thoughts on 2008

My Ten Favorite Films of 2008:

01) Chansons d’amour (Love Songs) / Dans Paris
02) Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
03) Une vielle maîtresse (The Last Mistress)
04) Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Voyage of the Red Balloon)
05) Les amour d’Astrée et Céledon (The Romance of Astree and Celedon)
06) Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais)
07) Were the World Mine
08) Twilight
09) Savage Grace
10) Guest of Cindy Sherman

I suppose it kind of goes without saying—if distribution dates somehow continue to be the main criterion of composing a list like this, well, I offer up this one as a particularly absurd mess.  Look no further than the two films that crown the top of the list: by most accounts, Dans Paris should be a 2006 film; Chansons d’amour, on the other hand, would legitimately count as a 2008 release.  The problem with such clear-cut analysis: I first got to see Dans Paris, which never appeared theatrically in San Diego, upon its DVD release in the middle of 2008.  Chansons d’amour, on the other hand, I saw late in 2007 at TIFF and if I had composed a list in 2007, it list would have been given pride of place on the top of that one. And on and on we go, rather ridiculously—how long exactly are we planning on carrying on this exercise in futility?  Perhaps if it wasn’t taken so seriously it wouldn’t seem so absurd, and I guess it’s that spirit I bother offering up this list at all.

Looking at this list, compiled after several revisions, I had to admit it startles even me.  Twilight gracing the same list with several legitimate Art-with-a-capital-A (in the best possible sense) type of films?  Something as innocuous and disposable as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?  That icky incest film with Julianne Moore that everyone hated?  Really?

So it seems.  It seems that my film viewings habits and general cinematic sensibility is turning into something downright schizophrenic—objectively this looks like a laughable mash-up of the lists of an overly pretentious artfag and a 15 year old girl.  But in reality it might just be that I’m simply becoming more capricious in my cinematic discrimination (example: what do The Dark Knight, Frozen River, Clint Eastwood and most the films currently playing at the San Diego Landmark theaters all have in common?  I couldn’t be more disinterested if I tried!).

I don’t know, is that a legitimate means to dissect this list?  To delve into my two warring personas—the glutton for Art and this more juvenile desire to make a kind of intense emotional connection with what I’m watching?  I guess a good way to view this list is that these are the ten new(ish) films I developed the biggest, most lasting crushes on in 2008—the ones that would bubble up unexpectedly into my consciousness, catching me off-guard and kind of compelling me to love them in ways that I can’t exactly explain in a rational way. Perhaps it’s that lack of affection that’s at the root of why Milk, which inspired more thought and pondering than a good number of films on this list, ultimately failed to make the final cut.  It might also help explain—at least to me—why there are also films that ended up on this list that initially I didn’t much care for.  It was simply that they kept revealing unexplored facets in the weeks, sometimes months after watching them.

Cinematic crushes.  That also helps get to a growing preoccupation with what I’ve come to call “the little things around the edges,” the often rather inconsequential details or moments in films that I rarely see recognized in the film criticism I read but I find resonate and stick with me a lot longer than the things I’m told are worth focusing on.  Christophe Honoré, in his giddy, almost foolhardy abandon and cinematic experimentation, is already a master at this—both Chansons d’amour and Dans Paris are cinematic miracles composed of moments and emotions that at first seem haphazardly strung together but later reveal themselves to possess the same kind of oddly beautiful randomness of daily life.  Despite the stunning extremes from which Chansons d’amour begins and ends, it’s the film on this list that most seems to mimic the beautiful/horrible/bizarre random trajectory of daily living and the sense that every moment possesses the potential to cobweb in countless unthinkable directions; if Dans Paris is more traditionally plotted, it is simply bursting with vivid moments of emotional truth (the endless love/hate push-and-pull between parents and their grown offspring) and the inevitable human reaction to latch onto objects to create an identity (silly songs, cherished childhood books, store window displays).

