Van Sant's Paranoid Park was the surprising
favorite this year, but the rest of our picks were all over the map. Thanks
to all who contributed!
Hoping to find a job in a fishing cannery in Alaska, Wendy (Michelle Williams), a drifter in her twenties, travels to the Pacific Northwest from her home in Muncie, Indiana with her most endearing companion, a golden Labrador Retriever named Lucy. Wendy and Lucy is set near the Oregon/Washington border in a small town that, with its roadside strip malls, gas stations, car repair garages, and convenience stores, is reflective of rural American cities and towns that have lost the character that once made them unique. Like her 2006 film Old Joy, the film combines an intimate personal story with a reflection of the malaise felt in the country today, Wendy’s economic hardship typical of people adrift in a society in which they no longer feel a part.
2. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant).
Van Sant has fashioned a poetic and heartbreaking film that pulsates with the truth of deeply felt experience. Paranoid Park refers to a skateboarding park in Portland, Oregon used by lonely, disaffected teenagers who congregate there each day to skate or just hang out. The film, however, is not about the skateboarding subculture but about one boy’s interior journey and how he interacts with his inner and outer demons. Alex (Gabe Nevins), a shy, almost passive 16-year-old teenager, has a lot on his plate. Though he has the optimistic cherubic looking face of a young Bob Dylan, on closer look his face conveys a world lacking in emotional security or intellectual curiosity, a life torn by the impending divorce and apparent disinterest of his parents. As if that wasn’t enough, he must also come to grips with his involvement in the bizarre death of a railroad security guard that occurs close to the skateboarding facility where he often visits with his best friend Jared (Jake Miller).
3. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle).
Slumdog Millionaire is the feel-good story of an orphaned, street-wise young man trying to make it big on India’s version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire while hoping that the girl he has loved since childhood is watching. Slumdog reflects the chaos of Mumbai, India where it was filmed. Submerging the viewer in a cacophony of color and sound, the camera swoops and swirls in an often dizzying pace, taking us from the desolation of back alleys and garbage dumps to modern high rises and the fantastic beauty of the Taj Mahal. With headlines telling us daily that the economy is sinking and that climate change threatens our very existence, a film that is a pure celebration of life is welcomed with a grateful heart.
4. The Secret of the Grain (Abdelatif Kechiche).
Winner of best picture, director, screen play and actress at the 2008 Cesar Awards, the only secret in the Tunisian-born French director Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain is how the director manages to seamlessly weld together such disparate elements as the pleasures of great cooking, the problems faced by immigrants, and the desire to leave a legacy to children into a rich and satisfying experience. The picture is set in the French coastal village of Séte on the Mediterranean. The grain in the title refers to couscous, a diet staple of Tunisian immigrants and a dish that Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a laid-off shipyard worker, hopes to use to fulfill his dream of turning a dilapidated old boat into a fish couscous restaurant. Secret of the Grain is an astonishing tour de force, and the opening of the restaurant combines exuberant delight, sensual pleasure, and a perilous risk that threatens to undo all the hard work and good will.
5. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani).
Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), called Ale for short, works at an auto-body repair shop in what has come to be known as the Iron Triangle, a deteriorating twenty block stretch of auto junk yards and sleazy car repair dealers close to Shea Stadium in Queens, New York. For all its depiction of bleakness, Chop Shop is not a work of social criticism but a poignant character study in which a young boy’s survival is bought at the price of his innocence. The film’s focus is on the charming, street-smart 12-year-old Ale, who lives on the edge without any adult support or supervision other than his boss (Rob Sowulski), the real-life proprietor of the Iron Triangle garage. In Chop Shop, Bahrani has provided a compelling antidote to the underdog success stories churned out by the Hollywood dream factory, and has given us a film of stunning naturalism and respect for its characters.
