By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Was it a sign of the apocalypse? Something in the water? Or just the way the wind was blowing? However you account for it, 2008 was that rare year in which critics and audiences saw eye to eye on at least two of the year’s best films, with The Dark Knight and WALL-E sitting pretty on many “10 best” lists while also ranking among the year’s five highest-grossing releases. Does that mean Hollywood is getting better, or Indiewood merely worse? I’d propose that the verdict is out on the former and all but in on the latter, with the majors and mini-majors (those that are still in business) having effectively laid claim to the most promising indie talent (such as Christopher Nolan) and given them surprising creative freedom, while the one-time fertile terrain of true American independent cinema has turned depressingly fallow. If anything, all that the flash-in-the-pan hipster “movement” disaffectionately known (by those who knew it at all) as Mumblecore seems to have left in its wake is an unexpected nostalgia for those would-be Andersons (Wes or P.T.), Soderberghs and Tarantinos whose somewhat livelier brand of navel-gazing set the tone for the previous decade of Sundance follies.
Meanwhile, unless you happened to be living in New York or Los Angeles, most of the best movies of 2008 were far more likely to be found showing on your cable box (courtesy of IFC Films and other indie distributors’ on-demand viewing platforms) or biding time in your Netflix queue than actually playing at your local googolplex. Even here in the world’s supposed movie capital, Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s masterful Still Life had to content itself with a weeklong run at a single local theater (and a curtly dismissive Los Angeles Times review), two full years after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, while three other titles that grace my best list (Heartbeat Detector, Silent Light and The Secret of the Grain) have thus far only surfaced at local film festivals, despite each receiving a full-fledged commercial release in New York. So, bearing in mind — however much Luddites like myself may protest — that home viewing is no longer the way of the future but rather the reality of the present, here are 17 movies from the year just passed that I very much hope will be coming soon to an HDTV near you.
1. Still Life and Fengming: A Chinese Memoir: The latest bottled message from Jia Zhangke, China’s (if not the world’s) foremost forager of filmed images, Still Life used the story of two estranged spouses in search of their respective partners to commemorate the disappearing landscape of Fengjie — a village flooded to accommodate a massive hydroelectric dam — and with it, a few thousand years of Chinese history. It is the work of a director in total command of his craft, in which anything seems possible. At one point, a gutted building literally blasts off into the stratosphere like a rocket ship to the moon; had WALL-E put in a cameo appearance, he would hardly have seemed out of place. As Jia was bringing us to the forefront of the new China, his countryman Wang Bing took us back through the nation’s tumultuous past without ever leaving the living room of He Fengming, a septuagenarian widow who recounts her stranger-than-fiction odyssey from Maoist revolutionary to political dissident to “rehabilitated” citizen in what seems like a single, uninterrupted three-hour breath.
2. Gran Torino: Leave it to the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood to come up with the year’s most au courant American film. Because Gran Torino doesn’t wear its sentiments — or its themes — on its sleeve, it has been misunderstood (and dismissed) by some as a comic spin on Eastwood’s patented Dirty Harry franchise. But in Eastwood’s typically subtle, stealthy way, the film has more to say about the things that really matter in this country — race, economic disenfranchisement, the fog of war — than any other movie in recent memory.
3. Che and Hunger: The year’s most important works of filmed biography took as subjects two of the 20th century’s enduring martyrs and restored to them their essential warts-and-all humanity. Neither the deification of a saint nor the denigration of an icon, Steven Soderbergh’s mammoth two-part take on the life of the Argentine doctor-cum-revolutionary Ernesto Guevara plays more like a primer on how (and then how not) to stage a popular rebellion, in which Guevara himself (played brilliantly, but never ostentatiously, by Benicio Del Toro) often seems but an ensemble player in his own story. Likewise, Bobby Sands — the imprisoned IRA leader whose 1981 hunger strike marked a turning point in the Troubles — doesn’t even show up until one-third of the way through Steve McQueen’s Hunger, by which time the film has become less an invocation to martyrdom than a timely consideration of the human body’s value as a political instrument.
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