17
Dec
2009
Feature: Jordan's Movie Quest
Jordan's Movie Quest: The Year 2008
Jordan
Continuing my ongoing quest through the last decade in film, here are my top ten of 2008, with a brief summary of each:

10. Frost/Nixon- Screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) seems to find inspiration, and a unique view of how the last century played out, through various examinations of the relationships between important and powerful people. This time around, with Director Ron Howard behind the camera, he examines the clash of the titans between media savvy playboy David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced former president and intellectual giant Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role). Both men are searching for redemption as they begin the interview at the movies center"”Frost wants to prove he is more than just a lightweight entertainer who is only fit to interview starlets, and Nixon wants to redeem himself in the eyes of America after the Watergate scandal"”and both men have absolutely everything to lost if it doesn't go well. Co-starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, and Oliver Platt, the film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Editing, and exists as an excellent meditation on regret, redemption, the elusive nature of truth, and the important function that the media plays in our lives for better or worse.

9. Hamlet 2-Grossly underrated at the time of its release and grossly under seen since, Hamlet 2 is a cult classic waiting to be discovered. Dana Marschz (a hilarious Steve Coogan, in one of the best comedic performances in recent memory) is a failed actor stuck teaching high school drama and in a dead end marriage with an acerbic wife (Catherine Keener, who makes the most of her small screen time) who barely conceals her disappointment. When the theater program is threatened with cancellation, Dana pulls out all the stops to create the most controversial work of fiction in the history of Tuscon Arizona High School Theater"”a sequel to Hamlet that features a time machine, group sex, Elton John, swordfights, Jesus Christ, and a surprisingly apt examination of the nature of father-son relationships and the damage they can cause. Filled with rapid-fire dialogue, absurd occurrences, a solid supporting cast (including Elizabeth Shue, Amy Poehler, David Arquette and Phoebe Strole) and one of the most hilarious soundtracks of all time, Hamlet 2 will be the movie you can't believe you haven't seen ten years from now.

8. Rachel Getting Married-Anne Hathaway earned a well deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Kym, an addict out of rehab for her sister's wedding and out to steal the spotlight just as she always does. What could easily have slipped into melodrama and overindulgence is played with a documentary-style and realistic pacing by director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) which occasionally leads to lags in pacing, but which fully immerses you in the world of the family at its center. Rachel (an Oscar worthy Rosemarie DeWitt) is tired of dealing with Kym, who has long since lost her family's trust and faith in her recovery, and just wants to have a quiet celebration of the love she's found with Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, of TV on the Radio fame). The family patriarch Paul (Bill Irwin) just hopes to gloss over past pain and put a smile on everything, as does his new wife (Anna Deavere Smith). Yet the girls' mother (an excellent Debra Winger) and a past tragedy that still colors the family's interactions linger over every scene and threaten to botch the perfectly laid plans. Far from wallowing in melancholy, Rachel Getting Married manages to celebrate the joy that has brought this couple together and the undying affection that binds families together through marriage, providing at atmosphere that is alternately celebratory and filled with the melancholy that comes with the sins of the past and the long road to redemption that is never without its bumps.

7. The Visitor-After years of hanging in the background as a scene stealing character actor often ignored and underrated, Richard Jenkins (Burn After Reading, television's Six Feet Under) finally got the chance to be a leading man, and proved he has always had what it takes, walking away with an Oscar nomination for his performance as Walter Vale, a depressive professor who lives a solitary life until he discovers two illegal immigrants have taken up residence in his seldom-used New York apartment. Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman) is an Arab drummer with an African girlfriend (Danai Gurira) who is understandably paranoid about the arrival of Walter. Tarek and Walter strike up an unlikely friendship as the former teaches the latter how to play the drums, but their newfound bond is threatened when Tarek is arrested and placed in a detention center for illegal immigrants. As Walter springs into action to save his friend from deportation, he forms a tentative friendship that borders on something more with Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) and discovers the importance of friendship, loyalty, and finding something to live for. A closely drawn character study of a subdued man plagued by a quiet angst and longing for something to draw him out of his monotonous life, The Visitor rarely missteps as it provides us a window into his life, as well as a different perspective on a hot button political issue.

6. The Wrestler-Mickey Rourke was born (and surgically deformed) to play the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an ex-pro wrestler dying to get back into the game if only because his life outside the ring leaves something to be desired. It's no surprise, therefore, that he picked up an Oscar nomination for the role, which he imbues with a tragic persistence and a dawning self-awareness that his life isn't what it once was, and might never have been that much at all. On top of trying to break back into the business, he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter (a surprisingly solid Evan Rachel Wood) and carries on a flirtation with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role) who seems a whole lot less affectionate when he isn't slipping her money. The Wrestler is an examination of people who make their living off of their bodies, and what happens when those bodies age beyond use, but further than that, the movie (Directed by Darren Aronofsky) looks at what dreams are made of, and how much we end up giving up in our pursuit of that one day at the top.


