2008, by all accounts, was a good year for cinema. The best films are obvious and do stand out from the rest, but, in relation to each other, hard to compare. Eight come to mind, with only two foreign language films and the rest fairly mainstream movies. So, in no particular order, the best films of 2008.
Frost/ Nixon is the only Academy Award for Best Picture nominee to make its way into this list. Squashed between two Dan Brown adaptations, Frost/ Nixon is both a fantastically exciting political film (one of the few that really works) and a genuinely moving character study. Michael Sheen outshines all his previous reincarnations of famous people, being fun and serious in equal measures. However, it is Frank Langella who really impresses, playing a man who is easy to hate, but becomes almost lovable. His Nixon is a man who knows history will look back at him with hatred and that there is little he can do about it. It is fun and light, but with exciting political manoeuvres and real people.
The Wrestler was an interesting one when it came out. A well-reviewed Darren Aronofsky film about wrestling with a comeback performance from Mickey Rourke. It works as another engrossing character study, something that, oddly, all the best films of 2008 have in spades. Great performances and a lovely out of step sequence in which Rourke and Tomei bemoan the death of the Eighties.
Clint Eastwood had a really good year with two of his best films, Changeling and Gran Torino; one being an Oscar Drama with great performances and the other being to Dirty Harry what Unforgiven was to A Fistful of Dollars. Changeling is based on a true story, something that saves it to a certain extent as otherwise it would be simply unbelievable. A fantastic story and one on the deranged side. On the more ordinary side is the story behind Gran Torino in which old racist Eastwood is shown the error of his ways following the awkward formulation of a friendship with a young Korean boy. This all sounds horribly tacky, but Eastwood, more as actor than as director, makes it great. The script is very funny and Eastwood’s revisionism of old archetypes is always worthy of interest. What he does with the ending is rather interesting, being the pacifist ending that Unforgiven was aiming for, but failed to reach.
Wall E was a pleasant surprise, being a Pixar film that was actually emotionally involving. It may struggle during the middle section, in which Wall E is leaving the Earth and spends a large amount of time zooming around a big spaceship. Despite this, and the over-obvious message about how humans shouldn’t be messy and lazy, this is a film with a real charm.
Possibly the best film of 2008 was probably playwright Martin MacDonagh’s debut In Bruges, a very funny hit man comedy with some really intriguing themes if you care to see them. The hit men in the film have a certain kind of morality, something that is purely a construct of the movies, but something that is palpably presented. The undercurrents of violence, remorse and loyalty helps make the film as effective as drama as it is at being funny. And, in a brutally non-PC way, it is very funny.
The two foreign language films are troubling, in that both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture, one of them winning the award that was possibly equally deserved by both. Japan’s comedy-drama Departures was a heart-warming story about undertakers that frequently threatened to become mawkish. In many ways, it was a toe-curling watch as the film kept hinting at a potential narrative twist, which would have ruined everything in a very post-My Life As A Dog way. Like the disgusted spectators viewing the rites of these undertakers, you are slowly charmed by the film and, in the end; you may even like the violin playing on the hillside musical interlude. The other film is something much tougher, a bit of urban realism from Germany, Revanche about a bereaved hoodlum finding his enemy living near his father’s country house. He spends the majority of the film considering the revenge he will take, while his cop enemy deals with his own guilt. It is engrossing viewing. Departures won, but it is still hard to come to some sort of a conclusion.
Other notable mentions are Palme D’Or winner The Class, the tough Gomorrah, vampire romance franchise-opener Twilight and the brutally sad The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Also, I forgot bleak masterpiece The Mist, a low budget film with the integrity to have a seriously risky ending and one that is rather life-affirming when you think about it.