31 December 2008

2008 List #6: The Best Films of 2008

I think most critics, at least those who pay attention to the international and documentary circuit (i.e., the ones that matter), have all come across the same surprising revelation: 2008 was a great year for film. Of course, a lot of the year's best are left-overs from 2007 (and even some 2006 in the case of Still Life and Reprise), but for the American film lover, 2008 provided a cornucopia of heavenly delights from some of cinema's brightest stars (yeah, I know, that sounds like a press release, but I'm sincere). Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I'm weary of calling any film I've just seen a masterpiece (Céline and Julie Go Boating, which I shamefully saw for the first time this year, is the only film that's coming to mind right now), even if the word was slapped around like a bad VD last year; I heard the word in relation to No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and even Ratatouille and The Bourne Ultimatum. The fact that critics weren't as persistent to make such a bold claim again (except occasionally when mentioning that Pixar flick or that superhero film) doesn't make 2008 any less of a great year. I decided to forgo the tedious process of discerning eligibility for most of these releases, and as I've spent the final weeks of December preparing for my annual list, I've had the chance to scope the Top 10s from the lucky critics who caught all of the major and festival releases before the eve of 2009. Their lists provided the scope for mine as I figured if it was found on someone's list, and I happened to catch it in 2008, it was acceptable (even though the inclusion of British film critics on MovieCityNews' Awards Scoreboard allowed for No Country for Old Men to show up once). At the last minute, I also decided to disqualify Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, even though it was released for a week in NYC without distribution, on the grounds that I first saw it in April and, as it's being released officially in January, I will have the opportunity to see it on the big screen (which is necessary for this film) then. If you need any other indication of how good a year 2008 was, I even had trouble narrowing the great films I saw to 41, if you count Silent Light and consider the honorable mentions below. Even if you just skim over the top 20, take a look at the bottom of this post where you'll find a lame "score sheet," the list of films I wanted but didn't get around to seeing and the likely list of films I may write about when I get around to the disappointments (and overpraised films) of the year. Side note: films that premiered in a year other than 2008 are marked as such in parenthesis. So without further adieu... (in descending order)

1. The Class [Entre les murs] - dir. Laurent Cantet - France - Sony Pictures Classics

What's more impressive? The fact that The Class, Laurent Cantet's exuberant Palme d'Or winner, overcomes the dangerous comparison to the startling work of the Dardenne brothers or to the fourth season of television's best show, The Wire, at the height of its power. Based on the non-fiction book by François Bégaudeau, The Class is exactly the triumph Cantet has been building toward. With Human Resources, Time Out and Heading South, the director created spellbinding films, all centered around economic turmoil, that managed to be as savagely engrossing as they were challenging. The Class is more than just the standout of his four exceptional films; it's the perfect synthesis of the idealistic struggle that's been so prevalent in all of his work. Bégaudeau, a thin-shouldered, subtly handsome high school French teacher in his early-30s, plays a version of himself during a rocky single school year at a racially-divided école. Taking place entirely within the grounds of the school, his struggles to engage the frequently apathetic students results in the most troubling display of good intentions and human weakness. Like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cantet cultivates an impenetrable mood, unwavering in its feeling of trepidation, his direction consistently matched by the sharp screenplay, adapted by Cantet, Bégaudeau and Robin Campillo. The Class seated itself on top of my list moments after the credits started to roll, and its haunting power has never faltered. No other film this year dared to open Pandora's box with so much conviction, the capacity to inspire and, best of all, absolute trust in both subject and audience.

2. Vicky Cristina Barcelona - dir. Woody Allen - Spain/USA - Weinstein Company

No film this year glued a glimmering smile on my face as strongly and thoroughly as Woody Allen's effervescent Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Perhaps I was witnessing one of my favorite directors come back to life after a decade-long stint of mediocre films, many of which featuring his most incompetent muse to date, Scarlett Johansson, a sad replacement for Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Or perhaps it was such a relief to feel those temptations to say that he'd "lost it" dissipate within the film's earliest moments. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether low expectations and dwindling confidence were to thank for what was easily my best "cinema experience" all year. In ways no other director can compete, Allen pulled me through the ringer with alternating moments of hilarity and stomach-dropping poignancy. As Vicky, the film's substitute for the 'Woody Allen character,' Rebecca Hall nailed neurotic dissatisfaction, culminating in the heart-sinking moment where her entire façade shatters near the end of the film as she tells Javier Bardem, quite simply, "I'm scared." As Cristina, the self-proclaimed free-spirit amid a love-triangle with Bardem and the smoldering Penélope Cruz, Johansson is as tolerable as she's ever been, with Allen exposing the two things most directors miss in the actress: a brimming sexuality that's deeper than physical voluptuousness and the seeping fear that she isn't up to snuff. I have no reservations in claiming Vicky Cristina Barcelona to be among the highest tier of Allen films, within the ranks of Stardust Memories, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall and Deconstructing Harry.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile] - dir. Cristian Mungiu - Romania - IFC Films (2007)

There is a world of similarities between The Class and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. For starters, both took home the top prize at Cannes in their respective years. Secondly, both films fit into the strange release schedule that studios have set for their best foreign-language offerings: a week-long run in New York City during December before an official release in January. This causes the grand annoyance of having "dual citizenship" as far as year-end lists and critics awards are concerned. Because I didn't feel like getting into a hopeless argument with myself about where each film belongs (and because I'm not fortunate enough to catch all the films I'd like to at their international premieres), I placed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on my 2008 list because, well, that was when I got the chance to see it; for the record, I caught The Class at the Saint Louis International Film Festival. Stylistically, both films also mirror one another in being effective off-shoots of fellow Cannes winners the Dardenne brothers, and both are considerably better than their visual and tonal cousin, Darren Aronofsky's overpraised The Wrestler. It surprised me how well 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days held up on a second viewing. In alleviating the unshakable dread of seeing it initially (the film really prepares you for the absolute worst), its devastating power starts to reveal itself. Along with Anamaria Marinca's mesmerizing performance, it's the strongest depiction of true feminism I've seen all year. In a way, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the alternate to a great war film, placing Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, who plays the pregnant girl, in the role of metaphorical soldiers fighting a small (in the grand scheme) battle in the face of personal freedom. And with that in mind, it's even more surprising how apolitical the film is. Its heart cannot be found on its sleeve, and its victories are no cause for celebration. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days may be modest, but it's absolutely spellbinding.