5. Doubt-Writer-Director John Patrick Shanley adapted his own play (and received a best Adapted Screenplay nomination for his effort) which tells the story of a conservative nun of the old guard (a phenomenally icy Meryl Streep, who was nominated for Best Actress) and her struggle against a progressive Priest (Best Actor nominated Phillip Seymour Hoffman) whom she accuses of molesting a little boy, based mostly on circumstantial evidence and a hunch provided by a meek younger nun (Best Supporting Actress nominee Amy Adams). Rounding out the pitch-perfect cast is Viola Davis (who, unsurprisingly was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her brief, but compelling scene) as the boy's mother who seems less concerned with the accusations than she is with her son's place at the otherwise all-white school. Complex, and thematically dense, the film's quick-fire back and forth as Streep cross-examines Hoffman and pushes the church to the edge tackles issues of morality, authority, the reach of religion, and the amount of skepticism we fail to breed into our daily lives and our examinations of some of the most important issues of our day.

4. Synecdoche, New York-To call Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, a dense mind-fuck of a movie would probably qualify as an understatement, yet beneath the layers of absurdism and meta-textualism the movie is a startlingly deep meditation on mortality, love, regret, and the passage of time (as well as basically any other theme of philosophical question you can imagine). Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in another amazing performance) is a mildly successful playwright living in the New York suburbs with his wife (Catherine Keener) and his daughter. Yet when he wins a MacArthur Genius Grant, he sets out to make a play about life as a whole, building a replica city inside a warehouse and filling it with actors playing fictional versions of the real life people who populate his life. Co-starring Tom Noonan, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michelle Williams, the film manages to be surprisingly witty and deeply poignant as it searches for the meaning behind artistic endeavors, behind the fleeting nature of romance, and in the way our lives slip away from us as we focus on minutiae and miss the big picture entirely.

3. WALL-E-I have said it before, and will hopefully say it many more times before it becomes wrong, but Pixar does not make bad movies. WALL-E opens on a desolate, trash-choked and abandoned Earth, where the titular robot has spent centuries in isolation, silently sifting through trash by day, and developing a personality via a collection of human refuse and an obsession with Hello, Dolly! that gets him through the lonely nights. When a shiny new robot named EVE arrives on the planet, she threatens WALL-E's way of life, but more than that, gives him a chance to leave his lonely existence behind. What follows is an endlessly adorable robot romance, that also doubles as an (occasionally too obvious) examination on the consumer greed and environmental ignorance that lead to the apocalypse depicted in the film. As WALL-E struggles to win the heart of his beloved, he also becomes part of a greater redemptive struggle by humanity as a whole, and the result is heartwarming, hilarious, and beautifully rendered.

2. Milk- My dislike of Sean Penn is well known, so when I say that he fully deserved his Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, it should not be taken lightly. Penn imbues Milk with a sense of purpose and grandeur, but beyond that a sense of humor and humility as he strives for equality as the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. After moving to San Francisco with his boyfriend (James Franco), Milk embarks on a populist quest to gain respect, and civil rights, for the growing gay community in the city. Lurking at the edge of his quest is the strait laced conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role), who opposes Harvey politically, and later devolves into a depressive insanity that leads the film to its tragic conclusion. The film won Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (for Gus Van Sant), Best Editing, Best Costumes, and Best Music for its endlessly compelling portrayal of a struggle that began on the streets of San Francisco and still continues across our nation today.

1. The Dark Knight-After solidly molding a Batman origin story in Batman Begins, Director Christopher Nolan (who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan) returns with the greatest super hero movie of all time. Months after the last film ended, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still working the night-shift as Batman, and searching for a flesh and bones hero who can save the city by bringing it the hope and legitimacy that his vigilante never could. He finds his strongest candidate in the tough on crime new DA Harvey Dent (a phenomenal and underrated Aaron Eckhart), who along with the morally unimpeachable cop James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is waging a war against organized crime in the city. Their struggle is complicated by the arrival on the scene of the terrifyingly nihilistic "engine of chaos" that is the Joker (Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar for his stellar performance), who believes that anarchy is the only way to live in a world without rules. The Joker sees life as one dark joke, and its punch line is the terror he inflicts and the death toll he racks up. The film also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, and combines some of the best action set pieces of the decade with the thematic scope of a great novel and more depth than any movie in its genre has ever tried. More than just a titanic battle between good and evil over the soul of a troubled city, The Dark Knight is an examination of existentialism versus nihilism, order versus chaos, and vigilantism versus the often failed attempts of a broken system to do good. The film may be a super-hero movie on its face, but beneath the surface lies an epic and a tragedy of greater proportions than most, and of greater resonance than any other movie of the year.
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