I'm heading to Asia for ten days tomorrow, so I thought I'd tie up some loose ends and set a couple things on the table going forward... We're a week into the new year and neck deep in top ten lists cluttering the blogosphere, but I'd might as well put on record on this site that my top ten list for films released in 2008 can be found on IndieWire as part of their annual poll of critics. I'd also like to mention how proud I am to take part in this annual poll, given the caliber of critics participating, some of the finest voices covering mainstream and specialty cinema in the alternative press and the blogosphere. I've followed this poll ever since it kicked off in 1999 when it was run by Dennis Lim at the Village Voice. Sadly, the first several editions of the poll are no longer online. Too bad since I was counting on referring to those poll results for another project I have warming up for this year - more on that further below.
In addition to the ballot I submitted to IndieWire, here's an alternative list covering the ten best films I saw in 2008, regardless of their distribution status. Again the criteria I stick to is "how much do I wish I had made this film?"
1 - Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh) - If this world were fair, this movie would be getting the distribution and box office of any given Judd Apatow flick. It's as funny and funky as anything Apatow has done, but a heck of a lot smarter and genuinely thought-provoking about the role that happiness plays in one's life and its impact on one's social interactions, sometimes as much for the worse as for the better. And it has a female character and a performance that should shame Hollywood for not coming up with anything as smart, funny, and loveable for its own immense pool of actresses starving for a good role. 2 - The Class (Laurent Cantet) - I'm disappointed that this film hasn't been getting more attention in the US - I think Sony Pictures Classics is screwing up the campaign for the film, despite it being the French submission to this year's Foreign Film Oscar competition. It's really one of the smartest, most immersive depictions of the process of institutional education. It's funny, it's dynamic, it's amazingly naturalistic, and it has an equanimity towards all of its characters unique beauties and frustrating flaws that would make Jean Renoir proud. With all due respect, it makes Half Nelson look half-baked. 3 - Wall-E (Andrew Stanton) - I've heard the backlash towards the film: how it supposedly "celebrates the end of culture" (Armond White) and its dumbed down, feel good take on an environmental apocalypse that is very much at risk of becoming reality. People can be as demanding or implacable as they want, but as far as I'm concerned this film is a breakthrough in terms of articulating a social crisis and a moral ethos in a language that is eloquent, meaningful and yes, simple enough that an 8 year old can understand it. And a big part of that has to do with how cinematic it is. One day when I was comparing top ten lists with Richard Brody he commented that our appreciation of cinema shouldn't be confined to films in their whole form, but in moments that sear themselves into our mind forever, which occur in any number of films, not just masterpieces. Well my favorite movie moment of 2008 is from a masterpiece, and it's the scene where Wall-E and Eva dance among the stars, a breathtaking expression of the lyrical in what's probably the most musically constructed film of the year. 4 - Serbis (Brilliante Mendoza) - Give me this funky, lively, lived-in redefinition of the "flophouse" movie over the airless formalism of Goodbye Dragon Inn anyday. My original review at Slant 5 - The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat) - Breillat's enters into a "mature" phase, and I think she's the better for it. As I wrote in my original review, "Breillat brings her indelible mix of braininess and rawness; mixing verbal and physical sexual exchanges, she aims both high and low where other films settle for a tastefully soft-core middle" 6 - Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain) - Can't believe this still doesn't have a distributor. Wickedly smart and uncompromising, it takes the Dardennes Brothers' aesthetic to slap them in the face for everything they pretty much stand for, which at this point in their career, they kind of deserve. 7 - Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy) - Despite its jaw-droppingly choreographed long takes, this one kind of crept up on me in terms of its overall impact, but I simply cannot deny its lasting power. I guess if it weren't for Wall-E this film would get my vote for Moment(s) of the Year. 8 - Taking Father Home (Ying Liang) - full disclosure: my company dGenerate Films is the non-theatrical distributor of Taking Father Home. I can't think of a better film to come out of China to describe the spiritual dysfunction afflicting so many of that country's people in the wake of go-go capitalism. One of the decade's best debut films, it's scorchingly raw yet beautifully composed. 9 - Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle) - "It romanticizes poverty and makes it seem fun" the critics say. Bollywood has been turning poverty into joyous cinema for over 60 years, so you know what, get a clue. This film honors that tradition, taking Bollywood's penchant for fabulous, borderline credible narrative incident as an occasion to hit audience's aching wish fulfillment smack between the eyes, and does as good a job at it as any of the classics. And frankly it's amazing to have a film that so blatantly depicts the injustices and suffering of an entire people in such wide distribution. For that, those tears of joy at the end are very much earned. 10 - Trouble the Water (Carl Deal, Tia Lessin) - The best doc released in the US this year, the audience-pleasing but fairly pointless Man on Wire be damned. Though I did see at least a couple of even better documentaries from China, as part of my duties as programmer for dGenerate, but I can't disclose what they are at this time. It sucks because I feel that I'm in a position to advocate for their release, and yet due to my position I have to keep mum until my company has resolved its interest in these titles. Hopefully this year, you'll be hearing a lot about these films, and soon.
