It feels completely appropriate in a year of incredible financial turmoil, particularly in the independent film sector, that so many good movies were made about people teetering on the edge of economic extinction. My own list features two such films, without even getting around to “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Frozen River” or the small but immensely powerful “Shotgun Stories.” Movie stars were feeling the pinch, too: in the semiautobiographical “JCVD,” audiences saw faded action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme resorting to begging his agent for money to pay for his divorce.
Stars, and studios too. Even before the bottom fell out of the economy, Hollywood studios were beginning to shutter their indie divisions; Paramount eliminated Vantage, Warner Brothers closed Picturehouse and Warner Independent and absorbed New Line. It wasn’t much better for smaller distributors: David O. Russell’s upcoming “Nailed” was in the news all summer because its production kept getting shut down by unions whose members weren’t getting paid by financier Capitol Films, whose subsidiary ThinkFilm had its own cash problems this year, when they couldn’t afford to purchase newspaper ads the Friday of the opening of their release “Then She Found Me.” Just last week the Yari Film Group filed for bankruptcy. Their big hit from a few years ago? “Crash.” There were weeks when the entire independent film world seemed embodied by Michelle Williams’ penniless drifter in “Wendy and Lucy:” every move they made seemed to draw them inexorably deeper into the financial quicksand.
There wasn’t exactly an artistic crash to match, but you could argue that the movies suffered a very mild creative recession in 2008. Strong as this year’s slate was, few if any equaled the remarkable heights of last year’s “No Country For Old Men” or “Zodiac.” On a personal level, I found myself on the outside looking in at a lot of the consensus critical hits: I thought both “Slumdog” and “WALL-E” started as strongly as any movie this year, but tapered off over the course of extremely disappointing final acts. Critical consensus may be a thing of the past anyway soon, the way newspaper and magazine film critics are losing their jobs.
Despite all of that gloominess, there was still much to celebrate in the movies of 2008. It was a year of impressive comebacks (JCVD himself for one, the magnetic fallen star of my number five film for another), of great dysfunctional onscreen families (my numbers two and ten), and more innovation in the documentary form (numbers one and nine). Some special movies even found ways to ask important questions of audiences, even as they entertained us: how far should the law go to stop a criminal (number three)? What does certainty mean in the absence of proof (number eight)?
In dark times, movies have always provided an escape. Even in an “off year” like this one, these ten films, plus the ones provided by my colleagues Alison Willmore and Michael Atkinson, gave us that and so much more.
1. My Winnipeg
In the four years I’ve made top ten lists here on IFC.com, an IFC Film has never appeared even once, a convenient way to avoid accusations of a conflict of interest. I’ll risk them in this case because no movie I saw in 2008 was as exciting, imaginative, hysterically funny or hysterically sad as “My Winnipeg.” Guy Maddin was hired to direct a documentary to his hometown, a place he describes, with a good deal of pride, as “the strangest city in North America,” but wound up delivering a “docu-fantasia” where dream logic prevails, sleepwalking is a recurring motif and local history blends with myth and even parts of Maddin’s own childhood. In repeatedly returning to the image of a man on a train heading out of Winnipeg that can never quite break free from the city’s gravitational orbit, the film becomes a delightful piece of escapism on its subject’s inability to escape his past or his beloved home.
2. Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme felt Jenny Lumet’s unique screenplay about a very dysfunctional family’s reunion for one of its daughters’ wedding deserved a visual strategy equally unusual. Shooting digitally with a minimum of crew and equipment he not only imbued the film with the feeling that the camera was a fly-on-the-wall videographer capturing the essential moments of this remarkable wedding, but he also brought out the raw, naturalistic beauty of digital photography in the way few filmmakers have.
3. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s superior sequel to his impressive “Batman Begins” was almost as much fun to discuss as it was to watch. In the moment, there were the expansive chase and fight sequences (even more stunning in IMAX) and Heath Ledger’s truly terrifying performance as The Joker. Afterwards, you debated movie’s message about the murky moral waters the film’s hero swims in to achieve his goal (extreme wiretapping, prisoner torture and the like). So many people focused on the question of whether Batman was supposed to represent President Bush that they missed the other possible parallel: that of district attorney Harvey Dent, whose courage under fire unites a frazzled community before checks out of reality completely and starts letting others make his decisions for him.
4. Wendy and Lucy
Watching director Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist masterpiece about a young woman searching for her lost dog is like savoring a fine wine; it’s about appreciating subtle flavors, nuances and clarity. Let those who would dismiss the film as “too small” have their gallons boxes of rubbish; “Wendy and Lucy” is vintage American independent filmmaking.
5. The Wrestler
This beautifully sad film, simultaneously depressing and uplifting, was shot and set in the decaying suburbs and beach towns of New Jersey, and looks and feels like the movie the Dardennes might have made if they grew up as WWF fans in the 1980s. Mickey Rourke, using his own faded film career as his inspiration, groans and grunts with every step: for his Randy “The Ram” Robinson the very act of living day to day is a struggle greater than any Saturday Night’s Main Event. Real (fake) wrestling could only wish it was this emotionally devastating.