4. The Headless Woman [La mujer sin cabeza] - dir. Lucrecia Martel - Argentina/France/Italy/Spain - No US Distributor

Chalk it up to exhaustion if you will, but Lucrecia Martel's third feature, The Headless Woman, was the grand oversight of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Despite arriving with a storm of high expectation and coming from a country whose cinema is reaching a pinnacle of artistic expression, finding anything about The Headless Woman disappointing is a notion I can't even begin to contemplate. After taking a small step down with La Niña santa after her exuberant debut La Ciénaga, Martel is back in extraordinary form, molding a meticulously cinematic adventure about the devastating emotional paralysis a woman (María Onetto) undertakes after a hit-and-run that may have killed a young child. Bárbara Álvarez's cinematography is an absolute marvel, and Martel's ability to frame shots is immaculate. Even when the camera provides the literal visual interpretation of the film's title, Martel sidesteps its potentially hazardous simplicity at every stroke. Unnerving at nearly every turn, The Headless Woman is Martel's luxurious coming-out party into the world of breathtaking international cinema.

5. Reprise - dir. Joachim Trier - Norway - Miramax (2006)

With time as my biggest obstacle, Reprise was the only film in the top 10 that I didn't get around to revisiting (other than The Class, but I saw more recently than Reprise). I have no doubt that the film would hold up as well as its placement on this list would suggest, but I'm going to have to resort to directing you to my original post from back in May: Life Being What It Is.

6. Otto; or Up with Dead People - dir. Bruce LaBruce - Canada/Germany - Strand Releasing

Even if you're privy to what Canada's most impressive provocateur Bruce LaBruce is selling, it comes as a surprise every single time that he's capable of deeply moving you beneath all that explicit sex and snappy dialogue. I often underestimate the way in which LaBruce, like Gregg Araki, punctures a searing truth and sadness through a well-practiced brand of sympathetic and condemning disposition. In a way, Otto; or Up with Dead People is the zombie remix of Super 8½, a depressing/hysterical exposé of LaBruce's favorite subjects, exploitation and pornography. Replacing Bruce, the egotistical porn auteur and occasional "butt double," with Otto (Jey Crisfar), the hoodie-donning, gay, once-vegan zombie, Otto; or Up with Dead People emerges as a complex, telling examination of the anxieties of the young. [Additional Reading: Cliquot]

7. Rachel Getting Married - dir. Jonathan Demme - USA - Sony Pictures Classics

Rachel Getting Married falls into the same category I place David Fincher's Zodiac. It's acceptable to dislike them, as long as you don't do so for the wrong reasons. If someone drops the phrase, "well, nothing happens," you can cross them off your list of people whose opinions are worthy of respect. The fact that "nothing happens" in both Zodiac and Rachel Getting Married is where their brilliance lies. Both take familiar subjects (a hunt for a serial killer; a dysfunctional family reunion or wedding movie, you choose) and display a sublime fascination in the mundane. In easily his finest film to date, Jonathan Demme conducts Jenny Lumet's screenplay like a beautifully enchanting piece of music. It's frequently mystifying, but always grounded. Rachel Getting Married doesn't sacrifice its bedazzlement or its rawness, allowing the hypnotic dancing sequences to feel perfectly in place with its astute depiction of the unbearable guilt between family members. [Additional Reading: You Move Me / Like Music]

8. (tie) Boarding Gate - dir. Olivier Assayas - France/Luxembourg - Magnet Releasing (2007)

Most people, especially those enamored with Asia Argento, cited her teaming with Catherine Breillat for The Last Mistress as her most appropriate tag-teaming on the list of exceptional directors she's chosen to work with. However, it was with Olivier Assayas in Boarding Gate that she was able to elicit her most dazzling performance. Although Breillat gave us that exquisite "worm's eye view" of the actress writing in ecstasy, bare breasts and all, and Abel Ferrara had her French-kissing a rottweiler in Go Go Tales, it suddenly became less important what a director was having Argento do as much as what lied inside her explosiveness. In addition to finding a remarkable center in Argento, Assayas becomes leveled by her, creating the perfect balance for both director and star. It's appropriate, as both receive their harshest criticisms when walking too far out on the plank. Assayas unveils Boarding Gate's surprising emotional core in Argento's fluttering conscience, and Argento provides stability and significance when the film appears to be falling out of place. The two constantly have their hands around each other's throats, in an act of gorgeous co-survival that brings nothing but best out of one another. I can't think of another film I loved so intensely that others have so vocally detested. [Additional Reading: Cliquot & Says you, Goldie Hawn?]

8. (tie) Summer Hours [L'heure d'été] - dir. Olivier Assayas - France - IFC Films

Initially, I had listed Boarding Gate higher than Olivier Assayas' "official" 2008 release (Boarding Gate premiered at Cannes in 2007), even though I couldn't justify in words why. Summer Hours is likely the better film of the two, but there's something about the harmony between Asia Argento and Assayas that keeps Boarding Gate from leaving my mind. Placing Boarding Gate and Summer Hours at a tie was the only viable option, even though I probably could have done the same with Gus Van Sant. Like Van Sant, Assayas showed some impressive diversity in 2008. In juggling a metaphysical exploitation film and a somber drama about the dispersion of inheritance after the matriarch (Edith Scob) passes away, Assayas approaches the same multi-faceted issue of globalization, also addressed in Irma Vep and demonlover, in two astonishing arenas. Both Boarding Gate and Summer Hours are deceptively slight, lacking the sucker punch that Hollywood cinema cowardly uses to justify its existence. Yet in the final stretches of each of the two, Assayas makes everything transcendently clear. Both take the risk of being parodies of their expected conventions (Summer Hours consciously avoids showing any of the high drama that would typically factor into a film about the death of a mother) but emerge as profound works from the shamefully underrated director.

