Dec 22, 2008

2008 in review: Part 3: The 25 Best Films of 2008

It’s been such a good year that I thought the usual list of 10 needed expanding. So here’s a bumper selection of the year’s finest cinema, if you haven’t seen these films, make sure you do so as soon as possible. Oh, and Happy Christmas.

Special Mention
Shorts are not eligible for the main list, but there are two this year that need to be mentioned.

Dir: Doug Sweetland
For the third time in a row the short film before Pixar’s latest feature is the star attraction of the evening. A dialogue free piece of vintage slapstick, which is reminiscent of the best Looney Tunes. Presto is five minutes of perfectly paced bust a gut hilarity.

Dir: Mikael Z Wolf
This outstanding film is only it's director's second short, but it shows up almost every horror feature I’ve seen this past year. Tense, involving, frightening and sometimes brutally violent Gehenna is an impressive calling card. Don't take my word for it though, watch it.

No Cigar: The Runners Up [In alphabetical order]

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Dir: Sidney Lumet

One of the year’s finest ensemble casts excel, individually and as a group in Lumet’s grand return to form. The heist gone wrong story may be familiar, but Kelly Masterson’s hard boiled dialogue, great performances from all concerned, particularly Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the always underrated Ethan Hawke, and Lumet’s taut, vital, direction make this a must see.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Dir: Mark Herman
A wrenching look at a concentration camp through the eyes of two young boys, one the son of a guard, the other a prisoner, who become friends. It’s not visually spectacular, but it’s smart, provocative, beautifully acted (particularly by the ever brilliant Vera Farmiga) and will make you weep buckets at the end.

The Fall
Dir: Tarsem
Style over substance? Sure, but what style. The jaw-droppingly sumptuous visuals are the whole reason to see The Fall, which is otherwise rather a flimsy work, but it is well worth taking this in at the cinema, just as a piece of art.

Female Agents
Dir: Jean Paul Salome
Another strong ensemble cast makes this otherwise overblown world war two adventure a great deal of fun. The best performances come from Sophie Marceau, giving a steely performance as a female commando, and Deborah Francois as the devout new recruit. For his part Salome keeps story, action and performances in focus at all times, resulting in an entertaining ride.

Five Across the Eyes
Dir: Greg Swinson / Ryan Thiessen
Filmed on retail standard camcorders, almost entirely inside a van, in the dark and featuring some of the year’s nastiest and most impactful cinematic violence it’s easy to see why most people hated Five Across the Eyes. If it’s intensity you want though, this delivers in spades, short, sharp and shocking it goes for the jugular twenty minutes in and then never lets up. Not for the squeamish, but in a disappointing year of horror movies this is one to watch.

Four Minutes
Dir: Chris Kraus
This film could easily have been both over familiar and over sentimental; that it’s neither is a minor miracle and a testament to not just the director but also his leading ladies. Hannah Herzsprung and Monica Bleibtreau are electrifying as, respectively, a convict who is a prodigiously gifted pianist and and the prison piano teacher who longs to get her to play in a competition. Both give hard edged and convincing performances and the film moves you without being manipulative.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Dir: Guillermo Del Toro
Okay so it’s no Pan’s Labyrinth, but Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy sequel blows both the original, and every other superhero film since Spider-Man 2, out of the water. Its rollicking good fun, a brilliant mainstream rollercoaster ride of a movie, but it’s also a Guillermo Del Toro film through and through. Intricate, thought provoking, gorgeous. This is the best mainstream film of 2008.

Her Name is Sabine
Dir: Sandrine Bonnaire
French actress Bonnaire makes a sensitive and affecting directorial debut with this
affectionate, if sad, and sometimes despairing, documentary portrait of her one year younger sister Sabine. Sabine’s autism was diagnosed late in her life, and only after many years in ‘care’ facilities had worsened her condition from that of the vivacious, beautiful, troubled girl we see in archive footage. A heart rending film about an important, and seldom discussed, subject.

Dir: Adrian Sitaru
This Romanian thriller, filmed entirely in POV, builds tension, slowly and inexorably over its brief running time. Its a tough film to describe, because little really happens and everything hinges on small, otherwise largely innocuous, events that combine to create a threatening atmosphere. It’s one to go into cold, and hopefully have your head turned by.

