Monday, April 13, 2009

The Top Ten Films of 2008

Since this is the year of me graduating from Fuller Seminary---where I'm continually thinking and writing in theological language about films and music, art and culture---I decided to write this list in the spirit of a true seminary spirit suggesting that each film on my top ten list carries with it a true (serious and thought-provoking) kind of theology. So here we go. Here's the list, take it or leave it. (Thanks Nate for pushing me to finally publish this stupid thing---it feels good to have it done).


The number 10 spot is always hard to pin down. I could’ve put a number of films here: the darkly subversive and sexy Woody Allen comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Wong Kar Wai’s lush (but uneven) ode to America My Blueberry Nights, or Oscar’s pick and American audiences surprise sensation favorite Slumdog Millionaire, that reminded me again just how pure and wonderful an audience is to the total experience of cinema watching. But I went with my gut and heart on the number 10 spot. I went for the Frank Capra lover in me (director of classics It’s A Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It Happened One Night). Frank Capra is one of my favorite “Golden Age of Cinema” directors. I know, I know, some people may call me a sentimentalist, a Carpri-corny film geek, but I don’t care. I love when films feel like an ode to life wrapped up in 2 hours of screen time and this is what Marley & Me is. At first glance, it looks like another Beethoven movie but it’s so far from this I feel like I’m insulting the filmmakers for even suggesting such a thought. Marley & Me is a pitch-perfect movie about life and its many messy details. It’s a cinematic ode to nostalgia, sure, but it’s a throwback convention film that’s worth going back for. There are good people in this very imperfect world and Marley & Me reminds us of this. Also, it’s Owen Wilson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums and Jennifer Aniston’s best work since The Good Girl. Both actors lend credibility to a story that feels so close to home, you’ll be in a bittersweet state of bliss after watching it. I was and in a strange way, still am.

If anyone wants to know what I learned after living 2 years in China, see Up The Yangtze. This is one of those stories you wouldn’t believe if it were fiction. Its drama is that penetrating, its human subjects that real, its scope—epic, larger than Earth—is that wide. Through masterful direction, editing, and cinematography—where the seemingly insignificant and commonness captured in one single, sweeping shot takes your breath away—Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang has created the documentary of the year, and one of the best films of 2007 and 2008 (it was released in some countries in 2007, but screened first in the U.S. at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the year I attended). Up The Yangtze is a visual cross between Hiorkazu Koreeda’s beautiful Nobody Knows and Edward Burtynsky’s stunning photography in Jennifer Baichwal’s exceptional documentary, Manufactured Landscapes. But Up The Yangtze is better than both (or maybe that’s the China bias in me talking), for its story isn’t just about being displaced or living in manufactured factories and socialist-capitalist landscapes created for the good of the country rather than the good of the people. More than this, it addresses poverty, grief, home, faith and greed with gripping clarity and an ultimate sensitivity. This is the real China. Take it or leave it.

It’s so appropriate to be posting this list on Easter Sunday when it comes to this unseen gem of a small film that is Silent Light. This slow, gorgeous, moving, and unbelievably unforgettable work of cinema does what few great movies do: it makes believers out of skeptics and (simply) surprises. Believers in what you may ask? I’m not going to ruin the surprise (and there are many) that this film has to offer. I’ll only say this: I really hope we haven’t heard the last of director Carlos Reygadas, a man who embarked into a Mennonite community in Mexico, filming non-actors, and non-manufactured landscapes, and came away with something of a miracle: a post-Easter film merging sound (silent) and sight (light) in an act of creative and narrative genius.

There were two great films in 2008 highlighting the subject of class in our world today. One was the Cannes recipient of the coveted Palme d’Or award and Oscar nominated Best Foreign Language Feature aptly titled, The Class; the other (and better film in my opinion) was Thomas McCarthy’s small wonder The Visitor. The movie is just about perfect. Hilarious. Touching. Tragic. It's about finding the beat and rhythm inside yourself and syncing that beat with the friends you grow to love, yes, but it’s also about answering that age old Genesis question, “Where is your brother?” God asked this of Cain and The Visitor asks this question of all of us. Where is our brother? Who is our brother? What are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of another human, in another class, from another country? The Visitor asks similar questions that McCarthy’s first feature, The Station Agent asked in 2003, but this is a much better film than that. It’s more complete, more universal, more personal, in every way. When I saw it at Sundance Film Festival 2008, it received an overwhelmingly unanimous standing ovation. With over 1200 people cheering and applauding after that haunting final shot, I knew right then that The Visitor would find its way onto my top ten list of 2008. So here, at number 7, it is.

