Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008: The Year in Film

As most readers of this site are well aware, two studio releases dominated film conversation in the U.S. this year: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (WB) and Andrew Stanton's WALL·E (Disney-Pixar). With each manifesting a clearly identifiable - and divergent - politics, Hollywood did its best to provide choice in its multiplexes. Yet the alternatives were not those so much of 2008, but retroactively 2000, with the Bush-era, go-it-alone-unpopularly allegory The Dark Knight pitted against the ecological-alarmism of Al Gore. And as with that election, the same result, in box office terms, resulted: The Dark Knight moved to two second all-time in unadjusted numbers, while its opponent surpassed the very respectable $200 million mark, without winning the crown. Aesthetically, for this writer at least, The Dark Knight was much better than expected, as it improved on Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006) by infusing its profoundly-visceral technique with a moral seriousness - and a real sense of living in the midst of terror - absent in Scorsese's nihilistic crime opus. (It also manages an equal somatic effect with far less gore.) WALL·E, on the other hand, suffered in comparison to Brad Bird's superior efforts of the past few years (namely, 2004's The Incredibles and 2007's Ratatouille), from a narratively-leaden final hour and the hypocracy of its anti-consummerism - as well as from its cheap jabs at the obese. None of this of course mattered for the film's appointment as the year's most critically-beloved work.

Not that WALL·E is entirely lacking in virtues: the film's famed first forty minutes are as good as everyone says. Where critical laurels truly seem misplaced (for this writer) is in the praise lavished on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York and Tarsem's The Fall (2006), my joint selections for the year's worst. With regard to the Kaufman, Synecdoche provided 2008's most unrelentingly bleak vision of the world, effectively extrapolating from the filmmaker's proxy's own unhappiness a world in which all suffer from this same despair. Clear point-of-view? Yes. Unbelievably myopic and staggeringly unpleasant self-portrait of extreme self-concern? Certainly. The Tarsem, on the other hand, manages a balance of cloying sentimentally and sadism, supported by, as Lisa K. Broad puts it, a film grammar that is the functional equivalent of a novel penned by an illiterate.

Now on to the not awful... heck, on to the very good. For Tativille's two authors, Anderson and Broad, the distinction of the best American narrative film of the year belongs to Michel Gondry's evidently-undervalued Be Kind Rewind (pictured). Improving on his strong The Science of Sleep (2006), Gondry once again pulls together the often antithetical spheres of the cinema and the visual arts in his relational aesthetic-inspired latest foray into videotape nostalgia. This wasn't the funniest of a handful of strong American comedies in 2008 (Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Role Models and Forgetting Sarah Marshall were all funnier individually; Adam McKay's Step Brothers had its moments, most of which made their way into the film's many trailers, though McKay's mise-en-scène was mind-numbingly lazy) but it was certainly the finest in many other respects.

Then again, Japan provided a number of challenges to Gondry on the comedy front: Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita), the purely funniest of the group, represent three rare instances of comic filmmaking that all touch on human transience and the institutions of its country of origin - which is to say, these were three remarkable works of art. Yet, none of the above could touch a fourth Japanese film of the past twelve months, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterpiece Tokyo Sonata, which like the former grouping dissects its nation's mythology and its present-day economic situation. Tokyo Sonata was Broad's choice for the film of the year and a very close second for Anderson.

My own choice for the film of the year - and Broad's #2 - was Lucrecia Martel's career-peak The Headless Woman (Argentina). For me, The Headless Woman proved the year's fullest inter-mixture of form and discourse, providing a genuine attempt to remake film language in the image of its material. It was the un-Diving Bell and Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel) in its achievement in providing a plausible platform for its protagonist's perceptual irregularity. In fact, from global reports, 2008 may well be a year defined ultimately by the Latin American cinema generally and Argentine film specifically.

But back to the local. Posted below are Lisa and my choices for the year's top ten, selected from our favorite New York and New Haven theatrical and festival screenings (with an additional unreleased picture from Northern Europe making the cut). Through the New Year, I will also link to our favorite colleagues' selections on various sister sites. Please check back in the coming days for these updates.

