An Oscars Addendum

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synechdoceThe Oscars were Sunday night and in honor of all they got wrong, missed, and actually sometimes got right,  here's a list of my favorite movies of the year.  They're listed roughly in order of very favorites on top, but I couldn't quite bring myself to number them.  If you click on a movie's title below, you will be linked to its trailer, for your viewing pleasure.

One asterisk denotes: I cried at the movie
Two asterisks denote: I cried at the movie, but I was really drunk

The Edge of Heaven *
Those who know me will understand that I am going to have a hard time arguing that I am NOT biased in favor of this film – a Turkish-German one – but I will at least point out that it was the eighth most well-reviewed movie of the year (according to Metacritic.com), and it found a considerable American audience during its release.  Director Fatih Akin has made a remarkable name for himself in Europe, but this is his most mature and emotionally deep work by far.  Apparently inspired by tired film clichés involving the interconnected lives of strangers, Akin and his marvelous cast, playing richly developed characters, unravel a haunting story of missed connections, supernatural boundaries, and ghost-like transience.  The original German title – Auf der anderen Seite – more directly translates to ‘on the other side’ and is more fittingly ethereal than the too literal ‘Edge of Heaven’.  Unfortunately, much is lost in the English subtitles, which fail to convey the lucid shifts between German and Turkish sensibilities.

Synecdoche, New York *
The most undervalued and misread film of the year is also the one (save ‘The Dark Knight’, I suppose) that I predict will be regarded as 2008's most progressive by film fanatics of the future.  Carrying the weight of extreme depression, Charlie Kaufman’s memorable anecdote stuffed screenplay is certainly not his most accessible, but it might be his best (rivaling his eternally spotless “Being John Malkovich”).  The ever-eager to outdo his-self Phillip Seymour Hoffman carries much of this extreme depression on his shoulders, trembling, sloughing away, and dying in an excruciatingly physical performance.  [What disturbing acting method was amiss this year, when we also consider Mickey Rourke’s desperate bodyslams in The Wrestler, Heath Ledger’s exhausting fatality in The Dark Knight, and Meryl Streep’s insistent aerial splits in Mamma Mia!?]  I went to see Synecdoche, New York with casual acquaintences, looking for fun in all the wrong places.  What we got instead was possibly the most brutally honest and bleakly humored confrontation of art and death ever presented in a film (rolling over Woody Allen's strangely similar Bullets over Broadway with a steamroller), and the most affecting portrait of futility since The Thin Red Line.  Scraping dregs of gallows humor, the movie somehow visualizes one man's life as a grand play wherein his relations are characters designed exclusively for and by him.  But the man is also directing this ongoing biography, thereby suggesting life is a constant struggle to create -- the act of creating being an effort to stay alive and to preserve the unique perspective of a single mind after its expiration.  Watching Kaufman’s intensely ambitious, non-stop-self-deprication-masturbation-extravagana crawl on all fours to its inevitable conclusion sort of feels like dying, because in fact the movie finds that all of life is a slow death, where all ideas and memories and feelings gradually get sick, curl up, and disintegrate.

Wendy and Lucy *
The year’s most (unintentionally?) timely release depicts an intimate account of the perils of joblessness as well as heartbreaking girl-and-her-dog tale.  After her equally wonderful Old Joy, this second knockout by Kelly Reichardt announces the presence of America’s most talented new auteur.  Perhaps taking cues from the Dardenne brothers, the Portland-based director sticks to Oregon for her setting, but moves dramatically away from the serenity of Old Joy and kicks up a suspenseful, muscular, little bitch of a movie.  The film is so tight, efficient, and effortless, that one doesn’t even notice the streaming tears until they have somehow puddled in his lap.  (Okay, MY LAP.  I cried a lot at the movies this year, okay?!)

