Friday, December 19, 2008


Ahhh the top ten list.

The one final place of power for the film critic.

Yes you can shrink our column size, ignore our lofty opinions, but here, here is where we separate the cream from the crap.

So here it is. Remember because I still have somewhat of a life so I haven't seen every movie on Earth. So this is the top ten movies that I saw this year.

10. Wall-E

This will probably move up my list when I see it again. Endearing and epic there's a lot to like here. A fine example of "show don't tell" film making. Think of how little dialogue there is in the movie and yet you know exactly how each character is feeling.

Only Pixar could give us an anti-consumption environmental movie, knowing full well Wall-E himself will be spun off into countless trinkets.

A lot of people talk about the effects. It's gotten to the point now where the differences between traditional film making and computer animation are almost visually irrelevant.

Still, spare a moment for the screenplay. From Toy Story to Wall-E, there is as much craftsmanship in the story as there is in the animation. I don't know if it's the story boarding process or what, but for a bunch of computer geeks it's an amazing tale. Also, how great are those closing credits?

9. Young People F*cking

YPF gets here for many reasons. One the savvy marketing that took a tiny little film and got it mass exposure, no small feat for a Canadian picture. But beyond all that this is a great, fun, sexy and smart movie. If this is future face of Cancon I'm behind it all the way. It's Short Cuts for horny people. Not filthy, but a grown up look at sex and relationships.

A documentary with characters you wouldn't believe if they weren't real .
As the Bad Religion song says "Sometimes life is stranger than fiction."

Man on Wire is actually in many ways a caper movie. The goal, sneak into the World Trade Centre, string a wire between the two towers, 1350 feet up in the air... walk across. As we meet the men behind the scheme the focus shifts to the leader, Philippe Petit. A tightrope walker who seems to squeeze the juice out of every moment of life. This is not a film about 9-11. This is a film about dancing with the impossible. Go rent it now. I guarantee you wont be disappointed.

I have an automatic interest in animation. And an even stronger interest in adult animation. But a documentary, using the Waking Life technique to explore an Israeli soldier's buried memories of a massacre? Sold!

As a conventional documentary this would have been fine. With animation, the interviews and especially director Ari Folman retelling of the Lebanon War is surreal and poignant. Trickling out into theatres soon so keep an eye out for it.

6. Cloverfield

Ahh Cloverfield. Every time I see a bad disaster movie. A crummy Sci-Fi flick (hello The Day The Earth Stood Still) I think of Cloverfield. This is how you do it in 2008 people. Godzilla Cinema Verite style. And of course Hud, tragic hero and funny man.

5. Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One.)

In the middle of a season of mediocre thrillers, I happened to catch this one. A French thriller about Alexandre Beck, a doctor mourning his murdered wife. Then she seems to come into his life again. The mystery unravels as people around the doctor begin to suspect Beck of having a part in his wife's murder. As people connected start disappearing the paranoia level rises as Beck flees the police while doing some detective work of this own.

It's the kind of premise you can imagine Hollywood torquing into unbelievability, the James Horner soundtrack hammering every point home.

Instead with director Guillaume Canet we get the French reminding us the value of underplaying some moments. The kind of move where a character tapping a computer mouse while waiting for an email can be agonizing. Also some lovely standalone scenes and artful use of sound. One scene mixing a funeral and memories of a lakeside swim with the plaintive tones of Jeff Buckley stands out. Cross cutting the cremation and a romantic moment might seem gauche to some, but it was cinematic poetry for me.

This is the anti-Eagle Eye. A thriller that doesn't need headache-inducing editing to shock the audience. You will not be able to get the frightening woman with the fingers out of your mind. You will wonder at the simple economy of the police chase. A fine film, equal parts mystery and love letter.

4. (TIE) Milk and The Wrestler

Yes this is kinda like cheating. But the two movies are related, because they're both on the list due to the amazing lead performances.

