Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best of 2008: Movies

It's not a top ten list if you don't make some difficult decisions separating the wheat from the chaff. It's also not a top ten list if there aren't ten. Because I couldn't bring myself to reduce this list any more than I already have, I am inaugurating the top 5% list. That's right, these 16 titles represent 5% of what I saw in 2008. (You do the math.) From the heart, here are my favorite films of the year, in order, with a sizable bucket for honorable mentions:

Ashes of Time Redux (2008) directed by Wong Kar Wai
December 12 an 17 at the Lagoon
Seeing Ashes of Time again was like falling in love all over again. The most surprising thing about Redux is how similar it is to the original, but how it feels like an entirely new film. Painstakingly remastered, it looks as it never has before. Ashes of Time is the martial arts film for the contemplative romantic that finds the human heart as mysterious a place as the Gobi desert. Ashes of Time has been my favorite Wong Kar Wai film because of its elusive nature that turned most people away. Like most of his films (My Blueberry Nights the big exception), Ashes revealed a new layer with each viewing. Thankfully the era of watching it from DVDs that are shamelessly cropped and devoid of color is over.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) directed by Cristian Mungiu
March 3 at the Edina
The buzz for this film was in 2007, but it didn't arrive here until 2008. Although very un-movie like in pragmatic storyline and tone, 4 Months is all the more powerful and painful. Oppression hangs over every scene like a high pitch that you can't hear but you can definitely feel.

Syndromes and a Century (2006) directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
January 27 on DVD
Apichatpong Weerasethakul may be one of the most brilliant filmmakers alive. His films are visual dreams that find their beauty in a gentle surreality. Syndromes and a Century was inspired by Weerasethakul's parents, who were both doctors, but it hardly stops there. Like Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century is made up of two stories that work as a sublime puzzle that thankfully defies being 'figured out.' This film was one commissioned for Mozart's 250th birthday in 2006; it got a brief theatrical run in 2007 (but not here); and came out on DVD early in 2008. I'm ashamed that I didn't take the time to write about it and will make a new year's resolution to rewatch it and write about it in 2009.

Silent Light (2007) directed by Carlos Reygadas
April 25 at the Walker
Just one of the theatrical screenings in the Twin Cities that defied all odds. It screened only once with the director himself there for a Q and A. Reygadas has dropped some of the overt experimentation found in Battle in Heaven to return to the minimalist beauty of JapĆ³n. Silent Light takes place in a cloistered Mennonite community in Mexico and functions like a contemporary religious fable.

Man on Wire (2008) directed by James Marsh
August 14 at the Uptown
Nothing contemplates the human condition more than Man on Wire. And by 'the human condition' I mean the dreams that make us feel alive. In Philippe Petit's case that meant walking a high wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. It's an awe-inspiring story that is truly hard to grasp.

The Mourning Forest (2007) directed by Naomi Kawase
March 27 at the Walker
Naomi Kawase's visit to the Walker was a huge highlight for me in in 2008, and seeing her most recent Cannes Grand Prix winning film was the icing on the cake. The Mourning Forest takes liberties in telling a deceptively simple story that apologetically wears its heart on its sleeve. Two strangers come to terms with the loss through a give and take allegorical adventure that is as quiet as it is unsettling.

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
May 2 at the Uptown
Juliette Binoche got all the attention for her 'unconventional performance,' stealing the thunder of Hou's window-on-the-world piece of wonderment. In some respects Flight of the Red Balloon is a family drama, but it is also a fantastic homage to the medium. A film inspired by another film that includes a character making a film. We are constantly reminded that the beauty of the mundane is right before our eyes, either through Hou's lens or Song's lens or Simon looking through Song's lens.

Alexandra (2007) directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
April 22 at St Anthony Main/MSPIFF
It is no mistake that Sokurov's most recent protagonist shares his name as he channels himself through Alexandra into the difficult terrain of Chechnya. Alexandra travels to Chechnya to visit her grandson who is stationed there. She is not only a matronly all-knowing presence among the Russian soldiers on the base, but also among the Chechnyan's in the market. The film is tender but also unwaveringly no-nonsense: a mere peek into the personal politics of one individual.

