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The Top 10 Films of 2008

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The Top 10 Films of 2008

[Author’s Note: Almost a meaningless exercise: the more time I’m lucky enough to spend at film festivals, the further apart the divergence between festival release dates and actual theatrical engagements (no matter how token) and the even longer wait for DVD renders pretty much any kind of unified universal viewing calendar. And then there’s the movies that don’t get picked up at all. For sanity’s sake I’ve arranged my list by stuff that actually played for the first time, in some form, in New York in 2008; stuff from previous years just now being released is in brackets. I swear I’m not trying to be too much of a bitch about this. This really is how the year in film went down for me. See also my Writer’s Poll contribution at The Auteurs Notebook.]

1. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin): I was so blown away by Desplechin’s alleged crowd-pleaser that I stole home uncustomarilly psyched I had the rest of the night open (i.e. empty) to grapple with the film and tease out some explication, if only for my benefit. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even begin to unpack how much is going on here. At this point it’ll take years of re-viewings and reading to get the full benefit of it. For now, the one thing I’ll add is that I find Desplechin’s broad frame of reference exhilarating: this is a film with equal time for Blackalicious and Mendelssohn, The Ten Commandments and Vertigo, Angela Bassett’s ass and Nietzsche. One of the things it took me a long time to learn in college is that—unlike what our public schools and some of our parents (OK, mine) told us—no smart, self-consciously intellectual people spend all their time solely in one frame of respectable reference: sooner or later, even the most hardened, academically/classically/whatever-trained mind will give into the brain-clearing pleasures of campy films or formulaic rap or simple sexual self-indulgence, which is in no way a contradiction or weakness. Desplechin trusts viewers enough that he can yoke all these things together without being deemed “pretentious” for climaxing with a Nietzsche reading: it’s the one blast of pure classical learning in the film, and it’s just as invigorating as anything else seemingly more accessible. I can recognize Desplechin’s version of the world, mostly because I live in something like it. The petty, caviling note is that the best film of the year is, in many ways, pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Desplechin working at his peak, a micro statement on how unsurprising this year was even at its best. So there’s that.

[In The City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerín): Second viewing confirms it: this is a movie made to pander to my personal preferences at every level, and I reflexively love it. (I haven’t seen this many long tracking shots of people walking since Last Days. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure: I don’t think the film is misogynistic as such—it’s no surprise to me that a European director is going to be much less cagey than a sensitive American in being very up-front about wanting to film lots of pretty young women, and I certainly couldn’t complain with any sincerity—but I do wish the not-Sylvia our anti-hero ends up stalking didn’t give him a final air-kiss and absolving “I hope you find her” farewell, indicating she’s been inexplicably charmed by his stalker-as-wispy-sensitive-artist brand of bullshit, thereby undercutting nearly the entire film’s thrust. Truth is, our boy’s an idiot and deserves to fail, but his cheekbones and alleged creativity will always save him with a certain type of girl. Guerín gives himself a structural out: when it’s even remotely a POV shot from the lad’s consciousness, the world is full of gorgeous women; when the camera arrives someplace before he does and stays after he leaves, it’s full of of the unexceptional-looking and even grotesque people. All these complaints are duly noted, but I love this stuff. Truly, as Theo Panayides says, “too much a case of Art-Fag Cinema.” But that’s a good thing.]

2. Gitmek: My Marlon And Brando (Huseyin Karabey): Saw it during the annual Tribeca rush, then watched it slide right back onto the worldwide festival circuit with no hint of American distribution. Karabey’s film is the best I’ve seen “about” the war in Iraq—which it addresses quite clearly, but without a hint of didacticism or the annoying assumption that someone in the audience doesn’t know the basic facts already—but I was even happier about the fact that I got a Jafar Panahi movie in a year Panahi didn’t make one. For me, his films (Crimson Gold, The Circle and The Mirror particularly) are as exemplary examples of urban location shooting as any given Don Siegel film; Karabey goes Panahi one better, starting in a nervous, pre-war Istanbul before mapping—with a precision that’s both formally rigorous and, given shooting conditions in the areas around Kurdistan et al., incredibly ballsy—an entire border-to-border topography of the area of contemporary war. Crisp, exhilarating, and inexplicably lost in the shuffle.

3. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh): I’m not even going to talk about this anymore. Fuck the haters.

[Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke): On the “release calendar” version of my list. This is actually ranked #1 on my “pure” 2006 list; I first saw it at Tribeca’s 2007 installation. This is the kind of niggling technicality that will send my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave. For what it’s worth, I pretty much despised The World, so this is my breakthrough with Jia.]

