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February 10, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | February 10, 2008 |

It’s that time of year once again, when film critics nationwide go indiscriminately crazy assembling lists of The Absolute Best Movie Of The Year, For Serious. We here at Pajiba have certainly participated in such endeavors before, though we usually try to have a little more fun with it. That’s what this list is all about, and it’s why this year we didn’t want to come up with just another list of the same movies everyone else is talking about. Dustin, John, and I will be publishing a roundtable discussion we held via email about our favorite films of the year, but as far as sheer listing is concerned, we realized it would be far more helpful to the average viewer, not to mention more in line with what Pajiba is all about, to take this opportunity to once more celebrate the best films of the year that you didn’t see. Whether it was a small-scale bow that never generated much steam outside the art house circuit, or a foreign film given short shrift in stateside release, or even a wide release that nevertheless fell off the cultural radar after only a week or two, there were films this year that fell through the cracks for a lot of people, and this space is to exhort readers and viewers once more to give these movies a chance. It was tough narrowing the list to just twelve choices — honorable mention goes to 2 Days in Paris and The Darjeeling Limited, which just missed the cut-off — but we think these films were small joys this year, and hope you feel the same. — Daniel Carlson

waitress2.jpgWaitress — Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: Waitress had the relatively highest profile among feel-good art house releases this year, and even managed to rake in a respectable $19 million over the summer and fall. That’s an impressive figure for a low-budget Southern comedy that swings between honest drama and quirky characters but always manages to remain as sweet and filling as the pies whipped up by its heroine. As Jenna, the put-upon waitress whose specialty pies and unhappy pregnancy provide the backbone of the film, Keri Russell is absolutely wonderful, a mixture of strength and bitterness and love and a bruised hope that life will one day be better. She puts up with an emotionally abusive husband and has a fling with her ob/gyn, but this is her show all the way through. It’s terrible that writer-director Adrienne Shelly, who also co-stars, was murdered before she could enjoy the film’s modest but wholly deserved success. Waitress is smart, funny, and cute in the best sense of the word. — DC

gone2.jpgGone Baby Gone — Do you ever feel like you have a personal stake in a movie’s outcome? As in, you track its box-office results like you would the rushing totals for your favorite running back? I felt that way about Gone Baby Gone and, from that perspective, it was the biggest disappointment of the year for me, seeing Ben Affleck’s directorial debut barely crack the $20 million mark, an unfortunate dud for one of the best movies of the year. I don’t know if it was the unfortunate continuation of the Affleck backlash, the grim subject material, or the general Boston crime thriller fatigue. Whatever it was, it’s a damn shame that Gone Baby Gone went relatively unseen by the masses, because it not only captured the essence of blue-collar Boston better than any other film in recent memory, it was an ugly, morally ambiguous, gritty crime saga with a few breathtaking performances (notably Casey Affleck and, especially, Amy Madigan). Using real locals as the backdrop, Ben Affleck created, in Gone Baby Gone, the closest thing you’ll find to “The Wire” on the big screen, a heavy, engrossing child-abduction tale that will leave you with a heavy heart and a racing mind. As I wrote in my original review, in two hours, Ben Affleck erased a decade’s worth of sins, and I hope it’s a movie that catches on in the DVD market. — Dustin Rowles

devil2.jpgBefore the Devil Knows You’re Dead — Director Sidney Lumet’s unlikely career revival (he’s 83) was hailed by critics but ignored by audiences. The fact that this movie grossed just a little more than $5 million is incomprehensible, and I think it says something about just how quickly we’re circling down the drain. Let me explain. Devil, the story of two brothers who plan to rob their own parents’ jewelry store and leave a whole lot of damage in their wake, isn’t some opaque movie from Iran that the intellegentsia swoons for and then chastises NASCAR Nation for not supporting. It’s directed by Lumet, who’s got a serious mainstream track record. He made Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. (He’s 83 — he directed 12 Angry Men, for God’s sake.) It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and a scantily- or not-clad Marisa Tomei. It’s pieced together with all the time-hopping, manic energy of a Tarantino flick, except it’s more concerned with its story than with looking cool. There’s sex, blood, revenge, and tragedy. In short, what the hell is America looking for? This is what suspenseful, seamy movies — 21st-century film noir — should be, and the names attached are big enough so that it shouldn’t have to be dragged back out at the end of the year with the little-indies-that-could. It deserved more eyeballs. — John Williams