10. Paranoid Park - dir. Gus Van Sant - France/USA - IFC Films (2007)

It can be rather troubling picking one of Gus Van Sant's 2008 offerings over the other. Out of all four directors who saw two of their films get official US releases during the year (Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, David Gordon Green... despite showing up on this list, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours won't be released domestically until next year), Van Sant provided the most savory double dip, emitting a newfound optimism after his "Trilogy of Death." Paranoid Park could easily be seen as the epilogue to said trilogy, adopting an elliptical visual and audible landscape that's totally separate from Gerry, Elephant and Last Days (thanks to Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li's cinematography and the usage of music from a couple Fellini films, as well as the familiar Elliott Smith); however, I like to think of it as Van Sant finally listening to the advice of The B-52's and saying adieu to his own private Idaho as if the lyric, "get out of the state you're in," finally rung true. [Additional Reading: Cliquot]

11. The Edge of Heaven [Auf der anderen Seite] - dir. Fatih Akin - Germany/Turkey/Italy - Strand Releasing (2007)

The trouble with writing about groups of films you love dearly is the fear of redundancy. How many superlatives can I really throw out there? And what's worse, I often find myself resorting to using absolutes (or suggested absolutes) to the point that they begin to mean nothing (the best example of that was a billboard I saw for Milk where some critic called it "the best live-action, English-language mainstream film of 2008," or something to that extent). Yet I like to think I'm being as sincere as I can be when resorting to them. So when I say that The Edge of Heaven is unlike any film I can think of in its graceful adoption of the language, skill and intricacy of a cherished novel, I'm trying not to exaggerate. Fatih Akin understands what it takes to make his characters blossom with as little information as possible. All six characters, three sets of parents and their children, radiate onscreen, as fully developed as if he had used written chapters to flesh them out. More than just penetrating the rocky relationship between Turks and Germans, The Edge of Heaven explores the nature of identity through heritage and family. And more than just intersecting the six's lives for the sake of cheap revelation, Akin places a complex blanket of universality to the characters' struggles, having the separate familial bonds stand as facets of the same truth. Akin is too brilliant of a writer for the incidents to become easily compartmentalized and allows The Edge of Heaven to pulsate with utter refinement. It should be no surprise that the two films of 2008 that best addressed the turbulence of blood relations (Rachel Getting Married being the other) would have the most memorable closing credit sequence, accompanied by dazzling single-take images that resonated long after you left the theatre.

12. Inside [À l'intérieur] - dir. Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury - France - Dimension (2007)

Jarring, uncompromising, relentless, nauseating. Those are only four of the adjectives that came to mind while watching what might be the finest horror film of the decade. Inside may be too gruesome for most people to stomach, no matter how desensitized you might be. Certainly a home invasion thriller in the vain of a video nasty is nothing new, but co-directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury do such a spectacular job in matching nail-biting suspense with their buckets of gore that I almost felt as if I was witnessing something completely new. As the predator, simply credited as 'La Femme,' Béatrice Dalle becomes the physical embodiment of absolute terror, as frightening as I'd imagine it was to see Leatherface for the first time. Though the film suffers the mistake of applying motive to Dalle's bloodthirst, the layers of menace run so deep in Inside that even the silliest explanation (hello, Haute tension) couldn't alleviate its staggering devastation. [Additional Reading: Plein de vide & Says you, Goldie Hawn?]

13. Milk - dir. Gus Van Sant - USA - Focus Features

Politically speaking, 2008 was a year of desperation in the United States. The two most outwardly political films of the holiday season, Milk and Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, relied completely on the outcome of the election to determine how they would be perceived among the public. As many others have alluded to such, Frost/Nixon became outdated before it even made its first press screening. With Barack Obama's win, the harping on our country's gloomy past in Frost/Nixon felt out of place. Although it's been suggested that had Milk been released a month earlier we might not have had to bare the shame of approving Proposition 8 in California, Milk still holds a mirror up to the spirit of the people, embracing hope and progress even when we know all-too-well the fate of Harvey Milk. And what a relief it was to see that, even when working in the tired realm of the biopic, Van Sant still retained his own signature across Milk.

14. Flight of the Red Balloon [Le voyage du ballon rouge] - dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien - France - IFC Films (2007)

There are so many singular aspects of Flight of the Red Balloon to marvel at that it's almost stupefying that the film encompasses them with such ease. Firstly, there's Lee Pin Bing's cinematography, with is so ravishing in its golden hues that my eyes almost couldn't handle it. Secondly, there's Juliette Binoche, an actress so gifted that it takes a minute to recognize her in every film she's in. As I said in my round-up of the best performances of 2008, Binoche makes acting look effortless, and as I said earlier this year, there's so much feeling and complexity in the single moment where she tries to wipe her tears away while asking her son how his day was, it's no wonder every major filmmaker wants to work with her. And finally (though you could easily highlight other aspects), there's the way in which Hou Hsiao-hsien uncovers his film, inspired by The Red Balloon, to reveal a sadness through the imagination of a young boy. It's sensational at every turn. [Additional Reading: Says you, Goldie Hawn?]

15. The Duchess of Langeais [Ne touchez pas la hache] - dir. Jacques Rivette - France/Italy - IFC Films (2007)

In my published review of the latest from Jacques Rivette, I suggested that the general public's disdain for film critics could be entirely summed up in The Duchess of Langeais. In addition to that, the film also shows the oceans-apart gap between the film lover and the movie-goer. The Duchess of Langeais, without trying to do so, is the antithesis of the Hollywood period romance. The costumers aren't there to make you swoon, the actors don't adopt painful British accents, the sexual manipulation isn't remotely cheeky and Rivette couldn't care less if you related to or sympathized with either of his leads. I regret not including Guillaume Depardieu, who tragically died a few months ago, on my list of the best performances of the year.

16. A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël] - dir. Arnaud Desplechin - France - IFC Films

I'm surprised at myself as I write this that I'm ranking A Christmas Tale so low on the list. When I saw it two months ago, the thought, "this is top 5 material," ran through my head, but as I compiled the list, my enthusiasm waned a bit. A Christmas Tale is still the spectacular treat I wanted it to be; perhaps its splendor left nothing more to be desired. [Additional Reading: You Move Me / Like Music]

17. Love Songs [Les chansons d'amour] - dir. Christophe Honoré - France - IFC Films (2007)

Officially, Love Songs is the first Christophe Honoré film I've ever liked. In the previous Ma mère and Dans Paris, Honoré proved to be a rather cheap imitator of much better filmmakers, and though he plays with Jacques Demy's musical conventions in Love Songs, it's the first time I've ever really believed him and frequent star Louis Garrel. For both the director and the actor, their undeserved pretension became unmasked, and an authentic brand of glorious melancholy surfaced. [Additional Reading: Ou, de la tristesse]

18. In Bruges - dir. Martin McDonagh - UK/USA - Focus Features

Likely, In Bruges, without question the funniest film of the year, deserves a higher placement. Like Andrea Arnold who followed up her Oscar-winning short Wasp with a stunning feature-length debut (Red Road), Martin McDonagh extends the black-as-night, violent comedy of the short Six Shooter into a scintillatingly bleak comedy about two hitmen (the equally fantastic Brendan Gleeson, who also starred in Six Shooter, and Colin Farrell) teamed up for a job in Belgium. Ruthless in every respect, In Bruges was one of the few deserving surprises when this year's Golden Globe nominations were announced and makes its American counterpart Tropic Thunder cower in comparison.

