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The Notebook's First Annual Writers' Poll: Daniel Kasman

Each of the Notebook's writers were given the opportunity to submit two lists of their ten favorite films of 2008.  One is restricted to films receiving at least a week's theatrical run in the U.S., a limitation regretfully imposed only so that we may arrive at a final tally of the Notebook's overall favorites released this year.  The second list is optional, and opens up the field to anything seen in 2008, new or old, festival or regular release.  Each writer is also given space for words of explaination, rant, annotation, or anything else that occurs to them about their film viewing in 2008.
Films shown theatrically in the U.S. this year:
Don’t Touch the Axe (Rivette, France)
What to say about this consistently unexpected masterpiece?  Funnel all the mystery of magic, conspiracy, and performance into the creaky floors and crackling fires of Restoration interiors, a brooding one-legged man, and the coyest of women and the result is something of cinematic transmutation.  Realism + play (playful, but maybe with some theatre play in the mix), realizing the essence of cinema.

Still Life (Jia, China)
Even without seeing Jia's documentary Dong which forms a diptych with this movie, Still Life lives vibrantly, a re-invention of neo-realism after having absorbed the goliaths of China and Hou Hsiao-hsien.  Another notch in the slowly expanding belt for the beauty and politicism of digital cinema.

In the City with Sylvia (Guerin, Spain)
The old cinema staples of desire, reflection (and refraction), dreams, and voyeurism given an edge as lovely as it is disturbing in Guerin's lilting film of pursuit and definition of memory, a beautiful woman moves mysterious through city and mind, inspiring man and cinema a like.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou, France)
More simplicity ennobled by dedication to small moments, to lyricism, to realism, to ellipses, to cinematic humility, to a belief that anything and everything is cinematic.  Let's send Hou abroad again!  What would a New York movie look like through Mark Lee Ping-bing's glorious lenses?

Woman on the Beach (Hong, South Korea)
A terrific festival film finally seeing the light of day, Hong's unconscious bid for a more accessible cinema expands his scope to finally encompass the thoughts and feelings of the women his movies are so centered on.  The filmmaker's intriguing structural plots—mirroring and rhyming—are getting more subtle and playful, his characterizations more rich.

La France (Bozon, France)
A French World War I pop musical with the melancholy of a Jacques Tourneur horror thriller.  Is there anything more I need to say?

Wall-E (Stanton, USA)
Like the Guerin, the Hou, and the Rohmer, this is pure cinema, but coming from Hollywood it is most unexpected and from Pixar all the more charming.  What the second half loses in magic it makes up in shockingly confrontational politics, but ultimately the film proves what Chaplin did not so long ago: simple cinema is the perfect vehicle for universal, human emotions.

Romance of Astree and Celadon (Rohmer, France)
Two New Wavers topping the lists this year (and Chabrol's feature and Godard's Viennale trailer are also fantastic), but where Rivette goes from realism to magic, Rohmer goes from realism to realism.  Stilted acting, soft and subtle eroticism, simple camera pans, gorgeous, silent movie like locations—Rohmer's supposed last film is an ode to the loveliness of what is in front of the camera.

Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt, USA)
The best released American film by far gives the real, authentic name to American independent cinema through its modest, considered style, poignant politics, and, of course, dedication to character and acting.  Reichardt has solidified her position as one of America's greatest working directors.
Profit Motives and the Whispering Wind (Gianvito, 2007)
The simplest of all these films, and yet the most historically rich, and like the Rohmer and Rivette, cinematically primal and immediate.  Graves and landmarks, American history, and the sound, look, and feel of the passing wind (and time).

New films seen this year:

Sarabande/Winter (Dorsky, USA)
Two films—especially Sarabande—I am literally incapable of describing beyond waxing on and on vaguely in pedantic terms like "pure cinema," "unspeakably gorgeous," and "awesomely moving."
Liverpool (Alonso, Argentina)
A great double-feature with Wall-E, a reference to and a re-invention of silent cinema in a different way.  Alonso's realism is of the old shoot a room like it's a three-dimensional box variety, a breath of fresh air in a contemporary cinema that forgets John Ford's ceilings and floors.  Has the best "insert shot" of 2008 as well.

