In the Valley of Elah

Lust, Caution

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

My Top 10 Films of 2008:

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
In Bruges
Lust, Caution
There Will Be Blood
Female Agents
The Duchess
The Dark Knight
Tropic Thunder
In the Valley of Elah


Top 10 - a year's best listing...

Film Review of 2008
by Roger Keen

In what was overall an above average year, one of the most talked-about films and the thinking man's favourite was the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men, an ultra-violent crime thriller which purported to carry higher messages. It was brilliantly achieved at the level of pure film mechanics, but overall I had difficulties with it, finding the plot implausible, an excuse for a non-SF Terminator-style splatter-fest, and I thought the Tommy Lee Jones strand was too disconnected from the Javier Bardem/ Josh Brolin one. And as for the ending, that left me scratching my head...

But there were many other gritty American dramas on offer in 2008, and I loved Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, both an historical epic about the California oil boom and a lushly detailed study of a pathologically greedy and controlling character, consummately brought to life by Daniel Day Lewis. I, for one, thought the milkshake scene totally valid as heightened drama, but it only worked because Lewis made us really believe it.

Tommy Lee Jones was at large again in the Texan landscape in Paul Haggis' In the Valley Of Elah, playing the father of an Iraq War soldier who died in questionable circumstances. This was a tense and sombre drama that had a lot to say about the skewed nature of 21st century warfare and contained another great performance from Jones, who, like good wine, improves with age.

That's also true of Clint Eastwood, donning his directing hat for Changeling, a real-life nightmare story about a woman fighting a corrupt 1920s' LAPD after her son mysteriously disappears. Her plight goes from bad to worse, with reality as strange and horrific as the most extreme fiction, before she finally wins through - a harrowing and impressive period piece.

And another veteran director, Sidney Lumet, now in his mid-eighties, gave us Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, a family-centric crime drama that was reminiscent of Fargo and took the idea of family dysfunctionality to whole new depths. It had good performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke but even by the standards of noir it was unremittingly dark.

Moving on to genre blockbusters, the biggest and most heavily spotlighted was Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, made still more controversial by Joker Heath Ledger's death from sleeping pills - the full facts of which will probably always remain elusive. The film was a triumphant carnival of visual and narrative density, perhaps too crammed with event for comfort, yet the Joker easily stole the show - a fabulous screen creation rendered even more eerie by what subsequently happened.

In the light of Pan's Labyrinth, expectations were high for Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army and indeed it did deliver in the areas of fantastic invention and visual splendour. The plot, however, was a bit simplistic and comic-bookish and Red came over as a touch too cuddly and pussy-whipped for a menacing demon! As for the Barry Manilow sequence, it registered as a misfire to me, not so much an amusing interlude as a failure of the film to take itself seriously enough.

Quantum Of Solace, the new James Bond film, was also mildly disappointing, with director Marc Forster struggling frantically to emulate Paul Greengrass' bravura action sequences in the latter Bourne movies, but somehow missing the point and losing himself in a slurry of fast-cutting close-ups that was too much show and too little substance. Also missing was the fantasy edge that has made previous Bond films so much fun. Still, Daniel Craig has now made the role his own and the story, concerning dictatorship and water shortage in Bolivia, was intelligent and perhaps a taste of what's to come in the globally-warmed world.

And the long-awaited fourth instalment of the Indiana Jones saga turned out, predictably enough, to be a mixed bag. The best parts for me were the evocations of the Cold War 1950s, in particular the nuclear test and the escape by fridge - a beautiful conceit and totally in keeping with the Indiana Jones tongue-in-cheek ethos. But when they got to the jungle, it was more tiresome chases with cardboard cut-out baddies, and all that hokum about aliens was really no more than a re-tread of the ideas in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with 'extra-terrestrial intelligence' substituting for 'divine revelation'.

When it came to films in other languages, I was really impressed by Ang Lee's WW II espionage drama Lust, Caution, set in Shanghai, which despite the surface differences played out like another version of Brokeback Mountain in telling of the doomed romance between a Japanese collaborator and the young woman sent to entrap him. Lee is one of the best directors of the moment and this was masterful cinema, slowly and seductively drawing us into the world of these lovers, with some of the best sex scenes - aesthetically speaking - I've seen in a film in many years. This was sex as narrative, showing the animalistic abandon that transcends all human framing and will reign no matter how untenable the underlying situation.

