best film: The Dark Knight from Christopher Nolan

  • The film begins with a trademark Nolan gorgeous establishing shot of the city
  • terrorism post-9/11 element in the Joker character and film- the hostage videos and cell phone surveillance and certainly a blurry line of good and evil
  • two wonderful 360 degree shots- unlike De Palma though, Nolan chooses to do one revelation and pause at a choice time
  • Absolutely has a gripping narrative and performances led by Heath Ledger
  • Leger’s walk is studied, as are his facial tics
  • There are multiple jaw-dropping sequences and set pieces. The tunnel chase scene is a jaw-dropper.
  • Unlike the Bond films where it always feels like Bond is one step ahead- here it always feels like Joker is- and that works wondrously on the viewer
  • The Hans Zimmer score is superb

With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan fulfills the promise of the Memento– and provides a film that surpasses previous Batman efforts, Superman efforts, Spiderman efforts- all of which essentially dominated the box office in whatever year they were released (from the 1970s to date in 2008)

 

most underrated: There are a plethora of good choices here in 2008. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from David Fincher, Il divo from Paolo Sorrentino, and Revolutionary Road from Sam Mendes all currently stand outside of the top forty (40) from 2008 on the TSPDT consensus list for the 21st century– wrong, wrong and wrong. Speed Racer from The Wachowskis has outwardly bad reviews (negative on Rotten Tomatoes and a 37 on metacritic) and it lands solidly in the archives. Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married sits at #32 on the TSPDT list for 2008 as well. Rachel Getting Married would make for a good pairing with Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration or Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (on second thought, yikes- what a depressing night that would be) as they all capture excruciatingly awkward wedding receptions.

The Social Network aside, almost all of David Fincher’s films start out underrated at the time of their release- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no exception.

This is a handsome and ambitious epic. Fincher is such a perfectionist (well known for making his actors do countless takes)- it seems almost unfathomable that he would be able to put out this and Zodiac in back to back years in 2007 and 2008. These are two films with a long running times and such grand scale and scope.

Speed Racer is far from perfect- but detractors of the film are ignoring the brilliance on display from The Wachowskis

Sam Mendes is another artist too frequently found in this underrated category– he shows up virtually every time he releases a film (Revolutionary Road here).

 

 

most overrated: Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman lands as high as #4 of 2008 on the TSPDT consensus list. There seems to be at least a dozen or more films from 2008 that deserved to be mentioned first when talking about the strongest work of the year.

 

gems I want to spotlight:  There are some very enjoyable films like Slumdog Millionaire (aided by Danny Boyle’s energetic direction) or Tropic Thunder in 2008 that everyone should see. Enjoyment is not what you’ll get from Steve McQueen’s sobering debut film Hunger- but if there is one film from 2008 after The Dark Knight every cinephile has to see – this is it. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is essential viewing for those of us that appreciate the work of Tom Hardy (who really gets to flex in Bronson– both his muscles and acting chops). And lastly, Burn After Reading is a film I revisit as often as any from 2008. The Coen Brothers seem to follow up their big, widely recognized masterpieces (Fargo, No Country For Old Men) with some of the easiest watches of all-time (Burn After Reading and The Big Lebowski).

 

Slumdog Millionaire is kinetic- truly the same artist as the voice (and rhythm) behind Trainspotting). The film utilizes a narrative flashback structure triggered by the millionaire questions—all of this is a within a flashback where Dev Patel’s character is being questioned and tortured. From a formal standpoint, there is a very nice shot distance choice repetition with long shots, overhead shots, and close ups. Boyle often throws in askew angles as well.

 

trends and notables:

  • The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and even Heath Ledger dominate 2008. It is very rare (1967 with The Graduate and 1972 with The Godfather come to mind) when the best film of the year is also the biggest box office hit of the year. And though I care much more about the former- it is fun to see this sort of eclipse happen.
  • Health Ledger passed away in January of 2008. With this (posthumous) performance and his work in Brokeback Mountain just a few years before, this tragic death put an end to a talent that on the fast track to being one of the greats.
  • 2008 is a down year for cinema as an artform- and it stands in stark contrast to 2007 (where there may be a half dozen films or more that could give The Dark Knight a run for its money for the top slot). Here in 2008, it is only Steve McQueen’s Hunger that threatens The Dark Knight at all.
  • 2008 is also the start of the Marvel Universe as we now know it with Iron Man
  • With WALL·E, 2008 marks the single artistic peak for Pixar (though if you combine the Toy Story films together that may trump it).
  • 2008 marks the first archiveable films for both director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender with Hunger (Fassbender is in Eden Lake from 2008 as well). These two have made three films to date in (2011’s Shame and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave).

