The Year in Film: 2008
I wrote a few different multi-paragraph introductions for my own personal wrap-up this year but have decided that the post is long enough as is. I want you to stick around, not go stampeding for the exit right away. Suffice to say, I found 2008 to be another rewarding and inspiring year for cinema, and look forward to what 2009 will bring. And now, let’s get to it…
(NOTE: Click on the title of a film if it’s highlighted to read the full Hammer to Nail review. I didn’t write all of them, but I wrote a lot. Man, I wrote a lot this year. Now here I go writing a whole lot more.)
Favorite Films With a Theatrical Release (aka, My Contribution to the indieWIRE Critics Poll):
1. Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang, Canada)
2. Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, USA)
3. Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs, USA)
4. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel)
5. The Unforeseen (Laura Dunn, USA)
6. Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine, USA)
7. The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown, USA)
8. Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, USA)
9. Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, USA)
10. Take Out (Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, USA)
I have chosen to remove Frownland and The Unforeseen from contention in any and all below categories since I included them in my 2007 wrap-up (which can be revisited here if you’re feeling truly cinemasochistic). The same goes for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, as well as Matthew Lessner’s By Modern Measure. Along those lines, though I’m not sure how exactly, I’ve chosen to exclude Carlos Reygadas’ awesome Silent Light (and I mean awesome in the most biblical sense of the term), as I didn’t actually watch it in 2008 and it appears to be getting a somewhat more legitimate theatrical release in 2009.
Favorite Film of 2008:
Glory at Sea (Benh Zeitlin, USA)
I have already written about Benh Zeitlin and Court 13’s incredibly hopeful and life-affirming achievement on purely cinematic terms (please be sure to read my review if you haven’t already), but as we begin to drift into the future, away from the year that was 2008, I find it impossible to separate Glory at Sea from Barack Obama’s historic victory. And not just because, on the weekend leading up to Tuesday, November 4th, the two did become inextricably linked. That had already happened in my mind earlier in the summer, when this film and that presidential campaign helped me to envision a world I never thought I would see. Who knows what will happen in the months and years to come, but all I have to do is hear one measure of Zeitlin and Dan Rohmer’s triumphant score and I am flooded with spiritual, religious chills.
Special Jury Award For a Film That Transcends Categorization:
Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel)
As ineffable as the concepts of memory and dreams can be, Ari Folman’s genre-shatterer is equally difficult to pin down. In order to more intricately explore his personal involvement in the horrific 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres as an Israeli soldier, Forman turned to a traditionally fictional format: animation. Contrary to what one might expect, this potentially disorienting—not to mention distancing—technique enabled Folman to burrow deeper inside his own mind and deliver an immersive picture that captures war at its most nightmarish and unsettling. Folman fuses his striking visual approach with Max Richter’s propulsive, melancholic score, resulting in a wholly unique achievement. And while Folman ultimately determines that he was not directly responsible for any deaths, he nonetheless feels a tragic sense of guilt. In the process, he asks us to feel the same. Waltz With Bashir isn’t just one of the more creative anti-war pictures ever made. It is one of the best.
Special Jury Award For a Film That Isn’t Technically a Film:
The Wire: Season 5 (David Simon and Ed Burns and many more, USA)
For my money, the second-to-last episode of The Wire’s fifth and final season (“Episode 59: Late Editions”) is the series’ crowning achievement, when the previous fifty-eight hours of rich, novelistic drama reached a devastating crescendo. The Wire is, without question, the greatest work of art of the 21st Century. Now that I’m midway through a second viewing, I can confirm that it’s even more awe-inspiring the second time around.
1. Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Russia/Kazakhstan)
As I wrote in my official review, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s first narrative feature feels like a cinematic act of God. Dvortsevoy draws from his documentary background to make Tulpan feel as accidental and alive as possible. The result is a natural symphony of a motion picture that is packed with some of the decade’s most thrilling footage (the one-take lamb birth is the granddaddy of them all). What keeps Tulpan from succumbing to pretension is the simplicity of the tale itself and the film’s refreshing sense of innocence and humor. Tulpan won’t be released theatrically until the spring of 2009, but I don’t want to let time soften my enthusiasm. This movie was made for me in every single way.
2. Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs, USA)
I have never been pierced to my core so completely as when I saw Azazel Jacobs’ film for the first time at Sundance. I have seen it two times since, and while it didn’t open emotional floodgates like it did that first viewing, it nevertheless took my breath away and left me awed at Jacobs’ ability to make something so achingly personal without feeling self-indulgent. Or to put it another way, Momma’s Man is the film that I always wanted to make, and to experience it is to tap into that part of myself that continues to dream of the day when I will produce something even remotely as affecting.
3. Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine, USA)
Harmony Korine’s return to filmmaking is like waking up on a spring morning having emerged from a thick, black cloud of emptiness and loss. This time around, Korine abandons his more confrontational tendencies to produce a work that unfolds like a sweet dream. His aversion to traditional storytelling remains, however, and the impressionistic approach to narrative only enhances the dreamlike mood. The resulting feeling is difficult to describe. Mister Lonely is a beautiful, sad poem about the wonderment of existence and the strange journeys we must take in order to find our true selves.
4. Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain/France)
Another film with no American distribution in sight, Albert Serra’s Birdsong is a true gem and a minor miracle. Shot in black-and-white, the film charts the long, slow, painful journey of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem, in their mission to pray before Mary and Joseph and their new baby Jesus. Serra uses long takes to establish just how slow and arduous this journey was, yet to my dismay, I remained riveted throughout (hence, the minor miracle). Much like Dvortsevoy, Serra injects Birdsong with an unexpected current of humor. Without it, the film might have become too burdensome for even the most masochistic viewer. With it, Birdsong becomes a refreshing and nearly revelatory interpretation of history, something that feels lived in and believable and true.
5. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, USA/Rwanda)
Technically, Lee Isaac Chung’s eye-opening directorial debut is a 2007 release, but after screening at Cannes and winning AFI and being selected for New Directors/New Films, it remains without a distributor. This is one of the more unforgivable oversights of recent memory. I saw it for the first time at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival, where it took home the Best Narrative Feature prize, and it left me unable to see another film for the rest of the day. Chung uses the story of two young boys from rival tribes in Rwanda (one is Hutu, the other Tutsi) to tell a universal tale about the invisible, yet unshakable, cultural divides that complicate our world. Never condescending or ethnographic, Munyurangabo is a major accomplishment.
6. Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, USA)
Another extraordinarily accomplished directorial debut, Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories doesn’t have one false note in it. Featuring a commanding, understated performance from Michael Shannon, Shotgun Stories tells a classical tale with a particularly modern twist. It’s a shame that this movie didn’t get more attention, for I am convinced it would resonate with even the most multiplex-stained of viewers. One hopes that it will find a life on DVD, which it most rightfully deserves. If you haven’t seen Shotgun Stories, rent or buy it right now.
7. Take Out (Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, USA)
It might be too early to say for sure, but when looking back on early 21st Century micro-budget American cinema, Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s Take Out might very well be the greatest achievement of all. Unfolding over the course of one rainy day in New York City, Take Out is both a neo-Realist gem and a flawlessly accurate representation of life in modern New York City. Baker and Tsou have found a way to use their extreme limitations to their advantage and produce a film that feels like an actual documentary (that has become an easy compliment to bestow upon pseudo-realistic narratives, but in this case it is truer than true). Kudos to the newly created Cavu Pictures for taking a chance in distributing such a small film. But Take Out isn’t just a small film. Budget aside, it’s easily one of 2008’s best.
8. The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
In a year of great French films—The Class and A Christmas Tale, to name just two—Abdellatif Kechiche’s sprawling drama takes the cake (or should I say couscous?). Like an overly rich and satisfying meal, The Secret of the Grain captures modern, multicultural France at its most dynamic—and, in turn, problematic—without ever becoming preachy. This is because Kechiche’s film is, first and foremost, a fable about a man with a big dream (unfortunately, this dream has some pretty major obstacles). On top of all that, The Secret of the Grain contains what might very well be the finest performance of the year (by upstart actress Hafsia Herzi).
9. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to Old Joy appears to have arrived at just the right moment in time—recession, anyone?—yet that isn’t the only reason it feels so vital. With Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt has mastered the art of the cinematic short story, carving a unique place for herself in the American spectrum. The always magnetic Michelle Williams is the destitute, on-the-fringes-of-society young woman who is seeking a better life for herself, yet she can’t seem to escape the current between-the-margins situation she’s found herself stuck in. For me, what makes Wendy and Lucy so extraordinary is that while it speaks to our society in a direct, immediate way, it has a timelessness that feels as if it were made back in the 1970s (when times were similarly tough—go figure).
10. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
In the same way that Wendy and Lucy feels like it is firmly rooted in the 1970s, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler feels like a lost classic from the early ‘80s. This is what prevents it from being a perfect movie—the attempted reunion with the daughter is too formulaic for even great acting to hide—but that doesn’t matter. Mickey Rourke’s embodiment of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is one for the ages. This is the type of character-actor unification that supports the theory that movies are, in fact, magic.
11. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey/Italy)
Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven is year’s finest display of screenwriting (in addition to many other things). Akin employs the oft-utilized technique of coincidence, yet he does it with subtlety and originality. This type of overlapping multi-character drama is one of the riskier cinematic propositions, for the inevitable culminations always tend to feel too neat and tidy. Yet Akin manages the feat of closing the circle in an indirect way, without doing any full-blown overlapping. Instead of leaving viewers with a disappointed sense of incompletion, he fulfills us in a newer, richer way.
