I'm going to call 2008 a "down" year, but not because there were fewer masterpieces produced--only because the theme that resonated for me the most was this sense of a cycle completing. If it's true that every generation flatters itself as the last one, it's equally true that every decade of film nears its completion with its full measure of anticipation/regret (liebestraum as zeitgeist, no?) in its eighth, sometimes ninth, year. Even films that on the surface seem filled with the fruit of human ambition and desire--like James Marsh's ebullient Man on Wire, in which the World Trade Center appears as the phantom lover of highwire artist Philippe Petit--take place, after all, at the ground zero of this epoch. What's dying throughout 2006 and 2007, all this sussing through father issues and the cult of masculinity and love and the courage of children, is dead now. It's not nihilism anymore, it's pragmatism. The dream is over, the insect is awake.
The best films of the year took the toll of too much dread experience head-on, clear-eyed, tangled, lost, and with little in the way of parting shots or resolutions. The most hopeful of them ends in the middle of the levelling of Manhattan while the least ends with the flat stage direction "die"; in between, find this greyscale of despair over missed connections, squandered opportunities, and empty, alien minutes. Consider with fascination that the worst movies of 2008 (Seven Pounds and probable Best Picture nominees Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire among them) displayed all the same qualities--the pain, the loss, the hopelessness--but played at them with the mute, senseless, instinctual insistence of a kitten with a string. The best of the year are about how we die alone, abandoned/embraced, beloved/reviled, in love with another or the idea of another or the memory of another. And it doesn't matter, because it's over now.-Walter Chaw, January 1, 2009
Strange Intersections: The death of Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter not long after Synecdoche, New York dealt with the death of Harold Pinter; 4 semi trucks flipping; 2 onscreen abortions; 2 bloody-stool inspections; 2 deaths announced with the release of bellyfuls of birds; 3 mentions of chimeras; 2 halvings by machete; 2 onscreen bone-marrow donations
Wish I'd seen it in time for last year's list: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Youth Without Youth
Honourable Mention: Still Life; The Class; Che; WALL·E; Gomorrah; Hellboy II: The Golden Army; Woman on the Beach; Chop Shop; Happy-Go-Lucky; Up the Yangtze10. The Wrestler (d. Darren Aronofsky)
It's not subtle, of course, what with its Christ allegory writ large in barbed wire and spit, cum, and blood; and when it falters (as it does whenever we have to spend a little time with Evan Rachel Wood), its obviousness becomes a hindrance instead of a virtue. But as an analog to the futility of carving out a place of one's own in the middle of the apocalypse, it's more often than not just plain astonishing. Aronofsky has been described as many things: as a visual director, as a humourless zealot, as that guy no one wants to work with twice--but what he is most is a devoted chronicler of romance at the edge of the drop-off in all its ferocity, tooth and nail. It's got a happy ending that makes sense in our cataclysm; it has twin performances by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei steeped equally in toughness and exhaustion; and it seems to have read Roland Barthes's essay on professional wrestling, which, let's face it, is a good thing. Biggest surprise? It's about kindness, love, and sacrifice in whatever limited way its broken-down characters are capable of. As far as religion goes, what else is there to any faith?
9. Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du ballon rouge) (d. Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Another essential remake/adaptation from Chinese master Hou, whose update of Springtime in a Small Town doesn't up the original so much as reinterpret it from the lens of a decades-long detachment. His films have about them this feeling, ineffable, of sleepy loss--the hours that slip away on lazy, brown summer days, hourglasses full of obsidian and amber in a Terrence Malick tableau. His update here of the 1956 kiddie-classic of whimsical surrealism (Lamorisse's The Red Balloon) finds him the consummate alien artist in Paris's looking glass, documenting in long, wordless stretches of dappled Monet cityscapes and interiors the essential cluttered dislocation of an existence lost in the translation. It's the first of two films on this list that present themselves unapologetically as Impressionism made possible by DV--a new nouvelle vague, if you will, that marries technology with turn-of-the-last-century painting from a very specific philosophy even as the tale it tells, of a young boy longing for the attention of his distracted actress mother (Juliette Binoche), is the very definition of straight. Look at a scene reflected against the flashing windows of one of Hou's trains, though, for the absolute, uncompromising vision of a director unwilling to relinquish his status as an outsider and all the perspective it offers.
8. A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël) (d. Arnaud Desplechin)
Not as good as Kings and Queen (Desplechin's immediate predecessor), A Christmas Tale nonetheless provides a similarly dense dialogue about the nature of existence insofar as it's possible to define that through our relationships to one another. Romantic, familial, Desplechin's métier is the impenetrable rat-tat-tat of his clustered exchanges, reflected in the tangled associations his characters draw between, through, and around one another in endless, labyrinthine roundelays. The picture is an exhausting, occasionally obscure, always fascinating dissection of the royal Vuillards--all of them gifted with a musical capacity that manifests itself in the cadence and composition of their interactions, all of them reunited when their matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) is diagnosed with the same rare blood cancer that claimed the eldest son when he was just a boy. There's a mesmeric quality to the patter, of course, but Desplechin, since Kings and Queen, has developed a keen sense of the power of pictures--especially still photos--in providing punctuation (and breathing room) for his unparalleled verbal acuity. It's in this milieu that Desplechin fave Mathieu Amalric (so miscast in Quantum of Solace) discovers his truest voice: the gadfly misanthrope, leveraging an opportunity for valour into a receptacle for his long-festering payload of spleen.
