Well, what a year! 2008 had its bad sides (the recession, etc.) but it did have a lot to offer. We, the filmgoing public were given some of this decade’s best films this year. Here’s my annual best of list, again late since I wanted to catch a few films that were technically ’08 releases but didn’t make it to my area until the new year. I didn’t do a best of TV list since the only show I watched was “30 Rock” and I can guarantee that was the best show on TV. So enjoy my list, and please don’t gripe about the soundtracks – sometimes the best albums are soundtracks and this year was gracious for film score lovers like me. Also, I won’t be having a worst-of list since I didn’t see enough bad films this year besides the two worst: “Hancock” and “Hounddog.” Enjoy, and let me know what your favorite film of the year was! Here you go…
Top Ten Albums
10. Seeing Sounds by N*E*R*D.
That’s right, a white kid from the suburbs loves N*E*R*D. This album was my summer CD, the perfect blend of pop with accessible hip hop to make those long car rides in the hot sun just bearable enough. Also, kudos should go to N*E*R*D for originality in a field where copycat-ism destroys respectability. “Spaz” was their hit from its use in a Zune commercial but the song that really stands out is “Sooner or Later” in which Pharrell Williams’ melodical genius really comes out.
9. Airstream by David Wilcox
My favorite singer/songwriter of all time has been in a sort of a lull, and at first I really didn’t like this album. His work in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are the most beautiful in songwriting I’ve ever heard. You probably aren’t familiar with him unless you’re really good friends with me. I rarely talk about him with others because most of the people I try to introduce him to never really get what I see in him. Nevertheless, this album grew on me and, with the exception of one really cheesy song I learned to love it. Wilcox has been waning in his recent years, as he really doesn’t write about the sadnesses of life and rather just celebrating his happiness (I’m all for that Dave, but I miss the good old days). The song “Never Change” is a gigantic step forward for him considering his recent work and shows a wonderful soul side I’ve never heard from him.
8. 19 by Adele
A sexy, cool delivery of classical singing style and definitely one of the best vocal discoveries of the year. It’s very refreshing to see a real woman become a pop superstar rather than the boring, oversexed blonde bimbos. Also: she can sing. I’m a bit biased since I think she’s gorgeous but she really has a masterful voice and when she reaches a bit outside her range she achieves heartbreaking beauty. The gravel she has in her voice is utterly haunting.
7. Do You Believe in Gosh? By Mitch Hedberg
The album we never thought we’d hear, a posthumously released recording of Mitch Hedberg. It’s nowhere near “Mitch-All-Together” but it offers something none of his released work has ever done. We get to get inside his seemingly impenetrable genius as he works through some of his jokes. His brilliance permeates throughout the entire concert, especially the Headless Horseman bit: “I’d hate to be the Headless Horseman’s dentist…” Mitch has always been eerily simple, taking stuff that seems ordinary and making it extraordinary. I just wish we hadn’t have lost him, he had so much more to give us and this CD proves he was one of our best comic minds.
6. Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack by A.R. Rahman
One of the best films of the year has a soundtrack that emits pure fun. Mixing current pop hits with Bollywood music is inspired, making the film (and soundtrack) accessible to consumers. Rahman has a great talent with film music, and I would love to hear his work with other filmmakers, in other styles. Part of the reason “Slumdog Millionaire” was so much fun was the music – each track perfectly selected within the film (something that Danny Boyle is always excellent at). Also, even though remixes are usually the opposite of cool, the other version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” by DFA is just flat out awesome.
4. WALL-E Soundtrack by Thomas Newman, featuring Peter Gabriel
Simple beauty can describe Thomas Newman’s best film score next to “Finding Nemo.” The soundtrack is a joy to listen to, as it takes actually audio from the film that is music related such as the scenes that include songs from “Hello Dolly” or Louis Armstrong’s version of “La Vie En Rose.” Peter Gabriel is not a name synonymous with film (except for “Say Anything”) and will get his first Oscar nomination with the song “Down to Earth.” I’ve never been a Peter Gabriel fan, and now I am – that’s impressive. The song also brings me right back to the end of “WALL-E,” one of the most creative and lovely closing credits I’ve ever seen.
5. Synecdoche, New York Soundtrack by Jon Brion
My goodness, what a magnificent soundtrack and all around album. The film is without a doubt one of the more depressing yet oddly exquisite films I’ve seen and the soundtrack is just plain moving. It starts a bit oddly (like the film), remains delightfully quirky and then ends with bittersweet and painful delicacy. The song “Little Person” is sublime, and Jon Brion’s work along with Deanna Storey’s soft vocals make it one of my favorite songs of all time. I see it as a song that you would find wandering in an old abandoned warehouse, a lost 45 if you will. One of my favorite things about filmmaking is the filmmaker’s use of song as a real, deep device – much like “Little Person” and “Song for Caden” in the film. Jon Brion is a brilliant composer, and like his works with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “I Heart Huckabees” he never ceases to impress.
