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Films | Joe Bowman

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film-4days.jpg1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that no film was singled out to be placed on the high throne of cinematic divinity like There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men last year (and really, it's too soon to tell how well either of last year's trophy boys will stand the test of time) shouldn't suggest a lackluster year for film. Instead, 2008 should stand as a year of strong, diverse fare, even though six of the ten below made their international debut in '07. I had a lot of difficulty narrowing my list down to just ten, beginning with around 25 worthy choices. If you're struggling to think of half as many films that justified your own love for cinema, I hope this list can point you in the right direction.

More than in the past few years, I feel it necessary to suggest an additional selection of films that were edged out, some for technicalities, the others because ten really is a small number. Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours, which studies the conflicts of inheritance between three siblings (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier) after their mother dies, and Erick Zonca's Julia, a reinterpretation of John Cassavetes' Gloria starring Tilda Swinton, would have made for suitable picks, but Hours won't hit theaters stateside until next spring, and Julia doesn't have a date set. With the economic crisis looming and competition strong, not all exceptional films can be blessed with a theatrical release. The two most striking direct-to-DVD debuts were Inside, the most relentless and uncompromising horror film of the past decade, and The Free Will, a disturbing, unflinching portrait of a convicted rapist's (Jürgen Vogel) assimilation into society. As for the films that officially qualified, the list is as follows (in alphabetical order): Boy A, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (the best nonfiction movie of the year), The Duchess of Langeais, Gomorrah, Happy-Go-Lucky, Hunger, In Bruges, The Last Mistress, Love Songs, Milk, Still Life, Wendy and Lucy and XXY.

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Eleven months later, Cristian Mungui's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days still has the uncanny ability to haunt me. No one appears to know which year this film belongs, as it's appearing on nearly as many critics' awards and Top 10s as it did last year; the only thing certain is that this isn't a film that's going to go away quietly. In addition to winning the Palme d'Or last year, it looks to have single-handedly changed the way the Academy Awards nominates their foreign-language films after the critical outcry when it failed to make the category's shortlist (we'll see how much better they do next year). You may ask yourself, "Does this little Romanian abortion drama really live up to all its praise?" You bet your skeptical ass it does! Unlike the extremely overpraised The Wrestler, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days doesn't suffer the unfavorable comparison to the Dardenne brothers (L'Enfant, The Son) and surprisingly blossoms on repeat viewing. In alleviating the unshakable dread of seeing it initially, the film begins to reveal its devastating power. More than just a shattering portrait of a world without Roe v. Wade, it's the most astute portrayal of woman as warrior that I've seen in a long while, particularly astounding as it was made by a man. Aided by Anamaria Marcina's mesmerizing performance as the roommate of the pregnant girl who selflessly provides the legwork for the undertaking, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a major work about the minor triumphs in the face of personal freedom.

2. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I proceed with each Woody Allen film, post-Deconstructing Harry, cautiously. Every film that's followed seemed to have at least one person proclaiming the director's "return to form," none of which has proven to be true as it seems we've already forgotten about this return by the time his next film hits theaters (which is usually only about a year later). With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen finally lived up to what his fans expected of him, crafting his signature blend of human insight and comedy in ways I thought he had lost. In the "Woody Allen role," Rebecca Hall made the most impressive acting breakthrough of the year, and as Javier Bardem's chemically imbalanced ex-lover, Penélope Cruz electrified every scene she was in, but other than his cinematic love affair with the limited Scarlett Johansson, Allen's choice and direction of actors hasn't really been in question. Has he made up for lost time? I'm not totally sure, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in my book, ranks among the highest tier of Allen's work.

3. Reprise

Though time is usually the best indicator of how well a film "captures a generation," Joachim Trier's Reprise is the first film that comes to mind when I think of that sentiment. In his first feature, Trier, a distant relative of Lars Von Trier, proves to be a tricky filmmaker. At a glance, Reprise is glossy and marginally "hip," but after only a few minutes, it becomes altogether clear that those elements are simple methods of a profound dissection of the lofty ideals of the intellectual, literary-aspiring youth. His depiction of heartbreak and stagnation beneath the façade of intellect, hope and ambition is truly marvelous.

