Jan 5, 2009

At year's end: A look back@2008, part 3

Alright, alright, alright - after much tomfoolery and ballyhoo, weeks after it appeared on indieWIRE, I'm finally dropping my top ten (oh wait, make that five) with some reasoned defensives and motivations (A Christmas Tale dissenters, of which their are still a surprising few, take note) for my various picks. My form of OCD is only so strong, so I didn't go all buck wild with lists for shorts, performances, favorite moments, etc. Last year at this time, I wrote of the marvelous experiences I had had on the festival circuit over the previous twelve months. They we're no less marvelous this year; everywhere I went and watched films, I continued to note just how much terrific work exists, certainly many times more than just a decade ago, as the democratization of the means has led both to a surplus of crap and an embarrassment of riches. Yet as I watched film after film I initially discovered at Sundance or Tribeca enter the marketplace and disappear with barely a whimper, I can't help but ask, what are we going to do with all these good films?

There certainly not enough eyes in the indie film marketplace for all of them to be profitable (or even mildly unprofitable). How can unqualified filmmakers be discouraged by sensible people from taking the leap? For every group of low budget filmmakers creating fairly substantial work for next to nothing within communities that somehow sustain themselves with non-industry or technician work, you have five or six other groups making films no one wants to see squandering what little resources they have on a project doomed to fail from the start?

I don't have the answers here, but I think these are questions worth thinking about for people at every level of the industry. More people (myself included) need to begin the process of building communities, not just in big coastal cities but throughout our whole country, where specialty film can be appreciated and financially supported. To do this would involve state and federal funding for arts education unlike what currently exists, a new distribution network of local exhibitors (many of whom may once thought of themselves as feature filmmakers) who can broker directly with filmmakers and can maintain screening venues with cheap overhead (and thus prices) and adventurous taste, as well as new modes of outreach on the part of the filmmakers themselves. Without seeming all doom and gloom (this was apparently a terrific year for the box office in Hollywood, even if ticket sales are in an irreversible decline), this path seems like the only way middlebrow indiewood prestige pics that get lost in the shuffle (think The Reader or The Boy in Stripped Pajamas) and truely visionary indies like Frownland or Prince of Broadway will ever have an ecosystem in which they can both thrive commercially.

But we're really not here to talk about all that.

Here's a look back at the five films that most stirred me in 2008. Films that I or another CEC contributor wrote about at length this year are linked to their reviews:

Synecdoche, New York

The directorial debut of wonderkind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has more moments of authentic feeling in it than any other film I saw this year. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Caden Cotard is a character whose thirty year struggle to make meaningful art becomes a life consuming force unto itself, one that is as entertaining and tragic (in the most mundane, catholic sense of the word) as anything that found itself to our screens all year. What I'll never lose from the few hours I spent with Synecdoche is the sense that Kaufman has really tapped into the paralysis, humiliation, inertia, dread and general ambivalence of living (and dying) in a world in which the dreams we're asked by all of modernity's empty signifiers to have are complete bullshit. It spoke to me like nothing else did in 2008.

A Christmas Tale

Following up is 04' masterpiece Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin leaps to the very top of Gallic cinema with this raucous, immediate, and oddly life affirming home for the holidays tragicomedy which features as strong an ensemble as I've seen in years and the technical/conceptual gusto to make an over two and a half hours talkathon never less than riveting. Its rare that you encounter a film with that overflows with the joys and sorrows of middle class family life quite like this one, especially one that is chock full of luminous movie stars at the very top of their form.

Silent Light

At Cannes 07', Mexican Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven) unleashed his third feature, set amongst a community of mennonites living in northern Mexico and inspired largely by Carl Dreyer's Ordet. Silent Light finally found its way to American screens this year (it opens at Film Forum next week for a two week run as well) and the two times I saw it floored me equally. Redemption, lust, betrayal, prayer, the nature of spirituality are all considered with delicate care in this story of an adulterous man. Reygadas, who has may have yet to roll camera on a single uninteresting composition in the course of his three features, of which this is surely the best, has quickly become one of our most essential directors.

Paranoid Park

I didn't see Milk (I will. Soon), but Gus Van Sant had already made his mark of American screens last year well before Oscar season. His Paranoid Park, which also bowed at Cannes 07', is like watching a master narrative filmmaker build a new cinematic grammar from the ground up. In this tale of a young, not terribly bright skater kid whose impulsive actions indirectly lead to a gruesome death and the not so anguish filled aftermath in which he comes to term with the events of the near past, we witness a director at the height of his empathetic powers. Van Sant, along with ace D.P. Christopher Doyle (who makes a brief appearence as the kid's uncle), crafts a remarkable style, at once highly stylized and frequently low-fi, that seems to have no visual antecedent in narrative film. Any place in which this film could hew to the conventional, it briskly steps aside.


Ronald Bronstein's Frownland, a prize winner at SXSW last year which finally saw theaters in the States and France in 08' (and will screen this Wednesday at the 92nd St Y Tribeca with star Mary Bronstein's equally unsettling Yeast) has been a favorite on these pages for quite some time. It is as provocative a vision of loneliness and inarticulateness as any that has ever been committed to celluloid. Shot piecemeal over the course of four years, it contains the year's single most visceral performance (someone, please cast Dore Mann!!!), one that you will never forget and will likely never let you go.

Other terrific films that were released commercially in 2008: Gran Torino, RedBelt, The Flight of the Red Balloon, Rachel Getting Married, Reprise, Snow Angels, Standard Operating Procedure, Man on Wire, My Winnipeg, Boarding Gate, The Dark Knight, Revolutionary Road, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Duchess, Mr Lonely, Encounters at the End of the World, Chop Shop, Battle for Haditha, Bigger Stronger Faster, Maxed Out, A Good Day to be Black and Sexy, The Class, The Edge of Heaven, Trouble the Water, Lou Reed's Berlin, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, The Exiles

Films the cinerati at large seem to like that I wasn't really that into: Momma's Man, Ballast, Medicine for Melancholy, Let the Right One In

Films I haven't seen that figure to play big in the year end awards race: Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Reader