Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Favorite Films of 2008

Advent is upon us and the year is winding down. With that in mind, I thought it might be time for the second annual "Aaron's Top Films of the Year." No, these are not my favorite films that came out in 2008; I do not see nearly enough to compile a list like that. No, these are my favorite films that I have seen this year.

Since I had a trifecta last year, I see no reason to break the habit.

The first of our winners is the 1990 Whit Stillman work of genius, Metropolitan. Stillman, a fan of Jane Austen, presents us with a comedy of intellect and manners, or perhaps of "mannerlessness". (As one critic points out, a comedy of manners usually turns upon the inadequacy of traditional manners in the modern world; Metropolitan instead points out the enduring value of such customs in a world that has forgotten them.) The story follows the lives of a group of upper-class New Yorkers ("urban haute bourgeoisie" or UHBs) and Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), an outsider. Tom initially provides a sense of distance, but is increasingly drawn into the circle as the plot unfolds. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay but has otherwise received little attention. A tragedy, I say.

Whit Stillman - whose other works include equally unknown Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) - has been claimed as an influence upon Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic) and Jason Reitman (Juno). In all of them I think you can find certain similarities: quirkiness and a kind of post-modern traditionalism.

If the trailer did not do it for you, try this clip with some dialogue about socialism. (There are some zingers in the film about literary criticism, but I could not find the clip. In any case, there is no point in ruining all the best lines.) And if you would care to read more about Stillman's films, check out Doomed Bourgeois in Love, a collection of essays by such lights as Mark C. Henrie, David M. Whalen, R. V. Young and Peter Augustine Lawler.

The two other films have a certain amount in common, both being stories of lonely couples - one or both of whom are away from their native land - who discover something in someone special. And yet, neither film is quite the standard story you might expect with that set-up.

Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003) tells the tale of Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), two Americans who meet in Japan. Some people have said that Bill Murray always plays the same character: depressed, quiet, witty. Perhaps that is true, and perhaps it is out of place some times. But not here: Murray nails the role.

In talking to others, I find that those who have lived or studied abroad, by themselves, connect with this film in a particular way: the isolation of being in a foreign land can be terribly oppressive. To suddenly discover someone - not to mention a romantic interest - in a situation like that would be a godsend.

My third winner this year is John Carney's Once (2007). If you pay careful attention, you will notice that the main characters in this film, a man played by Glen Hansard and a woman played by the lovely Markéta Irglová, have no names, at least none that are ever given. (The credits list them as "Guy" and "Girl.") It is one of several clues that this is very much a fairy tale, a story of few characters, enacting eternal and archetypal themes.

Set in Dublin, our young couple is brought together by their shared love of music, playing and writing together. Which is fun because Hansard and Irglová - who have become romantically involved in real life - actually wrote and performed the film's music. The result is a work of art which, if sometimes a little rough around the edges - neither lead had any major acting experience and the total budget was a minuscule $160,000 - is strong on pathos and rings quite true.

Finally, while I saw plenty of other quality films in the last year, an honorable mention goes out to Amazing Grace (2006), a period piece about William Wilberforce and the abolition of the British slave trade. History, politics and virtue: what more do you want?
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