Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ten Best Films of 2008

1. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/France/
The clear choice for the year's best, Lucrecia Martel's third feature articulates its female lead's psychological distress in terms of a narrative opacity that lifts in tandem with its heroine's renewed perception of her world. This cognizance, however, does not extend to the level of the social, which Martel analyzes in a mise-en-scène that continually reserves focus for her female protagonist while locating society's more marginal figures in an out-of-focus periphery. As with her 2001 La Ciénaga, Martel powerfully visualizes her metaphor - though, it is worth adding, she does so to a much more rigorous degree in The Headless Woman. Form and subject are indeed remade into one in this foremost masterpiece of the new Argentine cinema.

2. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
J-horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa's generic change of pace represents nothing less than the director's best, savaging his nation's institutions (namely, the Japanese patriarchy, capitalist system, postwar anti-militarism and familial structure) and self-image, within a subtly expressionistic visually field. Timely mining remarkably similar thematic terrain to Laurent Cantet's Time Out (2001) with its out-of-work company man going to work daily, Kurosawa extends his critique to the film's other three family members who each challenge the authority of the aforesaid institutions. Kurosawa, however, reserves a revolutionary narrative "earthquake" or reversal for the final act, providing the ideal impetus for the film's ethos of resistance.

3. Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)
Shirin represents a new point of extremum in Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's aesthetic-defining exploration off-camera space: here Kiarostami presents an entire, ninety-minute narrative feature off screen. As we hear the film's dialogues, sound effects and conventional scoring, Kiarostami invites us to in effect make the film we never see, to supply it with a style, a visual look and so on. On-screen, Shirin presents more than one hundred, almost uniformly beautiful Persian actresses (and, jarringly, Juliette Binoche) as they react to the picture that we never see. Their performances, however, register excesses underscoring the gap between their gestures and what appears on the unseen screen.

4. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
Yet another filmmaker working at his peak, Olivier Assayas essentially adopts the pattern of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times (2005) in remaking his own corpus - especially his previous peak Cold Water (1994) and the fine Late August, Early September (1998) - through a three-part structure. While less clearly demarcated than in the Hou, each segment centers on a generation, who demonstrate France's evolving materialistic values. In fact, Assayas seems most critical of his own age-group, positioned between their family-minded elders and communitarian juniors. This is Assayas at both his most French and Asian, registering their distinctive naturalisms through an often mobile camera.

5. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/Netherlands/
Emphasizing tactile experience and sensory memory to extraordinary effect, Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool adopts a conventional modernist strategy of long, often static takes to procure these realist qualities. Alonso likewise often holds his shots well beyond their narrative purpose has concluded, thus providing a visual analogy for his narrative structure: Liverpool continues even after on-screen subject Farrel has left the field-of-vision for the final time, thus emphasizing the robustness of life that this single film is unable to contain in its entirety. In other words, Alonso adapts modernist film language in the image of a narrative that seeks to do the same.

6. Two Lovers (James Gray, United States)
Perhaps the past year's biggest surprise - in spite of writer-director James Gray's notable previous forays into the Russian world of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, Little Odessa (1994) and We Own the Night (2007); Gray is, in this regard, the supreme hedgehog of the US cinema, never straying very far from home - Two Lovers is easily 2008's most precise piece of American filmmaking. Modifying its classical decoupage in the variable image of superlative lead Joaquin Phoenix's variable psychology, Two Lovers offers a very traditional Jewish morality to replace the explicitly aestheticized romance of Phoenix and WASP love interest Gwyneth Paltrow. French critics a -->gain appear to be on the vanguard when it comes to the American Gray.

7. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France/Germany)
Claire Denis's latest is the filmmaker in her most effective idiom, the romantic narrative poetics of her Friday Night (2002), following on the substantially more obscure fragmentation of the director's L'Intrus (2004). Here, as with her 1999 Beau Travail, movement returns to the fore, though in this instance it is less fetishistic exposition than the construction of a pattern of living particular to Paris's outer-suburb African immigrant community. These mobile, train-situated framings provide one of many echoes with Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring (1949) source - as do the film's rice-cookers, static corridor set-ups, and its' concluding wedding - that Denis nevertheless transforms in the image of a racially-mixed 21st century France.

8. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
One of this year's series of narratives depicting a rare family gathering, A Christmas Tale distinguishes itself for the pure bravado of Arnaud Desplechin's post-classical (and post-modern) direction. Adopting essentially every technique available to the filmmaker - from a shadow play to split-screen - Desplechin utilizes each as a means of maintaining a moment-to-moment quality of formal surprise; Desplechin, in other words, dislodges his signifiers from what they signify, selecting strategies instead for their syntactic effectiveness. This is filmmaking at its most free and intuitive, qualities that are no less present in the director's outstanding My Sex Life... or How I Got into an Argument (1996) and Kings and Queen (2004).

9. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, United States)
That Gran Torino represents actor-director Eastwood's best work in four years should come as no surprise: after all, this is the septuagenarian hyphenate's first on-camera turn since his 2004 masterpiece Million Dollar BabyGran Torino showcases Eastwood's latest 'Dirty Harry' incarnation in his scenery-chewing best, very much in the supremely-entertaining Heartbreak Ridge (1986) mold. That Gran Torino also represents, reportedly, Eastwood's final on-screen performance insures the film's importance to the director's career-spanning examination of the aforesaid archetype he first created in Siegel's film. In Harry's final act, Walt Kowalski transforms himself into Christ-like sacrifice. Pure pleasure for auteurists everywhere.

10. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes, Portugal/France)
The work of former film critic Gomes, Our Beloved Month of August forces its viewer to consider how works of cinema are commonly constructed, with sound recorded or created independently of the images captured on-camera. In so doing, the spectator is disabused of the incorrect impression that sound issues from the same location as the image, an impression that most films work hard to elicit. In this way, which is to say according to its substantial self-reflexivity, Gomes's work reflects his national cinema's profoundly modernist orientation. Gomes has also produced a film that traces the creditable looseness of its subject to the film's many key collaborators (a point made especially in its closing credits). In this respect, Gomes reminds us of something else that is essential to cinema: namely, that films are rarely created by lone artists.

1 comment:

indraneel said...

it is strange that someone can ignore Angelopoulos 'the dust of time'- that was 2008 release - all this list-o-mania is very american and therefore typically not very healthy exercise since it follows the rationale basis of conventional movie world. Of the least , that one can do is to omit all reference to crap American and English movies - if there are some that are worthy of reference - they are very handful like Egoyan; it will make no difference.