January 21, 2009

The Ten Best and Most “Mindful” Films of 2008.

For the most part, I would agree with the fairly widespread assessment that this past year was not an especially good one for film. While the major studios might disagree, considering the fact that the North American box office had its most successful year ever in 2008, artistic achievements of such unqualified success were few and far between. While 2006 and 2007 offered a bounty of great films, the trend seemed to come to a screeching halt this year. While the year-end glut of Oscar-baiting dramas (Milk, Frost/Nixon, Doubt, The Reader, Revolutionary Road) addressed vital and timely issues, few if any of them would ever be mistaken for high film art. (The New York Times picked just the right year to publish a feature reminding readers that “important” pictures are not always the best pictures.) And the films actively trying to push the creative envelope (like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, The Fall, and Synecdoche, New York) were met with appropriately mixed reactions from critics and audiences. (Awards season juggernaut Slumdog Millionaire was even reported to have dramatically divided the Los Angeles Film Critics Association into two very passionate, opposing camps.)   

“Indie” films, meanwhile, demonstrated new possibilities and problematics: though critical darlings like The Wrestler, Wendy and Lucy, Frozen River, and Rachel Getting Married helped raise the bar for film realism, they tended to lack strong guiding ideas. (In her spot-on assessment of Rachel Getting Married in The Village Voice, for example, critic Ella Taylor accurately dubbed it “a middlebrow domestic drama beating its wings against an experimental frame.”) Elsewhere, much-beloved auteurs like the Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading), David Mamet (Redbelt), Woody Allen (Vicky Christina Barcelona), and Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino and Changeling) went solidly through the motions, though none of them really hit it out of the park this time around.

However, those aforementioned mainstream blockbusters, as well as nonfiction films, picked up the slack from their supposedly higher-brow counterparts. WALL*EThe Dark KnightIron Man, and Tropic Thunder in particular more than exceeded expectations, making for one of the most enjoyable summers at the movies in a good long while. Some of the best performances of the year were also to be found within these films: the late Heath Ledger is deservedly the sure-bet for a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his breathtaking reinvention of “The Joker” in The Dark Knight, and Robert Downey, Jr., is practically assured a nod in the same category for his daring comic work in Tropic Thunder. In addition, documentaries in 2008 were, by and large, terrific.  Surfwise, Man on Wire, Standard Operating Procedure, I.O.U.S.A., At the Death House Door, Glass:  A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Trouble the Water, Gonzo:  The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Encounters at the End of the World…the list of strong nonfiction releases in 2008 goes on. (Half of my own “ten best of ’08” list, below, is comprised of documentaries.) Sure, there were more than a few misses in both areas (Speed Racer or Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, anyone?), but, in a bad year, the blockbusters and the documentaries shone very brightly.

Funnily enough, when I asked colleagues at elephant journal for their favorite titles of 2008, they were either documentaries or…well, WALL*EIf there’s an elephant journal “Film of the Year, it is most definitely Disney/Pixar’s smash-hit genre gem: with its combination of visionary animated cinema, aborable robot love, and a strong green message, WALL*E won many hearts on the staff. In addition, editor Waylon Lewis named the wonderful Crips and Bloods:  Made in America his pick for film of the year. Other staffers named Fuel and King Corn as favorites.

 In thinking about my own picks for the ten best films of the year, it strikes me that they all have things to say to those of us committed to mindful living.  And so, I present my picks with the ten best films of the year with brief explanations about why they might interest you.

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10. The Visitor, dir. Tom McCarthy

The set-up for The Visitor is familiar and often results in unsophisticated mush: uptight white guy is taught how to truly live by exotic “others.” But writer/director Tom McCarthy and his cast know how much trouble they could get into here, and gracefully side-step most of the postmodern land-mines. Even when it switches gears and becomes an “issue” film midway, it does so with no small amount of thoughtfulness and care. McCarthy (perhaps better known for his acting in films like Syriana and Meet the Parents) is clearly a major talent, but much of the credit here belongs to leading man Richard Jenkins (whose prodigious work as a character actor includes the deceased patriarch whose ghost cracks wise on TV’s “Six Feet Under”). He sets the bar very high for all the other performances and aspects of the production with his full-bodied, complex character. It’s a quiet and generous kind of acting that refuses to manipulate and takes the longer, more difficult road to winning the audience’s affection. Jenkins deserves many more opportunities to shine like this, and audiences deserve more understated and gentle films like this.  (View trailer here.)


