Spare Change?
A Film Snob's Favorites of '08

by Chris Dashiell
After the remarkable string of great American films in 2007, last year was bound to be something of a letdown. There were still plenty of good movies out there, although a good number of them were on the festival circuit where I couldn’t see them. I realize that my top choice is unusual—this is a case where the political and social significance of a documentary trumped the artfulness of the year’s best fiction films, at least in my own mind.
1. Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney).

It’s an article of faith with me that films can be important, not just interesting or informative but important in how they address fundamental questions and issues of the time, and even in the effect they can have on society. Taxi to the Dark Side deals with the subject of torture—specifically how this practice, considered immoral by civilized people for generations, became U.S. policy under the administration of George W. Bush. What was treated in the media as a mere “issue,” less significant as such than energy or the economy, is in Alex Gibney’s view a central concern, because it speaks to our values as a people and a country. With clarity and power, his film states the truth, and thereby does us a service.

The picture takes as a starting point the story of an innocent Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who was caught in the war’s anti-terrorist sweep in 2002 and taken to the Bagram prison. He died there, beaten to death by American soldiers. This one case becomes the nucleus for a thorough exploration, using interviews, first-hand accounts and documents, of all elements in the Bush torture scandal, while carefully debunking each of the lies and excuses that were used to justify the crimes. Gibney demonstrates that such a policy is a failure in terms of intelligence, a betrayal of our humanity, and a national disgrace. It is the most pointed and most passionate film yet made on the subject, and yes, it made a difference.

2. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman).

The story of a middle-aged playwright and director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) losing his life’s bearings in the midst of an impossibly ambitious theatrical effort, is more like a peg from which to hang Kaufman’s central idea—the tyranny of thought, the internal chatter which can make of human existence a kind of living hell. The film’s vertiginous invention, in which visual and narrative devices spin about, with identities doubling and mirroring one another, coalesces around a profound sadness in the face of mortality. Hoffman is perfect as the suffering artist; among the remarkable supporting cast, Samantha Morton stands out.

To tackle this subject, which seems abstract but is in fact so universal as to go virtually unnoticed by most of the film’s reviewers, took a lot of courage. Synecdoche is a somber, intriguing tour de force, a film of strange humility in extravagant garb.

3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu).

A young woman (Anamaria Marinca) tries to help her best friend get an illegal abortion in Ceausescu-era Romania. With agonizing precision, the film takes us through one long, terrible day, in which the abortionist’s despicable attempts to take advantage of his position of power over the two friends creates increasing tension. Mungiu’s disciplined style shows, without ever having to explain in words, the ways that gender and class determine the rules in an authoritarian society. At the same time, the heroism of Marinca’s character creates a spark of light in the darkness so intensely evoked. Watch for a birthday dinner scene late in the film, where her loneliness in the midst of a blithely chattering group touches a quietly tragic chord.

4. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin).

The story of a tumultuous French family uniting during the holidays around a matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) threatened with cancer, resists every cliché of the Christmas film genre. Desplechin’s energetic style conveys a sense of life as spectacle, rushing past too rapidly to fully absorb. The film’s intelligence and free-spirited acceptance of its characters’ most flagrant shortcomings is highly pleasurable. Mathieu Amalric is memorable as the family’s prodigal bad boy, but each member of the cast, which includes Chiara Mastroianni and Emmanuele Devos, gets a chance to shine. If there’s a Desplechin cult, count me in.

5. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin).

Recent years have seen a spate of multi-character films that use coincidence to create tenuous connections. Akin transcends this formula by making the connections significant and believable. The characters include a Turkish immigrant in Germany (Baki Davrak), a young dissident fleeing Istanbul (Nurgül Yesilçay), and her lesbian partner’s disapproving mother (Hanna Schygulla). They all seek a purpose, and they all just keep missing each other, but in the wake of tragic events comes meaning. The film has a visually sumptuous style and a gently understated narrative rhythm. Akin’s humanism is of the hopeful kind, but without illusions.

6. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant).

There’s a plot here about a teenaged skateboarder (Gabe Nevins) who is involved in the death of a railroad security guard. True to form, Van Sant uses this as a framework for an exploration of inner space, employing dreamlike visual strategies and sound design to evoke thoughts and emotional states on a subliminal level. The free-floating, subjective style succeeds in depicting a young person’s disconnected sense of himself, and without condescension. This is one weird, beautiful movie.

7. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat).

