- A Christmas Tale
- Still Walking
- Waltz With Bashir
- Frozen River
- Slumdog Millionaire
We all knew that Sean Penn had a fiery intensity that could set a screen on fire…but how many of us knew that he was capable of joy? A justified level of skepticism greeted his being cast in Milk as San Francisco city councillor Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s biopic of the first openly gay American politician: Penn is often relentlessly mired in his own personal disturbance, sometimes abrasively so, and yet Van Sant performs a miracle, giving us the politician’s powerfully charismatic persona, his passion for social justice as well as the pleasure for life that motivated him. It’s a rich experience of a film, and its outstanding performances are a big part of what make it so memorable.
Meryl Streep gives one of her most lavish, exuberant performances as a hard-edged nun whose desire to keep the modern world at bay causes her to cast unfounded suspicion on her school’s priest in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. She is terrifying to the point of hilarious as the taskmaster whose love of rules is tireless, but when she cracks, the vale of sorrow that flows is astounding. Shanley’s film feels more like a filmed play than a movie, but the performances are so brilliant that it really does not matter.
The other side of the spectrum in Milk is presented by Josh Brolin as Dan White, who after resigning from the San Francisco board gunned down the city’s mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Brolin effectively places the germ of this madness early on in the film; he seems the all-American hero sent to defend the city from its more radical elements, but there’s a level of irritation that he displays with brilliant subtlety so that his character’s eventual outcome is tragic without being unexpected. It’s astounding how well he pulls off his inebriated scene with Penn, it’s the best work of his career.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a charming romantic comedy, Woody Allen’s most pleasant film in years, and at the box office one of his most successful in a very long time. It really kicks into high gear, however, when Penelope Cruz enters as Javier Bardem’s unstable ex-wife and starts pointing her manic energies at the people around her. Angrily smoking a cigarette and demanding explanations for all manner of small talk, Cruz is warmly funny, terrifying and captivating at the same time, a no-holds barred performance that truly takes advantage of the opportunities presented by this bewitching character.
There are so few artists left making those giant, eccentric masterpieces anymore; the days of Visconti’s The Leopard and Fellini’s Dolce Vita are sadly behind us (hell, even Wenders’ Wings Of Desire was a great project in this regard). Thank God, then, for Arnaud Desplechin, who made his best film yet in 2008 with the astounding A Christmas Tale, a saga of a highly dysfunctional family who spend the holidays biting at each other while trying to decide what to do about their mother’s illness. It’s got lots of warm, natural moments, but because it is French and intelligent, it also manages its fair share of pointed terrors as well.