Thursday, 8 January 2009

My favourite films of 2008

Now that we're firmly into the New Year, with the holidays behind us and the prospects and promises of 2009 looming firmly ahead of us, it seems like a good time to reflect back on the year which has passed. And so, for what it's worth, I thought I'd post up a list of my favourite films of 2008. Despite some people saying things to the contrary, I felt that 2008 was a strong year for cinema, and I say this as someone who missed many of the big films the critics were talking about (Hunger, The Flight of the Red Balloon, Waltz With Bashir, The Silence of Lorna, Ashes of Time Redux, to name but a few of the many I missed. It's a sorry state of affairs, and I'm aware that I now have a ton of catching up to do). Also missing from my list is perhaps the best film to open in UK cinemas this year – Béla Tarr's awe-inspiring The Man from London, which I've left off the list for the simple reason that I first saw it at EIFF in 2007 (and which was also, in part, the subject of my last post).

The two best films which I saw last year were
Steven Soderbergh's Che and Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours. As I have noted my thoughts on Che in depth in a previous post I won't go into them again here; suffice it to say that it's a masterpiece that everyone should see. And so too is Summer Hours. I saw the film as a prelude to a talk with Juliette Binoche at the BFI (it was a joint ticket), and went in not really knowing what to expect. What I was confronted with was an extraordinary film which manages to be genuinely meaningful and reflective about a number of different topics (such as the values of family, legacy, history and art) in a way which is both entertaining and extremely touching. It's a film which is powerful enough to make one feel moved not only by the fate which awaits its human characters, but also its inanimate objects. It's a truly brilliant and nuanced piece of work to which my brief words here are in no ways doing justice.

Two other films which I thought were really quite extraordinary were
Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage and, perhaps controversially given its general critical slating, Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights. I thought that the former was terrifying and moving in equal measure. In all, it's a beautiful and haunting film. The latter, meanwhile, essentially tells several smaller stories within its larger whole, and managed to make me care about each and every one of its characters in the short time they were on screen in a way which most films don’t manage throughout the whole of their runtime. It also has some great performances and boasts some incredible cinematography. Don't believe the cynics and the critics – it's another beautiful film, and I really hope that, in time, it undergoes a critical reappraisal and gets recognised for the great achievement it so clearly is.

Much fuss was made in 2008 about the superhero films, and perhaps rightly so. I enjoyed
Iron Man a lot, but wasn't blown away by it in the way that some people were. I thought The Dark Knight got off to a rocky start but I was slowly absorbed into its brooding mood of sheer anarchy and chaos. As someone who thought very poorly of Batman Begins, it was a relief to see the caped crusader back on our screen in a film worthy of the legacy. It wasn’t perfect, but it was one hell of a ride and one hell of a lot better than I expected. And, speaking of Hell, Guillermo del Toro showed us once again what a great filmmaker he was with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, undoubtedly (for me, anyway), the best of the comic book films of this year. Giving us characters to care about and visuals to marvel at, del Toro pulled out all the stops and came up trumps.

Over in America, the low-budget independent sector
also came up trumps with two more great films: Joe Swanberg's Night and Weekends and Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy, both of which I blogged about here. On the same link I speak about Birdsong, which, although in some ways a rather frustrating film, I feel also deserves a mention here.

Thinking right back to the beginning of the year, three other films I feel I should mention are
Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and the Coens' No Country for Old Men. None of these films blew me away, but they are all undoubtedly fine pieces of work. Sweeney Todd was beautiful to watch (the production design and cinematography are top-notch), but, for me at least, unpleasant to listen to thanks to all the singing (and boy was there a lot of it!). The other two films, meanwhile, were very good films but films which, for one reason or another, failed to sweep me up into the hysteria which surrounds them. Very very good, yes, great...well, not for me. Perhaps, however, further viewings will sway me and prove me wrong.

To go out on a high, I feel one final film worth mentioning is
Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' Linha de Passe which is, for me, along with Che, Summer Hours, The Orphanage and My Blueberry Nights, the fifth film of the year which perhaps deserves the title of 'masterpiece'.

There are no doubt things which I've left off talking about here, and almost certainly there are things which would be here if I hadn't missed them altogether.

A list of my favourite DVDs of the year can be found over on

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