6. Boy A (John Crowley).
Boy A is a powerfully gripping film about what happens when we fail to forgive ourselves for wrongdoing and give society the opening to move in and assuage our guilt. As Jack (Eric) Burridge, a man recently released from prison at the age of twenty four for a murder he helped commit when he was ten years old, Andrew Garfield (Lions for Lambs) turns in a superb acting performance, one that, in an ideal world, would be a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Garfield is outstanding in allowing his vulnerability to show and his changing moods to reveal the tightrope on which he is walking. Boy A is a compassionate and disturbing film that affected me deeply. Though it has moments of pathos, it is not without grace. We cling tenaciously to those moments of transcendence, sensing that they might be fleeting, but knowing that they will never be forgotten.
7. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin).
Forgiveness, redemption, repentance, and connection form interweaving themes of Fatih Akin’s complex and multi-layered film The Edge of Heaven. Titled On the Other Side in German, the film is primarily character-driven but is shaped by political, cultural, and family conflict that illuminate the struggle between first and second-generation Turks and Germans and their loneliness in exile. Though The Edge of Heaven is a realistic drama, shifts in the timeline and dreamlike visions introduce surreal touches that serve to enhance its intensity. With this film, 34-year-old Akin has vaulted into the elite group of international directors whose work has a universal appeal. The Edge of Heaven will have you applauding not only for an emotional power reminiscent of Kieslowski, but for its message of forgiveness and empathy, offered without pandering or sentimentality.
8. XXY (Lucía Puenzo).
Adapted from a short story by Sergio Bizzio, XXY, a film by Argentine director Lucía Puenzo, is the story of a fifteen year old girl born with genitalia characteristic of both male and female. Puenzo, daughter of Luis Puenzo who directed The Official Story, avoids sensationalism while crafting a deeply touching and poignant coming of age story about the pain of growing up without truly knowing who you are. Winner of the Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival, XXY features an extraordinary performance by Inés Efron who manages to build empathy for her character while turning it into a universal statement about all adolescents’ search for acceptance.
9. Man on Wire (James Marsh).
On the overcast morning of August 7, 1974, New York City pedestrians stopped in their tracks to see what looked like an apparition, a man literally walking in the sky. It was not a ghost, but Philippe Petit, a former circus performer turned tightrope artist who magically traversed the 200 feet between the newly constructed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on a wire cable, a quarter of a mile above the street. Not only did he walk across the wire eight times in forty-five minutes, but he lay down in the middle, unbelievably looked to the ground, and did a mocking dance to entertain the police waiting on either end. That achievement has been recreated in James Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire, a compelling film that uses interviews, photos, archive footage, and black and white re-enactments to capture the event. Though we know that Petit survives, the thrill of seeing the feat accomplished is breathtaking.
10. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley).
Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is a strict taskmaster at a private school in the Bronx. The priest is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is the closest thing to a progressive at the school. Suspicious of Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius assigns Sister James (Amy Adams) to keep an eye peeled for anything unusual in his conduct and her fears seem to be justified when Sister James reports that Father Flynn had a private meeting in the rectory with the school’s only African-American student, who was upset after the meeting. Based on Shanley’s personal experiences at Catholic School, Doubt explores the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as well as conservative versus progressive religious values and how far one can rely on suspicion in the absence of proof. The film avoids easy answers and challenges us to view inflammatory issues from a broader perspective, embracing the essential mystery of human behavior.
11. Milk (Gus Van Sant).
Ignoring the experimental dream-like cinema that marked Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park, director Gus Van Sant uses conventional biopic techniques to depict the life of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco entrepreneur who became the first openly gay man elected to public office. While Milk is a message movie that unabashedly promotes a point of view, it transcends didacticism to become a human statement about the struggle of all people to achieve dignity, acceptance, and basic human rights, and its depiction of the torchlight parade of 30,000 people to San Francisco City Hall on the night of Milk's assassination is a magic moment. The film begins and ends with Milk expressing his love for another human being, making a statement that the success of the gay rights movement will be ensured only when people are seen as human before they are seen as gay or straight.