Dir: Erick Zonca
Zonca’s first film in the decade since The Dreamlife of Angels is a schizophrenic thing. It begins as a character study, it has comedic and thriller elements, and there’s a buddy movie structure in there too. It’s a touch messy, but held together by a(nother) stunning performance from Tilda Swinton, whose Julia teeters credibly on the edge for over two hours.

Lake of Fire
Dir: Tony Kaye
Kaye’s 15 years in the making passion project, a two and a half hour black and white documentary about the abortion issue in the USA. Lake of Fire spares you no detail, no bonkers opinion is left unheard, no point of view unexplored. It’s as exhausting as it is exhaustive, but Tony Kaye's film is the very last word on this debate and it demands to be seen.

Lust, Caution
Dir: Ang Lee
Lee follows Brokeback Mountain with another film about obsessive desire, this time the explicit tale of a female spy who falls for the man she’s supposed to be preparing to kill. Lee controls the film masterfully, making it unbearably tense and crafting (real?) sex scenes that inform the characters as much as any amount of dialogue. The film is stolen by the performances though, Tony Leung is tremendous in a reptilian performance but Tang Wei’s exceptional debut is what Lust, Caution will be remembered for. Well, other than the sex scenes.

Somers Town
Dir: Shane Meadows
Meadows latest was funded by Eurostar, and originally designed to be a short for corporate use, but the director and his cast crafted a semi-improvised 75 minutes of pure joy that simply demanded a release. Working with his This is England star Thomas Turgoose again he draws excellent performances from a cast that mixes professionals and amateur actors. Funny, touching and true this is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Dir: Mark Waters
This is that rare kids movie that doesn’t try and play to the adults in the crowd with jokes just for them, and yet still manages to be satisfying for all ages. This fun, but also slightly scary, fantasy film was almost certainly greenlit because of the Harry Potter franchise, but Spiderwick is better than most of that franchise, with a more self contained and satisfying story and a clutch of good performances.

The Waiting Room
Dir: Roger Goldby
This low key British romantic comedy drama isn’t especially groundbreaking, you’ll guess exactly where it’s going minutes in, and you’ll be right. Where it scores is in a screenplay that deftly mixes the dramatic and comedic in a way that feels true to life, and expertly played performances. Anne-Marie Duff delivers on the promise she showed in The Magdalene Sisters and her TV work and The Royle Family’s Ralf Little makes an appealing male lead.

The cream of the crop: The Top 10
10: I've Loved You So Long
Dir: Phillippe Claudel
Kristin Scott-Thomas is one of those actresses. She’s always good, even in crap, always someone you’re pleased to see in a film’s cast list because she promises at least one quality performance will be on screen, but she’s never really had a breakout role, never really become the name she deserves to be. If there’s justice in the world I've Loved You So Long will be the film that puts Scott-Thomas over the top, the way Tilda Swinton’s years of great work have recently conspired to do for her.

Scott-Thomas is simply outstanding as a woman returning to the outside world after serving a 14 year prison sentence for a crime that goes unspoken for most of the film (and when it is revealed in its fullness it is one of the best scenes of the year). She combines the vulnerability of someone returning to the world, with a secret to hide with the necessary sharpness and toughness that has built up over 14 years imprisonment. She completely inhabits her character, seamlessly disappearing into her with no trace of the actress. One performance that good is worth commenting on, two really is something pretty extraordinary, but Elsa Zylberstein, playing Scott-Thomas’ younger sister, is equally stunning. Remarkably I've Loved You So Long is the directorial debut of Philippe Claudel, but you’d never know it from either the immaculately composed visuals or the exceptional performances.

9: Everybody Dies But Me
Dir: Valeria Gai-Germanika
If this chart were about the best movie title of the year then this film would have stormed to number one. It was the sheer brilliance of its title, as much as anything, which made me pick this out of the mass of things on offer at this year’s London Film Festival. Director Valeria Gai-Germanika, a documentarian making her feature debut, was just 24 when she shot this remarkable coming of age movie and that’s borne out in how close to reality this feels, as if Gai-Germanika were still very connected to this time in her own life.

The story of three teenage friends who end up pulled apart by the vagaries of teenage life isn’t terribly new, but here it has a resonance that few films can match and that thanks mainly to an exceptional young cast. All three of the young leads are non-professionals and Olga Shuvalova in particular looks distressingly young, given what her character and the others go through.

