EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I keep hearing that 2008 was a mediocre year for movies---hey, real life provided enough compelling drama last year anyway. But for this ordinary-Joe cinephile without easy access to press screenings and film festivals---but with an increased access to New York art houses thanks to my job transfer to lower Manhattan in July---the year didn't strike me as significantly better or worse than most other years. Sure, 2008 wasn't chock full of equivalents to films like No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, I'm Not There, the Jesse James/Robert Ford movie, or even, earlier in the year, Zodiac---aesthetically and thematically ambitious films that provided much to talk about week in and week out, whatever you thought about the movies themselves. Outside of this year's middling crop of Hollywood prestige pics, however, there were still a lot of great films to celebrate; perhaps the reason this year felt so weak compared to 2007 was simply that most of the year's best films were more intimate in scale compared to, say, the Coen Brothers' grim contemplation of chance, fate and the passing of generations in No Country, Paul Thomas Anderson's insect-under-glass examination of a greedy capitalist's gradual desiccation at the turn of the 20th century in There Will Be Blood, or Todd Haynes's deconstruction of a musical icon's various public images in I'm Not There. Even the most ambitious of this year's crop, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, grounded its visual and literal fantasias on the life, possible death and deep---and, like it or not, universal---fears of one human-sized main character.
I guess one could say this was a year of contemplation---of oneself, of others, of where we've been and where we're headed. Doesn't that kinda sound like the state of the world that we live in right now, especially here in America?
But enough of broad statements. In time for the kick-off of awards season 2008 tonight with the Golden Globes, here are 10 films I really liked from 2008:
1. Flight of the Red Balloon. Using Albert Lamorisse's classic 1956 short The Red Balloon as merely a starting piont, the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien visits France and locates a small environment filled with child-like wonder mixed in with adult responsibilities and disappointments. Whether through a child's imagination, a nanny's film-school project, or a mother's puppet shows, Hou, with characteristic patience and sensitivity to the flow of life in enclosed spaces, shows ordinary people trying to achieve their own moments of ecstasy and repose amid the sometimes wearying daily grind. Absolutely sublime.
2. Still Life. A younger Asian talent, Jia Zhang-ke, tackles the disintegrating effects of the Chinese government's Three Gorges Dam project on land, culture and human interactions, but does so with a painterly eye, an occasional penchant for whimsy and a roving openness to the many people wandering around in this wilderness. Subversive and critical yet somehow oddly hopeful and rejuvenating.
3. Profit motive and the whispering wind. John Gianvito's hour-long experimental documentary recounts American history---or at least a progressive reading of American history influenced by Howard Zinn's seminal People's History of the United States---without words, relying entirely on the tombstones and markers that pepper the American landscape to tell the story. By focusing not only on the markers themselves but the milieus surrounding each marker, one's appreciation for the history within our grasp is revitalized. This ran for a mere week at Anthology Film Archives in New York; if this ever finds its way to a proper DVD release, by all means, snap it up.
4. In the City of Sylvia. José Luis Guerín's film spends minutes on end observing its male protagonist as he scans and considers the women that grace his field of vision. He's looking for a lost love; we in the audience, on the other hand, are put in a position to consider the implications of what it means to be an uninvolved spectator. One man's voyeuristic gaze implicates all of our collective movie-watching gazes. Here's another film that was unfortunately relegated to a complimentary run at Anthology.
5. Rachel Getting Married. Standing as a welcome riposte to Arnaud Desplechin's wildly overpraised A Christmas Tale, Jonathan Demme's richly compassionate and idiosyncratic examination of family dysfunction paints familial bonds as a tightrope-walking negotiation of raw nerves and simmering resentments amid moments of celebratory joy and empathetic acceptance.
6. Diary of the Dead. If last January's indomitably hyped Cloverfield used the first-person-recorder aesthetic merely as a gimmicky pretext for some facile 9/11 exploitation, George A. Romero, for his fifth Dead feature, used the aesthetic for a more thoughtful, excoriating inquiry into the way technology is sometimes used to evade, rather than engage, viewer (or filmmaker) responsibility for what's in front of their eyes.
