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Movie Mystic: My 5 Favorite Films of 2008

by Stephen Simon


As I note every year, my favorite films are not the ones that I consider the “best’ films of 2008. I do not believe that works of art can or should be ordered from good to best to whatever. How could anyone OBJECTIVELY say that a Rembrandt is a “better” painting than a DaVinci or a Van Gogh?

We only know what we personally like and don’t like.

As a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I hope that we eventually change the description of the Oscars that we award every year from “best” to “favorite”. To do so would be much more accurate and honest.

Here are my personal favorites of 2008:

1) THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

BUTTON is a fascinatingly complex human “fantasy”, a globe-encircling adventure, a powerful and moving love story, and one of the most dazzlingly original films ever made. If the film were an Olympic diving event, the degree of difficulty would be totally off the charts.

A man (Brad Pitt) is born old, and then reverse ages for the entire film. When he is old, he meets a young girl (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett). As she gets older, he “youths” until their age lines eventually meet. And then….

From achingly beautiful and complex performances, to jaw-dropping visual effects, to makeup effects that age and reverse age the two main characters, to the human drama of living through almost the entire 20th Century, BUTTON is an almost 3 hour epic in every sense of the word. The last hour of the film is so poignant and beautiful that I’m not sure I even breathed while watching it.

BUTTON is, I believe, destined to become a true American classic. It also puts to rest one of the oldest clichés ever: youth is most definitely NOT always wasted on the young.

2) MAMMA MIA

MAMMA, MIA!, what a movie!. Exhilarating, dazzling, breathtakingly beautiful for your eyes, rockingly wonderful for your ears, and energetically enchanting for your heart, MAMMA MIA is pure, unadulterated fun. I dare you not to be singing along and rocking out at home when the cast performs “Dancing Queen.” No, I double quadruple dare you!!

At the film’s epicenter is the inestimable Meryl Streep who is, as always, brilliant, exquisite, and utterly fearless. To go from last year’s cold, calculating diva in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA to a singing, utterly uninhibited, former hippie here and then to the stern nun in DOUBT would be almost impossible transitions for anyone other than Meryl Streep. For over thirty years now, she has created one indelible performance after another. There may have been other actresses in other eras who were her equal but there has been no greater actress in the history of film than Meryl Streep.

Let's also raise a mighty toast to being middle-aged, or maybe even “two-thirds” aged or more. Watching Meryl and her cohorts race around a Greek Island is a joyous reminder that much of the so-called “aging process” is rooted only in our attitudes.

When we embrace love, fun, and spontaneity, age is truly irrelevant and then, MAMMA MIA!, what a party life can be.

3) WALL-E

WALL-E is a completely original work of visionary genius. The film also possesses many brilliant nuances and human insights, has a pure and gentle heart, and has much to say about love and life.

WALL-E is beyond dazzling to watch. To say that it's an animated film is somewhat like saying redwoods are just trees. I have never seen or even imagined that computer-generated images could look or feel like this. In a strange, beautiful way, both WALL-E's story and technology wrap us in the warmth of knowing that our humanity can indeed surpass and transcend our technology.

The film also shows us how self-indulgent we have become as a species and how we can, and must, reverse that trend.

WALL-E (the latest film from the inestimably brilliant Pixar Studios) has so much on its mind, in its heart, and in its vision that it just may reinvigorate your hope not only for movies, but also for our own humanity.

4) LAST CHANCE HARVEY

LAST CHANCE HARVEY stars the always-wonderful Dustin Hoffman as Harvey Shine, a 60-ish composer whose only income is derived from writing commercial jingles for advertisers. As he struggles to keep his job and dignity, his daughter is to be married in London where Harvey’s ex-wife and her much more successful new husband also live.

Also living in London is Kate Walker (played by the also always-wonderful Emma Thompson). Kate is unmarried, lonely, and feels totally out of place in the “singles” world.

Somehow, they meet and……..

The charm and joy in HARVEY derive from our recognition of where both Harvey and Kate find themselves in life. Somewhat disillusioned. Out of synch with the world around them. Is this where my life was leading me? I didn’t think I would end up alone. Is this really “it”, then? Don’t I still deserve one last chance at having my dreams come true? It can happen at my age. I know it can. I just know it can. I’m right, aren’t I? AREN”T I?

And then, unsuspecting, you turn that one corner, walk into that one restaurant, and come to face with your dream.

Just like that.

If you’ve experienced that in your life, HARVEY will remind you of how lucky you are.

If you haven’t experienced it, the film reminds us that it happens every day.

It happened to Harvey and Kate.

If you so desire, you may be next.

5) TIE: GHOST TOWN / GRAN TORINO

You know the kind of person who always seems angry at or disgusted by the world and all the people around him? The kind of person who seems to wear a big sign that says “Don’t bother me for any reason at any time.” Ever wonder why that kind of person is the way he or she is…or do we just try to avoid them?

Answers to those questions can be found in both GHOST TOWN and GRAN TORINO, two completely different kinds of films that, nevertheless, look at the choices we make and why we may behave the way we do.

On the surface, GHOST TOWN seems at first to simply be a comedy with some wonderfully funny dialogue and poignant moments. As it progresses, however, it becomes a fascinating and compelling drama in which two men, one dead (Greg Kinnear)) and one alive (Ricky Gervais), help each other learn why they have both been so self-centered.

GRAN TORINO is a much more dramatic film (with some wonderful comedic moments) about a “bigot” (Clint Eastwood at his absolute ornery best) who has seemingly lost any sense of humanity, both his own and also anyone else’s. It is only when he is forced to actually engage in the world of which he seems so dismissive that his true grace surfaces. The film also has much to say about racial prejudice and, in so many ways, exposes the underbelly of true racial bigotry. At the same time, it also demonstrates the difference between that bigotry and our now sometimes exaggerated notions of political correctness.

GRAN TORINO has some violence in it, particularly at its denouement, and the political incorrectness of its dialogue is off the charts, so I really soul-searched about including it here. The film is, however, just so human, insightful, funny, and compelling, that I couldn’t help myself. Eastwood’s performance, which is at times almost a self-parody of many of his own previous roles, is utterly beguiling and achingly vulnerable.

At their deepest level, both GHOST TOWN and GRAN TORINO have great compassion for those of us who have been wounded at such a deep level that we are terrified to ever put ourselves in any situation in which we could ever again be hurt. Both films penetrate that veneer of closed-off defensiveness and illuminate the true hearts of their characters. Both are also engrossing and wonderful films that work on the surface while you’re watching them and then stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

And THAT’S Spiritual Cinema.

(Stephen Simon co founded www.spiritualcinemacircle.com. He also produced such films as SOMEWHERE IN TIME and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, and both produced and directed INDIGO and CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD.)


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