Monday, December 29, 2008


The year-end lists have been coming chop-chop and chock-a-block over the past few weeks, and I've sure been itching to join in the pile-on. But with new films by Steven Soderbergh, Johnnie To, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher waiting to be seen in the final week of the year, it seemed rude not to wait. Now that we're at the tail end of 2008, I'm finally ready to bring up the rear with my selections.

Everybody's got rules about which films qualified for their list and which ones didn't. For me, if it was first unleashed upon the world in 2006 or later – and I saw it this year – it qualified. I don't live in NYC or Paris or attend any major out of town festivals with the exception of Palm Springs, so it often takes time for things to come my way. Not that the Bay Area is any kind of cinephilic boondocks. If it were, I wouldn't have seen so many damn movies.

I watched over 250 of them on the big screen in 2008. That includes festivals, press screenings, museum programs and theatrical releases. (Roughly one-fifth were revival/repertory.) On top of that I viewed over 100 DVD screeners for various Bay Area film festivals. And on top of that I managed to knock a measly 40 films off my 400+ on-line rental queue.

So when you see this many movies in a year, how do you single out 10 for special treatment? Mostly, by not thinking in terms of "best," which is a demarcation I'll leave for critics and scholars to sort out. These are simply the ten films that rattled my cage the hardest in 2008; the ones that thrilled me most and made me happy to be obsessed with this crazy little thing called cinema. Interestingly, seven of them are by directors whose previous work I've either disliked across the board, or have only appreciated intermittently. (I'm too much of a coward to tell you which are which.) You may notice there are no documentaries here, and that's because I've relegated them to their own list. Otherwise, Gonzalo Arijon's heart-wrenching Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains would have easily made the cut. So here we go:

Solitary Fragments (Spain dir. Jaime Rosales)
A Christmas Tale (France dir. Arnaud Desplechin)
Synecdoche, New York (USA dir. Charlie Kaufman)
I'm a Cyborg and That's OK (South Korea dir. Park Chan-wook)
Jar City (Iceland dir. Baltasar Kormákur)
The Secret of the Grain (France dir. Abdel Kechiche)
The Duchess of Langeais (France dir. Jacques Rivette)
Still Life (China dir. Jia Zheng-ke)
Slingshot (Philippines dir. Brillante Mendoza)
Nightwatching (UK dir. Peter Greenaway)

The first five are films I pegged as Top Ten the moment the end credits started rolling (and their order on the list is completely arbitrary.) Solitary Fragments is the intimate account of several women's lives in contemporary Madrid which cleaned up at this year's Goya Awards, winning Best Film and Best Director (awards that were expected to go to The Orphanage). A Christmas Tale and Synecdoche, New York are incredibly rich, complex, innovative, funny– and seemed to be about nothing less than the enormity of life itself. Batshit-crazy insane asylum rom-com I'm a Cyborg and That's OK was the most fun I had at the movies in 2008 (followed in short order by Om Shanti Om and Pineapple Express). Jar City is a sublime, tightly-wound police procedural set in a wintry Reykjavik. IFC Films never released it in theaters, and thanks to their exclusive deal-with-the-devil, it can now only be rented from Blockbuster.

Films six through ten were more tortured choices, picked from a line-up of four dozen or so contenders. The Secret of the Grain is a warts-and-all portrait of a French-Arab family living in a Mediterranean port town, and it justifiably won all of this year's top Cesar awards. The Duchess of Langeais is a clever adaptation of Balzac's novel, in which a flirtatious duchess and a stolid general engage in a ferocious battle of the heart. (This is another IFC Films release that can only be rented from Blockbuster). Still Life is a melancholic meditation on the people displaced by China's Three Gorges Dam project, and represents digital filmmaking at its loveliest. Manila's wretched Quiapo slum is the setting for the politically charged Slingshot. The heart-stopping, nocturnal police raid that opens the film is the definition of bravura filmmaking. Finally, a murder conspiracy hidden within a Rembrandt painting is the nexus for the hyper-stylized Nightwatching.

And what of the hundreds of other films I saw in 2008? I couldn't sleep at night without acknowledging them is some small way, so here's my extremely indulgent list of runner-ups. These didn't end up in the Top Ten, but my movie-going year would have been considerably diminished without them:

12 (Russia dir. Nikita Mikhalkov)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Romania dir. Cristian Mungiu)
Antarctica (Israel dir. Yair Hochner)
Baghead (USA dir. Jay and Mark Duplass)
Battle For Haditha (UK dir. Nick Broomfield)
Che (USA dir. Steven Soderbergh)
The Class (France dir. Laurent Cantet)
El Custodio (Argentina dir. Rodrigo Moreno)
The Dark Knight: The IMAX Experience (USA dir. Chris Nolan)
Desert Dream (China dir. Zhang Lu)

The Fight (Canada dir. Anais Barbeau-Lavalette)
Fraulein (Germany dir. Andrea Staka)
Gomorrah (Italy dir. Matteo Garrone)
Hamlet 2 (USA dir. Andrew Fleming)
I've Loved You So Long (France dir. Philippe Claudel)
JCVD (France dir. Mabrouk El Mechri)
Lady Jane (France dir. Robert Guédiguian)
The Last Mistress (France dir. Catherine Breillat)
La León (Argentina dir. Santiago Otheguy)
Let the Right One In (Sweden dir. Tomas Alfreson)

