The Common Good

2008: Cinema in Review

Looking back on the year's movies, I'm struck by how many of my favorites featured the theme of family and community -- perhaps this reflects only my current personal concerns, or maybe there's a bigger invisible hand at work. For what it's worth, here is a list of six movies I really loved, but that don't quite make it onto the top 10 of 2008. That best-of list will follow soon. And, of course, please post your own choices in the comments section.*

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Quantum of Solace, a James Bond film notable for featuring the rare instance in which he learns the futility of revenge, and advocates against a multinational corporation in favor of the right of poor people to have clean drinking water. I know most critics were ambivalent about this movie, but trust me -- it's tightly edited, well-written, and plays more like an advert for a militarized peace and justice movement than the war on terror.

Surfwise, a rollicking documentary about a family so committed to living free that they unplugged themselves from the social grid and spent their lives in a motor home by a series of beaches. The patriarch is as gregarious as he is dictatorial, and the moral and psychological questions raised by his communitarian experiment deserve attention at any time, but perhaps especially in economic crisis.

Synecdoche, New York
, a mind-blowing, dog-chasing-its-tail of a film. It's an aesthetically extraordinary, troubling, and hilarious story about art and its creation, family and its dysfunction, and humanity and its relationship with itself -- a film that gets bigger the more I think about it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- another underappreciated film that has become popular to condemn, but look closely and you'll see Steven Spielberg fusing wide-eyed wonderment with his darker side. This is a wildly entertaining movie about bruised people becoming a family, it has one of the wisest last lines spoken by a major character in any film, and the nuclear test zone sequence features perhaps the most dramatic image Spielberg has ever created: the atomic bomb as the starting pistol for the second half of the 20th century.

Australia, in which director Baz Luhrmann proves that he doesn't care what other people think -- he just wants to make movies on his terms. And what a movie he's made: the creation myth of a huge country, seeking to atone for the shallow representation of Aboriginal people, and suggesting that only when you see the world through the eyes of a child can you be truly human.

Son of Rambow is a delightful little movie about kids remaking a war film, which manages to be a knowing representation of childhood, a pitch-perfect evocation of the amazing music and bad hairstyles of the 1980s, a critique of religious fundamentalism, and a love letter to cinema itself.

*One of the most disappointing aspects of film distribution is how difficult it's becoming to see movies that lack a huge budget. So in the interest of being comprehensive, I've listed below films I imagine might have made this list or the one to follow, but that I haven't seen, either because they haven't yet been released or screened for critics, or they just haven't made it to my part of the world.

Elegy
I.O.U.S.A.
A Christmas Tale
Doubt
Frost/Nixon
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Defiance
I've Loved You So Long
The Wrestler
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire

Gareth HigginsDr. Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com and co-presents "The Film Talk" podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com.

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