Thursday, January 8, 2009

Best of 08: The Films

[Also posted on In Review Online]

“There Will Be Blood” was a monster of a film; a sprawling epic of greed and damnation in turn-of-the-century America. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was exceptional, and Paul Thomas Anderson proved once again to be one of this country’s greatest auteurs. It was a film as impressive as it was (oddly enough) topical, and far and away my favorite of 2007. This year is different though, no such towering masterwork (that I saw) was released by an American studio, and my favorite film is decidedly very different than last year’s pick, though in many ways its equal. 

Which in my view is a major theme in 08: less than stellar American productions. This seems to have caused many a critic (my partner to the right included) to condemn the year as “bad,” and lacking in great films. Though such complaints aren’t entirely unwarranted, I myself have no such qualms with 2008, as it seems to me that I could never be upset with a year in which I deliberated as much as I did over whittling down my favorites to just ten. And of those ten, several are only barely eking out half a dozen others. And of those others-- my 11 through 20 honorable mentions-- several more could easily be swapped out for solid movies that didn’t make the cut.

My advice to those feeling down on the year in film? Look harder. I found movies to love in obscure places; like the Gaelic arthouse oddity “In The City Of Sylvia,” and Olivier Assayas’ sleazy Euro-Asia thriller“Boarding Gate.” Maybe those ones aren’t for you, but that’s not really my point. The way I see it, Hollywood failed rather abysmally, especially in this final stretch of the year, to deliver good (let alone great) movies. Not that I’m much of a believer in the integrity of awards season-- where all the major studios shove their allegedly promising flicks on audiences, in hopes of Oscar gold-- but it’s hard not to notice things are worse than usual this year. Even the best stuff, flawed but ambitious projects like “The Dark Knight” and “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button,” don’t strike me as works that will stand the test of time, while the one that might (Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married”) looks like it’s probably going to miss out on the big nominations.

So don’t bother with these so-called prestige pictures (most of them, at least). Instead, look to the true artists of the medium, now more than ever, who this year released films of varying degrees of quality. Among them Errol Morris, Wong Kar-Wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Catherine Breillat, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Andre Techine, Michel Gondry, Werner Herzog, Alexander Sokurov, Mike Leigh, and Clint Eastwood, whose “Gran Torino” is decidedly out of the Oscar race, but nonetheless a strong picture and a poignant summation of a great career. I won’t claim to like everything released by those above, but at least their films have a signature, and are, for the most part, skillfully framed and put together. That’s more than I can say for something like “Frost/Nixon”-- or any one of Ron Howard’s self-important dramas-- which lacks any directorial stamp, and could have just as easily been directed by one of his grips. (No offense intended towards the grips out there, especially the ones who aspire to be filmmakers.)    

But that’s about enough of my prattling on. Now I’ll put my money where my, um, taste is and just say that I can fully get behind the ten films listed below. I don’t expect everyone to love, even like all of them-- I’ve been doing this at least long enough to know the value of the old saying “art [and, by association, film] is subjective”-- but I do think everything here is at least worth a look. See them yourself, so you can have an opinion. And let Luke and I know your own picks, in the comments section below.

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I’ve yet to see “The Class,” which has not yet played outside of NY/LA but won the Palme D’or at Cannes this year and very easily may make a later incarnation of this list. Other movies I’m bummed about not seeing yet include, but are not limited too, “Changeling,” “Woman On The Beach,” “XXY,” and “The Pool.”

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1.) “Flight Of The Red Balloon” (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)


Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films mean more to me than that of any other living director. From a technical perspective, his filmmaking is nearly unmatched; he’s perfected his brand of sturdy, formalist long-takes, a patient realism that comes closer to real life on screen than anything else in modern cinema. His latest, “Le Voyage Du Ballon Rouge” (Flight Of The Red Balloon), sees the master both fleshing out and paying homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic 1956 short film, “The Red Balloon,” by incorporating its elements-- a lonely child, the city of Paris, and a candy-red balloon-- into a slice-of-life narrative focusing on a single mother (Juliette Binoche), who tries her best to raise a son in modern-day Paris. Hou, a Taiwanese citizen come to Paris for the sake of his film, finds a spiritual medium in Song (Song Fang), the child’s nanny, herself a student filmmaker involved in her own reworking of “The Red Balloon.” 

All this could have easily seemed slight in the hands of another director, but Hou defies expectations every time out, and his first excursion into French cinema (his second outside his native Taiwan) musters the emotional impact of his best films, by virtue of its improvisational approach. Or, more specifically, due to Juliette Binoche’s superb, mostly improvised performance. As the flustered mother, with wild blonde hair that sticks out in all directions, she perfectly captures the frantic insecurity of a woman raising her child alone, and the joys and stresses of being a mother.

