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12 Great Movies We Saw This Year

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 30, 2008 7:57PM

You might say a movie doesn't really begin until the time you actually see it. So our list of the best movies of 2008 includes quite a few that are decades old. After all, today's fresh and newly-made "masterpiece" often becomes tomorrow's half-forgotten mediocrity. Not all of these movies were made this year, but when we think back to 2008 these are the flicks we'll remember most. If most of the movies on our list seem particularly intense, well, it's been an intense year!

We just couldn't narrow it down to 10. So here are 12:

2008_12_29brokenenglish.jpg 1. AWAY FROM HER (2007, directed by Sarah Polley)
A heartfelt story about love, aging, memory and forgetfulness, Sarah Polley's directorial debut contains a devastating performance by Julie Christie, playing a woman slowly slipping into Alzheimer's. A difficult movie to watch no doubt, but the subject is handled with such candor and freshness that it's oddly fortifying. It'd make a fantastic (if depressing) double feature with The Savages.

2. BATTLE FOR HADITHA (2008, directed by Nick Broomfield)
There are many powerful, disturbing films about Iraq (unfortunately) but Broomfield's movie succinctly sums up everything that's dehumanizing and maddening about the Iraq war and war in general in a way that makes recent Hollywood efforts seem exploitive. The film's ending is abrupt and unsatisfying -- just like the reality of the situation.

3. BROKEN ENGLISH (2007, directed by Zoe Cassavetes)
A rare achievement: a movie that's completely romantic yet completely honest about love. It makes for some painful viewing. But true romance is painful, a fact which most mainstream movies on the subject fail to adequately capture. John would be proud. Parker Posey has never been better.

4. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007, Julian Schnabel)
Truly beautiful and truly disturbing; an experience so visceral that large stretches of the movie are physically uncomfortable to watch. Yet the feeling we had when we walked out of the theater was a kind of exhilaration. Happy to be alive. See this one. Now.

5. FUNNY GAMES (2008, directed by Michael Haneke)
With very little gore per se, Michael Haneke's vicious exercise is audience-centered S & M at its most meticulous. Here's a movie that comes right out and tells you it's out to manipulate you and still manages to do it successfully. Naomi Watts proves yet again that she's one of the most fearless actresses working today.

2008_12_29hunger.jpg 6. HUNGER (2008, directed by Steve McQueen)
There isn't much to add to what we said about this movie already. We hate to use arty phrases like "pure cinema," but this is a movie that begs for it. Watching it puts you right there in prison with the characters themselves and makes you understand what it means to go on a hunger strike. Direct, unforgettable.

7. THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973, directed by John Frankenheimer)
What happens when you take away someone's dream, even if that dream is supposedly toxic? That's the underlying theme of this masterful adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play. Though written in 1939 it's lost none of its urgency. It has gutsy, career-crowning performances by Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Frederic March (and a great one by young-and-hot Jeff Bridges, a million miles away from The Dude).

8. THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1973, directed by Jean Eustache)
When we saw this at the Siskel in May, we weren't the only ones eager for an epiphany. The theater was packed. For a talky three-hour-plus black & white French movie. The main characters, twenty-something Parisans, talk, talk and talk; but it's some of the most fascinating (and likelife) bullshitting ever captured on celluloid. It's a masterful film that anticipated works from Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape), Richard Linklater (Slacker) and Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation).

9. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008, directed by David Gordon Green)
The weed movie might be the last remaining subversive genre in cinema; just look at Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, which gleefully rushed in where others feared to tread. Pineapple Express is one long, exceedingly cheerful "fuck you" to the establishment. Like Peter Jackson's movies, even the violence and gore are somehow good-natured. When Seth Rogan gets part of his ear blown off it's built into a running gag. It's really funny stuff.

10. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
Was it really that long ago this movie was in theaters? It's already acknowledged as some kind of masterpiece, an out-of-left-field quantum leap forward from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. And it even coined a catch phrase: "I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!"

11. THE VISITOR (2008, directed by Thomas McCarthy)
An "issue movie" in the best sense of the phrase, this character-centered drama explores the issue of immigration with great sensitivity. Something too often reduced by politicians to simple black and white, The Visitor gradually scrubs down the problem to shades of gray. Yet it also has a sense of humor, including a wonderful performance by DeKalb-born Richard Jenkins and some great music.

12. WENDY AND LUCY (2008, directed by Kelly Reichardt)
If there's any justice in the world, this movie will get a proper theatrical release very soon. Michelle Williams casts a grubby glow playing a young woman as she reaches the end of her rope. It's in perfect sync with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's straightforward yet poetic eye for life near the bottom of the economic food chain. It's a small, quiet film that hit us like a sledgehammer.

Incidentally, 3 of these were on our list of movies we wanted to catch up with this year. Just goes to show, better late than never. What movies did you like this year?