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2008 U.S. Film Releases

The Harvey Perr Choices




No list this year. No top ten. No runners-up. No worst. No section of films that I didn’t like as much as others did. For one thing, there were too many good films; the level of sophistication in film-making seems to get higher every year. That fact may come as a surprise to some: the word is out is that it’s been a bad year and that may seem an accurate accessment to those who just attend the more highly publicized Hollywood movies. Also, I have found, after so many years of moviegoing, that there are so many movies to admire that it seems silly to say which are better than others; some films we like today may not seem so good ten years (or twenty years) from now. Some may seem a lot better when they have had some distance from the moment of what I would call excessive ballyhooing. And the way we reflect upon films may have a great deal to do with our mood in relation to the times in which we live, but just as history is in flux, and open to change, so are our feelings about film. Just think of how many films we consider “classic” which were received poorly when they were first released. Think of how many films won award upon award in their prime but which, if not entirely forgotten, are barely watchable today. I do think there is a standard for greatness, and that it’s not just a matter of personal taste, but even those standards shift with time.


Also, sometimes, we just don’t even get the opportunity to see many films which, if we did, would have to be seriously considered. I regret missing Ballast and Man On Wire and In Bruges to name just three, and, on the other hand, I am not even interested in seeing either Frost/Nixon or The Reader, because the former, when I saw the play it is based on, and the latter, when I read the novel it was based on, represented a kind of middle-brow and rather smug form of entertainment I try to avoid whenever I can. There are, after all, just so many hours we can sit and watch movies. And I, for one, get infinitely more excitement from looking again at great films of the past, and seeing how they (and I) have changed with time. For me, film has always been the perfect bellwether of the twists and turns my own life has taken.


So what I’ve done this year is to create a ladder going, of course, from the bottom rung to the top rung, and while this may look as if I’m merely finding a new way to make the same old list, it is without any real sense of order this time.


THE BOTTOM RUNG picture bottom rung


Mamma Mia!Journey To The Center Of The Earth

If Mamma Mia was not the worst movie of the year, then I count myself lucky that I was spared the opportunity to see the one that was worse. (Actually, Journey to the Center of the Earth was worse, but I’m ashamed to admit I even saw that one.)








THE FOURTH RUNG picture - fourth rung


WALL-EThe Dark KnightSlumdog Millionaire DoubtPineapple Express

The WrestlerBurn After ReadingThe Foot Fist Way

I never truly understand why my tastes differ so greatly from both the critics and the general movie-going public, but they do, and I have found in the past that I’m more right about the films that thrill the masses than wrong. I think that life has been looking so desperate these past eight years – an opinion I share with all my heart and certainly with my mind – that we were searching for films that would accurately reflect our pessimism and our hopelessness and we found them in the post-apocalyptic WALL-E, with its haunting image of a robot spending hundreds of years cleaning up our mess, and in The Dark Knight, with its ugly view of society. But, for all the brilliance of its first third, WALL-E drifted off into the kind of silliness most American animated films drift off to. And The Dark Knight was, at least to one adult in the audience, a dark, dirty, largely incomprehensible movie in which Batman (!) rides off into the grimmest sunset ever depicted in film (but curiously reminiscent of the final moments of Shane, an indication that not much changes under the Hollywood sun). I admit to being seduced here and there by Slumdog Millionaire and recognizing, in Danny Boyle’s razzle-dazzle visual style, why audiences might mistake it for “art,” but its contrivances finally won the day and, in the end, its Dickensian slum kids seemed pointlessly exploited, and its fairy-tale ending totally fraudulent. John Patrick Shanley, in directing the film version of his play, Doubt, managed to not only take the sting out of his own play but to actually trivialize it in the process. In the theater, it was a punch in the stomach; on the screen, it was a calculated lie. The first twenty minutes of Pineapple Express were sheer bliss, a lyrical expression of the joys of getting high…..and then the p(l)ot kicked in and everything went wrong, but nothing more wrong than seeing a fine director, David Gordon Green, go “commercial.” Green may have a career now, but it’s not the career I, for one, expected for the man who once made the beautiful George Washington. In The Wrestler, everything looked like real life and even smelled like real life, but nothing that happened on the screen seemed real, and, while Mickey Rourke’s performance could not be improved upon, it was, to these jaded eyes, a portrait of a character I wouldn’t ever want to spend five minutes with, let alone two interminable hours. And the Coen brothers seem to enjoy clinging to their smart-alecky ways as evidenced by Burn After ReadingThe Foot Fist Way was pretty bad, but it seemed a more honest depiction of a way of American life than The Wrestler and, since I don’t think it would have made a difference either way, I wish the producers of The Foot Fist Way had the courage to go with an alternate ending they shot (thanks to the DVD for making it available).