In short, ‘Flight’ is a towering work, one that not only reps Hou’s most affecting study of everyday living, but also finds the master exploring his favorite recurring theme, the ephemeral quality of memory-- and the inevitable passing of time-- in its most appropriate setting yet: 8mm film is transferred to digital; character’s recollect time spent with family and friends, and long for the past; and the balloon, a symbol of the child’s fleeting innocnce, remains, true to Lamorisse’s original, the most profound articulation of this theme.

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2.) “Ashes Of Time Redux” (Wong Kar-Wai)


A bit of a cheat, admittedly, and thanks to inevitable heckling from my colleague to the right, “Ashes Of Time Redux” will probably not make it on this list when the updated version is added to the Yearbook section of the site. But for now, let’s hear it for Wong Kar-Wai’s forgotten classic, a film released here in the States in the mid-nineties.

“Ashes Of Time” has never been one of Wong’s most respected films (regarded more as a curiosity than the masterwork it is), and at the start of this year it was the only film by this world-renowned Hong Kong filmmaker I had not yet seen. Not that I hadn’t tried, mind you, but until this year the film was only available in an abysmal fullscreen DVD transfer which so happens to also be rather hard to find, even if I did want to subject myself to it. All that changed this year  when Wong unleashed upon the film world a digitally and sonically remastered “redux” version, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where reactions were similar to those of its initial release. Yet this didn’t mean much to me, as I consider Wong to be one of the world’s foremost filmmakers. 

I finally caught up with the film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and, as you can tell, it didn’t disappoint. The experience (and I mean experience) of watching one of the most rapturous cinematic works, front-and-center on the big screen, I would not trade for anything. The beauty in this film rivals even Terrence Malick’s “Days Of Heaven” (seriously). It’s Wong’s most visually potent film, and also his most ambiguous; an intoxicating mood-piece about (what else?) the allure of love, as is the subject of 90% of Wong’s oeuvre. It’s also a samurai (or “wuxia”) movie, and probably the director’s most violent picture. But I don’t think that defines it: more than anything, “Ashes Of Time” (the original, which I have now seen, and this superior ‘redux’) is yet another invigorating example of a filmmaker in the mood for love, all you need do is be in the mood yourself for this eliptical, atmospheric reverie, to love it.

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3.) “In The City Of Sylvia” (Jose Luis Guerin)


Ah, young love. Sitting in an outdoor cafe. Watching the women converse with each other, with men, with the waitress. Drawing them on a notepad under a hot European sun. Spotting one and deciding to follow her. Following her silently through the winding city streets. And following her as she tries to escape...! “En La Ciudad De Slyvia” (In The City Of Sylvia) turns from an innocently ambiguous lovelorn tale to a potentially menacing arthouse thriller without any warning. Jose Luis Guerin’s astonishing debut picture is a work of visual and sensory cinema to bask in-- with its long, elegant takes winding around city streets, and gorgeous soft-focus close-ups of beautiful woman-- and one to puzzle over, once it shifts into stalker territory. Film blog The House Next Door calls it “art fag cinema,” and since there’s really only one scene of real dialogue-- and because the film is mostly propelled by summery, Rohmer-like beauty and almost viscerally mysterious moodiness-- I can’t really see everyone digging it. It’s a work for those (like me) elated by lyrical, aesthetically accomplished films, which place focus on tone and atmosphere rather than narrative complexity. In other words: this one’s for you, art fags.

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4.) “Boarding Gate” (Olivier Assayas)


Of all the films I’ve seen this year, I think it’s Olivier Assayas’ thrilling “Boarding Gate” that I’ve developed the biggest crush on. Maybe it’s Argento’s sexy, no-nonsense intensity, playing a vulnerable femme-fatale tangled up in a web of deceit. Or perhaps it’s the filmmaker’s careful pacing, which miraculously blends intimate and personal moments of urban alienation similar to that of his last film, “Clean,” with contrasting and abrasive sequences of abrupt violence and erotic action. Either way, the result is hypnotic, as mean as it is beautiful and completely haunting. Especially the last scene, which makes the best use of an escalator in the history of cinema. The template is a B-movie thriller, but in Assayas’ hands “Boarding Gate”becomes more delirious and impressionistic. Argento gives the performance to remember, but don’t forget about Michael Madsen; as the former’s old flame, Madsen engages Argento in the film’s longest segment: a ballsy exchange in the playboy’s apartment, where the not-so-happy couple fight, throw things, make-out, taunt each other, almost fuck on his balcony, and eventually... well, I’ll let you find out on your own. It’s the kind of scene where, in the theater, you can audibly hear jaws drop, which pretty accurately describes my reaction to the other eighty minutes or so, too.

