It is significant that my choices for the best film and the worst film of 2008 are both gay-themed and made by gay filmmakers. While this is a mixed accomplishment, I say it is significant due to the sheer number of GLBT releases. As recent as five years ago, films with GLBT subject matter and/or by GLBT filmmakers were very rare. Today, however, it seems there is at least one opening in the Los Angeles area every week! This is a good thing, and a sign of the progress we’ve made in telling our stories.
Without further ado, here is my top-ten list of the best cinematic achievements (mainstream and GLBT) last year had to offer:
1. Milk: Sean Penn masterfully, even exuberantly, re-incarnates Harvey Milk, the first openly gay US politician. Director Gus Van Sant makes full use of his knowledge of filmmaking and GLBT history, and makes this important story engrossing no matter what one’s sexual orientation.
2. WALL-E: The animation titan Pixar's greatest film yet, told with characteristic humor and artistic brilliance yet bearing an unusually weighty moral about human responsibility for our environment … and our future.
3. Ready? OK!: This charming story of a little boy who longs to join his Catholic school’s cheer squad was a hit on the film festival circuit. Criminally, it appears it won’t be receiving a theatrical release. Watch for it on DVDthis spring from Wolfe Video.
4. Doubt: Imperious nun Meryl Streep meets Philip Seymour Hoffman’s possibly abusive priest. Dramatic and ethical fireworks ensue. Throw in excellent supporting performances by Amy Adams and Viola Davis and you have the most thought-provoking celluloid debate of 2008.
5. Waltz with Bashir: Ari Folman’s powerful, mostly animated rumination on memory and responsibility in the wake of a massacre of Palestinian refugees by alleged Christians with Israeli support. The filmmakers’ technique illustrates the theme of disassociation in the face of violence.
6. Happy-Go-Lucky: An unusually cheery movie from veteran British writer-director Mike Leigh, featuring a star-making turn by the Dearie Award-winning Sally Hawkins as a woman who always manages to look on the bright side of life. The world would truly be a better place if we all emulated her.
7. Four Minutes: Potent tale from Germany of a music teacher in a women’s prison who takes a talented but volatile new inmate under her wing. This film’s finale is one of the most exciting and haunting in recent memory.
8. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: A valentine to a by-gone era and women’s longing for lives of substance. Frances McDormand and Amy Adams (who is making great choices as an actress; see Doubt above) are terrific, and the art direction and period details breathtaking.
9. Speed Racer: Fellow critics mercilessly denounced this dazzling, visually inventive adaptation of the Japanese animated series. It also features a game, big-name cast and family-affirming script. What’s more, it’s just plain fun ... more so than anything in the glut of summer superhero movies.
10. Chris & Don: A Love Story: A great, revealing documentary about the longtime relationship between the late writer Christopher Isherwood and his considerably younger partner, painter Don Bachardy. 2008 was a great year for documentaries but this one stood out for me.
And now for my five worst movie-going experiences of 2008, from which I’m still recovering:
1. Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild: This is one of only three movies in my life I’ve walked out of before they ended. Unfunny and disgusting, I felt embarrassed watching it even with an all-gay audience, and I don’t offend easily.
2. Synecdoche, New York: Charlie Kaufman is a talented screenwriter, as evidenced by Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His latest, however, is a pretentious, witless disaster that largely wastes a great cast.
3. The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror: A fun idea given a lame, low-budget execution. It’s all downhill after the enjoyable title song, “Watch Out for the Straights!”
4. Filth and Wisdom: Madonna’s direction isn’t half-bad in her debut behind the camera. Too bad she chose a poor script teeming with uninteresting characters to work with.
5. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: An excessively violent but oddly dull entry in the C.S. Lewis series. A Crusades allegory for teenyboppers, who wisely rejected it.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.