ShepRamsey’s 2008 Top 10: Because the Oscars just can’t seem to get this right

Posted on 08 February 2009 by ShepRamsey

Greetings, internet community. I’m ShepRamsey. You don’t know me, but just maybe in time you can begin to spite  me and tell me my opinions are complete bullshit. Because let’s face it, they probably are. So let’s start things off on the right foot! With only a short time to go until the Academy Awards underwhelm all of us, this is the part where I tell you what the best movies of 2008 were. And you just sit back and take it. You’re welcome.

10. Shotgun Stories

You know that feeling you get when you’re watching a movie and you could swear that it was directed by David Gordon Green, but you know it wasn’t, because your daily iMDB update of the man’s filmography has told you otherwise? I kinda got that feeling when I was watching first-time writer/director Jeff Nichols’s “Shotgun Stories.” Now, I don’t have what I would call a whole lot of experience with Green’s films. Having seen only ”All the Real Girls,” “Snow Angels,” and “Pineapple Express” (and let’s face it, “Pineapple…” doesn’t exactly count) he’s still a man with a distinct voice and style. So imagine my flurry of victory when the closing credits tell me that Green served as a producer on this picture. Ha HA! Good for me.

Nichols, however, might just have a leg up on Green. He has a keen eye for the blue-collar “I-can-fix-that-forya” culture that he depicts. His movie about a family feud that escaclates to worst places is a taut yet infinitely somber film that my cold heart found genuinely moving. The film stars Michael Shannon (the now Oscar-nominated “crazy” guy from the far-lesser “Revolutionary Road”) as the oldest of three brothers who starts a squabble at his father’s funeral with the family that he had left them for when they were kids. It’s a powerful film about old fashioned masculine pride and family honor pushed to the limit.

9. Funny Games

It’s quite possible that I’ll welcome eye-rolls and questionable glances and maybe an “Oh, fuck you” or two from my MovieChopShop colleagues about this one, but frankly I just don’t care. Michael Haneke’s film about a family being held captive and tortured by a couple of preppy-boy psychos in white golf shirts, shorts, and gloves is a fascinating, ballsy, scathing attack against the exploitation of violence in films. It’s also smug, pretentious, and has serious contempt for its own audience, but that’s all part its angry little charm. It’s a movie that’s not only okay with the fact that you might hate, but it sort of wants you to hate it. Ironically, that makes me love it.

It’s pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of Haneke’s own 1997 film of the same name, but it was this version which introduced me to its wacky splendor. And perhaps rightfully so – it would seem in an age where the masses are forking over their parents’ hard-earned money to see “Saw XXXVII,” that it’s an even more relevant comment on the lowest lows of popular entertainment than it was eleven years before. Still, there’s a good chance it’ll piss you off. Proceed with caution.

8. Let the Right One In

Pick any random movie-blogging site and you’ll see that pretty much every last one of those guys is completely apeshit for this movie.  And it stands to reason – if there was just going to be one adolescent power-of-friendship movie that was going to capture the hearts of twenty-something movie geeks everywhere, you can pretty much rest assured that it would be the one about Swedish vampires.  (The runner-up was Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.)

While other films might lead you to believe that vampires love baseball and stay out of the sun so that no one will see their shameful glitterskin, “Let the Right One In” doesn’t need to dip into the pitifully obnoxious to achieve real substance and creativity within its genre. There’s a little something for everyone to connect with in this movie that’s as beautiful visually as it is thematically. It succeeds on just about every level – it’s sad, funny, frightening, and it works flawlessly within the classic parameters of vampire mythology without having to pull anything out of its ass for the sake of post-modern pomposity and without even showing a single fang.

7. Synecdoche, New York

There’s something you need to know about me. I’m a complete sucker for a movie that completely bitch-slaps your brain into oblivion. Surrealism, if you’re into labels. Sure, I love me some Alejandro Jodorowsky and Luis Bunuel, but the crafty narrative-tinkering wackiness of a director like David Lynch is what really puts me in the mood for some lovin’. That aside, “Synecdoche, New York” is Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut and the first film of his than can really be classified as surrealism. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a playwright who, convinced he’s dying, sets out to write his masterpiece. Adapting the events of his own life, day by day, he ends up setting up shop in an enormous abandoned warehouse and building a life-size replica of his city (which of course contains a replica of the warehouse and inside that another replica of the city, and so on and so forth). Eventually, his life has become so fragmented and cluttered that it’s a little hard to keep up with much of anything.