Another particularly good foreign language film was Jean-Paul Salomé's Female Agents, which had Sophie Marceau leading a troupe of girls-with-guns in a bid to outwit the Nazis as they tried to uncover the secrets of the D-Day landings. It effectively combined gung-ho, fast paced action with the more in-depth and sensitive approach to character that is one of the strengths of French cinema - a different and rewarding take on W.W.II to the standard British and Hollywood fare.

Of British period dramas, I found Brideshead Revisited to be a worthy but unmemorable piece, suffering inevitably by comparison to one the best TV drama serials ever, with Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw no match for Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. It demonstrated once again that nine or ten hours of TV will always win out over two hours of cinema when it comes to adapting big novels. In this case less is less.

Much better was Saul Dibb's The Duchess, which succeeded in showing the nasty underbelly of upper class 18th century life, lurking just beneath all those wigs, billowing skirts, three-cornered hats, corsets and knee breeches. Ralph Fiennes gave a superb performance as the pernicious Duke and Keira Knightley showed how much she's matured as an actress in the demanding central role.

As regards comedies, I didn't really take to Juno, finding her too well balanced and chirpy in the face of an unwanted pregnancy and irritating in the over-efficient way she deals with it all. None of it seemed remotely real to me, and that sentiment was also true of the second Coen Brothers' film of the year, Burn After Reading. This was all too clever and too convoluted in the self-conscious 'funniness' of its situations and ultimately seemed like an over-stuffed suitcase of a movie but, still, Frances McDormand and John Malkovich were good to watch.

Much, much better was Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, an outrageously silly and over-the-top postmodernist pastiche on making a movie that totally stood up in a way that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang didn't quite. It featured a great ensemble cast of kick-ass funny guys, but Robert Downey Jr stole the show as a blacked-up method actor, fully submerged in character whether the cameras are rolling or not. Easily the funniest film I've seen since Borat.

When it came to fluffier films, I caught Sex And The City, which continued along the lines of the TV series and was enjoyable for that, with some very witty lines. But the other big chick flick of the year, Mamma Mia, left me chuckling for the wrong reasons. A ludicrous plot with Abba songs shoehorned in every which way, it came across as artless, kitsch and wonky Dennis Potter, with certain elements - such as Pierce Brosnan's singing performance - generating the kind of mirth one has for X Factor rejects.

But the accolade of worst film of the year has to go to Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, a London family crime drama that echoed Allen's earlier Match Point and also Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. But whilst those films had their merits, there wasn't a thing about this one which worked, from the false cockney accents of Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as they fumbled through clichéd dialogue and a crass, unbelievable murder scenario, to the predictable aftermath of guilt and the utterly daft ending that would disgrace a student movie. Woody Allen is one of my favourite filmmakers, and it's hard to believe that the guy who gave us Annie Hall and Crimes And Misdemeanours could serve up such tripe - but we live in strange world!

So from the worst to the best, and in 2008 there were two films that I thought exceptionally outstanding. In Bruges, written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, was full of really sharp and clever dialogue that propelled a story something like Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot fused with Pulp Fiction. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play Irish gangsters, marooned in the Belgian city and having a series of increasingly surreal adventures that interlace with flashbacks about they're reasons for being there. It all works in terms of a bizarre higher logic, and when mad gang boss Ralph Fiennes arrives and they get involved in the shooting of a film featuring a dwarf and referencing Don't Look Now, it all turns even weirder still - a brilliantly original piece.

But it was narrowly beaten by my top film of the year, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, which combined a painter's vision, artistic flair and daring adventurousness with the most incredibly moving story about the powers of the imagination overcoming a state of complete hopelessness. A stroke left Jean-Dominique Bauby unable to move any part of his body except for one eye, and through blinking to signify letters he wrote the story on which the film is based. With the excellent Mathieu Amalric in the role of Bauby, Schnabel contrasts Bauby's wretched state with his interior visions and his own point of view of those around him. Bauby's reflections on life, love, his wayward behaviour before the stroke and his relationships with his family afterwards, are truly enlightening and make you really think again about those big questions.

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