Nothing like a non-self-imposed deadline to get those Top 10 lists agoing. Somehow, I never even wound-up publishing my list for 2007, and I figure, it’s a little late now, even for me. And while 2008 is not yet complete and there are a slew of films I still plan to see over the holidays (I’m currently trying to program my annual Christmas day and weekend movie marathon, but the online sites don’t yet have all the theater schedules updated), I’m fairly confident that the 10 films I’ll mention below (and more over the next several days) will remain my choices as the best of 2008.
The process of these lists and their importance is regularly discussed, debated and derided, year-in and year-out. Everyone who considers oneself a critic, reviewer, blogger, cinephile or all-of-the-above spends plenty of time dismissing the process before tossing his/her own choices into the morass of opinions. We all know that such lists are purely subjective, and we all wholeheartedly believe that our subjective ideas are objectively truer than anyone else’s. And we’re all happy that everyone else is simply wrong.
I couldn’t have been happier to be participate in this year’s indieWIRE Critics’ Poll. On the list are several opinions I wholeheartedly respect even as I may disagree with them. To me, like every year, 2008 was anything but a poor one for film. That’s not to say that there were more or less great films this year than previous ones; just that when I truly think about the year in cinema, it is still not difficult for me to identify plenty of titles that not only have stuck with me, but were also tremendous movie-watching experiences. Culling the number of exceptional titles down to a list of 10 was as difficult as ever, and there are plenty of films that didn’t make my list, yet the experiences of seeing each of them are ones I still treasure.
While I did add a comment to my indieWIRE poll ballot, every choice I made comes with a specific reason behind its inclusion, and it is in this space now that I would like to further explain. I'll write about the near misses and other categories on the ballot some other time, but for now, you can find detail on the top 10 after the jump; click below to go directly to any individual title:
- Synecdoche, New York: Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has discussed movies with me during the past three months. I have still not yet managed to see the movie a second time, and yet I think about it several times a week. I have been meaning to officially “review” it after giving it that second viewing, but until now have been unable to write anything beyond this first reaction I wrote as an open letter to Charlie Kaufman shortly after seeing the film for the first time. Not only is Synecdoche my choice for best film of the year (and therefore, also my favorite), but it has cracked my personal pantheon for top films of all time. Maybe that will last; maybe it won’t. But as I discussed in October, few films have affected me the way Kaufman’s work did, and few (if any) films manage to use every last semblance of the art and language of cinema to entertain, inform, illuminate and educate the way Synecdoche does about those most important elements of life, love and loneliness. Like There Will Be Blood last year, Synecdoche, New York is a film which I am certain will become more important and gain greater critical and academic appreciation over time. As we look back over this first decade of the 21st Century some years hence, we will see it as a perfect combination of timeliness mixed with timelessness and universality blended with specificity in its reflections on creativity and living at this point in history.
- A Christmas Tale: Directed by Arnaud Desplechin; Written by Desplechin & Emmanuel Bordieu
Who doesn't love a dysfunctional family in the movies? Especially in a holiday movie, and especially one constructed with the care and precision taken by Arnaud Desplechin. As I was watching the two-and-a-half hour but never boring or tedious A Christmas tale, I found myself repeatedly thinking about the three-year-old, tremendously irritating The Family Stone, a film featuring a seemingly non-dysfunctional, free-spirited family coming together at Christmas only to learn at the end that the matriarch (spoiler alert but I don't care) is dying. The connections between Family Stone and Christmas Tale actually go deeper than some similarities in premise; the stories, in many ways, are counterparts to each other. Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) keeps her illness a secret while Junon Vuillard's (Catherine Deneuve) situation is the catalyst that gets the whole family together. But the reason I bring up Family Stone is not to bring back bad memories to those who, like me, actually saw the thing. Rather, the counterpoint of these two films precisely shows the difference between expert storytelling and filmmaking and feel-good, heartstring-tugging, mostly-American hackery. My family isn't anything like the Vuillards, and yet, I know and can relate to each and every one of them. This family loves each other even when they don't like each other very much. This family has plots and subplots and history that is not discussed (maybe even deliberately forgotten) and traditions instilled upon the children that will remain cherished memories long after they've grown out of them. They have inescapable biological and psychological issues that continue to make their way through the gene pool, and most importantly, they know better than anyone else how to both hurt and save each other. Unlike most holiday movies that depend on the season itself to work as a catalyst to the story and/or tone, A Christmas Tale exists in a world where its very title is a red herring. Christmas time for this story is more coincidence even as it manages to heighten the import of every single event. It is a brilliant film that succeeds in spite of and in addition to its holiday setting.
