David Edelstein's Top 10 Movies of 2008 The top movies of 2008 — and the larger cultural trends reflected in those films. Fresh Air movie critic David Edelstein talks with Terry Gross about his Ten Best List for 2008.
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David Edelstein's Top 10 Movies of 2008

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David Edelstein's Top 10 Movies of 2008

David Edelstein's Top 10 Movies of 2008

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. One of the things I enjoy about the end of the year is seeing what's on everyone's 10-best list. Our film critic David Edelstein is here with his. David is also a film critic for New York Magazine.

Welcome, David, and thanks for bringing your 10-best list. But before you get to the dramatic reading of it, let's look at some of the trends and patterns of the year in film. The national obsessions this year were basically political and financial: the economy, the presidential campaign, the election of Obama, the final days of President Bush. I mean, movies take too long to be made to literally reflect all of that, but were their certain movies this year that you think reflected the larger obsessions of the country?

DAVID EDELSTEIN: I don't think the economic catastrophe has hit yet except in terms of the box-office numbers of a lot of these movies, particularly the small ones. But you can see that we're in the eighth year of a particular administration. And I think in mainstream movies, what surprised me this year is that there's been a kind of a hip cynicism, even nihilism, that's descended on movies, both domestic and foreign, that clearly has a lot to do with our post-9/11 world and the sense that we've lost our power to change it and perhaps a lack of faith in our leaders.

The "Dark Knight," the most successful film of the year, is bar none the bleakest, most depressing superhero picture ever made. I don't want to - it's not different in kind. Batman has always been a vigilante outcast. But in this film, he's up against the system that is so corrupt and an enemy who is so motiveless-ly, malignantly, cynically nihilistic that he ends up illegally data mining an entire city, and he still comes up short. You know, this is a movie with - it's got no catharsis. The idealists all perish. Evil is barely overcome. The superhero slinks away, and people loved it. I mean, people gave me a hard time because I didn't. I don't know what that tells you.

But we also had a post-9/11 giant monster movie, "Cloverfield," that was shot with a handheld camera, the gimmick being we had no idea what the larger picture was or who was able to do anything. We were just running away with people who didn't want to be stomped. There was a Bond movie, "Quantum of Solace," which was very entertaining, but it was also deeply cynical because Bond was no longer part of the establishment because the establishment was too cowardly and corrupt, and U.S. intelligence was in bed with this multi-tentacled, multinational conglomerate that installed dictators.

And then, there was "Body of Lies" with Leo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. Another movie about U.S. indifference to the fate of the third world. Really, for hope, you had to look at "Iron Man." Now, "Iron Man" came from the same place, but it did a little fancy pirouette. The hero starts out as a ruthlessly exploitive international weapons manufacturer, but then he becomes Iron Man, and he becomes the savior of Afghan women and children endangered by his weapons in the first place.

GROSS: Well, mostly the action movies you have described were bleak and cynical. The common wisdom is that during hard times, people like escapist entertainment. Do you think that's proving to be true this time around?

EDELSTEIN: No. I actually - it's surprising. The more escapist movies I think people have felt that they're kind of weightless, with the bleak exception of "Mamma Mia!," which for some reason encouraged people this summer to remove part of their brain. Even our greatest animated blockbuster, "Wall-E," was a kind of a dystopian vision. I mean, it scared Disney. Disney didn't even show it to critics until three days before it opened, and most of us thought it was masterpiece, but it's set in a sort of post-apocalyptic world where humankind has lost all touch with what it means to be human.

GROSS: And it's about environmental disaster, too.

EDELSTEIN: It is. But it's about that, and it's about the deeper sort of existential disaster of losing touch with the natural world, with your own body, with your own sense of how you exist in the natural world.

