Films | Kevin Renick

film_slumdog_sm.jpg1. Slumdog Millionaire






I want to just say up front that in the roughly 10 years or so that I’ve regularly been reviewing films, 2008 stands out as the least impressive and uninspired. Yes, there were great films, but not nearly as many of them as in past years, and I came out of theaters shrugging my shoulders or not feeling much of anything, more often than before. It’s sort of a bummer that I wasn’t able to see possible contenders like Frost/Nixon, Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road before the deadline for this list; it made the task much harder. And only a few of these films truly struck me in that obvious "Yeah, this goes on the year-end list" way. But the ritual endures, so here are my favorite flicks of 2008:

1. Slumdog Millionaire

Far and away, the film that wowed me the most this year. Danny Boyle’s highly original, kinetically charged tale of Jamal (Dev Patel), a thoughtful Indian man who appears on that country’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to impress the woman he loves (getting more than he bargained for in the process), is far-reaching, unpredictable and hypnotic from start to finish. Its many components have been summarized elsewhere so I won’t try, but there’s heaping doses of history, cultural insight and just plain masterful filmmaking, not to mention the happiest of endings and a deliriously satisfying closing credits sequence. Simply dazzling.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

With the exception of his beleaguered debut in that Alien 3 mess, David Fincher has always been a pretty compelling filmmaker. Benjamin is possibly his most soulful and poignant film, giving us the unlikely tale of a man aging backwards, a never-better Brad Pitt and a typically luminous Cate Blanchett. One for post-viewing introspection, to be sure.

3. Trouble the Water

This searing documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath manages the unlikely task of being both gut-wrenching in its insider coverage of the disaster’s impact and the government’s shameful mishandling of virtually everything, as well as oddly life-affirming. Both are mostly due to the philosophically disarming commentary by the film’s primary subject, aspiring hip-hop star Kimberly Roberts, and fortuitous footage assembled for maximum impact by directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin.

4. The Visitor

Respected character actor Richard Jenkins advances to leading-man status as a shy professor seeking release from his buttoned-up life, and getting drawn into the byzantine and wretchedly unfair world of illegal immigration due to his friendship with an immigrant musician and his mother. Slow building, but ultimately deeply moving and resonant.

5. Religulous

I laughed more at Bill Maher’s documentary on the absurdities of organized religion than I did at any other film I saw this year. Sure, Maher is selective in who he interviews and what he covers, but there are priceless bits of comedy as well as genuinely scary beliefs on display here. The bigger, important points the film makes about irrational thought and its dangers far outweigh the film’s minor flaws.

6. Milk

This long-awaited film about San Francisco’s martyred Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a public office, arrived at the perfect time to enter the national dialogue thanks to the defeat of Prop 8 in the recent election. Sean Penn is eerily perfect in the lead role, with fine turns as well by James Franco and Josh Brolin. A stirring, compelling and unforgettable political portrait.

7. Rachel Getting Married

My love affair with Anne Hathaway only continued with Jonathan Demme’s memorable examination of interfamily tensions on the occasion of a wedding in suburban Connecticut, soured for the title character (Rosemarie DeWitt) by her dysfunctional sister (Hathaway), who takes a break from rehab to attend. Easy to relate to for anyone familiar with longtime family neurosis, and not always fun, but Altmanesque in its realism.

8. The Dark Knight

Okay, okay, okay! I saw it! Yes, it was exciting, the visuals were dazzlingly brilliant, and the great Heath Ledger was every bit as memorable as you all said! Satisfied?

9. Appaloosa

In truth, this wasn’t any sort of brilliant movie, but Viggo Mortensen is my favorite actor, and every time he was on screen, I was spellbound. And this amiable western did offer some lovely scenery and dollops of low-key charm. It was nice to see a modest project like this simply getting the job done, although what Viggo does is on a higher level. That huge gun he lugs around, too…damn!

10. CSNY: Deja Vu

An underrated documentary that showed what happened when American supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young toured the country in 2006, bashing Dubya and his warmongering. A vital piece of evidence of the dividing of America in the modern age, and how it affected some of the musicians. Neil Young directed under his nom de plume Bernard Shakey, and he did so with heart and amazing attention to detail (as well as fairness to both sides of the war debate).

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