19. Wendy & Lucy - dir. Kelly Reichardt - USA - Oscilloscope Pictures

Like the two Assayas films on the list, Wendy & Lucy teases you with its stripped-down demeanor. Before the word "quaint" can even cross your mind (and, really, none of the three are even close to that), Wendy & Lucy creeps up on you. Reichardt, in her third feature, doesn't achieve the blissfulness of her previous Old Joy, but Wendy & Lucy is a more-than-worthy follow-up, aided by a delicate performance from Michelle Williams.

20. The Last Mistress [Une vieille maîtresse] - dir. Catherine Breillat - France/Italy - IFC Films (2007)

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that my obsession with Asia Argento is nothing to take lightly. With The Last Mistress and Boarding Gate, she's given the two best lines of dialogue of any other film this year. For Boarding Gate, Argento asking Michael Madsen longingly, "you kept the handcuffs?" works better when you hear it. For The Last Mistress, on the other hand, Argento telling Amira Casar, "I despise everything feminine... except in young boys," never fails to make me chuckle, even when repeated. Though the film has been called a lesser effort for Breillat, it's nonetheless striking in both familiar and new terms for the director. [Additional Reading: Vellini Satyricon]

Honorable Mentions:

Mother of Tears: The Third Mother [La terza madre] - dir. Dario Argento - Italy/USA - Myriad Pictures/Dimension

Dario Argento, is that you? Like Diary of the Dead, I'm still convinced that Argento hired someone else to make the long-awaited conclusion to his Three Mothers Trilogy. Unlike Diary of the Dead, Mother of Tears was watchable, even if it's in unexpected ways. Let's get this straight: Mother of Tears is bad... made-for-Canadian-television bad. But why do I love it so much? How can the second-most ineptly made film of 2008 (the other involves trees) also be the most fun? I can't come up with any acceptable hypothesis, but bring your jug-o'-wine and savor the sour delights of Mother of Tears!

The Free Will [Die Freie Wille] - dir. Matthias Glasner - Germany - Benten Films

The always admirable Benten Films released their best acquisition yet straight to DVD, a harrowing, nearly-three-hour-long account of a convicted rapist's (Jürgen Vogel, who co-wrote the screenplay) return to society after jail time. Matthias Glasner never takes The Free Will down the easy road. Vogel's phenomenal performance probably ranks somewhere close to Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher. A friend of mine suggested that having seen two of the year's most lauded films, Hunger and Gomorrah, on the small screen hindered his appreciation for them. If only I'd been given the chance, The Free Will would have likely been shattering on the big screen.

18 More Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Blind Mountain - dir. Yi Lang - China - Kino (2007)
Boy A - dir. John Crowley - UK - The Weinstein Company (2007)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father - dir. Kurt Kuene - USA - Oscilloscope Pictures
Frownland - dir. Ronald Bronstein - USA - Self-Distributed (2007)
Gomorrah [Gomorra] - dir. Matteo Garrone - Italy - IFC Films
Happy-Go-Lucky - dir. Mike Leigh - UK - Miramax

Hunger - dir. Steve McQueen - UK/Ireland - IFC Films
Julia - dir. Erick Zonca - France/USA/Mexico/Belgium - Magnolia
Let the Right One In [Låt den rätte komma in] - dir. Tomas Alfredson - Sweden - Magnet Releasing
Married Life - dir. Ira Sachs - USA/Canada - Sony Pictures Classics (2007)
Noise - dir. Matthew Saville - Australia - Film Movement (2007)
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired - dir. Maria Zenovich - USA/UK - ThinkFilm/HBO

Still Life - dir. Jia Zhang-ke - China/Hong Kong - New Yorker (2006)
Tell No One [Ne le dis à personne] - dir. Guillaume Cantet - France - Music Box Films (2006)
Towelhead [Nothing Is Private] - dir. Alan Ball - USA - Warner Independent (2007)
The Witnesses [Les témoins] - dir. André Téchiné - France - Strand Releasing (2007)
XXY - dir. Lucía Puenzo - Argentina/France/Spain - Film Movement (2007)
Yeast - dir. Mary Bronstein - USA - Self-Distributed

Further Readings on the Honorable Mentions:

Jesus Died For Somebody's Sins, But Not Mine... [Julia]
Noir et blanc [Married Life]
Short Cuts: 22 March 2008 [The Witnesses]
Says you, Goldie Hawn? [XXY]

Films I didn't get the chance to see before compiling this list that had a theatrical run in the US (in no particular order): Serge Bozon's La France, José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia [En la ciudad de Sylvia], Hong Sang-soo's Woman on the Beach, Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time Redux, Lance Hammer's Ballast, Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, Margaret Brown's The Order of Myths, Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side, Nicolas Klotz's Heartbeat Detector [La question humaine], Philippe Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare, Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man, Amos Gitai's One Day You'll Understand [Plus tard tu comprendras], Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected, Laura Dunn's The Unforeseen, Rod Lurie's Noithing But the Truth, Claude Lelouch's Roman de gare

The Candidates for the Most Disappointing (or Overpraised, even if I marginally liked them) Films of 2008 (I may be forgetting some): Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, Andrew Stanton's WALL·E, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and Changeling, James Marsh's Man on Wire, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche New York, Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, Isabel Coixet's Elegy, Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights, Carter Smith's The Ruins

Useless Statistics (of the 20):