Itinéraire de Jean Bricard (Straub/Huillet, France) / Le Genou d'Artemide (Straub, Italy)
Straub and Huillet's last film together as well as Straub's ode to the passing of his wife.  The first has all the stark sharp-edges of the couple's most political works, the second the tenderness and warmth many critics miss in even the most essential work of these most essential of filmmakers.
RR (Benning, USA)
With Sarabande, the other great undistributed American film of 2008.  I can't really say much about it other than: trains.  Trains.  And trains.  And pretty much all that they mean and imply in America.  And their lumberous allure.  And their tedium.  And just about everything else.

United Red Army (Wakamatsu, Japan)
A digital epic equal parts Jacques Rivette, insider documentary, and hard-hitting genre B-picture.  Wakamatsu's docu-drama chronicle of the self-destruction of radical leftist students in Japan in the 1970s is one of the great films of the decade.
The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina)
Think Hitchcock and David Lynch in a very holy marriage with European art-house conventions of alienation and you might just imagine the most alluringly allusive of films this year.

Birdsongs (Serra, Spain)
Who says the artiest of the art house can't also be the funniest?  Serra improvises a brilliant, gorgeous, imminently spiritual and often outrageously funny story of the three wise men.

Le Premier venu (Doillon, France)
Much of the greatness of the cinema of 2008 was on the exterior—of the image, of the scene, of the characters—but Doillon here does nothing if not explode the notion of conventional character interiority.  The way these kids think, consider, and act based on their sensibilities and considerations is unlike anything dramas have ever shown us.  A work that makes human interaction, thought, and action seem as uncanny as it may in fact be, once one strips away the facades of the world.
Sparrow (To, HK)
Johnnie To + pickpocket comedy + action movie as a song and dance musical.  The charm and intoxication is overwhelming; this could break To out even more, so where's the distribution?

35 Rhums (Denis, France)
Another recent example of a master filmmaker simplifying with a result no less rich than her previous work.  There has been a lot of Ozu quotations at 2008 festivals, but Denis' tender, impressionistic remembrance of Late Spring pays homage by using it not for reference but for a freely moving inspiration.

Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa, Japan)
Swap out Kurosawa's horror plotlines for that of family melodrama but keep the horror atmosphere.  New melodrmatic chops in such a context, and more comedy too boot—a wonderful evolution of a fantastic director.

Frontier of Dawn (Garrel, France) / Two Lovers (Gray, USA)
An unexpected double-feature at Cannes, a diptych on the angst and melancholy of always assuming your current love will never live up to the ideal of a mis-remembered love of the past.

