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The Notebook's First Annual Writers' Poll: David Phelps

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.
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Released, 2008:
1. The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas l’hache). Rivette, 2007. Echoes of Ophüls, Oliveira, and the floorboards creaking as people dance on top of them. Shots recollected from Moonfleet, which Rivette remade once as Noroit. Storytelling as a magic spell: the story’s love. The lovers write each other’s part—if not their own. Pure Rivette, like nothing he’s quite done before, and, who knows, maybe the film of the decade.
2. Flight of the Red Balloon. Hou, 2007. A scary film, with a child’s sense of discovery of the quotidian world , even while the child it depicts retreats from the world wisely (and the mother loses herself in child’s puppetry). In that sense, not far from Night of the Hunter. But would make a real double feature with The Taste of Green Tea Over Rice—is Hou’s great theme, like Ozu’s and Lubitsch’s, the fun of civilities and niceties in dealing, so inadequately, with total despair and emotional chaos?
A Christmas Tale. Desplechin, 2008. A third movie about people on retreat from the world to create one of their own… if a timeless theme (Quixote), a timely one (Playstation)… it comes up again.
3. The Man from London. Tarr, 2007. Tarr takes the premises of usual hard-boiled noirs—a noir plot, and the idea that men are ciphers and shadows and shells, playing their roles in sinister plots—then shows it visually: a huge city fortress men walk through like pieces on a game-board, specks between the walls. Van Trier’s taken up that game-board metaphor literally, but Tarr cares about his movie as more than just a mechanism; the people here are real people (as usual for Tarr, we feel their weight), just living in a dead world.
Mary. Ferrara, 2006. True here too as well; Ferrara uses slow, lateral tracking-shots as if to wall in his characters, and long, Kubrick-like plunges down corridors (belying entrapment, among other things), and in fact, everyone here’s locked in to their lives: a polite talk-show host who talks like Charlie Rose even at his luxury home with his girlfriend; a run-away woman who may think she’s Mary Magdalene (though she may be the liberated one); a swaggering director who locks himself up with his film rather than leave it to save his life; even Jesus, whose impossible emergence from the tomb is the film’s point of departure. They’re all playing roles.
Like Marco Bellochio, in his already forgotten The Wedding Director (another release this year), Ferrara mixes about five different layers of reality—the film itself, a film within the film, a documentary within the film, a TV show within the film, and possible hallucinations—while his camera pans over TVs and plays shot-reverse-shot with a crucifix, to show his characters primarily as flattened, Biblical images on soundstages struggling and failing to claim their place in the world (the soundtrack sounds built on a void, and the camera simply circles as they stammer and gape about God to faraway forces over the telephone or up in the heavens, to try to get a response from outside their room). There is Brakhage-like editing as scenes dissolve in and out with each other (present and past tense collapses; this is, after all, a modern-day story of Mary), with abstractions of New York’s lights—again, an inability to find a place in the world, when it’s seen at a distance over the bridge—and there are sudden ruptures of violence that seem less like reality breaking through than nightmares of chaos just beyond a civilization of very well decorated apartments. (The talk show host lives in Brooklyn—for Ferrara, the ultimate sign of his remove).