- Wendy and Lucy: Directed by Kelly Reichardt; Written by Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond.
I didn't realize this until I went back to look at my 2006 Top 10 list (which I only did after submitting my picks for this year to indieWIRE), but it seems like Kelly Reichardt is working on making the number three slot of my lists her own. Her last film Old Joy was number three on my list two years ago, and her latest minimal masterpiece Wendy and Lucy occupies that slot here. Both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are films of a style that does not always attract nor satisfy me, but the two have another shared quality as well: Reichardt's masterful filmmaking creates wholes that are much more than the sums of their parts. Reichardt doesn't treat the audience as a passive or stupid receptacle. She doesn't remind you of things she's told you before when it's not necessary to do so. Watching Wendy and Lucy, one doesn't need to be reminded of the young arrogant supermarket employee talking about how maybe Wendy is too irresponsible to own a pet to know how it will inform her actions at the conclusion of the film. Like my top two films on this list (but in yet an entirely different way), Wendy and Lucy looks at the meaning of loneliness and companionship. It looks at living through the choices we make but also the circumstances we may be powerless to fight against. And although it occupies the same slot on my list as Old Joy did, I found Wendy and Lucy to be even more satisfying, thanks primarily to the exceptional performance by Michelle Williams. The most powerful moments in the entire film are often the quietest, ones where Reichardt focuses her camera on Williams who gives us tremendous amounts of emotion and character in virtually every movement, subtle expression or line. It's a captivating performance, one that due to the lack of action (and often dialogue) seems much more like something one might see on stage than on film, even as it's larger-than-life image on a movie screen enhances its power. Williams is fast becoming one of our most talented and nuanced actresses, and Reichardt is already a filmmaker who leaves me anxious to see whatever she plans to do next.
- Hunger: Directed by Steve McQueen; Written by McQueen & Edna Walsh
I expected Hunger to be a film making my 2009 list, but then I learned that IFC is giving it a one week release in Los Angeles this month, and it quickly leaped to the top half of this year's best. Hunger is simply a triumph of filmmaking in terms of technique; McQueen utilizes the language of cinema to a level virtually unparalleled this year (and almost any other) to create one of the most visceral cinematic experiences I may have ever had. I often find films made by painters or video artists to be visually show-offy, but not much more; an expose of artistic pretention in an attempt to be "edgy" or "different," rather than a successful translation of story, experience, mood or theme to the viewer. As Hunger began to unspool, I found myself worried that I was in for just such an unsatisfying 90-off minutes. But McQueen slowly won me over with his Irish prison world. I didn't have time to get annoyed or distracted or to roll my eyes because every new scene and sequence was thoroughly enthralling. And just as it all might have started becoming a wee bit too much, he would move on to the next element of the film, whether through characterization of story. Hunger starts off dehumanizing the man, not letting us know about any of the characters and seeing them all the way the government treated them; like numbered cattle, not individuals. But then, taking away the people we thought were our main focus (a la Janet Leigh's death in Psycho, for example), we finally meet our protagonist Bobby Sands. The virtually dialogue free first segment of the film switches to an all dialogue, no cutting, single camera position, very stagelike, non-visual 15 minute conversation that is as spectacular and daring as the rest of the film, and just when that might itself get too tedious, McQueen begins close-ups and cutting and then finally moves us into the final third of the story, leading to Sands' hunger strike and death. It is fundamentally near-perfect filmmaking, expressing one person's interpretation of a significant and powerful event in history. The film is just image and sound, and yet, the gut feeling experienced manages to somehow attack all one's senses. Hunger is a tremendously difficult film to watch, and I suppose, that's what makes it all the more satisfying on both an emotional and intellectual level when it's over.
