I have followed a ranking system for the past couple of years and it is exhausting. And confusing, because the ranking seems to change with the tick of every instantaneous moment. I still cannot make up my mind if Zodiac was a better film than There Will Be Blood, or if Gone Baby Gone was a better film than No Country for Old Men, or The Lives of Others a better film than Babel or The Prestige a better film than V for Vendetta.
Thus I choose to believe now that by ranking films you might indulge yourself in needless folly. And thus I would merely list the best of 2008 in categories rather than through rankings. And maybe, just maybe, the order of the categories themselves might suggest the rankings, and might also suggest the curve of my perception of cinema. Maybe, just maybe.
A PIECE OF MY HEART, A PIECE OF MY SOUL:
These films have become an integral part of me. They drained me, exhausted me, emotionally and otherwise, so much that I didn’t want to meander across to anywhere else. Instead, I had to stay with them for they insisted on staying within me. I’m certain they wouldn’t leave me any sooner, and I doubt they ever will. And that fact fills me with great joy. My two favorite films of the year. The two movies of the year. Rachel Getting Married especially, for it seems to fit into every category I mention below. And more. These two feature the two greatest performances of the year and the thing that draws me in is the smiles.
The Dark Knight (Director: Christopher Nolan): I recently watched the film on IMAX for the first time, and I truly realized what an event it is. It is the movie event of the decade, and its influence will only be realized in the years to come. Future generations will look upto this film as one of this decade’s iconic moments. A movie with moments and images that will remain in public memory for a long time. Be it the tumbler turning into the Batpod, be it Batman perched upon a rooftop, or be it the Gotham city Skyline. Or be it the late Heath Ledger’s The Joker, one of cinema’s greatest moments ever. That face drenched in war-paint will turn into one of cinema’s everlasting images. This film is the reason why we fell in love with movies in the first place.
Rachel Getting Married (Director: Jonathan Demme): I watch the film, and for some reason I’m reminded of Bergman. It has touched me like few films ever have, and I seem to derive from it the kind of warmth that I rarely ever experience. I see this movie, I listen to this movie and I keep on feeling this movie. And it all just doesn’t have any reason or sense. That final image leaves me at my most honest, probably my best self. It is one of the year’s greatest moments. And there’s Rosemarie Dewitt, as Rachel, and it is one of the great performances. It is terribly honest, and deeply layered. A smile has rarely conveyed more. I do not think there is a better-made American film in 2008. If the essence of cinema lay in its emotional power, than there was no greater film this year.
AUDACIOUS, EXTRAVAGANT AND FLAMBOYANT CINEMATIC AWESOMENESS:
These aren’t films but bold flourishes. What sweep, what authority. Every frame of these films drips with the sheer joy of movie-making, and we in turn are exhilarated by the great joy of movie-watching. It is a disgrace for me that I had to watch these two on the small screen, because if there were two movies that BELONGED to the largest possible screens, these were it. Every inch of every frame is a bold ambitious gesture. Applaud. I ask of you again, stand up and applaud.
The Fall (Director: Tarsem): Everyone, from a budding filmmaker to an auteur to a wannabe, says one day they will make a great movie with their own money. When Fincher told Tarsem – “You happen to be the fool that has done it”, he says it all. A film that shows what cinema, as an art form and as a medium of expression, can truly achieve. No film, no film, has given us more indelible images, and more incredible images. Seldom has cinema seen such a grand confluence of audio, visual and the narrative. One of the most ambitious films ever made, and for sure one of cinema’s great masterpieces. Five centuries from now when generations read about the art of cinema in books, and read it on websites flipping in their sunglasses, I hope they do learn about this work of art on a page not too far away from the greatest film ever made - 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom (The Good The Bad The Weird) (Director: Kim Ji-woon): To pay homage to one of cinema’s most enduring classics is a daunting task, but to make a film just about as epic, as entertaining and as stylish as The Good The Bad The Ugly only calls for a giant awe. Everything that is implied by the word awesome is to be seen here. This is the action movie we’ve all been waiting for. Every frame of this film is drenched in love with the very idea of movie and movie-making. This is that rare film that starts and ends like a crescendo. Spectacular is the only word that comes to mind.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF THE YEAR:
It isn’t surprising that all three films were the big winners down at Cannes last year. They say cinema is an approximation of reality. These films approximate the reality of the world they depict to the extent cinema can hope to. Their visions are unique. Films that ought to be studied, frame for frame, moment for moment, and word for word.