12. Che (Steven Soderbergh, USA)
It is strange to read criticisms of Steven Soderbergh’s historical drama, for I would love to use most of those criticisms in its defense. This film is supposed to feel like a wearying slog. Otherwise, how do you understand Che’s devotion to his cause? Soderbergh focuses his two-part epic on Cuba (success) and Guatemala (failure), with smatterings of context in between (the early first meeting between Che and Castro, Che’s appearance at the United Nations in New York City). I don’t know how it works when watching each part on separate occasions, but having experienced the four hour-plus version as a unified whole, I found it to be the brave, ambitious type of production Hollywood should aspire to. Clearly, Soderbergh’s focus is on Che’s fierce determination and drive, stripping the revolution of its glamour and presenting it in all its exhausting, brutal anti-glory. He succeeds.
13. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France)
I remember being mesmerized by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s variation on The Red Balloon when I saw it at the NYFF press/industry screening in the fall of 2007, but I didn’t get a chance to revisit it upon its actual theatrical release this year. As such, it has simply faded in my memory. I have a very strong hunch that if I had caught up with it again this year, I would have been reminded of its gorgeous pleasures and it would have landed much higher on this list. But that’s the way it goes. Still, my faded memory of this film is a special one. To describe it is similar to how one would describe the flight of an actual balloon, floating, drifting, coasting through the air.
14. Ballast (Lance Hammer, USA)
Lance Hammer’s directorial debut came as a welcome shock at this year’s Sundance. Shot on gorgeous 35mm celluloid—ya hear that? celluloid!—using natural light, Ballast is an exhilarating fusion of a European sensibility and Southern realism. While Hammer tells a story about living, breathing people, he also humanizes the Mississippi Delta landscape where the film is set. In this way, Ballast is as much about environment as it is about those who inhabit it, giving it a poetic aura rarely encountered in American independent cinema these days.
15. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, USA)
Nina Paley’s film is a joy to behold. The fact that its description had me as disinterested as possible in seeing it made the act of experiencing it even more of a revelation. Sita Sings the Blues is creative personal expression at its most wow-wow-wow! Somehow, this ballsy animator compares her own story to the plight of a woman in an ancient Indian myth and a Depression Era jazz singer (Annette Hanshaw) and doesn’t come off as narcissistic. Instead, she produces a hilarious, entertaining animated spectacle that also speaks to the universality of female suffering.
16. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker, USA)
Take Out would have been impressive enough, but Sean Baker’s follow-up is a grittily sweet crowd-pleaser that confirms his status as one of American independent cinema’s most vital social realists. But don’t let that latter categorization fool you. Prince of Broadway might be the most entertaining Hollywood picture of the year, even though its production value is several rungs below that lofty ladder. There’s a reason Prince of Broadway is sweeping awards at festivals all across the world. Removing budget from the equation, Baker’s comedic tale of a new parent who’s forced to grow up and take care of a one-year-old that may or may not be his child has a winning, universal charm.
17. Somers Town (Shane Meadows, England)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Thankfully, Shane Meadows takes this advice to heart by casting Thomas Turgoose as the lead in his follow-up to This is England. Turgoose proves that he might just be the discovery of the century so far in this 1980s tale of an adolescent runaway who meets a young Polish immigrant. The two embark on a budding friendship but find trouble when they both become smitten with an out-of-their-league waitress. Yet somehow they turn this into a mutual challenge and keep the happy vibes alive. Meadows is only getting better and better with each new film. One hopes he will continue to work with Turgoose, who has a naturalistic command that should have most trained actors drooling with envy.
18. Two Lovers (James Gray, USA)
Boy, oh boy, do I love this movie. Gray’s follow-up to his more sprawling crime dramas We Own the Night and The Yards is a more direct and simplified tale. It also happens to be a perfect blend of art and cheese, a made-for-Lifetime movie as directed by a master. Joaquin Phoenix plays a depressed Brighton Beach son who appears to have a comfortable life mapped out for him (in the form of employment with his gorgeous fiancé’s family), but when he meets his alluring Goya neighbor (an impressively messy Gwyneth Paltrow), those plans change. Gray’s typically obsessive vision is on full display in Two Lovers, as he brings a painterly, austere touch to the production. Many viewers will find the story to be obvious and familiar. I found it to be a genuinely moving fable that brings something new to the table.
19. Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, Chile)
To call Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero a black comedy doesn’t do it justice. After only one viewing, I’m still not sure exactly what it is. A scathing indictment of Pinochet-era Chile? A brutal satire of celebrity fandom run amok? A screamingly original blend of so many styles as to have no actual cinematic precedent? All of the above? It’s a tragedy that those of us who were wowed by Tony Manero at this year’s NYFF all knew we were witnessing something that might never see even somewhat limited distribution in the States. Larrain’s film is a hysterical punch in the gut and one of the most original creations of recent memory.
20. The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, USA)
From the very beginning, it’s clear that Bryan Bertino’s horror film is different than most. That’s because for the first fifteen minutes, it isn’t a horror film at all. It’s a somber, nearly silent, glimpse at a sadly expiring romance. But then there’s a knock on the door and Bertino unleashes the terror. The longer The Strangers stays around, the more it threatens to wear out its welcome, but Bertino does so many things right that these minor missteps can be forgiven. This is a real horror movie.