Mataharis (Spain dir. Iciar Bollaín)
Milk (USA dir. Gus Van Sant)
My Father, My Lord (Israel dir. David Volach)
My Marlon and Brando (Turkey dir. Huseyin Karabey)
My Winnipeg (Canada dir. Guy Maddin)
Om Shanti Om (India dir. Farah Khan)
Persepolis (France dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)
Pineapple Express (USA dir. David Gordon Green)
The Pool (USA dir. Chris Smith)
The Pope's Toilet (Uruguay dir. César Charlone and Enrique Fernández)

Secret Sunshine (South Korea dir. Lee Chang-dong)
The Secret (France dir. Claude Miller)
Sleep Dealer (USA dir. Alex Rivera)
Stuck (USA dir. Stuart Gordon)
Takva: A Man's Fear of God (Turkey dir. Özer Kiziltan)
Transiberian (USA dir. Brad Anderson)
Traveling With Pets (Russia dir. Vera Storozheva)
Two Ladies (France dir. Philippe Faucon)
Waltz With Bashir (Israel dir. Ari Folman)
Wind Man (Russia dir. Khuat Akhmetov)
You, the Living (Sweden, dir. Roy Andersson)

* * * *

Last year at this time I had a pretty rotten attitude towards documentaries. That's because all the Bay Area arthouses which used to exhibit foreign films were now showing the handiwork of anyone with a digital camera and an axe to grind. During one particularly dismal week in the fall of 2007, there was exactly one foreign film to be found in San Francisco theaters (Lust, Caution) and 13, yes 13 theatrically distributed documentaries.

The glut appears to have produced a backlash in 2008, as there were far fewer docs occupying local screens. The ones that did, however, seemed to be of a higher caliber and did a better job of attracting audiences (Indeed, as I write this, Man On Wire is in the 21st week of its phenomenal SF run). I watched over 60 documentary features in 2008 (the majority on DVD or festival screeners). Here's a list of the 16 which impressed me most:

Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (France, dir. Gonzalo Arijon)
Man on Wire (UK, US, dir. James Marsh)
Slingshot Hip Hop (US, dir. Jackie Salloum)
Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait (France, dir. Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno)
Taxi to the Dark Side (US, dir. Alex Gibney)
At Home in Utopia (US, dir. Michael Goldman)
Encounters at the End of the World (US, dir. Werner Herzog)
Trouble the Water (US, dir. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin)
In a Dream (US, dir. Jeremiah Zagar)
Patti Smith: Dream of Life (US, dir. Steven Sebring)
Urban Explorers (US, dir. Melody Gilbert)
Forbidden Lie$ (Australia, dir. Anna Broinowski)
Bridge Across the Wadi (Israel, dir. Tomer Heymann)
Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake (US, dir. Michael Albright)
Bigger, Stronger, Faster (US, dir. Chris Bell)
The Wrecking Crew (US, dir. Danny Tedesco)

* * * *

As I mentioned above, of the 250-some films I saw in a public setting this year, over 50 were revival/repertory screenings – a testament to the Bay Area's passion for the history of cinema. A million thanks go out to the Pacific Film Archive, Castro Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF MOMA and all the individual festivals who were willing to dig up the past. For me, these were the most memorable:


Distant Voices, Still Lives: Shot by Shot (PFA, Terrence Davies in person, finger ready on the remote control pause button, offering a piquant running commentary to his 1988 classic)

Bones and In Vanda's Room (PFA, Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa, a rare opportunity to see parts one and two of The Wanda Trilogy, the films which preceded 2006's astonishing Colossal Youth, with the director in person.)

The Patsy (Castro Theater, the SF Silent Film Festival closed its red-letter 2008 edition with this screamingly funny 1928 Marion Davies/Marie Dressler comedy)

The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle and The Danube Exodus (Castro Theater, this year the SF Jewish Film Festival gave its Freedom of Expression Award to Péter Forgács, a Hungarian director who's made a career of transforming the forgotten photographs, diaries and home movies of European Jews into a singular form of documentary filmmaking. These films were from 1997 and 1998 respectively).

The Exiles (Castro Theater, Kent MacKenzie's acclaimed 1961 docu-drama depicts 24 hours in the lives of a group of urban-Los Angeles Native Americans. A memorial to an L.A. that no longer exists, featuring perhaps the most beautiful nocturnal B&W cinematography I've ever seen.

Six in Paris (Landmark's Clay Theater, a highlight of the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series; the surprise of this 1965 omnibus was that my three favorite segments were by directors I was previously unfamiliar with: Jean Douchet, Jean-Daniel Pollet and Jean Rouch.)

Tractor Drivers and Carnival Night (PFA, Envisioning Russia: A Century of Filmmaking, what could be more delightful than an evening of communist musicals!)

Trapeze (Castro Theater, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida, all of whom never looked more beautiful than they did in 1956, woo and wage war under a Parisian bigtop; in Cinemascope with Color-by-Deluxe.)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Castro Theater, Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent classic as it's rarely seen…with a 200-member orchestra and chorus performing Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light).

Blue (SF MOMA, Derek Jarman's final feature, in which there's nothing to watch but an unchanging, solid blue screen, was the perfect film to see while recovering from the flu. I simply laid on the floor of the Phyllis Wattis Theater, closed my eyes, and listened intently to Jarman's sound collage of music, ambient sounds and the director's own caustic, poetic discourse on the indignity of going blind from AIDS.)

And here are a few other revivals worth mentioning: Gun Crazy and Jeopardy at Noir City. The Velvet Hustler, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Days of Wrath at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Last Year at Marienbad and The Wild Bunch at the Castro. Night of the Hunter and Victims of Sin at the PFA. If…at SF MOMA. The Adventures of Prince Achmed at the SF Silent Film Festival.

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