Oscar season drives me crazy. So many weeks go by during the spring and summer and fall when theaters are full of studio films of only marginal interest — and then, like magic, the final weeks are glutted with extra-long prestige pictures involving popular and high-quality talent. Couple that with the need to socialize over the holidays, the possibility of bad weather, and my general desire to enjoy some time at home during these shortest days and longest, coldest nights of the year — not to mention always-pressing professional obligations — I generally miss more interesting-looking films at year’s end than any other time during the calendar year.
Since I failed to get anywhere near as many invitations to interesting looking year-end releases in 2008 as I did in 2007, the list of prestige pictures I haven’t yet seen may actually be longer than the list of ones I have — I haven’t made it out for Milk, The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road, Gran Torino, Frost/Nixon, or The Reader. (As usual, I tend to drag my feet the longest when it comes to films that seem noteworthy primarily for purportedly excellent performances, rather than dazzling filmcraft.) I did make time for Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, none of which came close to finding a spot on this list. As usual, the 10th spot could have gone to one of any number of films, and this year I just picked the sentimental favorite. So caveat lector, but I feel pretty comfortable with this group.
One more thing — claims that 2008 is an especially weak year for movies don’t really wash with me. It may be true that I have slightly peculiar tastes, so any year that peaked with a movie about a 12-year-old vampire hits my sweet spot pretty squarely. But I had a great time watching these films. Hope you like some of them, too.
Let the Right One In
Nothing I saw all year tickled my fancy like Let the Right One In, the spare tale of a young Swedish vampire and the socially awkward, emotionally bruised boy she befriends. Director Tomas Alfredson generates an appropriately chilling atmosphere, breaking the spell with moments of terrific ferocity that offer the kind of frisson that’s the province of great horror movies, and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist has adeptly focused his own novel for the screen, making the supernatural myth work partly as a symbol of the resentment and rage that can build up inside a bullied youngter’s head. Alfredson really revs up his technique for several showpiece scenes that are almost too perfectly realized (some unfortunate CG work blurs the edges of an otherwise sharply defined feline attack that could almost be scene-of-the-year material), though the delicate, intimate performances of his young lead actors carry the day. Most disturbing may be the film’s apparently happy ending, which yields malodorous hints of ambiguity and dismay as you work over its implications in your head. This is a film with a heart afflicted by frostbite.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
It seems like ages since the brief U.S. theatrical release (simultaneous with a video-on-demand debut) of this shining exemplar of the phenomenon known among critics as the Romanian New Wave, and it certainly doesn’t need me to laud it. But it’s a great movie on a miserable subject, anchored by two female performances that convey strength in the face of great personal and political callousness without sliding into weakness or turning outwardly pitiable. Yes, it’s an “abortion drama,” but that’s also too limiting a description for a film that so deftly evokes that profoundly uncomfortable sense of losing one’s privacy and dignity both to a monolithic and totalitarian state. The long, single-take dinner scene, where director Cristian Mungiu forces our attention toward a roomful of maddeningly banal chatter while we wonder distractedly along with the self-sacrificing Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) at the possible fates of poor Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), is brilliantly discomfiting.
This qualifies for the 2008 list on a technicality — it had a one-week engagement at the Museum of Modern Art in September before being scheduled for a proper January opening at Film Forum. Despite its apparently leisurely construction, it’s actually a model of efficiency. The cinematography, the rhythms, the characters and the story just wouldn’t fit together at a faster pace, and Reygadas finds shades of image and detail that demand a theatrical viewing. It’s a film about contemplation, reflection, and the spirits that fill the empty spaces.
Man on Wire
It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but James Marsh’s documentary about tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s covert 1974 World Trade Center project, which saw him dancing about on a wire stretched between the twin towers on one summer morning, is a thrilling caper movie that blends archival footage, slightly goofy dramatizations, and talking-head interviews to create an absorbing narrative that eventually crosses over to the sublime.