4. Rachel Getting Married

With apologies to Anne Hathaway, I've gotten sick of the attention she's getting for Rachel Getting Married. It's not that she doesn't deserve the acclaim, but her performance as a recovering drug addict let out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding has distracted from the fact that Rachel Getting Married is an astounding motion picture and easily the finest work Jonathan Demme has ever done. Demme moves the film in terms of rhythm, allowing it to crescendo and advance in ways both unexpected and incredibly stirring. In her first screenplay, Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) delicately examines the interpersonal relationships of family during the turbulent time of celebration with remarkable skill. It's probably one of the most successful depictions of guilt that I've ever seen on film, and how more impressive that it's wrapped in such a luminous film.

5. The Edge of Heaven

In shifting between Germany and Turkey, from the perspectives of six people, writer/director Fatih Akin contemplates the nature of identity through national heritage and familial bonds. In keeping the missed connections at a minimum, Akin spends most of his time shaping his characters with the sort of depth one would mostly align with literature. The Edge of Heaven is as sophisticated and devastating as anything you'll see all year.

6. Otto; or Up with Dead People

In approaching a gay zombie art porn flick like Otto; or Up with Dead People, the last thing you expect from it is to be moved, and that was precisely how I felt about Bruce La Bruce's latest offering. In keeping the titular Otto's (Jey Crisfar) conversion to a zombie a thing of speculation (which is never answered), La Bruce makes his state of being something more profound. Otto isn't just a superb culmination of La Bruce's prior efforts, but a shattering examination of exploitation, loneliness, art and crippling ennui.

7. Paranoid Park

It's pretty rare to find a year where three prolific American directors had two films released (four, if you count David Gordon Green with Snow Angels and Pineapple Express). Woody Allen followed the critical failure of Cassandra's Dream with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his most delightful film in ten years. Clint Eastwood lost his ability to hypnotize the American public, who seem weirdly in love with his late career films, with Changeling, and it looks as though Gran Torino won't change that. Gus Van Sant was the only one who impressed with both of his films. I almost couldn't decide whether Milk, Van Sant's wonderful biopic of Harvey Milk, or Paranoid Park, a sort-of epilogue to his experimental Trilogy of Death, settling at the last minute on the latter. Through Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li's gorgeous cinematography and the borrowed music of two Fellini films and the familiar Elliott Smith, Van Sant crafts Paranoid Park into a spellbinding mood piece, a film so dazzling you quickly forget about the lousiness of the actors.

8. A Christmas Tale

Sprawling and thoroughly exquisite, A Christmas Tale might just be Arnaud Desplechin's finest work to date. Enlisting a handful of regulars, including Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Devos and Jean-Paul Roussillon, Desplechin never avoids taking risks, whether it be in length, direct-address, characterization or camera technique, making A Christmas Tale a classic reminder of why we fell in love with French cinema in the first place.

9. Boarding Gate

"You kept the handcuffs?" That rhetorical question, which Sondra (Asia Argento) directs at her former lover (Michael Madsen), is the closest thing to sentimentality you're going to find in Olivier Assayas' cross-continental "thriller," and yet it isn't without conscience (as many proclaimed about his similarly themed demonlover). For an actress and a director who have the tendency to go too far, in good ways and in bad, Argento and Assayas find a balance in one another. She never allows some of his crazier moments to feel out of place, and he finds a center in her and shows it in a way we've never seen her before.

10. Flight of the Red Balloon

The French have always been the greatest admirers of Hou Hsiao-hsien, so it was only a matter of time before he'd end up making a film there. Though essentially a re-imagination of the classic Oscar-winning short film The Red Balloon, the taking in of both Lee Pin Bing's breathtaking images and Juliette Binoche's radiant performance almost makes you forget about that curious balloon altogether. However, in the film's final moments, Hsiao-hsien brings the parallel back so magnificently that even the horrible song that concludes the film can't take away from its magic.

Regretfully, I didn't get the chance to see Ballast, My Winnipeg, Frozen River, Doubt or The Order of Myths before making this list.

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