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Friday, December 26, 2008

What Kind of Year Has it Been: Dan's Top 5 of 2008

Now, normally an end of year top 10 list would be in order, but honestly, a trip to the cinema these days seems less and less enticing.  Fond memories of seeing The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, or sneaking into Kill Bill Part 1, or further back the re-release of the Star Wars Trilogy in theaters seem distant now.  Many films aim to do nothing but make enough barely amusing ads (in the case of a comedy) or stupidly grand ones (in the case of action) to get the butts in the seats, then distract you for two or so hours.  You leave the theater the same as you came in.  Time to get on with your night.

The following is a list of the few films I sought out to see this year, and each one of them leaves an impression that lasts for days, the mark of any great art, whether it be prose or paintings or the moving picture.  Here they are.

5. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky astounds by simplifying.  His dizzying editing style that defined his breakout Pi, his opus Requiem for a Dream, and his interesting flop The Fountain, is, surprisingly and wonderfully absent.  That is not a disparagement towards the style of his previous films, but by serving up one of the simplest, pure films in years Aronofsky has demonstrated the power of restraint and understatement.  The camera meanders with the titular wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) as he makes the most of living in a world that has long forgotten him.  Speaking of which, Rourke's performance is the greatest example of an actor not just disappearing into a role, but perfectly embodying it.  There's nothing hidden here.  The broken down wrestler is as much Rourke as it is Randy, and it's his mottled face, sweaty and scarred, that stays with you; a testament to the cinema's ability to immerse and present realistic characters in ways that no other medium can.

4. The Dark Knight

On the opposite of the spectrum, we have the busiest movie of the year.  Christopher Nolan (along with editor Lee Smith) proves once again he is the god of motion picture editing, fashioning a tense, breathless, epic film out of what must have been a daunting mountain of footage consisting of Christian Bale awkwardly galumphing about in his rubber suit.  Coupled with Heath Ledger's already lauded, completely flawless turn as The Joker, it is far and beyond the best superhero film ever made, surpassing its contemporaries (and making Batman Begins look like a light appetizer) in terms of intensity, depth, and cinematic thrills.

3. Wall-E

PIXAR is far and beyond anything Disney or any other animated division has made in the last ten years.  Bolt, Enchanted, are both warmly charming but ultimately insecure in their self-referential nature.  Dreamworks remains as derivative and content-free as ever, fashioning pop entertainment that fails to leave a lasting impression.  As for any other companies, who will remember Ice Age in fifteen years?  With Wall-E, PIXAR has solidified their reputation not only as the sure thing that can deliver with each and every film, but they have also established themselves as the risk takers.  Indeed, after making a peerless film about mid-life crises, then following it up with a film about the joys of cooking, they have chosen to do something bold and tender, operatic and silent, entertaining but in no way pandering.  Some say Wall-E is too "artsy" or slow.  Let us not lower our expectations of what "family entertainment" is.  It does not have to talk down.  It does not have to reference pop culture.  It can be artistic.  Wall-E represents the pinnacle of contemporary animated entertainment.

2. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle's latest contains a certain magic that recaptures the wonder of "the movies."  Film can be used for a variety of intentions, but most people go to the silver screen to see tales of grandeur, to see the human spirit redeemed and rewarded, to see spectacle and color.  Slumdog Millionaire is a sprawling, kinetic, and altogether uplifting story that rejects abject realism for soaring idealism that says love conquers all and destiny plays an integral part in our lives, despite any circumstance.  To do something like this and still remain genuine is what makes this film fly.

1. Synecdoche, New York

This polarizing film takes the number one spot on my list simply for being the most honest, ambitious film in a long time.  Some critics believe Charlie Kaufman is hiding behind unconventionality and his usual cinematic bag of tricks, I am convinced that the man just wanted to lay all of his thoughts and feelings about life and death on the line for the world to see.  What this film represents is the promise for audience and film to come together and synthesize greater meaning than if the film simply spoon-feeds the viewer one particular meaning.  One gets out of Synecdoche, New York what one brings to it.  You choose to feel it or you don't.  There's no right or wrong, no "getting it" or "not getting it."  It is what it is.  And it is to me a beautiful insight into the creative process and a rumination on mortality that has gotten me thinking more than any other film this year.

Films I didn't/haven't see this year that I wanted/want to: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Rachel Getting Married, The Wackness, Milk, Man on Wire.  It could be very well possible that watching any or all of these could change this list.

Happy Holidays and have a great New Year,


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