Mad Detective (2007) directed by Johnny To
May 27 on DVD
Although there was promise of Mad Detective making into theaters, it never appeared in these parts. Johnny To is making quite a name for himself, cranking out the films that the festivals just can't get enough of. With Mad Detective, To has completely outdone himself. Last year I was saying that To had made his best film yet with Exiled, but now Exiled just seems like a well put together rehash of his best films. Mad Detective is something new with an edge provided by Lau Ching-Wan's amazing performance. It's funny, clever, dark and extremely entertaining.

Chop Shop (2007) directed by Ramin Bahrani
May 13 at the Parkway
Once again simplicity wins out in this small, unassuming film. Two orphans trying to make their way in life from the ground up. Young and entrepreneurial Alejandro takes up work in a chop shop in Queens, a stones throw from Shea Stadium. Working to make life better for himself and his older sister is only priority. Comparisons with Neorealism are not unfounded, but more importantly it is heartfelt and grounded. Alejandro carries this very weighty film to great heights.

JCVD (2008) directed by Mabrouk El Mechri
December 12 at the Lagoon
I am filled with admiration of Jean-Claude Van Damme and gratitude to Mabrouk El Mechri for making this film. A drama made for the appreciation of action stars that is unbelievably honest. Van Damme stars as himself, an aging action star whose physical talents are no longer appreciated. The opening shot is no bullshit, as it shows a ridiculous single take of a film within the film. It will make you see Bloodsport in a whole new light. Van Damme is fantastic in this film.

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) directed by Alex Gibney
March 20 at the Parkway
Last year's news is this year's screening. Despite economic woes, the world seems a little brighter now than it did when I saw this film in March. I don't know which makes me more sad: that such things happen, or that such things happen and the majority seems not to care. Gibney was brave to make such an honest film about such an ugly subject.

Paranoid Park (2007) directed by Gus Van Sant
April 21 at the Lagoon
Paranoid Park is far more impressive to me than Van Sant's by the book biopic Milk. Paranoid Park is an artfully atmospheric continuation of Van Sant's meditations on the inner workings of young men's minds. Where Milk is straight forward, Paranoid Park is wonderfully meandering and experimental.

Trouble the Water (2008) directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin
September 19 at the Lagoon
Why are people still talking about Hurricane Katrina? Watch Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke or read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine or watch this documentary to get your answer. Trouble the Water is guerrilla filmmaking, the antithesis of the pre-packaged government approved nightly news. Kimberly and Scott Roberts were too poor to leave New Orleans as the hurricane approached. With no car and no means of transportation, Kimberly resigns to staying with her video camera turned on. The result is nothing short of an amazing document to what really happened to the people abandoned there and their continuing struggle.

Mister Lonely (2007) directed by Harmony Korine
December 3 on DVD
Perhaps I chose this film simply because it was ignored. Or perhaps I choose this film because John Waters did as well. Or maybe I chose this film because it offered something unique in the homogeneous mess of films that generally hits screens.

Before I Forget (2007) directed by Jacques Nolot
June 25 at the Walker
The best entry in the Walker's Queer Takes series, Before I Forget is an intelligent and dignified portrayal of an aging hustler. Jacques Nolot himself takes the lead role of a man dealing with his own age as he watches friends pass on. Nolot has created an uncompromising fictionalized autobiography that breathes visual poetry. The breathtaking somber last shot still lingers with me six months later.

Much more than Honorable Mentions:
Beaufort (April 29, MSPIFF)
I’ve Loved You So Long
(November 24, Lagoon)
Little Moth
(April 19, MSPIFF)
(October 31, Uptown)
Casandra’s Dream/Vicky Christina Barcelona (January 19/August 15, Lagoon)
Encounters at the End of the World (December 12, DVD)
Slumdog Millionaire (November 21, Edina)
The Unforeseen
(October 28, DVD)
Let the Right One In
(October 30, Lagoon)
(October 29, Walker)

Although I would like to think I have the common sense to avoid the worst movies of the year, there were two movies that I did make the mistake of seeing: Cloverfield and The Happening.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Love the list...I'm going to have to get some of these on my Netflix Q. Amazingly, I did see some on your list. Taxi to the Dark Side was one that left me feeling overwhelmed, angry, even embarassed. Just the other night we watched "Man on Wire" and we loved it. I've also seen 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, Beaufort and Cassandra's Dream, all really wonderful films. Great post!

In Review Online said...

Nice list Kathie. Mine's similar in a few ways. Did you see "In The City Of Sylvia"? Like it?

