2008 was a pretty great year for film.
I saw no less than nine films I loved unequivocally and several more that would've been memorably enjoyable any year. Looking over my 2007 in Review lists, I don't see a single film that I liked as much as I do the twelve titles below in the "Personal Favorites" section. Maybe Lake of Fire - but if an extremely graphic, morally/ethically upsetting, three-hour, black-and-white documentary is the film I "liked" best last year, then maybe the bar was set pretty low for 2008 to surpass. Don't get me wrong, I saw some solid films last year, but in 2008 I saw many films which hit me just right – I didn't just enjoy them, I identified with them on a level beyond appreciating a well-crafted or effective piece of art. Three films, A Christmas Tale, Happy-Go-Lucky and 35 Rhums, I really believe are as good of movies as I have ever seen. For sure, they got me on every level they could: they’re expertly crafted pieces of cinematic genius, deeply emotional and intelligent; they engage my brain in such a way that I feel like I'm entering into a dialog about my deepest fears and desires and confusions and joys. In short, more than just being great films (which they obviously are), I also connected with them.
The next three films on my list would've been competing for my favorite film in just about any other year. If they're not on the level with Desplechin, Leigh or Denis' latest, it's only because so few films are. Still, Faith Akin confirms that Head-On was no fluke with another tale of crossed borders and damaged hearts; Pixar predictably delivered a film of the highest technical and entertainment order; and, almost impossibly, Linklater once again branched out in a new direction with fantastic results.
The next three films on the list found filmmakers returning to familiar ground with memorable results. Werner Herzog and Catherine Breillat delivered quintessentially Herzog-ian and Breillat-ian films – there's no mistaking Encounters at the End of the World or The Last Mistress as films by anyone but their respective directors. For at least this trip back to the well, the returns didn't diminish – in fact, Breillat probably made the best film of her career. Harold and Kumar escaped from direct-to-dvd distribution and found themselves back on the big screen in a film that builds on the multifarious potty-mouthed charms of their original low-brow classic.
My final three "Personal Favorites" would've been right at home on last year's Good list – they're interesting films with few flaws that I really enjoyed, but that aren't in danger of becoming all-time classics. After seeing their new movies, more than ever Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hirokazu Kore-Eda feel like filmmakers whose every new work I should be sure to seek out. They're interesting, original artists who deserve an audience's attention. Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, however, felt like the end of the road that leads from Gerry to Elephant to Last Days. It's the weakest of those stylistically similar films and, while it's still very good, it feels like for Van Sant some kind of rejuvenation is in order comparable to what those films provided him after his stint as a Miramax-sponsored awards-baiter. Unfortunately, Milk is not a very interesting movie, but I think dipping his toes back into the waters of Hollywood might be the right move at this point.
Maybe the biggest surprise of the year was that I enjoyed virtually all of the Hollywood summer movies I saw, starting in May with the always charming Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man on through to August with the always charming Paul Rudd in Role Models. It's hard to complain about Summer Blockbusters when even a high concept Will Smith action comedy directed by Peter Berg turns out to be pretty ok. Among the kids' films, the comedies and the superhero movies, there was plenty of A+ popcorn-fueled diversion to be had this year.
Without further stalling, here's my review of 2008. Ay-yo, Isis, let me do dis!
A Christmas Tale. A Christmas Tale isn't just the type of film that one simply "likes:" it creates converts. Director Arnaud Desplechin has made some very good films in the past (Kings and Queen, for example), but his newest film is a breakthrough along the lines of Mike Leigh's Naked or Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura - the moment when a director jumps from making films that are "very good" to ones that can change your life. Of course, to a lot of folks, this description will a wee bit hyberbolic – maybe in your mind, you're even thinking, "well, lad-di-dah, but I don't even like Naked or L’Avventura.” That's beside the point: there are many folks for whom those films are not simply essential cinematic experiences, but essential life experiences. They are films that somehow get down into the core of your being and, without which, the whole history of your life wouldn't be the same. Films that someone will insist you have to see. (I know that for a fact because in the case of A Christmas Tale that person is me.) Through a mysterious mixture of truth and talent, intelligence and sincerity, happy mistakes and artistic precision, it has believers and not fans - whether or not they can turn you to it, is something else altogether.