GROSS: Maybe it says something that one of the holiday films, "Slumdog Millionaire," is pretty bleak, too, except for the ending.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: Well, "Slumdog Millionaire" is - look, I know there are a lot of people who love that movie, and it's winning lots of prizes, and it's a dazzling piece of work. But it's a lie. It's a big lie from beginning to end. It sets something very cynical, which is "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?," this prism, this materialistic, technological showbiz prism through which this young man relives the tragedies of his life. And then, it kind of sweeps that aside in the end with this burst of Bollywood romanticism. So, you leave the theater singing and dancing. It's a pretty remarkable sleight of hand. I'm surprised as many people fall for it as do. I enjoyed the singing and dancing, too, but I don't think it's a particularly profound movie.

GROSS: I think for the past couple of years when we've done the year-end review in movies, you've pointed out that movies about Iraq did pretty badly at the box office. What about this year?

EDELSTEIN: Yeah, it's turned out to be a dead end, and it's even deader this year. I think one of the reasons is that the films haven't really captured our collective imaginations, in part because we don't want to hear about a war that we may be losing or a war in which we may be doing bad things. That's why I was so excited by a movie that's on my 10-best list year this year. It's not American, and it's not about the Iraq world. It's called "Waltz with Bashir." It's by Ari Folman, an Israeli director and animator, and it's also about soldiers having flashbacks to terrible things that they did in the war. But here, in such a way, this is not a literal-minded film. It opens up your imagination instead of shutting it down. It's about this 1982 massacre of Palestinians that the Israelis were bystanders of.

The whole gimmick is that they've repressed it. They - the protagonists of the film, you know, don't remember exactly what happened. And so it's all very psychoanalytic. And he uses realistic figures against surreal backdrops. He has a kind of a trance-like score that's mixed with classical and rock 'n' roll. And that fluid boundary between documentary and fantasy, between the real and surreal, takes something that's become very banal in movies and kind of lifts it to the level of myth.

GROSS: I should mention this. The director of the film, Ari Folman, will be our guest later in the show, and we'll be talking more about "Waltz with Bashir." You know, as you pointed our earlier, "The Dark Knight" was very successful, probably the most successful film at the box office this year. I've seen it on a lot of 10-best lists, but you were one of the dissenters. You didn't like the film. What do you think audiences responded to in the film? Like, how much of it do you think was, like, the dark themes that you discussed? How much of it was due to Heath Ledger's performance and the fact that it was his final movie after his death?

EDELSTEIN: I think all of it - all of it contributed. I think that one of the things that was interesting is my review, I apparently wrote the first negative review of the film to get out onto the Internet, so I knocked the Rotten Tomatoes score from 100 percent to, like, 97 or something. Now, I didn't do this deliberately. I mean, I'd written the review a week before. And if I had known, believe me, I'd have had them hold it three hours. I would have let David Denby take the heat or something.

You know, I didn't - I definitely did not want to be that guy. But I got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of abusive emails, and 99 percent of them were from people who hadn't seen the movie. So, they were just so primed to love it that there was no way when they went in there that they weren't going to love it. And also, they were rooting for Heath Ledger. Now, Heath Ledger's performance does add this almost eerily supernatural element to what you're watching, because he really does seem to be this demon from the netherworld who's returned.

I mean, it's almost as if he's sitting beside you in the theater, cackling, and there is something very exciting about the performance because he is going on all cylinders. I think what depressed me about it was I would have been incredibly excited to see Health Ledger after this movie, because I feel that all his life and his career he struggled against this idea that he was this sort of bland, blond leading man, and he really wanted to prove that he could transform. And having gone as far as I think he was humanly capable of going, I think he could've pulled back and relaxed a little bit more, and given, you know - and really probably evolved into a great movie star. That's what breaks my heart about that performance.

GROSS: Yeah. My guest is David Edelstein, Fresh Air's film critic, and we're reviewing the year in film. David, let's take a short break here, and then we'll get to your 10-best list and a couple of films that you particularly hated this year.

EDELSTEIN: Oh, goody. Oh, goody.