1.) "Flight Of The Red Balloon" (Hous Hsiao-Hsien)
2.) "Ashes Of Time Redux" (Wong Kar-Wai)
3.) "In The City Of Sylvia" (Jose Luis Guerin)
4.) "Boarding Gate" (Olivier Assayas)
5.) "Rachel Getting Married" (Jonathan Demme)
6.) "Reprise" (Jaochim Trier)
7.) "Still Life" / "Dong" (Jia Zhang-ke)
8.) "Elegy" (Isobel Coixet)
9.) "The Witnesses" (Andre Techine)
10.) "Summer Palace" (Lou Ye)

And honorable mentions:

“The Band’s Visit” (Eran Kolirin)
“A Christmas Tale” (Arnaud Desplechin)
“The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” (David Fincher)
“The Dark Knight” (Christopher Nolan)
“Gran Torino” (Clint Eastwood)
“Happy-Go-Lucky” (Mike Leigh)
“The Last Mistress” (Catherine Breillat)
“Let The Right One In” (Tomas Alfredson)
“Mukhsin” (Yasmin Ahmad)
“Up The Yangtze” (Yung Chang)

I desperately need to see "The Class" still, and I never got around to seeing Clint Eastwood's "Changeling." I doubt it would make my list, but I love Eastwood, so it frustrates me. Also still need to see: "Woman On The Beach," "The Romance Of Astrea And Celadon," and "XXY."

I don't think 2008 has been an amazing year, but I hate all the people griping over how BAD it's been. Those are the one's that need to stop looking for greatness in Ron Howard movies...

Anyway, my write-ups will be up on our site tomorrow sometime. Check it out, if you get a chance.

Love the blog!


Kathie Smith said...

Cheers Sam!

I'm right with you on Reprise, Still Life and Summer Palace but had the pleasure of seeing them in 2007. (Or in the case of Reprise, in 2006.) However, I have not seen Gran Torino, and I think I must have missed In the City of Sylvia. For all the films I did see, there ere still so many that I didn't see.

I agree with you that 2008 was not the terrible year that it was made out to be. I started out with a huge list of films, all of them that I felt were noteworthy or even great for their own reasons.

I would say you didn't miss much in Changeling but you should check it out nonetheless. XXY and Woman on the Beach are both great films.

The website looks great, by the way!

YTSL said...

I wonder what it says about you, etc. that your favorite movie of 2008 was a redux version of a film whose first theatrical release was back in 1994... Seriously though: an interesting list. (And if you're wondering, I'm still thinking re mine! ;b)

Kathie Smith said...

More importantly, a redux version of a 1994 film from Hong Kong! If Jeffery Lau had done a Eagle Shooting Heroes Redux, I would have put that on my list as well! I'm not sure what all this says about me...

I'm looking forward to your list!

Daniel Getahun said...

Umm...yeah, I guess I should probably see Ashes of Time like now. Still sore that it was only here for a week. But my girlfriend just got Netflix (no, I don't have it!) so that might be a big score if I can bump some movies up her list. I also missed Flight of the Red Balloon and JCVD.

A very eclectic list here - I definitely appreciate the lack of major popular fare like TDK. Your box office total is probably under a million, haha. Which is great.

I finally saw Trouble the Water this weekend and found it brilliant as well.

Why did neither of us review I've Loved You So Long?

Kathie Smith said...

I didn't want to sour my "best of" list with complaints about The Dark Knight. (But here I go...) It was a real low point of the year for me, partly due to my huge disappointment in it, but also due to its suffocation of any other film anywhere in the world.

The real question for me is why I didn't review half these movies. But in regard to I've Love You So Long, I was really struck by that film. The whole mystery and resolution of the story would normally be something that would bug me (I don't need resolution; I like open-endedness) but I think I was so distracted by the authenticity of these characters that I didn't notice. Kristin Scott Thomas was amazing. Seriously, why isn't anyone talking about her?

Daniel Getahun said...

I'm not sure, but expect just a lack of exposure and a poor marketing campaign. The Oscar race seems to be a two horse race between Winslet and Hathaway, though I think KST might sneak in a nomination.

She was also brilliant in Tell No One.

YTSL said...

Hi Kathie --

Have yet to come up with a top ten 2008 movies list but if you wanna see my top ten 2008 *Hong Kong* movies list, it's now up!

And if you do read it, do please leave some comments over at my blog! :)