Tag Archives: Australia

Best Movies of 2008


Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2008, with an additional 15 honorable mentions that could easily have made the best ten as well. This list has gone through many variations in recent weeks, as I’ve seen a few films more than once or some for the first time. But I’m quite satisfied with the final ten I’ve narrowed it down to. These are the films that thrilled me the most in 2008.

10) Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer): Ballast is a simple, life-affirming (in the true sense) film about how we pull our lives together after tragedy. It’s about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). A small, lyrical, beautifully photographed film.

9) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman): This is a crazy, brainy movie, loved and loathed by many. Similar in spirit and style to the films he’s written (especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), Synecdoche is truly Kauffman’s magnum opus.

8) Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt): This is a short, quick, devastating film. Reichardt follows Old Joy in theme and style, peering in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly menacing world.

7) Vicky Cristina Barcelona (dir. Woody Allen): The second really great film from Allen in 2008 (the other being Cassandra’s Dream), Barcelona is a sumptuous feast of elegant, polished, on-point filmmaking. Allen is a master of the craft, and this film is gorgeous, rewarding evidence of that fact.

6) Australia (dir. Baz Luhrmann):
I’m confounded by the paltry critical and popular response to this movie. I simply adored it. It’s a remarkably fun, beautiful, lush film with no pretensions of importance but a keen command of the craft. That is: the craft of outrageous, epic, old school Hollywood artifice that birthed everything from Gone With the Wind to Titanic. A joy to watch.

5) Flight of the Red Balloon (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien): Not for those who hate slow movies, because this is a very slow movie. But that is why I love it. It rushes for no one or no thing, and treats its subjects with the sort of delicate, curious gaze that is rarely seen in the post-Tony Scott era of attention-deprived cinema.

4) Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme):
A highly compelling, superbly acted assemblage of intimate, interpersonal moments. Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, and the whole cast offer a smorgasbord of stylish, humane acting. I think it might be my favorite wedding movie ever.

3) The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films ever as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.

2) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher):
This is an exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time. The freshest and best parts of them are only temporary. It’s a film that touched me deeply, perhaps more than any film this year, bringing to the fore those sometimes dormant emotions and deeply rooted recognitions of life’s impermanence that are at once heartbreaking and galvanizing. Props to David Fincher for two years and two films (this along with last year’s Zodiac) that rank among the best and most defining of the decade.

1) Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant):
This film has stuck with me more than any that I have seen this year. Something about it moved me very deeply; it’s one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though it is highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.

Honorable Mention: Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Cassandra’s Dream, Slumdog Millionaire, Shotgun Stories, The Wrestler, Wall-E, Chop Shop, Burn After Reading, Hunger, Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, Tell No One, Snow Angels, Iron Man.

Two Films for Thanksgiving

Thinking of going to a movie with the family this week? Here are two films you can and should say yes to: Australia and Slumdog Millionaire. Though they are not American movies, they are amazingly feel-good and epic in scope. I’d give each 4/4 stars.


This is a bish-boom-bang historical epic of the highest quality and entertainment value. Baz Lurhmann’s audacious ode to his country (though it ends up being more of an ode to American cinema circa WWII) has everything you’d ask for in a holiday film: action, romance, emotion, and eye candy for every possible type of moviegoer. Here’s an excerpt from my review of the film at Christianity Today:

The film’s epic scale, with horses and explosions and romantic kissing in the rain, summons the best spirits of the Hollywood studio system—the “dream factory” itself. What Moulin Rouge! did with late twentieth century pop music, Australia does with Hollywood historical epics. It’s an amalgam of such films as Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The African Queen, Out of Africa, even Titanic or Far & Away (which also starred Kidman). These are films of pure, dazzling escapism—vibrant, showy spectacles that are less about reality in the strict sense as reality in the idealized, dramatically lit and well-costumed sense.

Australia might strike some as a clichéd, overblown, sappy, messy blend of reality and artifice (i.e. the important commentary on Australia’s racial issues mixed with campy dialogue and subpar CGI cow stampedes). But I found it to be a pleasurable, invigorating mess. Like most of the great Hollywood epics, Australia isn’t perfect. It’s not high art… But cinema never had that heritage. It was always a medium for the masses, and came of age in a depression, when the masses needed it most. Australia is not a film for Australians as much as it is for the world, and it isn’t a history lesson. It’s an ode to a place (exotic to some, familiar to others), yes, but more than that, Australia is a state of mind: wonderment, grandeur, beauty, love, escape, hope.

I think it’s a film we need right now.

Read the full review here.

Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is the freshest, most unexpected film of the year. A British/Indian co-production (shot in India), this globo-Bollywood epic is, like Australia, a film both exotic and familiar. It is set in Mumbai but tells a story that is very rags-to-riches classic; it mixes pop-culture tidbits from east and west, with a heavily pomo/globalization aesthetic. There are M.I.A. songs on the soundtrack, and the plot is largely focused upon the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, which is one of the Y2K-era’s biggest global media success stories.

