| February 2, 2009

A disgraced despot in the waning years of his tyrannical reign. A maverick soldier hocking his values and his individualist spirit for a shot at absolute power. Two—count em’, two—deadly femme fatales: Lady Macbeth in a power-suit and Serial Mom in nerd-chic bifocals. Fire-and-brimstone preachers, reformed terrorists, fanatical newsmen, muckraking journalists, and everyday “Joes,” plumbing away on the sidelines, hoping for a better tomorrow. Rising above them all, the ultimate underdog, a handsome, polite, starry-eyed dreamer with a pocket full of hope, winning our hearts one perfect speech and warm handshake at a time.
Like some overstuffed ensemble (maybe an Altman or a Sayles) 2008 had em’ all. Course, this motley bunch of iconic characters sprung not from the imagination of some Hollywood scribe, but from the headlines of our newspapers and the comfy corners of our network spin zones. Last year, when it came to real drama, the kind that kept you perched on the edge of your seat, breath abated and nails bitten short, the big screen just couldn’t compete with what the small one had to offer. Put another way: who needed superheroes, dancing queens, or kung fu pandas when every day brought an improbable new twist or turn in our collective, rollercoaster national narrative? Hell, we even got a heart-warming Hollywood ending out of it—well, 53% of us did, anyway. When held against the impossible hype, the deception, the petty squabbling, the barrel-scraping ugliness, and—finally, yes!—the joyous, against-all-odds triumph of this mad, mad Election Year, the movies just seemed, well, kinda dull.
Except when they didn’t. It’s a special kind of strange when popular art and entertainment starts to beat in sync with the pulse of a whole nation. If ’07 was the year that our film culture suddenly and oppressively began to bear the terrible weight of the Bush decade, spitting out such existential bummers as There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, ’08 saw cinema’s various offerings reflecting those little glimmers of hope many of us began to spot as early as last January. Like poking tiny holes in a pitch-black tarp, filmmakers tempered their doom-and-gloom visions of a crumbling world with cautious but unmistakable optimism. The night is always darkest before the dawn, they whispered. But the dawn is coming. A washed-up wrestler gets one last chance to hear the roar of the crowd. A family teetering on the edge of collapse comes together through marriage and music and celebratory union. A crazed anarchist in dirty clown make-up discovers that, deep down, maybe people aren’t as rotten as he had counted on. And a politician transforms himself into more than a man, into a symbol of hope for a bustling city and a nation in crisis. (Sound familiar?)
Stoked by that certain feeling in the air, that promise of something better on the horizon, moviegoers searched intently for a bona fide fairytale to project their longing, their restored faith, their abundance of goodwill onto. For many, that tall order was neatly met by Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s kinetic ode to love, destiny, and rags-to-riches perseverance. It may well be the Movie of the Moment, but for this particular cinephile, sifting through the dust and debris of the longest, strangest, most up-and-down year of his adult life, it was a different love story, the one between two buzzing, beeping, emoting gadgets, that captured the indelible spirit of our hopeful new nation. In the year of Obama, Pixar’s magic machine offered the penultimate paean to shared human experience, the awakening of social consciousness, and the rebirth of culture.
1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, U.S.A.):
It starts as just about the loneliest animated fable in Mouse House history, an eerie and nearly wordless tour of the trash-strewn remains of our civilization. It ends as a madcap space odyssey, with paranoid androids crashing and careening and capering their way through a gee-whiz, zip-bang Brave New World—think Huxley by way of Apple aboard the Discovery One. By the time these disparate components meet, bridged by a star-grazing voyage through the cosmos, who but the most stubbornly cynical among us could resist Andrew Stanton’s future-shock fantasia? The big brains at Pixar, that last standing dream factory in Hollywood, have always spiked their state-of-the-art spectacle with warmth, wit, and idiosyncratic character. With WALL-E, at once the year’s most biting satire and its purest romance, they’ve made that rare pop blockbuster that’s as soulfully profound as it is dazzlingly, eye-poppingly entertaining. Culling a personality (a soul, really) from the abandoned tokens and lost artifacts he’s collected over the years, our yearning robot hero has become the most human being in the whole wide universe. And when he falls for EVE, that hovering, glowing, awesomely powerful iBeauty from beyond the stars, it’s his selfless and transformative love that fuels the restoration of our culture. For when WALL-E collides with mankind’s hellishly sterile, space mall habitat, running amok like a robotic Buster Keaton in a futuristic, Jacques Tati playground, the people inside aren’t just perturbed. They’re shaken straight out of their glazed-eyes, techno-slave complacency. With every beat of its mechanized heart, WALL-E believes in humankind—in our capacity for growth and change, in our ability to recognize the messes we create and do everything we can to amend them. If that‘s not the audacity of hope, I don’t know what is.
2. IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (José Luis Guerín, Spain/France):
Preoccupied with the delicate and animated features of various young women, glimpsed furtively from close and afar, In the City of Sylvia commences with what may be the most prolonged stretch of casually lustful voyeurism ever put to film. Yet there’s nothing malevolent about this particular peeping tom fantasy. Elegant and intimate close-ups, employed here as the smitten vision of a lingering flâneur, say more about the romantic languor of the observer than they do about the objects of his desire. Entwining faces and places, memories and moments, writer-director José Luis Guerín dramatizes the lost art of people watching, the way you can totally lose yourself in the inviting visages of beautiful strangers, inventing imaginary narratives for every could-have-been lover that floats by. Like Eric Rohmer or Francois Truffaut or Wong Kar-Wai before him, Guerin is one of cinema’s hopeless romantics. But even those iconoclastic dreamers never projected their longing straight out the eyes and into the world, reconfiguring the mythic male gaze for a new generation of lovesick lookers. Robin Wood, eat your heart out!
3. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Charlie Kaufman, U.S.A.):
Not all great films go down smooth as silk. Some poke and scrape and claw at your insides like broken glass, uncomfortably lodging themselves in your gullet. Mad genius Charlie Kaufman, in his first gig behind the camera, turns his Meta magnifying glass around on himself, pulling all his nagging little doubts and fears and insecurities—as artist and man—into sharp, unflattering focus. Chronicling the forty year life crisis of a struggling stage director (Philip Seymour Hoffman, an even better onscreen surrogate for the writer than sweaty, stammering Nic Cage), this breathless plunge down the art-damaged rabbit hole thrives for the same lofty, impossible ideal that its chronically unhappy “hero” does: to make sense of a painful existence through the creation of something honest and true. If Synecdoche isn’t “fun” in the way that Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine are, it’s because, for once, Kaufman’s working without the balancing presence of a whimsical co-pilot, a Jonze or a Gondry. This here is pure Kaufman, undiluted by wonky-sweet humor or charming flights of fancy, and it’s maddening, exasperating even in its single-minded commitment to brutally candid self-reflection. But depressing? No, nothing so wildly ambitious and unflinchingly personal could ever be truly depressing. Still, given the option of crawling, Malkovich style, into Kaufman’s neurotic, bustling subconscious, I think I’d have to respectfully decline. The view’s fine from here.
4. REPRISE (Joachim Trier, Norway):
This is youth: getting drunk on love and music and friendship and the promise of an impossible tomorrow. Believing your own hype, reveling in your own potential. Racing forward into a new day, on foot or wheels, eyes closed and heart open. Then: sobering up, floating back down to earth, coming face to face with your own limitations. Getting bruised and battered. Licking your wounds. Choking on disappointment. Suddenly, six months ago feels like another lifetime, and you’ve got nostalgia for a future that never happened. Infused with both the reckless vitality and aching melancholia of stunted adolescence, Reprise hails from the distant shores of Norway, yet its follies of youth, tortured-artist rallying cry might well have sounded from the crowded boulevards of Brooklyn, Paris, or Tokyo. Joachim Trier, a punk rock poet with a New Waver’s soul, has navigated the vast expanses of the post-collegiate wasteland, leaving in his wake the most exhilarating portrait of restless bohemia since Regular Lovers. If this anthem doesn’t put a solid lump in your throat, your twenties are either still on the horizon or but a distant, cloudy memory.
5. THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, U.S.A.):
How oh how did an unfathomably bleak crime epic about the rampage of a mass-murdering terrorist become one of the biggest box-office successes of all time? Even wrapped in the safety gauze of comic book melodrama, this superlative sequel feels about as close to a screaming-mad nightmare as popcorn entertainment gets. So then credit the crater-sized impact the film made on our pop-culture landscape to the visionary at the helm of it. Like Steven Spielberg at his most primal, writer-director Christopher Nolan knows how to weave dazzling, terrifying pulp spectacle out of our collective cultural anxieties. Here, he turns the prolonged, cat-and-mouse struggle between Christian Bale’s conflicted caped crusader and Heath Ledger’s demented Joker (a force-of-nature monstrosity, Anton Chigur in rotting clown make-up) into both a supremely enjoyable noir blockbuster and a Shakespearean tragedy about the push and pull between fascistic control and total, destructive anarchy. Though not exactly a think piece—this is still a Pow! Blam! Zaboom! Batman movie, complete with cool gadgets and a breathlessly intense car chase—The Dark Knight spikes its Molotov cocktail of genre tropes with prickly moral quandaries and throbbing modern dread. If we must live in the age of bloated superhero fantasies, can they all be as weighty, as iconic, as flat-out great as this one?
6. RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (Jonathon Demme, U.S.A.):
Unconditional love is a tricky thing, even when it comes to family. Scratch that: especially when it comes to family. Anyone who thinks otherwise probably hasn’t got any self-involved, self-destructive train wrecks picking fights and clearing rooms at their latest gathering of kin. Miles from her Prada-wearing, romantic lead comfort zone, a superbly erratic Anne Hathaway plays Kim, fresh out of rehab, bulldozing her way into the wedding weekend of her harried older sister (Rosemarie DeWitt, passive-aggressive yin to the star’s bull-in-a-china-shop yang). Jonathon Demme, a Hollywood player making like a hungry auteur again, trains his shaky handheld camera on flared nostrils and furrowed brows, on filibustering toasts and kitchen meltdowns. For him, “story” is just a pretense to eavesdrop, to let his cast of richly embodied (and so believably related) characters relive their shared traumatic history one petty squabble at a time. The director’s boldest choice is essentially his last one, as the film all but abandons its assumed trajectory, forgoing climatic shouting matches and reconciliatory tears in favor of song and dance and endless, joyous celebration. It’s the Dogma 95 equivalent of a Vincente Minnelli showstopper: scarcely a dramatic resolution, but perfectly in tune with the emotional melodies of its damaged souls and the artistic rejuvenation of the music-loving maestro telling their tale.
7. A CHRISTMAS TALE (Arnaud Desplechin, France):
And here’s the other great family drama of 2008. Sprawling and wildly stylized where Demme’s film is compact and staunchly naturalistic, A Christmas Tale nevertheless shares a common thread with Rachel Getting Married: per both pictures, there’s no grudge knottier and more enduring than the one held between estranged blood relations. Course, sibling rivalry is just one of the many tensions rising and falling among Arnaud Desplechin’s busy band of bastards, fuck-ups, and casually callous conversationalists. It’s with a novelist’s command of history and time and detail that this French master traces the skewed branches and tangled roots of a weathered family tree. Each character he concocts—from Mathieu Almaric’s motor-mouthed, black sheep scoundrel to Catherine Deneuve’s graceful matriarch to Jean-Paul Roussillon’s bemused “old toad”—might have headlined their own narrative. Instead, Desplechin tosses them all into one jam-packed ensemble, letting vibrant personalities clash, back-stories intersect, and old scores go stubbornly unsettled. Even a last minute love triangle, rearing its head late into the film’s wily second hour, justifies its belated inclusion. As holiday feasts go, A Christmas Tale is without reproach—it leaves you completely stuffed and still wanting just a little bit more.
8. PARANOID PARK (Gus Van Sant, U.S.A.):
For a guy pushing 60, Gus Van Sant can hang. He gets kids. Not just the look or the lingo or the swagger of youth. The feeling, too. The way time seems to stop or go, slow or speed up with the movements of your mood. The way the small stuff (like cars or girls) can feel as heavy as the big stuff (like, you know, manslaughter). In his justly celebrated “Death Trilogy,” Van Sant watched kids from afar, casting a sterile eye on the funereal marches of disaffected teens. In Paranoid Park, arguably his greatest ode to adolescent angst, the writer-director plunges us directly into a skater punk’s headspace, enveloping us in his hazy recollections and letting the boy recount, with aptly inarticulate candor, his own shoegaze narrative. Much of the sentiment springs from Christopher Doyle’s achingly emotive aesthetic, making Van Sant’s true triumph of ’08 (sorry Harvey) something of an intoxicating mood piece. But there’s more to this one than gloom and glow: like Synecdoche and Reprise, the film offers art as a potential refuge, in this case a hopeful outlet for guilt and despair, a letter to a pimply kindred spirit with her head on straight. Hey, for once in a GVS joint, the kids are all right.
9. STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang-ke, Hong Kong/China):
Is there any living filmmaker more concerned with the rapidly encroaching future than Zhang-ke? Not for nothing was his international breakthrough entitled The World—“progress,” as his work frequently reminds us, is a force of relative and dubious benefit. China’s preeminent filmmaking talent, he of the stunningly elegant long take, has always focused his wearily empathetic gaze on characters trying to keep pace with the rising tide, struggling to survive seismic shifts in the global-economic landscape. Still Life strikingly evokes that familiar conflict, setting its lost love pursuit along the bank of the Yangtze River, where an entire town has begun to disappear, day by day, into the murky waters. What do you cling to and what do you leave behind when your life is, quite literally, sinking away before your eyes? Zhang-ke enthusiasts will recognize the mark of the master in the film’s flat-out gorgeous panoramas and air of pensive melancholia. Yet this meditative stunner, perhaps by virtue of its search party narrative, feels a bit brisker, a bit livelier than its slow-motion predecessors. And in the reunion of two lovers, separated by a continent of land and an ocean of time, the famously muted dramatist locates a heretofore-hidden capacity for overt, heart-wrenching tenderness.