La voyage du balloon rouge and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, in radically different ways, also share many of Honoré’s preoccupations.  Most commentary of Hou’s film have focused on its dazzling aesthetics (which are admittedly impressive), but the real lightbulb moment for me was when my friend Ali(son Smith) wrote some thoughts about how the way Binoche’s character lives “encapsulates Paris” and among many things the film turns out to be a really poignant portrait of urban living (characterized by, to quote Ali again, “much living in little space”).  It’s up there with Chansons d’amour in the way something resembling real life emerges from carefully collected individual moments.  Nick and Norah, on the other hand, is much less successful, inevitably succumbing (given its origins) to a more cookie-cutter, consumer-minded approach—and to be brutally honest, it has some truly awful sequences (that whole exchange in the studio room) and the central courtship is certainly sweet but also a bit bland.  Rather, its the secondary characters that bring the film vividly to life: Ari Graynor pulls off this astounding comedic turn that comes out of nowhere (my favorite performance of the year) and Nathan Lee can have I Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, as I emphatically agree with Lisa Schwarzbaum that in a quietly revolutionary way the film shows, in a way I’ve never really seen before, how for people under a certain age gay and straight lives and romances and friendships parallel and intersect each other, and, more importantly, that’s simply the way it is.  I have a feeling that this film could very well have chipped away at “the otherness” of homosexuality in the minds of its unsuspecting audience in a way many were hoping Milk, in its more bombastic manner, would and probably couldn’t.

Keeping with the young love, Were the World Mine and Twilight, the former a unruly labor-of-love type of film that only manages to hold itself together through the love and sweat and unbridled passion and conviction of those involved; the latter is a polished, meticulously calculated tween juggernaut.  Were the World Mine is kind of unapologetically a “root for the underdog” Billy Elliot yarn with an honest-to-god gay boy at the center this time around; Twilight’s chaste romanticism is kind of unintentionally ruptured by the homoerotic undertones associated with the vampire tradition, and a big part of my odd fascination with it is how little would have to be changed to  turn this into a gay coming-of-age story (it also helps that male beauty hasn’t been so shamelessly objectified since Casino Royale).

Operating (unsurprisingly) on a completely different plane is Catherine Breillet and Une vieille maîtresse, where the violent sexual potency of young love is placed front and center, a startling but necessary flipside of the coin to platonic puppy-love films like Nick & Norah, Were the World Mine and Twilight.  This is also a quality which also separates Breillet’s film from the two other vivid French literary adaptations on the list: Ne touchez pas le hache and Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon.  Both are supremely accomplished films by master filmmakers nearing the end of their careers; both also center around the travails of romantic coupling, but where Rivette slyly dissects social conventions through what initially seems a rigid, qualité française theatricality, Rohmer swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, not parodying its idyllic pre-modern pastoral setting but unironically serving up romantic hijinks until it culminates in a buoyant, giddy crescendo that only Honoré’s films are able to match.

Guest of Cindy Sherman serves as representative of my experience helping program the San Diego Film Festival, one of the bright spots in a unbelievable amount of shit I had to sift through and endure during that process.  It didn’t even end up playing at the festival, and I have no idea if it’ll surface again (though, happily, IMDb is showing a limited release slated for the end of March) but this funny/sad doc will probably be positioned as an insider look at a notoriously reclusive artist even though it’s no PBS “meet the artist” affair—it’s really the inadvertently captured portrayal of the creation and collapse of a romantic relationship.

And finally, Savage Grace, perched at the end of this kind of ridiculous summation like a pariah—an odd, unloved and unlovable film that I won’t even try to pretend I “got.”  It’s here because it haunted me—not the uncomfortable sex stuff, really, but its dislocation, the way it kind of throws both its characters and audience into these unmoored spaces, forcing all of us to grope through this hopeless labyrinth together when we all seem pretty aware that there’s no way out.  It’s the kind of film where answers are demanded, and, rather perversely, none ever come.

A few honorable mentions are in order, because it pained me to leave out My Bluberry Nights, Jump! and Lullaby Before I Wake, all films I also developed considerable crushes on; also the films I “merely” admired for various reasons: Milk, Paranoid Park, Stellet licht, The Rape of Europa and Anita O’Day: Life of a Jazz Singer.