4. Of Time And The City (Terence Davies): More release calendar insanity, since this played quietly for one week at the Village East for Oscar qualification reasons with no advertising (my screening had five viewers, and I brought two of them). New Yorkers have a two-week chance to see it at the Film Forum (Jan. 21 - Feb. 3); god help everyone else in America, presumably. Am I still infinitely amused that Strand Films puts out a lot of stellar films but seems to nearly always need even the most tenuous of “gay interest” connections to acquire it? Absolutely.

Sniping aside, Of Time And The City annoyed both my viewing companions, with whom I normally have like 60-70% taste overlap, indicating this must be one of my Armond White moments, because I was practically levitating by the time it was over. Yes, it’s a travesty that Davies can’t get the budget for original footage, but being forced to work primarily from archival footage for his first film in 8 years hasn’t compromised his aesthetic in the slightest. Within mounds of presumably rather ordinary archival material, he’s found entirely characteristic formal building blocks and juxtapositions: long tracking shots (down streets, through buildings, following people) and prolonged periods with no dialogue or narration, just associational montages where a whole pop song is all you hear. In other words, it’s a film of his classic tropes. Davies is constantly quoting and appropriating, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not (apparently everyone should be able to identify “The Waste Land,” and I’m not saying I disagree); the point is that the songs and footage are as much a part of him as anything more conventionally “personal,” and it shows. It’s also scabrously quotable; I never realized what a cranky, despairing soul Davies was. On post-war British architecture: “We were hoping for paradise. What we got was the anus mundi.” And the settings? “Less than Elysian.” Smartass.

[Flight Of The Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien): As with Jia, my turning point with Hou. This is not a “minor film.” I worried about the potentially racist implications of digging Hou’s first European excursion, but then I remembered my favorite movie is Yi Yi, so no apologies. This ranks up there with E.T. and Anne-Marie Mieville’s underseen short The Book Of Mary as one of the great films about the impact of divorce on children, a theme near and dear to my heart for, I’m afraid, thunderously obvious and banal reasons. In case you were looking for obvious biases. Juliette Binoche is one of the performances of the year.]

5. Tony Manero (Pablo Lorrain): If In The City of Sylvia is essentially undistributable in the US for one reason (too formalist and non-narrative), Tony Manero (like Frownland, its equally sociopathic, cruel and often unlikable twin) is unreleasable because most people would probably despise it. As for what it feels like, I seem to have gotten it right the first time: “What’s important is the texture, which could be straight 1978. Grain prevails; everything exists in the same fucked-up analog patina as Manero’s well-worn tapes, the subtitled prints playing at the local theater, the dirt and brown of everything, the overall beigeness of the damn film. ” This is why we need the New York Film Festival. Also can be safely grouped alongside the superior Import/Export and the slightly-notch-below Cargo 200 as examples of the best thing to happen to festival movies in a while, e.g. harnessing the power of sheer provocation—mostly confined up “til now to self-serving would-be scandals like Baise-Moi—and using it to steadfastly look evil totalitarian economic and political regimes right in the face without blinking or collapsing into middlebrow sermons.

6. The Order Of Myths (Margaret Brown): I haven’t, as of press time, seen Trouble The Water (I hope to catch up with it at MoMA in January) or Man on Wire (someday); in truth, I’ve become very lazy about paying money to see documentaries. After an Austin teenage life spent overdosing on docs at SXSW, I’ve become kind of disheartened by how video has empowered not possibilities for endless coverage and footage, but rather sloppiness and carelessness in editing and framing. And then there’s The Order Of Myths, Margaret Brown’s careful, incisive anatomy of race relations in Mobile, Alabama. Skipping way past easy accusations and portraits of blinkered, ingrained racism, The Order Of Myths is a town portrait of the highest order, its narrative carefully constructed for maximum impact. (One caveat: waiting until the last second to reveal that one interviewee is Brown’s grandfather plays like a cheap reveal that actually explains nothing.) This isn’t a post-Katrina doc, but it proves we don’t need that catastrophe (or Michel Gondry) to investigate the ongoing nuances of an allegedly post-racial society.

[Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols): The major discovery of Tribeca 2007—it knocked me out in the middle of an intensive 5-film-a-day regimen for an insane coverage schedule—finally straggled into theaters to quietly die. Frankly, it’s better than anything David Gordon Green’s made these last five years. Then again, he made this possible, which is why he’s still the man. Also part of an ongoing case for the supreme awesomeness of Michael Shannon; if his career goes the way of Peter Sarsgaard, I will be very, very disappointed.]

7. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen): This was the surprise of the year. Elements not present: a New Orleans jazz score, references to God/atheism/existential despair/Nietschze, visual aspirations to Bergman, the presence of Woody or a Woody-aping surrogate (Rebecca Hall kind of has his diffidence, but not in any truly manneristic way), a May/December relationship. Present and never seen before: sunny Spain, Spanish music, a light-hearted approach to sexual experimentation. Present more often than usual in Woody’s work: actual honest-to-goodness plot structure that still keeps within the boundaries of psychological comedy, an infinitely sarcastic voice-over narration that spends the first hour relentlessly mocking every single character on-screen. (I couldn’t stop laughing.) Eventually, Allen’s humanist side (haven’t seen that lately) allows the characters room to grow out of their foibles; Scarlett Johansson is still an idiot by the end, but a harmless one you could see growing out of it. Javier Bardem conquers all as a stereotypical Latin lothario/artist; gradually, it becomes obvious both that he’s aware of his image and its constraints (which isn’t entirely a put-on), even as he consciously uses it to get naive Americans into bed. (Weak link: Chris Messina’s Doug, a too-obvious Baxter with his banal insistence on apartment decorations, though his ferocious monologue decrying faux-Bohemianism almost makes up for it.) A great deal of fun, although in all fairness it should be noted that it looks incredibly sloppy, confirming that Woody has no visual sense of his own and Javier Aguirresarobe wasn’t strong enough to tell him what to do. I doubt Woody’s been watching mumblecore, but the amount of naturalistic pausing, overlaps and indecision in the dialogue is equally refreshing, given how airless his recent dramas have been. Penélope Cruz’s casting is a fantastic meta-joke; when she shows up an hour in, I’d entirely forgotten she was supposed to be in the movie, let alone was top-billed. After her long and awkward sting as an English-speaking actress (Cruz can act, but her range is tiny and she’s much better as a sheer charismatic Force Of Nature), it’s hilarious to watch her character refuse, despite Bardem’s repeated entreaties, to speak English except whenever she damn well feels like it.

8. Just Anybody (Jacques Doillon): A new Jacques Doillon film should be a major event. What it shouldn’t be is a casualty of premiering at Berlin and then disappearing forever and ever, playing New York in a one night stand at BAM (though god bless ’em for stepping up). As he proved before in Raja, Doillon can give Hong Sang-soo a run for his money in psychosexual head games. Good luck seeing this, frankly.

9. Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy): A sheep gives birth in real time. Dust storms blow. Boney M plays relentlessly. Sergey Dvortsevoy picks up where Werner Herzog’s taste for physical adversity left off. Awesome.

10. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan): Over-discussed and overrated, certainly, but outrageously entertaining all the same. A second viewing confirms that the widespread right-wing embrace of Christopher Nolan following Andrew Klavan’s completely batshit essay in the Wall Street Journal—claming the film is “at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war”—isn’t completely inexplicable, but I submit that—as Nolan’s work pretty consistently is—this is more invested in watered-down philosophical stabs at Great Truths of Existence, Evil and Perception than any kind of political agenda. The Dark Knight is stupid, and I wish it didn’t stop for little mini-lectures, but it’s also great fun and will, in all probability, survive for a long time as probably the best ’00s action filmmaking had to offer.

[Woman On The Beach (Hong Sang-soo): I saw this in January. I don’t remember it in detail, except to say that it’s seemingly second-tier, transitional Hong. Which is better than 90% of what’s on tap.]

The 10 Most Unpleasant Viewing Experiences of 2008

1. Step Brothers (Adam McKay): You know what? I don’t completely despise Will Ferrell. Even though it’s an all-too-easy trick for gaining critical plaudits, his self-consciously understated turn in Stranger Than Fiction was at the very least better than the surrounding movie, and he does an interesting thing with that mode in this movie’s last moments. That said, I hate this fucking thing. The screening was a preview in Times Square, part press and part normal folks who roared with laughter. I don’t begrudge fans too much; whatever works. We don’t all have to watch artfag cinema etc. etc. What drives me crazy about the mentality behind Ferrell’s schtick was exemplified by the man sitting next to me. When Ferrell and John C. Reilly first meet, they have this exchange: “You have to call me dragon.” “Fine, but you have to call me night hawk.” He didn’t just roar with Pavlovian laughter, he repeated each line loudly as soon as it was said, then laughed again with redoubled mirth. (It’s worth noting that, presumably exhausted from such strenuous happiness, he fell asleep halfway through.) So first of all I’m annoyed by the fact that your real hardcore Ferrell fans believe that every non sequitur is an instantly indelible gem; these are probably the people that get drunk at parties and think they’re hilarious. Also, I do not understand what is remotely funny about this exchange. Are all semi-mental forms of vernacular automatically hilarious? Is it the infantile nature of it? WHAT IS IT? And watching a close-up of Ferrell’s tongue licking dog-shit off the ground didn’t help much either. What is this crap.