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5.) “Rachel Getting Married” (Jonathan Demme)


The closest thing to mainstream American filmmaking that my list has to offer, and it’s a stretch calling it that. Still, I’m pretty sure that most even casual film fans who give “Rachel Getting Married” a shot (and like their drama wrenching without being melodramatic) will probably dig it. It’s Jonathan Demme’s latest film, and it represents a significant departure from his last two filmmaking cycles: Hollywood-fare like “The Silence Of The Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” followed by a string of excellent documentaries including “Neil Young: Heart Of Gold” and “Jimmy Carter: Man From The Plains.” ‘Rachel’ is an indie project that declares its allegiance to, of all things, Danish cinema, specifically the Dogme 95 movement that began with filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, putting strict restraints on a film’s budget and execution. One rule followed (rule #2: all music must be diegetic, “never produced apart from the images or vice versa”) gives the film a documentary-like feel, and provides an ongoing joke about the wedding band that never stops playing, seemingly to perpetuate the film’s score. (How meta is that?) But more than anything, ‘Rachel’ is an actor’s movie (as many Demme films are), with across-the-board excellent performances from Anne Hathaway, as the sarcastic heroine returning home from rehab for her sister’s wedding; Rosemarie Dewitt as said sister, desperately trying to maintain the spotlight as her train-wreck of a sister “in crisis” hogs all the attention; plus Bill Irwin, as the dad who tries to hold it all together, and the lovely Debra Winger, as the mother emotionally removed from both her daughters. I maintain that the last ten minutes or so could do without the excessive, endless wedding celebrations, but that’s a minor gripe in an emotionally powerful and technically innovative film.  

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6.) “Reprise” (Joachim Trier)


“Reprise” earns the title of best debut film of the year, its director Joachim Trier established as an innovative and important new voice in world cinema. Pic tells of a group of young lads growing up in Oslo, Norway, coming-of-age in all sorts of zany ways. Best friends Philip and Erik submit their first manuscripts simultaneously, and Trier manifests the scattershot way in which we all run through different scenarios in our heads when we’re nervous about something with an assaultive montage of newsreel clips and headlines. Potentially distracting aesthetic touches like these abound, but it’s to the benefit of the film that these enhancements do just that, rather than overloading it, or making the film feel pretentious and showy. Miraculously, the film maintains a deft balance, juggling intense topics and situations, but never lapsing into brooding angst thanks to its youthful sense of humor, which likewise does not undercut the more serious themes at work. The whole thing’s a balancing act, really, but as thrilling and innovative a debut as any in recent years, one that recalls (at least to me) Godard’s messy but brilliant “Breathless” in its playful nature and striking craftsmanship. I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if“Reprise” is looked on as a classic in much the same way “Breathless” is in ten or twenty years, when Trier establishes himself as one of the world’s foremost filmmakers (speculation, of course).

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7.) “Still Life” / “Dong” (Jia Zhang-ke)


Jia Zhang-ke is probably mainland China’s greatest director. His films, exploring a society’s relationship with others and their ever-evolving natural and industrial landscapes, don’t lament or condemn technological advancements so much as they depict the changes that these developments tend to cause.“Still Life”, Jia’s latest and most mature film to date, finds two individuals (one man, one woman) looking for their spouse (or ex-spouse) in a land unfamiliar to them, due to various changes over time. Vigorously formal in its execution, but no less romantic and stirring, “Still Life” captures the apprehension of a people unsure of their future, and isolated from each other. Dazzling imagery of buildings collapsing around Jia’s characters impresses in more ways than one, and compliments the filmmaker’s ongoing intention to blur the line between fiction and documentary.

Jia’s documentary “Dong,” about an artist (Lu Xiaodong) who invites Jia to the Three Gorges Dam-- where he paints a portrait of a group of workers-- played at the Venice Film Festival with “Still Life”, where the latter won the Silver Lion award (best feature). “Dong” is the perfect companion piece to“Still Life”, with many sequences appearing in both films, and was in fact conceived first, inspiring Jia to make a feature once he saw the location firsthand. Both are intrinsically linked-- so much so that Han Sanming, the star of “Still Life”, appears in “Dong,” in character, as one of the workers being painted-- and they tie for my number seven spot on this list. (“Dong” never received a theatrical release here in the U.S., but it is included in the special features on the DVD of “Still Life”, released in this country last month.)

