The Ten Best Movies of 2008

In the Year of the Rat, ten good movies (and a few stabs) that helped us get through it.

From the diary of a cinematic thrill-seeker:

Wednesday, December 31: Goodbye, 2008. Not sorry to see you go. Hit the road and be sure to write when you find work. In addition to hosting an economic cataclysm, this accursed Year of the Rat proved relatively meager at the flicks, at least in comparison with the bounty of 2007. Ironic, isn’t it? Just when we needed a good movie more than ever to take us away from the hideous reality, they suddenly became scarce. But for keen-nosed movie hounds who knew where to look, there were a few goodies hidden away in festivals and art houses, even at times in the local multiplex — secret treasures for the price of a ticket. All you had to do was sniff them out.

Take for instance the following list of the Ten Best Films of 2008, aka The Rats’ Club, more or less in the order they screened in the Bay Area:

1) Two by director Brillante Mendoza: Slingshot and Foster Child

2) The Duchess of Langeais by Jacques Rivette

3) A Girl Cut in Two by Claude Chabrol

4) Frozen River by Courtney Hunt

5) Trouble the Water by Tia Lessin & Carl Deal

6) Happy-Go-Lucky by Mike Leigh

7) Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle

8) Milk by Gus Van Sant

9) The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky

10) Let the Right One In by Tomas Alfredson

Polished, professionally produced, commercially presentable feature films typically take the better part of a year to make, at least. That time frame can vary — Oliver Stone banged out his slick political exposé W. in about seven months, while Stanley Kubrick spent years on Eyes Wide Shut — but the point is that with the exception of activist street-riot videos, movies don’t happen quickly. They have to travel through a pipeline. Which is why it’s notable that so many of this year’s most resonant films seem to deal with economic hard times, as if the filmmakers knew in advance they were coming.

Of course, the hard-scrabble life existed before 2008, and for people like the protagonists of filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s aptly brilliant vignettes of the slums of Manila, next year and the year after that won’t be much better. Mendoza’s Slingshot and Foster Child, both produced in 2007 and both shown at last spring’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, don’t waste much time with fake pathos. The former chronicles the hectic lives of hustlers and thieves, captured in nervous hand-held digital. The latter combines documentary realism with poignant irony in the story of John-John, a three-year-old unwanted boy being cared for until his adoption by a woman barely able to feed her own children. You will definitely hear more from Mendoza, a rising star filmmaker from the resurgent Philippine cinema.

Times are tough stateside, too. A clutch of the year’s best films looked in on Americans in deep financial trouble: Frozen River, Trouble the Water, and The Wrestler most notably, not to mention such otherwise dissimilar pics as Wendy and Lucy, Stuck, Snow Angels, Under the Same Moon, The Lucky Ones, and, on the documentary, systemic, root-cause side, I.O.U.S.A. and John Gianvito’s haunting doc Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (screened exactly twice at the San Francisco International Film Festival), which relates the history of the struggle for equal rights and justice in America by visiting graves and monuments and reading the inscriptions about Joe Hill, Malcolm X, the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, et al.

If we could draw a circle around the protagonists of Frozen River, The Wrestler, and the documentary Trouble the Water, the circle would ignore race and geography and focus instead on the everyday lives of people trying to make a living on the outskirts of what has been fondly called the American Dream. Poor single mothers Ray and Lila, the immigrant-smuggling lawbreakers of writer-director Courtney Hunt’s stealthy drama Frozen River, pack illegals into a car trunk for a risky drive across the ice of the St. Lawrence River because there’s no other way to afford to keep their children. Everything we need to know about Ray (actor’s actor Melissa Leo) and Mohawk Native American Lila (Misty Upham) is written on their faces and in the details of their lives in mobile homes and beat-out Yankee Dollar stores.

Cut-rate gladiator Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an over-the-hill pro wrestler played by Mickey Rourke in a remarkably frank comeback role, exists by engaging in bloody combat with other muscle-bound meatheads in nondescript halls, and when that fails, by unloading freight and dishing out German potato salad to old ladies at a deli counter. If The Wrestler mirrors one or two earlier movies of pugs on the ropes (Fat City, The Set-Up, etc.), that takes nothing away from Rourke’s Randy the Ram, a role he has been preparing for all his fantastically bumpy life. High marks to director Darren Aronofsky for pushing the notoriously volatile actor into unheard-of realms of introspection.