And for fun, a few other misc. 2008 goodies:

My Ten Favorite Non-2008 First Viewings:
01) La pointe courte (1954)
02) Vampyr (1932)
03) Innocence (2007)
04) Garden of Earthly Delights (2004)
05) Who’s Camus Anyway? (2005)
06) Lady Chatterly (2007)
07) Les enfants terribles (1950
08) The Last Holiday (2006)
09) Salome (1923)
10) Syndromes and a Century (2007)

My Ten Favorite Performances from 2008:

01) Ari Graynor, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
02) Asia Argento, Une vieille maîtresse
03) Juliette Binoche, Voyage du balloon rouge
04) Kristen Stewart, Twilight
05) Emile Hirsch, Milk
06) Clotilde Hesme, Chansons d’amour
07) David Strathairn, My Blueberry Nights
08) Chiara Mastroianni, Chansons d’amour
09) James Franco, Milk
10) Rachel Weisz, My Blueberry Nights

Ten Most Swoon-worthy Boys (for Chance):

01) Robert Pattinson, Twilight
02) Jonathan B. Wright, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Louis Garrel, Chansons d’amour and Dans Paris
Eddie Redmayne, Savage Grace
Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Chansons d’amour
Nathaniel David Becker, Were the World Mine
Fu’ad Ait Attou, Un vieille maîtresse
James Franco, Milk
Daniel Craig, Quantum of Solace
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

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5 thoughts on “thoughts on 2008

  1. I wish I could compliment you on a fantastic list, but truth be told I haven’t seen most of these, so you’ll have to be content with my hurrah on seeing Les Chansons d’amour at least sharing the top spot. 2008 was NOT a good year, at least as far as I’ve dug, and that is really the film I think back on even if there are a couple I would put above it. (Have you seen Boy A or The Edge of Heaven?) You little bit on Savage Grace also seems spot-on: it seems to be similar to Irreversible, in that people need to understand that it’s not the “controversial” moments I’m fascinated by but the feeling and technique of the film. Haunts me too- rather differently from Chansons, naturally.

    I didn’t even bother with Twilight- DVD, perhaps- and I hadn’t even heard of Were the World Mine, but it is noted for the unlikely eventuality it ever surfaces on these shores.

    Although: Dev Patel? Really? (I am fully in support of Gregoire, however. I swooned hard.)

  2. Hey Dave-

    Actually, without my TIFF first viewings (which account for all the French titles except for Dans Paris), I wouldn’t have had ten films I liked enough to string together an entire list with. It’s good to find Chansons d’amour fans, and particularly people willing to give Savage Grace a chance (I’m find they are out there!). I’m still not sure if the qualities I liked most about the film–particularly its odd elliptical narrative structure–were intentional, but if it was accidental, it might just be a better film because of it. I have not seen either Boy A or Edge of Heaven, the reviews for the former don’t interest me much, and the really mixed reviews for the latter cooled my enthusiasm for seeing it. I’ll keep an eye out for them though.

    I really hope I don’t give the wrong impression with Twilight by putting it on this list. I’m not touting it as an overlooked gem or anything–it’s exactly the film you’d expect from the previews. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I loved it, which has been heightened by reading the books in the last two months. And I do hope you get a chance to see Were the World Mine at some point as it’s a really, really sweet and clever twist on the typical boy-wants-boy plot.

    And yes, I do find Patel attractive–I think he has pretty eyes, and there is a passing resemblance to a younger version of my boyfriend. :) What can I say? As my list shows, my tastes are rather heavily skewed towards the jolie-laid!

    -jesse

  3. Hi Jesse (must say it’s fantastic to see you posting, however irregularly, again- you are genuinely one of my favourite bloggers). The major (and really only valuable) festivals here are at the two extremities of the country and I’m stuck in the middle. Impracticle. I did go down to London to catch ‘A Christmas Tale’ in November but even just that was quite expensive.