- WALL*E: Directed by Andrew Stanton; Written by Stanton & Jim Reardon
I'm not going to belabor the brilliance of Pixar not the fact that the films coming from the Pixar banner continue to be possibly the best example of pure storytelling anywhere in cinema. But it is worth it to continue to stop at marvel at the remarkably high level of quality produced by the house that John Lasseter built with the help of Steve Jobs. When a movie like Cars is considered the runt of the litter simply because it's not as amazing and ground-breaking as the rest, you know they're doing something right. But what makes WALL*E arguably the best Pixar film yet is the fact that once again, not only have the filmmakers outdone themselves visually and technologically. Rather, what Stanton managed to do is take a premise that sounds incredibly difficult (I don't know, let's make our main character a robot who doesn't really talk and has very few features which can translate emotion) and make it work brilliantly. It's what Brad Bird did so magnificently last year with Ratatouille, but even better. A film which can easily speak to both kids and adults, that deals with and balances in the silly and the serious, WALL*E takes a machine and makes it into the most cuddly, lovable, curious and intuitive creature we've ever seen. It's a movie with a message that doesn't get in the way of its story, and for 40 minutes, barely a word is uttered that doesn't come from a video of Hello, Dolly! Any film that can take an essentially eyeless character and make him/her/it expressive is doing something right, and WALL*E does it all right!
- My Father, My Lord: Directed & Written by David Volach
Before the brilliant intimate but powerful My Father, My Lord opened in theaters this year or premiered at 2007's Tribeca Film Festival, going on to win the juried Founders' Award for best narrative feature, I had the opportunity to watch it on my own TV. It was my first year as a full-fledged Associate Programmer at Tribeca, and I had taken it upon myself to watch as many of the Israeli and/or Judaic/Jewish-themed submissions as I could. I fell in love with Volach's film immediately, and I was so happy to see that what the film gave to me was also experienced by many others. The story may be about a Haredic (ultra-orthodox) Jewish family, but what allowed the film to transcend for me was that it really isn't about Judaism at all. The father (who is a rabbi), mother and young son of this story could have very easily been Catholic or Muslim or Evangelical Christian because the religion itself was secondary to the characters extreme adherence to it. The degree of faith and belief is in a battle with one's own pure humanity, sometimes serving it well, but other times being thoroughly destructive. The tragedy of this story is one that was completely avoidable had the mother not had to be on a segregated beach or the father not been so intent on beginning prayers at a specific time. And yet, while Volach does indict such extreme adherence, he places more blame on the individual who is blinded to anything else. The mother is a very good Jew, and yet, she is also able to display her own humanity, something the father seems incapable of doing. I've seen a tremendous number of films from Israel over the past three years, and many that deal with religion – Judaism or otherwise. None of them come close to touching the simple yet powerful filmmaking of My Father, My Lord.