Structured around the Vuillard clan's annual Christmas gathering in which the three grown children and their various families congregate at their childhood home with their icy Matriarch played by Catherine Deneuve (in a performance that that threatens to topple her role in Belle de Jouras her most memorable) and their avuncular, corpulent father (played by Jean-Paul Roussillon). The film is dominated, though, by Mathieu Amalric playing the middle child, a lovable fuck-up who serves as the locus of the family's violent emotional maelstroms. And make no mistake, the gospel according to Desplechin is not one of familial happiness and reconciliation. It’s spreading the Good News of recrimination and sadness, of the painful ways in which who we are is controlled by the people surrounding us and not by ourselves. As Amalric's character is heaped with abuse, it becomes painfully obvious that his emotionally destructive postures are as much a reaction to the people as a source of instigation – so does it even matter if deep down he's really the good man his girlfriend believes him to be?
The film is a bottomless riff on these conflicts over who these characters really are and who the family insists they be. How much is our life and personality the product of those around? But it's not just a supremely complex and affecting character study, Desplechin has become a flawless cinematic stylist using every device in a fimmaker's arsenal blast out a dizzying salvo of image, sound and editing. He uses iris fades and surrealism and impressionistic editing and hand-held camera and long takes and shadow puppets and symphonic scoring and diegetic techno music and even deftly mixes these seemingly incongruous elements within a single sequence. Describing it, it seems like there's no way it couldn't be a mess, but it is an unexceptionably cohesive, consistent film. I was genuinely shocked when the film received only middling reviews on its U.S. release this fall – the film's enormous virtues couldn't be clearer. But I suppose there is no logic to those who suddenly are suddenly transformed into believers from some obscure Divine Light. (Their powerful belief is sincere nonetheless.) Whether or not it hits you, there is for certain an imitable light beaming from this film.
Happy-Go-Lucky. Humor is the unheralded expertise of legendary director Mike Leigh. A great deal is made of his idiosyncratic (sorta) improvisational methods and his ability to draw high-caliber performances from virtually unknown actors, but (perhaps because of their considerable emotion punch) no ones seems to mention that the primary appeal of film like Naked or Life is Sweetis its wicked, devastating sense of humor. Would you want to spend even five seconds going along with Johnny on his midnight odyssey if he weren't an endless fount of witticisms, wry observations, sly charm and out-sized insult comedy? Humor is not only frequently a weapon with which his characters defend themselves from the indignities of their lives, but also the tool through which Leigh can most clearly examine his characters.
Maybe the problem is that his sense of humor is mined from uncomfortable places: in his great new film Happy-Go-Lucky, a main character's casual psychotic racism generates some the film's biggest laughs. What critic would want to go out on a limb and posit Eddie Marsden's imbalanced, pathetic, ultimately dangerous driving instructor as an enormously entertaining character? To trust that an audience will be able to parse through this complex character requires an incredible respect for that audience on the part of director Mike Leigh: he essentially leaves unresolved how we are supposed to feel about this foaming lunatic. Should we condemn him? Laugh at him? Be afraid of him? Feel sorry for him? I suspect the point is that it's some mixture of all of those things with different answers required at different points in the film. The main character, a relentlessly upbeat primary school teacher named Poppy, existed in that same uncomfortable gray area in which Leigh is clearly most comfortable. The majority of the critical discussion of the film revolved around whether Poppy was intended to be lovable or annoying, which is obviously an idiotic debate. The answer is subjective – she is both or neither or one or the other and discussing whether you thought Leigh intended her to be both or neither or one or the other and whether he was successful or unsuccessful and what that means for how one is supposed to understand the point of the film, perversely ends up obscuring the meaning of a film primarily about the limits of empathy.
