The best films this year were genre pictures: vampire, policier, art film, gangster, war movie…all using genre conventions to keep us anchored as they shattered every genre convention we know. The sensation of being on familiar ground and utterly unmoored made the usual fare seem even more schematic, yesterday’s news. Especially yesterday’s news was, for instance, the supposed cautionary tale of Wall-E; its metaphors of overconsumption proved unintentionally amusing in the face of the new economic reality. By the time Wall-E’s future arrives, we’ll all be fighting him on the slag heaps for those scraps of resonant refuse—Rubik’s Cubes, hubcaps, any sign of green life…
So many films this year seem equally time-warped, as if they didn’t realize their narrative methods just weren’t that effective. But the best of 2008 found ground-breaking story-telling modes (some are forty years old) and ways of conveying drama that rely on our inescapable visual sophistication. The best this year made nothing explicit and the implicit—wherein the emotional, thematic, and even dramatic material was held—was almost too much to bear. There was little arty self-consciousness in the Tarantino, Baumbach or Anderson mode. Why? Because there are only three American films on the list, and it’s only Americans who feel compelled to be self-conscious when they’re artful.
1) Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
Love hurts. Love scars. It wounds and mars. Love will also get your arms torn right out of your shoulders if you fuck with someone a vampire loves. And loving a vampire might force you to spend the rest of your mortal days hanging innocents upside down from trees so you can drain their blood. The passive, aging Swedish hippies huddled in their Danish Modern state housing provide the perfect 21st-century equivalent to the terrified villagers who refuse to open their shutters when Count Dracula’s about, no matter how blood-curdling the screams. Despite the astonishingly original treatment of an old story, what lingers are the rigorous, gorgeous visuals, the twining of love and doom, the rescues that ensure only more brutality, the mysteriously disquieting presentation of what comprises gender, and an even more disquieting notion of soulmates.
2) Jar City (Mýrin)
Contemporary artist Luke Murphy created a big pop-art graph that traces the relationship between Depression and Hidden Information. Director Baltasar Kormákur provides the real-life dynamic: an Iceland of the repressed, where seldom is heard an encouraging word and the skies are apparently cloudy all year. Toughness is admired (vegetarians get a hard time), toughness destroys (our protagonist cop’s junkie daughter comes to him only for money). The cop seeks not justice, really, or truth, but a moral cause, some proof that his corruption within is not wholly mirrored by corruption without. In that quest, as in all others, he will be disappointed. Jar City understands that the only the tiniest triumphs endure.
3) Help Me Eros (Bang bang wo ai shen)
A masterpiece of mise-en-scène and deploying color to convey emotion. At once lucid, apparent, and cloaked in mystery, joyous, transcendent, and heartbreaking. Taiwan’s loneliest man befriends a cigarette girl in a chaos dreamscape of urban pastels. He grows the best bud in town, and sells his priceless modern furniture in crap pawn shops to buy bread. He incarnates the artist’s dilemma manifest in the universe of the post-collapse of global markets. Deadpan Kang-sheng Lee directs and stars in a slow-moving poem of disconnection, alienation, and sex that achieves transcendence through a seemingly new cinematic language.
4) Gomorrah (Gomorra)
Naples is one tough town. The mob stacks barrel upon barrel of industrial waste just down the street, murders moms who won’t give up their apartments, and functions with a mind-set that ensures its members and business partners the life expectancy of East Texas bikers, if that. Matteo Garrone, a thoughtful intellectual, chose a visual style that’s equal parts documentary and The Valachi Papers—half deadpan gaze, half lurid exploitation. As with all this year’s best, he explains nothing. We are hurled into the story as the locals are hurled into this milieu, and sink or swim with them. It’s strenuous, captivating, and it raises the bar for every gangster movie to come.
5) Waltz With Bashir
Guilt, confusion, the fog of war, political purpose, reluctance to bad-mouth one’s homeland, the determination to dehumanize one’s enemies, and an in-the-bone aversion to taking responsibility for atrocities committed on the periphery of one’s actions: these are the ingredients of national denial, as every American knows all too well. It took Ari Folman twenty years to come to grips with the terrors he lived through, the terrors he unknowingly enabled, and the terrors of slowly remembering who he was and what he did. He turned to animation in pursuit of realism, a genius move, and as counterintuitive as his methods of recovery, moral accusation and the refusal to forgive himself or his nation.
