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The Best Films of 2008

Documentaries in particular enjoyed a banner year, whether crafted by well-known legends of the medium or heretofore-unknown talents.

The Best Films of 2008

More was certainly less in 2008, in which an obscene 650-plus movies nabbed theatrical releases and yet only a paltry few rose to heights that might warrant even inclusion in a discussion of greatness. That such a pitiful percentage made more than a passing dent on the cinematic landscape may simply have been due to the hastiness with which most were shoved out of cineplexes and arthouses to make room for the following week’s batch, though our various Top Tens also suggest that, with a few notable exceptions, both Hollywood and indiewood largely ceded groundbreaking terrain to foreign and nonfiction filmmakers.

Documentaries in particular enjoyed a banner year, whether crafted by well-known legends of the medium (Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure) or heretofore-unknown talents (Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s Chris & Don), achieving a richness and insightfulness that only the rare fictional film managed to match. Masters semi-forgotten (Jonathan Demme, André Téchiné) or merely underappreciated by the majority (Mike Leigh, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Catherine Breillat) rallied to help fend off the encircling mediocrity, a cause further aided by the reliably phenomenal folks at Pixar (WALL-E), the distinctively inventive Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York), and an ambitious Christopher Nolan superhero sequel that made equally enormous critical and box-office waves.

Meanwhile, what was old was new again, leading to a greater-than-usual quantity of recycled assembly-line junk (Saw, why won’t you just die already?), but also, quite a few comebacks that surprised and enlivened, whether it was Danny Boyle’s ebullient return-to-form with Slumdog Millionaire, Robert Downey Jr.’s blockbuster-aided ascension to superstardom, or—in the year’s most welcome cinema-spotlight homecoming—the incomparably eccentric, electric Mickey Rourke. Nick Schager


The Best Films of 2008

1. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)

A Dogme film with an Altmanesque soul, Rachel Getting Married is a richly eccentric and instinctive look at addiction and the toils, troubles, and joys of blood relations, in which a recovering alcoholic played by Anne Hathaway struggles to save herself using a language no one either speaks or cares to, set by Jonathan Demme during a wedding whose pretense to multiculturalism reveals itself as a narcissistic clan’s way of disguising from the world that they’re hurting just as badly as the next family.

2. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)

Built on sensuous interplays between the landscape of the human face and winding French streets, reality and representation, Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerín’s rapturously alfresco In the City of Sylvia uses an erotically voluptuous language of spatial-temporal equations to conflate one’s love of people with one’s love of movies.

3. The Witnesses (André Téchiné)

A sterling follow-up to his similarly themed Changing Times, The Witnesses is another triumph for the criminally underrated André Téchiné, who uses his sensual humanist verve to home in on the desires and insecurities of a group of friends and lovers when AIDS rattles their sense of complacency.

4. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris)

Errol Morris’s dramatic recreations are his aesthetic signature, and they’re sometimes sore spots in his work, but in his heady Abu Ghraib exposé Standard Operating Procedure they are as purposeful as they were in The Thin Blue Line, cannily dialoguing with his thesis about the veracity of image-making.

5. Summer Palace (Ye Lou)

Summer Palace teems with sex scenes more meaningful than anything in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, hinging on more than just a feeling of duplicity; in them, filmmaker Ye Lou locates the soul of his young people, a woman’s areola and the hairs on a man’s chin popping off the screen as vividly and urgently as placards of political protest.

6. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

Filmmaker and explorer, Werner Herzog is a man obsessed with the secrets and wonders of uncharted terrains and their inhabitants, and with his sly, poetic, and melancholic Encounters at the End of the World he reflects on the eccentricity, compassion, and possible madness of people like himself united in their committment to looking beyond themselves.

7. Mukhsin (Yasmin Ahmed)

A sweet and mellow Malaysia-set love story between a young boy and girl, Mukhsin is chockablock with bittersweet cultural observations, with Yasmin Ahmed peering at the ecstasies and haunts of her young characters with a mixture of lovingness and randiness that brings to mind Yasujirô Ozu’s Good Morning.

8. My Father My Lord (David Volach)

Lush with longing and history, My Father My Lord suggests an ancient vase with small precarious cracks spread across its surface. Writer-director David Volach’s subjective use of video technology toys with space and distance, affecting the curiosity of his cherubic main character, whose love for his father is as powerful and incandescent as lightning.

9. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)

An unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre, Let the Right One In is the story of one child’s painful coming of age and another’s insatiable bloodlust. Do not avert your eyes from Tomas Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck.

10. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

With Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh engages silent-movie idiom for a study of human behavior that appears out of sync with our modern times but shouldn’t really, and as memorably performed by Sally Hawkins using an arsenal of unbelievably orchestrated sniggers and jostles and punctuating guffaws, the actress’s memorable wild child emerges as an example of humane perseverance.

Honorable Mention

Man on Wire, Chris & Don, Reprise, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, The Strangers, Redbelt, Still Life, Gran Torino, Trouble the Water, and Up the Yangtze.


The Best Films of 2008

1. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)

Charlie Kaufman dives down, down, down the self-loathing, self-doubting, self-destructive rabbit hole in Synecdoche, New York, a vortex of meta-psychoanalysis at once formally daring and emotionally wrenching. With Philip Seymour Hoffman as his neurotic dramatist proxy, Kaufman rips his glum, anxious, phobic self wide open, searching for a “brutal truth” which might provide comfort were it not so maniacally elusive, and coming up with a triumphant portrait of the artist in perpetual crisis and creativity.

2. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Hou Hsiao-hsien continues branching out geographically if not thematically with Flight of the Red Balloon, hardly a problem given that his homage to The Red Balloon is another rapturous examination of cultural history and memory, one given messy, resplendent vitality by Juliette Binoche.

3. Boarding Gate (Olivier Assayas)

Mix Olivier Assayas’s sleek, self-reflexive genre stylings with Asia Argento’s unparalleled scuzziness and you’ve got an eroticized B-movie to savor. Forget narrative lucidity—Boarding Gate is a scintillating momentum-and-mood piece in which Argento’s series of outrageously sensual poses helps distill Hollywood pulp to its abstract essence.

4. Reprise (Joachim Trier)

An intro sequence to die for almost unbalances Joachim Trier’s Reprise, yet the first-timer consistently finds ways to invigorate his depiction of the bumpy lifespans of friendships and love, with his audacious associate narrative structure expressing the inescapable pull of the past over both the present and future.

5. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

Hype and haters be equally damned, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a complex contemporary morality play filtered through DC Comics’s iconic cowled vigilante. Visceral and vital, this über-blockbuster is both cultural touchstone and preeminent example of the superhero spectacular’s expansive potential.

6. Dear Zachary (Kurt Kuenne)

Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary warrants many descriptors—tribute, historical record, legal critique, thriller—and an accompanying raft of reactions. Above all, this superbly wrought documentary about a man’s murder, his parents, the accused killer, and a child is is unbearably harrowing and devastating.

7. Chris & Don (Tina Mascara and Guido Santi)

Shrewdly skirting sensationalism in favor of sentimentality, Chris & Don captures the irreducible intricacies of love via the May-December romance of writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. Zero aesthetic frippery here, just the deeply drawn nonfiction saga of two complicated, talented, imperfect people forging unique joint paths.

8. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

No one shoots the natural world with such euphoric awe and terror, though Werner Herzog’s Arctic wild-focused Encounters at the End of the World, his umpteenth meditation on man’s love-hate for his environment, demarcates itself through sly tinges of tongue-in-cheek humor. Sink into bliss, indeed.

9. The Strangers (Bryan Bertino)

A white-knuckler that makes us care and then exploits that empathy for brutal, blistering tension, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers wields silence, shared glances, scratchy country music and a signature hooded-man-materializing-in-background shot for a no-frills, no-nonsense home invasion freakout that puts the hectoring Funny Games to shame.

10. August Evening (Chris Eska)

Channeling Ozu in its patient rhythms and familial-generational tensions, Chris Eska’s August Evening is a work of serene harmony in which aesthetic and narrative are tuned to the same placid, attentive wavelength, and lend compassionate consideration to the disquiet of lonely, unstable immigrant life.

Honorable Mention

Wendy and Lucy, Happy-Go-Lucky, WALL-E, Man on Wire, The Wrestler, Be Kind Rewind, A Christmas Tale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Woman on the Beach, and The Last Mistress.

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