More Favorite Narratives (Alphabetical):
24 City (Jia Zhang Ke, China)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
The Class (Laurent Cantet, France)
The Foot Fist Way (Jody Hill, USA)
Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins, USA)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, USA)
Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, USA)
The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Joshua Safdie, USA)
The Pool (Chris Smith, USA/India)
Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, USA)
Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, North Korea)
Woodpecker (Alex Karpovsky, USA)
XXY (Lucia Puenzo, Argentina/France/Spain)
Yeast (Mary Bronstein, USA)
Honorable Mention Narratives (Alphabetical):
Alexandra (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)
Baghead (Duplass Brothers, USA)
Battle for Haditha (Nick Broomfield, England)
Genova (Michael Winterbottom, England/Italy)
Goliath (David Zellner, USA)
Hunger (Steve McQueen, England)
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)
Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA)
My Effortless Brilliance (Lynn Shelton, USA)
The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn, USA)
Reprise (Joachim Trier, Norway)
Step Brothers (Adam McKay, USA)
Still Life (Jia Jhang Ke, China)
Transsiberian (Brad Anderson, USA)
Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, USA)
The Visitor (Tom McCarthy, USA)
1. Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang, Canada)
It feels like Yung Chang says everything about everything heartbreaking and humane in this elegiac journey along the Yangtze River. Chang’s tenderly wrought, beautifully photographed documentary is an aching and tender ode to a disappearing world. As the world’s largest hydroelectric dam drowns entire communities, two teenagers earn a living by working on one of the gaudy cruise boats that takes tourists up and down the river. For ‘Cindy,’ this is even more unsettling, as her family’s riverside home is about to be swallowed up whole. Up the Yangtze isn’t just my favorite documentary of 2008; it is one of my favorite documentaries of all time.
2. The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown, USA)
Margaret Brown’s exploration of Mardi Gras culture in Mobile, Alabama, captures the impossibly complicated dynamics of race relations in the modern South without ever becoming judgmental or condescending. That’s because Brown was born and raised in this very environment. It shows. Her casual, intimate approach produces one of the year’s most illuminating, thought-provoking, and entertaining essays.
3. Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, USA)
As I said in my review of Wolf’s sublime portrait of multi-talented musician Arthur Russell, Wolf doesn’t just tell Russell’s story; he resurrects him. Though he didn’t have a stockpile of archival footage at his disposal, Wolf and editor Lance Edmands use Russell’s dynamic musical output to establish just how gifted he actually was and further bring him to life. Aiding in the film’s beauty and warmth is the cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes, who raises the bar of any film that he touches.
4. Intimidad (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, USA)
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s documentary feels more like the intimate home video of a Mexican family than a documentary shot by Americans. This is a compliment, as well as a testament to their artistry. By documenting the struggles of a couple in their quest to build their own home where they can live with their daughter, Redmon and Sabin have produced a profoundly moving lesson in humility.
5. Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, USA)
Speaking of humility, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s inspiring Sundance winner introduces the world to aspiring rapper Kimberly Rivers Roberts, who videotaped her own near brush with death during the fiasco that was Hurricane Katrina. Weeks after the devastation, things aren’t much better, as Kimberly and her husband Scott try to turn a negative into a positive. This is easier said than done. Yet Kimberly remains determined to survive, culminating in one of the more riveting impromptu musical performances of this, or any other, year.
6. Anvil! The True Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, Canada/USA)
What begins as an American Movie-esque pseudo-parody of a Canadian speed metal band that never got its due but continues to trudge on nonetheless, turns into a genuinely moving portrait of two friends who won’t abandon their lifelong dream of rock-and-roll stardom. Anvil! The True Story of Anvil is more than just a great music documentary. It is a rousing testament to never giving up. Someone needs to pick up this film for distribution. Like, right now.
7. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, USA)
While Werner Herzog has always injected his films with a twisted sense of humor, this time around he fully embraces his outer comedian. Herzog travels to Antarctica to investigate who and what resides there. Above ground, it’s all kooky humans and suicidal penguins. But underwater, beneath the frozen surface, there exists a breathtaking universe of intergalactic proportions. Herzog + Antarctica = Yes, please!
8. Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (Kim Longinotto, England)
Nil by Mouth meets To Be and To Have in this absorbing year-in-the-life document of the residents and teachers at England’s Mulberry Bush School, where the children suffer from various forms of severe emotional trauma. Yet amidst the spitting and kicking, the remarkably patient staff remains devoted to their extremely noble cause. Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go is observational non-fiction at its most invigorating.
9. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, USA)
Kurt Kuenne’s love letter to his murdered lifelong friend Andrew Bagby is as infuriating a film as you are ever likely to see. But Kuenne isn’t here simply to make viewers want to put their fist through a wall. In addition to celebrating the life of Bagby’s fiercely devoted and loving parents, Dear Zachary makes a sober and passionately convincing plea for Canadian judicial reform.