9. Man On Wire, dir. James Marsh

 In 1974, French artist Philippe Petit performed the hair-raising stunt of crossing a high-wire illegally strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The act required co-conspirators and eight months of planning, and ultimately resulted in Petit’s arrest. What could have been an interesting but ultimately unnecessary feature-length document unexpectedly winds up quite an affecting work. With its slick reenactments and engrossing testimony from Petit and others, Man On Wire‘s study of the “artistic crime of the century” has a lot to say about the wisdom and also the neurotic qualities underneath our weird obsession. (“It’s impossible, that’s for sure,” Petit says. “So let’s start working!”) In addition, the “crime” has taken on a special poignancy in the wake of 9/11, and the film works as a tribute of sorts to the destroyed towers.  As critic Roger Ebert wrote so well at the time of the film’s release: “Man on Wire is about the vanquishing of the towers by bravery and joy, not by terrorism.” (View trailer here.)


8. Surfwise, dir. Doug Pray

The unique “odyssey” of the Paskowitz family will probably sound idyllic to quite a few elephant journal readers: over many years, medical doctor Dorian Paskowitz, his wife, and their nine children lived a purposefully spartan and nomadic existence in an RV, eating only natural food and surfing a lot. As the film reveals, though, it wasn’t all easy living:  the effect of all of this on his children is explored in some depth, raising as many questions as it does interesting points. (Explaining his decision to remove his children from school and put them through such a strict fitness regimen, for example, Dr. Paskowitz says, “Wisdom is what you get from experience, and that’s what my children had a lot of.”) It’s rare that documentaries scrutinize all the arguments for and against something like this with such serious interest and openness. Surfwise is a robust, mature, and absorbing study of the Paskowitz family’s experiment that is highly recommended to fans of this publication. (View trailer here.)


7. Diary of the Dead, dir. George A. Romero

Each of George A. Romero’s brilliant zombie apocalypse pictures has offered a prophetic warning about its time: the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was a thinly-veiled commentary on racism and paranoia; 1978’s Dawn of the Dead was a bleak look at consumer culture; 1985’s Day of the Dead lampooned militarism as Ronald Reagan beefed up the U.S. Armed Forces; and 2005’s Land of the Dead, which was released not long after the invasion of Iraq, was about the politics of distraction and the basic human impulses to turn away from suffering and ignore injustice. With Diary of the Dead–which was shot on digital video in first-person, documentary-style–Romero shows us that he’s still got our number. Here, he examines the narcissistic need to document and promote all the minutiae of our lives via video, social networking sites, blogs, and so on. (A frequent refrain in the film: “If it’s not on camera, it’s like it never happened, right?”) The resultant film is broadly satirical (oblivious to the end of the world around him, the self-absorbed protagonist excitedly points out that his video footage has had several thousand hits on YouTube); at times almost unbearably scary (scenes set at a hospital and on a farm are small masterpieces of atmospheric terror); and often extremely funny (a kindly, dynamite-throwing Amish deaf-mute nearly steals the show). Yes, it’s a gory horror-fest, but it’s also one of the overlooked gems of 2008. (View trailer here.)


6. Encounters at the End of the World, dir. Werner Herzog 

In Herzog’s best nonfiction work since his unforgettable Grizzly Man, the director travels to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station (an American research center) on a National Science Foundation grant to study the land and its idiosyncratic inhabitants. With tongue in cheek, Herzog notes that the N.S.F. was happy to give him money even after he told them that he definitely would not be making another film “about penguins.” While penguins (one in particular) feature more prominently than he may have intended, the final product is far from “the usual.” It’s a singularly lovely and unusual look at a singularly lovely and unusual continent. Herzog, who has a rare gift for reflecting reality in all of its splendor and nuance, finds such incredible beauty wherever he settles his gaze–from the arresting sea life beneath the ice to the damaged Russian worker who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to the gargantuan helium balloon used for neutrino detection.  You might have to be in the right mood for it, but Encounters at the End of the World is not to be missed. (View trailer here.)


5. Standard Operating Procedure, dir. Errol Morris

At the time of its release, S.O.P., the latest from documentary maestro Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War)was chastised by some critics for its stylized recreations of the horrible incidents of torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison. But this is a film about shocking and indelible images–the ones we all know from the news, as well as the ones not photographed but remembered with incredible clarity by the film’s “talking heads.” That in mind, the vividly produced reenactments by Morris and his great, two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator, Kill Bill) are quite effective in that they convey something about the larger-than-life, haunting quality of those images. To my thinking, they never take on a vulgar dimension. Quite the contrary, in fact: they add even more layers to a film that is already challenging viewers with diverse (and often contradictory) accounts of these incidents, ethical questions, political perspectives, and strong opinions. It’s another bull’s-eye from one of our very best working filmmakers. Added bonus: composer Danny Elfman shows remarkable new depths and abilities with his score–the best of 2008. (View trailer here.)


