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Arts and Entertainment

The Best (and worst) Films of the Year

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While 2008 was no 1999 in terms of truly amazing films, it was better than most may think. Last year, I went with a top 10 that was headed by the wondrous and magical Once. This year, I decided to be a little more liberal with my selections and included 15 films that were all fantastic in their own unique ways. For me, though, two films really stood out above all the rest: Tell No One and The Wrestler. Accordingly, I've put them at the very top of my list. The rest are in alphabetical order. See each one of them and I promise you will have lived a better life once you're done.

TELL NO ONE - Few films ultimately deliver on the promise of a spectacular premise, but this French import certainly does. In a nutshell, eight years ago Alexandre Beck's wife was murdered. Today, he received an e-mail from her. The film takes that as a starting point and races through a richly convoluted plot that is as unexpected as it is satisfying. Further, François Cluzet gives a dazzling, wounded performance as the grieving husband. Tell No One may not be the most ambitious film of the year--it is a mere thriller after all--but it may be the most perfectly made.

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THE WRESTLER - Unfortunately, a huge number of people are going to be turned off to The Wrestler because of its subject matter and tone. It is a brutal story about the dark side and after-life of a professional wrestler. Those who brave it, however, will be rewarded by seeing what is very likely the best performance by any actor in a movie this year. Mickey Rourke is so perfect as Randy "The Ram" Robinson that you will almost believe he actually existed. There is no pity or redemption in this film. Darren Aronofsky merely holds up a mirror to a tragic life and lets you watch. Stunning.

BE KIND REWIND - To those who object, I agree that Be Kind Rewind has a rough start. In fact, I'd almost wager that some early scenes were shot before director Michel Gondry was entirely sure of what he was trying to accomplish (particularly in the case of Jack Black's character who, initially, seems functionally retarded). That said, once the film gets going it strings together scene after scene of invention (especially the montage of "sweded" films). Plus, any cinephile who doesn't get a little misty-eyed at the finale screening is surely a little dead inside.

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED - Every year, several English period dramas cross the pond to entice American audiences with visions of spectacular clothes, lavish estates and unrequited, burning passion. Brideshead Revisited contains all of those elements but tells its story in such a harsh and cynical manner that it's doubtful anyone would wish to mingle with these cruel people. The entire film is held together by the dominating physical presence of Hayley Atwell. Once she ascends the stage, it is impossible to look away. She will be with us for a long while, methinks.

GRAN TORINO - One way to look at Clint Eastwood's performance in Gran Torino is to see it as an amalgamation of so many of his earlier characters--The Man with No Name, Dirty Harry, William Munny. The other way to view it--the way I see it--is as something completely unique. His Walter Kowalsky is stubborn, racist more by habit than nature and thoroughly inflexible. And yet, Eastwood's work is so subtle and ultimately kind that you never doubt his transformation into an agent of racial reconciliation. What's more, he's damn funny so it never feels like a sermon.

IN BRUGES - Here's a rare thing--Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes are amongst the finest actors we have in our culture. Colin Farrell, on the other hand, has become a bit of a joke lately. Nevertheless, watch In Bruges and tell me he doesn't dominate every single moment he's onscreen. It's a truly redemptive performance (as well as a funny and touching one). Furthermore, director Martin McDonagh is completely unsparing in revealing the ultimate fate of his personable gangsters. Many films are violent but few feel as personally violent as In Bruges.

IRON MAN - I'd expect that most people would argue The Dark Knight was the definitive superhero movie of the year. For me, though, Iron Man captures the thrill, humor and adventure of the superhero conceit much more accurately. Robert Downey Jr. may be the best actor working today (please re-watch his masterful work in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and Jon Favreau's direction actually pays strict attention to the concept of spatial orientation which is so essential in good action films (The Dark Knight favors the sadly au courant quick-cut style which muddles everything).

MAN ON WIRE - Given the perspective of 9/11, a film like Man on Wire tells a story that seems almost impossible. To wit, in 1974 Philippe Petit managed to string a 450 lb. high-wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then traverse the tightrope...without permission. It has correctly been called "the artistic crime of the century". To give you an idea of how amazing Petit's feat was, it took him 6 years to plan the stunt, and he succeeded in stringing the cable across the void between the towers by using--get ready--a bow and arrow. Wow. Just wow. Wow.

