22 December 2008

Best Movies of 2008

Another year has passed, and it's once again time for Indiewire's annual film critics' poll. Final results are still being tabulated, but as of this writing, 78 ballots had been posted. My favorite film of the year, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon, appears to be headed for a somewhat improbable win, with Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale currently running second. My full ballot is here and my annotated Top 10 is below.

1. The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France)
Lyrical and poignant, the Taiwanese master's first film set outside of Asia further plumbs the aesthetic and existential depths explored in his masterful Café Lumière. The film unfolds in large chunks of real time, with Hou's camera gazing patiently at a world of perpetual flux and evanescence.

2. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, U.S.)
For many Americans of a certain political persuasion, 2008 was, above all else, the year of Barack Obama and the promise of political change. Arriving during the depths of the summer, WALL-E rode that wave, most explicitly in its closing-credits sequence, in which a benign intelligence helps the human race to rebuild the world from scratch. Like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the many references to which feel wholly earned, WALL-E ends on a profoundly affirmative note of transcendence and renewal.

3. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, U.S.)
Van Sant's Harvey Milk biopic was fine and may well score him a long-overdue Oscar nomination, but this multiply-distanced reverie involving an unexplained death and an introverted Portland skater kid, is the far more interesting of his two films this year. Like Lucrecia Martel's similarly ethereal The Headless Woman (a sure thing for next year's best list if it finds a distributor), Paranoid Park probes the loss of reality and the effects thereof on our moral percpetions.

4. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
Located in some twilight zone where documentary meets science fiction, Jia's visually astounding meditation on the physical and spiritual displacement caused by China's rapid economic development triumphs through the sheer force of its images, courtesy of the great cinematographer Yu Lik-wai.

5. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)
As the weather and the economic news both got chillier, this contempoary update of Umberto D began to feel as much a movie of the zeitgeist as WALL-E. Michelle Williams shines as a flawed but sympathetic everywoman on the verge of falling off the socioeconomic map. See "NYFF #2," posted September 27.

6. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
Desplechin's maximalist family melodrama really highlights the aesthetic shortcomings of something like Rachel Getting Married, proving that it is indeed possible to make a movie about endlessly combative relatives that's not excruciating to sit through.

7. Mary (Abel Ferrara, U.S.)
The least heralded film on my list, Ferrara's response to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ continues the Bad Lieutenant director's career-long explorations of the physical reality of New York City and the spiritual aridity of contemporary life.

8. Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, U.S.)
Ben Stiller's work as a director has generally either been damned with faint praise (Zoolander) or outright reviled (The Cable Guy). Most reviews of Tropic Thunder tended toward the former but, like its predecessors, this take-no-prisoners satire of war movies, Hollywood insularity, actorly vanity, and human hubris will gain in critical stature in the coming years.

9. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Hong's body of work certainly hews closely to Jean Renoir's notion that a filmmaker's career consists essentially of remaking the same film over and over. This dryly comic tale of the romantic misadventures of a filmmaker with writer's block may be his film's best iteration.

10. Che (Steven Soderbergh, U.S.)
See "NYFF #3," posted October 5.

Second 10 (in alphabetical order): Ballast (Lance Hammer, U.S.); The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, France); Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, U.S.); Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, U.K.); In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerin, Spain); Iron Man (Jon Favreau, U.S.); Milk (Van Sant, U.S.); My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada); Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (John Gianvito, U.S.); The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, U.S.)