2 of the films have yet to make their official theatrical run in the US, 8 were released by IFC, 2 star Juliette Binoche, 2 star Asia Argento, 2 star Chiara Mastroianni, 11 were at least co-produced in France, 2 were directed by Olivier Assayas, 2 were directed by Gus Van Sant, 12 premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (some in different years), 2 won the Palme d'or (in different years), 8 have their primary dialogue in English, 5 were made by Americans (from the United States), 5 have bed-couplings between same-sex individuals (4 others imply that at least one of their characters is at least a part-time lesbian), 11 haven't been rated by the MPAA, 15 take place (at least partially) in Europe, 4 star Oscar winners, 10 made their internatial debuts before January 1st 2008, 2 were selected as their country's submission to the foreign language Oscar, 3 were directed by women, 5 are period flicks (1 was set only a few years before it was made), 5 are over two hours long, 18 were written (or at least co-written) by their director, 4 are adapted from novels, 3 are (loosely) based on true stories, 3 have full frontal nudity (!), 1 showed a pregnant woman having her baby cut out, 9 are already available for purchase on DVD in the US (those Blockbuster exclusive IFC titles make that wording necessary), 0 were documentaries, 8 coincide with Roger Ebert's list of the 38 or so best films of 2008, 1 is in the "red" category on Metacritic, 1 is in the "yellow," 3 do not have tabulated scores on there, 1 was seen by both me and my mother, 0 featured Batman

27 December 2008

2008 List #5: The Worst Films of 2008

Missed Opportunities seems to be the ongoing trend of my list of the year's worst films. Almost all of the films below displayed a healthy dose of ambition, all of which quickly doused it with silliness, easy answers and a general inability to reach those heights. Many of the filmmakers ended up embarrassing themselves at even postulating greater ambition than they possessed, and yeah, some of the films were already dead on arrival. I suppose, to an extent, someone could regard these picks as mere disappointments and not the worst 2008 had to offer. After all, I didn't see The Love Guru, Bangkok Dangerous, The Spirit, 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill, Saw V, Fireproof (shiver), Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Disaster Movie, The Eye, Beer for My Horses (shiver, again), whatever movie Dane Cook came out with, Jumper or The Women. However, there are too many good films out there to endure those travesties. I'm happier with listing films that I either expected to be good or films I knew would suck but couldn't resist my own curiosity. The list of "Disappointments" is next on the agenda. (Dis)honorable mentions to the Worst of 2008: Hamlet 2, The Other Boleyn Girl, Diary of the Dead, Eight Miles High, Frontière(s), The Grand, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, Kiss the Bride, Teeth, Then She Found Me and Shutter.

1. The Happening - dir. M. Night Shyamalan - USA/India - 20th Century Fox

The threat of making a film as atrocious as The Happening has long hovered over M. Night Shyamalan's post-Sixth Sense films; it's been a much stronger prophecy than the fear of nature retaliating against our global ignorance. The Happening is Shyamalan's perfect marriage of high concept and low execution with Mark Wahlberg, at his career worst, as our reluctant "hero," successfully outrunning "the wind" with dopey wife Zooey Deschanel (who must have read the script assuming she was playing a 12-year-old autistic girl). For once, Shyamalan dropped the religious parable that plagued his previous endeavors, but somehow out-shitty-ed Lady in the Water. Bless your heart if you got a couple of barrel laughs out of this debacle; I cannot consider myself one of the lucky folk here.

2. Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! - dir. Todd Stephens - USA - TLA Releasing

So this is why Proposition 8 passed? Show this to the narrow-minded, and their fears would be confirmed. Under the sheepish guise of "satire," Stephens again reduces the gays to shallow, narcissistic, racist, misogynistic nymphomaniacs. Whereas the original was criminally low-brow and anti-queer, the sequel incorporates a newfound venom, in the form of misanthropic bitchiness, that is sprayed even further than the buckets of lube and fake cum. Take it as a gay-on-gay hate crime or the most telling, unconscious indictment of gay culture, but either way, you come up the loser. [Additional Reading: Forgive Them, Father, For They Are Gay]

3. What We Do Is Secret - dir. Rodger Grossman - USA - PeaceArch

What We Do Is Secret is about as punk rock as Avril Lavigne and, combined with Shane West's limp performance, makes its subject Darby Crash look just about as worthless. It'd be easier to swallow the suggestion that Crash's legacy was unfairly overlooked when Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon the day after Crash's suicide if the film itself had provided a reason why he would have even deserved one. Seeing an assembly-line biopic like this makes Gus Van Sant's work on Milk all the more refreshing. Then again, Harvey Milk makes for a better-suited subject that the lead singer of The Germs. [Additional Reading: The Biopic and the Assembly Line]

4. I've Loved You So Long [Il y a longtemps que je t'aime] - dir. Philippe Claudel - France/Germany - Sony Pictures Classics

With so many of the year's finest films coming from France, the disappointment of I've Loved You So Long stings even harder. It's really just the French equivalent of the abysmal Seven Pounds, no matter how good Kristin Scott Thomas may be. Instead of resting the film on her fine shoulders, which would have been a more effective decision, Claudel resorts to cheap emotional manipulation and both literary and cinematic fumbles. Keeping the secret behind Scott Thomas' killing of her young son until the end, I've Loved You So Long falls face-first into the pits of weepy melodrama, which may have been forgivable if Claudel had paid out on the promises of something richer than this. Other than Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein who plays her sister, every aspect of the film takes the easy road on each of its potential challenges, teasing and baiting its audience to the point of infuriation.

5. Funny Games - dir. Michael Haneke - France/Austria/Germany/UK/Italy/USA - Warner Independent

I didn't really need to see Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own Funny Games to form an opinion about it. Its existence could have only been justified by proper marketing and distribution, and as that wasn't the case, Funny Games (U.S.) just became an unfortunate act of masturbation and creative stalemate. Making no changes to the original outside of the language (not even to update its Beavis & Butthead references to 2008 or to compensate for the fact Brady Corbet is a lot thinner than the actor who played the "fatty" in the original), the only person certain of Haneke's status of a great filmmaker was himself, and as the saying goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. [Additional Reading: Um, ha ha]