But how could anyone miss the perfectly timed comedic interplay between Eddie Marsden's Scott and Sally Hawkin's Poppy? Their scenes together (only three in all) have an unmistakable comedic rhythm that renders irrelevant whether you "like" those characters or not – do people "like" Basil Fawlty or Charlie Chaplin's asshole-ish tramp or Johnny in Naked or any number of the most memorable and incisive comedic creations in the history of cinema? The answer is beside the point! Of course, to paint Happy-Go-Lucky as a laff riot is inaccurate, Leigh is simply using humor to expand the reach and possibilities of his cinematic universe – it's another trick in his repertoire to take the film to a place it simply couldn't go emotionally, narratively or intellectually if it were a straight drama or comedy. It's one of the many things that makes Leigh beyond imitation and film like Happy-Go-Lucky so singular.
35 Rhums. Director Claire Denis' latest film adds to the already pretty convincing case that she may cinema's greatest sensualist. One of the rare filmmakers whose films glow with an indescribable something that makes them almost tactile, Denis is a master of capturing the interaction of the human body with its environment. And while her films can be overwhelming carnal, they're also infused with a downbeat poeticism that expands the intellectual and emotional possibilities of their essential concupiscence. She's a poet of rain on the skin, frozen breath in the cold night air, fingers stroking through curly, kinked hair, and, above all, the limitless depth of our eyes.
35 Rhums edges Beau Travail and Chocolatas my favorite Denis film if only because its themes hit me a little more close to home. A sorrowful yet beautiful story about the things that only happen once in a lifetime, it finds an almost unbearable ache in the unexceptional, human moments that most everyone experiences: a child leaving the home, the death of a friend, a marriage. Denis is painfully attuned to the inevitable passage time, to how life passes before our eyes even as we are living it. Mati Diop and Alex Descas memorably portray the father and daughter around which the plot revolves: their work has an unforced intimacy that allows small gestures to take on deep resonances – because they really seem they’ve lived together forever in their small Paris apartment, the film never has to overstate any aspect of their relationship.
It's a movie that you feel and it exists in an intuitive space that allows for a profound emotional complexity. It exudes warmth and tenderness even as it trains itself steadily on devastating truths. The frequently impressionistic camerawork and editing exhibit an exceptional command of the technical aspects of filmmaking, but Denis (along cinematographer Agnes Godard and editor Guy Lecorne) never let the truly startling mastery of the medium overtake the emotions and characters: it’s that rare film for which the considerable style is simply in support of the real show. And make no mistake, the evolving relationship between Diop and Descas is an enormously compelling show. By the time their relationship has ebbed and flowed to a point where Descas is finally ready to drink the 35 shots of rum, don't be surprised if there are tears in your eyes - the rare kind of tears earned by a filmmaker through hard, beautiful truth absent of sentimentality.
Wall-E. What is there to be said about Pixar at this point? They create popular entertainments of the highest possible proof and, for at least a decade, their films have consistently the best thing to come of Hollywood. Their films are almost uniformly hilarious, sweet, smart and endlessly inventive; Wall-E is no exception. As a matter of fact, it would be tempting to declare it their best film yet, if the competition weren't so impossibly stiff. The first third of the movie, featuring an adorable trash-bot and his pet roach on a lonely detritus-consumed planet, is justifiably regarded as a tour-de-force - it gained "instant classic" status and its reputation will undoubtedly only grow with time. The Wall-E brand trash-collecting robot is more of that routine Pixar magic: an automaton that engages in repetitive activity in nearly complete silence but still is one of the most vivid and fully realized characters of the year. His interaction with his robotic opposite, Eve, is as charming, romantic and ingeniously funny as the best of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
In its second half, the film become a satire that takes some broad swipes at obvious targets, but it's redeemed by the introduction of even more new characters and the fundamental sweetness of Wall-E himself: he inadvertently spreads goodness wherever he goes and only a heartless bastard could resist his charms. Hell, even the mechanized, technically heartless robots he meets can't resist. It's a love story, an ode to Technicolor musicals, a polemic on the importance of richness and variety in life, a razor-sharp slapstick comedy, a marvel of technical ambition and achievement, a cartoon classic, a visionary sci-fi masterpiece – you get the feeling that whatever else they might've stuffed in would've worked, too. I have no affection for childhood nostalgia or patience with grown adults who engage in regressive behavior like buying toys of their favorite movies but if anyone happened to buy me a Wall-E doll, I wouldn't turn it down. Such is the power of Pixar. (And thankfully, this time they confined to the end credits the adult contemporary ballad that continues to be their baffling Achilles' heel.)