Breillat takes the period film genre—the “costume” film—and gives it a feminist twist. The heroine, a courtesan played by the astounding Asia Argento, appears mad to the world of French nobility, but her decision to be free of conventional mores makes her more capable of love than the “respectable” woman (Roxane Mesquida) who is engaged to marry her lover. The picture is gorgeous to look at, full of interesting flourishes, and moreover, offers a devastating critique of patriarchal society, in which power is maintained through falsehood and everyone loses.

8. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani).

A 12-year-old Latino boy (Alejandro Polanco) scrambles to make a life for himself and his older sister amidst the junkyards and auto shops of Willets Point in Queens. Bahrani coaxes natural performances from his non-professional cast, and the emotions never feel contrived. This is realism at its best (in contrast to “slumdog” mythmaking), which carefully observes the drama of daily life and finds humanity in a small corner of the world.

9. A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol).

In this sly and sophisticated character study, Ludivine Sagnier plays a confident young woman who falls in love with a much older man (François Berléand), a famous and rather arrogant writer, while an unbalanced younger man (Benoît Magimel) waits in the wings. The old master Chabrol zestfully depicts the social world of moneyed families and literati, contrasting it ironically with the innocence of his heroine’s erotic passion.

10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
(Julian Schnabel).

Mathieu Amalric again, this time as fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, paralyzed in a stroke and gradually finding the will to communicate by blinking his one good eye. Schnabel is a painter and conceives his films in painterly terms—here the imagery adheres to the lonely vantage point of an immobile consciousness, struggling and then finding its meaning through the acceptance of pain and mortality. The picture attains an almost crystalline brilliance.
And the B-sides:

11. Milk (Gus Van Sant).
Unlike the average biopic, Van Sant’s timely portrait of gay activist Harvey Milk is both engaging and astute, a moving tribute to both the man and the movement he served. The exciting era of the 1970s is vividly evoked, and Sean Penn inhabits his gentle, unassuming character with such grace and assurance that you might forget he’s acting.

12. Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols).
A quarrel between two branches of an Arkansas family starts with a confrontation at a funeral and turns into a deadly vendetta. Nichols has a marvelous feel for lazy small town rhythms and character quirks. Michael Shannon gets a lead role for once, and his brooding intensity makes the film special.

13. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach).
Nicole Kidman plays the title role, an infuriating, self-loathing, intrusive narcissist who visits her about-to-be-married sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and causes havoc. This might sound like a farce, but it’s actually a brave and vulnerable film, cutting especially close to the bone in the scenes involving Margot’s enmeshment with her troubled adolescent son (Zane Pais).

14. Beaufort (Joseph Cedar).
In 2000, a small band of Israeli soldiers are holed up in southern Lebanon, in a fortress built during the Crusades. Cedar, a former soldier himself, emphasizes the isolation, powerlessness, and mind-numbing boredom of the experience, with an enemy that you never see. An admirable war film that is both ambiguous and complex.

15. Frozen River (Courtney Hunt).
Melissa Leo plays a blue collar single mom who gets involved smuggling illegals across the border from Canada in order to pay the bills. In a few deft strokes she conveys a lifetime of bitterness and hard knocks. The film is a parable about the struggle between need and conscience.

16. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson).
Here’s a vampire movie that resists facile metaphors, for once, and relies more on psychology than shock. The friendship between a lonely 12-year-old boy and a neighbor girl (or so it seems) with a bloody secret, reveals unexpected depths. The picture’s visual style has a kind of eerie stateliness.

17. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin).
Maddin brings his eccentric skills to bear on a portrait of his home city. This is a very personal vision encompassing family secrets, weird humor, anxiety, and the elusiveness of “home,” all in beautiful black-and-white.

18. Tell No One (Guillaume Canet).
A mystery thriller where all the pieces eventually fall together, spiced with grief, anger, and an amusingly scrupulous detective (Phillipe Lefebvre). There are plenty of twists and turns, and what more could you ask for?

19. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh).
Sally Hawkins plays an impossibly cheerful schoolteacher who responds to suffering by trying to reach across the divide. Leigh creates funny and touching effects through contrast—especially in his heroine’s interactions with a misanthropic driving instructor (Eddie Marsdan).

20. Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron).
In a Bengali Muslim neighborhood of London, a shy Bangladeshi housewife and mother is beset with homesickness and disappointment. Tannishtha Chatterjee is wonderful in the main role, and I admire how the film honors the stories of ordinary people.