Milk for Sean Penn's amazing job of becoming murdered gay activist Harvey Milk. I honestly worry about actors such as Penn that are able to so totally lose themselves in roles. Going into the film I wondered about Penn being able to play such a well-known and flamboyant character. As always he pulls it off with grace and style. Milk the man is not perfect, Penn shows us his drive, his charisma, his empathy.

When I saw The Wrestler at the Toronto International Film Festival director Darren Aronofsky
took the stage before the screening. He told the audience what The Wrestler showed him is "If you have an honest performance and a lens...that's all your need to make a movie." And remember this is the guy who made The Fountain which is anything but a simple movie.

Former Hollywood punchline Mickey Rourke is the honest performance at the centre of this. Some of Rourke's own story does some of the heavy lifting. We can't look as his character Randy "The Ram" Robinson without looking at Rourke himself as someone who was once the king of the heap. It's still a searing performance. There's a lot of pain there, but also heart. The scene behind the meat counter when the Ram starts throwing meat to customers is 100 percent Rourke. The charisma shines through. You see why the Ram became an entertainer and you can't help but smile. It all leads towards the final moments of the film, my favourite ending of the year.

3. The Dark Knight

What can I say about this film that hasn't been said.

About as good as it gets for a comic book hero in my book.
Director Christopher Nolan managed to deliver a smart surprisingly sophisticated film, one that raises questions about morality and absolute power.

I didn't like Nolan's first attempt (Batman Begins). The origin story was clunky and the final arrival of Batman was laughable. But from the opening bank heist in the sequel I was transfixed. True, the movie is a little bloated. I could have done without the Two-Face coda, 15 minutes that didn't seem necessary. But still, so many fine moments

Nolan raised the bar with this one. I don't think we'll see another movie like it for quite sometime. This isn't just a smart super hero movie. This is smart movie period.

And, as the appreciation of Heath Ledger piles up, spare a moment for the screenwriter. The Joker is an a amazing performance. But part of what makes him so haunting, so primal, is we don't know who or what he is. The decision to sidestep the problematic origin component of the story was brave one. As Nolan has said on occasion, it's as if the Joker is a natural force, coalescing out of thin air, moments before the film began.

2. Rachel Getting Married.

Rachel getting Married. Regular listeners of my column have already heard me swoon repeatedly for this one. Why? Well I have soft spot for music and images when mixed properly.

I love this movie, I love the performances, I love the sense of chaos. The wedding we attend is filled with the creme de la creme of hipsters. I should hate them, why don't I? Maybe it's the sense of love, of joy spilling off the screen.
Part of the thanks of course goes to the director Jonathan Demme. He decided to make a movie and throw a party at the same time. This is dogma filmmaking transmuted into Hollywood cinema. Lovely script by Jenny Lumet. Amazing performances by all. Proof sometimes the machine gets it right.

1. Hunger

I went to this movie the way you take your medicine.
They said this was good.
But a movie about a Hunger strike?
How could that make for a movie, never mind something watchable.

Well is, it's a lot more than watchable.
It's poetic, daring, shocking, intimate, funny, wry, political and powerful.
Enough with the adjectives...the movie works brilliantly.

Six weeks of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
The time is 1981.
The setting is the Long Kesh Prison.

This is war between the prison guards and the prisoners.
The surprise is the prisoners retain power, their body is the battleground.

But even this kind of talk, doesn't do justice to the movie's little moments, the way first-time director Steve McQueen zeros in on the human side of the story.

Bravo for him to seeing the art in this miserable situation. And bravo for the screenwriters for the middle set piece of the movie. Before the hunger strikers go to war, the leader sends for the local priest.

The ensuing conversation is some of the finest acting and dialogue I've seen in years.

[Update: some wise friends have pointed out this kinda isn't a fair choice since the movie hasn't been released in North America yet. I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. But in all honesty this is the film that stuck with me the most...consider the pick a preview. ]

Honourable Mentions:

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