Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 Movie Picks of 2008

Did you really think I was going to give up on my annual opportunity to pontificate about the arts? Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favorite [1] movies of 2008 [2]


Visually immaculate, emotionally profound and historically insightful, Wajda's Katyn is an important work in every sense of the term - not only a reminder of one of the worst acts of genocide in human history, but a sublime cinematic work, one that deserves to rank with masterpieces like Kanal and Pokolenie. Pawel Edelman's cinematography is exquisite, Penderecki's score is as glorious as you would expect, and the final scenes of the film, with their unflinching depiction of systematic mass murder, are among the most chilling I've ever seen. But what really shines here is the way Wajda balances the human and the historic, so that his characters retain their individuality even as their small, deeply personal stories give us a sense of the times they lived in. At its best, Katyn has both the weight and the beauty of Greek tragedy - a sense of heroic sadness, of a history relentless and fatal to all who stumble in her path.

My Winnipeg

Is it a documentary? A satire? A surrealist adventure? A nostalgic homecoming? A memoir on film? Whatever it is, Guy Maddin's whimsical, lyrical and entirely hilarious film is one of the most exhilarating things I've seen on screen this year - a zany, prodigious work that is in equal parts a tribute to memory and a celebration of the imagination, and underscores how thin the line dividing those two really is. To label My Winnipeg 'experimental' would be to do it an injustice - wildly inventive as the film is, it remains true to one of cinema's oldest and most long-standing traditions: the ability of movies to bring our dreams to life.

The Pool

If whimsical and dreamlike aren't your cup of tea, then you can do no better than watch The Pool. Acutely observed and psychologically and linguistically pitch-perfect, The Pool is a work of exemplary realism - a movie that manages to portray poverty in India without falling prey to either pessimism, escapism or sentimentality, and that depicts, with unerring accuracy, the emotional contradictions that come with being under-privileged. Chris Smith's experience as a documentary film-maker has given him both an eye for detail and an ability to withhold judgment, to tell a story without weighting it down with 'meanings', and the result is a film that would have been a major achievement coming from an Indian film maker, and that, coming from an American, is nothing short of extraordinary.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

And while we're on the subject of realism...Given the amount of praise Cristian Mungiu's film has received, anything I add is going to be redundant. So I'll content myself by saying that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days deserves every word of that praise and more.


Is it possible to be both cheerful and realistic? That question that lies at the heart of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh's answer to that question is a resounding yes - an answer provided both by the central character of Happy-Go-Lucky (the preternaturally optimistic Poppy), as well as by the film itself. As lives go, Poppy's is neither particularly harsh nor particularly pleasant, so that her vivacious good humour (brilliantly brought to life by Sally Hawkins) becomes a matter of pure perspective, a consequence of her personality rather than of luck. Poppy is happy because she chooses to be. And while that may sound like a childishly simple philosophy - it is - when was the last time you saw a film based on that principle?

In a sense, Happy-Go-Lucky is the anti-Naked. In Naked, Leigh gave us an indelible portrait of a witty and seemingly intelligent young man who possessed the emotional maturity of a small child and whose verbal hi-jinks were a way to disguise a deep-rooted insecurity. In Happy-Go-Lucky, he shows us a young woman who seems both trivial and naive, but whose cheerfulness, as we discover, comes not from innocence or stupidity, but from a great reserve of inner strength. It's a tribute to Leigh's genius that he gets both portraits exactly right.


If Happy-Go-Lucky is the anti-Naked, Wall-E is the anti-Shrek. Where Shrek took the old Walt Disney formula and added a liberal dose of cynicism and street-smartness, Wall-E restores the wide-eyed romance of the genre, but replaces its reliance on anthropomorphism with a visual realism all its own. Spectacular as Pixar's visual effects are (and they are spectacular) the true greatness of Wall-E is its complete eschewal of every trace of humanization, and of the language that goes with it. Wall-E is not a robot pretending to be a human, or a human disguised as a robot to showcase the power of animation, Wall-E IS a robot, with a robot's vocabulary (or lack thereof) and a robot's gestures, and it is a testament to the genius of the wizards at Pixar that this doesn't, in any way, compromise our ability to understand and interpret his actions. Okay, so the story gets a little overly sentimental. Okay, so the second half is fairly predictable and somewhat silly. None of that takes away from the sheer poetry (and I mean poetry) of that opening half-hour.

Whether the human species is likely to end up as a race of over-fed babies on a cruise-ship in deep space I cannot say, but I'd venture to bet that even if that happens, anyone bothering to look up the history of animation in cinema will find Wall-E listed as the movie that changed it all.

Encounters at the End of the World

I've already blogged about Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, so I won't go over all that again. Suffice it to say that it takes a rare kind of talent to transform a set of ordinary interviews shot in the most banal way into a vision of Man's engagement with the Universe at the very edge of civilization. And that's precisely the kind of talent that Herzog has. In spades.

Boy A

2008 saw the release of two films that dealt with the theme of life after prison. The more recent one of these was an overwrought French film called Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, lifted out of poorly written mediocrity by an incredible performance from Kristin Scott Thomas (a performance so finely tuned and so haunting that it alone made the film worth watching twice, if only to catch every nuance). Personally, though, I preferred John Crowley's Boy A - the story of Jack Burridge, a young man imprisoned for the killing of a little girl when he himself was no more than a child, and who, released at 24, attempts to build a new life under an assumed identity, permanently haunted by the threat of disclosure.