Doubt is practically flawless. The cast is dynamite, the cinematography fantastic, the direction strong, and the story is timely and yet, timeless. It's a fantastic meditation on the Church, as a whole—hierarchy, holiness, and the hell we often experience between them—that will surely spark discussion as to what this story (and the church) is all about. But one of the things I loved most about it (after seeing it three times in theaters with different people each time) was how varied the interpretation on the film was. Kudos to stage writer/director John Patrick Shanley for his acute attention to detail in every scene; he shows us (in nearly every frame) the two sides to the power/importance of doubt in faith. It can enhance and mature us while serving as the catalyst to divide a community, and tear down unity in the body of Christ. Perhaps this is what a double-edged sword looks like. For this really is a total theology of doubt—from the beginning sermon to the final closing one.

Milk came at the perfect time (especially when it comes to California, and its heated October/November 2008 post-election protests over Proposition 8—doubly titled, Prop. H8TE, by many of its opposers). In a way, it’s a reminder of how a film is as much about the now as it is about the story it’s telling (or in this case, re-telling). For me, it took two viewings of Milk before I was able to see it for what it really was: a pivotal, turning point movie for America, highlighting not only the new Obama administration, but a new depression era, a new era for the Church to redefine itself from the inside out. Harvey Milk as seen through Gus Van Sant’s lens, is in-your-face and humble, in one unrelentlesss breath. It will undoubtedly be remembered as a turning point; a time when people really re-think what it means to be human and to be homosexual in this world. As Milk (the movie and the man) reminds us, hope is a movement. And as the late Harvey Milk would say, he’s here to recruit us to join in that movement. So will we join? Will we step up and enter into the real discussion? It matters little what side you come into the discussion/movement on; what matters is that you simply join the movement.

As my professor Barry Taylor posited, In Bruges is a meditation on hell. Bruges is a place, and as the title suggests, both two main characters (who are hit men) are stuck in it. Stuck in hell, so to speak, and can’t seem to find there way out. But as one character indirectly asks, how do you find your way out of hell? What can possibly resurrect you out of this dark dream, this unending nightmare? How do you, simply, get out? Atonement is one of In Bruges answers, and its fascinating to see where this conversation goes in a film that (on the surface) looks like just another revenge thriller, just another buddy-bad-guy-shoot-em-kill-em-caper flick. But writer/director Martin McDonagh isn’t interested in staying within the traditional film genre. In his Oscar nominated screenplay, he entertains a world where most stereotypes are true, where most people are more evil than good, and where life (really and truly) can only be redeemed in and through death.

Andrew Stanton’s dark and somber feature (his best since Finding Nemo) plays off like added pages to the book of Revelation. The strangest feeling one gets while watching WALL-E is a sense of possibility. Seeing a future not too removed from our present age is unsettling, to say the least. Graciously, though, Stanton uses Earth’s inevitable apocalypse premise to recall a sense of wonder, beauty and messiness in life. Rather than simply attacking sterility, security, and shopping (which WALL-E does do), it moves into a homage to cinema, an ode to the great comic geniuses (Charlie Chaplin) and visionary filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick). It’s a movie about the love of movies, a movie about the love of earth, and a movie about the special (wonder) of chemistry and connection. Is it ironic that the new Earth is ushered into existence through two characters who aren’t even human?

Not much more needs to be said about Christopher Nolan’s disturbing, motorcycle ride into-the-abyss-of-what-it-means-to-be-human film that is The Dark Knight. Like every masterful work of cinema, it’s best just to experience it for yourself. Evil has rarely been this clever, this well thought out, this insightful into our own psyche, our own minds and hearts as human beings.

