Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best Theatrical Films of 2008

You can see a heck of a lot of films over the course of a year in New York, believe you me. I saw quite a few of diverse subject matter and widely varying quality. However, it does not make much sense to compile a top ten list of festival films people outside New York (or even in the City) will have little opportunity to see. They deserve recognition too, so look for a separate list of the best festival films of 2008 in the next few days. For now, we deal with the films of 2008 that had legitimate theatrical runs (in New York) and will presumably have an afterlife on DVD. Like last year, this is a collective top ten list in alphabetical order.

The Band’s Visit is a wise film about chance encounters between strangers that may or may not hold significant meaning. Filled with grace and dignity, it is the sort of film Lost in Translation was supposed to be, but was not.

The winner of the 2008 Academy Award for best foreign language film, The Counterfeiters was by far superior to all of the Holocaust related films released late in the year.

Probably no film of the year has appreciated in my estimation since its initial screening as much as Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon has. While nothing horrendously dramatic happens, its portrayal of the relationships within a unique Parisian family, particularly between the little boy and his somewhat older step-sister, are beautifully observed. It is honestly a touching film, but never cloying or precious.

At times dizzying, James Marsh’s Man on Wire brilliantly recreates Philippe Petit’s death-defying high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers and the caper-like planning that went into his so-called “coup.” It also effectively evokes a grim time in pre-Giuliani New York, when Petit’s walk was actually welcomed as proof that extraordinary things could still happen in the City.

Sergei Bodruv’s Mongol delivers all the elements of a traditional blood-and-guts historical epic, while celebrating the often maligned historical legacy of Chinggis Khan. Despite the sweeping vistas, hack-and-slash action, and mystical undercurrent, there are also some fine performances from the international cast.

Guy Maddin’s highly stylized vision of his Midwestern Canadian hometown is so hypnotic in My Winnipeg, he will have you believing his outrageous secret history of a city that caters to an abnormally large sleepwalking population and holds interpretive dance séances in the capitol building. He makes the mistake of jarring the audience out of its trance in the final minutes of the film with rather pedestrian griping about corporate development, but until that point, Winnipeg ranks as one of the most original and distinctive films of the year.

With some of the best filmed musical performances since Calle 54, On the Rumba River, profiling Congolese rumba musician Wendo Kolosoy, is the best musical documentary of the year.

Though still relatively recent, much of Cold War history is being forgotten or deliberately suppressed. This is why Laura Bialis’s excellent documentary Refusenik remains so timely. Thoroughly researched and featuring some amazing interview testimony, the film authoritatively documents the inspiring story of the Jewish dissidents who sought to leave the Soviet Union for reasons of religion and conscience.

At its core, Claude Miller’s The Secret about family, but it happens to be a family deeply scarred by the crimes of National Socialism. Though the oblique handling of the Holocaust can be a bit problematic, the insightful script and Miller’s deft handling of his talented ensemble build to a subtle but effective moment of redemption.

I’m frankly surprised to find myself including a time travel film with elements of horror in my top ten list, but when a film plays as many games with its timeline as Timecrimes does, yet holds up to concerted post-screening scrutiny, credit has to be given. A mindblower and a brisk thriller, Timecrimes deserves its props as a thoroughly entertaining picture.

While this year’s presumed Oscar contenders are a mostly disappointing lot, there were some excellent films to be seen. All of the above are highly recommended if you missed them when they were first released