Waltz with Bashir

The wonderfully creative Israeli export, Waltz with Bashir, transcends its own talking head documentary format and floats and lingers in the mind long after viewing.  The super cool animation rocks and waltzes to a killer soundtrack, and the film is also marvelously poetic -- accessibly tapping into big, troubling ideas about memory, guilt, Lebanon, and the 1980s.  Like Apocalypse Now, Waltz with Bashir suggests that some of those who have been in war, and experienced first-hand the smell and sound of death, might find the experience most easily remembered as a hazy cocophany of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll... although documentary footage of massacred dead bodies cannot be denied.

Paranoid Park
and
Milk
Gus Van Sant has made a career out of being two different filmmakers: the one who makes uncompromisingly gentle paens to hangdog American life, and the one that makes compromisingly gentle crowd-pleasers for American movie studios.  Paranoid Park and Milk represent the most finely tuned work of this director in both respective senses.  Paranoid Park, the United States' other 2008 festival circuit gem out of Portland, OR, envelopes the viewer in a lyrical half pipe -- using skateboarders and their beautiful and anti-social sport as springboards for a haunting rumination on those scary teenage years when honestly looking inwards means taking a daredevil plunge.  On the other hand, Milk is about idealism!  The American way!  Movie stars servicing a greater cause!  But Milk is also the unusual inspirational biopic that feels fun, fancy, and free without being didactic or boring.  That's because the characters, even the smaller ones, are beautifully crafted portraits of interesting people with real feelings and real backstory.  Milk compromises a bit on its too-idyllic reimagining of 1970s San Francisco, and
Paranoid Park compromises with its too-naturalistic (read: bad) acting, but these movies are too important and too likeable to brush aside.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a lark... a sunny and hot release that I speak of in past tense because I remember it like a summer love affair -- a vacation in Spain -- that had to end.  The endless oevre of Woody Allen now includes its own Endless Summer with this irrisistable, funny, and often quite stupid (but in the way that LIFE is quite stupid, see!) comedy that is also the sexiest picture, by far, in said career.  Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are inspired, voracious, beasts of actors that have escaped the confines of their country and are splattering their sweaty fervor all over the world.  They're like King Kong and Fay Wray, and I hope they're never tamed.

The Dark Knight
Occasionally an actor gives a fantastcial performance that no one can or cares to deny.  After Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger has now given two.  And it seems he had some $1billion worth of the world in his grip this time.  As the Joker, he's insane, hysterical, and like the best terrorists, goes to great lengths to ensure you won't take your eyes off him.  The movie The Dark Knight is excellent as well.  Tearing off bits and pieces from not-as-slick, big budget trash piles before it, the movie is cool, exciting, and has a thunderous orchestral confidence that reminded me of the big, crazy 80s movies of my childhood (like Back to the Future or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).  Unfortunately, the scenes with Heath are so hyperelevated, that the long sections without him suffer and feel lesser.  Also, am I the only person who thinks Christian Bale is the most awful actor working today?  Whatever... try as hard as he might, that idiot couldn't beat the villians, couldn't save all the people, couldn't stop the awesome darkness -- haha, super heroes suck!!  This movie made me cackle.

Slumdog Millionaire
In my undergraduate career, I once pleased a professor with my paper on 'Energy in Film'.  Looking back on it, that paper sucked, but maybe if I'd have seen Slumdog Millionaire, I might have been able to better articulate my thoughts. This movie bursts into the viewer's nervous system with a dizzying, razzle-dazzle, rainbow-sprinkled, (and Orientalist) gaze into Mumbai.  The incredibly innovative cinematography dares the pulsing music, the sprightly actors, and the smiling audience to keep up with its gorgeousness... even the colorful subtitles get knocked around the screen!  The story seems ripped from the serials of Charles Dickens, and so it's alternately silly, brutal, and swoony-romantic, but it works.