Kaufman has always been a terrific voice for the neurotic losers of the world and he has perhaps found his most compelling one thus far in Hoffman’s character, Caden. His obsessive paranoia and uneasiness puts as much theatricality in his own life as his stages interpretations. The film winds up having two unique modes: depressingly hilarious and hilariously depressing.

Returning to the whole narrative-wackiness thing, I think you could see how this might fit the bill for that sort of a story. At the time of this writing, I have only seen “Synecdoche, New York” a whopping one time and I’m certain that won’t be enough. (And why shouldn’t a movie be the kind to immediately invite a second viewing?) Perhaps it isn’t even enough to be able to give a sufficient review or even a blurb about this movie. And who the hell do I think I am for giving it my number 7 spot? Well, friends,  ”Synecdoche, New York” sought to challenge me when other films weren’t quite so bold. It’s a startling piece of true creativity and if you don’t see it, you’re a filthy coward.

6. Slumdog Millionaire

I’ll make this brief, because we all have places to be. Most of the Oscar-season movies this year have been less than stellar. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” putting its fascinating premise to complete waste, is the only movie by David Fincher that I just can’t get behind. (That’s right. I like “Alien 3.” And I’m not sorry.) “The Reader” is too busy whoring itself out as Oscar-bait to pay any regard to its own frustrating and eye-rolling illogic. “Frost/Nixon” just fucking sucked. (Please. Rent Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” and then look me in the eye and tell me Ron Howard’s political “Rocky VII” is worth a damn.) “Milk”…I liked “Milk.” But Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is the only Best Picture nominee that really deserves to be sitting among the top spots right now.

It’s like watching “City of God” play out like a modern day fairy tale. (Which, if you’re familiar with “City of God,” sounds like a horrifying disaster, but trust me, it’s great!) It’s perhaps the most consistently compelling film I’ve seen all year, telling a story that should feel reasonably hackneyed in such a rousing and original way. I’m a cold hard cynic (or at least it’s a style that I always thought looked pretty on me), and I place the genre of inspirational films one notch above movies based on video games, so if you’re going to believe the hype about any one of the decided Five, believe it when I tell you: this damn thing moved me. (And yeah, the Bollywood dance sequence at the closing credits is just wonderful.)

5. My Winnipeg

I’m ashamed of myself. Ashamed that it’s taken me this long to discover the films of Guy Maddin. I had heard some things about this film and decided to give it a watch. Now I’m rabidly addicted to everything this filmmaker touches. Using the look and feel of old German expressionist silents, Maddin’s films have an antique charm and a sharp but subtle sense of humor.

“My Winnipeg” is a pseudo-documentary centering around Maddin’s hometown of, you guessed it, Winnipeg. Maddin blurs fact and fiction, history and local legend, leaving you with a portrait of the town more sentimentally accurate than any straight-forward documentary could have accomplished. (Though, what the hell do I know about Winnipeg?)

It should be mentioned that, as of yet, I’ve only seen this movie presented with an annoying audio-synchage problem. Though, since the vast majority of the movie is narrated by Maddin in voice-over, this really doesn’t cause too much of a bother. (I’m still open to the idea that it was intentional, but I can’t find anything that remarks about it.) However, let it also be mentioned that the movie is so meticulously constructed and edited that I’m sure once I’m able to see the correct version of the film, it will end up feeling like a wholly different movie. And that’s just one of many reasons, friends, why Guy Maddin is fast becoming one of my favorite modern directors. You’ll be hearing me fawn over him some more. Look forward to it.

4. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky is running four-for-four and I think that’s just lovely. A very straight-forward character piece, “The Wrestler” isn’t quite what you’d expect from the guy that did “The Fountain.” (Did you even see “The Fountain?” Get on that.) Aronofsky takes a more documentary-style approach with this one and it works wonders to show us a portrait of a character so deeply flawed, finding a way to alienate everyone who means something to him, that his only retribution is in the battle scars of the wrestling wring. It’s a fitting metaphor that the only thing he seems to be successful at is causing and incurring pain, and Aronofsky handles it with subtle tenderness. 