3. Modern Guilt by Beck
The best time I had with a CD this year, and probably my favorite Beck album (or at least tied with “Midnight Vultures”). Each track shows how Beck has changed as an artist through his career, from the artfully cool beat of “Gamma Ray” to the eccentricities of “Orphans” (which opens the album impeccably). My favorite track turned out to be the title song “Modern Guilt” where Beck not only proves his lyrical strength but also his singing prowess and. He also employed two great talents, the chameleon that is DJ Danger Mouse and the peerless Cat Power. I used to be an on/off fan when it came to Beck but right now I can’t wait for his next work, which seems to come more often than not. A melodically supreme work, this one will still get a lot of play for years to come.
2. In the Ever by Mason Jennings
The best male folk performance of the year, for me. Mason Jennings (no relation to any of the famous Jennings family) released this album in May and it tragically slipped under the radar. He wrote the best song of the year: “I Love You and Buddha Too,” – a George Harrison-esque ode to the idea of a just being plain spiritual rather than just one Supreme Being. For someone like me, who really has no faith in any particular religion it’s terrifically refreshing to hear. The rest of the album is something of a tribute to his favorite folk/rock musicians and much like Jennings’ contributions on the “I’m Not There” soundtrack you can hear his influences coming through (like Harrison, Townes Van Sandt, Jonathan Richman) but Jennings infuses his own style. Jennings has a unique voice, one that’s not perfect but again refreshingly original.
1. Volume One by She & Him
A miracle of an album. I’ve always had a thing for modern actresses who sing (like Maggie Gyllenhaal) and once I heard Zooey Deschanel was going to be making an album, with M. Ward of all people – well, let’s just say I was excited. The resulting piece is a one-of-a-kind throwback to the girl groups of the 60s mixed with the soul of Dusty Springfield. M. Ward’s musical work on the album is that of Phil Spector proportions, something that deserves more attention than just Zooey’s adorable singing. The album begins strongly, with clever yet beautiful lyrics and the end of the album is spookily dreamlike. If Volume Two is anything like its predecessor I’ll be happy. While Zooey’s acting talents weren’t available this year (“The Happening” and “Yes Man” turned out to not feature her best work) this gem will be one of most lasting achievements. I listened to this album the least (that’s usually true of my favorite albums each year) so that when I do listen to it I get to re-discover each and every time why I love it… and I do love it.
Top Ten Songs
10. Chasing Pavements by Adele
9. Define Dancing by Thomas Newman
8. Aggressive Expansion by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
7. Down to Earth by Peter Gabriel
6. Modern Guilt by Beck
5. Never Change by David Wilcox
4. Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? By She & Him
3. Take it Back by She & Him
2. Little Person by Jon Brion, sung by Deanna Storey
1. I Love You And Buddha Too by Mason Jennings
Top Ten Films
10. The Visitor
Thomas McCarthy’s follow-up to his enchanting “The Station Agent” was a superb blend of politics and character drama. Richard Jenkins starred as a man, lost in his own home who finds through comfort in the strangest way – African music. A great soundtrack added a lot to the film, but it was truly the coming together of McCarthy and Jenkins that brought one of the most lived-in characters on the screen to life. Jenkins controls his audience but never forces feelings against them. When his character Walter Vale finally breaks out of his shell and finds happiness, he delivers what feels like a genuine euphoria. The film is on DVD now, and I 100% suggest it for those who love a great, yet unorthodox love story.
A film that is technically a 2007 release, but still isn’t available on any American region DVD formats. I saw this Sukurov film at a screening and was floored. It tells the story of an old woman , Aleksandra (played with perfection by famed Russian opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya), who visits her son in the middle of a war. The film has no plot, yet is absolutely enthralling because of Vishnevskaya’s buoyant performance. The film is an anti-anti-war film. It makes few political statements, yet relies on the cinematography of scarred Chechnya and on the few lines uttered by Aleksandra. She rarely speaks above a whisper, yet her words are essential. As Alexandra wanders around her son’s military base, she seems to speak for those who have been lost, uttering to herself, “I can’t see a soul.” I pray the film finds its way to America (I asked for a region-free DVD player for Christmas with this film in mind).
8. The Wrestler
A moving film that shows that even though you think old wounds may have healed, you can never be ready for what will happen when they come back to haunt you. Mickey Rourke is an acting prize fighter in the film, in one of the most bizarre comebacks ever. He wasn’t born to play the role, but damn if he’s not the only one who could play a beaten star of the 1980s who will do anything for a shot back to stardom. The film offers a familiar story, but it’s Rourke’s addictive performance that makes it so grand. Marisa Tomei also shows she’s no one-trick pony with a strong performance that will garner her Oscar attention. An instant classic, to be studied in acting classes for years.
7. The Band’s Visit
Another film that uses music as a tool to show how people can come together and find comfort in their own lives. Director Eran Kolirin’s joyous piece about a small Israeli orchestra who get lost on the way to their gig in Egypt found its U.S. release this year and won praise at 2007’s Cannes Film Festival. I fell in love with this film. Each character, even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant was endearing and interesting and above all a joy to watch. It featured my favorite scene of the year in which the two conflicting band mates, leader Tewfiq and the crooner Haled finally connect in a breathtaking metaphor as father and son. The film is simply unforgettable, and subtly intoxicating. Watch it, I know you’ll love it.