THE THIRD RUNG picture - third rung


Religuloustranssiberian4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 DaysNo RegretReprise

ChangelingW.Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullBoy ARoman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. ThompsonChris and Don. A Love Story

There were many films this year that I liked a lot and which, in another year, one in which there weren’t so many good films, might have looked even better. They include Larry Charles’ Religulous, which had its moments, but which didn’t add up to the harrowing satire it wanted to be; Brad Anderson’s thrilling and twisty Transsiberian; Cristian Mungui’s harshly realistic 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days;  Hee-il Leesong’s provocative look at gay life in Korea, No Regret; Joachim Trier’s very smart, highly ironic look at two young writers, Reprise; Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, the year’s most vastly underrated film, which had an air of self-importance about it that one doesn’t associate with an Eastwood film but which was, despite its length, a thoroughly absorbing drama about the ferocity of a mother’s love; Oliver Stone’s W., which had so many memorable moments that I suspect it will look better when Bush has truly disappeared from our collective memory; Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which, while no masterpiece, seemed a bit too viciously savaged by most critics, even though it did exactly what it set out to do, to awaken not merely the inner child in us but to honor how old and tired we get trying to stay forever young; John Crowley’s Boy A, a difficult and ultimately poignant study of a child’s transformation into manhood after he is released from prison for murder; some excellent documentaries: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and, best of all, the very moving Chris and Don. A Love Story, with its particularly haunting images of the last days of Christopher Isherwood’s life.



THE SECOND RUNG  picture - second rung


CJ7 Tell No OneRevolutionary Road The Edge of Heaven A Christmas Tale

Let The Right One InMy Blueberry Nights Cadillac Records The ExilesIt Always Rains On Sunday

Young At Heart

And things kept getting better. CJ7 was made ostensibly for children, but Stephen Chow has more fun making movies than almost any other director in the world that I know of, and every frame of this film was joyous and deliciously daffy. Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One, like The Departed, may not have added up to much upon reflection, but it was a thrilling roller coaster-ride while sitting in a movie house. Sam Mendes is becoming a really solid film director, as the uncompromising Revolutionary Road proves, and his work with actors has a breadth and depth that reminds me of the great work done in the past by Elia Kazan (another director who started, as Mendes did, in the theater). Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven may have piled irony upon irony in this film about social displacement, but the truths that got revealed along the way were heartbreakingly expressed. Armand Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, despite more than a whiff of bourgeois coziness that permeates so much of French cinema, digs profoundly and with complexity into the dysfunctional family on display (reunited, for the most unsentimental Christmas you can imagine, to honor the mother whose recently diagnosed cancer can only be contained by a bone marrow transplant to be supplied by one of two family members, one a suicidal adolescent, the other one of the truly craziest men to show up in any movie I’ve ever seen); as literary as it is cinematic, but very satisfying just the same. Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (known as “the Swedish vampire film,” but like Val Lewton’s classic The Curse of the Cat People, a poetic study of childhood hiding within a horror film) possesses some of the year’s most powerful imagery. My Blueberry Nights is a far cry from greatness – in fact, it may be the oddest film of the year – but its director, Wong Kar-Wai, is second to none in his use of color and, in his swooning, rapturous style, makes even trivialities achieve a kind of grandeur and, as if that were not enough, it always interesting to see America through the eyes of a foreigner, and this film gets some things blessedly cockeyed and, therefore, blessedly right. Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records is a downright wonderful and uniquely uncondescending look at the boldly unique talents that flowered under the auspices of Leonard Chess and his Chess Records, but who never had a penny in their pockets to show for it until, after Chess’ death, they were unearthed by the British invasion into pop music; it was the perfect moment to tell this story and Ms. Martin told it so well. Milestone Films, which brought us Killer of Sheep last year, and, before that, the extraordinary I Am Cuba, deserves special praise for restoring and releasing such great heretofore unavailable films, and, this year, gave us Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles, with the aid of UCLA’s amazing archivists, and this saga of a night in the lives of a group of Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights was an eye-opener, and, although made in 1961, seemed as fresh, particularly in the grit and glitter of its deep-focus black-and-white cinematography, as if it were made yesterday. Rialto Films has also become a reliable company that annually releases restored versions of classic films and which, in the process, occasionally brings to light a film that may not have been released here before or which hadn’t been properly appreciated in its own time, which was the case in this year’s stunning print of Robert Hamer’s 1949 It Always Rains on Sunday, which made one re-consider, as a result, the significance and impact of British cinema in general. Stephen Walker’s documentary about a group of octagenarians who travel around the world singing rock songs – Young@Heart – was incredibly moving and rousingly exhilirating.