GROSS: All right, very good. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our film critic, David Edelstein, who's also a film critic for New York Magazine. We're reviewing the year in film. And David, before we get to your 10-best list, I know there's a couple of movies that you disliked so much they actually made you angry, so I can't wait to hear what they are.

EDELSTEIN: Well, the first is Michael Haneke's "Funny Games." And this is a remake, a shot-for-shot remake of a movie he made in German 10 years ago. And it's so not nice he made it twice. It's a punishing movie about psychopaths who take a family hostage, and I'm going to spoil it. They kill them all. But they do it - they torture them and kill them over a period of two hours, and the whole time you think maybe they're going to get away. And people have written to me and said, you don't understand. In his punky, nihilistic way, Haneke is playing with the bourgeois conventions of cinema escapism. You just don't get that, you clot. You know, I get it. I just think it's idiotic, and I just don't want to sit there and be tortured for an hour and a half. A terrible movie.

The other one is "Australia," which is the Baz Luhrmann movie. This is a movie with a vast budget, a vast canvas, full of, you know, would-be marvels that shows that this filmmaker has no grasp whatsoever of how to tell a story in images. It's just random, spurious sensation and special effects thrown at you willy-nilly. It's such a shameless movie. You can't believe that the audience isn't laughing at it and that there are actually some critics who think it's a visionary work of art. Oy!

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you like Baz Luhrmann's musical, "Moulin Rouge"?

EDELSTEIN: I thought "Moulin Rouge" was a travesty. I'm sorry. I thought it was all chopped to bits. You couldn't see any - there wasn't a single gesture that was allowed to happen uninterrupted. Movies like that and "Mamma Mia!," people think that they're dance movies. You know, you never see a human body in motion. I mean, they're Cuisinart movies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: They're movies in which miracles are cheap.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is that moment where we get to the stirring recitation of your 10-best list. So...

EDELSTEIN: Oh, goody, goody, goody.

GROSS: Are we going to hear it in order of preference or just alphabetical order? What's the order here?

EDELSTEIN: Well, I'm going to give it to you in order of preference.


EDELSTEIN: But I should warn you that there are 11, and it's not by design. It was because I made it up, and I published it, and then I forgot one. I forgot that one came out this year. So, I'm cheating a little bit.

GROSS: We're going to cut you a break on this one.

EDELSTEIN: All right, thank you. All right, here we go. Number one, "Rachel Getting Married." Number two, "Wall-E." Number three, "Happy-Go-Lucky." Number four, "Cadillac Records." Number five, "The Class." Number six, "Waltz with Bashir." Number seven, "Shotgun Stories." Number eight, "Kit Kittredge: American Girl." That's the one people won't believe. Number nine, "Doubt." And number 10, "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Trouble the Water."

See, I forgot "Taxi" when I made up this year's list because it won the Oscar and had a screwed-up release that made it unclear if it was 2007 or 2008.

GROSS: OK. "Kit Kittredge," you said that's the one we wouldn't believe. Why not?

EDELSTEIN: Yeah, yeah. Well, that's the one because it was a - it was a total flop when it opened. I mean, people including me didn't see it because it looked like a merchandising tie-in. But it's anything but escapist. It's set at the height of the Depression. It's about an adolescent girl, played by Abigail Breslin, who sets out to be a photojournalist. And get this: All around her, people, her friends, families, are being evicted from their homes.

And she ends up documenting the struggles of hobos and giving the lie to the conventional wisdom and actually solving a crime spree. And I'm not going to say it's a masterpiece. Parts of it looked like a bad dinner theater production of "Annie." But I was so enchanted by this movie I literally cried with joy. Abigail Breslin is just luminous. And as the dad of six- and 10-year-old girls, I think her Kit is one of the greatest role models for kids in contemporary movies.

GROSS: So, it's a good family movie?

EDELSTEIN: It's a great family movie. It's inspiring.

GROSS: So, when you look at your 10-best list, do any patterns jump up at you?