10. BACHELOR MACHINES PART 1 (Rosalind Nashashibi, U.K.):
When folks talk of “the fringe,” of the truly independent film scene, of the unheralded movements of world cinema, this, one supposes, is what they must be speaking of. Except that Rosalind Nashashibi’s mixed-modes documentary is off the radar even by those cult-art signifiers. Popping up in museums, at avant-garde film festivals, and on Picture This’ “Time Unfolding” DVD compilation, Bachelor Machines was the best film that virtually no one saw last year. (And at thirty, nearly dialogue-free minutes, it’s not coming to a theater near you.) Yet the film’s inclusion here has next to nothing to do with obscure-pick bragging rights and almost everything to do with the celebration of what’s happening on the outer edges of our film culture, where artists are constantly pushing and pulling the medium in strange, exciting new directions. Oh, and Nashashibi’s symphony of sound and image—a sort of observational tone poem set aboard a Russian cargo ship adrift in the big blue ocean—is one of 2008’s most enthralling visions of our mixed-up new century. If WALL-E’s horror stems from a world where humanity has been obliterated by mechanical convenience, Bachelor Machines employs its spooky sci-fi imagery and Kubrickian grandeur to lament these workers’ transformation into lonely, forgotten cogs of a floating labor apparatus. It’s a technological tragedy in 25 parts. And as a time capsule of here and now, it lingers with you longer than any of the enshrined award-winners of this rearview year.
According to much of the mainstream critical community, 2008 was an “off year” for movies. What I imagine that means is that there were no IndieWood successes quite as universally lauded as No Country For Old Men, no mid-budget, mini-major hits that the A.O. Scotts and Kenneth Turans of the world could collectively rally around. (No slight intended on the Coens—their feverishly intense desert noir deserved all the accolades it accrued.) Funny, though, that many of the same writers bemoaning the diminishing returns of this last calendar year were also the ones who found space for, say, Doubt or Frost/Nixon on their respective Best Of round-ups. If either of those middling affairs were among the very best films you saw in 08’, it’s probably safe to venture that you didn’t stray far from the neighborhood multiplexes or the press screenings the studios set up for you.
There was more out there, good and bad, than the fifteen or so films that have been hogging the spotlight this latest awards season. Not counting the festival selections I checked out in October, I saw 121 new movies last year. Based on that motley assortment of moving pictures, which ranged from Katherine Heigl rom-coms to avant-garde epics, 2008 was as strong and interesting and rewarding a year for movies as any other. You just had to be willing to look.
Hell, as of this writing, I’ve still got blindspots, including Kelly Reichard’s Wendy and Lucy, Hong Hang-soo’s Woman on the Beach, and Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. (By its very nature, a Year End list is a work in progress.)
Of what I did see, here are fifteen more to celebrate and grapple with.
As colorfully vibrant and sexually frank as early Almodóvar, Andre Techin’s THE WITNESSES sketched a moving portrait of love and friendship on the cusp of the “AIDS era.” Ramin Bahrani’s CHOP SHOP and Chris Smith’s THE POOL explored life on the fringe of society, its trials and its triumphs, without the crutch of ghetto-chic affectations and throbbing, M.I.A.-inflected techno music. If not as staggeringly important as Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies, Bella Tarr’s THE MAN FROM LONDON stretched film noir archetypes into a haunting, long-take morality play. Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN breathed chilly and psychologically complex new life into the vampire genre, while FEAR(S) OF THE DARK brought a plethora of phobias and anxieties to starkly, strikingly animated life. With the help of found footage, crudely animated vignettes, and a few choice modern rock cuts, Brett Morgan transformed a mixed-modes history lesson into a call-to-arms protest anthem in the rollicking CHICAGO 10. James Marsh’s MAN ON WIRE combined the poetry of Errol Morris with the idiosyncratic insight of Werner Herzog, resulting in the year’s most roundly and justifiably beloved documentary. Guy Maddin perfected his unique brand of cinema-obsessed autobiography with hilarious hometown tribute MY WINNIPEG. Catherine Breillat and Asia Argento lent a fiercely, distinctly modern sensibility to their winning collaboration, bodice ripper THE LAST MISTRESS. Culture clash proved a catalyst for both priceless dry humor and disarming, lonely-heart sentiments in THE BAND’S VISIT. With Hitchcockian slow-burn TRANSSIBBERIAN, Brad Anderson continued to establish himself as one of modern cinema’s Masters of Suspense. Michel Gondry’s BE KIND, REWIND was a goofy-sweet valentine to movies, community, and low-rent artistic invention. A moody marvel, THE SIGNAL realized its apocalyptic vision on the lowest of low budgets. And Wong Kar-Wai bounced back from the modest misfire that was My Blueberry Nights with his gorgeously melancholic ASHES OF TIME REDUX.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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