By Jeffrey Overstreet
I became a list-o-phile at thirteen. Every Saturday morning I recorded Rick Dees' Weekly Top 40, fascinated with the way that songs moved up and down the pop charts. When a favorite made it to the top—Prince's “When Doves Cry,” Til Tuesday's “Voices Carry,” The Thompson Twins' “Lay Your Hands on Me”—I cranked up the volume and celebrated. Other chart-conquering hits made me feel disappointed in America.
But in spite of the popularity of American Idol, I no longer care what “America has chosen.” By the time I was seventeen, I'd discovered Siskel and Ebert. Their enthusiastic debates convinced me that Americans were missing the most interesting movies. They showed me that encounters with art are personal. Our responses reveal as much about us as they do about the art. I began to see the folly of declaring “The Best Movies.”
And yet I still love lists. I read them obsessively every December. I laugh at some, take notes from others.
Me? I want a nourishing, enthralling experience of truth, beauty, and excellence—one that will draw me back again and again for greater revelations, whether they trouble or delight me.
Disclaimer: I'm not a full-time critic. I haven’t seen some of 2008's most celebrated films, including Rachel Getting Married, The Wrestler, Still Life, Wendy and Lucy, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I expect I'll revise my list soon.
But based on my 2008 moviegoing, these are twenty selections I recommend most highly. I'm not saying they're “the best.” But they made the strongest impression on me. Today, 20 through 15....
#20—The Grocer's Son
Antoine has run away from his family’s rural life in Provence, turning his back on the family business. But when his father falls ill, Antoine reluctantly returns and agrees to drive the family's mobile grocery store from hamlet to hamlet, bringing necessities to the old-fashioned farmers. He finds that the work isn’t so bad—especially when he’s accompanied by Claire, a meddling beauty who has won his affections. This delightful story of a prodigal son in a sensual world is likely to give rural France a new flood of tourists.
#19—Encounters at the End of the World
Werner Herzog's films—some fiction, some non-fiction, and some a blurring of the two—are almost always about living on the edge. In Encounters, a documentary, Herzog takes us to McMurdo, a camp in Antarctica, where we meet some of the planet's most eccentric residents, fraternize with crazy penguins, and swim beneath the ice to see creatures straight out of science fiction. While Herzog’s excursions always end up exposing his dire view of a God-less existence, what we see along the way may seem a compelling contradiction, inspiring awe, wonder, even worship.
Martin McDonagh's film about two hit men hiding out in Belgium's scenic city of Bruges is dark, violent, and drops more F-bombs per minute than most people can stand. But it has a big, beating heart under its coarse, crass exterior. This is a tale about hard shells cracking, exposing conscience, sadness, and a yearning for grace. Colin Farrell is hilarious; Brendan Gleeson gives a warm and winning performance, his best since The General; and the film's biggest surprise is a cracked, frightening turn by Ralph Fiennes. Few filmmakers can juggle comedy, suspense, drama, the profane and the profound as deftly as McDonagh does here.
Ballast takes place on today's Mississippi Delta, where the crashing U.S. economy can hardly make things any worse. Lawrence is a 12-year-old boy trapped in a nightmare: His father has committed suicide. His mother is a recovering junkie who can't protect her son because she had to go to work. His uncle is distraught to the point of paralysis over the suicide. The family business is closed. And Lawrence is more interested in messing around with drug dealers than school. It's a bleak but believable story, well-acted, and uncompromising. And it concludes with a tantalizing ray of hope. You'll probably see the influence of Bresson in a style that recalls the films of the Dardennes Brothers.
OK, they've convinced me: 3-D can be a good thing. U2 3D immerses you in a Latin American crowd of 80,000 U2 fans. Even during my dream-come-true concert experience (front row at U2's Elevation tour), I didn’t have the freedom to get up and walk around on the stage, study the drum kit, chase Bono around, or look over Adam Clayton’s shoulder into the surging waves of fans. Of course, you can't really appreciate this groundbreaking achievement unless you see it on an IMAX screen six stories tall. But I suspect they'll be bringing it back from time to time, so watch for your opportunity.
#15—The Band's Visit
If you aren't a fan of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, you will be. The Band's Visit is a tender-hearted comedy, written and directed by Eran Kolirin, about an Egyptian band that becomes lost in the Israeli desert while heading to their gig at the Arab Cultural Center in Israel. Forced to depend upon the kindness of strangers, they encounter an independent woman named Dina who offers service with a smirk. While she catches the eye of the tall, dark, and handsome Haled, it's Twefiq, the sad-eyed conductor, that she takes under her wing, and their histories of heartbreak are unveiled with grace and gentleness. And while their stories are particularly personal, they resonate with the age-old heartache of divided cultures and immeasurable loss. In spite of all of this, the film is very, very funny. A roller rink becomes the scene of one of this year's finest bits of silent comedy, as a band member begrudgingly facilitates a match made in heaven. (I expect that an announcement about an American remake about a New Orleans jazz band, probably starring Tom Hanks, is imminent.)