And as many have been saying, Mickey Rourke is absolutely astonishing in this film. Keeping the audience on this character’s side could have been an easy task to screw up, but Rourke nails every last beat. I’m crossing my fingers for him to get that Oscar, but I’m not getting my hopes up. (Damn you, Sean Penn!)

3. Man on Wire

The absolute wonder of this movie just speaks for itself. It’s a fascinating documentary about an eccentric (to say the least) French high-wire artist, who, in 1974, pulled off an illegal tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Cleverly constructed like an elaborate heist movie, director James Marsh documents the plan from inspiration to conception to preparation to the final victorious completion. All the while, the titular Man, Philippe Petit, is one of the most energetic and entertaining screen characters I’ve seen all year. And he’s a real guy. So that’s somethin, alright.

I’m a fear-of-heights guy. (And snakes. I guess I just like to hit all the cliches.) So this movie hit me on a level of awe-inspiring and nearly sickened marvel that maybe its full enjoyment requires. But even if you’re only getting half the enjoyment I got, it still beats the ever-loving piss out of “Frost/Nixon.”

2. In Bruges

The Golden Globes don’t often get much right. But when you can’t depend on the Oscars, the Globes remembered my sweet, sweet “In Bruges” when no one else did. (Although kudos to the Academy for nominating writer/director Martin McDonagh’s script.) It’s not every year where the best comedy and the best drama are the same damn movie. There’s a terrific dry wit dripping from every last line (“One gay beer for my gay friend and one normal beer for me because I am normal”), and a truly touching sadness at the center of all of it.

Colin Farrell gives a brilliant performance, playing Ray, a hitman hiding out “in Bruges” with Ken (Brendan Gleeson) after a job that went wrong. He captures the deep-down child-like innocence of his character in such a funny and touching way. I’ve always liked Colin Farrell, but even I didn’t know he had this in him. He rightfully won the Golden Globe for his performance, but of course the Oscars forgot him. And don’t get me started on Ralph Fiennes, who own every scene that he’s in of this film. And Brendan Gleeson, as well, is one hell of a character actor doing what he does best. I have infinite love and admiration for this movie and it is a photo-finish-close second place on my list. It’s easily one of my favorites of the decade.

1. The Dark Knight

Sure, I have something of a Batman bias, but I don’t think that’s a completely necessary prerequisite for being unabashedly in love with Christopher Nolan’s ridiculously well-crafted and frankly powerful sequel to his excellent 2005 film, “Batman Begins.” In lieu of saying the same things that have been said ad nauseum about this film, let me simply justify why this one, over all the other excellent and worthy films on my list, deserves that absurdly coveted spot of my Best Film of the Year. 

“The Dark Knight,” though admittedly flawed in spots, has restored my faith in Hollywood, and more importantly in American audiences, (well, until “Twilight” came out) who went in droves to help boost this movie up to the second-highest grossing film (domestically) of all time. It’s a pretty brave move to release a pitch-black two-and-a-half hour Batman movie that focuses more on story and character than simply blowin’ shit up (and gratuitous sing-alongs with Snow Miser). Nolan handles the story with the expert care that we’ve come to expect from him ever since “Memento” and keeps the action right up to par with it. The action scenes are wisely sparse and always resourceful and engaging.

Thematically, it creates something that we didn’t quite get from “Spider-Man 3.” Nolan’s exploration of the nature of heroism and what defines it, is alone enough to keep people from calling this picture “just a superhero movie.” (Jesus, just wait until “Watchmen!!”)

And yes. Heath Ledger is absolutely mind-blowing as the Joker. He embodies the normally cartoonish anarchic insanity of the character in such an authentic and disturbing way, it’s enough to give you chills. We’ve never seen the character portrayed like this before, and sadly we won’t again.

This movie is the proof that big, showy Hollywood spectacle doesn’t have to be made for the Michael Bay crowd to be monstrously successful. It can be dark and brooding and even make you think. Films like “The Dark Knight” are reason enough for anyone to go to the movies. So thank you, Warner Bros. for allowing this to happen, and thank you, Chris Nolan for making it happen, and thank you, America for watching it happen, and thank you, Batman for being fuckin’ Batman!

And I’m done.                              

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Quaid Says:

    You are so right. We will mock you mercilessly for liking the smug-with-nothing-to-offer-but-shock-value cinematic abortion that is “Funny…GAMES!”

  2. Quaid Says:

    Okay….Cinematic abortion was a bit much. But it made you cry a little inside, right?

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