Making a list of ten favorite films as the new year comes into view is a time-honored tradition for a film critic, and it lays your taste on the line for posterity and eventual ridicule. I’m told this builds character. But if you’ve seen hundreds of films in a calendar year, ten slots feels paltry, so in the spirit of the forthcoming awards season I offer my official list of favorite films, a few brief remarks, and then a batch of categories that try to make sense of the pile of remainders.
My ten favorite films that were released theatrically in the U.S. (somewhere) in 2008:
- Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou-hsiao Hsien)
- The Secret of the Grain (Abdel Kechiche)
- Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke)
- In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
- Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
- The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
- Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
- Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz)
- A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
- Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
It was a strong year for small American films (my three favorites are in the list above, and many more show up in the categories below), but it was an even stronger year for French movies. Aside from the five French language films in my list, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer released intriguing new films in 2008 along with a number of younger troublemakers who are standing on their shoulders. Throw in the unreleased films by the likes of Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas and you have a Gallic tsunami.
The two films in my list that have played in the most theaters in the U.S. are The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married, two unexpected turns by well-known filmmakers Darren Aronofsky and Jonathan Demme. But even those two have been relegated to one small theater in most cities. Both of them may still expand to more screens if they fare well during award season, but I do seem to prefer small films in this list. That’s not by design — these are the movies I loved — but I’m glad to highlight little films because the big ones don’t need any help. And, besides, the year-end lists that I like to read are the ones that point out movies I overlooked or just ignored. They help me stock my DVD queue for the coming year.
Several themes cut across these ten. I often like movies that stretch time in interesting ways (In the City of Sylvia, Secret of the Grain, and Rachel Getting Married) or that observe people with a calm and quiet distance, as in Hou’s simple and elegant Flight of the Red Balloon and Jia’s appropriately titled Still Life. What’s most remarkable about Still Life is the way Jia has taken the time to focus on the people whose lives are being altered dramatically by the march of progress known as the massive Three Gorges Dam, even as the earth is moving around them. It’s an impressive engineering feat to shape the Yangtze River like a pipe cleaner and relocate millions of people who live in its new path, and Jia captures both the spectacle and the minutia. Still Life is also the film that convinced me of digital video’s potential for beauty. In the wake of the construction and destruction, these gliding images look like they were shot on Mars in 2100, and every frame is a sight to behold.
China’s transformation and modernization is a story that’s playing out before our eyes, but another that feels a little more tangible here in the States is the globalization that has left no corner of the world untouched. And it shows up in these films. Like Jia, Kelly Reichardt is interested in the people at the margins of the economy in the Pacific Northwest; Flight of the Balloon finds a Taiwanese master working in France with an Academy Award winning actress; Secret of the Grain explores a Maghrebi community in southern France with particular emphasis on the couscous; Silent Light discovers a Mennonite community in Mexico that speaks a Germanic dialect; In the City of Sylvia was shot by a Spanish filmmaker in Strasbourg near the French/German border but plays out almost wordlessly; Heartbeat Detector grapples with the still lingering effects of French complicity with Nazi Germany (in ways that The Reader and Valkyrie can’t fathom); and Jonathan Demme shows us Rachel getting married amid a New England melting pot of jazz, saris, Robyn Hitchcock, and Fab 5 Freddy. The arrow pointing to the globe says “You Are Here.” Welcome to the twenty-first century.
A number of the films in my list also reflect cinema itself. All films do, but few swing the mirrors around with such self-conscious glee as Arnaud Desplechin spinning his deliriously allusive A Christmas Tale, José Luis Guerín studying the camera’s affinity for beautiful women in the city of Sylvia, and Carlos Reygadas embracing Ordet and Sleeping Beauty in his oddly contemplative Silent Light.
For my own embrace of cinema, I offer the following also-rans, tangents, and splices.
- Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
- Juliette Binoche, Flight of the Red Balloon
- Sean Penn, Milk
- Mathieu Amalric, A Christmas Tale/Heartbeat Detector (he was also fun as the villain in Quantum of Solace, even though the latest Bond film was disappointing compared to Casino Royale)
- Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
- Michelle Williams, Wendy & Lucy
- Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
- Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
- Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man
Favorite Supporting Performances:
- Viola Davis, Doubt
- Hafsia Herzi, The Secret of the Grain
- Ken Jacobs, Momma’s Man
- Flo Jacobs, Momma’s Man
- Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
- Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
- Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
- Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
- Colin Farrell, In Bruges
Favorite Debut Feature (tie): Ballast and Hunger
Favorite Documentary: The Unforeseen. But also Man On Wire for the amazing story, and it’s hard not to like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World.
First year in which Errol Morris released a film that wasn’t among my favorites for the year: 2008. Standard Operating Procedure provoked some good discussions, but I hoped for a deeper or more insightful analysis from the master of the edited interview. I preferred the more ordinary but most informative Taxi to the Dark Side.