    ‘Savage Grace’ managed to survive not one but two screenings where the boom was constantly dangling in shot, so I’d count myself pretty impressed. I can understand not knowing exactly how intentional the pluses were, but that’s part of why it’s so fascinating.

    I need to re-watch ‘Boy A’ again; I feel (strangely) as though my critical faculties have changed greatly since I saw it (back in March or so) so I may have been wrong about it. But Andrew Garfield’s performance is absolutely superb. (I can indeed state this as fact despite what I just said.)

    Oh no, I understand, but ‘Twilight’ was intriguing anyway- I just didn’t fancy sitting in an audience of teenage girls cooing away. It got very mixed press but I will check it out on DVD release.

    Well, I knew Patel from ‘Skins’ so I wasn’t arriving fresh (and he was my least favourite character on the show). But fair enough. Even if I found his performance vapid in the extreme.

  4. Hi Jesse–
    My comments are brief since I have seen so few–that would be two–of the ten you list.
    Our arguments about Savage Grace have basically run their course, so I’ll concentrate on a positive: I too think Ari Graynor is phenomenal in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. If it were the same performance in any other genre, she’d be setting the internet abuzz. Good call!
    And I will check out the two Honore’s at your recommendation. Even though I’m still puzzling my way through my feelings about Ma Mere, your praise has me curious. And Were the World Mine has been hovering around my subconscious for awhile, so I will get to it eventually. But I feel toward Twilight as you feel toward Frozen River: not in a million years! (You and my daughter Sophie would surely bond over James Franco. She may be only 15, but she’s already planning the Franco wedding.)

  5. In your top ten list, I have seen only THE LAST MISTRESS and TWILIGHT. I haven’t heard of WERE THE WORLD MINE (Tom Gustafson) and GUEST OF CINDY SHERMAN before, but they sound very interesting.

    Glad you are able to see LULLABYE BEFORE I WAKE (2007, Nate Pantumsinchai, A-). I think it is a small film with modest ambition. I like that the film is not trying to be “too romantic”, and I think it pays real attention to the feelings of its characters, and makes the characters and their feelings more believable than most Thai films. (Contrary to LULLABYE BEFORE I WAKE, some Thai romantic films pay too much attention to the stories, the gimmicks, the laughs, and forced emotions.)

    I’m very glad you like MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. I even prefer it to 2046. I think MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS is like a small and simple house, but 2046 is like a department store which is too big for me.

    What I like very much in MILK is that Gus Van Sant doesn’t try to make us cry at the end of the film, though actually I don’t mind if he tried it. I remembered that PRIEST (1994, Antonia Bird) made me cry a lot, and the story of MILK has the same potential to make me cry, too. But Van Sant ends the film in another way.

    I’m very impressed with the word “swoon-worthy”. Can I use this word, too? :-)

    Your list of swoon-worthy boys inspires me to make my own list:

    TEN MOST DESIRABLE ACTORS OF 2008

    (in alphabetical order)

    1.Alexander Fehling — AND ALONG CAME TOURISTS (2007, Robert Thalheim, Germany
    2.Cam Gigandet — NEVER BACK DOWN (2008, Jeff Wadlow, USA)
    3.Chantawit Thanasewee – COMING SOON (2008, Sopon Sakdapisit, Thailand)
    4.Javier van de Couter – A YEAR WITHOUT LOVE (2005, Anahi Berneri, Argentina)
    5.Kei Tanaka – THE BANDAGE CLUB (2007, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Japan)
    6.Kim Gang-woo – LE GRAND CHEF (2007, Jeon Yun-su, South Korea)
    7.Peter Davis – SELL OUT! (2008, Yeo Joon Han, Malaysia)
    8.Rifat Sungar – THREE MONKEYS (2008, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
    9.Sid Lucero – DRUMBEAT (2007, Adolfo Alix Jr., Philippines)
    10.Xavier Lafitte – IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (2007, Jose Luis Guerin, Spain)

    A Thai female filmmaker said that she wants to make a film in which she will stalk Xavier Lafitte all through the film and then say to him, “My name is Sylvia.” I think I share her feeling.

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