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The Notebook’s First Annual Writers’ Poll: HarryTuttle

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.
There is a gap between what critics like and what the lacklustre distribution circuit likes to show to the public. There is the year 2008 for auteur's premières and the year 2008 for the local audience. And the critics dance in between. Reviewing all year long official theatrical releases gives an inaccurate picture of the 2008 creation (not to mention Experimental cinema, documentaries and shorts). And yet, the consensual opinion of the profession is full of films that the public didn't get to see (because so few countries released them and sometimes in only one theatre/festival). How can you get a sizeable population to know the best films of the year, if they make such a fleeting appearance? There is just too much going on at one time, and we can't cancel all things at hands to rush for that one film before it is replaced by the next disposable commodity.

If the Film Criticism Crisis of 2008 taught us anything (new), this would have to be the inadequacy of audience's habits and critics' duty. Not a viable profession.

I used to watch most Zeitgeist movies just to know what everyone was writing about, to make my own opinion. I don't bother anymore.  It costs me. Commercial sensations are unfulfilled. Going to the movies, casual and numbing as watching TV, has lost its singularity. Filmmakers serve us fast-food movies : engineered recipe quickly produced, standard stories quickly forgotten. Rarely anticipated, too often disappointing. Mainstream cinema is so far behind. Even the Coen brothers, Tim Burton, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan who used to make original, creative films with commercial appeal, now accommodate a broader, smoother, duller mainstream taste with formulaic genre. Auteurs are not bothered to make their mark anymore. If they just want to fit in and make big bucks like everyone else, critics can't give them the attention they used to deserve.

The Dark Knight was tastefully spectacular and cleverly written, fair enough for a quality night at the movies, not to register on my 2008 scrolls. Two Lovers was sketchy and emotionally contrived. Burn After Reading was just lame (I only liked the final absurd dialogue at the CIA). There is not much of substance beneath such a professional polish. Capable people making commercial hits is a novelty, it might be a change for the mainstream press and a surprise for the general audience, but it's hardly an achievement in terms of cutting edge cinema. So many movies this year that I didn't even want to watch... But I have to admit, even though I live in Paris, some I have yet to watch here (La Mujer Sin Cabeza; Synecdoche, New York; and Three Monkeys, due in January). Nonetheless I shall provide here a list complying with the American release rules :

TOP10 - 2008 American Releases

1. Still Life (2006/Jia Zhang-ke/China)
2. The Man from London (2007/Béla Tarr/Hungary/France)
3. Woman On The Beach (2006/Hong Sang-soo/Korea)
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007/Cristian Mungiu/Romania)
5. Mukhsin (2006/Yasmin Ahmad/Malaysia)
6. Silent Light (2007/Carlos Reygadas/Mexico)
7. The Band's Visit (2007/Eran Kolirin/Israel) Début
8. Opera Jawa (2006/Nugroho/Indonesia)
9. Paraguayan Hammock (2006/Encima/Paraguay)
10. Hunger (2008/Steve McQueen/UK) Début

Who I'm exited about are auteurs of contemporary cinema thinking outside the box. I seek a thought-provoking perspective in tune with the paradoxical evolutions of social realities, not an escapist fantasy. I expect a renewed storytelling approach, not repetitive plot lines by numbers. I desire to see challenging ways to make cinema, taking more ambitious risks to reach ground breaking achievements. Do you experience such a thing at your local theatre? These meaningful auteurs are struggling to make their films and to get them seen. You need to walk the offbeat margin to find deserving contenders for a top10.
Even such an indispensable filmmaker as the gifted Béla Tarr resolved to make his last film ever in 2008 because of his unreconcilable disappointment with the system of production, the audience playing safe and the unjust society we live in! It's time to worry, to stop indulging blissful optimism and start being realistic about what happened to our screens. What is going on backstage in the office of decision makers who funnel the cinematic art through the conservative grinder of pervasive conventions?

My second list is more representative of the 2008 festival premières. I'll omit titles with a 2008 première in France already on my first list (Béla Tarr, Hong, Ahmad, McQueen).