7. Encounters at the End of the World (d. Werner Herzog)
Far and away the best documentary of the year (after the charm of Errol Morris and his broadside histrionics at last begins to fade) sees Herzog amok amongst his asylum peers in a settlement in Antarctica where, at last, he locates a colony of lunatics and dreamers no more ill-suited than the mad-Bavarian to the banality of the day-to-day. It's a film that feels like the end of a journey: We encounter the same madness that infected Golden State settlers with no farther west to go, butted up against the blue expanse of the Pacific, geometrically inflated at the bottom of the world at a pinpoint memorialized with a frozen Pike and Shackleton's shack (preserved as what Herzog describes as some kind of fossilized grocery store). Freeform like so many of the year's best films, its end-of-the-line ethos informs a feeling that there is literally nowhere left for us as a species on this planet to go--in terms of not environmental misadventure, but philosophical inquiry and ideological rebellion. Herzog meets his match in a Nature that is finally as obscene as he suggests: The insensate portraits he paints against the pristine white canvases of these impossible wastes are impressions of our essential dislocation with the things that tie us to the world. What other filmmaker, besides, would decide in the middle of his film to give over the sounds and sights of his picture to the otherworldly soundings of sea lions and the inexplicable landscapes of the undiscovered country just beneath the ice? What other filmmaker could make that make sense?
6. Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) (d. Tomas Alfredson)
A film that explores the vampire mythos as a diary of essential, alien difference, it, as the best of this kind of fiction is capable of doing, offers a corollary to the human condition that highlights the absolute isolation and inescapable loneliness of human existence. Another "happy ending" (after The Wrestler) in this year's unhappy crop, Alfredson's picture turns pitch-black in its irony on the dawning understanding that the little boy who is the film's hero is doomed to become the acid-eating Prufrock wasting to dust at the side of his eternal child bride. More mined from the revelation of difference: The little girl lost is apparently a castrato, thus her question of whether her young friend would like her if she weren't a girl takes on a different, devastating disturbance. Facilitating the first time I've ever seen--really, even contemplated--the dire consequence of a vampire entering where it's not invited, the film is slavishly devoted to lore and, as it's shot, reflects the understanding of perversion in a way that its mainstream doppelgänger Twilight could never (and would never want to) address. Built on lies and appearances, it feels like the first picture to take the time to suss out the implications of its mythology, making it another gratifying reboot in the Superman Returns/Batman Begins cycle of supernatural avatars offered up as analogs to the way we choose to address the unknowable complications of the universe. Ridiculously good, it's a showpiece as adaptation, as cinematographer's art, as what it looks like when genre is wielded as a surgical instrument.
5. In the City of Sylvia (En la ciudad de Sylvia) (d. José Luis Guerín)
Call it what you will, but Guerín's performance-art piece on male spectatorship, object choice, and the primal function of the pinioning gaze is at once elusive and focused down to a razored, obsessive concentration. As obsessive, as it happens, as its hero (Xavier Lafitte), wild-haired and doe-eyed, graduating from his hotel to an open-air café in a French town in search of a girl he met, but briefly, six years ago. He sketches women, observes their necks and ankles with a casual connoisseur's appreciation, overhears conversations, overturns his drink, and rushes off in one extended sequence after a girl who might, possibly, maybe, hopefully, be his lost Sylvia. A scene in a club repaints Manet's "Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère" (no small feat given its peculiarities of perspective), marking film as the medium of Impressionism...well, and Romanticism, but we knew that much already. Functioning as a found piece, it captures, like the abovementioned Hou picture, this sense of languid swoops and curlicues in thick summer days as they swoon into the copper studies of autumn. It captures the fervour of Rilke and its briefness, too, in its ironclad assertion that the end of it all is this absolute need to know the moment that happiness began to flee from a vantage where any hope for it has already fled.
4. Cloverfield (d. Matt Reeves)
Another jaunt through another imaginary cityscape, Cloverfield refashions the rampaging monster movie as a post-mortem on the importance of little moments when the rubble starts to fly. Set on the eve of a great transformation for its twenty-something heroes, unaware that their future has been fed to unknowable machineries, the pictures looses a metaphorical beast on Manhattan in the most accomplished fugue about our 9/11 sea change to date. No surprise that it's another genre piece; the surprise is how well it captures the feeling of violation and truncated potential embedded in that one pregnant moment in our history. Tightly knit, perfectly conceptualized and executed, it is at last the American Godzilla picture, from the most innovative marketing campaign since The Blair Witch Project to the accidental explication of how it is that a civilian population devastated by a WMD creates these new gods to explain away the darkening of the night. Special effects almost besides the point as every environment in the film (Manhattan island, essentially) is rendered in a mainframe, Cloverfield is almost "post-literate"--the logical end-result (along with John Adams and Benjamin Button) of what happens when our ability to process information is entirely corrupted by phantoms indistinguishable from flesh. Look, in its final-frame flashback, for the monster coming to ground in the far distance--and look to the picture's cold efficiency for the perfect companion piece to the end-of-a-world horror of every fallout from life in the shadow of no towers.