“It’s all about the sacrifice of the body. Everything in life is about the sacrificial lamb.” These two sentences haunt Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s character in Darren Aronofsky’s deeply moving and poignant The Wrestler. From the first time I saw this film, something about it haunted me. It stayed with me. Something about it would not escape my mind. This is what movies you love do, isn’t it? Refuse to leave your mind no matter how hard you try to force them out of it. In this case, part of this is because of its two characters, Robin and Pam, struggling to find their name, their place, their title in life. Stripper? Mother? Butcher? Father? Failure? Lover? Hater? Wrestler? Notice “The Ram” has many names he’s called in this film (Robin Radnzinski, Randy, “The Ram,”), none of which he’s comfortable with. But this is exactly the point. Labels aren’t too helpful, but this beautiful film helps us see something special beyond this: that behind every label, every name, every act of marginalization, is one very lonely person. Not since 2002’s Talk To Her have I felt such a powerful take on the subject of loneliness. This is my favorite (and the best, I think) film from 2008. It’s the perfect reflection of the state of our country, here and now; a country filled with lonely people filling up lonely bodies, looking for their name, their place, their calling.


It's an import from Sweden and it's a damn good one. A vampire story like no other, Let The Right One In explores love and sacrifice in a way that my favorite film of the year also did. And I'm sorry to disappoint all you Twilight fans out there, but this movie is the real deal--a serious and thought-provoking (and beautiful) expose on vampires, first loves, and the dangers of letting too much light into hospital rooms. And why is this film worthy of this yearly award (one I started years back with Three Times)? Because it reimagines a film genre, it reinspires the traditional horror movie with wit, class and a scary sophistication. Maybe that's why Newsweek magazine named it "The best film of 2008." It isn't just another vampire movie; this movie has bite and you don't need fangs to see that.


eric said...

Nice list and reflections, Neville. My favourite among these was Doubt. Did you by chance catch "Rachel Getting Married?"

Neville said...

Yeah, Eric. I saw "Rachel Getting Married." Really enjoyed the first half, but the second half (to me) was self-indulgent and kind of blah-blah-blah. Why, did you like that one? It's one I'd like to see again though.

Alex said...

Wow, good list. I totally agree with you on the wrestler. It is totally chill, lol.

Neville said...

And Eric, did you see "Silent Light?" You'd enjoy that one I think a lot. Rent it whenever it comes to DVD. I don't think it's there yet.

Chalupa said...

First of all, I'm so glad to see a blog post buddy.

Second, I'm glad to see you have The Wrestler at #1 for the year like myself.

Third, I almost had to chastise you for not including the most believable vampire movie I've ever seen, then I saw your P.S. Nice work sir.

Neville said...

Haha Chalupa. Yeah, "Let The Right One In" deserves to be on the Top Ten just as much as any other film. I suspect after a few months it will pop in there and pop another movie out. We'll see though.

It's a great film and it fits as the ODE-TO-CINEMA award quite nicely i think. lol

nateshorb said...

I agree with Alex...totally chill list.

Roger Ebert loved your list...but then again, Roger Ebert is loving everything these days.

A.O. Scott said it was "Simply astounding."

But really...did you even SEE Man on Wire?!?

Ruthie said...

I don't know anything about films and such, but I recognize good writing, and yours is, undoubtedly. Why are you not writing for some national publication? Submit stuff! Anyone who can consistently and correctly use "its" gets high marks in my book. Nicely done.

omaniona said...

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Kim said...

Very thought provoking, Neville!! I have to give you props for "Let the right one in." I was able to catch it up here in NYC and thought it was simply wonderful.

Neville said...

Ruthie. I love you. I can't believe you brought up getting "its" right. lol You remind me of Cora, although I think technically I should say Cora reminds me of you (since you did come first in this life). Either way, you're both two of my favorite Michiganders. And I'm not just saying that. Really you are. Let's share a glass of wine over Rook or Taboo the next time Corie and I are home. K?

Will said...

Finally got my top 10 up, only 6 mos late. Enjoyed your list a lot - let me know what you think about mine.