Top Ten Films of 2008

Catching up from 2007

For my top ten films of 2008 list I’ve decided to only include films given a theatrical release in Australia in 2008. So I would like to first mention the following films that I finally saw in 2008, which I would have included on my 2007 list had I seen them in time:

No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2007)
4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
The Jammed (Dee McLachlan, 2007)
Noise (Matthew Saville, 2007)

While there is not much for me to say about No Country for Old Men and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days that hasn’t been said already, it was tremendous coming back to Australia mid way through 2008 and discovering that films of the calibre of The Jammed and Noise were being made and getting the acclaim that they deserve.

Top Ten films released theatrically in Australia in 2008*:

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis)
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) from There Will Be Blood

Every new Paul Thomas Anderson film is somehow better than last and There Will Be Blood is his greatest triumph yet. While Anderson’s previous films have a distinctive American independent film feel to them, There Will Be Blood takes on the grand narrative of a classical Hollywood epic but is closer in tone to the maverick spirit of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). In the final scene, the low angel shot of Daniel Day Lewis charging down the bowling lane is a spine tingling moment of perfect cinema. This is probably the only film released in 2008 that will eventually be regarded as a classic.

2. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Arguably the most successful example of a video artists crossing over in filmmaking, Turner Prizer winner Steve McQueen has made one of the most cinematic films of the year while somehow ignoring so many cinematic conventions. Hunger is a rare film where every single shot feels like it has been painstakingly crafted and considered so that every image will have the maximum impact upon the audience. 

3. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
The extremely moving anti-war film Waltz with Bashir is a new form of subjective documentary storytelling where recorded interviews, memories, dreams and fantasies are all animated and given equal importance within the context of the film. Waltz with Bashir is a powerful example of how an openly subjective approach can reveal truths that are far more valuable than objective facts.

4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)
Tim Burton’s best film since Ed Wood (1994) and Johnny Depp’s best performance since Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995). This wonderfully dark and bloody film combined the generic conventions of both gothic horror and the musical without compromise.  

5. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)
A slow burning, confronting film that evokes the disturbing sexuality of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Lee’s depiction of the sexual relationship that is at the core of the film made the audience feel that they had never seen sex portrayed on screen before. A powerful examination of what happens when the personal blurs with the political.

WALL·E (voiced by Ben Burtt)
WALL·E (voiced by Ben Burtt)

6. WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
A triumph of visual storytelling and sound design, WALL·E is the best Pixar film to date and one of the best-animated films of all time. The incredible humanity expressed by the robots achieved a degree of characterisation that is far more sophisticated than many live action films.

7. Men’s Group (Michael Joy, 2008)
An almost completely improvised film about a group of men who sit around and talk about their father issues could have been excruciating. Instead, it was an emotionally raw and resonant film that demonstrated that complex characterisation and first-rate acting sometimes negate the need for a traditional plot. The best Australian film for 2008.

8. Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)
The second best Australian film for 2008 was this celebratory documentary about the Australian sex comedies, action and horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. The enthusiasm in which the filmmakers and fans of Ozploitation talk about the films is infectious and the wonderful selection of clips means that the best bits from these films can be enjoyed without having to endure the actual entire films.

9. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, 2008)
A fitting tribute to a complex and complicated writer who realised earlier in his career that objectivity in journalism was a complete myth and that subjective and personal reporting was the only way to arrive at core truths. Alex Gibney’s comprehensive and entertaining documentary about Thompson is also suitably critical and demystifying when necessary.

10. Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (Scott Hicks, 2007)
This extremely personal approach to documentary filmmaking resulted in an incredibly insightful portrait of composure Philip Glass and a fascinating examination of the creative process.

Honourable mentions

11. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
12. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2007)
13. My Brother Is an Only Child (Daniele Luchetti, 2007)
14. Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, 2006)
15. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
16. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, 2007)
17. Caramel (Nadine Labaki, 2007)
18. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)
19. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)
20. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2007)
21. Roman de gare (Claude Lelouch, 2007)
22. My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar-wai, 2007)
23. It’s a Free World… (Ken Loach, 2007)
24. Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008)
25. I’ve Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel, 2008)

* Despite having an Australian 2008 theatrical release I’ve nevertheless excluded The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007), The Band’s Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007) and Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007) as they appeared on my 2007 list.

Special mentions (films that didn’t get a general release)

Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, 2007)
Greenaway’s most accessible and enjoyable film since his 1989 masterpiece, The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008)
Like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing The Friedmans (2003) this documentary doesn’t take sides and instead exposes the farce that occurs when a court trial becomes a media event.

Encounters at the End of the World
Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
The moments of awe and overwhelming beauty contrast wonderfully with Herzog’s dry and frequently funny observation on life in Antarctica.

[Rec] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)
Along with Cloverfield this was the best of the first person/new media films. [Rec] fully utilises its sense of filmic space to create an inventive and frightening spin on the zombie film formula.

Battle for Haditha (Nick Broomfield, 2007)
The best film so far about the recent Iraq War, reminding audience that while American causalities are a horrible outcome of this war, Iraqi civilians have also suffered massive losses.  

Retrospective highlights

Dead-End Drive-In
Dead-End Drive-In

There were several film events in 2008 that were a lot of fun but one highlight was seeing Brian Trenchard-Smith’s wonderful Dead-End Drive-In (1986) during the Melbourne International Film Festival and Australian Centre for the Moving Image‘s Focus On Ozploitation program. MIFF’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Tribute also contained a great section of films but the highlight for me was John Sayles’s powerful Matewan (1987).

But my most enjoyable cinema experience in 2008 was shunning the AFL grand final by proudly displaying my Anti-Football League pin and going to see Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) on the big screen, courtesy of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Sweeny Todd… really?? I just couldn’t take it seriously! And that scene where Alan Rickman starts singing, “Pretty Women….”, we were pissing ourselves. But I don’t think we were supposed to! And honestly, I like a musical, but I just thought the songs were ordinary. But each to their own, I suppose!

  2. Sweeney Todd does seem to be one of those films that has sharply divided opinion. I suspect it appeals more to those of us who don’t like musicals as a rule (although I am a sucker for West Side Story). I actually have to agree that the music itself was no big deal but I loved the atmosphere and melodrama of it all.

    Perhaps I’ve rated it too high. That’s the problem with these lists, you change your mind about them constantly as you re-watch, re-evaluate and re-consider. I actually wasn’t going to include WALL·E until I saw it again just the other night and finally became aware of just how good a film it is.

  3. Interesting list. There are a few names I’ve never heard of and have put on my ‘To Do’ list.

    There will be Blood just irritated me too much. I lost patience with it half way through and just wanted it to get to the point already.

    In Bruges was one of the gems of the year for me. Enjoyed that immensely.

    I must have missed something with Cloverfield because everything about that movie gave me the shits. A lot of it had to do with how unlikable the characters were and how I actually looked forward to them being killed.

  4. I was wondering how long it would take until somebody did a double take over my inclusion of Cloverfield as I’m aware that I enjoyed it far more than a lot of people. I loved how seeing it became such an event and I really got into all the viral marketing that preceded it. I’m also fascinated by this new trend in first person/new media filmmaking, which of course owes a big debt to The Blair Witch Project. Anyway, along with [Rec] I think Cloverfield broke a lot of new ground about ideas of spectatorship and it was far more enjoyable that the overly didactic Diary of the Dead and Redacted.

    I’m glad we agree on In Bruges. I found it really refreshing plus I have actually been to Bruges so that was fun too.

    You need to give There Will Be Blood another go me thinks. It is bordering on masterpiece status.

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