Il Divo, Sept. 5, 2008.* It was on my inaugural trip to the Toronto International Film Festival that I first saw this stylish Italian tragicomic political biography. Despite knowing nothing about Italian politics -- I barely know how American politics work -- I was riveted by Paolo Sorrentino's super-cool direction and Toni Servillo's grimly amusing central performance.
Humpday, Jan. 16. Sundance audiences were drawn in by the eyebrow-raising premise -- two straight male friends decide to make a sex tape -- but were won over by how plausible the outrageous scenario winds up being. That's because the writer/director, Lynn Shelton, and her actors, Joshua Leonard and Mark Duplass, play everything naturally. The result is a surprisingly insightful and funny look at male friendship, platonic love, and society's concept of masculinity.
Precious, Jan. 17. It was still called Push at Sundance -- that's the title of the novel it's based on -- and people were already making jokes about it getting mixed up with the other Push scheduled for 2009, starring Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning as ordinary people with superpowers. Distributors wisely changed this one's title to Precious, but the movie stayed the same: a stark, terrifying portrait of a Harlem girl in awful circumstances, bolstered in the end by a rush of hope and decency. Alarming but never exploitative, this is one of the most emotionally powerful films of the year.
500 Days of Summer500 Days of Summer, Jan. 18. Three days in a row of Sundance premieres that would eventually make the top 10 list! It was a good year for the festival. Check out the diversity, too: While Precious was harrowing, 500 Days of Summer was breezy, hilarious, and resonant, a near-perfect depiction of a failed romance that manages to be realistic (you'll see yourself in one or both of the main characters) as well as inventive and loopy.
Drag Me to HellDrag Me to Hell, March 15. Sam Raimi's return to his horror roots is the fun kind of scary, like a roller coaster or haunted house, not the kind that gives you nightmares afterward. That's my favorite kind of scary, and seeing it at midnight with an enthusiastic South by Southwest audience -- introduced in person by Raimi! -- was a memorable experience. I saw it again later in a more conventional setting and was just as delighted by its twisted imagination, macabre humor, and good old-fashioned thrills.
Star TrekStar Trek, May 2. A lucky audience in Austin got to see this well ahead of schedule when an Alamo Drafthouse screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was altered by two things: Leonard Nimoy made a surprise appearance, and he asked if everyone wouldn't rather watch the new film instead. (Those intent on seeing Wrath of Khan were, I guess, disappointed.) The place went nuts, and everyone loved the film. I was skeptical, though -- not because I had any reason to believe J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot might be lousy, but because it's hard to trust responses from a crazy premiere like that. You think you're seeing something else and get the brand-new Star Trek instead? A month early? Introduced by Spock himself?? The stunt was designed to produce giddy enthusiasm, so it was no surprise that giddy enthusiasm was the result. It was a relief, then, to see the film a few weeks later, at a regular ol' press screening, and find myself almost as wowed as that Austin audience had been. There had been no need to stack the deck to get a gracious response. Something this energetically funny, smart, and exciting was going to earn praise no matter where it was shown.
UpUp, May 26. This makes three summers in a row that Pixar has released an animated film that eventually made its way to my top 10. Every year I look forward to the studio's latest invention, and almost every year I am astonished at how they have managed to surprise me yet again. The dialogue-free segment near the beginning, showing Carl and Ellie's life together, is one of the most beautiful sequences of the year, not to mention one of the most concise, expressive, and well executed. What other cartoon would even dare to address the issue of Carl and Ellie's inability to have a baby, let alone pull it off so sublimely?
In the LoopIn the Loop, June 11. After hearing raves about this British political comedy at Sundance (where I missed it), I was eager to see it at CineVegas. Then I had to see it again six weeks later, at a local screening, to catch the lines I'd missed the first time because I was laughing (or because their British accents are sometimes a little indecipherable). Imagine a world where everyone speaks in a nonstop barrage of withering sarcasm and profane insults. To live there would be hell, but to view it from a safe distance, as in this film, is comedic bliss.
Serious ManA Serious Man, Sept. 21. Joel and Ethan Coen's films tend to be among my favorites, and this darkly funny story about a man seeking answers from the Almighty is right up there. It's a tough movie, though, one that required a lot of thought and scrutiny before I really "got" it. But once I got it, I got it good. Just like Pixar, the Coens always make whatever movie they want, no matter how bizarre or unorthodox, and they nearly always succeed.
Fantastic Mr. FoxFantastic Mr. Fox, Nov. 9. Just before Christmas, when I was re-watching this with a friend who had not seen it before, he said, about 10 minutes into it, "I can't believe how Wes Anderson-y this is." And that's part of its delight: It's a typical Wes Anderson movie (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), only enacted by woodland creatures. This makes it funnier, of course; the fact that they come to life through stop-motion animation gives the film an extra boost of quaint whimsy. The film also teaches us that moles are good at seeing in the dark, rabbits are fast runners, and badgers are demolition experts. Good to know.