12. Roman de Gare (Claude Lelouch).
A young woman, Huguette (Audrey Dana), is dumped at a gas station by her fiancé on the way to her parent’s farm in the French Alps. Stalked by an intriguing older man, Pierre Laclos (Dominique Pinon), who is also a magician, she accepts a ride with him to the South of France. Roman de Gare translates as "airport novel," a book you might read on a trip and then toss when you arrive at your destination, but the film is more than just lighthearted fluff. It is a smart and very enjoyable suspense caper that is about pretenses and appearances and who we really are behind our masks. Lelouch has fashioned a tale of intrigue and deceit with a vibrant energy that bubbles along with the style of a plot-driven Hitchcockian film of the sixties.
Stefek is a bright and very observant six-year-old boy who lives with his teenage sister Elka (Ewelina Walendziak) and their mother (Ilona Fornalczyk) in a Polish village outside of Warsaw. Stefan has never seen his father (Tomasz Sapryk) who abandoned the family before he was born, but from a defaced picture in his wallet he thinks he recognizes him as a man boarding the train each morning. Tricks is one of those rare films that you wish would never end. Winner of the Europa Cinemas Film Festival, it is a delightful blend of sensitivity, intelligence, humor, and magical realism that transforms the simple truths of childhood into cinematic poetry.
14. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh).
30-year-old Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is an optimistic primary school teacher who wants everyone to be happy and is relentless in pursuing her goal, even to the point of being downright annoying. As we get to know Poppy, however, we discover that beneath her bubbly enthusiasm, there is a three-dimensional woman with a heart who understands how people tick. Happy-Go-Lucky is more of a slice-of-life character study than a film with a coherent narrative, yet it is a rich and rewarding experience that sparkles with genuine emotion and intelligence. Sally Hawkins makes you believe not only in her own goodness, but in the idea that we can truly relate to each other in a way that makes us more deeply connected. When asked about her reaching out to others, Poppy simply replies “That’s what mates do.” Life can be so simple.
(Isild Le Besco).
In twenty five-year-old director Isild Le Besco’s Charly, a loquacious streetwalker helps Nicholas (Kolia Litscher), a fourteen-year-old runaway, get his life together by pushing him to complete routine household tasks. Charly is a tender, totally honest, and completely believable look at two people who need each other but are unable to communicate. Shot in a format that does not even fill up a normal movie screen, let alone widescreen, the actors are mostly silent and the camera does not move very much, yet the film is never static or dull. Julie-Marie Parmentier’s performance as Charly makes the film come alive, especially in the sequence when the two read aloud from a Wedekind play and act out crying and beating each other, perhaps the nearest thing to intimacy that each is capable of.
Man (Azazel Jacobs).
17. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat).
18. The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette).
19. Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck).
20. Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (Jim Brown).
Most Disappointing Films of 2008:
Though year's-end arrivals like Frost/Nixon, Doubt, Rachel Getting Married, Happy-Go-Lucky and the Cinderella surprise Slumdog Millionaire are impressive award contenders, nothing hit me in late 2008 as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood did the year before, or had that unmistakable stamp of Great Movie on them. So I'd like to step away from the game of lining up the year's "best" for a moment and first highlight some films I especially care about.
Technically US releases for the most part, these were hard to see outside the festival circuit or NYC. Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, about adultery in a Mennonite community, is haunting and magical; it confirms that this still relatively little-known Mexican is one of the most distinctive and gifted directors working in the world today. Steve McQueen's Hunger astonished me; I'd never heard of this young Black UK artist. His first film about the Irish nationalist Bobby Sands's struggle to the death is as artistically elegant as it is emotionally strong--a stunning debut. Lance Hammer's Ballast was made with local first-time actors in the Mississippi Delta. It's the American indie debut of 2008 with the most integrity and authenticity.
Other personal "prejudices" make me single out Gus Van Sant, Tarsem (Singh), and some new French films. Van Sant's Milk is another gay mainstream movie milestone, like Brokeback Mountain, and that's important to me as a gay person. Let's also remember that Van Sant's 2007 Paranoid Park, another of this most high-profile American gay directors' artistic visual poems about death and boyhood, and the most accessible of the stylized quartet that includes Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, also technically had its US theatrical release this year. Tarsem (Singh)'s generally overlooked The Fall, a multiple-location, exquisitely-costumed dream vision, is a rare feast of visual exotica that puts middlebrow high-tech slogs like Benjamin Button to shame.