The Flight of the Red Balloon
My first foray into the cult of Hsiao-hsien Hou affirmed what I've heard about his style -- indeed, he captures the ebb and flow of life like no other director.  I wasn't exactly pinned to my seat during The Flight of the Red Balloon, but I will say I was strangely caught up in this shifting, rhythmic panorama of people in Paris.  Childhood slips away, and this film captures just a tiny portion of that creeping, sneaky process, but even more alluring is The Flight's visual and aural demonstration of how people bob and float... sometimes bouncing into each other, sometimes strung together.

Mamma Mia! **
During the first twenty minutes of Mamma Mia!, I wanted to escape.  My shaking hands gripped my armchair, my eyes frantically searched for the emergency exits, I desperately rummaged through my bag looking for asprin... But then something happened.  Suddenly, lost in a fantasy sequence, Meryl Streep was drunk-driving a yacht while Christine Baranski and Julie Walters capered around like filthy tarts to the tune of "Money Money Money".  I recalled a voice whispering in my ear, "Just relax, you'll enjoy it..."  In a week's time, I would find myself returned the movie theatre -- for the sing-a-long version -- jitterbugging with a stranger and answering Meryl's karaoke cry "Do you want more??!!" with a scratchy-voiced scream of "Yes Meryl, I want more!!!"  The movie is an offence in so many ways, but it strikes a weak spot in me... its message is: anyone can dance.  Dancing is not about good choregraphy, hot bodies, or talent, it's about shaking it like you just don't care.  Mamma Mia! has also apparently been 'proven' by scientists to be the happiest movie of all time.  Not surprising -- the film and its glorious leading lady aggressively INSIST that you have a good time because relaxing and taking it like a champ is the only way to handle this feral monster.

Best Cinematography:
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Performances:
Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia!)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Synecdoche, New York)
Javier Bardem (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Hanna Schygulla (The Edge of Heaven)

Best Screenplay:
Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York)

Best Directors:
Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy)
Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven)

6 Comments

  • 1

    Eric, it's been so long since we've seen you on here. Glad to have you back even if it's just for this one day.

  • 2

    I was dismayed by the Oscars' lack of love for "Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)."

  • 3

    I think you're forgetting about a little movie called, "Saving Private Ryan." Clearly the best movie of 2008. Sheesh!

    J/k. I have been meaning to check all of these movies out and now I'm definitely going to see Synecdoche, NY.

  • 4

    "Pirates", anyone?!

  • 5

    Eric, thank you for writing this.
    You've convinced me to see what 2008 had to offer. I avoided movies entirely this year because here in my hometown, Bland Malfunction, the new megaplex paved over a hay field and it depresses me. There is one notable exception. I was dragged- grim, peevish, eyes practically rolling out of my head- to see Mama Mia by, who else, my mother. She made a federal case of how we needed to see it together and, predictably, how much Meryl & daughter reminded her of us (gag!). I was busy at work and inflamed with political campaignitis which was like having hemorrhoids for 5 months. Why in hell would I want to sit still and absorb this opiate when I could be out prostelitizing? Mom and I had recently engaged in several political "discussions" which cranked up the emotional thermostat unbearably. I smelled sabotage. I had no idea what Mama Mia was about but set my jaw against it as exactly the kind of stupidity that a dumb Republican would like and that my Sondheim sensibilities wouldn't tolerate. And here's the horrible thing that happened to me; I was physically unable to relax and take it like a champ. Like any experience that requires taking a chill pill (tetanus shots and enemas come to mind) I should have just played along. As it was, I dug my heels in and HATED for all I was worth; cringing, scoffing, breaking out the old withering, dead-eyed stare, but the movie was so infectious, so lovable I fell for it against my will. By the wedding scene I was resentfully (hatefully, guiltily) crying along and feeling like a 5 year old brat. By the time I realized how sweet the mother/daughter business actually was, I was just DONE. It was cathartic the way an embarrassing tantrum is cathartic.
    Thank you for showing me that I'm not the only Mama Mia victim/fan out there and that there was more to 2008 at the movies than excruciating guilt.

  • 6

    I was pissed that Happy-Go-Lucky didn't get more love.

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