10. Of All the Things (Jody Lambert, USA)
Jody Lambert’s documentary about his father’s return to the limelight was one of the more entertaining films I saw this year. Though Dennis Lambert’s resume as a songwriter and producer is as impressive as they come (“Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Nightshift,” “She’s Gone,” “Baby Come Back,” and the list goes on), it was his forgotten 1970s solo album that made him a legend in the Philippines and sparked a mini-tour twenty years later. If this were a fictional film, no one would believe it. Which is what makes it such a delight.
11. Song Sung Blue (Greg Kohs, USA)
Like Anvil!, Greg Kohs’ film begins as a seemingly lighthearted satire-of-sorts about struggling musicians but gradually reveals itself to be much, much more than that. In this case, the subjects are Mike and Claire Sardina—aka Lightning & Thunder—a Neil Diamond cover band living in Milwaukee, who are determined to make it big. But as new and increasingly tragic hardships continue to befall them, their desire for a successful life seems further and further away. Song Sung Blue is a heartbreaking document of one man’s American Dream as it threatens to crumble into pieces.
12. The English Surgeon (Geoffrey Smith, England)
Geoffrey Smith’s fascinating portrait of English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh as he volunteers his desperately needed services in the Ukraine is the perfect blend of humor and drama. As dire as the situation is for many of these people, Marsh’s matter-of-fact, charming demeanor keeps things afloat. The film’s climactic brain surgery—on a man who’s awake for the entire procedure!—is one of the year’s more nerve-wracking moments.
13. Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (Gonzalo Arijon, Spain/France)
Taking a cue from Kevin Macdonald’s Touching The Void, Gonzalo Arijon combines present day interviews with dramatic recreations to tell the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972 and left them stranded for ten weeks. Rather than judging them, Arijon lets the survivors tell their story at their own measured pace. In doing so, he has delivered a truly inspiring tale of survival at all costs.
14. The Red Race (Chao Gan, China)
This year’s Please Vote For Me exposes the seemingly brutal and heartless tactics employed by China in their quest for global gymnastics dominance. And though the behavior of some of these coaches is unquestionably brutal, for anyone who has ever had a bastard of a coach, it feels painfully familiar. Still, the fact remains that China is pretty fuggin’ hardcore, and The Red Race is a frightening reminder of that.
15. The Consultation (Helene de Crecy, France)
From afar, the concept of documenting the daily toils of a French family practitioner doesn’t seem like the most riveting one. Yet in Luc Perino, Helene de Crecy has found an endlessly entertaining subject. His patients deliver as well, with problems that range from the mental to the physical, from the comedic to the dramatic. As The Consultation wore on, I realized that it wasn’t headed in any definite direction. And that’s when I realized that I didn’t care. I could have watched it for several more hours.
16. Great Speeches From a Dying World (Linas Phillips, USA)
It’s very disappointing that Linas Phillips’ sobering follow-up to Walking With Werner hasn’t received more recognition, for it is as ambitious a non-fiction film as I’ve seen all year. Phillips meets and spends time with various homeless individuals to better understand what led them to their current state. By the time he gets to the film’s most superficially alluring conceit, in which these downtrodden souls recite some of history’s most famous speeches into the camera, what could have felt like filmmaker trickery becomes a thoroughly emotional act of defiance.
17. Frontrunners (Caroline Suh, USA)
Yes, I know I’m credited as the Music Consultant on this film. So what. From the very first shot, Frontrunners planted a smile on my face that didn’t leave until long after the final credit had rolled. Caroline Suh’s behind-the-scenes glimpse into a recent presidential election at Stuyvesant High School seems slight on the surface, but that’s what I love about it. Rather than making a film about dysfunction, Suh captures a slice of the population that doesn’t appear to be headed directly into the toilet. Amen for that.
18. The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) (Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, USA)
Ellen Kuras’ directorial debut has moments of Malickian poetry that are as beautiful as any that have ever been committed to non-fiction celluloid. That she shot the film over the course of twenty-plus years only adds to the epic scope. For some reason, however, these traits are what left me feeling a tiny bit unfulfilled by the end. Something felt missing to me, and I’m not quite sure what it was. But on sheer scope and artistic merit alone, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is a noteworthy achievement.
19. In a Dream (Jeremiah Zagar, USA)
Jeremiah Zagar’s In a Dream isn’t just an intensely revealing portrait of his father Isaiah, one of Philadelphia’s most renowned artists. When Isaiah admits to deceiving his wife and sons, it looks like another spoiled, selfish white man has struck again. This isn’t the film that Jeremiah intended to make, yet by remaining focused and detached from the situation (God knows how), he ends up with an unexpectedly moving story about healing and forgiveness.
20. At the Death House Door (Peter Gilbert and Steve James, USA)
In exploring the complicated issue of the death penalty in America, Peter Gilbert and Steve James found the perfect conduit in Pastor Carroll Picket, who resided over ninety-five executions over the course of fifteen years. While the present day interviews with Picket and his family members prove to be revealing, it’s the inclusion of post-execution audio journals Picket recorded that add even more poignancy to the proceedings. The filmmakers don’t stuff their opinions down viewers’ throats, but by showing the change in Picket’s heart, as well as concentrating on the story of one wrongly executed man, it’s not hard to guess where their allegiances lie.
