The year end lists bring out the best and worst in us, and usually say quite a bit about the critic at hand. I'd argue that I'm not nearly as emo as my five favorites would imply -- as in I'm not listening to Death Cab for Cutie as I cry and write in my poetry journal. I will say this year made good with the small, ambient indie film though, and who am I to resist such heady and depressing ambiguity.
So I didn't love The Dark Knight (meh) , I didn't cry over spilt Milk (I much preferred the documentary), and I didn't even see Slumdog Millionaire (I'm more of a Press Your Luck fan myself.). I never really caught on this year's bandwagons, but I'm happy to see the bandwagons were far less stuffed and plentiful in 2008.
Anyhow, here are my five personal favorites of 2008. If you don't agree, you can go cry about it. I know I will.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Love is tourism in this sensuously bitter comedy from Woody Allen. It reverberates with lust and possibility and echoes back in disappointment. The sunlit serenity manages to somehow mask the deep cynicism of these characters and gives the film a very romantic spirit. But just like a summer romance, the passion fades with some distance. Allen stays true to his fascinations with an effortlessly light energy and surpasses most of his comedies within the last decade. He finds the best in his beautiful ensemble, particularly a dazzling Penélope Cruz, and makes the heart grow fonder while we immediately lust for the next great Woody Allen film.
If only they'd named it Optimism Park, none of this would have ever happened.
Paranoid ParkGus Van Sant's enveloping aura says so much about the affected side of disaffected youth. We as the viewer are the world on their shoulders. Van Sant, alongside cinematographer Christopher Doyle, finds the world of adolescence in a state of perpetual static dreaming at war with the harsh reality of adulthood. A young skateboarder's guilt over a sudden life-altering incident (and one of the year's most scarring cinematic moments) streams into an ethereal, grim and affecting moodpiece, with all the weight of a human tragedy amongst the airiness of a vague childhood memory.
Mister LonelyAn expressive, feeling, and humane look at identity through the eccentric eyes of Harmony Korine. In this world anyone can be a star and miracles can and do happen -- other times the magic fails and it's best just to be a face in the crowd. The dreamy atmospherics and poetic pondering are tinged with a wonderfully offbeat sense of humor, and somehow Michael Jackson painting eggs, Marilyn Monroe getting a sunburn, and Werner Herzog's miraculous flying nuns all seem utterly transcendent and profound. There is a beauty to individuality and this film is one-of-a-kind.
Wendy and LucyDeceptively simple and unexpectedly haunting, Wendy's story is remarkably open, as is Michelle Williams beautifully subtle and distanced performance. The loss of one's only companion, the hard road to starting a new life, or any life; director Kelly Reichardt makes minuscule moments ring of truth and deeper implications of the world at large. At its most base level of a girl in search of her lost dog, there's a heart-wrenching pain at this film's center and yet it's captured without force in an environment that's immediately recognizable. Wendy and Lucy lives and breathes like a stranger you meet in passing: you know just enough to get a strong feeling about it.
The WrestlerCharacter overcomes cliche in this tenderly realized tale of a pro-wrestler readying for the good fight. Mickey Rourke's inhabited turn as "Randy the Ram" is an affecting look at a man bruised and beaten by his choices, and Rourke finds the real ache in those wounds. Darren Aronofsky expertly orchestrates the passionate heights of a hero's journey and the despairing lows of an average man's weakness. He also manages to take his usual brilliance for visual trickery into a more subdued, but no less spectacular, playing field. The more standard threads of the narrative are easily beaten out by some wonderful nuance, Aronofsky's low-key precision and the enduring performances, including yet another vivid and lovely supporting turn by Marisa Tomei as a stripper on a similar stage. For every punch thrown there's some equally fancy footwork and so much more going on off-stage.