2. Nirvana (Igor Voloshin): By all reliable accounts LA’s annual AFI Festival did a terrific job of bringing a lot of movies that deserved to be screened to the West Coast, and god bless ’em. I batted a little coverage clean-up, which led to this excruciating experience. What I wrote then: “St. Petersburg is transformed into a third-rate Luc Besson dystopia. It’s the kind of movie where terrible industrial music plays most of the time, somber choral music indicates a fall from grace, and Joy Division scores the end credits.” Yes yes yes yes. There are terrible festival slot-fillers everywhere, but this is honestly worse than anything I’ve ever seen at Tribeca. Really and truly.

3. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves): J.J. Abrams is able to get away with a lot—frequently casting cut-rate, vapid but pretty no-names carrying his films, melodramatic sub-TV dialogue—because he frequently makes it into entertaining trash. But this especially cynical dispatch from the Abrams factory looks like ass, wreaks havoc with even the most basic issues of plausibility (I love how they climb 54 stories without breaking a sweat), and—for a final insult—visually quotes 9/11, predictably making really gullible types see it as some kind of “meditation” on Video And Tragedy or the Iconography of Tragedy or some such goddamn thing when it’s really just a cheap way of making people think they should be feeling something.

4. Ballast (Lance Hammer): Now look: Hammer’s a talented guy and I look forward to seeing his second film. It takes a lot of talent to be so conceptually rigorous, and I’m not saying he doesn’t have the best of intentions. But his Dardennes-in-the-Delta schtick is completely inorganic, and “his” (stolen) pseudo-gravitas overwhelms his plainspoken actors. It’s just one poverty-induced disaster after another, but the film’s putative respect for its characters is a naked sociopolitical construct: you never get the feeling that Hammer really likes or understands his characters (unlike e.g. Ramin Bahrani). But I really can’t stand the buzz behind this film: the idea that this is the New American Realism (because it has shaky handheld camera and is about poor people) is insulting in so many ways. (That said, it seems not to have caught on, which I’m ambivalent about.)

5. Diary Of The Dead (George A. Romero): Wow. Good job finally screwing up the franchise on the fifth try. You know what? Between this and Afterschool, we’re into the first wave of overstated and deeply annoying films attempting to explain the Media Zeitgeist I ostensibly live through every day. Compounded further by rote post-Katrina hysteria and meditations on The Camera As Voyeur that would be too sophomoric for a sixth-grade discussion of Rear Window. Actually I found it all pretty hilarious, perhaps thanks to the guys in the Cinema Village theater who polished off a six-pack over the duration.

6. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (JonHurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg): In which the funny racial humor of the first film is replaced by boring stereotypes of all orders (inbred hicks, welcome back to the screen!), ass-looking digital, comical onscreen masturbation in the first minute, and a farting sound every time someone gets punched. Sad.

7. Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller): The fact that otherwise intelligent people think jokes about how agents are slimy and actors are stupid and that Hollywood is generally fucked are somehow cutting edge satire just because they’re based on specific people is depressing. Variety suggested that the humor here was too “insider-y” to cross over, but the truth is that everyone who’s watched “Entertainment Tonight” for like five minutes knows what’s going on, even if they don’t know that Tom Cruise is supposed to be Les Moonves (or Scott Rudin or whatever). Also, somewhat exasperatingly, just because you have jokes about drugs doesn’t mean it’s funny. IT’S NOT FUNNY.

8. My Best Friend’s Girl (Howard Deutch): I also reviewed Babylon A.D. this year, so out of the two movies I saw deemed so bad they deserved no advance screenings this wins hands-down. But Babylon is mildly amusing and watchable in a sleepy Saturday-afternoon what’s-on-TNT? kind of way; My Best Friend’s Girl, on the other hand, manages to make both Johnny Cash songs and Alec Baldwin boring.

9. Bullet In The Head (Jaime Rosales): For being the first movie in five years I’ve walked out on.

10. House Of The Sleeping Beauties (Vadim Glowna): For being an even worse director than Vadim Perelman. C’mon guys, give me something to work with here.

For Future Re-Evaluation: Overlooked and/or Underrated

Speed Racer (Wachowski Bros.) [as demented narratively as it is visually; great fun]; XXY (Lucia Puenzo) [gathered festival props but not much else; absorbing both in its opening, a kind of literalized Cronenberg feast of meat being sliced and anatomies and wounds on display galore, then develops into a surprisingly sensitive and universal examination of inchoate teen sexual longing; the fact that it’s about a hermaphrodite ultimately seems kind of irrelevant]; My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar-wai) [except for 2046, Wong’s never connected with me in general, so the fact that I liked a good 60% of this is like high praise, and it’s inventively stylish; David Strathairn’s performance is monumental]; Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov) [because it’s the wackiest, most over-the-top blockbuster since Transporter 2, and surprisingly low on downtime to boot]; The Class (Laurent Cantet) [because it is this year’s Half Nelson, a movie high- and middle- brows could get together on—and then inexplicably forgotten in the polls].

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.