Honorable Mention Documentaries (Alphabetical):
Alone in Four Walls (Alexandra Westmeier, Russia)
The Black List: Volume One (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, USA)
The Dhamma Brothers (Jenny Phillips and Andrew Kukura and Anne Marie Stein, USA)
The End of America (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, USA)
The Garden (Scott Hamilton Kennedy, USA)
Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts (Scott Hicks, USA)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, USA)
Johnny Berlin 2: Notes From the Dumpster (Dominic DeJoseph, USA)
Made in America (Stacey Peralta, USA)
Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie (Jay Delaney, USA)
Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Gini Reticker, USA)
Surfwise (Doug Pray, USA)
Throw Down Your Heart (Sascha Paladino, USA)
Valentino: The Last Emperor (Matt Tyrnauer, USA)
Someone Distribute These Movies, Please!!!:
Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, USA)
Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker, USA)
Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain/France)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, Chile)
Somers Town (Shane Meadows, England)
Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, USA)
Woodpecker (Alex Karpovsky, USA)
Song Sung Blue (Greg Kohs, USA)
Of All the Things (Jody Lambert, USA)
Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea/France)
Anvil! The True Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, Canada/USA)
Favorite Short Film:
Glory at Sea (Benh Zeitlin, USA)
(See explanation above.)
Favorite Short Film Runner-Up:
The Adventure (Mike Brune, USA)
Mike Brune tosses a European art film and an American comedy into a blender and comes up with something truly unique. This satire of a privileged white couple who heads into their local state park for a picnic but instead has a mysterious showdown with a mime is executed with masterful precision. The fact that it’s Brune’s first film as a writer/director only makes the achievement more astounding.
Other Favorite Short Films (Alphabetical):
The Acquaintances of a Lonely John (Benny Safdie, USA)
Alexandra (Radu Jude, Romania)
The Back of Her Head (Joshua Safdie, USA)
A Catalogue of Anticipations (David Lowery, USA)
La Corona (Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega, USA)
Crustvaska (Ben Kasulke, USA)
Deweniti (Dyana Gaye, Senegal/France)
The Execution of Solomon Harris (Wyatt Garfield and Ed Yonaitis, USA)
I Am So Proud of You (Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
I Don’t Feel Like Dancing (Holger Lochau, Germany)
I Hear Your Scream (Pablo Lamar, Argentina)
Jerrycan (Julius Avery, Australia)
Kids + Money (Lauren Greenfield, USA)
Love You More (Sam Taylor-Wood, England)
Man (Myna Joseph, USA)
No Part of the Pig is Wasted (Emma Perret, France)
The Second Line (John Magary, USA)
Security (Lars Henning, Germany)
Zebra Kids (Gabriel Goodenough, USA)
Best Male Performance:
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Elliot Ruiz, Battle for Haditha
Benicio Del Toro, Che
Jon Hyrnes, Woodpecker
Michael Shannon, Shotgun Stories
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Sean Penn, Milk
James Franco, Pineapple Express
Kim Yeong-ho, Night and Day
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Redbelt
Pedro Castaneda, August Evening
Prince Adu, Prince of Broadway
Best Female Performance:
Hafsia Herzi, The Secret of the Grain
Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy
Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Mary Bronstein, Yeast
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Jeannine Kaspar, Paper Covers Rock
Michelle Williams, Incendiary
Eleanore Hendricks, The Pleasure of Being Robbed
Best Supporting Male Performance:
Josh Brolin, Milk
Nana Patekar, The Pool
Danny McBride, Pineapple Express
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Joshua Safdie, The Pleasure of Being Robbed
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Will Patton, Wendy and Lucy
Colin Farrell, Cassandra’s Dream
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
Sean Price Williams, Yeast
John C. Reilly, Step Brothers
Best Supporting Female Performance:
Perla Haney-Jardine, Genova
Seriously, why aren’t more people talking about this performance??? Haney-Jardine pulls off one of the finest displays of child acting that I have ever seen. There is a command at work here that puts most adult actors to shame.