4. Paranoid Park, dir. Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park was all the things his marvelously-acted-but-otherwise-average biopic Milkand most of the other films in this crop of awards season contenders–should have been: boldly unconventional, intimate, and thoroughly visual in its storytelling. Based on Blake Nelson’s popular young adult novel of the same name, Paranoid Park is about adolescent skateboarder Alex (Gabe Nevins) and his angst over accidentally killing a railway security guard. The Portland youth’s emotional fallout is only exacerbated by the fact that he’s not even through puberty and already dealing with the stresses of high school and a broken home. Though it has all the makings of an especially gripping film noir, Van Sant is much more interested in meditating on guilty consciences at a moment in time when they seem to be in very short supply–this, the age of the Bush Administration, Enron, and Bernie Madoff. (In one moment, when a friend of Alex’s finds him reading the newspaper, she asks, “Anything about the war?”  “Nope,” he says back.) An exceptional soundtrack (including cuts from Nino Rota and Portland’s own late, great Elliott Smith) only heightens the experience of Van Sant’s powerfully topical and memorable morality tale. (View trailer here.)


3. At the Death House Door, dir. Steve James and Peter Gilbert

At the Death House Door takes a unique tact in its look at the death penalty issue: it focuses solely on the life and work of Huntsville prison chaplain Carroll “Bud” Pickett. From 1982 to 1995, Rev. Pickett accompanied 95 prisoners to their executions at Texas’ “Death Capital.” (Texas executes more prisoners than any other state and all of those executions happen in Huntsville.) When he had serious doubts about the guilt of the final prisoner with whom he walked the last mile, he quit his job and became an anti-death penalty crusader. Directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert–director and cinematographer, respectively, of the modern masterpiece Hoop Dreams–definitely want viewers to ask questions about the death penalty, and the simultaneously haunted and driven Rev. Pickett himself may convince them that the practice is wrong. But this is not a rigid polemic, and James and Gilbert never overreach or get lost in the larger debate–it’s about a fascinating, ordinary man and his place in the complicated and unfortunate matter of retributive justice. At the Death House Door is a simple, stunning work that deserves a much wider audience. (View trailer here.)


2. WALL*E, dir. Andrew Stanton

What to say about the animated, post-apocalyptic romantic comedy WALL*E that hasn’t already been said? It’s all true, the things you’ve heard: the film is ravishingly beautiful (finally, CGI is easy on the eye); clever (you gotta love all the sci-fi movie in-jokes, like Alien star Sigourney Weaver’s role-reversing voice cameo as a malevolent super-computer); hilarious (M-O, the forlorn robot tasked with sweeping up dirt on a spaceship, is worthy of a classic silent comedy); prescient (its vision of an unlivable planet Earth buried in the trash of morbidly obese, compulsive dullards is meant to make us uneasy, and it does); and incredibly sweet (WALL*E’s anxious attempts to woo EVE will resonate with anyone who has ever been head-over-heels). And what a creation the title character is–WALL*E is one of the most winning and downright lovable protagonists in recent popular cinema. (Many props go to multiple Oscar-winning sound effects designer Ben Burtt, creator of such memorable movie racket as Luke Skywalker’s light-saber and Indiana Jones’ whip-crack, who gives distinctive “voice” to the little guy.) Though the transcendently gorgeous first half of the film is definitely stronger than the more run-of-the-mill last half, it’s a real testament to WALL*E‘s greatness that that last half taken on its own is still better than most films released in 2008! It’s really hard to imagine Pixar improving from here, but that’s what I thought after A Bug’s Life…and Finding Nemo…and The Incredibles…and Ratatouille… (View trailer here.)


1. The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan

For me personally, 2008 will be remembered most for The Dark Knight–the most successful and also the best film of the year. Christopher Nolan’s epic sequel to Batman Begins was a truly startling double-act. First, it’s supreme blockbuster entertainment on the order of Star Wars, Jaws, or Raiders of the Lost Ark: imaginative, involving, thrilling, and masterfully constructed. It’s also arguably the first absolutely essential work of post-9/11 film art, succeeding where so many dozens of well-intentioned documentaries and dramas in the last several years had not quite. With a plot revolving around the reign of senseless terror unleashed on Gotham City by the Joker (Heath Ledger) after the Batman (Christian Bale) commits a morally dubious violation of international law, the room for contemplation on the sad state of world affairs was ample…and Nolan and company certainly did not disappoint in their exploration, which made excellent use of upstanding-attorney-turned-homicidal-revenger “Harvey Two-Face” (Aaron Eckhart) as both the narrative and thematic pivot. In naming the cast and crew of the film among their “Entertainers of the Year,” Entertainment Weekly put it perfectly when they said, “The Dark Knight was a movie that peered into the murky heart of our cultural movement and looked for easy answers…and had the guts to say, ‘There are none. Now deal with it.'” There was no more massively ambitious, visually sumptuous, hugely allegorical, eminently relevant, and wholly satisfying movie all year. For these reasons, it’s my pick for the best film of 2008. And, along with WALL*E, it gives those of us dedicated to the mindful life surprising reason to say, “Hooray for Hollywood!” (View trailer here.)

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