A stunning debut McQueen- up there with the best of the 21st century. McQueen clearly shows off his art background- he does fine some amazing visuals in the most squalor of settings and utilizing whatever resources at his disposal here- a prison cell, cafeteria, hallway, hospital room—using foulness like blood, feces, urine, as his tools- it’s remarkable.  Fassbender does not show up until the 26 minute mark- an odd  formal structure that absolutely works. The 17-minute continuous unbroken shot—priest and Fassbender in a dialogue sequence (above). Camera is sedentary—it is bold——the writing in that scene is brilliant- that helps—it is well acted with strong writing. It is jolting when McQueen chooses to break. We get the foal story directly after this time facing Fassbender and that is a longish-take tool. Awesome filmmaking.

Hunger is visceral, formally rigorous and brutal in its depiction.

The hallway shot with the pools of urine coming out- McQueen goes back to it again- potent and visually impressive.

  • Paolo Sorrentino and Tony Servillo get going as well in 2008 with Il divo. Servillo gets his start in the archives (at the age of 49) with both Il divo and Gomorrah. Sorrentino and Servillo have made three archiveable films to date including (The Great Beauty- 2013) and Loro (2018)
  • Charlie Kaufman had been the hottest screenwriter in cinema since 1999’s Being John Malkovich, but 2008 marks his first archiveable film (and debut) as director with Synecdoche, New York. 

 

 

best performance male: Heath Ledger is the choice here. He stands on his head in the best film of the year. Much like Daniel Day-Lewis the year prior in There Will Be Blood—the virtuoso performance here by Heath Ledger carries this film beyond films that would otherwise be formally or stylistically superior work. It may actually hurt the film in some respects because, by (awesome) comparison, the scenes without Ledger tend to suffer. Michael Fassbender’s work in Hunger is next. Fassbender plays Bobby Sands and lost the weight required for the role. The achievement is much more than a method gimmick- it has impact on the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves a slot for Synecdoche, New York followed by his future The Master costar Joaquin Phoenix for Two Lovers. This is the strongest performance from Phoenix in his four collaborations (to date) with the great James Gray. The last mention in this category in 2008 is for Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker.

 

Ledger is making big choices (I remember everyone in 2007 questioning the choice to take on a role that someone as iconic as Jack Nicholson did so well) all over the place– daring- certainly every artistic choice Ledger made worked

Jeremy Renner had been around (he has a small role in The Assassination of Jesse James the year prior) and is sneaky old here (38 in 2008) but this is his breakout film and role.

 

best performance female:  The two that walk away with this category in 2008 are the two actors that did superior work earlier in the decade alongside Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain: Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. Williams is in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Hathaway does the best work for her career in Rachel Getting Married.

 

Wendy and Lucy– the first of three collaborations to date between Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt

 

 

top 10

  1. The Dark Knight
  2. Hunger
  3. Two Lovers
  4. Wendy and Lucy
  5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  6. WALL·E
  7. The Hurt Locker
  8. Synecdoche, New York
  9. Rachel Getting Married
  10. Let the Right One In

 

from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson- Let the Right One In

James Gray largely has longer gestation periods between films (1994, 2000, then 2007)- but 2008 found him back in the archives quickly with Two Lovers

Gray uses a fixed (and beautiful) color palette

though Phoenix is strong in all of his collaborations with James Gray- Two Lovers is his best work of the four

from Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army

immaculate production design

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

35 Shots of Rum- Denis R
A Christmas Tale- Desplechin HR
Ballast – Hammer R
Bronson- Refn R
Burn After Reading- Coen HR
Changeling- Eastwood R
Doubt- Shanley R
Eden Lake- Watkins R
Frost/Nixon – Howard R
Frozen River- Hunt R
Gomorrah- Garrone R
Gran Torino – Eastwood R
Happy Go Lucky – Leigh R
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army- del Toro R/HR
Hunger -McQueen MS/MP
Il divo- Sorrentino R/HR
In Bruges- Martin McDonagh R
Iron Man- Favreau R
John Adams- Hooper R
Let the Right One In – Alfredson HR
Lorna’s Silence- Dardenne R
Me and Orson Welles- Linklater R
Milk- Van Sant R
Ponyo- Miyazaki R
Rachel Getting Married- Demme HR
Red Cliff I- Woo, Leung R
Revanche – Spielmann R
Revolutionary Road- Mendes HR
Slumdog Millionaire – Boyle,Tandan R/HR
Speed Racer – Wachowski R
Step Brothers – McKay R
Sugar- Fleck/Boden R
Summer Hours- Assayas HR
Synecdoche, New York – C. Kaufman HR/MS
Terribly Happy – Genz R
The Bank Job – Donaldson R
The Class- Cantet R
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button- Fincher HR/MS
The Dark Knight – Nolan MP
The Headless Woman- Martel R
The Hurt Locker- Bigelow HR/MS
The Reader- Daldry R
The Wrestler – Aronofsky R/HR
Tropic Thunder- Stiller R
Two Lovers- Gray HR/MS
Vicky Christina Barcelona- W. Allen R
WALL·E – Stanton HR/MS
Wendy and Lucy – Reichardt HR/MS

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives