Start the Reactor: Quaid’s Top Ten of 2008

Posted on 07 February 2009 by Quaid

Hello, world, Quaid here.  Now, I understand that it might seem a bit presumptuous to make your first post on a new movie review and news site be your top ten list of the past year.  I mean, you and I have no history, and you have no reason to trust me.

But we gotta start somewhere, so here it is.

10. Slumdog Millionaire

Now, you’ll notice that this is the only best picture contender on my list and might immediately think me a snob.  It ain’t so.  I cheered when Titanic and The Return of the King won their respective Oscars, and last year I proclaimed proudly that the two best pictures of the year were There Will Be Blood and No Country for old men.  I usually fall in line with the status quo during awards season.

But this year, the Academy dropped the ball.  While Slumdog Millionaire is an excellent film (and I could stand it winning the top prize), it is not the best picture of the year.  And the others on the best picture list?  Come on…anyone who didn’t vomit in their mouth a little bit when they watched the “fast prep for the big interview montage” scene in Frost/Nixon should be ashamed of themselves.  But this is not a rant about this years Oscars (could have fooled me!), so I’ll move on to the movies.

Slumdog Millionaire is a surprising movie in many ways.  It’s structure (telling a story based on the answers given in the game show) is fresh and new.  Its hero and heroine are both “out of the box” and “classic” at the same time.  It’s socio-political overtones are not overdone, but affecting nonetheless.  And, most interesting to me, its somewhat depressing and dark tone throughout takes a welcome left-turn in the last act to make you believe that you’ve actually seen a wildly uplifting movie.  

And the Bollywood number that ends it…awesome.  You just gotta smile, throw your hands up, and say “I give up.  You filled my heart hole.”

9. W.

People despised this movie.  Others were lukewarm, but I never saw anyone really give it the kudos that I felt it deserved–AS A FILM, not as a “gotcha” to the (then current) administration.  Because as a “gotcha,” it don’t work so well.  

What I loved most about W. was that it allowed the borderline-insane-but-we-love-him-anyway Oliver Stone to dispense with the heavy history lessons and the obligatory “catch up” information and just make a movie about a guy who happened to find his way to the presidency.  Nixon is my favorite Stone film, but even that felt bloated by exposition meant to refresh people’s memories or educate the young’ns (like myself).  With W., there is no learning curve.  All the “unsaid” things in the movie are painfully obvious to an audience, and it is what is left out that is most interesting.  The movie never comes close to being a character assassination piece, forcing you to empathize with the bumbling president-to-be.  It never excuses his actions, or suggests that he should not be held accountable for them, but it shows how such a situation could occur and explains how there is plenty of blame to go around.

The last shot still sits in my mind as one of the most ballsy and appropriate endings in recent film–simple, elegant, poetic even.

8. Iron Man

I don’t know that I had more fun in a movie this year.  Iron Man was wildly enjoyable not because of the mindless action sequences (there really aren’t that many if you are paying careful attention), but because of what Downy Jr. and Favre bring to the rest of the film.  The first 25 minutes or so is nothing but Tony Stark being a charming playboy, and it’s a joy to watch.  I leaned over to a buddy at about the time Tony boarded his plane to Iraq and whispered “I could watch two hours of this.”  The movie never lets itself get too serious but also doesn’t stray away from fun character moments and relationships.  

And Robert Downey Jr.  What can you say? The man brings something undefinably great to the table with each performance.  And while Tropic Thunder didn’t make my top ten list, it is worth watching just for his hilariously satirical performance.

7. Wall-E

The second the soundtrack started blaring the opening song to Wall-E, I was in love.  Just the glorious idea of using fun, heartfelt retro music in a futuristic robot family film made me respect the filmmakers from frame one.  And then we as an audience are treated to one of the most well-crafted silent films ever for a good 25 minutes.  Wall-E’s character is simple and innocent and a welcome breath of fresh air to the wanna-be “edgy” family films like “Shrek 17: Still Shrekking.”  

Then, when the movie leaves earth, it becomes a great sci-fi “what if” in its own right.  I like the first half better than the second, but it’s a close call with the overly simple “life lessons” of the third act making me smile in spite of my hard hardened heart.

Before I move on, I have to say something about Andrew Stanton.  I think some people watch Pixar films and just say “well, it’s Pixar,” and I know how you feel.  I love every Pixar film, but I hate that the directors of these masterpieces are sometimes forgotten.  Andrew Stanton brings a tone and a sensibility to his Pixar films that is unlike any of the others.  There is a sweetness, a sadness even, that permeates both Wall-E and Finding Nemo.  Neither movie is too “in-your-face,” instead focusing on quiet moments and honest, sometimes complicated emotions.  These are the kind of movies that can make a grown man cry, and they never feel like they are cheating.  I love The Incredibles and Toy Story II, but Stanton’s films are a different breed.  So on the off off chance Mr. Stanton reads this article: Thanks.

6. Burn After Reading

The Coens pull one over on the movie-going public again, crafting a hilarious exploration of mindless nihilism with the mask of a crime movie.  The overly-dramatic opening shot of a camera zooming in on the earth and settling on the CIA headquarters is amazingly over-the-top, especially when one realizes that this is a movie with no real secrets and nothing at stake except the lives of some generally unlikeable characters.  