THE TOP RUNG  picture - top rung


Silent Light Happy-Go-Lucky Paranoid Park Milk Waltz With Bashir

Rachel Getting Married The Secret of the GrainWendy and Lucy Frozen River Gran Torino

My WinnipegAlexandraThe Flight of the Red Balloon The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Synechdoche, New York


Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I have been put on notice that Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light is a 2009 release, but it did open at the Museum of Modern Art in 2008 and is already disappearing from movie houses, so it seems fitting to put everyone on alert that this film not only exists, but is without doubt one of the most startlingly beautiful films I’ve ever seen, that there is possibly something new under the movie sun, even though not in Hollywood. This film, superficially about adultery in an Amish Mennonite sect in North Mexico, is a test of faith, among other things, and its slow, steady rhythms are heart-stopping, eye-opening, and soul-refreshing. You won’t see anything here that you’ve ever seen before in any other movie, despite the fact that it is paying homage to Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, proof that the director is sophisticated in his understanding of cinema, even though the art on the screen seems strangely naïve. But, as evidence of the quality of work seen here this year, it did not stand alone as a film I feel I will remember with great pleasure for the rest of my life. My own favorite, among world-class directors these days, is Mike Leigh, and his Happy-Go-Lucky is one of his best; since his work grows out of improvisation, it is no secret that the dance between Sally Hawkins as a relentlessly cheery woman and Eddie Marsan as a driving instructor who can barely suppress his rage against everything is  ballet in close-up, but there is a visual austerity in Leigh that deepens the tragedy of his tormented souls just as the relaxed style of his actors shows his compassion and releases his and, subsequently, our very generous laughter. Gus Van Sant had a great year: his experimental Paranoid Park and his more populist Milk both show great maturity of style; they are both vibrantly alive and beautifully made. And no film was as timely as Milk, unless, of course, it was Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, which was also the year‘s best documentary and the year’s best animated film. There was so much life in every single frame of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married and Abdel Kechniche’s The Secret of the Grain that the families in both films seem to burst, at times, from the screen and into our laps. Two women directors – Kelly Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy and Courtney Hunt in Frozen River – dared to put us in the middle of the economic recession we’re experiencing and located both the pain of scrambling for our lives and the humanity that people are capable of in hard times, and both experiences were indelible, though Reichardt, I think, is, at the moment, the purer artist. We are constantly being told that they don’t make movies like they used to, but Clint Eastwood, an authentic formal classicist – and perhaps the last of a dying breed – does, and there was no better example of his art than the scabrously funny and morally noble Gran Torino, in which Eastwood himself gives a most politically incorrect and hilarious comic performance. The Chamber of Commerce of Winnipeg gave their film archives to Canada’s most experimental film-maker, Guy Maddin, and he repaid them by making his extraordinarily witty and highly personal My Winnipeg, a film which may actually look as good in one’s living room as it did on the big screen. Alexander Sukurov, one of the most singular of the world’s great directors, sent an old woman, possibly aware that she is dying, to visit her grandson at his army barracks in Chernobyl, and the result was one of the most disturbingly moving films of all time, Alexandra, in which a former opera diva, Galina Vishnevskaya, made her film acting debut and gave a performance that was so authentic, so free of ‘acting,’ that it burned into the memory of anyone fortunate enough to see it. The transcendental Hsiao-hsien Hou paid homage to Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon in his The Flight of the Red Balloon and concentrated on the workaday realities of life while that famed red balloon drifted in and out of sight of a crowded apartment’s window, always out of reach, not even always visible, but somehow always there in our minds. I believe there was a more serious contemplation of the perilous journey through life in David Fincher’s visually bold The Curious Case of Benjamin Button than its surface prettiness suggested and I think its final moments, like the final moments in Charlie Kaufman’s exasperating but heartfelt Synechdoche, New York, achieve greatness by confronting the face of death with that combination of humanity and abstraction that is ultimately what art is all about. And, last but definitely not least, I think it’s about time we forgave Woody Allen and realize, once and for all, that the man who made Annie Hall and Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters and Zelig – and all those other genuine “classics” – is a national treasure and that he was at the top of his form in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and that, one day, it will be counted among his masterpieces; it was treated far too cavalierly in the year it was released.