European teen movies, from Christiane F to Show Me Love to Big Girls Don’t Cry, tend to be about the harsher realities of being a teenager and Everybody Dies But Me is certainly no exception there, after a charming scene where the girls hold an impromptu funeral for Zhanna’s cat the punishment is piled on you for much of the film’s just over seventy minutes. It can be exhausting to watch, but you’ll be completely engaged in these girls and their lives. The screenplay paints these young people in realistic colours; they can be and petty, over-dramatic, but we understand why they aren’t perfect and can sympathise.

Gai-Germanika pulls out all the stops for a twenty-minute set piece that forms the films third act as the girls attend their school dance with painful results for each of them. Everybody Dies But Me isn’t easy, but it is high quality, hugely engaging and provoking cinema.

8: The Daisy Chain
Dir Aisling Walsh
British horror seems to be going through a paedophobic phase at the moment, and both the best and worst lists for 2008 bear the evidence. The Daisy Chain, with its tale of outsiders (Steven Mackintosh and Samantha Morton) coming to a community that seems backward, and which they don’t understand, is destined to draw comparisons to The Wicker Man. It’s good enough, though, that hey deserve to be favourable ones.

As good as Morton, Mackintosh and, in a smaller role, Eva Birthistle are the film is stolen from under all their noses by a remarkable, deeply unnerving, debut performance by 9-year-old Mahrai Anderson. What’s really amazing about Anderson’s performance is its subtle menace, which she usually generates through total silence. Yet, scary as she is, you can’t help but feel for Daisy, side with Morton and Mackintosh, who take her in when her family die in a mysterious fire.

The Daisy Chain isn’t a visceral film, but it goes to some painful and scary places with both Anderson and a heavily pregnant Morton (a condition which forced a rewrite, but one it’s now impossible to imagine the film without). One scene in particular makes this film a riveting experience, because it goes to a place few movies would dare, and after that it’s clear that the gloves are off here. Ending with a haunting moment of ambiguity The Daisy Chain is a film you’ll carry around with you for days after it ends.

7: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Dir: Julian Schnabel
The most beautiful film of the year, an extraordinary looking thing, whose imagery puts you right inside the mind and, vitally, the body of its lead character. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a biopic of Jean Dominique Bauby, a journalist who dictated the memoir on which this film is based by blinking his one working eyelid after being struck down with locked in syndrome. Bauby died ten days after his book was published. To its credit Julian Schnabel’s film doesn’t whitewash Bauby, or ask us to feel pity for him. He’s depicted as a man capable of being a true bastard before he falls ill, and he doesn’t miraculously change afterwards, as shown in a devastating scene in which his wife has to relay a blinked message to his lover.

Mathieu Amalric may have come unstuck this year with an ineffectual performance as a Bond villain but here, even with so little at his disposal besides the voiceover he impresses immensely, wringing emotion from every tiny gesture and grunt, never feeling like he’s overplaying, and never playing for our sympathy.

Too often at the time the film came out critics fell over themselves to praise Schnabel and Amalric, to the exclusion of the rest of the cast. This is a shame because the actresses who play the (invariably heart-stoppingly beautiful) women in Bauby’s life are also excellent. Particularly fine work comes from Anne Consigny, as the assistant to whom Bauby dictates his book, and most notably from Emmanuelle Seigner, who gives one of the most emotionally shattered, and shattering, performances of 2008 in the aforementioned scene where she translates a message from Bauby to his lover.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly sounds like a weepie, and yes, you may cry but remarkably it ends up being a life affirming experience and sends you out smiling through the tears.

6: Water Lilies
Dir: Celine Sciamma
Another European teen movie and, while Water Lilies isn’t as dark as Everybody Dies But Me, it’s still a depiction of childhood of a much darker hue than American teenpics tend to give us. The structure is a relatively typical love quadrangle, but one in which most of the feelings go unspoken for much of the film. At the centre of the film is young Marie’s (Pauline Acquart) crush on Floriane (Adele Haenel), the statuesque captain of a young synchronised swimming team and it is that relationship, and the performances of those two young actresses, which power the film.

