2008, the year of death, decay and the wisdom of the beautiful loser. The year movie stars examined their own mortality and fading beauty via their on-screen personas (Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke and Clint Eastwood, who managed to be as cute as Sarah Silverman while delivering his racial humor -- I'm still wondering if that was his point -- and I'm still fond of his weirdly toned movie.) The year Heath left us and Mickey came back and Robert Downey Jr. became a superhero. The year that actually made me examine the deeper implications of Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head" (real and appropiate title, "Metal Health"). With this in mind, here's my top ten movies of 2008:
I never gave up on Mickey Rourke -- ever. One of my favorite actors, the mysterious, seductive American exotic with that whispery voice that was at once sexy and conspiratorial, the actor who always leans into his conversation, as if you were the only person in the world, never left my viewing. He's an odd guy, a tortured soul, but one of the screen's most exceptional players, an actor who can funnel his uniquely soulful strangeness into any part -- even opposite the Marlboro Man (not kidding) and especially in underrated movies like the surrealistic Double Team or the sublime Bullet (a movie everyone must see -- junkie Rourke drowning his inner city blues to the swooning sounds of Barry White is not to be missed). And let's not forget his bravura performances in The Rainmaker, Animal Factory and The Pledge in which (in his only scene) he gives us the most soul crushing moment of the entire picture. Sure, he's back, but he was still great. His first born again splash was Sin City, the good Frank Miller movie that gave the actor terrific reviews. But we couldn't really see him. After all, this is the same beauty who at one point was deemed the next Brando (with Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rumble Fish and Barfly), so I yearned to watch that face again, no matter how much older and odder it may appear these days.
Enter Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. And there's that face again! Nothing can take away inner charisma, and The Wrestler proves it. Rourke is the picture, and though there are many scenes I could discuss -- there's one that remains my favorite -- one that's so overwhelmingly touching, so disarming, you're a little amazed by how hard it hits you -- and it doesn't occur in the wrestling ring. It's a sequence showing Mickey Rourke's washed-up, stuck-in-the-'80s wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson working at a supermarket deli. He hides his bleached-blond lion's pride underneath a plastic cap while doling out pasta mixes and specific slices for the purpose most of us can understand: to keep a roof over his head. But it's not simply the sadness of Randy's past glory submerged in a soul-crushing job that moves us -- it's because he's actually good at it and, even better, so sly and charming and entertaining to his customers, that you see both the innumerable possibilities for a man who chose bloody smack downs, self-inflected razor cuts and the fearsome folding-chair treatment as his life's work, and exactly why he was so great at it. And bless him for it. It's the kind of sacrifice that makes Rourke's character (and real-life persona) deserve every ounce of our love, even if he considers himself a "broken-down piece of meat." But then every moment in Aronofsky's raggedly beautiful, extraordinarily wistful, perfectly nuanced and wonderfully acted picture lifts itself above easy sentimentality and tired fallen champ axioms. This is partially for the director's gritty artistry and genuine soulfulness -- never once do we feel like he's mocking wrestling or Rourke's Randy, or rendering either as a pitiful joke. But it's mostly because of Rourke's naked, heart-wrenching, art-imitating-life performance. This is blood, sweat and tears (quite literally) on a whole other inspired level. I don't take the Oscars too seriously, but I swear, if he doesn't get nominated for The Wrestler, I'll ... I don't know ... take a cue from the movie, crank up "Sweet Child O' Mine" and start crying.
"There's a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that'll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I'd go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison... death... didn't matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn't be in fuckin' Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that's what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin' Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn't die. I really really hoped I wouldn't die." So ends In Bruges, one of the year's most under-looked, and touching movies -- a movie that'll make you laugh at a gleefully offensive joke and then unexpectedly tear up over a tragic back story that somehow wrings sympathy over a man who shot up a church. A picture filled with rapid fire wit, dark, hilarious humor, vicious violence, curse words galore, surrealism, intense emotion, unpredictable action, redemption, faith and a deeply touching soul (not to mention a dwarf -- a dwarf who snorts lots and lots of cocaine), In Bruges never runs off the rails, but remains nicely contained in, of course, Bruges. The picture finds sensitive hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in his greatest performance to date) stuck in the medieval Belgium town of Bruges as a sort of purgatory -- waiting for their newest job (or end) via brutal boss-man Ralph Fiennes (who can use the "c" word like nobody's business). Irish playwright Martin McDonagh makes his filmmaking debut here, and does not disappoint with sublime intelligence and un-PC humor that actually has a point beyond shock (so refreshing), you truly feel like these men talk this way. And that they really dislike Americans. Or, in the case of Ralph Fiennes, that they really can't stand their wife, at least for a brief moment. After smashing his phone so intensely that his wife irritatingly inquires as to why he would have such anger over an inanimate object, his furious answer is: "You're in an inanimate fucking object!" And it all takes place during Christmas -- which really ought to start a viewing tradition every fookin' year.
I still don't get many of the negative reviews regarding director David Gordon Green and producer Judd Apatow's Pineapple Express, especially when so many things I love about the picture are exactly what many critics disliked: the shaggy pacing, the lack of quippy-joke-a minute banter, the aimlessness, the nutty action finale, etc. and so on. I love the '80s touches from the music (Bell Biv DeVoe!), to Seth Rogen's car, to the hit men's clothes to...yes (!) Danny McBride. And then there's James Franco. I have a feeling that all of us "Freaks and Geeks" fans let out a collective "finally!" when we witnessed our James Franco (our Daniel Desario), give one of the greatest comedic performances of the year. As the dippy, sweet and secretly smart pot dealer who's passionate about not just weed, but, of all things, civil engineering (and his grandmother), Franco took what could have been a stock stoner character and ratcheted it five, 10 notches above the same old, same old. Creating a fully realized lovable loser whose fondness for his favorite customer (Seth Rogen) gives the movie its soulful center, it was Franco who touched us amid hilarious car chase sequences, massive explosions and giddily ridiculous, bloody gun battles. He's a sweet, understated goofball you absolutely fall in love with and without him, the movie wouldn't have moved us with its extra magic and spark. When he says he wants to make parks with septic areas for kids to shi* in, I believe him. With this, you totally get why Rogen comes to love him -- and truly, this movie plays like a love story between these two men (Dare I say more than Milk? I dare). Though the picture is clearly sending up '80s action movies within the stoner genre, I find it interesting that no one (from what I've read anyway) has mentioned any kind of deeper message regarding drugs laws in this country. Not sure if Apatow (and David Gordon Green) were making such a specific point, but after (spoiler alert!) the entire barn blows up and Kevin Corrigan really can't make it to dinner on time, because of essentially, a plant...I thought they had to have been thinking about this. The criminalization of pot is as absurd as Rogen dueling Gary Cole with marijuana light. Also, Franco, Franco, Franco. Afraid that the fine-featured, seriously handsome Franco would continue to brood in more Spider-Man movies or forgettable features like City by the Sea and Sonny, we finally got to see him flash that toothy, goofy smile of his. Forget Mary Tyler Moore; Franco's the one who can turn the world on with that thing.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
