As the new releases become more dicey and the parade of downer Oscar-bait slinks into wide release, don't succumb to the January blues. While ten-best lists are decrying the lack of a There Will Be Blood or No Country For Old Men, 2008 was still a wonderful and surprising year for films, if you knew where to look. This week, The Reelist lists 2008 films* that moved us, shocked us, made us cry, made us laugh, and most importantly, stuck with us.
*Note: Our parameters were films that were theatrically released in New York. The foreign films, of course, were more dicey and may have had an official (Oscar) release in an earlier year.
 

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days

Dir. Cristian Mungiu
While life in Romania has likely never been easy, the Ceaucescu-ruled 1980s were a particularly grim time for those unlucky enough to find themselves there. Mungiu's film features two young women trying to better their lives through education in a bleak college town; as things go wildly, horrifically awry, the film tackles very big issues with a quietly commanding voice. You could have heard a piece of popcorn drop throughout the screening I saw at the IFC Center, and this riveting, bleak picture haunted me for weeks. But in the best possible way.
—KMc
 

howlin'Cadillac Records

Dir. Darnell Martin
The reason why I'm writing about this film is that I can't get Eamonn Walker's performance as Howlin' Wolf out of my head. In his first appearance onscreen, he's simply identified as a newly-signed-to-Chess-Records musician, and an ex-sharecropper from the same Mississippi town as Jeffrey Wright's slick-cat Muddy Waters. Wolf stands tall and proud in shabby overalls and with his beater of a broken down truck, and the tension that emerges between him and Waters could fuel a whole movie. (Not this movie, but that's another piece.) The next scene cuts to Wolf in the studio, recording his first song. And what a song! Walker lumbers into Wolf's classic "Smokestack Lightning," visibly sweating underneath the lights with his "whoos" and growls of "smokestack!" turning the song into something primal—pure sex—and seducing Waters' girl in the studio. It's a mighty portrayal, the standout in a fantastic cast of unknowns and perennial underrateds (after all, it does include the estimable Wright and a wonderful Columbus Short as Little Walter). It was an absolute shock to see Walker at the press conference; I was unfamiliar with his previous work on Oz and had no idea he was actually British. What a performance.
—ED
 

the edge of heavenThe Edge of Heaven

Dir. Fatih Akin
Wherein Fatih Akin, the brilliant Turkish-German director (Head On), simply gives struggling screenwriters in a post-Crash world a master class in how to gracefully formulate a plot with interlocking characters.
—ED



 

in brugesIn Bruges

Dir. Martin McDonagh
"Why does it have to be in fucking Bruges?" asks Colin Farrell, playing Ray, a reluctant hitman. Ignore the promo materials that make acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's debut full-length (he won an Academy Award in 2004 for his short Six Shooter) feature look like a tired post-Tarantino/Guy Ritchie caper crime lark. McDonagh may be working with pulp, as the plot revolves around two hitmen (Farrell and the wonderful Brendan Gleeson) hiding out in a foreign city, waiting for orders from their boss (Ralph Fiennes, turning the c-word into pure poetry), but that pulp is the setup for a gleefully profane and wise stay in purgatory, where heaven and hell and the point of it all are discussed in a torrent of glorious words. It's particularly wonderful to see Farrell freed from the ingenue/next-big-thing-in-Hollywood shackles for this flick; his performance is all beetle eyebrows and rich befuddlement, and it's a hilarious, moving piece of work.
—ED
 

Let the Right One InLet the Right One In

Dir. Tomas Alfredson
2008 was the year for vampires, but sadly, the wrong fang movie sucked all the air out of the room. In his US debut, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson turned the genre on its head with his bizarre tale of a preteen romance between a very blond, awkward, bullied boy and his darkly mysterious, big-eyed neighbor, who just happens to subsist on blood. (She's also a genius on the Rubik's Cube and doesn't need shoes, despite the Swedish winter snowdrifts.) This film won the award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, and its theatrical run had some teeth, giving it enough juice for the inevitable Hollywood remake. Unnecessary.
—KMc
 

Mamma Mia!Mamma Mia!

Dir. Phyllida Lloyd
I know. I know! When Pierce Brosnan sincerely dove into “SOS” with his painful attempt at blue-eyed soul, my friends and I literally burst out laughing. But still, this movie is so full of joy! And it has four major pluses going for it: 1) The sun-drenched cinematography, making it seem like Greece is in perpetual Magic Hour, 2) A charming Amanda Seyfried (forever Lily Kane to those in the know) romping into her big-budget debut in a part that seemed written for her, 3) A jubilant cougar of a Christine Baranski taunting young boys with her long, long legs, and 4) The songs. Ah, yes. We know them, we sing them (in karaoke and at bachelorette parties), they make us cringe. But it all comes from a place of love.
Mamma Mia!
—KMc
 

repriseReprise

Dir. Joachim Trier
Easily my favorite movie of 2008, the Norwegian writing/directing debut of ex-skateboarder Trier wrestles with youth, beauty, and idealism staring in the face of inspiration and madness. With a sharply written script that folds in on itself, stylistic exuberance indebted to Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave, and a cast of non-actors (Anders Danielsen Lie, a real-life doctor, is a standout as tortured writer Phillip) with glorious faces, Reprise is a movie that gets those slippery, maddening twentysomething years—where you begin as a child and emerge as an adult—right. I can't wait to see what Trier does next.
—ED
 

Role ModelsRole Models

Dir. David Wain
I went into this screening with very few expectations, aside from a deep, abiding love of the Rudd that goes all the way back to Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. We have all been Apatow-ed enough by now to understand that men in their 30s today (on film, anyway) have a hard time accepting responsibility and growing up, and this movie did nothing to dispel that notion. So what? Accept it, move on, and embrace this immature-on-the-surface (“Boobies!”) but deep-down-lovable story that includes two such Peter Pans, the misfit kids they have to win over in order to stay out of jail, a motley crew of weekend D&D-ish role-players, and a plot-appropriate take on a popular KISS ballad. You know the one, it rhymes with Seth. What more do you want?
—KMc
 

shotgunShotgun Stories

Dir. Jeff Nichols
Find your friend with a projector and watch this movie on as fine a screen as possible—in this digital age, the 35mm pleasures of Jeff Nichols' debut feature (which premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival) need to be seen in as fine a visual medium as possible. It makes sense, of course; revenge is a subject that demands a large palette, and Nichols' dreamy southern magic hour landscapes add a layer of hugeness and mythology to what is a deceptively simple film. Also notable as a showcase for the brilliant/handsome/ever-creepy/giant-headed Michael Shannon (hopefully receiving an Oscar nomination later this month for being the best part of Revolutionary Road—forgive me, Saint Winslet!) as the oldest of a set of brothers embroiled in a family feud.
—ED
 

The VisitorThe Visitor

Dir. Thomas McCarthy
The first half-hour of this movie is a wholly joyful awakening. The friendship between Richard Jenkins' Walter and Haaz Sleiman’s Tarek is one for our times: across societal boundaries that are also cultural, generational, class-based, and turf-induced, these men connect in the purest of ways, and through music, the richest of mediums. It’s hard to explain this movie without making it sound like a PC, take-your-medicine-because-it’s-good-for-you afterschool special. But it’s so much deeper than that: it's about grief, aging, morality, and the myriad forms of love humans have for each other. If there was any justice, Jenkins would be competing with Penn, Langella, and Rourke in February, but it’s not likely. Academy, prove me wrong!
—KMc
 

Have other "forgotten" movies in mind?
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