Flight of the Red Balloon
Anchored and enhanced by a terrific, showcase performance by Juliette Binoche as an abandoned and embattled single mom dealing with her son Simon, the abusive tenants downstairs, and that suffusive sense of loneliness. Hou Hsao-Hsien shoots in a deceptively offhanded style that suggests improvisation, but the images that he gets with his longtime cinematographer Lee Pin Bing are cooly gorgeous and beautifully framed. It’s a less rigorous form than that of Silent Light, but it’s similarly spellbinding.
This is the real deal — an arguably silly but undeniably visceral downmarket helping of sex, gore, and hardship that referred pointedly to issues of race and class, as well as (not entirely coincidentally) to a deepening economic and moral crisis that only started dominating headlines around the same time the film hit DVD. I’d prefer a more harrowing final reel, but commercial concerns demanded a fairly tidy ending. Still, Mena Suvari’s monstrous, pathetically self-involved shriek at the barely-alive victim she impaled on her car windshield — “Why are you doing this to me?” — is a howler. Stuck is a great, lurid cartoon. It’s the kind of bloody B-movie slab they don’t serve up anymore.
The Dark Knight
It seems especially audacious only because nobody else thought to try it — a superhero movie that eschews fantasy trappings in favor of a heightened expression of grim realities. The Dark Knight was the year’s biggest movie in part because Heath Ledger was the year’s biggest movie star, executing the kind of fearless and flamboyant performance that was actually big enough to fill up that towering Imax screen. But there was something else in cinematographer Wally Pfister’s outsized imagery, something felt in the cold empty spaces that his relentlessly mobile camera glided through urgently, something suggested by Christian Bale’s pinched smile and unremitting glower (and confirmed by the fate of poor Rachel Dawes) that tightened the screws on a moviegoing public that, somehow, was ready to believe that everything wasn’t alright, that everything was never going to be right again. It’s no wonder that right-wingers and left-wingers alike sought to embrace the lessons of the Batman as validation of their own ideologies — when the Hollywood machinery is working on all cylinders, the image it produces is so primal that it functions as a Rorschach blot.
Director Gus Van Sant’s dark, lyrical coming-of-age film is set in Portland’s skateboarding culture—the “Paranoid Park” of the title is the famous Burnside Skate Park, but it’s also a state of mind. Teenager Alex (Gabe Nevins) visits the park on his own one night, finds himself hanging out with one of the older boys he meets there, and inadvertently causes a very bad thing to happen. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is pressuring him to sleep with her, his parents are divorcing, and a police detective is rounding up all the skate kids at his high school for questioning. Just 80 minutes long, Paranoid Park never feels rushed—Van Sant mixes up the chronology, but tells the story with great economy, opting to let the camera linger on Nevins’ big, sad eyes or take in a series of skateboarders suspended, momentarily, in mid-air above the rim of a halfpipe. He recruited mostly amateur actors via MySpace, which gives the film a fascinating naturalism, while the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle uses every photographic trick in the book—overexposing and underexposing images in the same shot, ramping into and out of slow-motion—to visualize Alex’s guilty conscience. It’s a beautiful, haunting movie.
Encounters at the End of the World
One of the year’s best performances is surely Werner Herzog’s sensitive, surly, and oddly charming voiceover for his documentary about researchers stationed in the empty white wilds of Antarctica. In Herzog’s capable hands, Discovery Channel fodder becomes gratifying and profound, as he finds thematic connections between, for example, the bucketheaded scientists who get helplessly lost in their lo-tech simulated snowstorm and an obstinate little penguin seen later, running off toward the beautiful and forbidding mountain skyline. And who knew virtuoso guitarist Henry Kaiser, whose gorgeous underwater photography was the catalyst for Herzog’s project, was a cinematographer? The film is full of surprises.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
If you saw the previews for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you might not realize that it’s a Woody Allen film. That’s because they don’t mention him. Apparently Allen’s name still reads to movie marketing people as box-office poison, despite the fact that the guy earned an Oscar nomination less than three years ago. Compared to the morally fraught Match Point, VCB is a trifle—but it’s an even better movie. Allen often brings out the best in his actors, and Johansson has never been more ridiculously sexy than she is in his films. Hall is outstanding in a less glamorous role, and Bardem is funny and magnetic.It’s a real return to form for Allen, in that it’s a generous, golden-hued film about the mysteries of love, sex and human relationships.