Oscar season drives me crazy. So many weeks go by during the spring and summer and fall when theaters are full of studio films of only marginal interest — and then, like magic, the final weeks are glutted with extra-long prestige pictures involving popular and high-quality talent. Couple that with the need to socialize over the holidays, the possibility of bad weather, and my general desire to enjoy some time at home during these shortest days and longest, coldest nights of the year — not to mention always-pressing professional obligations — I generally miss more interesting-looking films at year’s end than any other time during the calendar year.
Since I failed to get anywhere near as many invitations to interesting looking year-end releases in 2008 as I did in 2007, the list of prestige pictures I haven’t yet seen may actually be longer than the list of ones I have — I haven’t made it out for Milk, The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road, Gran Torino, Frost/Nixon, or The Reader. (As usual, I tend to drag my feet the longest when it comes to films that seem noteworthy primarily for purportedly excellent performances, rather than dazzling filmcraft.) I did make time for Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, none of which came close to finding a spot on this list. As usual, the 10th spot could have gone to one of any number of films, and this year I just picked the sentimental favorite. So caveat lector, but I feel pretty comfortable with this group.
One more thing — claims that 2008 is an especially weak year for movies don’t really wash with me. It may be true that I have slightly peculiar tastes, so any year that peaked with a movie about a 12-year-old vampire hits my sweet spot pretty squarely. But I had a great time watching these films. Hope you like some of them, too.
It was a terrific year for Hollywood movies — if I’m unhappy with anything about my final top-10 list, it’s the absence of non-English-language films. Yes, that’s partly a function of a lack of moviegoing adventurousness on my part, and I should take the rap for that.
But the foreign-language films I enjoyed the most — The Lives of Others, The Host, the first section, at least, of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — just didn’t seem to quite belong in this company. (The much-lauded 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days — which I won’t see until next week — is a 2008 film for my purposes.)
The films here are also dominated by men. They’re directed by men (the single documentary is the one woman-directed exception) and they deal with traditionally male concerns — cooking, adventure travel, police work, drilling for oil, hunting down and killing your tormentors. You have to go all the way down to number eight to find a movie with a female character who does more than just play sidekick (unless you count Angie in Gone Baby Gone, which I don’t), and that doesn’t make me happy. I could have slipped Day Night Day Night, Margot at the Wedding, Red Road, or even Black Book onto the list for the sake of gender balance — though none of those boast what you’d call female role models. (Maybe I could have listed Juno.) You can pretend they’re there if you like, but they weren’t my favorites.
Again, it was a terrific year for Hollywood movies. These are the best ones I saw.
I don’t know where you live, but the weather here in New York is “unseasonably mild.” (Temperatures in the 50s, no snow as of January 4 for the first time in freaking recorded history — a real climate-change scenario.) Coincidentally, “unseasonably mild” also describes moviegoing over the last couple of months, as the Oscar bombs dropped by the studios in the year-end run up to awards season have detonated with a series of wet thuds. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve been decidedly underwhelmed by the likes of Letters From Iwo Jima, Notes on a Scandal, and even the seeming sure thing that was Pan’s Labyrinth (to be fair, I’ve never really been on Guillermo del Toro’s wavelength). Among studio Oscar contenders, the only satisfactory hype machines seem to be The Departed, which lived up to advance billing and is only now crawling into the awards spotlight and sniffing the air, and Dreamgirls, which I simply don’t feel like dragging ass out to see. (I wasn’t invited to an advance screening, and the ridiculous $25 ticket price for the film’s limited engagement at the Ziegfeld ensured that I wasn’t going to catch it in time to have an opinion before the wide release anyway — by the time Christmas Day rolled around, I figured anything I might have to say was likely already superfluous beneath the thunderous volume of the Hudson rocks/Beyoncé sux consensus.)
The best Oscar bait I saw was Peter O’Toole’s performance in Venus — I was very glad to have caught that at a press screening, because I’m doubtful I would have had the inclination to catch up with the one about the old man wooing the very young woman in the year-end rush of prestige pics. (Also, did anyone at all end up seeing The Good Shepherd, which was partially shot in my neighborhood?) Bilge Ebiri recently opined that this sudden flood of wannabe “quality” pictures at the end of the year has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the status quo, since some folks end up so busy that it’s easier to take cues from (and therefore reinforce) the building groupthink rather than apply one’s self to a thoughtful study of the year that was.
I’ll confess that I was a bit annoyed when the film I had decided was the closest thing to perfect I saw all year suddenly became the critics’ darling in highbrow end-of-the-year polls. I knew the reviews were good, but I hadn’t realized they were quite that good. Anyway, there it is — uncompromised and uncompromising, and never less than absorbing over a two-and-a-half-hour running time, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is officially The Best Thing I Saw All Year. And there were some other good ones, too.