6. Revolutionary Road - dir. Sam Mendes - USA/UK - Paramount Vantage/Warner Bros.

Shying away from the topic of abortion has been one of contemporary cinema's weakest points, but it can become potentially dangerous when the subject is only raised in films set in the past (even the abortion film of the past few years 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in 1987 at the end of the communist rule in Romania). This persists the scary thought that abortion, like electroshock therapy, is a thing of the past. This is not Revolutionary Road's fault of course, as it's rooted in dated source material. However, there's plenty more to condemn the Oscar-baiter for, especially in regards to its depiction of the past. In most cases I can think of, directors lose the essence of their chosen period in time through the (often subconscious) application of the spirit and beliefs of the time they're filming in. Revolutionary Road shares two of the same obvious views of early-to-mid-twentieth century mentality as Clint Eastwood's Changeling. Both films suggest that the time periods on display should be remembered for their poorly developed and outdated views of mental issues (electroshock therapy!) and women, emitting a snobbish air of knowing better now. Eastwood's obsession with Ms. Jolie and her lips allows her to escape the notion that women can't support a family, but Kate Winslet, under the direction of her own husband, isn't given such relief. Like most of her previous roles from Iris Murdoch to the Titanic lady, Winslet plays a woman ahead of her time. Predictably, she becomes victim to her surroundings, lost in mundane suburban life, and when a pregnancy stands in the way of realizing her dreams of Paris with husband Leonardo DiCaprio (and children, I guess, but they're pretty insignificant throughout the film), Mendes loses sight of who Winslet truly is. Beginning the film as an ambitious dreamer, she soon gets lost under Mendes' direction, who doesn't seem convinced that she's actually sane. Enter Michael Shannon. Like J.K. Simmons in Burn After Reading, Shannon feels like a last-minute addition to the otherwise lousy film, voicing the disinterest of the audience. Of course, neither Shannon nor Simmons are merely planted; the Coens are too smart for that and Revolutionary Road is based on a novel. However, Shannon, as Kathy Bates' "mentally unstable" son, is the only thing that brings the soggy Revolutionary Road to life, and when he's offscreen, the film returns to being recycled garbage and continues to display the terrible idea that Winslet is a crazywoman.

7. Filth and Wisdom - dir. Madonna - UK - IFC Films

It's as bad as you'd imagine a film directed by Madonna could be. Despite still getting away with success despite no discernible talent, Madonna has spent her entire career pushing buttons, and even if doing so with Filth and Wisdom were the film equivalent of her American Life album, that would have been more memorable than this. Filth and Wisdom isn't just safe, it's downright dull. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the film runs like a music video, set to lead actor Eugene Hutz's insufferable band Gogol Bordello (though Madonna throws a song or two of hers, in addition to one from Britney Spears, in the mix), but you have to assume that Madge didn't take any notes from the directors who crafted her most striking videos (from Chris Cunningham to Mark Romanek). I know this has probably been said by anyone who had the misfortune of watching this, but neither filthy nor wise, Filth and Wisdom could have used shot of both.

8. Cloverfield - dir. Matt Reeves - USA - Paramount

If there's anything to take from Cloverfield (and I don't think there's much), it's that most of us can rest assured that when the apocalypse hits, the douche bags of the world will be the first to perish. Seeing a set of idiots clobbered by a monster and its spider-looking offspring couldn't have been a more joyless affair thanks to Cloverfield's cornucopia of missed opportunities. Resisting saying anything about the digital age that shapes the film itself, Cloverfield asks more of its audience than it does of itself. Those who think the root of the film's problems (or successes) stems from its Breaking the Waves camera technique have neglected to address the film's deepest fault: asking us to give a shit about what's going on.

9. Mamma Mia! - dir. Phyllida Lloyd - USA/UK/Germany - Universal Pictures

I've had a long history with ABBA, one I'm trying not to destroy with my feelings toward Mamma Mia!. As a joke, my cousin Jen asked for ABBA Gold for her birthday one year, gravely underestimating the infectious pop brilliance of the Swedish quartet and passing her love onto me; to this day, she's still embarrassed that she got on her high school history teacher's good side in knowing the sight of Napoleon's final battle thanks to ABBA. Around my first year of being an undergraduate, ABBA came back into my life. At the time, I was predictably self-serious and brushed my admiration off as irony. When false irony transformed itself to genuine admiration, I knew I could never go back. In theory, Mamma Mia! the musical should have been perfection, but even the friends of mine who felt the same about ABBA as I did remarked that the stage production was pretty lousy. So what better way to improve upon the musical's imperfections than to make it into a big Hollywood production (starring Meryl Streep no less)? I've never been so wrong. Hiring a cast who, other than Christine Baranski, should never be heard singing outside of a Tuesday night karaoke pub was the film's first mistake, but it's most crippling one comes from Phyllida Lloyd. A trained theatre director, Lloyd displays no visual flair, making the film's beautiful Greek landscape look as flat as Pierce Brosnan's voice sounds. They must have run out of money at some point during pre-production, because it looks as though they hired some sap who recorded himself doing a rendition of "Single Ladies" on YouTube as their choreographer. There are moments where I tried not to scream, "put a prop in that bitch's hand!" particularly when Streep looked as unremarkable as she sounded singing "The Winner Takes It All" to Brosnan, her hands awkwardly grasping for something that obviously wasn't there. Using songs like fucking in a porno, Mamma Mia! really is more From Justin to Kelly than it would like to think. It uses every opportunity, no matter how ridiculous, to throw as many ABBA songs into the production as possible. An orgy of ABBA music would have been fine in my book, but after seeing Julie Walters crawl on a roof chasing Stellan Skarsgård while singing "Take a Chance on Me," the shame of liking pop music once again shivered down my spine.

10. The Unknown Woman [La sconosciuta] - dir. Giuseppe Tornatore - Italy/France - Outsider Pictures

A sleazy, Eurotrash Hitchcockian thriller like The Unknown Woman would have been a helluva movie if Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven or Dario Argento would have made it thirty years ago. As it stands, at the helm of cheap sentimentalist Giuseppe Tornatore, it's an oversaturated melodrama that does nothing more than continue the director's romanticized rape fantasy he begun with Malèna. If you believe Tornatore actually sympathizes with his tragic beauties Xenia Rappoport or Monica Bellucci, ask yourself why he seems more at ease when they're being violated than when they're supposed to be redeemed. If anything is going to make you reconsider liking that dreadful Cinema Paradiso, I can think of nothing better than The Unknown Woman.

11. Seven Pounds - dir. Gabriele Muccino - USA - Sony Pictures

Honestly, Seven Pounds only missed the Bottom 10 because audiences (or at least critics) have seen through its ridiculousness more than they have with I've Loved You So Long. Both films do their best at making Kristin Scott Thomas and Will Smith look like assholes, only to expose their true (good) nature in a last-minute revelation. I've Loved You So Long lets Scott Thomas off the hook, but Seven Pounds does worse; it depicts Smith as a fucking saint. I hesitate in calling the climax of Seven Pounds a "twist," as every detail of it is so dreadfully obvious you almost doubt the film could be so stupid. This trick is responsible for me enduring my first Will Smith film since Men in Black in its entirety, and I'm the worse for it. I'm sorry, Rosario Dawson.

