December's end brings with it once again the curious need for movie reviewers to pretend there's some sort of objective standard by which to determine the year's best picture, director, actors and whatnot. This is an undertaking that doesn't bear extensive contemplation. If more than a thousand films were released in this country in 2008 (the figures are a little murky), you'd have to sit through two or three a day, every day of the year, to see them all. I don't know anyone with little enough of a life to manage this. Then there's the apples-and-oranges problem. "Slumdog Millionaire," "Elegy" and "Tropic Thunder" are all top-level movies, but in no way do they resemble one another; attempting to discern which among them is "the best" would be like comparing androids and avocados, with the winner facing off against a chunk of Appenzeller cheese.
But I guess best-of lists, while very light in the meaningful department, can be sort of fun. Below are some of the year's standout people and pictures, with one in each category arbitrarily allotted the top perch, and some other candidates, often equally deserving of that placement, sub-grouped below. So:
Best Picture: "The Wrestler"
Because it features one of the year's most supernaturally fine performances, by Mickey Rourke; and because it intermingles splatter and soul, acting and autobiography in deeply resonant ways; and because I can't think of any other movie remotely like it in this or any other recent year.
But some of the same could be said of "The Reader," the steeliest and most striking of the year's oddly numerous Holocaust-related pictures, thanks to its incomparable star (see below), co-star (also below) and hard-nosed director, Stephen Daldry. "Milk" and "Frost/Nixon" and the explosively funny "Tropic Thunder" are all superior films in their various ways; and, until it poops out at the end, so is "Revolutionary Road," a powerful reminder of what a superb actor Leonardo DiCaprio can be when he's not frittering away his gifts in aimless action flicks. And I loved "In Bruges," which was released in the calendrical graveyard of February, and was thus shooed out of theatres before it could really find its audience. Colin Farrell came tearing back from artistic exile in this bloody gangsters-abroad comedy, which was written and directed, with characteristic harsh brilliance, by the singular English playwright Martin McDonagh (it was his first feature). Beautifully shot, in jewel-like color, by Eigil Bryld. Similarly under-heralded was "Smart People," with two yeasty comic performances by Thomas Haden Church, as a middle-aged slacker, and the wonderful (once again) Ellen Page, our foremost pint-size wisecracker.
"Slumdog Millionaire," "Milk" and "Burn After Reading" all have their partisans, and well they should. But while I know "The Dark Knight" hit a deep cultural nerve this year, and made more money than many a small nation, it was too long — c'mon — and I didn't get why Christian Bale was now speaking in a choked, froggy rasp. The movie's most memorable asset is noted below.
Best Director: Isabelle Coixet, "Elegy"
A happily crowded field, what with Darren Aronofsky, Sam Mendes ("Revolutionary Road"), Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") and David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), among others. But veteran Spanish director Coixet, dealing with very chilly material, maintained a mesmerizing balance of mood, longing and loss that lodged in your heart. May many more people see this movie on DVD. Best Actor: Sean Penn, "Milk"
Or Mickey Rourke, as noted above; or Frank Langella, for his crafty incarnation of the desperate, disgraced president in "Frost/Nixon"; or Benicio Del Toro, who carries all four and a half hours of "Che" on his burly shoulders — a feat of surpassing endurance, if nothing else. But Penn's portrayal of the doomed gay-rights activist Harvey Milk is a breathtaking accomplishment, treading a very sensitive line between gay characterization and gay caricature with faultless precision. He's never been better.
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, "The Reader"
Or "Revolutionary Road," in which she's brilliant in a very different way. I'd put Penélope Cruz's tidally powerful performance in "Elegy" next in line here — although she appears to be getting relegated to the supporting-actress category for reasons I don't understand. Anne Hathaway was a wonderful bundle of nerves in "Rachel Getting Married," and Julianne Moore was appallingly screwed-up in "Savage Grace." And there was Meryl Streep in "Doubt," of course. But this was Winslet's year.
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Ledger's Joker was instantly iconic, rather in the manner of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. I think Robert Downey Jr.'s madly multilayered portrayal of a blond Australian movie actor playing a black American soldier was the year's wildest comic performance (with Tom Cruise nipping at his heels in the same movie), followed by Brad Pitt's deliciously dim turn in "Burn After Reading," Javier Bardem's sultry señorita magnet in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," and German actor David Kross' torn, baffled teenager in "The Reader." But Ledger reigns here, and not just for sentimental reasons. Consider the range of his work in such radically different films as "Brokeback Mountain," "Lords of Dogtown" and the underrated "Casanova." Now consider this wheedling psychopath, a performance put together from the ground up — it actually out-classed the movie that contained it. Dead at 28. Imagine what might have been.
Best Cinematography: Colin Watkinson, "The Fall"
Tarsem Singh's delirious neo-surrealism is visually overwhelming (and there's about 20 minutes too much of it in this overlong film). But Watkinson is presumably at least partially responsible for the movie's blazing colors and gorgeous long-shot compositions (and who knows what else). Also notable this year: Darius Khondji's meltingly beautiful color photography in Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights" (which also featured a highly assured acting debut by singer Nora Jones); Claudio Miranda's beautifully burnished work in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; and Tom Stern's rigorously designed color compositions in "Changeling."
Best Foreign Language Picture: "Let the Right One In"
Some will disagree — I hear you, girls! — but the best teen vampire movie this year by miles was a Swedish import. "Let the Right One In" had a purity of mood and pace (with deftly-placed bloody jolts) that would never fly in Hollywood (which is nevertheless rushing to remake it as we speak — be very afraid). A soon-come cult hit on DVD.
Best Animated Film: "WALL*E"
Troublesome category. Life being short and all, I miss quite a few animated features. So while I caught "Igor" (cute) and "Kung Fu Panda" (too cute), I haven't seen "Bolt" or "Madagascar 2" or the new one with the rodents. Are you telling me they come anywhere near the endearing fabulosity of "WALL*E"? Didn't think so.
Funniest Comedy: "The House Bunny"
"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" would be an honorable alternative here, and not the only one. But Anna Faris' sweet and completely original reinvention of the traditional blonde bimbo elevated what was doomed to be a movie sneered at by critics to a higher level of lovable hilarity.
Funniest Non-Comedy: "10,000 B.C."
The funniest thing about this galumphing Stone Age moron-a-thon was that everybody in it was able to keep a straight face. But then nobody in "Rambo" or "Death Race" seemed to be in on those jokes, either.
Worst Art Movie: "Flight of the Red Balloon"
No competition here, I don't think. Can there really be people who take the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien for an accomplished filmmaker? Or even a competent one? Amazingly, yes. They all seem to be critics, though — it's hard to imagine anyone paying money to see this inert and interminable movie.
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