3. Hunger (d. Steve McQueen)
The stunning debut of video installation artist Steve McQueen tells the story of IRA soldier Bobby Sands as he stages a successful (?) hunger strike protesting his, and his co-inmates', treatment at the hands of the British in the notorious Maze Prison. Scenes are set and scored like a Stanley Kubrick picture--The Shining, of course, in its corridors and environmental audio cues, but 2001 as well in the transcendence of its closing moments with Bobby in an antiseptic room, imagining familiarity at the moment of his rebirth as this...martyr? The first third is silent for the most part but for the thud of billy-club against naked back and the final third is silent but for the rustle of sheets and the gasp of birds; the middle is dominated by a fifteen-minute conversation, tracked in one long take, between Sands and the priest brought in to provide either dissuasion or last rites to our hero. Neither a defense of domestic terrorism nor a celebration of it, what Hunger reveals itself to be is a cry against the willing sacrifice of humanity in the pursuit of some imposed sense of justice. Thatcher's recitation of the rationale for stripping these men serving at the discretion of Mother England of their rights echoes uncomfortably with the United States' headlong mutation into every single thing it condemns and abhors in its own secret prisons with their own apolitical political prisoners. The film is fucking beautiful, too, and I'm a sucker for pictures in this primarily visual medium that respect it as a medium for artistic, visual representation. Much already made of a snowflake melting on a guard's bloody knuckle, but how about the spray of gore decorating one mute witness (and the tears decorating the face of another)? How about the perfect inward spiral described with shit in one cell? The guard sweeping a river of piss towards the camera in the third picture on this list that tells parts of its story in reflections? Hunger is the true fana.
2. The Dark Knight (d. Christopher Nolan)
The best mainstream American film since The Godfather Part II, Nolan's reboot locates its apogee in this tale of chaos and moral relativism in the midst of a city falling down. Heath Ledger's death is only one metaphor that works in its fabric of misspent moments and opportunities torn away by jagged gusts of arbitrary caprice; there's a reason that at the end of the conversation, The Dark Knight finds itself the second-highest-grossing film of all-time. It touches a nerve, and though it can be too broad in announcing its thesis, the moments where you realize that it's able and willing to go places you never thought a movie with this kind of budget would go elevate it to bizarrely affecting levels. I was left speechless by my first screening of it; subsequent peeks have confirmed the unpretentiousness of its craft. Not an action film--although the action is excellent--nor a comic-book film in any traditional connotative understanding of the term (for good or for ill), it is instead a monument to the courage of filmmakers involved in crafting something of real value in a place and time better known for its cynical equivocations. There's a reason, too, that Ledger's Joker has captured a place in the bogey pantheon that has nothing to do with his death--but it's worth considering that it's only through Ledger's death that Nolan was able to preserve the integrity of his vision in length and unresolved resolution. It's a towering achievement to be the definitive film of a decade, and with only another year to go, I can't imagine there'll be another.
1. Synecdoche, New York (d. Charlie Kaufman)
Devastating. I don't understand Charlie Kaufman films, but they seem to understand me, and I have a pretty difficult time, even after five screenings, even after endless conversations, parsing exactly how I feel about this film. It reminds me of Godard, and Fellini, and Wes Anderson, and David Lynch--but it is also the fulfillment of the "what if" of what if Kaufman decided to turn away from love and began to speak of the pain and ugliness of aging and dying? It's the only Kaufman film so far that doesn't have a moment of redemptive joy; when hero Caden announces that he's pinpointed the "happiest day of [his] life," it's only once it's happened and, unlike in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he has no opportunity to relive it but as a shadow in a warehouse, constructed and performed by puppets in his puppet theatre. An accordion of a picture that compresses and stretches time, it's not a puzzle to put together but a visceral experience to endure that, I've found, impacts men and women in wildly divergent ways. If there's another theme to throw on the year-end pyre, it's this idea that the conversation might be tilting towards gender-specific inspections of the things that spur us, independent of one another, to create whatever form that creation might take. It must say something that each subsequent screening of Synecdoche, New York seems shorter than the one before--that it actually takes on the shape and function of the rabbit-hole from Kaufman's Being John Malkovich, except that this shunt is a portal into the viewer's (most probably the male viewer's) subconscious. There isn't a day since I first saw it that I haven't thought about it. It made me miserable for two full weeks. And it made me, at the same time, feel less alone in the world for the comfort provided by another human being who feels pain, when he feels pain, in exactly the same inarticulate way.