To be poor, gifted, attacked by Hurricane Katrina, and African American — that’s the predicament of Kimberly “Black Kold Madina” Roberts, whose digital video first-hand account of being trapped in her Ninth Ward New Orleans house as the waters rose is the excuse for an ambitious investigation into what it meant to be an outsider in George W. Bush’s USA. Trouble the Water was directed by Michael Moore veterans Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, but the star of the show is the indomitable Kim, who with her husband, family, and friends is flooded out, shunted around, and generally disrespected by everyone from National Guardsmen to FEMA bureaucrats — but she doesn’t let that stop her. If you can watch her story without gasping when she launches into her rap “Amazin’,” you’re made of steel wool. Kim’s aunt might as well be speaking for Ray, Lila, Randy the Ram, and the residents of France Street in the Lower Ninth when she proclaims in dismay: “If you don’t have money and don’t have status, you don’t have the government.” It doesn’t get any plainer than that.

Not only is Slumdog Millionaire the year’s most exciting human interest story, it also vindicates filmmaker Danny Boyle. Boyle, you’ll remember, made the transcendent Trainspotting in 1996, then went into a twelve-year, eight-film sophomore slump before finally clicking with a scenario truly worthy of his jumpy, underdog-loving talents (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup’s novel). Ostensibly the tale of a scuffling, hustling young Muslim man from the slums of Mumbai named Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) and his unlikely success on a TV quiz show, Slumdog is really about the criminalization of the poor in contemporary India — with marvelous location cinematography to help take the pain away. Loveleen Tandan, co-director with Boyle, is responsible for much of the astounding mosaic portrait of Mumbai. Here’s a film worth seeing multiple times. It takes on new meaning from each different angle.

Much has been written, with many claims made, about Gus Van Sant’s winning biography of civil rights martyr Harvey Milk, champion of gay liberation in specific and human potential in general. Sean Penn’s portrayal of Milk is one the mercurial actor’s very best, a complete chameleon job. And yet there’s still one more dimension to the film. It marks a rare foray into the public sector for the basically introspective Van Sant, whose recondite, ultra-personal stories of marginalized young men, many of them from the filmmaker’s beloved Pacific Northwest and most of them gay (Mala Noche, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), have coexisted uneasily in Van Sant’s filmography with such mainstream “breakout” titles as To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester. Milk dares to splash the life and times of a politician across a historical canvas in bold, broad strokes, and succeeds memorably.

Even a so-so year at the movies has its rewards, as long as a certain pair of old French masters are still kicking. Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais opened at Landmark movie houses in March; Claude Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two received its local debut at the SF International Film Festival on May Day. Let’s be frank — neither represents the very finest work of its respective director. But even a lesser effort from a Rivette or a Chabrol contains facets of meaning and glimmers of performance that most directors have given up hope of ever achieving.

Duchess‘ French title, taken from the original story by Balzac, is Ne touchez pas la hache — literally “Don’t touch the axe,” as in, “Please, Mr. Executioner, spare the life of this haughty but misled noblewoman. She knows not what she does.” But of course the coquettish duchess (languorous Jeanne Balibar) understands exactly what she is doing to the stiff-but-love-smitten general who lives in the palm of her hand (the late Guillaume Depardieu). He chases her all the way to a convent. Her “feminine coup d’état” becomes a sort of Votive of the Vanities, with both characters paying dearly for the privilege of unrestrained romanticism conducted at a funereal pace (compare to the Catherine Breillat-Asia Argento femme-fatale costumer The Last Mistress). That pace, the subject matter, and the dreaded subtitles consigned the eighty-year-old Rivette once more to art cinemas, which is where he belongs, among the espressos and Dutch chocolates.

Ah, Chabrol. The greatest living French filmmaker — there, we might as well say it — is in a relaxed, playful mood in La fille coupée en deux, the story of a cute Lyonnaise TV weather girl (Ludivine Sagnier) who probably doesn’t deserve to have to choose between the two cads who crave her: rich, corrupt novelist François Berléand and rich, spoiled heir Benoît Magimel. Chabrol wrote it with his stepdaughter Cécile Maistre, and if it somehow lacks the precise, clockwork malevolence of the master’s finest films, it still has Magimel’s acting as the insufferable rich kid and the conspiratorial appearance of everyone’s favorite lustful muse, Mathilda May.

A dark year calls for an intelligent horror film, and Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson can provide. The threads of his bone-chillingly creepy Let the Right One In (screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his novel) are as ancient as the European vampire legend and yet as contemporary as an account of a shy victim of bullies finding a special friend who sympathizes with his pain. Kudos to young actors Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, the towhead seeker, and Lina Leandersson as Eli, the omni-gendered, coldly compassionate finder, whose justice is swift and merciless. Guaranteed to keep you awake on a cold winter night.