The Edge of Heaven. Much of what made Fatih Akin’s breakthrough film Head-On unforgettable was its live-wire, nihilistic energy, so it's great to find that he can make an equally arresting film with a completely different tone. The Edge of Heavenis gentle and thoughtful even as it's punctured by violence and injustice – what would've become carnal, desperate energy is here channeled into something more subdued, but no less powerful. The story of a son dealing with the tragic "wrongs" of his father and a mother dealing with the tragic "rights" of her daughter, the film once again finds Akin concerned with characters crossing the literal and metaphorical borders between his native Turkey and his land of expatriation, Germany.
What makes Akin a remarkable chronicler of all this is that he really seems caught perfectly in between the two worlds he’s examining: to label him as either a German or Turkish filmmaker would be to place too much of an emphasis on either perspective. But don't also make the mistake of putting him in the role of impartial observer: he's clearly partial to both sides of the story and feels a deep, thoughtful connection to the land on either side of the border. The Edge of Heaven might not be as electrifying as Head-On, but he's created a gripping film that goes beyond bombast. If he keeps it up, he'll have created a body of work that there will be no way to ignore – even on the strength of these two films alone, he's outrageously underrated.
Me and Orson Welles. I'll be honest: I couldn't have been less excited to see a movie about Orson Welles starring Claire Danes and Zac Efron. Obviously, Danes is worthless as an actress, neither pretty nor intelligent nor witty nor distinguished nor charming. Her big claim to fame is a mopey tv show with a semi-ironic cult following. Super. I only know Efron from the surprisingly not-objectionable remake of the remake of Hairspray. But as the lead in a movie about Orson Welles? It was all I could do to pray that he wasn't playing Welles. Fortunately, the film has a trump card in director Richard Linklater, the American Louis Malle, who switches up styles once again and delivers the charmingly earnest story of a teenager with actor-ly aspirations who lucks his way into a bit role in Welles' legendary production of Julius Caesarat the Mercury Theater. Linklater mixes together a precarious concoction of gee-shucks charm, winking in-jokes, romantic foibles and spot-on impersonations in a "Let’s put on a show!" tumbler and it all comes off so well that the Efron and Danes chaser doesn't even want to make you vomit.
In the role he developed on stage, Christian McKay does a great job of evoking Welles without doing too much of a technical, note-for-note recreation of the towering figure. He nails the overpowering presence and charisma of Welles the entertainer, the genius and the charlatan while letting the rest of the film fall into place around his out-sized character. I'll admit this as well: Efron is plenty charming in his own right as the cocky youngster who gets a taste of the big-time and decides it’s the life for him. It's a playful, light film that strikes the perfect balance at every perilous turn and, even when Efron's dream-life comes crashing back to reality, the film's eager enthusiasm for its subject is never undercut by cheap cynicism. I left the theater thinking, "Gosh, that was fun – is there anything Linklater can't do?" It's beginning to become a running theme with me and Linklater.