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8.) “Elegy” (Isobel Coixet)


Beautiful and heartbreaking, “Elegy” reduced me to a weeping little girl both times I saw it. Which isn’t to say it’s necessarily overly sentimental or depressing. Directed by Spaniard Isobel Coixet-- with an eye for lyrical, fluid, and sexy visuals-- “Elegy” is the film Penelope Cruz should receive an Oscar nomination- hell, an Oscar win for. Unlike her overhyped perf in Woody Allen’s dopey “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” as a screeching, woefully cliched Spanish vixen, Cruz is here given a great part, and brings poise and nuance to her character that rivals even the brilliance of her performance in Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver.” If this were a perfect world, “Elegy” would be the drama of the year, nominated for Oscars across the board: Actor (Ben Kingsley), Actress (Cruz), Supporting Actress (Patricia Clarkson), Picture, Director, the works. Alas, this is a world where subtle and affecting pictures like this one are overlooked in favor of more showy and heavy-handed films. Such is the tragedy of “Elegy,” a criminally under-seen romancer about an aged college professor/columnist/lethario named David Kepesh (Kingsley), who falls hard for his Cuban student Consuela Castillo (Cruz), who in return falls hard for him. Conflict reveals itself as Kepesh has difficulty accepting their relationship as more than a mere fling; he wants to, but is afraid to invest himself fully and lose her. Dennis Hopper co-stars as Kepesh’s close friend and confidant; as does Clarkson, sexy and sophisticated as Kepesh’s longtime partner without “sticky entanglements.” It’s the kind of film that’s smart and literary but doesn’t call attention to itself, favoring the impact of the drama between its characters rather than flaunting its bookishness.  

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9.) “The Witnesses” (Andre Techine) 


Screw Fernando Meirelles’ we-are-the-world thriller “Blindness,” probably the worst film of 2008; veteran French director Andre Techine’s devastating “The Witnesses” is the most affecting epidemic movie of the year. The disease of choice here is nothing as instantly panic-inducing as global blindness, but “The Witnesses” is all the more terrifying because its tale’s newly blossoming affliction is real. Set in the mid-80s, and following a group of four (later five) lovers in France, the film first establishes itself as visually sumptuous and smart, taking its queues both visually and dramatically from Eric Rohmer’s Moral Tales series. The initial plot, which concerns (in regard to one of the film’s two threads) the relationship between a young homosexual boy and a rich, older man, equally smacks of a Rohmer morality play (which isn’t a bad thing, in my book). But Techine’s up to something much more here; his film gives an achingly human face to the birth of the AIDS virus. Excellent performances abound-- from the cooly sexy and sophisticated Emmanuelle Beart (star of Techine’s “Strayed”), to the devastating work Johan Libereau turns in as the afflicted young boy Manu-- but this is Techine’s film, and he demonstrates with admirable control over tone and resistance to easy sentimentality, that at age 65 he’s still one of the world’s reigning masters, and perhaps France’s greatest working filmmaker.

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10.) “Summer Palace” (Lou Ye) 


“Summer Palace” might be the biggest surprise of the year for me. Lou Ye’s first film, the period piece “Purple Butterfly,” was visually striking but emotionally chilly, and left me cold. In contrast,‘Palace’ is perhaps the hottest film of the year, itself a period piece filled with steamy, meaningful sex scenes that illustrate the political upheaval and rebellious spirit of the ‘60s, as well as give us intimate access to its heroine’s coming-of-age. All that andLou’s lost none of that striking visual sense, only improving upon the formula by toning down excesses and letting the hefty emotional weight carry a scene when necessary. It’s a stunning metamorphosis coming after ‘Butterfly,’ positioning Lou alongside visionary filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai (who’s style he rather shamelessly jacked for his first film), and emerging as a distinctly unique artist. Integrating the best elements of two of China’s greatest filmmakers-- fusing Jia Zhang-ke’s politically and socially conscious cinema with Wong’s more improvisational, Godard-like mix of passionate romance and abrupt violence-- Lou has found a style all his own.

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Next Ten (Alphabetical):

“The Band’s Visit” (Eran Kolirin)

“A Christmas Tale” (Arnaud Desplechin)

“The Curious Case Of Benjamin...” (David Fincher)

“The Dark Knight” (Christopher Nolan)

“Gran Torino” (Clint Eastwood)

“Happy-Go-Lucky” (Mike Leigh)

“The Last Mistress” (Catherine Breillat)

“Let The Right One In” (Tomas Alfredson)

“Mukhsin” (Yasmin Ahmad)

“Up The Yangtze” (Yung Chang)

What are some of your favorites?