Water Lilies is, as much as anything, a film about longing, an aspect given life in Pauline Acquart’s very still, but hugely expressive performance. When Marie and Floriane go out dancing Floriane leans in, as if for a kiss, and when she pulls away Acquart’s tiny reaction is one of the most evocative and painful things I saw in a cinema all year. As a realistic depiction of teenagers Water Lilies feels as close to my memories of that time as almost any film. It gets with absolute clarity the casual cruelty, even to friends, that teenagers are often capable of and is extremely sharp in its observation of cliques, and the importance of fitting in. While Water Lilies does, in the end, provide a cathartic moment between Marie and Floriane it is never trite, never dishonest, and refuses to spoon feed its audience the happy ending that might be expected. A smart, beautifully shot and acted, and tremendously affecting film.

5: A L'interieur
Dir: Julien Marury / Alexandre Bustillo
For fifteen minutes A L'interieur doesn’t look at all special. The opening car crash is well realised, but when Beatrice Dalle turns up at Allyson Paradis’ door it looks like we’re in for yet another rehash of Ringu. How wrong can you be? Just 75 minutes long, Inside spends its final hour in all out assault mode, with the audience as its target. The new, extreme, wave of French horror may have announced itself with Haute Tension but A L'interieur, in all its blood soaked glory, is the film that should really put it on the map.

The premise is nightmarish. An expectant mother (Paradis), whose boyfriend has recently died in a car crash is violently terrorised by a mysterious woman (Dalle), the night before she’s due to check in to hospital and give birth but it’s the verve with which it is executed that really impresses. Debuting writer/director team Maury and Bustillo make intensity their watchword, and from the minute Dalle enter the picture they just never let up. They are walking a well-trodden path, but they find new things to do, and new shots to shock and appall us.

A L'interieur is never so impactful as in the moment when Maury and Bustillo cut to the unborn baby inside Paradis, as she tries desperately to survive, but that’s not to say the rest of it is found wanting. The limited setting (one house, with much of the action confined to the bathroom) becomes a claustrophobic nightmare, making every frame of the picture bleed tension. What really makes Inside memorable for the strong stomached horror fan, though, is the sheer unrepentant viciousness of it. You really get the sense of the pain being inflicted here, thorugh a combination of excellent effects and Allyson Paradis’ ballsy performance.

Inside is not an easy film, it’s not for the faint hearted (or the pregnant), but if you can stomach it you'll love it, because you won’t have seen anything as scary in a long time.

4: Lars and the Real Girl
Dir: Craig Gillespie
Lars and the Real Girl is a deceptive film. The idea of a story about a shy young man who falls in love with an ultra-realistic sex doll gives off a very creepy vibe, and yet the film is so innocent, the characters so well drawn and the tone so sweet that you soon forget the seedy side of the premise and embrace this lovely film. Lars’ great strength is its perfectly pitched screenplay by Nancy Oliver (who used to write for Six Feet Under), which has a sweetness, but avoids whimsy, while deftly combining drama and laughs. Oliver finds consistent (and very different) voices for each of her characters, all of whom are easy to feel for and fall for.

As Lars Ryan Gosling continues to prove that he’s one of the best young actors around. Gosling retreats into Lars to such a degree that you really don’t see the actor. It’s a difficult role, because Lars is so insular, so afraid, that everything; the voice, the movement, has to be small and effortful, but still feel natural. Gosling squares this circle perfectly. In spite of yourself, because you grow to like Lars so much, you’ll find yourself drawn in to his relationship with Bianca (the Real Doll), no small feat for film or actor.

Around Gosling is a cast of, if not stars, solid actors, and all are on fine form. Paul Schneider is funny as Lars' brother, and Kelli Garner is sweet as the girl at work who is in love with Lars from afar. It’s Emily Mortimer, though, note-perfect as Lars’ deeply caring sister in law, who steals the film. Lars and the Real Girl is something of an emotional roller coaster. The low key comedy of the film works beautifully, but it’s the drama that makes it stick, the fact that it gives the story such life that the ending, illogical as the reaction is, may well make you cry. It’s a delicate balancing act, pulling off a film like this, and here it’s done perfectly.

3: XXY
Dir: Lucia Puenzo
The third film on the top 10 with a teenager as its main character isn’t a teen movie in the way of the others, but XXY certainly shares Everybody Dies But Me and Water Lilies challenging tone. It’s the story of 15-year-old Alex (Ines Efron), a hermaphrodite who must decide, finally, what her (or his) gender identity is, whilst dealing with the already complex issue of her sexual awakening. There are many fine performances in Lucia Puenzo’s debut film; notably those of Ricardo Darin and Martin Piroyansky as Alex’s father and as the young man who begins to fall for her, but it belongs to Ines Efron.