Olivia Thirlby, Snow Angels
Gwyneth Paltrow, Two Lovers
Samantha Morton, Mister Lonely
Emmanuelle Devos, A Christmas Tale
Flo Jacobs, Momma’s Man
A Christmas Tale
Best First Film:
Yung Chang, Up the Yangtze
Lee Isaac Chung, Munyurangabo
Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories
Lance Hammer, Ballast
Ari Folman, Waltz With Bashir
Best One-Two Punch:
Sean Baker (Take Out, Prince of Broadway)
David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, Pineapple Express)
Gus Van Sant (Paranoid Park, Milk)
Goliath (David Zellner, USA)
Glory at Sea (Benh Zeitlin, USA)
Best Closing Credit Sequence:
Intimidad (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, USA)
The second lamb birth scene. (Tulpan)
A lone penguin breaking away from the pack to walk towards its certain death in a cold, empty, snow-filled landscape. (Encounters at the End of the World)
Most Heartbreaking Moment:
Cindy’s parents visiting her on the boat and then saying goodbye to her with an awkward handshake. (Up the Yangtze)
Fatih Akin, The Edge of Heaven
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Gus Van Sant, Paranoid Park
Jody Lee Lipes, Afterschool
Adam T. Stone, Shotgun Stories
Pin Bing Lee, Flight of the Red Balloon
Shi Qing Wang, Up the Yangtze
James Laxton, Medicine For Melancholy
Maryse Alberti, The Wrestler
Lance Hammer, Ballast
Kurt Kuenne, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Nat Sanders, Medicine For Melancholy
Lance Edmands, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
Benh Zeitlin and Dan Rohmer, Glory at Sea
Max Richter, Waltz With Bashir
Ben Nichols/Lucero, Shotgun Stories
Jon Brion, Synecdoche, New York
Max Richter, Henry May Long
Best Original Song:
“Trouble the Water” by Black Kold Madina (Trouble the Water)
Best Source Song:
“The Sprout and the Bean” by Joanna Newsom (The Strangers)
Memorable Moments (In No Particular Order):
— Kimberly Rivers Roberts’ performance of “Amazing.” (Trouble the Water)
— Spoken word poem recited directly into camera by Edouard Bamporiki. (Munyurangabo)
— Dog poop being swept away by water, followed by pan up to a grinning Kim Sung-nam. (Night and Day)
— Randy realizing that Ratt’s “Round and Round” has just come on the bar stereo. (The Wrestler)
— Nuns flying through the sky. (Mister Lonely)
— Ari Folman’s recurring dream walking in from the ocean at night set to Max Richter’s swelling score. (Waltz With Bashir)
— Loida walking up to the camera lens and giggling into it. (Intimidad)
— Dante doing push-ups to sweat out drugs, then singing along to convince Mikey of the power of the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.” (Momma’s Man)
— Edit from one scream to another scream. (The Order of Myths)
— Randy working behind the deli counter for the first time, interacting with customers. (The Wrestler)
— Rachel’s silhouette emerging from a cloud of smoke in the amusement park. (Yeast)
— A hallway of gathering skaters walking to a meeting with the police officer. (Paranoid Park)
— The polar bear dream sequence. (The Pleasure of Being Robbed)
— Dangerous brain surgery with a still awake patient. (The English Surgeon)
— Wayne’s late-night confession about having potentially screwed things up forever with his best friend Dallas. (Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie)
— Slow dolly past dogs in the pound. (Wendy and Lucy)
— Fred Simmons scaring his wife by wielding a knife and shouting, “Fuck you!” (The Foot Fist Way)
— Lawrence staring at the abandoned radio station where he and his dead twin brother used to DJ. (Ballast)
— “You’re not a curator.” (Yeast)
— “You know, we’re both amiable in our own senses, and I think that basically, you know, us together, produces a force of amiability which is… uh… a synergical force of amiability which is far beyond the reaches of normal human comprehension.” (Frontrunners)
— “Two words: Re. Match.” (The Wrestler)
— “Fuck the po-lice!” (Pineapple Express)
— “I got drunk. Like, Myrtle Beach drunk.” (The Foot Fist Way)
— “I try!” (Anvil! The Story of Anvil)
— “Hey, I never asked you. You like guacamole?” (Step Brothers)
— “Life makes us ill.” (The Consultation)
If Only The Humans Hadn’t Arrived:
Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, USA)
I still think this is one of the year’s most phenomenal achievements, but as it transitioned into a more overt commentary on the laziness of modern humans, I lost the initial spark that had me thinking I was watching the second coming of 2001 or Solaris. But man, multiplexes could use more movies like this, that’s for sure!
Best Documentary That Isn’t An Actual Documentary Even Though It Kind of Is:
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)
I Really Wish I’d Liked These More Than I Did:
Man on Wire (James Marsh, USA)
This is a strange one, because normally I don’t need to like my main subject to appreciate the film, but in this case, Phillipe Petit rubbed me so far the wrong way that I couldn’t get past him to embrace James Marsh’s aesthetic achievement. I wanted to be dragged along for the thrill-ride, but any time Petit opened his mouth I wanted to slap him in the face, or at least not be watching him. I realize this is akin to not voting for a candidate because I wouldn’t want to drink a beer with him, but the fact remains that Petit’s unwavering arrogance kept me on the outside of Marsh’s film.
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, England)
I think I would have found Mike Leigh’s universally beloved film to be far more affecting had he delivered a more streamlined and compact story, ala his 1970s and ’80s television films. As such, Happy-Go-Lucky felt too meandering and tonally uneven for me to connect with it on a sincere level. It felt like a rough assembly or something. I almost would have preferred Leigh to have concentrated solely on the relationship between Poppy and her driving instructor (the great Eddie Marsan). But from everyone else’s reaction, I appear to be in the minority on this one.