Reviewers and audiences coming out of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky have gotten into spirited debates over Poppy, actor Sally Hawkins’ crazily cheerful lead character. Some are so offended by her insistent chirping and giddy optimism they dismiss the film as an exercise in irritation. Others choose to look past Poppy’s wisecracks and silly costumes at a woman who may indeed be terrified of life and its obstacles, and yet puts up the bravest of happy-go-lucky fronts in an effort to hold back her own panic.

As conceived through writer-director Leigh’s patented “devised” method of constructing screenplays through improvisational rehearsals with the actors, Poppy may indeed have been one of the darkest characters on the big screen this year, deep down inside. Her fears range from the obvious (angry driving instructor Eddie Marsan, one of 2008’s finest supporting perfs) to the hidden, as in her impulse to seek out a demented homeless loner, howling and growling to no one in particular, and connecting with him late one night in a scary part of the city. Perhaps the raving man (played by Stanley Townsend) is Poppy’s mirror, a way to glimpse herself. Or maybe she takes the same sort of care-giving interest in this nameless individual that she would with a disturbed boy like Nick, an unruly student at the primary school where she teaches. Poppy is the year’s most interesting character in the year’s very best film.

The San Francisco Film Critics’ Circle gave out awards in a number of categories this December. I agreed with most of the choices in spirit, but as usual wished the critics would have paid more attention to the less heavily advertised films. Here’s my list of some memorable cinematic achievements of 2008, in no particular order:

Best actors: Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Sean Penn in Milk, Josh Brolin in W., Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon.

Best actresses: Melissa Leo in Frozen River, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Joan Chen in The Home Song Stories, Kate Winslet in The Reader, Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long, Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy, Meryl Streep in Doubt, Mena Suvari in Stuck, Angelina Jolie in Changeling, Asia Argento in The Last Mistress, and Kat Dennings in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

Best supporting actors: Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky, Stephen Rea in Stuck, Josh Brolin in Milk, Benoît Magimel in A Girl Cut in Two, Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Columbus Short in Cadillac Records, Mathieu Amalric in A Christmas Tale, Michael Pitt in Funny Games, and Michael Peña in The Lucky Ones.

Best supporting actresses: Debra Winger and Rosemarie DeWitt in Rachel Getting Married, Misty Upham in Frozen River, Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Amy Adams and Viola Davis in Doubt, Olivia Thirlby in The Wackness, Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, and Emma Thompson in Brideshead Revisited.

Best documentaries: Trouble the Water, Meeting Resistance, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Up the Yangtze, Man on Wire, Taxi to the Dark Side, I.O.U.S.A., Shine a Light, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Stealing America: Vote by Vote, Neshoba, Encounters at the End of the World, and Argentina Latente.

A nondescript year in the aisle seat still has its little stabs of happiness: Steven Soderbergh’s quixotic, two-part “backpack epic” on the 20th century’s most misunderstood revolutionary, Che; Martin Scorsese’s worshipful (and rightly so) Rolling Stones performance doc, Shine a Light; Stuart Gordon’s shocker Stuck, a hard-times American fable about what happens when a homeless man collides with a working woman who would rather play; the wry Mongolian slice of life Tuya’s Marriage, co-written and directed by Quan An Wang; two despairing views of rural Chinese life: Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life and Li Yang’s Blind Mountain; the LA indie we’ve been waiting for: Alex Holdridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss; Rodger Grossman’s dramatization of the life and death of punk rocker Darby Crash, What We Do Is Secret; The Pool, Chris Smith’s quietly seductive fable of working-class dreams in India (would make a great double feature with Slumdog Millionaire); The Duchess, guilty pleasure time for 18th-century junkies; The Tale of Despereaux, best animated film of the year; and Fear(s) of the Dark, the animated runner-up, more penetratingly frightening than any movie outside of Let the Right One In.

Finally, let’s hear it for one of this winter’s most enthralling home video releases. Milestone Film & Video is bringing out The Exiles, Kent MacKenzie’s gorgeously shot 1961 saga of the workaday lives of young Native Americans living in the now-vanished Bunker Hill neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles — a unique mixture of socially conscious documentary and narrative that fits in all too well with the hunkered-down mentality of this interminable Year of the Rat. It’ll be released sometime in early 2009 (go to

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