David Fincher knows how to use his muse Brad Pitt like the movie star he is -- and god bless him for it. He makes him a better actor in the process. As Fight Club's Tyler Durden, he was the man every guy wanted to be -- a bad-ass matinee idol/idea filled prankster glammed up in tight vintage leather, colorful tee shirts and lots of sexy bruises. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (adapted from the F. Scott Fitzgerald story), he's many things, and much more the beautiful innocent, and like all Fincher, never simply pretty. And yet, true to the director, he's always glamorous, even when wrinkled and tiny and barely walking. As the exceptional creature Benjamin, Pitt (with some remarkable makeup, effects and clothes) moves from older man baby (a curiously handsome old man baby), to craggy, Jack London-style tugboat worker (a great look, particularly during his affair with Tilda Swinton), to James Dean motorcycle riding hottie, to golden boy sailor, to the an almost creepy CGI vision of Pitt nearing age 20 -- something that I'm willing to bet even makes Pitt himself feel wistful (the woman next to me gasped at the rendered youth staring at her from the screen, as if she'd seen a ghost). Though the picture has been considered a bit corn-pone and Gump-ian, I find it to be neither of these things, especially with dark Fincher at the helm. Yes, this is the nicest movie he's ever directed, but the ideas of simply living your life, no matter what the setbacks, and the study of aging and decay -- mentally, physically and geographically (I know some were annoyed by the framing, but I thought Hurricane Katrina New Orleans made for a perfect setting -- as the extraordinary, and proudly odd place reflects the funky history of the picture's protagonist -- and like him, is as poignantly mortal, no matter how lovely) makes the picture almost overwhelmingly touching at times. Thanks largely to the beauty of Fincher's frames, and to beauty itself, Benjamin Button tells a relevant, eloquent story that touches you in mysterious ways (why am I losing it over Benjamin Button working in a parking kiosk?), but never forgets why movies are so intoxicating and, in this case, strangely beautiful in the first place.
Standard Operating Procedure
The great Errol Morris takes on the horrors of Abu Ghraib and doesn't simply wag his finger at the actions that took place -- he actually examines them through their pictures -- those famous thumbs up Lynndie England pictures that put us in touch with such degradation and provoked such varied responses. Showing the prison as a hell on earth (for everyone), Morris interviews the American soldiers from the photographs -- and allows them to explain themselves. Again, Morris isn't interested in merely judging these people, in fact we're left disgusted by their superiors, the expectations of softening up the prisoners for torture we didn't see in any photograph. And since this is Morris, a filmmaker with a wicked intelligence and real ideas, he furthers his study by creating a meditation on photography itself -- by showing so many photographs (many we've never seen) and pondering how even those were manipulated. All the while, he manipulates the pictures himself and at times, the movie presents the snaps so stylishly, there were moments I thought I was looking at a particularly grim Juergen Teller Marc Jacobs ad. By staring at these images, we again think of ourselves -- we see fear and power and the fear of those adminstering power, and we see how casual it all seems. And then we realize how, frequently, we casually look at it.
I'm sick of people citing Danny Boyle for being an outsider bestowing his condescending wisdom on the poor Indian people. Or calling him a showy, shallow optimist more concerned with gimmick and flash and pleasing local color than the actual hardship painted so tragically and yes, gorgeously in Slumdog Millionaire. Here's the thing -- this is a movie movie -- something that leaves you so dazzled and jazzed from frame one, that you can't help but give in to its persistent cinema-mania, Bollywood nods, Dickensian tropes and of course, the edge-of-your-seat tension of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." But there's heart within all of this -- and it's not diminished by so many shiny objects. Boyle loves his story, loves the region and he loves his characters --especially gentle Dev Patel. You could say the movie is corny at times, but that's not fair. A loving mixture of Ragged Dick story gone Mumbai and a teenage fairy tale, the movie tackles poverty, death, corruption, violence, fate and the hope of young love. And dammit, they dance at the end. So uncross your arms, take that smirk off your face and enjoy the damn thing. Charles Dickens would. So would Rege, come to think of it.
Synecdoche, New York
I know a few people, all of them Charlie Kaufman admirers, who absolutely hated this movie. I witnessed a few strangers in the theater despise this movie, emerging from their annoyed torpor to shake their heads and say "what a load of self indulgent crap" (I felt like I was walking out of a bizarre-o Woody Allen movie only to walk into a real Woody Allen movie, with Kaufman serving as Fellini). I am not going to challenge such contempt -- and I'm not going to pull the "they just don't get it routine" either. No, they just don't like it, and I can understand why. OK. So why do I like it so much? Why did the movie get to me, and beyond attempting to figure out its labyrinthian plot and outside looking in meta-movie-within-a play structure? Like other movies I championed this year, Synecdoche dealt with failure and death and disgusting rot and self absorption and is-that-all-there- is-to-a-fire ponderances with such ballsy ambition and genuine soulfulness, I was left swooning with the idea that we are indeed, special and yet, not special at all. It's Benjamin Button's incredibly ugly brother showing his reality through his own kind of disorienting, head trip cinematic dreamscape.