MILK - To those who supported Proposition 8 in the election this year, I invite them to see Milk and see if their opinion is changed at all. I imagine it will be to at least some small degree which is a testament to the power of Gus Van Sant's film. One of its central premises is Harvey Milk's organized opposition to the far more onerous Proposition 6 which would have essentially criminalized homosexuality in California. Further, the heartbreaking performances by Sean Penn as Milk, Emile Hirsch and--especially--James Franco are among the very best of the year.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - You can already feel the inevitable backlash building against Danny Boyle's brilliant little film. Such are the unfortunate times we live in because Slumdog Millionaire really is an unexpected delight. It's only weakness may be that it's opening is so strong that the rest of the film ultimately suffers by comparison. Under the exuberant direction of Boyle, the child actors deliver the finest young performances since those seen in Ponette. And when the young lovers finally kiss in the film's penultimate scene, just try not to break into a smile.

THE BANK JOB - I was talking to a friend this week and expressing some frustration that Jason Statham has essentially consigned himself to the action film ghetto. Watch The Bank Job and you'll see an actor capable of so much more than kicking ass and flexing his abs. Based on the legendary 1971 Baker Street Robbery, the film is a heist job that is so much more than an ordinary heist job because of the government intrigue that eventually surrounded the robbery. Do you love movies in which you never know what's going to happen next? You'll love The Bank Job.

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON - I include this film more for the amazing craft that went into its making than for its actual story and performances. Honestly, there are reasonably long stretches of this film that are a bit dull (e.g. typically when Brad Pitt is on screen with a thousand yard stare). Still, the world created by David Fincher and his army of VFX artists is so profoundly original and fascinating that the film's weaknesses can somewhat be forgiven. If a studio wants to make a great superhero film, give Fincher $200M and great Green Lantern script.

THE HAMMER - Here's a mystery for you: how is it possible that a tiny little independent film like The Hammer strikes a more resonant chord about life than the meticulously crafted and prodigiously budgeted Benjamin Button? Plenty of people will decide not to see this film because they aren't fans of snarky writer and star, Adam Carolla. That would be a huge mistake. Carolla certainly stays within his safe zone as an actor, but it all works perfectly in this middle-class comedy about an aging boxer who finally gets his shot. Does he win the big fight? Does it matter?

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA - I've enjoyed many of Woody Allen's recent films--especially Match Point--but haven't loved one the way I loved Vicky Cristina Barcelona since 1994's Bullets over Broadway. The story is so simple and staged in such a languid fashion that you almost feel as if it's you who is enjoying a lazy summer in Barcelona. Scarlett, Penelope and Javier all do fine work in this lovely fantasy, but Rebecca Hall steals the movie as an unhappily engaged woman in dire need of being woken up before she ruins her life by marrying an abusive man with creepy secrets.

WALL-E - I almost regret listing these films in alphabetical order because it pushed the amazing WALL-E right to the bottom. Considering that everyone assumes that Pixar will eventually release a bad film after so many successes, how is it possible that WALL-E is probably their best film to date? The opening 40 minutes are a perfect, almost wordless example of pure cinema. While the film dips a bit after that bravura beginning, it never fails to completely engage and delight. One small quibble--why was the design of WALL-E so damn similar to Johnny 5?

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I considered writing up a separate entry for the worst films of the year, but do bad movies really deserve any more undeserved attention? In short order then, here are the biggest pieces of crap that took up theater space this year. I'm sure many terrible movie are missing from this list. That's only because I usually managed to avoid seeing them. Unfortunately, in the case of the following pictures, I was not so fortunate.

Eagle Eye - Stupid
Jumper - Shitty
Hancock - Awful
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - Dull
Wanted - Ridiculous
Drillbit Taylor - Unfunny
Leatherheads - Unfunny
The Other Boleyn Girl - Funny (but not a comedy)
Ghost Town - Unfunny
Miracle at St. Anna - Interminable

Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment and Fox Searchlight