The Academy Awards often overlook the best films of the year. That fact is well established every year. And so, once again as a public service, I humbly submit my list of the past year’s best cinematic works of art.
But before I get to that task, here are a few thoughts about three that, though nominated by the Academy, didn’t make my definitive list.
I found “The Reader” far too earnest in its attempt to portray the Kate Winslet character as some kind of tragic figure. As Holocaust stories go, this one left me cold.
I was more impressed with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but far more for its technical achievement than for its Forrest-Gump-like story line. Button, well-played but not well-defined by Brad Pitt, never grabbed my emotions, and the tale of his life seemed less interesting than that of his occasional lover, played by Kate Blanchett.
“Slumdog Millionaire” clearly captured the hearts of the Academy voters, but it didn’t capture mine. Partly it was the arc of the story that turned me off. I mean, why not throw in a surprise or two? Instead, it was a fantasy/fairy tale set in the guise of a real human drama. I guess that approach works if you just want to be entertained. I look for a little more in the films that make my list of the best of the year.
So here they are, working down from twelve to one (just to keep a little Oscar-like suspense in the air).
12. “The Wrestler” – The struggle of Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy “Ram” Robinson, to find some measure of integrity, if not dignity, in his low-life existence as a weekend professional wrestler and part-time stock boy in a grocery store, is neither majestic nor pathetic. Rather, it struck me as real, as did Rourke’s excellent portrayal.
11. “Let the Right One In” – This unusual vampire tale was well-crafted and surprisingly affecting. Unlike the typical horror stories concerning the “un-dead,” this one actually humanized the vampire, showing the anguish she is forced to endure and the devotion she creates in her human protectors.
10. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” – Woody Allen’s latest essay on love, lust and the perils of romantic relationships was not his best on the subject, but of course, he has a long list of great films that fill that category. But this one, presenting perhaps a more mature view of the subject, was both thought-provoking and entertaining.
9. “Happy-Go-Lucky” – Mike Leigh’s film suggested none too subtly that attitude is everything. His central character was perhaps the most “sunny-side-up” woman to ever grace a film, and she was contrasted vividly with her antagonist, the decidedly unappealing man whom she hired to teach her how to drive. The film featured a terrific performance by Sally Hawkins that definitely should have earned a best actress nomination.
8. “Rachel Getting Married” – This one very easily could have been subtitled “A Modern Real American Wedding,” so effectively did it present the many sides of a family that tried desperately to deal with issues of pent-up hostility between parents and their grown children, former spouses, and the effect a drug-dependent family member can have on everyone else. Anne Hathaway’s nomination was richly deserved.
7. “Frost/Nixon” – If for no other reason than Frank Langella’s amazing portrayal of the disgraced former president desperately trying to find a way to redeem his legacy, this film version of the Broadway play (directed by Ron Howard) was riveting stuff. The film captures the complexity of a deeply flawed and yet undeniably talented man.
6. “Man on Wire” – When the event occurred, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, it was dwarfed as a news story by the Watergate scandal’s pending denouement. Now, as captured with vivid scenes showing the planning and execution of the man walking a tight rope between the then newly constructed twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, it is saluted as an inspirational obsession in a great documentary.
5. “Frozen River” – Melissa Leo’s performance is so masterful in this lovely film that it almost makes her character’s plight (fighting abject poverty as a single mother in frigid upstate New York) seem bearable. The film is important for the depiction of real people struggling to move just one small step closer to the “good life” in the “land of plenty” that is today’s America.
4. “Milk” – Was Harvey Milk as special a person and as charismatic a leader as Gus Van Zant’s film makes him seem? Was he nearly as important an historical figure as Sean Penn’s magnificent portrayal makes him appear? Was his murder as tragic and senseless as this film makes it out to have been? This film convincingly and triumphantly answers all of those questions in the affirmative.
3. “Wall*E” – Creative genius is stamped all over this science fiction love story that is likely to be admired as one of the great animated films of all time for as long as animated films are made. The tale of a lonely robot on a desolate planet Earth with nothing to do but compact the trash humans left behind seven centuries ago, coupled with the fate of the descendants of those humans, is as unique in its own way as Kubrick’s “2001.”
2. “Synecdoche, New York” – Charlie Kaufman’s first directorial effort (putting his own touch on his screenplay) was almost too bizarre to qualify as even a Kaufman creation. But it was also hauntingly brilliant and profoundly beautiful. It was a true work of art in every sense of that word, and I am still feeling it, three months after seeing it.
1. ”The Visitor” – Yes, it’s a small film, but it explores such a big theme, and does it so impressively, that it deserves this exalted position on my list. In its own quiet way, the film deconstructs the country’s hysteria with illegal immigration far more effectively than any documentary ever could, and Richard Jenkins portrayal of the burned-out-just-going-through-the-motions college professor who finds something worth living for is just perfect. As is the film.