With the Oscars about to be awarded, it's time to try to sum up a year of movie watching with my list of personal favorites. Once again, I have failed to see all the Oscar-nominated films before the ceremony, which is inevitable if you live outside New York City or Los Angeles, as certain films have not opened here yet (Waltz with Bashir, for example).
But that's OK, because the Oscars are pretty far off the mark this year, perhaps as usual, but definitely worse than average, and I probably won't even bother to watch the show. Like many film lovers, I may instead choose to spend those hours in a theater watching a movie.
So, before getting to the list, I will explain my little system. First: I am not a movie critic and do not consider myself one. I dropped the only film course I ever took in college as soon as I realized that turning movie watching into homework assignments ruined the fun of movies altogether, and I never looked back. Readers of this blog will know that I "reviewed" Slumdog Millionaire here, but that was an exception brought on by the desire to protect unsuspecting viewers from going to it uninformed of its vapidity (recently affirmed by the APs Christy Lemire, who said, "It didn't even make my top 10 list," and The New Yorker's David Denby - you can read Denby's take here: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2009/02/09/090209crci_cinema_denby ).
So, rather than review movies, what I do is go see them with the hope of being entertained, enlightened, etc., and then I give each film a rating from zero to four stars, usually within the first hours after seeing it, less often after thinking about it for a day or two. A film gets a low rating for obvious reasons; unlike critics, I only see the movies I want to see, so the really bad ones get weeded out - the lowest rating I can recall ever having given is two stars, which means it had some merit but I wouldn't recommend it. An example of that would be The Aviator: I gave it one star for Cate Blanchett's performance and one for its quite handsome production values. Otherwise I found it to be pretty worthless, despite my high esteem for the director, Martin Scorsese.
A two-and-a-half-star movie is one I did not regret going to see and therefore would recommend. A three-star rating means I would recommend the film without hesitation. Three-and-a-half stars mean I would enthusiastically recommend the film, though it may have some minor flaws. And four-star films are as near perfect as you're going to find. A good example of this, from my point of view, is the film Kinsey, which was brilliant but almost completely overlooked by the Academy. I found it very richly compelling, beautifully filmed and acted, and gave it my highest rating. Extremely rarely, I will change my rating upon discovering weeks later that I either overrated a film I can now barely recall or underrated one I still can't stop thinking about.
One more thing: I have yet to see some of the past year's more important movies, most significantly The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (can't overcome the Forrest Gump comparisons, despite its 13 Oscar nominations); Frost/Nixon, the next film I hope to see; The Wrestler, which has resurrected the marvelous Schenectady-bred Mickey Rourke and is the other next film on my list; Doubt (saw the play in a first-rate Capital Rep production, no need to see the movie); and Gran Torino, which I would probably like but sounds like another typical Clint Eastwood movie - I'd rather see Eastwood's more offbeat efforts, such as the astonishing Letters from Iwo Jima.
And now, without further delay, my list of the best films of 2008:
**** Frozen River - Local interest adds intrigue to an already mesmerizing portrait of upstate rust-belt bleakness, with deft handling of American Indian ethnic issue and stunning performance by Melissa Leo, who deserves (but will not win) a best-actress Oscar.
**** Man on Wire - Simply enchanting
**** Revolutionary Road - Very sad but pitch-perfect in every detail. You don't like DiCaprio? He's exactly right in this film; and Winslet is quite amazing.
***1/2 The Visitor - If you missed it, put it in your Netflix queue. Emotionally disconnected professor learns from illegal immigrants what life is all about. Great music and another Oscar that should, but won't, be won (for Richard Jenkins).
***1/2 The Counterfeiters - Of many Holocaust-themed films that came out last year, this Austrian effort is the most unique, exploring the mind and heart of an avowed criminal who also happens to be Jewish and survives the camps by successfully forging British pounds for the Germans. The star, an ugly man, is riveting to watch.
***1/2 Happy-Go-Lucky - Irresistible
***1/2 A Christmas Tale - Very badly named, this French film stars Catherine DeNeuve as an icy matriarch whose family is falling apart all around her. Very complex, very original style, wonderful ensemble cast.
***1/2 Milk - No surprises here, but a sensitive, inspiring portrayal of a courageous leader. Sean Penn will win the Oscar for best actor (though I probably shouldn't be so sure, as Metroland's critics are unanimous for Mickey Rourke).
***1/2 The Reader - Another very original take on the impacts of WWII, with the performance of a lifetime by Kate Winslet (who will win her belated first Oscar for it). A bit slow going through the middle, but otherwise first-rate.
*** In Bruges - A bloody riot, featuring Colin Farrell at his best, and it makes you want to go straight to fookin' Bruges.
*** Roman de Gare - A French mystery about a writer of French mysteries. Keeps you guessing.
*** The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - Holocaust again, this time from the point of view of the innocent son of a death-camp commandant and his little Jewish friend. Major twist ending.
*** A Secret (Un Secret) - OK, a pattern is developing: French again, Holocaust again. This time the portrait features an intriguing extended family of well-to-do Jews and their crisscrossing alliances and dalliances. Cécile De France is so hot in this movie that Ludivine Sagnier, the femme fatale in 2003's Swimming Pool, is cast as her ugly-duckling rival.
**1/2 Red Belt - David Mamet goes martial arts. Has great moments, the impossible to fail acting of Chiwetel Ejiofor - and a totally ridiculous plot.
**1/2 WALL-E - The most amazing animation ever done, and a story that starts out edgy - even subversive - but ends up cloyingly romantic and religious. A real disappointment.
**1/2 W. - Surprisingly evenhanded portrayal of our 43rd president by the upredictable Oliver Stone. Josh Brolin is brilliant as George W. Bush, and Richard Dreyfuss finds glee in portraying the despicable Dick Cheney. Thandie Newton defines wooden acting as Condoleezza Rice.
**1/2 Slumdog Millionaire - You already know how I feel about that one.