12. Nights and Weekends - dir. Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig - USA - IFC Films

Joe Swanberg's films are to post-college twentysomethings what Another Gay Sequel is to gay men. The films' annoyances begin to exist outside of themselves in ways neither filmmaker intended, crafting a critical, wholly negative depiction of the set of people it (sort of) sympathizes with. His obsession with sex and inclination to film himself and frequent "actress" (and co-director here) Gerwig in the nude are the least of Swanberg's problems. Instead, he reduces the inevitable soul-searching of the post-college twentysomething to the irritating whining of bratty children. With Nights and Weekends, redundancy becomes Swanberg's only gift as he gets even further away from saying anything of value about his generation. [Additional Reading: You Move Me / Like Music]

13. Gutterballs - dir. Ryan Nicholson - Canada - TLA Releasing

Giving a camera to a guy who obviously found Irréversible funny was probably a bad move. In a "throw-back" to cheesy, sleazy slasher films of the past, writer/director Nicholson gathers together a group of worthless teenagers for a competitive, after-hours bowling match which ends in grotesque bloodshed. To his credit, Nicholson assembled a talented bunch of make-up artists and special effect artists, but impressive, low-budget gore don't impress me much and doesn't excuse the fact that Nicholson has no idea what he's doing. When it's clear that the bowling match is playing second fiddle to the sex and death, Nicholson struggles for ways to make anything plausible even for someone willing to allow an air of disbelief. The killer gets his own listing on the players' scoreboards, with skulls to mark his "strikes," which confuses and infuriates both teams, who (apparently) aren't bowling next to one another. However, considering the bowling alley is closed and bowling isn't exactly a quiet sport, the characters refuse to believe that it's simply a glitch in the system. Nicholson is particularly ill at ease in getting the victims away from the game itself (even though there's very little bowling going on anyway), unable to elicit a certain tongue-in-cheek-ness over inability. It's too easy to criticize the film for its moral bankruptcy (there's a fifteen-minute rape scene that begins with a nod to The Accused and ends with a bowling pin shoved in a girl's vagina), but when nastiness takes precedent over skill, you're going to find something as unclever and lazy as Gutterballs.

14. The Wackness - dir. Jonathan Levine - USA - Sony Pictures Classics

There isn't a whole lot to say about The Wackness, a familiar and tired addition to the coming-of-age genre. It's overly precious and painfully insincere. For every breakout-of-Sundance hit like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, you have four Wacknesses or Hamlet 2s. Diablo Cody, where are you? [Additional Reading: Kill the Teenagers for Their Insecurities]

15. City of Men [Cidade dos Homens] - dir. Paolo Morelli - Brazil - Miramax

You're going to have to ask someone else what City of Men has to do with Fernando Meirelles' dazzling City of God. It's my understanding that Men begins where the television show, of the same name and spun-off from God, left off, but I'm still unsure whether any of the characters in Men were even a part of God. Narrow in perspective and dull in its visual landscape, City of Men is, at heart, a pedestrian crime flick which only saw the light of day because of its infinitely more impressive predecessor.

16. Donkey Punch - dir. Oliver Blackburn - UK - Magnet Releasing

Though I don't care for Cabin Fever or any of the Hostel films, Eli Roth certainly knew what he was doing in lining despicable characters up to the firing squad for the sake of the audience's enjoyment. Donkey Punch follows Cloverfield and Gutterballs in this year's poor tradition, which only confirms Roth as a better filmmaker than I may have given him credit for. A duo of slovenly British lasses, with their dullard good girl best friend, meet a quartet of tools on holiday, only for one of them to see her demise in the form of the title's sexual tactic. Think of it as I Know What You Morons Did Last Summer on the Yacht. If the film weren't despicable on its own, the fact that the filmmakers bought the rights to a good soundtrack, which includes The Knife and Peter Bjorn and John, makes Donkey Punch even worse.

17. Garden Party - dir. Jason Freeland - USA - Roadside Attractions

Poor Vinessa Shaw will never catch a break. She's always positioned herself at the brink of success and has failed every single time. Garden Party is just another lousy career move for the actress. The film falls under the sadly common umbrella of prudish films about the sex industry; as is typical of this type of film, the only flesh you'll encounter is from an extra. In examining the cycles of porn in contemporary Los Angeles, Freeland comes up short in finding anything useful or fresh to say about the industry.

18. Drillbit Taylor - dir. Steven Brill - USA - Paramount

Judd Apatow's hit-maker status was the only reason Drillbit Taylor, which was co-written by Seth Rogen, surfaced. Basically, it's just Superbad for the younger set with a laughless Owen Wilson playing bodyguard to two doofus high school freshmen. Try not to root for the bullies.

19. Humboldt County - dir. Darren Grodsky, Danny Jacobs - USA - Magnolia

Assembling an impressive cast (which includes Frances Conroy, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif, Peter Bogdanovich and Chris Messina) is half the battle; getting them to overcome the tired, Screenwriting 101 script is another. With a shaky central performance from Jeremy Strong, Grodsky and Jacobs keep their audience at least two steps ahead of Strong's expected self-discovery after being abandoned by a one-night-stand (Balk) and left with her bohemian family.

20. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - dir. Steven Spielberg - USA - Paramount

The episode of South Park where Spielberg and George Lucas rape Indiana Jones like Jodie Foster in The Accused (hey, two references in one post!) and Ned Beatty in Deliverance says more than I possibly could.

Deadline Set

I've been postponing my Best of the Year film lists in order to watch as many films as I possibly could to get ready. I've set Sunday night as my official deadline for viewing, so the lists will more than likely be posted before the new year. I've also attempted to quit worrying about qualifications and such and decided that if it can be argued that the film is a 2008 release, whether that mean it got its US release or international premiere within the year, it qualified. This makes things a lot more difficult as I can now include 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Headless Woman, The Class and Silent Light (officially a 2007 release, that played a week in NYC and won't be officially out until 2009). Wishing for consistency among others' lists is too much to ask for, and I realize many of you haven't had the chance to see a handful of the films that will make the list(s). Wish me luck!

