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.
4. Silent Light: This astoundingly beautiful, Dreyer-influenced drama of marital and spiritual crisis, set in a modern-day Mennonite community on the outskirts of Chihuahua, is the most mature work to date by Mexican cinema enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas. A must-see for anyone who cares seriously about the art of cinema.
5. The Dark Knight: A model for comic book movies to follow, Christopher Nolan’s second stab at the Batman franchise is to his previous Batman Begins roughly what The Godfather Part II is to The Godfather. As the anarchic Joker, the late Heath Ledger proved to be the freakishly disturbing highlight of a very good show, while Nolan deepened and enriched the central ideas that have attended his work since Memento — memory, obsessive desire and the dual nature of man.
6. Heartbeat Detector: In a year when you could scarcely venture into a cinema without catching sight of a swastika, the most oddly resonant Holocaust tale was director Nicolas Klotz’s audacious corporate thriller, with the great Mathieu Amalric as the in-house productivity guru for a French petrochemicals firm that happens to be run — in fact as well as spirit — by the descendants of Nazi sympathizers.
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7. A Christmas Tale and The Secret of the Grain: The polar extremes of French family dramas. In A Christmas Tale, the uber-bourgeois Arnaud Desplechin takes his gabby, desentimentalized approach to family crises to (literally) the cellular level as a sprawling Roubaix clan reluctantly reunites for the holidays; at the other end of the country (and the economic spectrum), in the port city of Sète, the Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche spun his own masterfully chaotic tale of a 61-year-old ex-shipyard worker trying to turn a decrepit boat into a thriving couscous restaurant — a folie de grandeur that he hopes may bring together the disparate members of his wayward brood.
8. George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead and Let the Right One In: In the midst of the biggest overabundance of horror movies since the 1980s, a pair of superior offerings pumped surprising life into two moribund of genre staples: the zombie movie and the vampire flick. Of course, it wasn’t that surprising that undead maestro George A. Romero should find yet another untapped vein for his flesh-eating Zeitgeist lightning rods, this time taking on the politics of image-making and image consumption in the YouTube/MySpace/iPhone era with typically savage wit and gory brio. Elsewhere, Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson offered up the perfect riposte to the unaccountable Twilight phenomenon with his own enigmatic, darkly alluring teen bloodsucker tale — a movie marred only by the knowledge that it is soon to be remade by J.J. Abrams (whose Cloverfield was an inferior version of Diary of the Dead).
9. Shine a Light and Synecdoche, New York: Forget Benjamin Button: a more curious case of reverse aging and arrested development could be found in Martin Scorsese’s exhilarating IMAX record of the Rolling Stones’ 2006 benefit concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre. The world was a stage for Charlie Kaufman, too, whose magnificently overreaching directorial debut probed the slipperiness of time and the inevitability of death with all of the messy honesty that seems to have ended up on David Fincher’s cutting-room floor.
10. Happy-Go-Lucky, Slumdog Millionaire and WALL-E: Three unapologetic up-with-people celebrations that even this critic (who naturally believes we are all condemned from birth to eternal misery and suffering) couldn’t resist, in part because while these generally cheerful affairs may have looked at the world through rose-colored lenses, none of them had Hollywood’s usual blinders on. In all three, pain and loss — be they personal, national or planetary — loom at the edges of the frame, allowing the ultimate triumph to feel earned rather than dictated.