A deceptively simple slice-of-life tale that stars the immensely talented Sally Hawkins as a woman who just can’t seem to grow up. At thirty, she’s finally taking driver’s lessons and is stuck with the same friends from high school. She just can’t seem to be mature or take anything seriously. Is she tragic, or does she remind us to not take things so seriously and let life happen? The film is wonderfully ambiguous, and Hawkins is phenomenal – a performance you cannot take your eyes off of. Writer/Director Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins create this bizarre dialect for the character of Poppy that’s both annoying and funny – but above all strangely genuine. This film won’t be for everyone, but it’s certainly worth it for Sally Hawkins – one of my new favorite actresses.
5. Slumdog Millionaire
America is ready for Bollywood and Danny Boyle is the man to bring it to the masses. A marvelous mixture of Boyle and the fun of an Indian film is “Slumdog Millionaire” – a story of a young man who will do anything for the one he loves, even going on his least favorite television show (the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”). The story is rich delving into the bonds of brotherhood, the beauty of a first love, and above all how ones’ life is formed by their home and their story. Dev Patel stars as Jamal, the protagonist who has lived a life of sacrifice and pain but also love. It’s a wonderful film that will now reach even more unaware audiences after its Golden Globes sweep last Sunday. The film also ends with a dance number that is far from awkward and has a terrific soundtrack (although I’ve mentioned that already) that deserves a spot on your Ipod. Could this be Danny Boyle’s best film? Certainly. It is also one of the best of the year.
4. The Dark Knight
The biggest film of the year may seem overhyped at this point but cannot be ignored. You know you saw it more than once and that wasn’t because you had extra money to burn. This movie grabbed audiences across the globe and is still amazing its viewers. This can be attributed to a performance by an actor that will go down as one of the best villains to be portrayed on screen. Heath Ledger’s terrifying performance as the Joker is a nightmare… in a good way! His Joker isn’t just one step ahead of Batman, he also keeps the audience guessing. Nolan is definitely the Caped Crusader’s best cinematic interpreter, and although Christian Bale’s gruff Bat was the blunt of many jokes he’s still the best Bruce Wayne we may ever get. I can’t wait to hear what Nolan has planned next!
3. Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman is responsible for some of the best screenplays in the past ten years, and for his directorial debut he brought us this operatic masterpiece. This film is certainly not for those looking for explanations – this one is certainly his most cerebral and depressing if not self-reflexive work. The film, about a theater director (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) looking for the meaning of his life in his majestic theater piece that replicates New York City infinitely (bear with me) was the best independent film of the year and for Kaufman fans a sign that he is not ready to quit. I’m glad he’s tried out the director’s chair and I hope he gets another chance (although his best work has been under the eye of more trained directors). The best part about the film: the divine Samantha Morton. Morton plays Hoffman’s character’s secret lover, a woman who just wants to be loved. A tremendous film, and definitely the most ambitious Kaufman work to date.
My favorite message film of all time, how about that? Also, it has Sean Penn in a transformative role that (gasp!) makes me not like Sean Penn – but love him. He becomes Harvey Milk, and for once we get to see a role from him that doesn’t feel self indulgent or out to win awards. The film is a powerful message to those who have felt the angry fist of ignorance against any and all minority groups, most especially the homosexual community. It also teaches us that winning isn’t everything and that one person can make a difference. Sounds corny, right? Well, the magic of Gus Van Sant’s film is that those ideals don’t feel so corny when used in the story of a truly great man who actually fought for what he believed in and won. The film is tremendously moving, and better than most biopics I’ve ever seen. This film has a power that is rare in film and should not be ignored by anyone. Take a friend to see “Milk” tonight.
The real hero of 2008 didn’t wear a cape and cowl nor was harrowed by 20 years of being beaten in a wrestling ring nor saved the homosexual community. Instead it was a small, seemingly insignificant, trash-compacting robot named WALL-E who stole my heart. It grabs you immediately with the only dialogue in the first 45 minutes: Broadway tunes? A little unorthodox, but really, have you ever seen anything like that? Speaking of seeing things, this also happened to be the most visually stunning film of our time – a grand achievement in diagetic scope and in CGI detail. By the time our little WALL-E is swept up into space we are entered into a classic adventure. “WALL-E” is touching and funny and moving and exciting and a million more things that it’s hard to describe. It’s a superb cautionary tale, while not being too preachy or boring. Many have said the first section of the film (sans dialogue) is boring, but for me it was just purely poetry. This film gets me very excited for the potential of what is to come in terms of film storytelling, science fiction, and visual effects in this here century of ours – still in its infancy but already showing beautiful maturity when it comes to filmmaking. Above all, watching it now for the fourth time I must say this is one of my favorite love stories ever. This is the one film I’ll watch more than any other ’08 release and I can’t wait for more of the magic that Pixar has to offer.
Thank you 2008, 2009 here we come!