When you’re freelancing for publications with filmgoing cultures as distinctive as New York City and Edmonton, not to mention when you’re attending festivals where movies screen sometimes years in advance of their release proper, trying to sort out what counts as a 2008 release can be mind-boggling. In the end I decided to simply go with this rule: I live in Canada, so if it had a legitimate theatrical release somewhere in Canada during the calendar year, it could be considered. And the considering was surprisingly tough. There are indeed more than ten films listed in my below best of, but I did manage at least to contain them all in ten groupings. Thus it is with some fondness that I bid adieu to the most mesmerizing movies of 2008, all of which I hope to see again sometime soon.
There Will Be Blood
P.T. Anderson’s portrait of Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil baron, a lonely man of some ferocious, near-Satanic ambition, was so intensely focused as to feel like a one-man show. But think about what ingredients truly bring this strange masterwork to life, and Day-Lewis, however ingeniously outsized, becomes only the frontman for numerous superlative craftsmen: production designer Jack Fisk, cinematographer Robert Elswit, composer Johnny Greenwood. The crazy finale, the commentary on our Faustian contract with the earth’s resources, the emphasis on savagery and, indeed, bloodletting—it all adds up to something bizarre and haunting that should keep us arguing, reconsidering and celebrating for years.
Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, which concerns a love triangle in a Chihuahua Mennonite community, is at once a study in the most primal moral struggles and a gentle acceptance of the miraculous, whether it be found in love’s defiance of mortal boundaries or in something as quotidian as the sun’s ascent and departure. A touchingly non-judgmental film teeming with natural wonder and arresting human connections. And the question is begged: what will this guy do next?
My Winnipeg, Synecdoche, New York
The world as reflected through he self, and vice versa. In his first “docu-phantasia,” Guy Maddin profiles his hometown in audaciously hyperbolic flights of imagination and winds up contemplating the impossibility of truly breaking with his own past, embodied most potently in the late, indomitable Ann Savage, who plays Maddin’s mom. In his first time out as director, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman creates a surrogate version of himself, played with gravity and great humour by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who attempts to make a piece of theatre that contains the world, though the world it contains is of course only his, a vast simulacrum of unfulfilled desire and tenuous human connections. Both films are funny, moving, and at times sublimely surreal.
Encounters at the End of the World
While Maddin evoked cursed psychic traps mystically a-flowing beneath Winnipeg’s snowy crust, Werner Herzog whisked us to very the bottom of the world, the place where so many of its misfits gradually slip down toward as they try to find a place in the world. The title’s more than a pun—everyone working in Antarctica, watching ice caps melt up close and personal, seems acutely aware of the looming devastation of global warming—yet somehow we simultaneously get one of the warmest portraits of human nature Herzog’s ever made, a group portrait of a very oddly assembled family.
Gus Van Sant’s beguiling portrait of bewildered youth and accidental death moves in mesmerizing circles as its teen hero starts and stops his written testament. The skateboard sequences quietly dazzle and the teen performances catch you utterly off guard in this, yet another fresh variation on the director’s death trip.
Happy-Go-Lucky, Rachel Getting Married
These are sensitive, vital and enormously entertaining stories about the more elusive aspects of personal responsibility. Sally Hawkins’ unshakably perky Poppy is forced to consider the limitations of hoisting cheerfulness upon the world—or, at least, upon grumpy Londoners—while Anne Hathaway’s Kym, freshly released from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding, becomes the catalyst, or sin-eater, once again for her family’s collective neuroses. If these aren’t two of the finest female leads of 2008 then I don’t know anything about movies. And it’s equally thrilling to see both directors Mike Leigh and Jonathan Demme especially at the very top of the game.
Flight of the Red Balloon
Juliette Binoche is vivaciously batty as a single mother and voice actor living comfortably in perpetual chaos, while her son introduces his Chinese babysitter/filmmaker to Paris and to the mischievous drifting globe of the title. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first movie in French is a sublime homage to Lamorisse’s 1956 classic La Ballon Rogue and makes sweeping cinema from the most simple ingredients.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
A procedural, of sorts, in which writer/director Christian Mungiu traces the steps required by a young woman to procure an abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania. It’s gruesome, suspenseful, fascinating, and more stimulating for not actually being overtly polemical. Among other things, it’s a story of friendship’s end, with the truly remarkable Anamaria Marinca enduring some grueling trials for the sake of her drearily too-pregnant roommate.
Man on Wire
James Marsh’s reconstruction of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers is ultimately an emotionally overwhelming experience. There’s something nearly ineffable in Petit’s feat, though the attempts made by his colleagues to recall the wonder of that day and its never-to-be-repeated crime of spectacle are deeply compelling. And Petit himself is such a marvelous storyteller that, even if there weren’t such terrific archival materials to pull from, a movie of just him talking probably would’ve been nearly as good.
La France, The Band’s Visit, Still Life
Why did I automatically think of these films as kindred spirits? Serge Bozon’s wonderful cross-dressing musical about French soldiers wandering far from their proscribed path in war-torn Europe exists in a world all its own. Meanwhile, Eran Kolirin’s tale of an Egyptian classical music group stuck in some Israeli backwater seems a million miles away from Jia Zhang-ke’s chronicle of people trying to tie up loose ends with estranged family members in villages becoming slowly submerged by China’s colossal Three Gorges Dam project. Yet there’s something about the landscapes and the desolation, the at times uneasy interaction between strangers and acquaintances alike, and the sense of, well, stillness, that binds such stories in their subtle comedy, admiration for small gestures of dignity and bone-deep dislocation. And there is finally a nomadic spirit at work in all of these that speaks to the communal spirit that can bring together wanderers astray on life’s unruly roads.
If only I could also fit: Before I Forget, Standard Operating Procedure, The Last Mistress.