Encounters at the End of the World. Obviously, Werner Herzog is the filmmaker anyone would most want to travel to a scientific research base in Antarctica and make a documentary. Who better to capture and contemplate the various biological and sociological weirdness obvious even at the literal tip of the iceberg? It's Herzog in deadpan comedy mode, offering up his one-of-a-kind commentary about one-of-a-kind landscapes and characters with a desultory flow that drifts from amused to cantankerous to genuinely awed. Whether speculating on the madness that drives a penguin to run towards the distant mountains (and certain death), fustigating the forced eccentricities of the base-dwellers or exploring mind-bending frozen undersea landscapes, Herzog fully displays the charm and intelligence that’s slowly come to the forefront of his work as he grows older. As opposed to in his earlier work, he's no longer primarily obsessed with the self-destructive behaviors of madmen and doesn't seem overly enamored of the dire, irresolvable and apocalyptic. Maybe he's stared into the abyss at its brink often enough to no longer be seized by the vertiginous desire to toss himself down into it, but Encounters at the End of the World seems to be a crystallization of this slowly-developing idea in his work: for a truth to be ecstatic, it doesn’t need to be nihilistic. And his films are all the better for it. Encounters is an unblinking a story of madness, futility and otherworldly beautiful that’s somehow hilarious, empathetic and maybe even life-affirming?
The Last Mistress. It's hard to criticize Catherine Breillat for making yet another film that trades in the sexual, moral and philosophical excesses that make her such an easy target for disdain – if The Last Mistress didn't feature all manner of emotional grotesquery, unstable sexual voracity, casual moral rot, violent self-destruction and cosmic injustice, would it even be a Breillat film at all? That kind of dedication to excess makes her work decisively hit-or-miss – when a film like The Anatomy of Hell misses, it’s a brutally boring thing to endure. Fortunately, Mistressdoesn't star some meathead pornstar who slurs his words like he has a fish for a tongue, but rather Asia Argento in the most detonative performance she’ ever delivered.
It's the quintessential Breillat set-up: a degenerate pretty-boy lands the fragile sugar-momma of his dreams but can’t resist endangering the sweet-life for the sake of filthy, feral sex with a mule-faced Spanish courtesan. The film casts Argento perfectly: there is an undeniable ugliness to her type of beauty, but if her charms hit you just right, they are a maddening, fractious, all-consuming thing. Breillat gets enormous mileage out of how her indelible, anomalous beauty stands in direct contrast to the easy appeal of the lean, pillow-lipped Fu'ad Ait Aatou and the porcelain doll-eqsue Roxane Mesquida, who make for a picture-perfect couple. Argento is the personification of beauty as a curse, of that which awakens annihilating sexual forces in men (the obsessive theme from which Breillat never strays far). The Last Mistress may be Breillat's most powerful take on the subject. For certain, she and Argento have created her most unforgettable exterminating (ultimately, exterminated) angel.
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Bay. John Cho and Kal Penn are so perfect as the titular duo that you get the sense they would spin gold out of whatever straw they were handed. They have flawless comedic timing together bolstered by their easy, complimentary charms and, in their hands, even throwaway expositional scenes are a pleasure to watch – they don't even need jokes to be funny together. Fortunately, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (directors of H&K Escape and the writers of both H&Kfilms) provide them with a script that’s brimming with political intelligence, conceptual brilliance, a surprising sweetness and an infectious (even earnest) enthusiasm amidst the mandatory nudity, gross-out gags and stoner humor. It’s a film that always has another trick up its sleeve: for god's sakes, the climax is an extended math and poetry joke!
It deals with iffy, expected sequel maneuvers like bringing back popular characters and gags by expanding and improving on the original jokes – NPH as himself is funny in the original; NHP interacting with newcomer Rob Cordry is borderline transcendent. Penn and Cho could literally not be better, grounding the material with performances that are authentic and engrossing without sacrificing a single comedic beat. All this plus sly commentary about the War on Terror and race relations in the U.S.? If this isn't the best stoner comedy ever made, it's only because first-time directors Hurwitz and Schlossberg aren't quite able to reach the delirious heights of stoner-comedy savant Danny Leiner’s original. That's a minor quibble - they came perilously close to doing so. I hope they keep trying: what the world needs now is Harold and Kumar.
Tokyo Sonata. Cult favorite Kiyoshi Kurosawa made his name as part of the wave of J-horror directors that came into international notice in the late 90's, but there are no serial killers or haunted internets to be found in his most recent film. Instead, Kurosawa steps well outside of his comfort zone with Tokyo Sonata, a totally idiosyncratic domestic drama infused with large doses of absurdist comedy, lightly dashed with science-fiction and pierced occasionally by outbursts of poetry and violence. The story follows an upper-management office bureaucrat who suddenly finds himself out of a job and unable to cope. Discouraged by his fruitless attempts to find work – and seemingly unable to justify even to himself why he should have a job – he settles into a strange life of deceit and semi-homelessness: he leaves his family each morning, pretending to be going to work and then spends the day lazing about a homeless encampment and eating free soup intended for the needy.
