Best of 2008

It’s hard for me to pick a “best” film of 2008 because, the truth is, the term has very little meaning beyond a certain level. As Woody Allen supposedly said, “On what basis are you going to compare my film with Star Wars?”

Well, you could compare acting. Half of the acting in Star Wars is laughably bad, and 2/3rds of the dialogue. But in the lighting and sound editing departments, there’s no contest, right? But, of course, we’re not talking production values per se when we talk about “best”.

You could compare subject matter: A love story about trivial, neurotic people, no matter how good, maybe isn’t worthy of the same consideration as an epic story of good versus evil. Or perhaps a childish fantasy isn’t worth comparing to a realistic look at modern life. Take your pick.

You could factor in popularity, and Star Wars would finish only behind Gone With The Wind–and if you factored popularity over time, Star Wars would almost certainly end up the winner. The fun-factor seldom seems to get considered at the Oscars, either. Or you could look at the difficulty factor: Star Wars was a harder movie to make, and it attempted (successfully!) things that had never been done.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences generally factor in all these things to come up with uniquely wrong answers. In ‘77, it’s hard to say what good movies might’ve been passed over, except perhaps Soldier of Orange. (And I probably would’ve picked Close Encounters of the Third Kind as my favorite movie that year.)

With that in mind, let me make my uniquely wrong choice. First, my top nine, which met my criteria mixing subject matter, entertainment value, and the various other factors.

  1. Changeling
  2. Let The Right One In
  3. Rachel Getting Married
  4. Slumdog Millionaire
  5. Tropic Thunder
  6. Wall-E
  7. Defiance
  8. Frost/Nixon
  9. Gran Torino

By subject matter, I can eliminate Let The Right One In, Rachel Getting Married and Tropic Thunder. These topics (adolescence, addiction and stoopid Hollywood) border on the trivial, however well done. I can eliminate Slumdog Millionaire and Gran Torino for being formulaic. Frost/Nixon can go, because it’s so imbalanced: Frost needed to be a lot stronger a character to compete with Nixon. Wall-E is a tour-de-force, particularly as the greatest silent/slapstick movie in 70 years, but doesn’t end as strong as it starts. The Changeling, while a very strong movie, and an emotionally resonant one, doesn’t exactly challenge the viewer with its muckraking of a long dead Los Angeles.

(The above paragraph, by the way, is basically nonsense. I’m not really figuring anything out; I’ve decided well in advance and am making silly arguments to justify it.)

My pic, then, is Defiance, which I hinted at in my previous post. It’s been growing on me since I saw it, at least in part because I think director Edward Zwick is increasingly able to avoid the sort of facile treatments he’s given earlier films (he has an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love!) to present a more complex subject in a clear fashion.

Maybe timeliness is a factor, too. Defiance is, essentially, about the breakdown of society and how survival requires a brutal adherence to a system of ethics, but also how we have (many of us) the necessary toughness to endure the worst and survive even when the forces against us seem insurmountable.

It resonates.

Even though it takes place 65 years ago, it’s not a fantasy or ancient history. It still resonates–which is part of the reason a lot of the critics downgraded it, I think. Though to be fair, when I read the critics’ reviews, I keep asking myself if they saw the same movie. Maybe history will prove me wrong, but I think it’s the under-rated gem of the year.

More seriously, for whatever reason Changeling didn’t quite hit home for me. And while I love Wall-E and have seen it many times by this point, it’s basically just another great Pixar film. The Pixar film in any year is worth considering for “best picture”, but I think WALL-E gets an (incidental) boost because it’s so politically correct. Even so, I think it’s a safe bet to say that this (and all Pixar films) are going to be the most viewed films in future generations: classic children’s tales always have the longest life.

I asked one other moviegoing guy his best and he said Frost/Nixon, a choice I would be hard-pressed to deny. Interestingly, he said he probably favored it because of the overlap with his own life, where to me, I like it precisely because of the (call it) “fantasy” element.

So, as always: Your mileage may vary.

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