Top Ten Films of 2008

This year's list took some padding and slippery conceptualization before it would satisfy me. If it had been a list of just comedies, it would have been easy to complete: many of the top ten are comedies, and I would have felt OK about including Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models, Semi-Pro, Baby Mama, The House Bunny, Ghost Town, and maybe even Tropic Thunder and the fatally flawed Zack & Miri Make a Porno (not What Happens in Vegas, though). None of these, however, felt quite strong enough in the context of a general list of all the new films I saw during the year. I'm not quite sure what principle I'm appealing to in this distinction. But finally, the ones that made the cut did so on the basis of how strong my combined emotional and intellectual reaction was to them, and as a result, how often I thought about them after seeing them. Note: there are still quite a few prominent releases from 2008 that I haven't seen yet (e.g., Milk), so it's possible that this list could be modified in the weeks ahead.

10. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (dir. Guillermo del Toro). I don't remember much of this one now, but I know that when I saw it I was impressed by the sensuous energy of its fantasticality: the kind of thing Terry Gilliam always aims for (when Gilliam hits, it's only because he uses a shotgun). It was drowned out by the thunderous release, a couple days later, of The Dark Knight, and it deserves some recognition.

9. The Happening (dir. M. Night Shyamalan). "Best" must be carefully qualified here. Like a lot of other viewers, I was at times slack-jawed at what was either ineptitude or tonal inscrutability on the part of almost everyone involved in this bizarre, dreary, eco-Jeremiad. But it has stuck with me. Some of the images have the irrational, troubling aura of nightmare, somehow made all the more eerie by virtue of their blank execution.

8. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman). This would be either higher or lower on the list if I could decide whether it adequately critiques the middle-class white-male subjectivity it privileges, and whether it makes a difference even if it does. I think maybe I only put it on here at all because I just really like synecdoche.

7. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (dir. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg). Crass, unfocused, and adolescent. Anyone got a problem with that? Rob Corddry wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights. Enough said.

6. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood). In his late seventies, Eastwood is looking more and more like Bud, the domesticated zombie in George Romero's Day of the Dead. But he wears it well, that beautiful, beautiful psycho.

5. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan). Batman Begins was elegant, but narrow and overly prosaic; The Dark Knight is a steam-shrouded juggernaut, a Wagnerian spectacle. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is like an ultraviolent aria. Oh, the film's politics are screwed up. Well, if they weren't, it wouldn't be a very accurate reflection of the state of our collective military-industrial fantasy life, now would it?

4. Pineapple Express (dir. David Gordon Green). Gratifying buddy antics with Seth Rogen and James Franco. Part of what recommends this, I will admit, is simply the memory of the trailer, so expertly edited to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" (which I don't believe actually plays in the movie itself).

3. Step Brothers (dir. Adam McKay). "I'll kiss you on the mouth, Kenny Rogers."

2. Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris). Renée Zellweger is such a ho in this! And yet the film manages never to judge her. Rather, it makes her a central hub of sympathetic attention (without requiring her to move a muscle, really). And on top of that, it's just a fine old-school western: relaxed dialogue, tense physical confrontations, and bold, expressive vistas. Big cat sitting on a mountaintop, watching a train go by in the distance. Hallelujah.

1. Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen). The Coen Brothers squeeze into the number one spot for the second year in a row with their most pessimistic and contemptuous work to date. Burn After Reading is a grim downward spiral of a spy spoof that drags you around by the heels till your fingernails scrape off on the asphalt. It gleefully forces its cast to surrender all dignity, especially Brad Pitt and George Clooney. A cinematic tone poem blowing a shrill raspberry at the human species.


Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, and Ahney Her in Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008).

The critical controversy surrounding Gran Torino is that Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a largely unrepentant racist: he calls the Hmong family living next door to him "gooks" and other unpleasant things, even after he develops fond feelings for them and befriends the directionless son, Thao (Bee Vang), who tries to steal his precious 1972 Gran Torino in a botched gang initiation rite. The ideological problem, in plain terms, is that Eastwood's character is depicted as simultaneously bigoted and likeable. Obviously this sends a clear message that racism is endearing, and as a result audience members will leave the theater hurling epithets at minorities and expecting that people will find it cute. A small percentage of viewers, it is true, may realize that it is a work of fiction and not an educational filmstrip on social etiquette.

It was pointed out to me after the movie by the people I watched it with that Bee Vang is a terrible actor. I guess this is true in retrospect, but it didn't bother me. He's such a likeable kid. The whole movie is immensely likeable. And if its likeability weren't in many ways troubling, it wouldn't be as resonant as it is.

At one point, Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) tells Walt that she wishes he had been her father. Her own father, she says, was "old school." Walt points out that he's old school too. "But you're an American," she replies. We're not told what that means exactly, but it's clearly supposed to be a good thing. I think it has something to do with allowing people (including oneself) to screw up. This is certainly presented as a major theme of the film, thus the subplot about Walt needing to go to confession so he can cast away the "burden" of the horrible things he did in the Korean War. And that's as good a way as any of describing what is best and worst about being American: the idea that you can be forgiven for just about anything, especially if you're charming enough.

As a director, Eastwood pushes the adjective "workmanlike" as close as it can get to "excellent." He's like Walt: he has a garage full of a bazillion tools specially made to cover just about any task that might come up. He has a masterful sense of detail, fluid narrative energy, restrained symbolic instincts--if at the end the total structure is still that of a 1980s made-for-TV movie, it is at least the one that you watch again whenever it is rerun. And as an actor, he is tops in his field (the field of stony, snarling, antisocial scarecrows who must one day make hard choices that are too big to be contained by their day-to-day moral world views, and that thus explode them). Like John Wayne, he embodies both the romantic and the repellent sides of conservatism at once. He performs jingoistic, self-destructive, guilt-ridden acts of paternalistic heroism for you so you don't have to get your hands bloody. In return, all he asks is that he gets to call you a pussy. I treasure the man. I can't help it.

Nutshell synopsis: combines the best aspects of About Schmidt and Death Wish.


Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman, 2008).

The heading for one of the message board threads at the IMDb page for Synecdoche, New York reads, "Maybe this makes more sense to atheists."

Honey, nothing makes sense to atheists. That's the way we like it.

I am left deeply unsatisfied, nevertheless, by the incoherence of the frivolous Schenectady/synecdoche pun out of which I cannot but imagine the film initially sprang as an improvised whim. This dissatisfaction, in fact, is itself a synecdoche for my more general misgivings about Charlie Kaufman. Yes, I was entertained by the movie, even moved at times, but I could never quite get past the way it broadcast its sense of itself as the work of an intrepid junior genius. Prodigal precociousness became Being John Malkovich; a decade later, it smacks a little of wishful thinking.

And yet the perennially-on-fire apartment is a lovely metaphor, both humorous and haunting, and there are a number of these touches throughout.


Across the Bridge

Rod Steiger in Across the Bridge (dir. Ken Annakin, 1957).

A businessman (Rod Steiger) fleeing to Mexico to avoid prosecution for financial corruption throws a fellow passenger off the train in order to assume his identity. Upon deboarding, he finds he has inherited the man's dog. From a short story by Graham Greene. Despite the slightly distracting feature of having lots of Mexicans played by British actors, a fine, taut drama with a Wellesian feel (more, probably, on account of the setting and theme than anything else--stylistically, it's closer to Hitchcock). The central narrative problem is how to make the gradual development of the man/dog relationship interesting without resorting to tired sentiment, and it's handled very intelligently. Steiger becomes more likeable as he starts to fall apart under the pressure of paranoia and guilt, even though there's never any overwrought "moral transformation."