More good acting:
Laura Linney, The Savages
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Kristen Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long
Elio Germano, My Brother is an Only Child
Dominique Pinon, Roman de Gare
Juliette Binoche, The Flight of the Red Balloon
Chiwetel Ejiofer, Redbelt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Christopher Doyle, Paranoid Park
Hoyte Van Hoytema, Let the Right One In
Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Jon Brion, Synecdoche, New York
Carter Burwell, Burn After Reading
Rachel Portman, The Duchess

Avenue of the Overrated:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
My favorite actress, one of my favorite directors—hey, I really wanted to love this movie. But it fails to fulfill the potential of its interesting premise, settling instead for a bland and baseless sentimentality. Only David Fincher’s visual inventiveness saves this from the “dud” category.
Also: Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Doubt.

Ho-Hum Award:
An oddly passionless Western, with Ed Harris showing little energy either as director or star, and a terribly miscast Renée Zellweger. Viggo Mortensen is fine, but that's not enough to stifle the yawns.

The Dark Knight
After 2 ½ hours of this relentless, overbearing film, the only thing I felt was enervated. I've had enough. No more movies with guys wearing tights and capes.

Also: Pineapple Express, Vantage Point, Mongol, Brideshead Revisited, The Visitor, Towelhead

Best Reissue:
The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie, 1961).
A remarkable portrait of urban Indian life in Los Angeles. The director, an English film student at USC, allows the scenes to unfold in their own time, resulting in an amazing slice-of-life effect. You really feel the atmosphere of these late-night bars and dives, the cramped quarters and the poverty-stricken characters on the streets. A lost classic, now restored.

Emily Mortimer

Frank Langella

Dominique Pinon

The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button


The Dark Knight

The Exiles

And farewell to:

Cyd Charisse, Barry Morse, Edward Klosinski, Christopher Allport, Eva Dahlbeck, Philippe Khorsand, Carlos Aured, Roy Scheider, Manorama, Oscar Brodney, Lydia Shum, George Keymas, Lionel Mark Smith, Larry Pizer, Charles Fawcett, Bryan Langley, David Groh, Ivan Dixon, Leonard Rosenman, Willoughby Goddard, David Watkin, Robert DoQui, Perry Lopez, Anthony Minghella, Paul Scofield, Semka Sokolovic-Bertok, Richard Widmark, Abby Mann, Kon Ichikawa, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jacqueline Voltaire, Brian Wilde, Jules Dassin, Charlton Heston, Claus Nissen, Stanley Kamel, Rafael Azcona, Ollie Johnston, Sergio Corrieri, Malvin Wald, Hazel Court, Sidney Beckerman, Julie Ege, John Phillip Law, Alexander Courage, Paul Arthur, Sofiko Chiaureli, Joseph Pevney, Lawrence Roman, Dick Martin, Sydney Pollack, Earle Hagen, George Justin, Akemi Negishi, Harvey Korman, Manny Farber, Mel Ferrer, Dino Risi, Robert J. Anderson, Warren Cowan, Rudy Fernandez, Stan Winston, John Barnes, Howard Brandy, Jean Delannoy, George Carlin, Dody Goodman, Don S. Davis, William Vince, Elizabeth Spriggs, Nonna Mordyukova, Evelyn Keyes, Estelle Getty, Bernie Mac, Richard Angarola, Breno Mello, Wienczyslaw Glinski, Ted Manson, Isaac Hayes, Paul Sorenson, Charles H. Joffe, Don LaFontaine, Bernie Brillstein, Michael Pate, Jerry Reed, Jud Taylor, Stig Olin, Bill Melendez, Marpessa Dawn, Jean Desailly, Youssef Chahine, Anita Page, Peter Kastner, Jun Ichikawa, William Fox, Edie Adams, Irma Cordoba, Milton Katselas, Delmar Watson, Ken Ogata, Peter Copley, Milan Kymlicka, Gil Stratton, Neal Hefti, Guillaume Depardieu, Michael Crichton, John Leonard, Joe Hyams, Irving Brecher, William Gibson, Paul Benedict, Chris Bryant, Michael Higgins, Maria Elena Marques, Ennio De Concini, John Michael Hayes, Nina Foch, Luther Davis, Beverly Garland, Robert Prosky, Derek Wadsworth, Van Johnson, Sam Bottoms, Simon Gray, Majel Barrett, Robert Mulligan, Paul Greco, Adrian Mitchell, Dale Wasserman, Harold Pinter, Eartha Kitt, Ann Savage, Donald Westlake, Bernie Hamilton, Brad Sullivan, Pat Hingle, Cheryl Holdridge, Steven Gilborn, Alvin Ganzer, Don Galloway, Patrick McGoohan, Claude Berri, Russ Conway, Angela Morley, Kathleen Byron, Charles H. Schneer, Robert Broughton, Ricardo Montalban, and Paul Newman.

©2009 Chris Dashiell