Combustible Celluloid

What Happened to Me in the Dark

2008: The Year in Review

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It was the year of the well-made entertaining popcorn film. Most serious film artists seemed to falter in the face of these superheroes, comedians, tales of suspense, drive-in movies, etc. It was a fun year, but not exactly a high-quality year. Perhaps the reason for this is the writer's strike from a year ago; the material just wasn't there. Or perhaps a better reason is that those entertainers were making films for themselves, while the so-called "artists" were making films for the Academy. Regardless, I found ten very good -- if not great -- films from among the pile.


1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
Woody's film is brilliantly written, brilliantly performed and physically and artistically alive in many ways, but the reason it reaches #1 is that he seems to have turned a corner with it. For a decade, Allen has made angry, and often unpleasant films, apparently working through a series of issues unknown to anyone but himself. This film showed him newly relaxed. Like Ozu, I believe that he has finally come to accept life's many disappointments and has found contentment in that acceptance. The key to the film is the Patricia Clarkson character, a bundle of regrets who tries to pass on her wisdom, unheeded, to the younger characters. I have no idea if this new Woody will last into next year but for now I like to imagine that he is at peace. (If nothing else, Penelope Cruz gives one of the year's finest performances.)

2. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Another polarizing masterpiece from Hou, which within the rambling narrative has small moments so clear and beautiful that they stand apart from most of the year's whole, entire films. Juliette Binoche won't get any awards for her performance, but it's unquestionably her best work.

3. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
Aside from the annoying "bat voice," Nolan's film was the year's must-see event. It surprised me in so many ways: the vast improvement over the previous film, Ledger's astonishing, posthumous performance, the film's breadth, depth and scope, but most of all it struck me as a film noir for today's troubled times, or perhaps a tormented Fritz Lang picture; it suffered and roiled without ever once mentioning Bush, Iraq or Katrina.

4. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
This is true grace, a Jean Renoir picture magically transported to the 21st century. I have no idea how Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet captured such an astonishingly realistic, emotional weekend in the life of a troubled family without meandering or losing focus (or worse, coming across like a reality show). Anne Hathaway gives one of the year's best performances as the selfish Kym, grounding her in wounded reality so that we understand her rather than hating her.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
It's about more than just a happy person (Sally Hawkins). It's about how that happiness works as a shield; it acknowledges the horrors of the world, rather than ignoring them. The scene with the homeless tramp has been a jumping-off point for the film's detractors, but it's really the key to the entire film. It measures the colossal amount of courage this character has to muster each day.

6. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)
Already misunderstood, Eastwood's film is a deconstruction of his movie cop image just as Unforgiven deconstructed his cowboy image. Whereas he once sneered at law and order in favor of justice, he now sneers at snap judgments in favor of getting to know the color of a man's character. It's a film about legacies, and it's a perfect coda in a legendary career.

7. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke)
Jia returns to low-budget filmmaking, with this masterful look at the flooding of China's Yangtze, gorgeously alternating moments of realism, astonishing poetry and surprisingly funny dry humor. Filled with moving parts and elusive connections, it demands more than one viewing, which I have not been able to give as of yet.

8. Burn After Reading (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen)
Perhaps the biggest problem with this great Coen comedy is very simply that it came after their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. It has that airless quality of some of the earlier Coen films, but it overcomes that with a pristine screenplay and razor-sharp care-free comic performances from an A+ list cast. Each performer gives unselfishly, ridiculously, with virtually no thought of Oscar glory.

9. My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar-wai)
Wong's much-despised, much-ignored American debut has the look of something shallow and inconsequential. But in truth the American road movie is the perfect vehicle for Wong's trademark missed connections. No other film more beautifully captured the feeling of being lost in America.

10. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
The thought of this documentary makes me laugh; after the huge success of Herzog's Grizzly Man, the Discovery Channel must have set up all kinds of groveling meetings with the great German maverick, begging him to make something else, and giving him everything he wanted. The result, amazingly, is one of Herzog's best docs, full of essential information, but also full of funny, cranky moments of the filmmaker at his most personal.

There were at least 15 other films that could easily have made #10 on the list, so for posterity:

Honorable Mention: Appaloosa (Ed Harris), The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson), Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry), Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen), Che (Steven Soderbergh), Chelsea on the Rocks (Abel Ferrara), Choke (Clark Gregg), The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin), Elegy (Isabel Coixet), Fados (Carlos Saura), Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowski), Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard), A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol), Honeydripper (John Sayles), Horton Hears a Who! (Jimmy Hayward/Steve Martino), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg), The Man from London (Bela Tarr), Milk (Gus Van Sant), Mother of Tears (Dario Argento), My Father My Lord (David Volach), My Name Is Bruce (Bruce Campbell), My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin), Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant), Shine a Light (Martin Scorsese), Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle), Snow Angels (David Gordon Green), Step Brothers (Adam McKay), Stuck (Stuart Gordon), Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo), Tre (Eric Byler), The Unknown Woman (Giuseppe Tornatore), The Violin (Francisco Vargas), The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy), WALL-E (Andrew Stanton), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt), You, the Living (Roy Andersson), Young @ Heart (Stephen Walker), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith)

Acting Honors

The following are the ballot entires that I submitted it for the annual San Francisco Film Critics Circle awards.

1. Robert Downey Jr., "Iron Man"
2. Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"
3. Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
4. Clint Eastwood, "Gran Torino"
5. Sean Penn, "Milk"

1. Juliette Binoche, "Flight of the Red Balloon"
2. Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
3. Sally Hawkins, "Happy-Go-Lucky"
4. Penelope Cruz, "Elegy"
5. Michelle Williams, "Wendy & Lucy"

1. Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"
2. Josh Brolin, "Milk"
3. Richard Jenkins, "Step Brothers"
4. Ralph Fiennes, "The Duchess"
5. John Malkovich, "Changeling"

1. Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
2. Amy Adams, "Doubt"
3. Mary Steenburgen, "Step Brothers"
4. Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
5. Catherine Keener, "Hamlet 2"


88 Minutes
Black Belt
Brick Lane
Cachao: Uno Más
Cadillac Records
Charlie Bartlett
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Counterfeiters
Death Race
Fly Me to the Moon
Henry Poole Is Here
The Hottie and the Nottie
I Served the King of England
I've Loved You So Long
The Love Guru
Mamma Mia!
Married Life
Morning Light
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Nights in Rodanthe
One Hundred Nails
The Other Boleyn Girl
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
Sex and the City
Shadows in the Palace
Smart People
Space Chimps
Touching Home
The Wackness
Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins
The Women

December 19, 2008

Movies Unlimtied