Schlockiest view of racism that’s strangely fun to watch and think about: Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino
Seven most ridiculous plot contrivances engineered to tug at our heart strings: a clean sweep for Seven Pounds
Narrowest range of faces exhibited by an internationally known lead actor: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie
Film that is least-surprisingly reminiscent of Rocky: The Wrestler
Film that is most-surprisingly reminiscent of Rocky: Frost/Nixon
Favorite teen vampire romance: the moody and violent Let the Right One In from Sweden. (You didn’t think I’d say Twilight, did you?)
Two favorite comic book films in a summer whose tights were stuffed with them nearly every weekend: Iron Man and The Dark Knight, by a wide margin. One followed the genre’s conventions while the other tried to rip them apart. One was built around a single fun performance (Robert Downey Jr’s), and the other around an ensemble cast almost worthy of The Godfather.
Movies I saw twice in the theater just because I wanted to: A Christmas Tale, 35 Shots of Rum, Happy-Go-Lucky, In the City of Sylvia, and Last Year at Marienbad (three times in one week)
Comedies that made me laugh: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, In Bruges
Comedy that made me teary: Son of Rambow
Horror film that made me cringe: The Ruins (in a good way)
Pseudo-horror film that made me think: Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s almost shot-for-shot duplication of his own unpleasant Austrian original.
Comedy that creeped me out: Baghead
Horror film that made me laugh: Baghead
Horror film that made me laugh and think and cringe: Stuck
Favorite film that I might also call trash (tie): Stuck and The Ruins. (“You’re like paper floating by. It doesn’t sound that bad in Spanish.”)
Favorite 45 minutes in Pixar’s history: the first half of WALL*E, although as a whole I still prefer Toy Story 2.
Favorite performances by Asia Argento in which she does not make out with a rottweiler (tie): Boarding Gate and The Last Mistress (Disqualified: Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales)
Favorite film that sounds clichéd on paper: The Visitor (featuring a wonderful performance by Richard Jenkins and a slippery title like one by the Dardennes’)
Film that appeals to the widest cross-section of my friends and family including me: The Visitor
Film that I am most eager to encourage people to see if it ever finds distribution in the States: Forbidden Lie$, the Australian documentary about a woman with a staggering ability to lie to a camera.
Favorite accidentally fascinating documentary that works as some kind of metaphor: Operation Filmmaker
Favorite big-screen concert (tie): U2 3D and Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stone film, although both just made me wish for the real thing.
Favorite little rediscovery on DVD, by the way: Life Lessons, the short starring Nick Nolte that Scorsese contributed to New York Stories. He shot the painter as if he were a rock musician, and I wish he still made movies like that.
Favorite letdown: The Man from London, a mesmerizing piece of work that pales only in comparison to Béla Tarr’s previous film, the 7.5-hour Sátántangó.
The two most conventional films that Gus Van Sant has made since the Béla Tarr-inspired Gerry (2002): Paranoid Park and Milk, both released in 2008.
Favorite biopic in ages: Milk, featuring a fantastic and joyful performance by Sean Penn. “Conventional” is too often used as a pejorative. This film is conventional, but it’s also very good.
Prettiest, most graceful chick flick: My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai’s English-language debut.
Blandest, most grating chick flicks: Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City, each of which left a vacuum in my head that has yet to close up.
Favorite medium to see translated to the silver screen (choose from novel, short story, stage play, or episodic TV show): short story
OK, but if you rule out short story: stage play
Favorite film that flaunts its stagey roots: Doubt (featuring a sharp script and three impeccable performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams)
Most surprising last-minute schedule change: Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, which was on track for a December 19 release date until it was dropped from the 2008 schedule on December 11. Its new release date: mid-May, 2009. Do not over-interpret the shift; the movie is quite fun.
Favorite Hollywood Oscar-bait (choose from Frost/Nixon, Milk, Doubt, Gran Torino, The Reader, Seven Pounds, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Valkyrie, Revolutionary Road): Doubt, with a nod to the admittedly hokey Gran Torino. Most of these films had a little something to recommend them, and I quite liked the narrative ellipses in the first half of Revolutionary Road, but only Doubt satisfied me to the end.
Favorite location shoot: Momma’s Man, shot in Ken and Flo Jacobs’ lower Manhattan flat. I dig this film, too, and it almost made my top ten.
Film released in 2008 with the most sublime final seconds before the credits roll (3-way tie): Momma’s Man, Ballast, Iron Man
Favorite films seen in 2008 that are slated for release in 2009: Summer Hours, Lorna’s Silence, and Sugar.
Favorite films seen in 2008 that have NO pending release:
- 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
- RR (James Benning)
- Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowski)
- You, the Living (Roy Andersson)
- Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater)
- Revanche (Götz Spielmann)
- Birdsong (Albert Serra)
- Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
- Liverpool (Alonso Lisandro)
- Eat, For This is My Body (Michelange Quay)
Favorite old films that were re-released in theaters this year: Monsieur Verdoux, Last Year at Marienbad, and Six in Paris. It’s always great to see films by your favorite filmmakers. I knew Chaplin’s Verdoux and Resnais’ collaboration with Robbe-Grillet were great, but I was stunned to find that Jean Rouch’s short Gare du Nord which leads the excellent omnibus film Six in Paris — which I’d never seen — is a stylistic tour de force.