My TOP10 2008 - Freestyle
1. Shirin (2008/Abbas Kiarostami/Iran)
2. Now Showing (2008/Raya Martin/Philippines)
3. Los Bastardos (2008/Amat Escalante/Mexico)
4. Death in the land of the Encantos (2007/Lav Diaz/Philippines)
5. Milky Way (2008/Fliegauf Benedek/Hungary)
6. Liverpool (2008/Lisandro Alonso/Argentina)
7. Night and Day (2008/Hong Sang-soo/Korea)
8. A Short Film About Indio Nacional (2007/Raya Martin/Philippines)
9. Le Silence de Lorna (2008/Dardenne Bros/Belgium)
10. La Vie Moderne (2008/Raymond Depardon/France)

50 years after the death of French critic André Bazin, I like to think that he would have been proud of how 2008 auteurs perpetuated his theory of "real time recording" extrapolated to a level he couldn't have imagined. The best cinema today, in my opinion, comes from the peripheral countries without the solid industry/marketing enjoyed in the USA or in France. They don't get popular success nor comfortable profits, so critics should at least give due recognition for the intrepid hard work entirely devoted to the progress of cinema history.

Lastly, I'd like to mention the most inspiring revival screenings I saw in 2008 : Seppuku (1962/Kobayashi/Japan), Coup d'Etat (1973/Yoshida/Japan) and Roy Anderssson's début feature, A Swedish Love Story (1977/Andersson/Sweden).
Burn After Reading was just lame (I only liked the final absurd dialogue at the CIA). I agree, it was lame. But for me the single laugh was in the first scene: Malkovich’s “crucifixion” gesture. It almost made the rest bearable.
…also, so that you know, your lists act almost like a reprimand (in the best possible way of course!): 18 more films I should have seen in 2008.
That first scene gave an intriguing tone to the film, but nothing followed, the awkward tension is lost thereafter because of the parallel plotline routine. Malkovich is outraged by his retirement! What happens next? He stays at home in his robe with a glass of whisky and write his memoires… how boring. Burn After Reading reminds me of Full Frontal (2002/Soderbergh), a kind of a patchwork of a film made with friends (stars), without any sense of coordination or unity to it… unrelated stories vaguely linked to each others, mainly based on character performances. Thus the plot is merely an excuse to give cool scenes to play to these stars indulging themselves.
I’ll give you the Coens and especially Burton, but I do not think Anderson makes films for a “broader, smoother, duller” audience. Audiences did not turn out in droves for There Will Be Blood (or any of his films, actually), which I found to be one of the few superior films of 2007. As I write this, I am remembering the three times I went to see Blood in a theater, and there were never more than 5 other viewers in attendance at any screening. This includes opening weekend. And while the film was markedly different from, say, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, I do not think it was worse…in fact, I think it was a far more dark, controlled film than those earlier (and equally impressive) works.
I disagree, Harry, about your caricaturization of the looseness of Burn After Reading’s structure. If anything, it is morally structured, that is, organized around interconnecting moral behavior and the repercussions that ensue. A rather scathing, and as usual for the Coens, cruel look at Washington inhabitants I thought.
But their characters are caricatures and the drive of the plot is mainly to set up a new gag… Steve, Like The Dark Knight, There Will Be Blood is a great commercial film, but it didn’t make my list last year either. It is superior though, much better written and constructed. That’s typically what I described : it’s a well made formulaic film so everyone is in awe. And it’s good that the mainstream level raises. But when you look at it closely, it’s a typical roller-coaster story designed to move your emotions up and down around dramatic scenes… I’ve had enough of those. If you compare to another film making the top of critics consensus published, the success is all relative : There Will Be Blood budget = $25M / USA Gross = $40M Flight of the Red Balloon budget = €3M / USA Gross = $400,000 That’s the gap I’m talking about. There is a difference of scale between films made for a commercial market, and the arthouse circuit.
I’m very happy to see two Filipino films on your list. The Philippines is experiencing a film “renaissance” of sorts. 28 international awards were bestowed to new works aside from Raya and Lav’s films in 2008. This is a unprecedented feat in our film history. Most of the recognized works came from Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals grants.
There are even 3 on my 2nd list. Because Raya Martin is making a lot of films and they take time to be screened here. Luckily there was a Filipino Cinema retrospective in summer 2008, as well as a Documentary festival. But Indio Nacional is the only one released publicly in France.
Glad that you mention “A Swedish Love Story.” As relevant and fresh today as it were 40 years ago. If it were featured on The Auteurs, I would definitely add it to my favourites. Why indeed are none of Roy Anderssons films featured here?
It’s too bad that all these films on your list aren’t in The Auteurs’ database, especially the one by Yasmin Ahmad.

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