The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight stuck with me -- it got under my skin in ways that surprised me hours later and, even better (or worse, depending on your mood) made me ponder everything from the hypocritical nature of mankind to current politics to, yes, the tragic loss of Heath Ledger -- something that's even more potently poignant while watching this wonderfully dark picture. As I had mourned earlier in an essay on Ledger, we've lost a major talent. The usual suspects are present of course: a fantastic Christian Bale -- one of the greatest actors working -- as Bruce Wayne, the legendary, sweet Michael Caine, the wonderfully understated Gary Oldman (playing a nice guy -- I love it) and the always reliable Morgan Freeman. Also appearing is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal is a vast improvement -- intelligent and slinky -- you totally understand why a guy who can get whatever he wants, wants her). There's also Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent -- primed to become Two Face and again, a brilliant, crazed and yet, oddly soulful Ledger. Which brings me to the heart of the, at times, sublime The Dark Knight -- as Ledger's Joker shows us (and forces upon Harvey Dent), the world is a place of two faces, of darkness and light, of organization and chaos. Gotham City's criminal underbelly is a reflection of a world we sometimes walk through with willful ignorance, not realizing we are part of such chaos and destruction. Or, at the very least, we allow it to happen around us -- as long as we're warned. The Joker doesn't want us to be warned -- he thrives on chaos, cannot be bought and has no glorious plan. He's the Tyler Durden of Super-villains and, as such, will become something of a cult figure with this character. His philosophy isn't exactly a new one (watch some film noir for prime examples) but Nolan and Ledger make it fresh and inspired. And since these ideas are universal, it's hard to not understand where The Joker is coming from. At times (and this might be a stretch for some, but not for me) it's even hard to dislike him. At times I fought the urge of punching my fist in the air in anarchic solidarity -- Ledger's Joker is my new evil hero. He's a psycho sexy beast of destruction. Believe the hype -- he's that great.
Let the Right One In
Bullies, snow, annoying mothers, curious fathers, swimming, teenagers, a female (or male) vampire and...Swedes. Oh yes and a massive cat attack. I'm not going to say watch this instead of Twilight since they are completely different kinds of movies (and I recommend Twilight). And I'm quite frankly, tired of people writing that. This is the sparer, darker and more depressing of the two teen vampire movies, for certain, but it's entirely its own movie -- nothing is like Let the Right One In. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (from a script by novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist) the disturbing, yet sweet coming of age story opens up all kinds of thoughts (and wounds) about obsession and teen angst and the willingness to take a major leap for love by letting, yes, the right one in. Or the wrong one who feels so right -- the one you never forget.
The Foot Fist Way
If last year was the year of Seth Rogen, then 2008 was the year of the hilarious, fantastically weird but strangely relatable Danny McBride. And sorry, Rogen fans, but McBride is funnier (something buddy Seth would probably concede). The inventive comic, who, a few years ago, toiled as a night manager at a Burbank Holiday Inn, burst on the screen in the span of one month, appearing in two major comedies, Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, making such a uniquely riotous impression in both that even those who didn't remember his name could not forget his singular comedic talent (watch the way he walks out of the burning building at the conclusion of Express and wave ... genius). A protégé of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the two helped the North Carolina native secure a release for his hysterical The Foot Fist Way (McBride co-wrote the indie comedy in 2006), in which he plays a ridiculously overconfident yet strangely lovable tae kwon do instructor. I could go on but I don't need to explain any more. Just watch it. And yes, I'm totally serious -- it is one of the best movies of the year.