Efron’s fiery performance is the engine that drives the film. Her dialogue is relatively minimal, but she communicates huge amounts of emotion in gesture and from behind her eyes. It’s a naked performance, in both emotional and physical senses.

Puenzo has an unflinching eye. She depicts Alex’s harsh treatment when the community finds out who she is graphically, culminating in an extremely difficult sequence in which she is sexually assaulted. As difficult as the events are though the film also has moments of extreme visual beauty, and Alex’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship with Alvaro (Piroyansky) has moments of real tenderness. Played with a gritty reality, XXY is a brilliant, original, film about a provocative subject and ought to be seen by any serious world cinema fan.

2: Grace is Gone
Dir: James C Strouse
Though it is still ongoing there has already been a slew of movies about the ‘war on terror’ and its effects. Grace is Gone is easily the best of them. The film approaches its war from an uncommon angle, never depicting it, but instead dwelling on its effect on Stanley Phillips (John Cusack), whose wife is killed in action in Iraq. He finds himself unable to tell his young daughters the news, instead taking them on a cross country road trip.

John Cusack, an actor who, much as I like him, plays John Cusack in almost every film he’s in lately, gives the performance of his life as Stanley; a man beaten down by life, he hates his sales job, which he took because his poor eyesight made him ineligible for the Army and, faced with the loss of his wife, his world begins to collapse in on him. Cusack is simply superb in the part, disappearing into his character for the first time in years.

Cusack is helped by the precocious performances of Gracie Bednarczyk and, especially, Shelan O’Keefe as his young daughters. O’Keefe is particularly touching in her final scene, eulogising her mother in voiceover in a beautiful piece of underplaying, particularly impressive from an actress so young.

James C Strouse keeps things simple and grounded, but his film is often impressive to look at, with a strong variety in his shot choices. Most remarkable in his handling of the material though is the fact that while Grace is Gone is often desperately sad, and extremely moving, it never feels hectoring or maudlin. Grace is Gone has much to say about war, and about the state of the world, but it’s not a film of big statements, it’s not trying to tell us what to think, just to relate what is, sadly, a rather common story, and that it does with great aplomb and no small measure of emotion.

1: No Country For Old Men
Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen
This is, perhaps, a bit of a cheat. I first saw No Country For Old Men on December 30th 2007, but it’s here for two reasons; first I saw it too late to include it on 2007’s list (on which it would also have appeared in first place) and second it’s UK cinema release was on January 18th 2008. There really was no contest here, ever. I love each of the films on this top 10, I hope to see each of them many times over, but No Country For Old Men is truly an instant, and almost certain to be an enduring, classic.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s magisterial modern western is one of those movies in which you simply can’t pick holes. The pace is perfect, it is unbelievably wonderful to look at, the script is funny, thrilling and thoughtful and every role from the leads to the one-scene cameo players is so well cast that you can’t imagine anyone else in them.

Many people hated the ‘anticlimactic’ ending, which came directly from Cormac McCarthy’s book, but they missed the point. The film isn’t about Chigurh, or the money, it’s about Ed Tom Bell’s decreasing understanding of the events he sees around him, and it makes sense to end the film with him and his thoughts.

The Coens hadn’t made a foray into noir for a long time, and so it was good to see them return to cinemas with their finest contribution to the genre so far. For long periods No Country For Old Men plays out in silence, and during these times it simply bleeds tension. The film’s main chase, in which Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh pursues Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) through and around a hotel in deathly silence punctuated only by breathing and bullets, is one of the most nailbiting scenes ever shot.

The Coen’s have been working with cinematographer Roger Deakins since Barton Fink in 1991, and in that time he has become one of the greatest DP’s in cinema. His stunning vistas, and his evocative use of light, as much as the Coens shot choices and cutting, make the film truly envolping and enthralling to watch.

All the performances are note perfect, but while Javier Bardem won an Oscar and Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin were repeatedly eulogised in reviews, Kelly MacDonald was seldom mentioned. The Scottish actress was revelatory here, making an indelible impression in just ten minutes of screentime, including the film’s best scene, in which she confronts Chigurh with his own evil. No Country For Old Men isn’t simply the best film of 2008, it’s easily the best released in since 2004, and one of the very best of the decade so far.

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