lars2.jpgLars and the Real Girl — Not only was Lars one of my favorite films this year, but Dan’s thoughtful, beautifully written review was one of my favorite pieces on this site in 2007, as he summed up the movie perfectly in his final line: “It’s about the intersection of life and death, and of love and adulthood, and about how sometimes you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Unfortunately, even with acting wunderkind Ryan Gosling turning in a performance as honest and sad as his turn in Half Nelson, a movie about a lonely man who gets involved with an inflatable doll was a tough sell, and I suspect most people couldn’t get over the laughable logline enough to attend (it barely cracked the $5 million mark). But, really, it’s so much more than a film about “a delusional young guy who strikes up an unconventional relationship with a doll he finds on the Internet”; that’s just the foundation for a heartbreaking movie about the lengths the citizens of a well-meaning, church-going small town will go to support a man suffering from mental illness. It’s one of those ridiculous indie film premises that you’d imagine might sink underneath a sea of quirk and whimsy, but Craig Gillespie, working from a Nancy Oliver script, never attempts to make Lars a cool movie for the hipster crowd. It is, above all, an earnest film about a decidedly uncool quality that’s rarely tackled in indie or mainstream cinema: Kindness. — DR

stardust2.jpgStardust — I gushed over Stardust when it was released as if I’d been beaten about the head with sticks, but I haven’t changed my opinion. If anything, I’ve become more attached to the film, and the idea of the film, in the past few months. Stardust is amazing fantasy-based genre entertainment, and while I know that turns a lot of people off — hell, I went in expecting it to be horrible — the film is actually a rousing, heartbreaking, soaring little adventure story about love and evil and all that. The screenplay, drawn from Neil Gaiman’s novel, follows Tristan (Charlie Cox) on his journey home across an enchanted land with Yvaine (Claire Danes), as his traveling companion, romantic foil, and ultimate true love. I know that all sounds impossibly soupy and boring, but the film isn’t cheesy or stupid. No, it’s actually something few films dare to be today: Unironic. Stardust is relentlessly earnest, and the self-aware humor that recalls The Princess Bride does nothing to deflate the film’s obvious desire to tell a big story with warmth and honesty. The film earned about $38 million, making it the most financially successful film on our list, but it still feels like no one saw this movie, either because they didn’t know about it or were scared off by the deeply flawed trailers and terrible posters. To all those who’ve seen the film: Great. Pass it along. But to all those who haven’t: You’re missing something wonderful here, something that’s fun and engaging and brings to mind the kind of storybook adventures you though you stopped caring about long ago. This is one of the good ones. — DC

diggers2.jpgDiggersDiggers was another part of the experiment in shortening the gap between theatrical and DVD releases; the film bowed in theaters and on HDNet on April 27, then hit rental shelves on May 1. But the films that slip through the cracks often wind up being the ones worth pursuing, and Diggers is no exception. Ken Marino, of everything from “The State” to “Veronica Mars,” wrote the screenplay about four working-class clam diggers in Long Island in the 1970s, basing it on his own childhood. Capably directed by Katherine Dieckmann, whose previous credits are mainly some R.E.M. videos and episodes of “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” Diggers is a coming-of-age-in-your-twenties tale about Hunt (Paul Rudd), a digger dealing with his father’s death and what it might mean if he never leaves his hometown to find a life outside. It’s not the most original set-up; it’s probably the oldest one there is. But Marino’s smartly observed screenplay makes it work, as does the cast, led by Rudd and Marino but featuring Josh Hamilton, Lauren Ambrose, Maura Tierney, and Ron Eldard. Diggers is a small film that genuinely cares about its characters, and it’s also an intelligent, low-key dramatic comedy that’s worth seeking out. Trust me. — DC