I should also mention that I was tapped this week to select my least favorite film of 2008 by the New York Magazine Vulture blog. And so I obliged - the resulting paragraph was quite cathartic to write, I must say.
Next, to celebrate the conclusion of another year of the Shooting Down Pictures project, I'd like to highlight my ten favorite films out of the 48 that I watched for the project in 2008.
Wild River - the last Shooting Down Pictures film that I saw in 2008 may very well have been my favorite. Night of the Demon - with an amazing video essay contribution by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: a Cinema of Nightfall The Art of Vision Murder by Contract El Verdugo Days and Nights in the Forest - with two video essays by filmmaker Preston Miller Two English Girls - with video essay by C. Mason Wells of IFC La Region centrale Grey Gardens - with video essay by Vadim Rizov, the Kevin Durant of film critics The Outlaw Josey Wales - with video essay by the one and only Matt Zoller Seitz
Finally, I want to announce (somewhat tentatively) that, in anticipation of the inevitable onslaught of "best of the decade" lists towards the end of this year, I'm planning to watch several dozen films from the '00s as I prepare my own list. It will be a combination of catching up with highly lauded titles I haven't seen, revisiting favorites of each year to reassess their value, and reassessing films that were highly lauded but that somehow didn't do it for me (i.e. Inland Empire).
First up are a few films by Taiwanese directors, in commemoration of my upcoming trip to Taiwan. One is Edward Yang's Yi Yi (which last time I checked was my favorite film of 2000), and then a couple by Hou Hsiao Hsien: Cafe Lumiere, which is probably my favorite Hou film of the decade, and Flight of the Red Balloon, which, as good as it is, feels like a European variant with more expressive acting, but essentially seems to overlap a good deal with its predecessor. That didn't stop the IndieWire critics from voting it the best film of 2008 - and I would wonder if those elements had everything to do the film - Hou's first shot in the West - being the first of his films to claim top prize in a critics poll. I don't begrudge the film or its supporters (of which I am one - indeed, I was quite shocked when I listed 10 films I liked more than Flight of the Red Balloon; not a bad year for movies at all) anything; the film deserves the praise it's received. I just wonder why an earlier, and to my mind better film of his didn't fare as well.
Maybe it's just the accumulation of Hou's reputation over recent years, vaunted especially by the Hou 101 primer known as Three Times that gave people what I consider to be easy gateway into understanding his aesthetic. The "problem" - for me at least, is that all this praise lavished on Hou's recent work seems to overshadow his earlier work, which to me is more unique and challenging in terms of how it constructed a new dialect of cinema not found elsewhere, not even in the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, to which he is often compared. The recent stuff, especially from Millennium Mambo onward, is still uniformly great, but it strikes me that Hou has taken his aesthetic in a direction that feels more in line with a global art festival aesthetic of masterful choreographed long takes helmed by the virtuoso Mark Li Ping-Bin. It wasn't always like this - one could argue that the most amazing thing about early Hou wasn't his use of long takes, as beautiful as they were, but his astounding and at times even confounding editing schemes, where the sequence and emphasis of narrative events would be distorted to create a wholly new approach to storytelling that mimcked and shed light on how the human mind constructs memory (and without resorting to the easy tricks found in Christopher Nolan's Memento). So I hope that in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding Flight of the Red Balloon, viewers might dig back a little and check out films like A Time to Live and a Time to Die, City of Sadness, or The Puppetmaster, which as a trilogy offers many times more depth and genuine sense of time, place and cinema than Three Times.
Despite these protestations, I'm not opposed to reconsidering my position. And so I'll be watching Cafe Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon back to back in the next week or so, helping to kick off what I hope will be a year-long rundown of the decade's best (and supposedly) best films.