Meanwhile, his wife slowly suffocates under domestic routine until Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho storms into her life in a cameo performance that teeters between hilarious and truly upsetting. Their son nurses his crush on a pretty young piano teacher by becoming her student in a subplot that feels like a tangent right up until it provides the film with its inexplicably moving and beautiful denouement. That final scene is the film in a nutshell: a deeply emotional moment that is cryptic in its conception, but no less powerful for its undercurrent of dry humor and baffling narrative approach. It suddenly brings together characters who feel like they've almost been existing in separate movies – and sheer randomness of how it all comes together would feel like a punchline, if it weren't so emotionally affecting. But that's Kurosawa's real insight here - something that despite their obsession with family curses and dead children, no other director to come out of J-horror has come close to making resonant - families are bound together in a way that is once mysterious and powerful, inscrutable to a point that's almost laughable, and yet so much of life's beauty and joy and meaning is derived from that ridiculous, opaque connection.
Paranoid Park. This film feels like an epilogue to a trajectory of films by director Gus Van Sant that started with Gerry. That film caused an almost mystical transformation in Van Sant, leading him down a stylistic garden path far away from the middle-brow art fare which had become his niche. Paranoid Park has dreamy, experimental style that recalls Gerry as well as Elephant and Last Days, but it doesn't feel like it contributes anything new to the arc. It's a quiet, simple film that lazes about in reverie even when the heat from its plot seems like it should be amping up the tension. The over-arching manslaughter story plays like a subplot as Van Sant is plenty content to idle amongst a cadre of fair-skinned, full-lipped skater boys. The lack of urgency is strange match for the plot about a kid trying to avoid taking the rap for his part in an unintentional murder – the film seems to float farther and farther away from itself until it seems to be staring down like an out-of-body experience.
But make no mistake, the film entrances: it drifts you along dreamily through its teenage reality in such a way that you're never eager to have the story intrude on the proceedings - the most compelling and beautiful moments have virtually not plot value and the all-around terrible acting makes you reluctant to leave the haze of slow-motion imagery and hypnotic sound-design. The film does have the feel unique to this phase of Van Sant's career; a phase I'm not necessarily eager to see him abandon even if he seems headed into a stylistic dead-end. The gorgeous sequences at the titular skate spot and Christopher Doyle's amazing cinematography more than make up for whatever hesitations I may have about the rest of the movie.
Still Walking. Many of my favorite films this year – 35 Rhums, Tokyo Sonata, A Christmas Tale, even The Edge of Heaven to an extent – dealt with the particular brand of masculine failure that comes from being an impotent head of a household, but Hirokazu Kore-Eda's low-key domestic drama spins the theme around and around like a yo-yo, tightening the family conflicts up on themselves before letting them go slack once again. Mining the inexhaustible vein of father versus son conflict, the film follows the painfully simple story of an unemployed man bringing his wife and her son from an earlier marriage to his parents' home for a holiday weekend. His father, a retired doctor whose curmudgeonly presence is a neighborhood fixture, expects a great deal from his family and rules over the clan with that certain kind of ineffectual tyranny specific to elderly men who have earned the right to their right to complain, criticize and cast judgment. In the hands of a lesser dramatist, the dynamics between the various interlocking family units (the sisters are also visiting along with their families) would be the impetus for shrill recriminations or encounter-session truth-telling; Kore-Eda is far too empathetic a filmmaker to make anyone out to be the villain or engage in artificial histrionics. The filmmaking is unobtrusive and the stationary camera is as passive as it possibly could be, but the downbeat style ultimately serves a film of elegiac simplicity.
(continues on next page with THE WORST of 2008)
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