6)Human Condition (Ningen no joken 1959—’61)
Give it up for the Film Forum: 10 hours of Japanese Tolstoyan, Dostoevskian hopelessness, the unblinking depiction of Japan selling its soul, citizen by citizen, while building to the war; of the dying during the war and the crushing poverty of the land after. Never seen (never on video) and, once seen, never forgotten, not as story nor as one of the more significant visual influences on a number of masters—Bergman, Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa among them. Let’s hope that one day soon Criterion will give this film the treatment it deserves.
7) Celine And Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau—1974)
Give it up for BAM: 193 minutes of Jacques Rivette fucking around as only he could. Light-hearted Rivette proved a rare and lovely thing, and as I wondered when is he going to stop fucking around, he did. The contrast between the cat’s-paw decadence of the first 192 minutes and the door-slamming, party’s-over-oops-out-of-time of the final 60 seconds sear the film in memory. Like Human Condition, it’s set in a quite specific time and place that remains universal and constantly true.
8) In Bruges
Playwright, screenwriter, and director Martin McDonagh’s entire oeuvre seeks to prove the truth of Bertolt Brecht’s immortal line: “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible news.” The poles of laughs versus terrible news form the yin and yang of McDonaghville, and the urge to escape remains as potent as the need to keep watching through fingers clamped over my eyes. He generates restlessness, and concern over whether to laugh. He makes us ask: is that too much? Has he gone too far? Has he responsibly connected all this gore and pain to something more? And the answer is: nope, and he ain’t gonna. Like Beckett, McDonagh omits what he regards as unnecessary. And like Beckett, that would be everything save ghastly humor and death. Those omissions resonate through his work and may grant a witty gangster farce more profundity than it warrants, but there’s no denying the laughs or the terrible news.
9) Shotgun Stories
As evidenced by …Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon might be the best, not-so-unknown-anymore actor in America. He carries Shotgun Stories, the least embellished, most compassionate and accurate cultural and moral depiction of southern rednecks ever made. This is no small feat. Set in a succession of endless 1980s days in rural po’bucker nowhere, Jeff Nichols’s low-budget Neorealist approach captures the vanity, obsession, small-mindedness, and earned occasional nobility of white, hardscrabble, dead-end American life. As ever, violence and revenge offer the only possible transcendence.
10) Gran Torino
In the best Charles Bronson movie Charles Bronson never made, Clint proves more patient and more sentimental than Charles ever was. Having begun the cycle of revisionist Westerns by being (in Clint’s words) “the first hero to ever fire first,” Clint here repudiates forty-four years of on-screen bloodletting by refusing to fire at all. For both character and director the finale demonstrates true moral courage. Clint’s unregenerate misanthropy and his genuine wit—a late-career development—more than compensate for clanking exposition and underwritten characters. Much is lost by Clint’s insistence on singing over the closing credits, but it’s his epitaph, so what can you do?
Every year the chickenshit sheep of American movie critics and irony outlets gang up on one picture before it comes out, label it ridiculous, and smirk as it fails. This year, they tried to lay that shit on Valkyrie, but audiences found it anyway. Cruise’s big vehicle is not his vehicle at all, but instead a perfectly solid, well-executed, dumb World War II movie, and I love dumb WWII movies. Is Cruise playing a good Nazi any more absurd or morally bereft than Michael Caine or Robert Duvall playing theirs (The Eagle Has Landed)? Director Singer assembled a Who’s Who of dignified British thesps—Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp for god’s sake!—to embody the Third Reich as he sought to make a John Sturges picture and he came damn close. It’s our era’s Where Eagles Dare, and there is no higher praise.
And, not while sitting in the theatre during Rachel Getting Married, but afterward and since, Jonathan Demme’s Gus Van Zant Lite sent my bullshit detector off the charts. I expect in a couple years we’re all going to be awfully embarrassed at being taken in. Ditto for Wendy and Lucy.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.