Gomorra (Director: Matteo Garrone): It is simple – The Greatest Gangster Movie Ever Made. On second thoughts, the word movie might be the most inappropriate term we can use from the lexicon of cinema. ‘Film’ would be more like it. If cinema were an approximation of reality, this is what we’re essentially referring to. One of the year’s unquestionable masterpieces. One that will influence the change in the way movies are made, especially European art-house, with its lean getting more and more pronounced with gritty realism. Realism as in REALism. Many are complaining that it has no beginning or no end. That is the point. The tentacles of Camorra are everywhere, and if it was left to me, I would try and push the tentacles of this film every which where too.
Entre Les Murs (The Class) (Director: Laurent Cantet): How often are we presented a debate where the arguments from both ends feel organic, and hence the flow not preordained? This is that rare film where students are not mere puppets to advance the plot, but players in a classroom that is at once a battlefield, a place to learn and a conference room for triggering the intellect. A year in a high school class. The teacher isn’t the paragon of righteousness but a man in a position of influence. Brilliantly shot, brilliantly written and as it pans out we feel we’re watching excerpts from life. No wonder this is autobiographical.
Hunger (Director: Steve McQueen): An objective eye to a protest is what is rare to find. To clear the cloud of romance attached to it and rein questions about the very act of using the human body as some sort of sacrifice. This is the year’s best debut in a film whose aesthetics raise as many questions as its content. One of its most fascinating aspects is its portrayal of courage and how it involves a level of insanity to it all. Mr. Fassbender’s physical transformation is something to be appreciated no end. This is one of the year’s most powerful films.
Or kinda perplexed. Flat-out brilliance. The best works of genre are here.
In Bruges (Director: Martin McDonagh): Probably the most original best written work of the year. The rare thriller and that rare genre effort where the characters drive the film, and where the characters aren’t mere extensions of the filmmaker himself but whole individuals themselves. It is a super-clever film, super-funny and brutally frank so much so that its forthright characters come across as funny. Ralph Fiennes gives one of the most memorable turns of the year, and rarely has a city been more appealing. I want to go to Bruges, pronto.
Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) (Director: Tomas Alfredson): As a principle I hate vampire films. And as a matter of great pride I say I love this film. It is scary, haunting and the ending truly disturbing. Something few horror films ever manage to achieve. One of the more superb exercises in creating an atmosphere and sustaining it. Not a moment of the chill feels designed. One of the most special films of this year, and one of its most memorable. Hollywood is coming up with a remake in a couple of years and I find myself praying to God.
These were the ones that cornered me, into the jury seat, and forced me to ponder. I have done endlessly, and I have gained a greater understanding and realization. And great many questions find themselves firmly installed within me. Of every which kind. The films that leave you in a quandary are precious. These are such.
En La Ciudad De Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia) (Director: José Luis Guerín): Wind blowing the hair of a woman makes for one of mankind’s most romantic images. It might also make for one of the most haunting and mesmerizing images, a labyrinth of mystery which magnetically draws us in. One of the year’s most striking and original films, and one that has a deep understanding of one of male’s great indulgences. Both psychological and otherwise. It provides for both a worldly and cinematic context to the proceedings, constructing a masterful structure of the space and time of its narrative. Ever wondered why Scorsese captures Betsy’s first moment (when Travis first sees her) in Taxi Driver in slow-mo, invoking a dreamlike imagery? This film will give you the answer.
Revanche (Director: Götz Spielmann): Susanne has had me endlessly fascinated. As a filmmaker and scriptwriter you can seldom create a more layered character and veil in layers of subtlety. This film is spiritual in layers more than one. What forms does revenge take? What does sacrifice mean? What kind of belief one can have with God, and how one can appease and convince him in a conversation, because that essentially involves convincing one’s self. As an exercise in narrative it is complete within itself but with its themes there are so many questions it leaves us with that you might be bothered for days. Probably the most perfectly conceived film of the year.
The Reader (Director: Stephen Daldry): Probably the most misunderstood (out of preconceived notions) film of the year. There’s a reason why author Bernhard Schlink intended to have an English-language adaptation, for what the film seeks is a certain level of universality to its themes. It reminds me of the quote from Fight Club – How much do we really know about ourselves if we’ve never been in a fight? If we’ve never faced a situation how can we really know what we’re capable of? Moral equations greatly change from an individual to a crowd. Ms. Winslet lends one of her finest performances.
