Wednesday, 31 December 2008

[111] Wild Tyme's Films of 2008, part 1

I know I already posted an end of year toplist a week or so ago. However, that list omitted films. I'd like to redress that with a last-minute recap, an indulgent look over the shoulder at some films I really enjoyed this year. My general rule applies: if I saw it in a darkened theatre, between January and December, it counts as this year. Of course, there are always borderline cases, as foreign films are distributed sometimes up to 2 years after their initial release. But we can argue about that all day, and it is quite a pointless debate to be having anyway. Lists are very arbitrary time-wasters , but I want to put down in writing some of the films that really interested me this year (scanning over the posts on this blog, I've written about very few of them).

I saw 35 films this year; most were in the first 6 months, as once I moved to London the prices were too high to sustain regular trips. A surprisingly high proportion were winners in my book: admittedly, some were the overflow from 2007, which by most accounts was a better year overall, but I still saw very few films I disliked (Sex and the City and Mister Lonely are conspicuous in that regard).

Let's get on with it. 20 notable films from the last 12 months, in chronological order, split across two posts for coherence.


I'm Not There (dir. Todd Haynes)

The first film I saw this year, and one of the most stylish. Todd Haynes manages to subvert the conventional biopic format by casting multiple actors not as Bob Dylan, but as various evocations of Dylan's mythos and musical legend. Standout performance was from Cate Blanchett , as the androgynous, spider-y mid-1960s troubadour poet, whose life is in black-and-white and threatens to morph into Richard Lester freak-outs or absurdist Fellini homages. The production is superb and varied, with as much genius as 5 separate films packed into one complex, beguiling enigma. A fitting tribute to the artist in question.

Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant)

A quiet, subtle picture, Paranoid Park opened the year with a meditation on innocence, maturity and teenage life. An art-house experiment in every sense of the word, from the lo-fi, elegiac handheld cinematography and evocative, eclectic soundtrack to the Myspace-culled teenage cast. Also probably the film from this year I've written most about, as I reviewed it for Film International. At the end of that piece I said: "Like Rian Johnson, who in Brick (2005) mixed elements of high school drama with hard-boiled detective noir, in Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant tinkers with the formula of teenage melodrama, and creates an artistic hybrid of styles and moods".

No Country For Old Men (dir. The Coen Brothers)

Another big film from 2007, which rightly won accolades across the board. The Coen Brothers crafted this pseudo-western from Cormac McCarthy's novel, bringing in a healthy dose of their jet-black humour. I was one of the few in the audience that picked up on the darkly humorous side of the film. Javier Bardem is unforgettable and already-iconic in the role of the Anton Chigurh, and Tommy Lee Jones is dejected and vulnerable, but it is Josh Brolin, otherwise a side-man or supporting actor, who made the movie for me.

Lust, Caution (Se, Jie, dir. Ang Lee)

Ang Lee returns to Chinese cinema with the most sensual film of the year. Stylistically rooted in its target period of the 1940s, this political-sexual thriller elevated its social upheaval onto a physical plain. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is restrained and subtle in his portrayal of government official Mr. Yee.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile, dir. Cristian Mungiu)

A big-hitter from Cannes, this Romanian film was blunt and affecting. Set towards the end of the Ceauşescu Communist period, the story told of illegal abortion and the shady dealings of a paranoia-stricken society. The naturalistic cinematography, and droll, bland colour scheme, made 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days stark and harrowing in feel as well as content.

There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Daniel Day Lewis is a totemic, almost mythical actor. I'm not a particular disciple of his, but there is no doubt that his performance as Daniel Plainview is the epicentre of this oil-centric epic. Nevertheless, Paul Thomas Anderson's film has an impressive, ambitious scope, tracing Plainview's fortunes, follies and ethical deterioration at that tantalising period between Old West prospecting and the early 20th century. The score by Jonny Greenwood and cinematography from Robert Elswit is also stunning, visceral, and memorable.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon, dir. Julian Schnabel)

Adapted from the memoir written by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby after suffering a stroke, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly boldly shifts in style and mood, from comedy to drama to life-affirming poetry. The decision to film in French, gives the film a touching sincerity in these brutally adaptionist times. In the face of its doom-and-gloom subject matter, it mirrors the source material in its celebration of life and verve for expression. Schnabel's experimental approach, mostly shooting scenes from point-of-view angles, and utilising effects and focus to enhance this perspective, is unique and successful. The writing is sharp and funny, and Mathieu Amalric's portrayal of Bauby, essentially a voice-over, is entracing.

Persepolis (dirs. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)

Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel, Persepolis, is an evocative and charming work, speaking of her years growing up in Iran during and after the 1979 revolution. The translation to screen retains her simple, but eloquent art style, and looks stunning in animation. Persepolis tackles issues of major international importance, especially in terms of the demonisation of Iran and its population in the eyes of Europe and America, but it is at heart a personal story of growing up. The English dub (which also features Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop) is notable for being just as pleasant and 'authentic' as the original French, with both Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve reprising their integral roles as Marjane and her mother.

Planet B-Boy (dir. Benson Lee)

One of the surprises of the year for me. Planet B-Boy didn't have much in the way of coverage from any magazines or sites as far as I recall, and I saw it packed in the Electric Cinema in Birmingham with a bunch of local dancers as part of the Birmingham Dance Festival. A documentary about the annual Battle of the Year breakdancing competition, following 5 of the crews from France, USA, South Korea and Japan. Touching on relevant social topics such as fame, ambition and youth culture, the film manages to side-step preaching or condescending by focusing on the dancers and their families. The result is endearing, tender and laugh-out-loud funny. It also, unsurprisingly, features some wildly impressive sequences displaying the technical virtuosity and sheer coolness of b-boying as a dance style.

Grindhouse (dirs. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez)

After complaining about the international split of Tarantino and Rodriguez's exploitation-fest in 2007, I gleefully grabbed at the chance to see the full double-feature cut of the flick when it played in limited cinemas earlier this year. Planet Terror is still a caffeine-high thrill of gore and cocked-eyebrows, and Death Proof benefits from a trimmed, lean cut. Add in the hilarious fake trailers, which the international audiences missed, and you have an evening of broad, unabashed horror entertainment. As a cinema-going experience, this is one-of-a-kind, as, it seems, even smaller, independent cinemas shy away from double features and schlock. It's a shame it wasn't so successful.

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