The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Every year—from Dr. Zhivago to The English Patient—there’s got to be a “Top 10” space for some epic, sweeping, visually seductive romance. That slot falls, this year, to David Fincher’s lush, effects-filled take on a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Take it apart, and it seems like too much about too little. Aging backwards is nothing new. Technically, Robin Williams did that on “Mork & Mindy”--the show just didn’t go on long enough to show us the tragic end of that particular romance. But look at the cumulative effect of this film’s slowly rising tide of detail: Brad Pitt’s soulful performance, the carefully burnished cinematography, the deathly symbolism, the matter-of-fact fantasy, the inevitable melancholic outcome. Surrender to the sad beauty of it all and you get a dramatic, eloquent, highly artistic rumination on the uncertainty of life and the inevitability of death.
The Dark Knight
This is, hands down, the most mature comic book movie that has ever been made and arguably will ever be made. In Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan created an entirely new, real-world dynamic for superheroes. With The Dark Knight, he explores the repercussions of placing costumed vigilantes into a crime-ridden world. The results include idiotic wannabes, demented rivals and growing civic outrage. In Heath Ledger’s Joker, Nolan finds the perfect encapsulation of this tale: a living, breathing embodiment of modern-day chaos and confusion. Some judge Ledger’s performance as gimmicky. But notice the subtlety underneath all those tics. Listen to the way he tells his various “origin” stories (a variation on the “If I’m going to have a past, I’d prefer it to be multiple choice” line from Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke). Ledger’s Joker isn’t simply making up stories--he actually believes each and every one of them. That performance anchors the entire film, which strives not for the escapist fantasy of past superhero outings but for the gritty, outsized gravitas of a Wagner opera à la Martin Scorsese.
I Served the King of England
Forty years after winning the Academy Award for 1966’s Closely Watched Trains, Czech director Jirí Menzel proves he’s still in top form with this whimsical, thoughtful, occasionally naughty cinematic fairy tale for adults about a saintly looking shrimp of a man who aspires to be the greatest waiter in all of Europe. Menzel’s visual flights of fancy are a true delight and are used sparingly enough to still feel special by film’s end. Few would dare paint the dark days of World War II with such a bright brush, but Menzel does--mixing sneaky political commentary, silent film comedy and tidy moral symmetry, and finding redemption in the simple art of pouring a beer.
Let the Right One In
In a year when piffle like Twilight received an inordinate amount of attention, thanks largely to the hairdos of its various castmembers, it was refreshing to see an almost immediate counterpoint like Sweden’s Let the Right One In. Using almost the exact same story, this frigid gem creates an eerie, emotional, violent, gorgeous, meditative atmosphere of supernatural dread. First of all, we get to see vampires doing, you know, vampiric things. Second of all, the film’s “love story” (between a bullied 12-year-old schoolboy going quietly postal and the lonely, bloodsucking tween-next-door) feels as awkward and painful as our own formative years.
When Gus Van Sant goes off the reservation, it’s bad. (See: Gerry. Or better yet, don’t.) But when he’s got a script as solid as Dustin Lance Black’s take on the truncated life of San Fran gay rights martyr Harvey Milk, he’s pure Oscar bait. Mixing authentic historical footage, spot-on temporal reconstruction and the sympathetic character work of Sean Penn (also Oscar bound), Milk nails its subject matter with humor, sadness, drama and that timely thing called hope.
The Rape of Europa
The year 2008 saw plenty of fine (mostly political) documentaries, but this holdover from late 2007 is something transcendent. The film is ostensibly a chronicle of Hitler’s plan to wipe out “impure” European peoples by eradicating their culture. It doesn’t take long, though, for the film to evolve into a rapturous elegy to long-lost masterworks of art. Amid the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust, it seems almost petty to worry about paintings and sculptures--until you view this movie and realize how much we lose when a piece of art is destroyed. People are ephemeral things, but true art is eternal.
Director Danny Boyle’s uncategorizable tribute to Bollywood filmmaking is like an irresistible confection set in the middle of a festering dump. Sounds unappetizing, but Boyle finds a way to meld a heart-swelling, romantic fairy tale with a brutal poverty-riddled crime drama. Although our Dickensian hero Jamal grows up in the slums of Mumbai, fighting off gangs, crimelords and anti-Muslim killers, he never lets go of his dream of pure, unadulterated love-at-first-sight. The fact that he wins the hand of his ladylove by appearing on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” only adds to the magical realist feeling of this dazzling piece of wish-fulfillment cinema.
Yes, really. I realize this film will end up on most folks’ “Worst 10” list, but the truth is, very few people actually bothered to watch it. Those that did didn’t take it in the spirit in which it was intended. Haters are either snobs who said the original Japanese series “sucked anyway” or fortysomething übernerds who were offended by the childish nature of this remake. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. What the Wachowski brothers created is a faithful live-action tribute that is somehow more cartoony than an actual cartoon. This is not self-conscious camp. This is unabashedly juvenile eye-candy for the sugar-addled 8-year-old in all of us. Fail to notice this film’s seamless creation of a hyperbolic, high-speed, color-saturated, split-screen world in which live actors, real props and computer animation conspire to blur, erase, explode and render utterly unnecessary the line between reality and imagination, and you fail to understand what movies will look like 10 years from now.
For the foreseeable future, Pixar has a permanent space set aside in the annual “Top 10” for any film they deign to release. For its inaugural collaboration with Disney (previously, the Mouse Corp simply distributed the studio’s work), Pixar pulled out all the stops. WALL-E is a masterpiece--a film so emotionally absorbing that we don’t even need to talk about its considerable technical triumphs. For starters, Pixar creates one of the cutest, most lovable characters in movie history. Next, they hammer out a story so deft it hardly needs dialogue. And finally, when we were perfectly happy to luxuriate in 90 minutes’ worth of adorable robot action, they give us a quiet object lesson on today’s runaway consumer culture. For pure, juicy irony, check out all the WALL-E toys crowding the aisles at Walmart.
At the end of the day, all the credit will go to Mickey Rourke and his triumphant performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a broken-down wrestler still huffing the fumes of his ’80s-era fame. No argument here: Rourke deserves a shot at the Oscar. But to give credit where credit is due, there are no slackers in this lean, brutal, sadly redemptive character drama. Screenwriter Robert D. Siegel and director Darren Aronofsky conspire to create a totally documentary-like reality. It’s the details here that are heartbreaking--from the backstage camaraderie of the wrestlers casually discussing their choreography right down to the pathetic 8-bit graphics on the NES game that represents Randy’s crowning, long-faded glory. This film is so real it hurts.
Damn Close: Doubt; The Edge of Heaven; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Funny Games; Happy-Go-Lucky; Iron Man; Man on Wire; Rachel Getting Married; Synecdoche, New York; Tropic Thunder