To understand everything around us and celebrate it for its very existence is probably one of the purest ambitions we experience at the movies. In their own ways these films below are honest, often naïve but always curious portrayals of life. Not to make statements, not to speechify but to only understand. And salute it. Tell me if there’s any replacing this.
Shotgun Stories (Director: Jeff Nichols): This is a film with so many true moments to it. It is the kind of film where the aesthetics do not serve the purpose of implying but merely provide a setting. Everything – the plot, the images, the characters – is free, decoupled from each other. No reasoning, no backstories. A guy has to do what he has got to do. Michael Shannon gives one of the great performances of the year, but we ought to remember Douglas Ligon and Barlow Jacobs who play the other two brothers. In its minimalism lay life-summarizing strokes.
Paranoid Park (Director: Gus Van Sant): This is a film that has been of late coming back to me, and has found me thinking about it more and more. There have been many films about teens and all its insecurities, but this one here’s one of the few which I would like to show to some of the guys I hung out with. Will I find a reflection I don’t know, because everything about Paranoid Park is about hiding. Is about concealing. Is about the safety net. Van Sant swirls and swirls around the walls of this net before he gets to know the truth.
Mumbai Meri Jaan (Director: Nishikant Kamat): That rare hyperlink film where it is more about the people than the plot. And rightly these people do not change. Like Paul Thomas Anderson Magnolia this one borrows its richness from life and its emotional power from cinema. There’s exhilaration and devastation felt merely by the use of music and angle. And great actors. There’s Irfaan Khan in one of the year’s finest performances. This is a throbbing work of flawed genius.
Auf Der Anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven) (Director: Fatih Akin): Mr. Akin plays his characters around like puppets, and he decides their fate for them. But he is a compassionate puppeteer so much in love with them, and one of immense restraint. His issues and themes might be apparent but his touch is so gentle and human that we’re moved all the same. It uses contrivances not to leverage emotions out of us, but to make us understand in greater depth what his people are all about, and in turn we juxtapose them against their inevitable fates we’re already aware of. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon sure does come to mind.
Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The Band’s Visit) (Director: Eran Kolirin): The most beautiful and elegant film to come out all year. This film is about music, and it is music. Music to the eyes, music to the ears and music to the soul. It is a gentle film about gentle people. They say music knows no boundaries, no language. This film might be a good example for their claim.
One word? Enjoy. Two words? Get some. Three? Have a blast. Yeaaah.
Tropic Thunder (Director: Ben Stiller): Robert Downey Jr. is a genius and it is unfortunate we’re realizing it this late. And here he creates one of the most hilarious comic characters of all time. In what is the funniest movie is ages. I didn’t event believe they made funny movies like this anymore. When they say laugh-out-loud, this is what they’re referring to.
Pineapple Express (Director: David Gordon Greene): Guys, the hang-out movie is here. Every little fantasy of yours – the buddy movie, the action movie, the comedy movie – are rolled into one neat little piece of dope. Seth Rogen is hilarious and James Franco is a revelation. And then, there’s Danny McBride. This is my idea of a night-out of fun.
Gran Torino (Director: Clint Eastwood): He says this is his last role. We couldn’t have asked for a better swan song. This represents everything, everything, that is right and wrong about one of our great filmmakers and his films. His sense of framing, his themes, his tacky way of dealing with them, his use of cinematic shorthands, and his iconic interpretation of his own image. This is the man. And before him I bow.
Iron Man (Director: Jon Favreau): What fun, what entertainment. The kind of blockbuster we rarely see anymore. In a time when all we see is sequels and remakes and reboots, this is the kind of franchisee kick start that we dream of. Downey Jr. has great fun. He’s uber-cool and so is the film. As kids we had fun with comics, and this is that rare film that reminds us those times. And that suit. Wow!!!
Man on Wire (Director: James Marsh): To be in the presence of the man who tight-roped across the twin towers is to be infected with passion. You meet Philippe Petit and you learn why so many folks were smitten by him. Armed with documentary footage interspersed with formal elements from the traditional goofy comedy films Marsh provides for one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating moments of the year. And something beyond it, which we only later realize.
And I’ve not even seen Synecdoche New York, A Christmas Tale, Import Export or My Winnipeg. For that matter many others. Of course, who said this was an exhaustive list. The end is the beginning is the end is the beginning.