Many critics have remarked that 2008 wasn’t the best year for movies. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I think it’s important to qualify the point. It was actually a strong year for strong films, but it was a weak year for great ones. I probably saw just as many movies this year that I could recommend, but I’ve struggled to fill out my Top 10. So instead of being bound by the round number of ten, I’ve decided to offer my Top 9 of 2008 and then list a whole bunch of other movies that could have easily been #10 but wouldn’t have come close to cracking the list in previous years. Am I cheating? How can I be when I’m the one keeping score?
A few general notes before I dive into the list. For consistency’s sake, I’m going by the policy of choosing films that played at least a week in New York. That’s the approach that most critics use, and it’s as good as any. Not that this makes everything clear. For example, many critics are including 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days on their 2008 list, while I had that as my #1 film of 2007. No, I’m not going to include it again, though the stats fiends may care to note it would be the #2 film of 2008 if I did. Similarly, it’s unclear whether Carlos Reygadas’s masterpiece Silent Light qualifies as a 2008 release. It played for a week at MOMA in New York, but it’s getting a traditional theatrical release in early ’09 and will hopefully make its way around the country. For reasons I won’t try to explain, I’ll leave it for ’09.
As in most years, I’ve chosen a bunch of small movies that many people didn’t even have a chance to see in the theaters. It goes without saying that I’m not trying to be a snob. It also probably goes without saying that I am an elitist, and I firmly believe that making a masterpiece within the current Hollywood system is next to impossible. There are both artistic and socio-economic reasons for that, but I’ll save that argument for another day. So rather than pretend that the only good movies are the ones that had $40+-million marketing campaigns behind them, my top 10 includes several movies that were made for a tenth of that amount.
But the beauty of Netflix and GreenCine is that everyone with a halfway decent home theater system can pretend they’re programming their own film festival. Or if you like, you can pretend that I’m programming it for you. Looked at that way, this list would make a nice nine-day fest. There are a few comedies, a couple documentaries, several foreign films, and a couple movies with big stars. I didn’t plan it this way, but my favorite movies of 2008 make for an interesting potpourri.
Ok, enough of my yakkin’. Let’s boogie.
1. Still Life
A stunningly great film from Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke. A fictional story within a documentary-like setting, Still Life portrays what happens when a city near the Three Gorges Dam is purposefully deconstructed and millions of people are displaced. Jia has an amazing compositional eye, particularly in how he uses the contrast of foreground and background. He also incorporates framing devices of rich beauty, and by showing the ruined architecture against the enduring landscape he incorporates a visual dimension to the theme of change and stasis. If the DVD you rent also has Jia’s Dong as a supplement, I can’t emphasize enough the usefulness of watching both movies in close proximity. They are two sides of a rare coin. A longer festival blurb appears here.
2. Chop Shop
I’ll admit that this film is right up my alley. It focuses on a 12-year-old immigrant boy struggling to help his mom and sister in lower-class Queens. Director Ramin Bahrani, who also made one of my favorites at this year’s Toronto festival, guides his story in interesting ways and gets wonderfully naturalistic performances from his non-professional actors. This is humanist filmmaking at its finest.
3. Waltz with Bashir
An animated documentary seems like a contradiction in terms, but director Ari Folman’s decision to animate his reflection on the ’82 Israeli invasion of Lebanon is a masterstroke. It allows him to explore the theme of memory and repression as well as evoke the Jungian archetypes of war. A fiercely anti-war film, Waltz with Bashir also features a striking soundtrack full of ‘80s songs and layered sound effects. And the movie ends with a staggering climax. A longer festival blurb appears here.
4. My Winnipeg
Guy Maddin continues his fever dream approach, this time by focusing on his hometown and a desperate attempt to flee it. How much of this is tongue-in-cheek is probably up for debate, but the film’s dry humor and Maddin’s inventive visual style mean there’s never a dull moment.
5. Tropic Thunder
You didn’t expect this one here, did ya’? Reminiscent of another favorite of mine, Hot Fuzz, in the way it both embraces and mocks genre conventions, this hilarious spoof of Hollywood and specifically Vietnam movies had me rolling for all 107 minutes. Ben Stiller is fantastic, and his supporting cast of Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., and Tom Cruise in an audacious cameo plays the material perfectly. But I also loved how the movie tweaks the familiarity of certain songs, how it satirizes the way movies are marketed, and how it sends up Apocalypse Now, in particular. One of the best Hollywood comedies in years.
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen heartily deserve the Oscar nominations I hope are coming their way. And Ron Howard, confident in his material, directs with self-effacing subtlety. A prestige picture in the best sense of that phrase. Check out my full review here.
7. A Christmas Tale
Toronto Festival co-director Piers Handling introduced this French movie as “about a dysfunctional family par excellence,” and he’s exactly right. A whole clan — including girlfriends, wives, children, a cousin — come together one Christmas weekend to celebrate ... the matriarch’s need of a bone marrow transplant. What follows is deliciously off-kilter and not a little mean, but watching this cold-hearted family fight and then kind of make up is hugely entertaining. The whole ensemble — Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, and many others — is brilliant (special mention of Emmanuelle Devos as a gleeful outsider), and director Arnaud Desplechin’s messy (but controlled messy) direction throws it all into a blender. I have no idea what the Vertigo references are doing here, but I stopped thinking at about the 45-minute mark and just let the emotional side of my brain enjoy the show. A longer festival blurb appears here.
8. Momma’s Man
Another fictional film that plays with documentary elements, this feature from Azazel Jacobs was filmed in his parents’ amazing New York loft and features them in significant roles. But the story of a young man who comes home on business and then can’t seem to leave is a well-constructed tale, full of fascinating moments and interactions. As many critics have pointed out, the Jacobs house is a character in itself, but my favorite parts involve how the protagonist and his parents interact. The family relationships ring true.
9. Encounters at the End of the World
Another documentary in which Werner Herzog explores the limits of human and animal experience, this time by traveling to Antarctica. The portrait of Antarctica — the people who work there and the animals who live there — is fascinating, and much of the underwater footage is awe-inspiring. It’s no surprise that Herzog gets his jabs in at other animal documentaries, especially one about marching penguins. Encounters can’t reach the pinnacle of Herzog’s earlier Grizzly Man, though, in part because it’s too diffuse. By interviewing so many kinds of scientists and adventurers (including a bus driver and a repairman), the portrait that emerges is exceptionally broad but not always terribly deep. A longer festival blurb appears here.
And as promised, here are twice as many more films, each one of which could have made the top 10. So if you’re thinking my list is lacking, just pretend that your favorite from below made the grade.
The Dark Knight
Edge of Heaven
In the City of Sylvia
The Last Mistress
Rachel Getting Married
Taxi to the Dark Side
Times and Winds
We Are Together
I hope your year in movies was full and satisfying. For a look at Rob’s ’08 list and his reflections on other Top 10s, check out his section 2008 in Negative.