- In the City of Sylvia: Directed & Written by José Luis Guerín
When I watched In the City of Sylvia at a New York Film Festival press screening in 2007, I was really tired. So tired in fact, that I was pretty sure I had dozed off for five minutes here or five minutes there. Friends and colleagues raved about the film, and I thought it was just OK. Knowing I had missed chunks of it, I never attempted to write about or discuss it. It wasn't until its recent opening at Anthology Film Archives and hearing the resurgence of praise that I decided I couldn't finish my list without seeing the film, and I'm incredibly thankful I did. I hadn't missed five minutes here or five minutes there; upon watching it this time, I realized that I must have fallen asleep for a good half of the damn thing; not enough to not know what happened but significantly more than necessary to miss what is so wonderful about this quiet enthralling personal work of art. It's at this point in compiling my list that I started to discover the common theme that I'm certain – to return to the theme of subjectivity in these lists – has a lot to do with things I find happening in my own life in the year 2008. For the most part, the films that struck a deep chord in me this year are about longing and human connection; about finding your place in the world and developing the relationships with others that help make that place a comfortable one. In the City of Sylvia certainly hits on those themes as our main character does the somewhat irrational in an attempt to recapture a moment in time from six years before. The fact of his obsession with finding this woman named Sylvia is all we receive: the why, the what-happened … anything other than his sketch from memory is unmentioned and unimportant. And while his actions become increasingly disturbing, his longing and desire to recapture what must have been a moment of extreme contentment and happiness is utterly captivating. Sylvia could easily be another pretentious artsy annoying piece of trash, but Guerín's filmmaking is never overbearing nor condescending. Instead, it is just a delight.
- The Secret of the Grain: Directed & Written by Abdel Kechiche
I'm actually not yet ready to discuss Kechiche's magnificent film. Although it did play at Tribeca this spring, it was one of several films I hadn't had a chance to see, until last Thursday. I knew so many people who couldn't stop talking about it, I made a point to see it before submitting my ballot. Like rewatching In the City of Sylvia, I am very proud of making this choice, however, the film continues to take its time sinking in. Like all the other films on this list, I find myself repeatedly thinking about it daily, and (two-and-a-half hour run time and all the other films I need to watch right now for work not-withstanding), I expect to watch it again soon. Much like A Christmas Tale, Grain presents a family drama exploding with a cornucopia of character and smorgasbord of interpersonal relationship. Toss-in some ethnic tension and an increasingly complicated socio-economic fabric in the world around and infringing upon them, and you get one of the most complex (although not necessarily complicated) movie experiences of the year. Meaningful and beautiful don't always go together, but in Grain they do to present a cinematic equivalent to the delectable couscous dishes relished by everyone in the film.
- Waltz With Bashir: Directed & Written by Ari Folman
2008 was another very good year for documentaries, and when all was said and done, I was a bit surprised that there weren't at least two or three in my top 10. But Waltz With Bashir transcends them all in my book by taking the level of filmmaking to an entirely new place. It's not simply that Folman chose to animate the entire film rather than use traditional documentary footage, but there is something to be said for the fact that he has created an thoroughly compelling work that some may argue is more docudrama than documentary. It's a technique that Brett Morgan also used in his film Chicago 10 (also this year), to good effect – albeit not as successfully as here. How do you create a documentary without available real footage? How do you avoid creating the stereotypical, often boring, talking head-interview film? Yet Folman's film is more than a simple attempt to document a moment in history; in his case, it is a journey to find something missing in his own memory – his experience in the Israeli Army during the first Lebanon war, and specifically his recollections (or lack thereof) of a brutal massacre. After seeing the film, I can't imagine a more expressive way of trying to communicate this poetic yet brutal journey in history and memory, especially considering that so much of the former is often really only an interpretation of the latter.
- Happy-Go-Lucky: Directed & Written by Mike Leigh
Does optimism really make everything better? Does sending good vibes out the world bring them back to you twofold? Is it possible to make everything hunky dory simply by believing it is and laughing at anything that isn't? My answer would be no 99 times out of a 100, but I'm not Poppy as portrayed by the exuberant Sally Hawkins. Constantly treading a high-wire between endearing and irritating, Poppy won't let life get her down. We discover this simple fact early on when, in the film's first sequence, she chuckles away the fact that her bike has been stolen. Do Leigh and Hawkins consider this a healthy way for an adult woman to live? Or is it necessary to instill a dose of real world truth into her life? A little bit of both, I would argue, for it's the very fact that the always-angry driving instructor (the brilliant Eddie Marsan) nor the abused pupil are enough to destroy her consistent high-on-life attitude, and yet, they do help her grow into someone no longer oblivious to the less happy-go-lucky folks and world around her.
Next time … the rest of the best … the bubble … the near misses … etc.