EDELSTEIN: Well, yeah. I mean, I tend to accentuate the positive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: I'm looking for hope. I'm looking for what our future president has called the "audacity of hope." And "Rachel Getting Married" is a very funny movie. I've never seen a movie with that mixture of, on one hand loss and desolation, and on the other this overflowing warmth and fullness. Because the center story, remember the center story a narcissistic drug addict heroine, Anne Hathaway, a horrific family tragedy, a dead little boy, a mother, played by Debra Winger, who's emotionally stunted, sisters who barely speak, a broken home.

And yet, this is Jonathan Demme, this reflexive humanist. And he puts it all in the middle of this extended family in which these racial and cultural barriers are dissolving. And some people complained that, oh, God, that music goes on and on and the ceremony goes on and on. I thought it was great because, you know, even if this woman has to go back to rehab, when she gets out there's still a chance she could get her act together, and this world will be waiting that she can contribute something to and that will welcome her with open arms.

And "Happy-Go-Lucky," the Mike Leigh comedy, is a really good movie to think about alongside it because, again, we're faced with a worldview that could easily be utopian or fatuous. The heroine is a London schoolteacher, Poppy, played by Sally Hawkins, who is so effervescent. And she takes whatever comes with a smile and a quip. And you know, you're watching and you're thinking, boy, this woman is in for a dose of reality. And by the end, you see it's not simple-minded whimsy. It's a design for living that's brave and hard-won. And it's the kind of design we need if we're going to make any progress as a species.

GROSS: I just have to say, I'm all for the audacity of hope, but I find that main character in "Happy-Go-Lucky" really irritating. It's like she didn't...

EDELSTEIN: Oh, you did.

GROSS: It's like she didn't stop. She was always, like, talking or gesturing or being enthusiastic. It just really got on my nerves.

EDELSTEIN: Well, she was - she was very, very child-like, and she was very bratty, and she was very irritating, and I know people who share that view. But we don't have to live life at her pitch to believe that somebody who tends to look at the bright side of things has a better chance without being blinded to the bad. That's the interesting thing about her. It's not that she is a cock-eyed optimist. Her eyes are actually very focused. Somebody who can maintain that level of buoyancy will also recognize the truth and the ugliness in the world around her. That's another great role model.

GROSS: Well, David, with the holidays coming up, people - at least many people will have a little bit of time for a movie or two. Are there - is there a movie or two you'd like to recommend or a movie or two you'd like to recommend we stay away from?

EDELSTEIN: Well, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is interesting. It's based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a guy who ages backwards. In other words, he's born an old man, and he gets younger and younger and younger as he approaches infancy and death. And Brad Pitt plays the role. So, for about an hour and a half, you're waiting for Brad Pitt to look like Brad Pitt, that is to say, supernaturally pretty. And then the next hour, thinking, is that all there is? Because as pretty as his face is, it's not a very interesting face, and there's not a lot going on in it. I think people may be very moved by it. It's kind of a good soap opera. And he and Cate Blanchett looked like a couple of Greek statues making love. But you know, it's about the fleetingness of life. And it's two hours and 45 minutes, so it's - it seems a bit of a contradiction in terms.

The other movie that's very interesting is "Revolutionary Road." It's an anti-suburbia drama, horrifically depressing, based on a great Richard Yates novel about a woman and a man who are trapped in their house, and she's going crazy, and he is drifting into conformity. What's interesting is that they're played by that fun couple from the "Titanic," Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. So, this time, the iceberg that they hit is a middle-class 1950s American life. And folks, it sinks them. But she is incredible, and she pushes him into places that you've never seen him go. He's absolutely undefended in this movie. All the boyish charm flies out the window. And it's quite a spectacle to see, especially if you hated "Titanic" as much as I did.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you for looking at the year in film with us, and I wish you happy holidays and a very good and healthy 2009 with hopefully some good movies in it.

EDELSTEIN: My great pleasure. Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: David Edelstein is Fresh Air's film critic and film critic for New York Magazine. We'll hear from the director of one of the films on his 10-best list in a couple of minutes.

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