How can we ever explain Josh Brolin’s remarkable mid-career relevance? For so long he was that guy who looked like his dad and made schlocky movies, but now, out of nowhere, he’s the most interesting actor in Hollywood. He’s like the acting equivalent of a baseball player who discovers HGH at age 37 and suddenly hits 60 home runs in a season. In Gus Van Sant’s beautiful and incredibly timely biopic “Milk” he steals scene after scene as troubled San Francisco supervisor Dan White, and he’s stealing from Sean Penn, who’s giving the performance of a career full of career performances.
7. Let the Right One In
The rare horror film that’s many different kinds of scary. It’s creepy scary (as in the relationship between 12-year-old vampire Eli and the man who might be her father, caretaker, or — worst of all — a former boyfriend), it’s gross-out scary (like the scene where Eli bleeds from every pore of her body because she’s entered a house uninvited), it’s shocking scary (like the gorefest finale at the swimming pool).
It’s common to see a movie with several great performances — most of the movies on this list qualify — but how often do you a movie with nothing but great performances? In “Doubt” all four leads — Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis — were equally outstanding. The film’s titular theme, elucidated in a crisp screenplay from director and source material playwright John Patrick Shanley, couldn’t be more timely, either.
9. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Kurt Kuenne set out to make a documentary as a tribute to his murdered friend Andrew Bagby, and became a witness to a series of events involving the people he left behind so impossibly tragic that they would seem laughably contrived in a fiction film (the fact that the woman suspected in the Bagby murder turns out to be an ex-girlfriend AND is carrying his unborn son is just the very tip of the iceberg). You could argue that by withholding certain information about where his story is going to heighten its emotional impact, Kuenne isn’t playing fair. But then, as this movie shows so powerfully, life rarely does.
10. A Christmas Tale
Only a filmmaker as talented and as daring as Arnaud Desplechin could make such a warm comedy out of terminal cancer. “A Christmas Tale”‘s barebones description — an estranged family returns home for the first time in years because the matriarch is dying of cancer and a bone-marrow donor is needed — sounds like a downer. But Despleschin’s technique, including (but not limited to) flashback, narration, split-screen, irises, dissolves, direct address, plays within the film – makes the film one of the liveliest (and alive-est, if we can pretend for a moment that that’s a word) of the year.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Bank Job, Burn After Reading, Chicago 10, Encounters at the End of the World, The Fall, Pineapple Express, Quid Pro Quo, Shotgun Stories, Snow Angels, Step Brothers.
It wasn’t a disappointing year so much as one without surprises — while 2008 had its share of fine films, there was nothing audacious that arrived out of nowhere to knock my socks off, to show me something new. Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” was one of the few that felt truly electric, the dysfunctional family gathering chestnut filtered through an insanely cinematic prism, a far richer, larger-than-life Gallic one-upping of Demme’s uneven and staunchly naturalistic “Rachel Getting Married.”
Gus Van Sant contributed the headily semi-experimental “Paranoid Park,” but it was “Milk,” his return to not just traditional narrative but the claustrophobic confines of the biopic, that was unexpectedly appealing, a portrait of a martyr to a cause that never lost sight of the flesh and blood humanity of its subjects. “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Frownland” were combative, with infuriating main characters that challenged your ability to sympathize — initially, for the former, and quite possible ever for the latter. And “Wendy and Lucy” and “The Order of Myths” offered, through their incisive observations of a fictional girl who loses her dog and a very real and still racially segregated southern celebration, deep focus ruminations on where we are as a nation. The majority of the films on the list below I first saw over half a year ago — due to the nature of the festival circuit, sure, but also to the fact that the more recent releases that have been clustered in the current award season have been letdowns.
1. A Christmas Tale
2. Wendy and Lucy
3. Paranoid Park
5. Silent Light
6. The Order of Myths
9. Momma’s Man
Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Flight of the Red Balloon, Love Songs, My Winnipeg, Snow Angels, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, WALL-E, Waltz with Bashir, Woman on the Beach, The Wrestler
As usual these days (but not, notably, last year), 2008 was rescued by the Asians, even if they didn’t remain in Asia proper. Otherwise, my list looks like a clear vote for the new wave-ist upsurge in minimalist realism/realist minimalism, Asian or American, which always seems all the more remarkable when compared in taste tests with Hollywood parade floats and middle-class-middle-age-courting Euro-dramas, which if anything often resemble the unbearable U.S. studio product of decades past. A cinema of idiosyncratic personal force overshadows the products of the machine, even as the “specialty” venues dwindle.
1. My Winnipeg
3. Wendy and Lucy
4. Silent Light
5. Still Life
6. Waltz with Bashir
7. Flight of the Red Balloon
8. The Wrestler
9. Synecdoche, New York
10. My Blueberry Nights
Honorable mentions, in order: Times and Winds, The Duchess of Langeais, WALL-E, Appaloosa, Che, Alexandra, Pineapple Express, Jellyfish, Milk, The Edge of Heaven, Boy A, My Father My Lord, Encounters at the End of the World, Snow Angels, Chop Shop, Stuff and Dough, In Bruges
[Photos: “Wendy and Lucy,” Oscilloscope Pictures, 2008; “My Winnipeg,” IFC Films, 2008; “The Wrestler,” Fox Searchlight, 2008; “A Christmas Tale,” IFC Films, 2008; “Milk,” Focus Features, 2008]