-Michael J. Anderson, 12/23/2008

Updated: A 'mini' year-end poll, comprised of tabulations of the above lists, is also available on Tativille affiliate Ten Best Films.


Andrea Janes said...

I am getting completely mixed up with 2007 and 2008. Did some of the films on my list come out in 2007?
Also, did you know I didn't realise that Be Kind Rewind came out in 2008 until I read your list?
Headless Woman rocked in 2008 though, we can all agree on that.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Yes and No. I saw "Flight of the Red Balloon" and "The Romance of Astree and Celadon" at the 2007 NYFF, which was why each were on my list in 2007 rather than in 2008. (They were, respectively, my no. 1 and my no. 3 selections.) However, each received a commercial release in 2008, which is prerequisite for appearing on say the Indiewire poll - though I imagine most critics saw these again in 2007 festival screenings. All of this is to say that most foreign films appear the year after they first receive domestic distribution and festival screenings, if at all. It is for this very reason that my list in particular favors 2007 films so strongly.

That you forgot "Be Kind Rewind" does suggest its under-appreciation (even among those whom I suspect liked it). And yes, "The Headless Woman's" place is secure.

P.L. Kerpius said...

Be Kind Rewind! This was the movie for me, friends, in 2008. I am shocked at how underrated it is, as well. Tender and sweet and totally hilarious--it's truly one of the best of the year. Again, my list is on its way (see my first thread of comments on Spinster Aunt's site) and this flick will be mentioned there. Hats off, Gondry!

What else..

Oh, yes. The release date stuff. It bungled me up a bit too, and I did not see Flight of the Red Balloon until this past spring. And it is a pretty, pretty movie. I think some of my favorite films from this year are mostly French actually. Mr. Anderson, what do you think that amounts to? Discuss!

More to come! My list will arrive shortly!

Michael J. Anderson said...

Good to hear from you P.L. The question of why France is in some senses easy to answer: 1) the continued relevance of the nouvelle vague filmmakers - Rivette, Rohmer and Chabrol all had noteworthy 2007 productions released this year in the U.S.; the Left Bank remains strong with Resnais releasing one of his very best the year before, and from all accounts Agnes Varda's latest is quite interesting; 2) the correspondence of releases in 2008 by France's leading younger generation: Desplechin's (the only that I've seen), Assayas's reported return-to-form and Denis's; and 3) financing for productions by non-native filmmakers, namely Hou in 2007 and Hong Sang-soo in 2008 (both through the Musee d'Orsay).

Of course, with the exception of the third point, none really answers why France? I suppose I would begin with its sustenance of a real film culture and its financial support of the art cinema (from television, public funds and so on). With these enticements and taste level, France perennial yields as many really good films as any other place on earth. It's just a film culture, the way that Britain has been a pop music culture for the past fifty years. It is its cultural priority.

Then again, with France's consistency, I tend to look at 2008 as a year for other cinemas, as for instance Argentina's and Japan's, which produced easily the two best films I saw this year and from all accounts additional top-level examples of film art. My 2008 list won't really be complete until I also see your "Liverpool's" and your "Still Walking's," among others. In the same way, 2006 seemed a year for Southeast Asia, even though France (the Resnais) produced perhaps its greatest film. So, I'll close by saying that it almost goes without saying that France will produce something of serious interest and top quality each year; the more interest question is who else will.

Michael J. Anderson said...

One last thought to add to my previous comment, 2007 for many myself included belonged to the U.S. in much the same way as 2008 may go to Argentina or Japan, in spite of the fact that there were the same number of American productions on my final list as there were French (three each); its just that it seems more rare to see numerous American titles than it is the same quantity and quality of French ones. It might takes us a few years before we see a half-dozen American films as good as "Eastern Promises" (only American marginally of course), "The Darjeeling Limited," "RR" (from the avant-garde), "Zodiac," "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Peter said...

Michael, have you seen Abel Ferrara's more recent films? I am thinking of "Mary" and "Go Go Tales".