top movies of 2008
If we are pained by a sympathetic situation that was experienced by someone in history, or alive today; or if we feel vicarious joy for a simple act of triumph (say, winning a spelling bee), the reality of the situation, symbolic or literal, is a key factor in our empathy. We are moved because this is the way life really is. On some level, we can relate to the plights and victories of these characters.
On the other hand, it's nice to tickle your imagination from time to time with an escape. We don't really believe Indiana Jones could easily be real, or that Spider Man might one day exist. Nor do we expect a monster like Godzilla to ever attack a nearby city (after all, Tokyo is far away for most people). The entertainment here lies with a contrast to reality. Everyday lives are kind of boring. Monsters don't attack, nobody wins the lottery, most days you don't fall in true love for the first time, or find an alternate dimension, or save the world. But it can be cool to daydream.
The best movies work with these principles - they choose a side. Sometimes you can mix these two aspects, but you have to be careful about it. If a piece of a film is just-for-fun, there's no harm in bending - or even reversing - reality. But if you're trying to move your audience, trying to comment on a state of the human condition, you have to be more careful. Symbolism and admitted exaggeration can work, because we understand the reality being represented. But to toy with reality to suite the message of the film is to defeat your own purpose. For example, Syriana presents a terribly bleak and pessimistic view of political and industrial intrigue. We are lead to believe that this situation could be real, but it felt like they were stretching a little too far; as a viewer I felt bereft of both entertainment and reality.
This is some background for my top movie picks of 2008. I think in ten years, these movies will still be worth watching, while a lot of other highly anticipated films from this year will be forgotten.
- Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood knows film. He's been involved in about a half century of movie evolution, and I think he's kept the good parts of more traditional film alive here. The film says a lot without being overly symbolic, and the characters are visceral and quotable without feeling cliched. This is a contemporary, somewhat realistic (even if parabolically so) film about redemption and opportunity. It's good because we leave the theatre feeling for the story, not worrying about its plausibility. There are no u-turns or magic revelations. Everyone is flawed or troubled, and nobody wins everything. Yet there are pieces of fun, of power, of thought, of sacrifice, and of compassion.
Only Pixar could seriously attempt this: Let's make a dialogue-free, post-apocalyptic love story between two robots caught in a conspiracy that might crush the threadbare hopes of the space-stranded remnants of humanity. For kids. And somehow it works. Wall•e is visually rewarding, touching, whimsical, nostalgic, and engrossing. It's sci-fi speculation is escapist entertainment first, and social commentary far second. It gets away with allegorical statements on the irresponsibility of humanity because the reality in it is not presented as the truth, but rather as a kind of cautionary fable.
- Iron Man
There are two common superhero movie mistakes: they don't know how seriously to take themselves, and the heroes are often portrayed as everyday people who happen to have a heart of pure gold. This film tackles that second mistake - Tony Stark is neither your everyday guy, nor endowed with such heart. We like him because, unlike our super/spider/batmen, when we become iron man, we don't have to shoulder the great responsibility of great power, and we don't have to cower under a shroud of modesty. We can just do our thing and enjoy the moment. Somehow I find Tony Stark more realistic and more entertaining at the same time. Of course, this film is not about the human condition - to spell out the obvious, this is just for fun. And it succeeds.
- Be Kind Rewind
See The Science of Sleep before you see Be Kind Rewind. Michel Gondry is a child with the ability to turn his daydreams into movies, and to really appreciate the world you've entered, it helps to speak the language. This one got a number of poor reviews because it's outside the realm of normal moviedom for casual viewers. It's unusual Gondryan style is cubism in crayon. And this is the subtle genius of it. When a critic is confused, they have to decide if it's because the movie is above them or below them to avoid looking dumb. With Be Kind Rewind, the confusion is simply a different narrative medium -- the film is just for fun, but seriously so. If you try to use Duchamp's fountain the way you're used to, you'll be missing the point.
Enough defense. Be Kind Rewind is good because it's fun. The characters and the plight - the foundations - are tangible. Beyond this - the devices and exposition - there is not much pretension of reality. The key components are in place - what's real is what moves us, what's art is what makes us laugh.
Like Iron Man, Wanted breaks the chains of the stereotypical hero movie. In this case, it really doesn't take itself too seriously. On top of this, the dramatic tension is very personal - Wesley (our protagonist) desperately wants to avenge the death of his father. Saving the world takes the backseat. It works because it doesn't really bother with the less entertaining aspects of the world - things like the rules of physics applied to bullet trajectories, or oracles more traditional than giant looms.