What makes Boy A a superior film, in my opinion, is the way it brings Jack's vulnerability to life, his sense of living on a knife-edge, always waiting for things to go wrong. And it's not just the past, and the possibility of that past being discovered, that haunts Jack; Jack is fragile because he's been denied normal human contact from the time he was a little boy, and to watch him experience, for the first time, the emotions we all take for granted - friendship, love, trust - is a truly heartbreaking experience. Crowley has a point or two to make about the way society treats ex-convicts, but that is largely incidental to the power of his film; his achievement in Boy A is that he makes us share the terror and suffocation that Jack lives with, makes us experience every small act of normalcy as the real victory it is, and in doing so delivers a portrait of a gentle young man trapped in impossible situation that you cannot help being moved by.

Parlez-moi de la pluie

What's this? Eight out of ten films done and not a single French film among them? Can this really be 2x3x7? you wonder. But not to fear. One of this year's most delightful films was Agnes Jaoui's Parlez-moi de la pluie (english title: Let it Rain). Compared to many of the other films on this list Parlez-moi de la pluie is modest in scope, but it combines gentle comedy, a genial insight into the foibles of human insecurity, a quietly feminist worldview and three sparkling perfomances: Jaoui herself, husband and frequent collaborator Jean-Pierre Bacri (who also co-wrote the script) and the marvellous Jamel Debbouze. What more can you ask for?


I could give you a dozen reasons why you should watch Milk. I could say that it's a fine example of the bio-pic genre - a film that delivers an authentic sense of both the personal and the political, that is intelligent on tactics and strategy without being tedious, and insightful on its main character's personal life without being invasive or exploitative. I could go on about Sean Penn's performance; a performance that serves to showcase why Penn is one of the greatest actors of his, or any, generation. I could remind you that it's the story of an inspiring civil rights leader who deserves to be remembered for both his courage and his charisma. I could claim that Van Sant is one of the finest directors at work today, and that his work with Savides is simply glorious. I could praise the ease, the tenderness and the spontaneity of the film's love scenes. And I could tell you that James Franco is really, really hot.

But true as all of that is, the reason you should, no, you must, watch Milk is that it is a moving reminder that the battle for civil rights remains to be won. That people continue to be denied the simple right to choose to live how and with whom they please because of narrow-minded bigotry and the laws it inspires. Most films about civil rights have the distance of hindsight - we watch the action on screen and we shake our heads and think, "how could people ever have been so prejudiced, so small-minded, so cruel?" What makes Milk special is that the anti-gay rhetoric in the film sounds all too familiar, all too contemporary; this is not a film about long-ago bigotry, this is a film about the kind of homophobia that continues to exist around us, and that we must continue to fight. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is the one where Milk and his friends celebrate the defeat of anti-gay legislation that would have made it illegal for homosexuals to teach in California public schools; it's heartbreaking because you know that three decades later the same state and the same counties will vote Yes on Proposition 8, denying homosexuals the right to marry. It's a reminder that the freedom and equality that Harvey Milk fought for are yet to be achieved. And that's why Milk is one film you just have to watch.

Bonus Category 1: Best Film You've Never Seen

I can't resist putting in a quick plug for a Czech film called Roming which, to the best of my knowledge, was never released in the United States, and which I only got to see because I happened to catch it at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It's a light-hearted and charming film, part road-trip, part magic realist fable, that combines a gypsy's love for old-fashioned story-telling with a good-humored eye for human silliness, to produce something that seems like a light-weight Kusturica. Not, by any means, a great film, but a very good one, and one that deserves to be seen by more people.

Bonus Category 2: Great Performances

I also wanted to point to a couple of truly stand-out performances in films that didn't quite make it to this list. I've already mentioned Kristin Scott Thomas's work in Il y a longtemps que je t'amie. I also thought Melissa Leo was wonderful in Frozen River, a film that narrowly missed making it to my top 10. And then there was Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight, which I've blogged about before.

Bonus Category 3: Most Unduly Praised Film of the Year

Finally, I can't help record my bewilderment over all the praise being showered on Rachel Getting Married. Okay, so Anne Hathaway's performance was better than you would expect from someone whose previous credits are limited to things like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada. But that aside, the whole damn film was about thirty-five minutes of mediocre psychploitation drama padded out with an additional hour and a half of footage from some new age shaadi ka video. I can't remember when I've been more bored. Seriously, if you ever feel the temptation to go see this film, take my advice and go watch you're cousin's home movies of his wedding reception instead. Not only will you save the price of the ticket and make your cousin happy, you'll probably have more fun.

P.S. Happy New Year! [3]

[1] I'd say 'best' but there are too many good / promising movies that came out this year that I never managed to see - notable misses include Waltz with Bashir, The Edge of Heaven, Vicky Christina Barcelona and The Class

[2] At least some of these movies were made (and released) in 2007, but they only made it to local cinemas this year.

[3] It is, of course, fairly unlikely that the New Year will, in fact, be happy; or at least noticeably happier than any year in recent memory. Still, isn't it beautiful to think so.


Shruti said...

A very happy new year to you too!Well, loads of movies I haven't even heard about.And it's not just the foreign language ones.Lots of catching up to do.Very well written...

Annamari said...

I did not get to see Wall-E but it was my toddlers’ first cinematographic experience and the dad reported that they enjoyed it.
As for 4 months…all I can add
a. It is better if you can understand Romanian .
I watched it with and without subtitles and the English subtitles just did not make up for the original dialogue.
b. I loved it (and I usually avoid watching Romanian movies unless they’re comedies).
It is a sign that Romanian cinema came a long way.

and happy new year, of course !

It's a wonderful life! said...

Great pick! Kristin Scott's performance in Il y a longtemps que je t'amie was truly poetic. I cant think of anyone better who deserves the Oscar this year. Milk ,definitely ones of the most powerful biopics of our times.

Alexe Poldi said...

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