host2.jpgThe Host — In the weeks leading up to the release of The Host, I wouldn’t have believed we could reach the end of the year describing it as overlooked. Posters for the South Korean movie were plastered on construction sites all over downtown Manhattan. “One of the greatest monster movies ever made!” it proclaimed across the top (blurb courtesy of Logan Hill from New York Magazine). Other critics eventually compared The Host to Aliens and the classic Godzilla movies. One went so far as to write that it’s “a dream fusion of Jaws and Little Miss Sunshine.” Was anyone really dreaming about that fusion? Either way, The Host was the most fun that almost no one had at the movies last year. Set in Seoul, it tracks one family’s reaction to the emergence of a marauding beast (first glimpsed hanging off of a bridge in one of 2007’s best visual moments) that was created by toxins dumped into the river by U.S. officials. The source of the monster makes for a bit of political commentary, but the story’s more concerned with the family’s peril. There’s the usual cast of horror-movie prey: an endangered little girl, a bumbling young man, a world-class female archer with frayed nerves. Like countless movies these days, The Host is overlong, but it starts with a bang, has a white-knuckle climactic battle, and comes to a rest on a lovely, painterly image. It was a smash hit in its native country, racking up more than $64 million to become the highest-grossing South Korean film of all time. In the U.S., it limped along to just over two million dollars in receipts. Do your part to help rectify this by giving The Host a different fate on DVD. — JW

kong2.jpgThe King of Kong — No, this isn’t another monster movie, unless you consider Billy Mitchell, the arrogant, bearded Donkey Kong champion at its center, a monster. He’s plenty unlikable, but it’s been intimated that some moments were edited to cast him in an even more unflattering light to better contrast him with Steve Wiebe, the down-on-his-luck suburban dad who makes an improbable run at the game’s all-time high score. Whatever. This isn’t a documentary about a real war. I say, if a few creative decisions make it all the more enjoyable, huzzah. Besides, only someone who’s never met a real human being could believe in people as entirely slimy or saintly as Kong’s two central characters. Better to sit back and enjoy the ride, which includes a freefall back into an era when mainstream video games were played in public and they didn’t feature many elements more menacing than a barrel-throwing gorilla. (Why someone in the industry hasn’t developed a game starring Kong as a car-jacking, date-raping “hero” is beyond me. It’s not like dignity can be standing in the way.) As Wiebe attacks the record in his unassuming manner, you meet the now formulaic passel of Documentary Subject Nerds surrounding the world of old video games, and you root as hard as you did for Daniel against Johnny in The Karate Kid. — JW

rocket2.jpgRocket Science — Jeffrey Blitz’s feature debut (he also directed the stupendous documentary Spellbound) is exactly what most people wrongly figured Lars and the Real Girl for: A cookie-cutter offbeat indie flick with a mountain of self-conscious quirk and whimsy, an (aging) hipster soundtrack (Clem Snide and Violent Femmes), and probably enough preciousness to kill a wildebeest. But it was also incredibly smart, witty as hell, and more importantly, it captured the angst and melancholy of my teenage years better than any film I have ever seen. I was never on the debate team, I never threw a cello through my girlfriend’s window, and I didn’t have a stutter (an incessant stammer, perhaps), but, like Hal Hefner, I was an awkward kid who spent most of my time trapped inside my head convincing myself that I could do things way beyond my limitations if it meant getting the girl. (You ever seen a rail-thin, clumsy, athletically limited band geek try out for the high-school basketball team? The horror.) Rocket Science was an achy coming-of-age tale that ultimately took an incredibly unpredictable route toward Hal Hefner’s self-realization. A year removed from seeing it for the first time, I still can’t get over the way I felt walking out of that theater, the feeling that — after watching hundreds of high-school comedies — I’d finally found the film that perfectly captured the essence of what high school felt like for me. — DR

