1. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (Woody Allen) I had the privilege of seeing this twice in the theaters, and even had a strong hankering to see it a third, but I waited for the DVD availability. It is fair to say that, the first time I saw it, I "only" enjoyed the film, nothing more. But upon additional viewings, I became aware that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a film by a director with nothing left to lose or hide. I have likened this condition and circumstance to a director like Preminger who, at the end of his career, had established himself to such an extent that he felt free to (as Roger Ebert put it in his 1971 review of Preminger's Such Good Friends) experiment and experience a customized sense of freedom, "because what Preminger once invested in width he [has] now invested in depth." Amidst Allen's balmy, summery lightweight "spree-film" feel, there is a startling and exciting kind of maturity in Allen's voice. It is not that I am saying he lacked a maturity prior to this film, but this particular sense of maturity feels new to Allen. This film possesses the voice of someone who is willing to admit that relationships based in (a) impetuosity/white-hot passion/tempestuousness, (b) submission, (c) longing for security, or (d) solely within the aesthetic or cerebral, are all equally indictable, faulty and shallow. After a lifetime of films (40-some films from 1966 onward), a majority of which deal in topics involving relationships and finding happiness in your other, Allen with this film has channeled his insights on the dynamics of human relationships into a work that encapsulates a great deal of what came before. And I am not even mentioning that he seems to have dropped his annoying habit of designating a "Woody avatar" in his films of the last ten years (think Branagh in Celebrity or Will Ferrel in Melinda and Melinda, among others), although a lot of that charming Allenesque verbosity and pedantry arises here and there, just as if to remind us whose film it is we are watching. And the performances...I cheered when Penelope Cruz won Best Supporting Actress. She is stunning, and what an entrance she makes! You feel her electricity at all moments. As John Waters put it when he designated this very same film the best of 2008, "it makes heterosexuality look good."
2. FROZEN RIVER (Courtney Hunt) I actually just saw this last night. I agree with everything Mr. Tarantino said about the film at his Sundance appearance. The film put my heart in a vice and twisted it to painful degrees. Films can do that, but it is rare that it can do it to such an extent. Wow.
3. MILK (Gus Van Sant) In recently discussing the current trends in biopics, I gave a friend a copy of Karel Reisz's 1968 film Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora Duncan. I offered it as an example of what biopics can do (evoke a sense of poetry in a genre that relies a great deal of clinical biographical facts) and what most of them tend not to do nowadays. Milk elicited a response in me, and I was a skeptic going into the theater to see it on this account. Van Sant possesses enough dexterity in the directorial department to know that biopics need not be so rigid, or for that matter exploitative or embellishing, in their delineation of fact...and without sacrificing fidelity to the real story. And Van Sant makes choices too -- brave choices that other current Hollywood "journeymen" directors would have altogether avoided...not that a "journeyman" director would have gambled on doing such politically risky and highly topical material.
4. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Tomas Alfredson) I saw this one recently too. How this got past the Academy Awards this year is what I want to know. Oy!
5. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Danny Boyle) Of course, with Danny Boyle, you know a certain amount of over-stylization, tawdriness and plasticity is expected. But the movie still worked me, though.
HONORABLE MENTION: Humboldt County, directed by Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs. This film is a lovingly conceived and executed homage to the "existential dramedic journey films" that were fashionable in the 1970's, with films like Five Easy Pieces and Harry and Tonto. And you've gotta love that ensemble cast, which includes Frances Conroy, the endearing but artfully unnerving Brad Dourif, the ubiquitous Peter Bogdanovich, Fairuza Balk and Chris Messina, who has proven to be this movie year's "master of disguise" (his shift from the stiff, judgmental yuppie bore in Vicky Cristina Barcelona to this film's yeoman pot-farmer he-man is quite a substantial, astounding shift).
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Defiance (what could have been a great movie story turns out to be another plastic Hollycaust drama), The Dark Knight (I was almost totally uninvolved on any real emotional level...it was all mechanical and alienating to me, without a heart really), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (so much possibilities, the mind boggles...and what did they do?), Mister Lonely (good premise marred by lack of focus and lack of ability to evoke audience sympathy for the characters on display)
GUILTY PLEASURES: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (I wish they would drop the opening ten minutes and the annoying, pseudo-funny drunk-girl-on-the-loose subplot, we might have had something more here...but still, a sweet little movie), Cassandra's Dream (okay, so technically this isn't a 2008 film, but it was released in the U.S. this year, so I am counting it)
REALLY LOOKING FORWARD TO THESE IN 2009: 36 Views from Pic Saint-Loup (Jacques Rivette), Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese), Public Enemies (Michael Mann), Whatever Works (Woody Allen)
DVD RELEASE TOP 10
1. ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (Luchino Visconti) Region 2 UK DVD from Eureka! Masters of Cinema Collection One of my favorite films of all time gets a beautiful transfer (beats the hell out of the Image Entertainment disc you can get over here), along with tons and tons of extras!
2. SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (Pier-Paolo Pasolini) Reissued DVD from Criterion Love or hate this film (the former group seeming to be in a decided and largely disapproved-of minority), you've got to admire the Criterion boys' and girls' treatment of it.
3. SATANTANGO (Bela Tarr) DVD from Facets Okay, let's face it, even a small number of real cineastes have had the patience to sit through Bela Tarr's 7-hour opus. I was transfixed, though. But then again, I made a film this past year that, in its sense of black-and-white photographic austerity that could be called "beautifully ugly," shares a kinship with Satantango.
4. CAMP DE THIAROYE (Ousmane Sembene) DVD from New Yorker I never thought I'd see this on disc in this country for some reason. I had been waiting to see it for awhile and it was worth the wait. Featuring an interview with Danny Glover as a disc extra, this film detailing the fate of Senegalese soldiers in the French Army following World War II is a deeply affecting drama about colonialism, with a little so-called "post-colonial hospitality" dashed into the recipe for a work about civil unrest.
5. THE JACQUES RIVETTE COLLECTION Region 2 UK DVDs from Bluebell Respectable-looking transfers (if not perfect) of films long unavailable by one of my favorite directors. The collection includes the director's cut of Love on the Ground, Gang of Four and Wuthering Heights.
6. A DAY AT THE BEACH (Simon Hesera) DVD from Code Red A fascinating and largely missing entry in Polanski's early-mid career body of work.
7. THE HELMA SANDERS-BRAHMS COLLECTION and THE ALEXANDER KLUGE COLLECTION (tied) All DVDs from Facets Finally getting some New German Cinema stuff out there. Ay, Facets?
8. 2 FILMS BY PETER GREENAWAY DVDs from Zeitgeist Films Excellent new transfers of The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts and decent extras from a director with whom I have a highly-respect-but-mostly-dislike relationship. Both come with transfer comparisons as a disc extra.
9. BLAST OF SILENCE (Allen Baron) DVD from Criterion I have a soft-spot for movies shot in New York in the 60's. For this reason, I could watch Blast of Silence, an early noir-indie, over and over again.
10. WOMAN TIMES SEVEN (Vittorio de Sica) DVD from Lion's Gate There's something about an omnibus...even if it's only from one single director. The episodes are freely hit-and-miss and here and there, but an interesting film to put in De Sica's pantheon.