7. Waltz With Bashir. In this animated documentary, Ari Folman is certainly engaged, all right---by frightening dreams, by feelings of guilt and responsibility in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, by disturbing notions of the unreliability of memory. His story, and real-life interviews with fellow soldiers and with psychologists and reporters, are all rendered in vivid animation that weaves fluidly between reality, fantasy and memory, while Folman himself digs into the question of just how far such memories and dreams can bring us to some kind of truth. Of course, even our own memories can't help but be dwarfed by grim, tragic reality, as its final, devastating moments of live-action footage bluntly but soberingly demonstrates.
8. Encounters at the End of the World. Werner Herzog, one of cinema's great madmen and most intrepid adventurers, goes to Antarctica with a National Science Foundation grant to make the "anti-March of the Penguins"; what he finds is not only endless beauty in nature, but also fellow seekers---some as crazy as Herzog is---who have gone to extraordinary lengths in order to grasp how all of this works---in essence, to solve the mysteries behind all this beauty. Minor or not, it's a fascinating and eye-opening journey.
9. Boarding Gate. Appearances, as ever, are deceiving in Olivier Assayas's cinematic worlds, and that applies to the film itself as well. A standard, tawdry B-movie genre exercise on the surface, its psychological depths and moral vision sneak up on you even as that surface---first low-key and sterile, then chaotic and frazzled---entertains in the moment. Whatever you may think of star Asia Argento as an actress, here playing a former prostitute who gets roped into a series of reversals and double-crosses in Hong Kong after killing a previous amour (Michael Madsen) for his money, she remains an endlessly fascinating creature, ruthless and sexually provocative while also being emotionally vulnerable and even moral in her own way, even as the world around her keeps such morals under wraps.
10. Happy-Go-Lucky. Yes, Mike Leigh's latest is rather schematic in its design and conception, but I'm not sure I care all that much, in the end. I haven't stopped thinking about Poppy, Scott and the rest of 'em since seeing the film a few months ago, and there are times when I think Poppy's approach to living---optimistic, sometimes exhaustingly so, but not exempt from empathy and understanding for those in less happier circumstances than she---is exactly the standard to which I should work---to which everyone should work, really. Besides, in a way, I probably owe Poppy---and, by extension, the wonderful Sally Hawkins---the feelings of rejuvenation that I've felt this past week, ever since that missed Playtime-in-70-mm screening. Thanks, Poppy!
Ten others that I liked (I'll just list them, in rough order of preference):
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg
Burn After Reading, Joel & Ethan Coen
Mary, Abel Ferrara
Shotgun Stories, Jeff Nichols
The Romance of Astréa and Celadon, Eric Rohmer
The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu
WALL-E, Andrew Stanton
The Witnesses, André Téchiné
Married Life, Ira Sachs
Special honorable mentions:
1. Kent Mackenzie's 1961 film The Exiles, a poetically low-key look at displaced Native Americans trying to adjust to big-city life, restored and given a proper theatrical release by Milestone Films, though one seemingly less heralded, though no less worthy, than its Killer of Sheep restoration last year.
2. The stunning restoration of Max Ophüls's 1955 masterpiece Lola Montès, which, in its examination of the thin line between the worlds of theatrical spectacle and harsh reality, at least in the main character's own life, remains as startlingly relevant as it is visually ravishing.
3. Ashes of Time Redux, Wong Kar-Wai's reworking of his famously impenetrable 1994 wuxia epic, and as intoxicating and emotionally scintillating as ever.
And, of course, there is my lengthy list of blind spots, although I think this entry and my "sneak preview" entry covered most of the significant ones. (I haven't really seen any new movies this past week---too busy living, I guess.)
I was going to end this with my picks for a category I call "What's the big deal?", but I'll take to heart Beethoven's declaration in the finale of his Ninth Symphony to "...sing more cheerful songs, / And more joyful." Still, I just wanted to quickly add these tidbits: The Dark Knight and Iron Man, despite the hype and box office for both, were hardly the best the superhero genre had to offer this past summer (I would pick Hellboy II: The Golden Army, though a notch below Guillermo del Toro's 2004 original, as a livelier, lovelier and more imaginative alternative to those two); Jeff Nichols's aforementioned directorial debut Shotgun Stories trumped Lance Hammer's more celebrated, wannabe-Malickian debut film Ballast; and Gus Van Sant's unwillingness in Milk to imagine its admittedly magnetic central figure as something other than a martyr-to-be actually makes me thankful that Steven Soderbergh at least made a valiant intellectual attempt to cut through the usual biopic bullshit in his two-part Che (ultimately a failure, I think, but a fascinating and often surprisingly engrossing one).