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, USA)
I gave this Charlie Kaufman’s dizzying directorial debut two tries, just in case my disappointment the first time around had been clouded by overly (and unfairly) high expectations. But something strange happened. On a second viewing, it felt incredibly slight and outright juvenile—or perhaps I should say severely undergraduate. I wish I had stuck with my first viewing, which was pleasant enough but still left me feeling underwhelmed. I realize this movie-watching business is subjective, so I’ll say it as subjectively as I can: for me, Synecdoche, New York is too much brain and not enough stomach or heart.
Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, USA)
I hate to piss on the Frozen River party, but really? Like, really? Or maybe I didn’t watch the right Frozen River. Maybe I watched some other movie named Frozen River. The one I watched felt like it was a made by a first-year film student with a white trash fetish that bludgeoned me to death with cringe-worthy stereotype after stereotype. Maybe I need to see the real Frozen River one of these days so my head doesn’t cock to the side every time it wins another award.
Stupidest Movie In The History of Human Existence:
The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, USA)
I’ve been tempted to Netflix this legendary debacle to confirm that it is as bad as I remember it being, but I stop myself every time. The Happening is, without question, the dumbest waste of money ever. That M. Night Shyamalan continues to have a career says many things about the business we are in, and none of them are very positive. I would like to believe that this is just an example of a one-off misfire, but taking The Lady in the Water into account, it appears that the one-off has become a two-off. Whaddya say, Hollywood? Three-offs and you’re out?
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA)
On the comic book page, broad strokes and heavy symbols can be effective tools, but in a multiplex, they are almost always obnoxious hammers. Christopher Nolan creates a despicable double-whammy of pretension by embracing Hollywood’s worst attributes and at the same time creating a false air of artistry, resulting in a long, amorphous, soulless concoction that produces Absolutely Neither. Once again, I refer opponents to the “dramatic boat showdown” between the “good criminals” and “evil citizens.” Snore, bore, snore, bore, snorebore. The Dark Knight is corrupt, and not because it presents a “corrupt world.” It’s corrupt as in it’s a sloppy, empty, bloated piece of PG-13 torture porn trash.
Gran Torino Minus the Obscenely Outdated Racial Degradation:
Red (Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee, USA)
Thank God I’m Not in My Twenties Anymore:
Natural Causes (Alex Cannon and Michael Lerman and Paul Cannon, USA)
Yes, I know I worked on this movie too. SFW. Watching Natural Causes with one year of remove from the actual production, I was able to experience it as an objective viewer, and it left me thanking the world that I no longer had to suffer through those self-doubting, insecure, and jealous years when I spent most of my time over-thinking myself into a crushing depression. Not that everything is perfect now that I’m in my thirties, but, man, it sure feels better than it did back then!
Were These Movies Really Made and Did I Really Watch Them???:
Mirrors (Alexandre Aja, USA)
New Orleans, Mon Amour (Michael Almereyda, USA)
Reversion (Mia Trachinger, USA)
Nobel Son (Randall Miller, USA)
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, France)
Letdown of the Year:
Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, USA)
I know, I know. How can it be a letdown if I knew it was going to be a letdown? Well, it was. But I’m not losing sleep over it. I will capture the Yates feeling on film one of these years and put my credit card where my words are.
Best Theatrical Experience:
The Gravy Train/Tango & Cash (BAM)
What at first might have appeared to be the weakest link of the David Gordon Green retrospective at BAM this summer, turned into the best. Tango & Cash was just about the most entertaining Hollywood movie I saw in a theater this year. How depressing is that?
Best Non-2008 Films That I Discovered and/or Re-Discovered in a Theater in 2008:
Fanny and Alexander: Unedited Cut (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden)
Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, UK/France)
My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
Moment to Moment (Robert Downey Sr., USA)
Chafed Elbows (Robert Downey Sr., USA)
Taking Off (Milos Forman, USA)
The Landlord (Hal Ashby, USA)
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, USA)
Rude Boy (Jack Hazan and David Mingay, England)
New/Yet-to-Be-Released Movies I Have Seen But Won’t Become More Visible Until 2009 (Alphabetical):
Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same (Jody Lee Lipes, USA)
The Family Jams (Kevin Barker, USA)
God’s Architects (Zach Godshall)
Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, USA)
Invisible Girlfriend (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, USA)
Loot (Darius Marder, USA)
Sugar (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, USA)
Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, USA/South Korea)
We Fun (Matthew Robison, USA)
You Won’t Miss Me (Ry Russo-Young, USA)
Well, I guess that about does it. As a final treat to those of you who made it this far—thank you very much and shame on you very much!—I would like to reveal what is perhaps the most glorious discovery to become available in 2008. Ladies and gentlemen, my gift to you is the following order:
BUY THIS MOVIE RIGHT NOW
The New World: Extended Cut (Terrence Malick, USA)
— Michael Tully