And then the closet scene happens, and you realize that this movie will endure forever.

I think the greatness of the movie can be summed up by a line uttered by the great J.K Simmons: “What did we learn?  I guess we learned never to do it again.  Don’t know what we did.”  If you are in the mood for a messed-up double feature, pair this with No Country for Old Men.  Thematically, they are eerily similar.

5. Man on Wire

If you have not seen this documentary, run, don’t walk, to the nearest theater in which it is playing.  The way it mixes interviews, real footage, and cleverly stage “reenactments” allows this film to truly become a classic caper about a man attempting to illegally tightrope walk between the twin towers in New York.  

More than that, though, we explore the life philosophy of the protagonist, and the subtext of the last act of the movie makes us question the exhilarating beauty of the story that has happened before.  The movie never forces an idea or an emotion on the audience–it’s just that the characters’ emotions and excitement are infectious.  I won’t say too much about this one…you have to see for yourself.

4. Let the Right One In

This is by far the best 12-year-old-Swedish-vampire movie I have ever seen. Ever.  Beautifully shot snow-covered scenes complement the subtle and sad tone of this film about acceptance, friendship, and what it means to be a monster.

The movie never strays away from the horror of the situations, but it never goes for unnecessary shock value either.  Each character feels like he or she is on a path that is unchangeable, and the movie takes on a sadness and weight that never draws attention to itself.

The fact that this movie has been roundly ignored during awards season is a travesty.  Even outside the best foreign film category, this one deserves to be looked at for cinematography and acting for both the child leads.   This one will last, I can promise you that, and not just for horror fans and gore hounds.

3. The Wrestler

This movie should be up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Song as well as Best Actor.  Darren Aronofsky is the closest thing my generation has to Kubrick.  Every frame means something, every choice is imperative to the story. But with the wrestler, unlike Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain, all of that is invisible.  The story requires a documentary style and a painfully realistic approach, and Aronofsky nails it.  The scene exploring each and every injury inflicted during the “hardcore” match is a fascinating take on the subject, developing Mickey Rourke’s character at the same time that it explains the wrestling subculture and wrestlers’ lifestyles.  

There is not a moment in this film that feels false or unnecessary.  Even though the whole thing feels unplanned and fluid, not a frame is wasted.  It’s all held together by Rourke’s performance, and I pray he wins the Best Actor Oscar for what he’s created.  

It’s a tragedy in the old-school style that you believe might be a redemption story.  Which makes it all the more affecting.

2. Synecdoche, New York

I love Charlie Kaufman with a passion.  It took me a few views to warm up to Being John Malkovich, but once I got it, I really got it.  Adaptation blew my mind with its commentary on film and structure without sacrificing an involving story.  

Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s directorial debut, and he proves that his eye is as powerful as his pen.  What I love most about the film is its ambition.  It’s first and foremost about death, but within that it is about everything painful and enjoyable in life.  We see how a man behaves when he is convinced of his imminent death.  Even if he limps on for years, death is still right around the corner.

The movie manages somehow to not be preachy or up its own ass.  Self-deprecation can be a powerful tool when used correctly, and Kaufman is the master.  

By creating a world where time is fluid he underscores the way we all feel about the brevity of our lives.  By showing a man always on the verge of death, Kaufman dramatizes the inevitability of that final life event.  And by playing with identity and the ideas of free will, the audience is forced to question its preconceived notions about what it means to be “you.”

It sounds heady, complicated and deep, and it is, but it is also simple in its characters and ideas; and it’s wildly entertaining.

I know this one is an acquired taste, and I can absolutely respect anyone who doesn’t like this film.  But for me, it was everything I could want in an ambitious and thoughtful film.

1. The Dark Knight

I don’t know if I need to say too much about this one.  So much has been written about Heath Ledger, the film as a serious crime drama, and the amazing box-office success of the movie that anything I would write would be unnecessary…but I’ll give it a whirl.

What really pulled me into the film is the thematic material.  The ideas of heroes versus saviors versus inspirational figures.  The nihilistic dogma of the Joker.  Some of my favorite moments in the film are the little scenes of ideological discourse.  Of course it is very cool to watch Batman kick ass and take names, but isn’t it jut as fun to watch the Joker burn a pile of money?  Of course.  The movie is one of the most thematically complicated mainstream films that has come out in a long while, and that increases my enjoyment of it ten fold.  Some critics or awards-snobs wrote this off as a comic book movie, which it is.  But sometimes I think they miss the forrest for the trees. 

So…that’s it.  I will volunteer that there are quite a few movies I haven’t seen.  My goal each year is not to see as many movies as possible, but to see movies that hit the spot for whatever mood I am in.  This means I allow myself to see a lot of crap, and neglect some probably-excellent films that I am not 100% in the mood for.

Disagree?  Good.  That’s the point of a site like this.  Feel free to let us know your thoughts below and we will try to respond to them.  One of the goals to this site is to create a network of film makers and film lovers who can share ideas and help each other find new movies.                              

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