savages2.jpgThe Savages — My favorite thing about the comments on Pajiba is discovering the surprising ways that people really feel. I would have never guessed so many of you disdained Bob Dylan. (I could’ve guessed a lot of you weren’t big fans, but that’s different.) And I was taken aback by how many skewer Philip Seymour Hoffman. Not because I’ve always been a big booster of his; I just didn’t think such harsh sentiment about him was out there in our generation (OK, your generation. The thing I like least about the comments is when they make me feel like I’m 90 years old). This year was an eye-opener for me with the bearish blond. In movies like Boogie Nights, I couldn’t decide if he was underused or overrated. Even in Capote, I respected the work but thought it was a bit too stiff and mannered to capture the author’s more capricious side. In The Savages, Hoffman is terrific as Jon, a theater professor in Buffalo dealing with his estranged father’s steep physical decline. Laura Linney plays his sister, Wendy. The movie is modestly plotted, often play-like, but the three stage veterans that anchor it — Hoffman, Linney, and Philip Bosco as their ailing father, Leonard — are perfectly suited for the material. There are still large areas of the country where this has yet to open, so we’ll wait and see — if its early-2008 rollout in other markets doesn’t increase its profile, maybe we can list it here again in 12 months. — JW

once2.jpgOnce — It’s tough to come right out and disagree with the opening line of John’s review for Once, maybe because it’s the kind of well-timed insight he seems to display with regularity: “The degree to which you get swept away by Once will be exactly the degree to which you like the music of Damien Rice,” he wrote, and while I definitely see where he’s coming from — I’m the guy who has specific memories attached to “Cannonball” — I think the film plays a little more broadly than that. In fact, I think the degree to which you like Once will be the degree to which you’re willing to watch an unconventional human drama told through music, regardless of genre. Produced for the ridiculously low sum of $150,000, the film follows a struggling musician (Glen Hansard) as he maybe sorta a little bit falls in love with a woman (Marketa Irglova) he recruits to sing with him on some demos. She’s separated from her husband, and he’s still pining over the one that got away, but they manage to carve out a unique and beautiful relationship in their brief time together, though calling it a relationship would be misleading. They somehow support each other at the perfect time in their lives, and Hansard and Irglova have a fantastic, rumpled chemistry, helped along by the fact that they were actually growing closer as the film was shot and began dating afterward (which is also borderline sketchy, since he was 37 and she was 19, but whatever). Once is a sweet, engaging little film, and there are some moments of emotion more genuine than anything I’d seen in a long time. It made less than $10 million domestically, but deserved more. — DC

starter3.jpgStarter for 10 — I can’t say for sure why I wanted to include Starter for 10 on this list. Maybe it was the presence of James McAvoy, who has exhibited unheard of range as an actor over the last two years, going from a Faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to a brutal dictator’s right-hand man in The Last King of Scotland to his Golden Globe-nominated performance in Atonement. In between, he shows up in Starter for 10 as a kid from a working-class background who is admitted to Bristol University and, ultimately, becomes a starter for the college trivia team, where he hopes to lead his team to victory on the television quiz show “University Challenge.” My fondness for the film might also have to do with my own experiences as a participant in high-school “Quiz Bowl” (our team, thanks to a captain who would later win “College Jeopardy,” placed 8th nationally). Or it might have been the film’s soundtrack, an almost perfect mix-tape from the 1980s (The Smiths! Kate Bush! The Cure!). But, mostly, Starter for 10 was an immensely likable, though conventional, lightweight coming-of-age story that differs from most Hughesian comedies today in that it was a smart, warm, pretense-free journey toward one of those old-school big, romantic kisses. There was just something winning about the modesty of Starter for 10, and the way it stood out in 2007 by not trying to stand out at all. — DR

Guides | February 10, 2008 |

Lars and the Real Girl | Lost: Confirmed Dead

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