There are so many superb actors in the world today that all these competitions seem superfluous, so when I list the performances I admired most, I am naturally going to include performances already recognized by others, but I am conscious of naming actors whose performances may have been overlooked.



MilkCadillac Records Gran TorinoSilent Light Cassandra’s Dream

Revolutionary Road Boy AThe Secret of the GrainThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button Synechdoche, New York

Sean Penn (Milk); Jeffrey Wright (Cadillac Records); Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino); Cornelio Wall (Silent Light); Colin Farrell (Cassandra’s Dream); Leonardo diCaprio (Revolutionary Road); Andrew Garfield (Boy A); Habib Bonfares (Secret of the Grain); Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Synechdoche, New York)




AlexandraHappy-Go-Lucky Frozen River Wendy and Lucy The Flight of the Red Balloon

Rachel Getting Married transsiberianThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button Revolutionary Road

Galina Vishnevskaya (Alexandra); Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky); Melissa Leo (Frozen River); Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy); Juliette Binoche (The Flight of the Red Balloon); Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married); Emily Mortimer (Transsiberian); Cate Blanchett (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road)








Supporting Actor:

Happy-Go-Lucky Cadillac Records Cadillac Records Cadillac Records A Christmas Tale

ChangelingChangelingRevolutionary Road Milk Milk

Milk Silent Light Vicky Cristina Barcelona Pineapple Express Wendy and Lucy

Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky); Mos Def, Columbus Short, Eamonn Walker (Cadillac Records); Mathieu Amalric (A Christmas Tale); Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner (Changeling); Michael Shannnon (Revolutionary Road); Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch (Milk); Peter Wall (Silent Light); Javier Bardem (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Danny R. McBride (Pineapple Express); Wally Dalton (Wendy and Lucy)



Supporting Actress:

DoubtHappy-Go-Lucky Cadillac Records Rachel Getting Married Rachel Getting Married

Vicky Cristina Barcelona Vicky Cristina Barcelona Frozen River The Secret of the GrainA Christmas TaleCassandra’s DreamThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button Synechdoche, New YorkViola Davis (Doubt); Fernanda Hernandez (Happy-Go-Lucky); Beyonce Knowles (Cadillac Records); Rosemarie deWitt, Debra Winger (Rachel Getting Married); Rebecca Wall, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona); Missy Upham (Frozen River); Hafsia Herzl  (The Secret of the Grain); Chiara Mastroianni (A Christmas Tale); Sally Hawkins (Cassandra’s Dream); Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); Deirdre O’Connell, Dianne Weist (Synecdoche, New York)





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