25 December 2008

2008 List #4: 25 (or so) Great Performances

Acting will always be something that fascinates me from afar, and nothing I'd prefer to talk about at any length. There's something scary about the whole process of becoming someone else, something that's beautifully mirrored in Juliette Binoche's performance in Abel Ferrara's Mary. And then there's the whole Heath Ledger thing. I didn't include him on this list, partially because he's making everyone else's lists, and partially because that shit is scary. The following list of 25 (or really more, as I've included some multiple performances for the year) is in no special order and has minimal annotation (because writing about acting for any length of time is sure to induce a pretty bad headache).

Sally Hawkins - Happy-Go-Lucky

As successful a writer/director Mike Leigh often is, Happy-Go-Lucky hinged on her entire performance. No matter how worthwhile his screenplay was, Hawkins' believability made the film.

Rebecca Hall - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Although the film didn't completely rest on her shoulders, Hall's performance worked in the same way Hawkins did, as she accepted the challenge of making "natural" what seemed so "fake." Her Vicky thrived upon a façade of happiness (I realize, for Hawkins, it wasn't a mask), and when everything fell out of place, it just made Hall that much more radiant.

Michael Shannon - Shotgun Stories; Revolutionary Road

Like J.K. Simmons in Burn After Reading, Shannon was the only thing to really fuck-start the whole fiasco that was Revolutionary Road (more on that later), and in Shotgun Stories, he made his untrained co-stars look all the more inexperienced.

Juliette Binoche - Flight of the Red Balloon [Le voyage du ballon rouge]

Binoche makes acting look effortless, and Flight of the Red Balloon is probably one of her most complex, nuanced endeavors in a career full of brilliance.

Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes - In Bruges

Rethink all the bad stigma you attach to Farrell (honestly, he wasn't the worst part of Alexander). All three actors are as good (or better) as they've ever been here.

Asia Argento - Boarding Gate

Yeah, she made a striking turn in The Last Mistress, but it was in Boarding Gate that Argento was given the best platform for astounding. More on this when I publish my best of the year.

Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon

It ended up not mattering much that Langella didn't resemble Tricky Dick physically or vocally, which is tremendous for playing someone ingrained so deeply in the public's eye.

Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin - Milk

If I had more space or time, each of these actors would deserve their own inclusion. Harvey Milk could end up being the role best associated with the often over-the-top Penn. The chemistry between Penn and Franco was intense (even if the film could have gone a little bit deeper), and Brolin, as I'm sure you've already heard or witnessed, gives remarkable shape to what could have been a one-dimensional, unsympathetic individual.

Inés Efron - XXY

In XXY, Efron is perfect, in both her demeanor and chilling despair. It’s the sort of performance you see, without knowing much about the actress, and assume, “Well, the director must have found her on the street and knew she was exactly what was needed for the role.” However, XXY is her fourth film, and not only is her role sizable in its challenges, Efron is both delicate and rough and handles the conflicting femininity and masculinity like an actress twice her senior. Fabulous stuff. (Taken from a post I wrote earlier this year)

Tilda Swinton - Julia; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

In both leading and supporting roles, Swinton has the capacity to captivate no matter how long she's onscreen.

Richard Jenkins - The Visitor; Step Brothers

As excellent as he was in The Visitor, look for his "emotional" speech near the end of Step Brothers. Thanks to both films, Jenkins should no longer remain an untapped resource.

Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos - A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël]

As they did in Desplechin's Kings and Queen, Amalric and Devos again play lovers, this time in the present tense, and it's quite a compliment to stand out in a cast this impressive.

Béatrice Dalle - Inside

Perhaps inspired by the flesh-eating nymphomaniac she played in Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day, Inside flipped the coin on her usual persona of being sexy (but a little bit scary) in making her scary (but a little bit sexy) as the black-donning, scissors-holding home invader in Inside. It's probably one of the most frightening performances in a horror film that I've ever seen.

Anamaria Marinca - 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

As the roommate of the pregnant girl, Marinca was mesmerizing, devestating and even a little bit funny.

Emily Mortimer - Transsiberian

In looks, Mortimer might not have what it takes to pull off the former bad girl, but in Transsiberian, she's absolutely believable and utterly captivating.

Jason Patric - Expired

Hysterically rude, Patric was like the broken down version of his character in Your Friends & Neighbors.

Julianne Moore - Savage Grace

Taking on roles as difficult as that of Barbara Baekeland is what lifts Moore into the masterclass. Though Savage Grace is quite flawed, there's nothing at all wrong with her (you could say the same about Blindness, though she's more effective here), and, as I said before, I don’t think any actress today can utter the word “cunt” with as much ferocity as Moore, and after you see the film, try to think of another actress who would have even tried to pull of that scene.

Jürgen Vogel - The Free Will

Serving as co-writer as well, Vogel is shattering the film's serial rapist in one of the year's most troubling performances.

Michael Fassbender - Hunger

It would be too easy to applaud Fassbender for pulling a Christian Bale and losing an ungodly amount of weight for the second half of Hunger, so it certainly helps that he would have been commanding at any weight. I'll even forgive him for being in 300.

Rosemarie DeWitt - Rachel Getting Married

In the less showy performance, DeWitt is the rock of Rachel Getting Married. Again, more on this when my best films list rolls out.

Penélope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Cruz lights my F-I-R-E, as you probably know by now, but who knew she could be as savagely funny as she was in the role of Maria Elena? Cruz and Hall were so night-and-day that I had to include them separately.

Peter Mullan - Boy A

Though Andrew Garfield was also quite good in the title role, Mullan was Boy A's shining light as the social worker who assists Garfield's rehabilition in society.

Michelle Williams - Wendy and Lucy

You can see Wendy's entire world buckle under inside Williams' face. She's a revelation here, and one of the most promising actresses of her generation (surprising from a girl who rose to fame on Dawson's Creek and lasted the show's entire run).

Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

No matter how you feel about The Wrestler (yes, more on that later), it's hard to resist Rourke's career-capping turn as a faded pro "wrestler." Whether this leads to a string of roles or not is unclear, but he definitely deserves all the accolades that have been thrown upon him thusfar.

Sigourney Weaver - Baby Mama

Too often (even in my case) does appreciation for dramatic work overshadow the great comedic performances of any year, which are (so I hear) a lot more difficult a task to pull off. Weaver, as the owner of the surrogate adoption agency, isn't just hilarious on her own, but she does what every lead actor wishes the supporting players would do and makes them even funnier. Tina Fey's reaction to finding her in the hospital with a set of twins is the highlight of the whole film.