is what you make it"--that's something for the Hallmark channel to tell us. It tells us that "when life makes you a shit sandwich, you don't have to choke on it when you eat it." That's true inspiration in my book. It tells the story of a lout who has a stroke and wakes up to find he can only move his left eye. After self pity and anger, he takes pains to learn a type of Morse code to dictate messages and, eventually, a book. It's based on a true story, and the inspiration, though not complete, is earned.
3. Lawrence of Arabia: (98%)This movie is almost four hours long, so I can be somewhat forgiven if it took me so long to finally watch it. I figured that I had to take my medicine and watch this "classic" (defined by Mark Twain as a work that everybody praises and nobody reads [or in this case, watches]), and was suprised by how clear and compelling the story is. The highlight of the film, though, is the beautiful cinematography. It might be the best visual film in history, and it's fun to watch too.
4. The Visitor: (92%) A student of mine suggested this film to me, and it sounded pretty cheesy. But something in the way he insistently said I needed to watch it made me look it up on Netflix. In an odd coincidence, the first thing that came up on the screen was a recommendation that I watch..."The Visitor". Then I saw it was directed by the same guy who directed "The Station Agent," a great movie, so I moved it to the top of my queue. The story of a college professor who learns to feel again almost tips over to melodrama at times, but the savvy editing and the masterful performance by Richard Jenkins make this a complex film with emotional depth.
5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: (97%) The story itself is pretty simple--a Romanian woman tries to get an abortion--but the complexity of the characters, and the boldness of the filmmaking, elevate this movie. The director has learned from Jim Jarmusch how to hold a shot for a long time, but he has done Jim one better: while the camera lingers, characters change, grow and, in one memorable shot, almost go insane. Like all the movies listed above, this is one I need to see again to get its full genius.
6. Lake of Fire: (94%) It's a coincidence that this film, like the last one, is about abortion, but this one is a documentary. It is shot in silvery black and white by the director of "American History X," and it tries to clearly illuminate both sides of the abortion debate. It shows wackos, but it also shows families of slain abortion doctors. Just when viewers think that abortion is a matter of choice, it shows a tiny arm in a steel pail as a doctor cleans up after an abortion. The final 20 minutes, following a woman from the time she enters an abortion clinic until she leaves, is some of the most compelling cinema in history. It's hard to watch, but it should be required viewing for anyone who thinks they have this debate figured out.
7. The Celebration: (91%) This film is odd and vibrant and funny and ultimately sad, but it is one of the most interesting films to come out of the Dogme 95 movement. It was one of those films Karyn and I started late at night, thinking we'd watch an hour, go to bed, then finish later, but the film was so good we had to finish (to the detriment of a good night's sleep). BTW, the last movie to do that to us was Zodiac.
8. The Darjeeling Limited: (67%) I have been unimpressed by every Wes Anderson movie except Rushmore and Tenenbaums, but this movie was the real deal. It was beautifully shot, as are all Anderson movies, but this time the story about three brothers on a quest to find their mother had heart.
9. Eat Drink Man Woman: (95%) Ang Lee has become such a great director, I had to go back to find this movie he directed in his native tongue, Chinese. It was a delightful and lighthearted film about a father and his three daughters. Touching and sweet, the film also sported some of the most wonderful scenes of eating and cooking in the history of cinema. If the opening scene doesn't make you hungry, you just ate.
10. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: (97%) I didn't appreciate this film the first time I saw it, but I showed it again for my film class, and I came to appreciate the oldschool good guy/bad guy storyline. Rarely in a documentary will you find a villian like Billy Mitchell or a hero like Steve Wiebe. It's as much fun as a movie can be.
Pleasant Surprises: Movies I liked more than I expected to.
In Bruges (81%)
Ghost Town (84%)
Sweeney Todd (86%)