France still produces great movies, and I admit I'm very partial to them: The Class, A Christmas Tale, Summer Hours (not a US release), and The Secret of the Grain are all fine, and movingly full of a sense of family, culture, and society. But it's Christophe Honoré's Love Songs, a film about young people in love and in mourning in the Bastille quarter of Paris, that went beyond admiration and became a real personal fetish of mine. Mark Olsen wrote in Film Comment that "Christophe Honoré's films aren't just films you like; you develop little crushes on them." That's true for me, at least this time. A very post-Jacques Demy French film musical, it really is something a lot of Americans don't seem to "get." At the Lincoln Center screening, a number of press people shook their heads and said it was terrible. Fortunately all of these recommendations of mine can be enjoyed on DVD away from critics and head-shakers. And when the Oscars are over, we'll see what matters most.
Some other notes: Documentaries continue to be in far richer supply than in the past. So many are worth a look, it's impossible to list them all. Taxi to the Dark Side is the one essential one. The horrors perpetrated by the old regime aren't going to go away just because of a charismatic new leader: let Alex Gibney's film be a reminder of the grim legacy. In contrast, quite apolitical and even indifferent to matters of legality, Man on Wire is a movie whose exhilarating finale moved me more than any other "real" footage this year.
Below are my formal lists, but I have not tried to give out prizes. You may be sure that they all contain the highest accomplishments in all fields, including acting. A few memorable performances came in films that aren't so special, notably Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Clint Eastwood in his own Gran Torino, and of course, the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
and American Directors:
(Gus Van Sant).
No One (Guillaume Canet).
Synecdoche, New York
Rachel Getting Married
If anything defined 2008 for me, it was disappointment. Too often I found myself on the losing side of popular movies that garnered much critical acclaim. There were exceptions to be sure (just check out the list below), but over and over again I left wondering just what all the fuss was about (Doubt features some great performances, sure, but it's also one of the most heavy-handed films in recent memory; Slumdog Millionaire is good, but the framing device grows rather tiresome and the last 20 minutes is the very definition of forced and contrived). Maybe that's why my list stops just short of 10. Here, in alphabetical order, are not my favorites (in fact, I'm still not sure I like one of them in particular), but the films that occupied my thoughts the most or stayed with me the longest after they were over.
Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu).
Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry).
A Christmas Tale
Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan).
at the End of the World
on Wire (James Marsh).
Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky).
This year, I think, more than ever, I was looking for a little humanism in my films. Here's where I found it:
P.S. I Love You
The Band's Visit
(Gus Van Sant).
2008 was remarkable...for the number of films I didn't see. Below are some notes on ones I actually saw, for one reason or other.
Quantum of Solace
Burn After Reading
(Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Dark Knight
Tropic Thunder: I was late to this (I hate being late), so my overall reaction to it may have been discolored by that. It was good, but not great. Also, Ben Stiller bugs me. But Robert Downey, Jr. is an inspired lunatic. So happy that guy has returned from his personal abyss.
Mamma Mia!: Haven't seen the stage musical, but I felt the film
version lacked. I don't think a straight adaptation from stage to film
is entirely successful when pretty much all points of exposition are sung.
It's not necessary. The film is watchable only because of Meryl Streep
and Amanda Seyfried, and the location photography. Note to Pierce Brosnan:
don't sing. Ever. (I do enjoy Abba's music though, immensely.)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: I had a
dream back when I was a kid where Indiana Jones never woke up from that
waking-zombie trance that he was subjected to in Indiana Jones and
the Temple of Doom. Now under control of the agents of Evil, he was
co-opted to be a puppet for other nefarious forces like Nazis and telemarketers.
Little did I know that one of those agents would turn out to be George
1. Forgetting Sarah
2. Hellboy II: the Golden
3. Kung Fu Panda
5. Speed Racer
(Andy & Larry Wachowski).
6. The Dark Knight
7. In Bruges
9. Iron Man
10. You Don't Mess with
From my meager viewing last year:
from Russian director Timor Bekmambetov
Hamlet 2 (Andrew Fleming).
In alphabatical order:
The very worst: