Each of the Notebook's writers were given the opportunity to submit two lists of their ten favorite films of 2008. One is resticted 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.
01 Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke)
02 In the City of Sylvia (Jose Juis Guerin)
03 Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
04 A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
05 Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
06 Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina)
07 Love Songs (Christoph Honore)
08 The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)
09 Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)
10 The Romance of Astree and Celadon (Eric Rohmer)
Compiling a Top 10 list of films that enjoyed at least a one-week theatrical run in the U.S. offers a frustrating glimpse into the current state of distribution. Three of my selections, including my top choice, premiered on the international film circuit more than two years ago, and one of those, Paz Encina's heartbreaking Paraguayan Hammock, is still, as far as I know, unavailable on DVD in any region. The restriction also eliminates from contention nearly all avant-garde work, along with films shorter than feature length. Regrettably, neither of my two actual favorite films of 2008, James Benning's RR and Jennifer Reeves's When It was Blue, are likely to ever qualify for such a list, nor will the work of Nathaniel Dorsky, whose Winter and Sarabande were also among my favorites.
I hope, a year from now, to be able to write again about the best narrative features I saw in Toronto: Claire Denis's sweet ode to her grandfather (by way of Ozu), 35 Shots of Rum; Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, which represents a significant evolution for one of the world's finest filmmakers; Albert Serra's hilarious and sublime Birdsong; Gotz Spielmann's Revanche, a smart and perfectly executed genre film; Hirokazu Kore-eda's touching family drama, Still Walking; and the most impressive debut of the year, Pablo Aguero's Salamandra. Several of them have already lined up American distribution for 2009, but more than two years later, I'm still waiting for an opportunity to revisit Alonso's previous feature, Fantasma, so I won't hold my breath. Best of times, worst of times, indeed.
The good news about the "one week rule" is that it allows me one more opportunity to sing the praises of Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life, which, especially when viewed alongside Jia's accompanying documentary, Dong, earns my vote for the best film of the decade. On the recently released DVD (which includes both films and is gorgeous to look at -- my favorite release of the year), Jia discusses how he approaches his ultimate subject, the rapid transformation of China. "In reality, there are always two approaches: realistic or fictional. Generally speaking, if it's something that I've observed in life for a long time and have my own conclusions, I choose to use fiction to show the result of my thinking. On the other hand, China is a place with lots and lots of sudden incidents, and I love carrying my camera and capturing the moments siumltaneously to feel it during the recording." Inspired by what he calls the "vanishing city" he encountered upon first visiting the Three Gorges Dam project, Jia has made two more hybrid films set in a real world so strange that only an artificial marker of fiction (a space ship lift-off, believe it or not) distinguishes the "narrative" film from the "documentary." If someone asked me to describe the 21st century, I'd probably just show them Still Life and Dong and be done with it.
Apparently 2008 was a particularly strong year for French cinema. Four of my selections are by French filmmakers, and two others, Jose Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon, are French co-productions shot in France with French actors. I'm not sure what if anything these films have in common, other than each filled me with some sort of genuine delight (the older I get, it seems, the more content I am to just relish in delight). The cafe sequence in Sylvia actually made me laugh out loud, I was so ecstatic. I felt a bit like Emmanuelle Devos in her final scene of A Christmas Tale, when she balls her fists, smiles deeply, and the whole world explodes around her.
That there's only one English language film among my top 10 can probably be attributed both to my tastes (I don't see too many) and to the generally poor quality of American releases this year. Jon Favreau's Iron Man was good fun, but the only two other films that threatened to make my list were Jonathan Demme's occasionally brilliant Rachel Getting Married (I love the music and dance sequences as much as anything I saw all year) and Bharat Nalluri's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which, if I didn't know better, I would swear was a Bertrand Tavernier film. (Plus, I can't not love any movie starring Amy Adams.) Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is a real accomplishment, though -- a work of tremendous political rage built from the smallest gestures and from moments of unexpected generosity and grace.
As for the rest of my film-watching year, much of it was preoccupied by the mammoth Ford at Fox DVD boxset and, in recent months, by my rediscovery of the classic MGM musicals I grew up watching with my mother. (Did Kenneth Anger ever make a film as odd and fabulous as Ziegfeld Follies?) I also spent a great deal of time in front of the TV, enjoying the real source of great American narrative filmmaking, HBO. Along with all three seasons of Deadwood, I watched the final episodes of The Wire and then pulled out the DVDs and watched the whole damn series again. If someone asked me to describe America, I'd just let David Milch and David Simon do the talking.