I saw 49 new releases this year, and yet there were still tons of interesting things I missed (pesky day job!), some of which surely would have landed on this list. (For example, one of my favorite things I saw this year was David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” on DVD, which definitely would have been on my 2007 Top 10 had I not missed its theatrical run.) Here, then, are my 10 favorites out of what I managed to see in ‘08.
Heddy Honigmann’s film about the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris is not just my favorite picture of 2008: it joins the ranks of my all-time favorites. An extraordinary film about life, death and art. The artists who rest at Père-Lachaise are dust, but when their art sings through us—we who live, who yet feel joy and sorrow—that’s eternity. What did I learn from this movie? To paraphrase the late coach Jimmy Valvano, I learned that death takes the physical body, but it can’t touch the heart, the mind, the soul. Those things go on forever.
2. "Rachel Getting Married"
“Rachel” is unlike anything Jonathan Demme’s done before, and yet it’s still recognizably his: there’s the celebration of music and community we treasure in his concert films like “Stop Making Sense”, as well as that film’s subtext of interracial celebration. I didn’t know from Anne Hathaway before I saw this, but she’s as real as the day is long as a young woman struggling to live with having done something while stoned that she can never, ever make up for. Why do we go to the movies, except looking for all these moments of euphoria, heartbreak, truth, beauty? Hoping to be surprised.
3. "The Visitor"
Thomas McCarthy’s film about immigration is not an allegory. By which I mean to say that its characters are people, not symbols, and its political points flow from their story, not the other way around. A heartbreaking, humanizing picture.
4. "Synecdoche, New York"
What is the relationship of life and art? Surrealist screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has a go at directing, while Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the soul as a hypochondriac theater director driven to stage a perpetual reenactment of his life inside a cavernous warehouse, which over the decades gradually fills with a brick-by-brick replica of his home city of Schenectady, populated by actors playing himself and the other people in his life. I don’t pretend to know what this is about, really, except that it’s to do with death and loneliness and mental illness and intimacy and the drive to paint one’s masterpiece. For all I know it could all be an Alzheimer’s dream on his deathbed. And maybe it has something to do with the words I heard the poet William Stanley Merwin say on the radio just the other day: “Memory is essential to what we are…what we think of as the present really is the past. It’s made out of the past…they flow into each other in ways that we can’t predict and that we discover in dreams.”
People will always remember this one by saying “Sally Hawkins was so great in that.” She is Poppy; she is a happy person. Laughter and tension all at once as the film explores the pros and cons of not taking life seriously. Well, that and the pleasures of hearing regular Londoners talk.
Based on the novel “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth, “Elegy” is true to Roth’s vision for his characters: the brutal truth of death, shot through with the moments when they felt most alive.
From Tel Aviv, stories of stifled desire, desperation, separation and connectedness. Watch closely: there is magic around the edges of everyday life.
A graceful adaptation to the screen of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about coming of age out of a childhood in the late 70’s in Tehran. The hand-drawn animation allows her a visual expressiveness that captures not just what happened, but how it felt.
9. "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly"
“Being completely wheelchaired does not stop my mind from roaming the universe,” Arthur C. Clarke once said. Likewise, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s mind compensated for his “locked-in syndrome” by generating visions spun from his explorations in literature, poetry, film, history. Julian Schnabel’s filmmaking reflects his painter’s eye.
10. "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson"
A fascinating, invigorating documentary. He was no hero, just a problematic, gifted writer who ended up squandering much of his gift, but who was able for a time to capture the American chaos in all its fear, loathing and violence. Any portrait of Thompson has also to be a portrait of America in the 60s and 70s. Maybe the film will get people looking at the work again, which at its best was funny, high-voltage, honest, savage, sensitive; like the disturbing Ralph Steadman drawings that illustrated his pages, his vision showed what “professional” journalism couldn’t: the spiritual sickness that lay just underneath the surface of the mainstream culture of his time. (He saw through the counterculture just as clearly.) His hatred for Nixon was pure.
Honorable mentions: Milk, Young at Heart, Tell No One, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Dark Knight
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