Night and Day (Hong, France)
Hong pushing the subtle intricacies of plot and character of Woman on the Beach to languorous, effortless new levels.  For a filmmaker often accused of making the same movie again and again, Hong is transforming his art in whispering ways: listen close and tremendous things are being said, changed, and expressed.
Was shocked, getting to Paris, that it looks nothing (unfortunately) like Hou’s/Mark Lee Ping-bing’s halo-lit city—the guy’s “realism” needs severe qualifications.
Are you saying FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON is the new AMELIE in terms of alteration of Paris? Ah, but I never said Hou/Mark’s film was about the realism of Paris…
Amelie is Paris made-for-export; what did Parisians think of it? Flight is Paris made for Hou Hsiao-Hsien alone. And I was agreeing, completely: would be fascinated to see what those guys would turn NYC into.
Do you mean the cityscape shots? There might be some light coloured filters there. But otherwise the streets look right to me. It’s the summer light (blue sky and sun). Paris looks quite different under a grey sky. Amelie was entirely stylized, with artificial colours and heavy filters. It was an idea of Paris, a retro aesthetic. The French audience and Parisians alike loved it. Like HHH, Hong sang-soo did a good job at showing the real Paris, with its back streets, a pedestrian perspective, instead of tourist postcard places.
Could be it: I had two weeks of relentless grey, though I don’t think I saw a pinball machine my entire time there (and is there graffiti in Flight? I don’t think anyone gets mugged at knife-point either in the film). Anyway, it’s what I mean about Hou’s realism: he always shows what is possible, even familiar; but typical, I’m not sure. One of the great pleasures of Flight, for me, is very Griffith-like: how Hou adds elements shot by shot and scene by scene as if to compose a whole home or city element-by-element.
Again: when do we get Denis here? Also: a good read, as ever, dogg.
Thanks Ryland. Re: Denis, that’s a damn good question. It is so accessible. It has Sony Picture Classics written all over it. I think that bizarre hype of supreme viewer consternation over her last film, L’Inrus, might be to blame, as somewhat baffling as it may be. Has anyone heard about the release (festival or otherwise) of her other new film?
Daniel, Sad to see Mad Detective and Boarding Gate get bumped! Still, a great list. Any chance RR gets a DVD release anytime soon, or any other Benning films for that matter.
I agree it’s not strict realism, but all in all it’s closer to “real life” than Paris Je T’Aime (by the way a NYC version is in production, so you’ll see lots of foreign directors lens the big apple) or Garrel’s. I’m sorry if you got mugged, I don’t think Paris is more dangerous than NYC. Though I wouldn’t want a film to be “typical” and cliché. Great list, Daniel.
Smashing round-up, sir. The Denis and the Alonso specially are worth catching when (if) they come out. It’s always maddening to read a list of unreleased films. A you-can’t-win situation even for most dedicated buffs: I remember reading a Jonathan Rosenbaum piece in which he praised a foreign film (I forgot which one) lavishly, and then ended with something like, “Of course, chances are you’ll never be able to see it.” Grrrr. And I still can’t get that tune from “La France” out of my head.
Frankly, I don’t think most of the unreleased films will remain so for long. SPARROW, THE HEADLESS WOMAN, 35 RHUMS, TOKYO SONATA, and NIGHT AND DAY at the very least will definitely get distribution in the near future (I believe the Kurosawa already has a US distributor)…
Harry—the elements of Hou’s films are all obsessively taken from real life (lots of research goes into the histories), but Hou’s treatment of them is all his own. I don’t mean this as a frustration; I don’t think there’s higher praise to be given to any artist. And Paris is hardly any more dangerous than gentrified New York—except to stupid tourists. Headless Woman’s gonna make it?
Sparrow is already out on U.S. DVD/Blu-ray, courtesy of Tai Seng (a cheapie distributor that mostly just ports Hong Kong editions). There’s still the slim possibility another distributor will give it a big-screen release, but a release from Tai Seng means the sales agent isn’t seriously pursuing a theatrical run — most boutique distributors won’t give the film a second glance if the video rights are already locked up by another company. And a commenter at Filmbrain passed along the as-yet-unconfirmed news that IFC picked up Night and Day, but they’ll be doing their “Festival Direct” thing with it. Tokyo Sonata was bought by Regent Releasing and comes out on March 13th.
Interesting news about SPARROW Norwegian, is Tai Seng a R0 distributor or specifically a US distributor? Because I think there is a subtle difference there, but the news that one of To’s best films is available in the US on video is great indeed. Last I heard (around NYFF), a lukewarm review of NIGHT AND DAY from the New York Times sank IFC Films’ interest in the title, but maybe they meant full theatrical release interest and are instead pursuing the angle you mention. Thanks for the updates!
Tai Seng is a U.S. distributor, out of San Francisco. A lot of their discs are region-free, though (as are the Hong Kong editions). It doesn’t look like there are are any differences between the HK and U.S. releases of Sparrow, but sometimes Tai Seng redo the subtitles.

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