The story is beautifully paced and tenderly told–a Dickens-esque chronicle of one boy from the slums of Mumbai who transcends his circumstances (with a lot of luck) and reaps the rewards of a humble, honest life. It’s also a love story, in the most cheerfully cliched sense (again, like Australia), and it’s all so wonderfully earnest. Not a shred of cynicism to be found.

If you’re skeptical about Bollywood or something with the word “Slumdog” in the title, don’t be. Go to this movie, and take the family. You’ll be glad you did.

Bra Boys

I spent Sunday afternoon at Santa Monica beach (something I do frequently on Sunday afternoons), and let me just say: this is one of the most unique and complicated places you can encounter. The twin beach towns of Santa Monica and Venice (about 15 miles west of downtown Los Angeles) make up a unique beach community that stands out among a coastline of “stand out” beach towns. Something about the combination of people (tourists, hippie locals, every ethnicity imaginable, celebrities, vagrants), material environment (art deco architecture, open air promenades, seagulls, cheesy tourist shops), and history (Route 66, the pier, the legendary surf/skateboard communities of the 60s/70s) make this a place with (seemingly) more character than a lot of places. But in the end, aren’t all places equally complicated and unique? What defines a “unique” location? Is a Kansas farmtown any less complex and character-filled than Paris or Shanghai? I was wondering these things as I was at the beach.

Fittingly, I decided to catch a movie at the beachfront arts theater—a documentary called Bra Boys. I say fittingly, because this is a documentary that addresses the question of place very directly and engagingly. In this film (which I highly recommend), the ostensible subject is a group of ragtag Australian hoodlums/surfer dudes nicknamed “Bra Boys.” They are a multi-ethnic gang (or “tribe,” as Australian surfer gangs are often labeled) made up of troubled teens/twentysomethings, thick-necked rugby players, and a few professional surfers (Koby Abberton, most notably). They are joined by a love of surfing, fraternity spirit (they all have “Bra Boys” tattoos), and the fact that they all live and surf the beach waves of Sydney suburb Maroubra. And in the end, this film is not so much about its characters or even the sport of surfing (though it is about this), but rather it is about Maroubra—a place quite unlike any other.

Narrator Russell Crowe makes this clear from the get go, as the film begins with an extended narrative montage of the history of Maroubra—from the colonial days (New South Wales was created, as we know, to be a massive prison for exiles of the Empire) to the relatively recent (1990s-onward) problems of gang violence. From there the film expands into a full-fledged, beautifully-rendered portrait of a very rough, very tight-knit community. It’s also a very personal portrait, as the film is directed by a Bra Boy and Maroubra native, Sunny Abberton (who, along with his brothers Jai and Koby, are the film’s chief character subjects).

Maroubra has had a difficult history, with a lot going against it from very early on. The town is flanked on its three non-ocean sides by a massive prison (Long Bay Jail), the biggest sewage plant in the southern hemisphere, and a rifle range. It’s also a hotbed for low-income public housing, drugs, broken families, and violence (stabbings, shootings, beatings) of all kinds. Out of this overlooked neighborhood (and others like it along the suburban Sydney coast) arose territorial surfer tribes/gangs—more violent, testosterone-filled versions of Santa Monica’s legendary “Z Boys”—who fight each other and defend their communities with vicious tenacity.

Bra Boys is fascinating in its exposure of a strident localism that is little-seen in our increasingly “flat,” globalized world. Maroubra is a place well-defined by its people and history, bound by the driving pastime of surfing on its expansive beaches. Indeed, without surfing, this roughshod neighborhood might collapse in on itself—its residents bound to cycles of poverty, drugs, and incarceration. Instead, it is a place that—through surfing and community—motivates its underprivileged youngsters to rise above their circumstances (almost all of the Bra boys are fatherless, for example) and make something of themselves. I suppose it is an intrinsic logic of any place to find productive outlets wherein the circumstantial disadvantages of its citizens can be overcome, but Bra Boys makes the argument that Maroubra does it better than most.

I’m not sure the film works as an argument for the virtues of Maroubra as a socializing force, but it definitely works as a compelling snapshot of a specific place and culture. There’s something powerful about the singularity of Maroubra’s character—fueled by a common love (surfing) and common enemy (its own fierce localism). Places, I think, are stronger when they have a shared, clear identity, when disparate forces and the dangers of diversity don’t undermine but rather enhance a collective goal or telos. I’m not sure how many Maroubras there are left on earth—or even if we need them anymore. But it’s nice to see one so alive and functional, even if the observance seems somewhat elegiac.