Above: Rock & Flow: Mary
And finally, there are intimations of miracles (small, possible miracles, as in Ordet), which are perhaps just more lies and delusions that these people tell themselves, while they all try to find a way to confess. But there’s another effect to all those microscopic tracking shots and hallway plunges and circling movements (as if around statues) while characters look off-screen: the suggestion of unseen elements just beyond the reach of the frame.
The Romance of Astree and Celadon (last ten minutes). Rohmer, 2007. A bedeviled b-side to Langeais, but those last ten minutes…
Return to the Scene of the Crime. Jacobs, 2008. When it came out, I wrote: “Jacobs's return to a single scene from the 1905 short Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son—which he first disassembled in his 1969 masterpiece of the same name—could easily be titled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Scene.” An avant-gardist's late, loose comedy, Return riffs on thirteen distinct styles, revealing, distorting, interpreting, and even misinterpreting the hundreds of actions in a single scene—as painting, abstraction, allegory, and, ultimately, as ballet.”
Above: The Dark Night Zero: Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler
4. Boarding Gate. Assayas, 2007. Yet another film in which an attempt at retreat is excuse for discovery…
The Dark Knight. Nolen, 2008. Lang for kids—but Lang was always for kids.
In the City of Sylvia. Guerin, 2007. Guerin should make a war film.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Mungiu, 2007.
Also (because preferences don’t come neatly):
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2008 Premieres:
1. Cosmic Ray x 3. Conner, 2008?
The Headless Woman. Martel, 2008.
2. A Christmas Tale. Desplechin, 2008.
La frontière de l’aube. Garrel, 2008. The best Garrel I know (saying something). More soon.
Sarabande. Dorsky, 2008.
3. Four Nights with Anna. Skolimowski, 2008. Even in the year of Two Lovers (its perfect double feature), this is the film of a Hitchcock voyeur. Lots of shadows, four variations off a fantasy (remembered or hallucinated?), and the story of a guy afraid and excited that his fantasy object might come to life…
RR. Benning, 2008 / Return to the Scene of the Crime. Jacobs, 2008. Two films that simply offer conflicting perspectives on the same event. Bonus spot: The Scenic Route. Jacobs, 2008. Though I was put to sleep through a good portion of its 15 minute running time, when I did wake up, my body jolted in time to the flicker. I closed my eyes to protect myself. Another bonus spot: Momma’s Man. Jacobs, 2008. Son gets existential malaise. Mom offers a sandwich to make everything better. He stays locked in his room. This is the good sign he’s no longer a child. Ken and Flo Jacobs aren’t just incredible; they’re real!
Summer Hours. Assayas, 2008. Characters sell off Corots, but Summer Hours ends with something just out of La danse des nymphes
Two Lovers. Gray, 2008. Coming soon.
Runners-Up: Horizontal Boundaries. O’Neill, 2008.; Winter. Dorsky, 2008; Tokyo Sonata. Kurosawa, 2008; Sparrow. To, 2008; El Dorado. Assayas, 2008; Wendy and Lucy. Reichhardt, 2008; Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh, 2008; Tony Manero. Larrain, 2008.
Bonus place: Burn After Reading. Coens, 2008. Ultimate Coens: lots of coincidences that all just are fate out to get everyone’s asses in a perfectly self-contained world. A huge step up after No Country For Old Men, thanks mostly to J.K. Simmons.
Recent films, not recent enough: Christopher Columbus, The Enigma. Oliveira, 2007; Tout est pardonée. Hansen-Løve, 2007; United Red Army. Wakamatsu, 2007; Chouga. Omirbaev, 2006.
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For its 50th anniversary, Vertigo made allusions in A Christmas Tale, The Headless Woman, and Two Lovers (and In the City of Sylvia for its 49th). Any other generalizations to be made here about the films of 2008 would be about the state of distribution. Still, did La Frontière de l’aube and Two Lovers lose out because they posit (if skeptically) the possibility of true love?
So instead, to the NYC retros of the year:
Florence Almozini and Adrienne Mancia’s Oliveira retro (BAM) and James Quandt’s Oshima retro (Lincoln Center) are obvious: two modern masters who should have changed film finally get their chance in the states. But for me, The Film Society’s Jennifer Jones retro (Lincoln Center) was the great knock-out of the barely-living's retrospectives (there’s still room for collaboration: her thrusts at staid aristocracies, ripping them open like a courtesan would her corset, befit Oliveira as well as her gun-toting romances might Oshima). Not only were rare, should-be-classics shown (Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary, with Van Heflin struggling to keep up with his camera; Michael Powell’s glow-in-the-dark Gone to Earth; and Ernst Lubitsch’s and King Vidor’s masterpieces, the colorfully titled Cluny Brown and Ruby Gentry), not only was Josef von Sternberg’s brilliant screen-test for Duel in the Sun uncovered (a persuasive argument that all Sternberg is screen tests, not far from Warhol, but with some objects to tinker with), and not only was one of the greatest American actresses given her due as the flip-side to Barbara Stanwyck’s brass-belted opportunism, the snappy lass. Stanwyck is American fantasy: she pulls the strings (men are on them). Jones is American reality, unable to control herself, and controlled (and not) by everyone around her.
But a case was even made for Jones as auteur (credit probably goes to husband David Selznick, who chose all her scripts, and ostensibly treated her as men in her movies). Lower-class girl resents her place, goes wild in defiance, makes men wild in defiance, and for the most part, they determine to put her back into it as she plays whore/mistress to their fancies and they try to fuck her and fuck her over. She can’t escape her roots but, with a good American perversion of the Golden Rule, treats them likewise.
Lubitsch, of course, puts all sorts of spin on the formula, the best of which is that she aspires not to command and conquer, like the old Americans in the Westerns, but to middle class safety of cocktail games and decent plumbing.
The Film Forum’s Otto Preminger retro, Kent Jones’ William Holden retro (Lincoln Center), and Jake Perlin’s Hawks! retro (BAM) showed the usual classics with rare, absolute gems: The Fan, The Moon is Blue, Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Man from Colorado, The Key, The Road to Glory, and Ceiling Zero, a film about as good as anything. These are the movies I should have written about this year. Jed Rapfogel’s Late Hawks retro (Anthology) did likewise, showed mostly masterpieces, and made the case that late Hawks is also as good as anything, and that Hawks, auteur that he is, developed a style new and all his own when he was old. The proof is the bitter Red Line 7000, kept out of circulation.
And finally, Jytte Jensen (MoMA) programmed Ordet and Gertrud, infinitely great films infinitely greater on film.
As Herr Hutch once said to Herr Starsky: “I like your style.”
Any excuse to mention Mabuse, eh? Amazing images from Mary; the nocturnal shots from the point of view of the car roving around Midtown Manhattan is a real highlight of that film.
Yeah even it means putting that Zeitgeist cock-suck of a rip-off The Dark Knight on my top ten. Mary‘s really about people trying to get in touch with each other; mostly Ferrara shows the alienations(people on TV screens), but what’s amazing is when he shows them making contact—in the dissolves, or the street fight—and it still seems so tenuous. Or unreal. And Fernando, I like my style too. In moderation.

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