What I Loved Last Year: The Best Films Of 2008

From Norway, the year in cinema might look a little different than how it looks for American critics and moviegoers trying to summarize 2008. The Oscar contenders are still weeks or even months away from our movie theaters, which means Milk and Revolutionary Road are both out of the running. Likewise, last year’s Oscar contenders, like Into The Wild, Juno and The Diving Bell didn’t premiere in Norway until February 2008, and are thus eligible to my list. Same goes for Once, the excellent British music film that didn’t open in Norway until this last summer, even though it was made way back in 2006.

To qualify, the movies will have to have had a theatrical release, or at least a screening, or a first-run airing on national television between January 1 and December 31, 2008. When reading this list, one should also note that such list are always works in progress. There are still some quite notable movies I haven’t gotten around to see yet, like No Country For Old Men, and by mid-2009 it might look a little different, but I would still say this list says something about what I loved last year:

1. A Christmas Tale

This rich, nuanced French family portrait managed to squeeze itself onto the release schedule at the very end of the year, and what luck! Catherine Deneuve, Melvil Poupaud (Time To Leave) and Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stand out in a very strong cast, capturing the tensions of a big family with even bigger egos. I wanted to watch it again right away.

2. Into The Wild

One of the great surprises of the year was that Sean Penn (and Emile Hirsch) actually made me love this incredible story about a young idealist who cut himself off from society and his family to live off nature in Alaska. While sympathetic, it doesn’t fail to ask big questions: Where do you draw a line between idealism and egotism? And could be that old people are right when they tell you wisdom comes with age? In intellectual and visual ambition, Into The Wild is inferior to no one, yet superior to many.

3. The Dark Knight

This is the final proof that it was wise to restart the Batman franchise. Christopher Nolan’s allegorical drama touches on torture and totalitarianism in the darkest and best superhero movie to date, also containing an absolutely mind-blowing performance by Heath Ledger.

4. Once

More a movie about the craft of songwriting than a musical, Once shows us how the power of music and lyrics than be even bigger – and more useful – than words. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s glowing chemistry manages to break through in this understated yet wonderfully uplifting love story. Also, it has a soundtrack dreams are made of.

5. The Class

This year’s winner at Cannes is an ode to curiosity. Not only on behalf of the students in the film, with all their questions about class, identity, ethnicity and language, but also the curiosity that’s essential to saying something meaningful about youth, hierarchy and communication. If it sounds like a liberal message movie, the fault is mine. It’s much, much more than that.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I imagine this one must have been incredibly hard to adapt to the big screen, but Julian Schnabel succeeds anyway. The story of a man trapped inside his own body writing a book with his eyes, has a rhythmic beauty that is stunning, and the scenes in which his immediate family struggle to come to terms with the memory of the man they once knew literally had me crying. Mathieu Amalric made my life better last year.

7. Hallam Foe

My conviction that a half-failure is far more interesting than a film that triumphs in its conventionality has never been firmer than after I watched (and re-watched) Hallam Foe (Am title: Mister Foe). This film is a mess of suppressed anger, bitter silence and murky sexuality, but it’s a disturbing and energetic mess. Jamie Bell shines in an otherwise dark comedy.

8.Juno

Cute as can be, or too cute by half? No matter which side you come down on, there’s something about Juno. Jennifer Garner is surprisingly sweet, and even though it could be this is the only character Michael Cera will ever play, he’s so good at it that I can live with that. There’s something about the way he moves (and talks, etc.)

9. The Wackness

Even more than it’s a stoner movie, or a 1994 period piece, The Wackness is a smart coming-of-age-story about cross-generational friendship and young love. Whenever the mood threatens to get too gloomy, though, it’s sure to take a step back and light it up with a joke. I might love it for the exact same reasons you hate it, but that only serves to show that the fallible ones are also the most interesting.

10. Beautiful Losers

You gotta love this documentary for its visually energetic look at the American art scene in the 1990’s. Yes, it maybe a little self-centered, but at the same time it’s a charming portrait of an era, and like very few other documentaries, consistently laught-out-loud funny.

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6 Responses to What I Loved Last Year: The Best Films Of 2008

  1. I haven’t seen #s 1, 5 and 10. I’ve been hearing loads of good things about THE CLASS, and I plan on seeing it as soon as I can. =] The same goes for A CHRISTMAS TALE.

    I’m so glad 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 made it on your list. A lot of my friends rejected INTO THE WILD, I think because of what it tried to achieve and its running time. I don’t know, it made me feel all warm inside even though the ending wasn’t happy or anything. And ONCE is amazing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I wanted to cry during that last scene. lol

    As for #9, yessss, I’m one of those people that HATED it. hahaha. I don’t know, I just–couldn’t get through it. (But I did.) I kept looking at the clock pretty much every 15 minutes because the story is so inert. The only factor I loved about it was Thirlby. I can look at her all day. She seems like the kind of person I can chill with.

    Love the list! You should do more of these… hehehe. I’m always interested in people’s lists because it gives me a picture of what I’ve been missing. =P

  2. queerlefty says:

    Thanks for the comment.

    I will rewatch The Wackness looking for things to hate about it, but I doubt it will change much.

    To go out on a limb here, I’ll say that my biggest disappointment last year was ‘There Will Be Blood’. I desperately tried to like TWBB (I know you did), but it didn’t carry the emotional weight with me I thought it would. I also think its a little too slowly paced. I may be the only person in the world to think so, but I wasn’t all sold on Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, either. Manical yes, eclectic definitely, but at some point I grew tires of all his excesses. That said, the final half hour of the movie had some really powerful moments. I will continue to follow PT Anderson’s career closely (I LOVED Magnolia and Boogie Nights, but didn’t care much for Punch-Drunk Love).

    When I label it a ‘disappointment’ that’s related to my own expectations, not that it was in any way the ‘worst’ movie I saw last year. That title has to be shared between ‘Jumper’ (despite of Jamie Bell) and ‘Australia’ (I’ll have a review up shortly) for entirely different reasons.

  3. PoeticGrin says:

    I guess I didn’t realize you were in Norway! How interesting that I see our tastes as so alike – and we’re so far apart! We basically have drooled over the same boys our entire lives!

    If I come visit, will you show me around?

  4. queerlefty says:

    Small world, eh? I definitely will.

  5. Yah, I can see why some people wouldn’t get into “There Will Be Blood.” Even though it was slow at times, I think that attribute is essential to the western genre. Something about bathing in nature and soaking it all in. God, I hate westerns.

    As for “Magnolia,” I really really wanted to like it but it dragged on forever. The best part was the raining frogs. I never thought it was scientifically possible; that it can only happen in the Bible. Ooh, I also liked the scenes where the characters started singing to Aimee Mann’s song. I love her. lol

    You thought “Jumper” was bad? Watch “Camp.” It’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life. ugh. Just thinking about it upsets me…

  6. queerlefty says:

    I actually went back and rewatched ‘TWBB’ last week, and now I have to go back on pretty much everything I said. I really got in the mood of the film this time, and I also understand some of the central plot points better. Especially I would like to withdraw my criticism of Daniel Day-Lewis. He was simply electric.

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