Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 2.19.2009


Top Ten Movies of 2008
Splendid stories from around the globe
by Jason Blair

These days, if you go to the movies at all, you go with a sense of diminished expectations. The anticipation is always there, the childlike wonder at watching things flicker in the dark, but so is your sense of compromise, as if a mirror of the compromised film industry itself. Mainstream Hollywood is releasing fewer films — and taking fewer risks — than it has in years. The glut of horror films has returned, as if Scream never happened. The nu-raunch comedies rule the day. And our most psychologically complex characters bound around in capes and tights.

 The sense of experiencing something strange and wonderful, something completely new and original, is a feeling you feel less frequently all the time. Maybe you turn to other mediums: The first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude; the opening bars of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.” These things make you feel as if they were made for you alone. 

They say that in the faltering economy, flat is the new up. As you’ll see below, foreign is the new mainstream. Of the top 10 films below, eight are foreign, whereas the other two (WALL-E, The Wrestler) are about outsiders foreign to their own soil. I can’t remember a year when so many of the year’s best films were created in so many countries other than ours. Until our next wave of independent cinema arrives, we should be grateful we have the rest of the world to show us who we are.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days In 1980s Romania, Otilia and Gabriela, both college students, attempt to get an illegal abortion for Gabriela. Things go wrong from the start. When the girls don’t follow their instructions carefully, they fall victim to the predatory nature of their physician. The girls’ incompetence doesn’t warrant his treachery, but it greatly complicates their complex situation, in which merely renting a hotel room is a Herculean task. A true masterpiece, 4 Months is a stirring portrait of life under communist regime. “Relax. It will be fine,” says Otilia to Gabriela at the outset. What will be fine? When will it be fine? When it’s over, nobody involved in this drama will ever be the same. (Reviewed 3/27/08)

Tell No One

2. Tell No One A French update of The Fugitive, but with a twist: Eight years after his wife Margot’s murder, Dr. Alex receives an email apparently proving she’s alive. Moody, tense and claustrophobic with possibility, boasting one of the great foot chases ever filmed, Tell No One will leave you spellbound. It may also leave you slightly confused by its whirling plot and by its parade of minor figures lurking at the story’s edge. Could Margot be sending the emails? Who is trying to frame Alex? Don’t fret. All will be revealed. Tell No One co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas and boasts terrific music from U2, Otis Redding and Jeff Buckley. (8/21/08)

3. Man on Wire I tend to associate re-enactments with the History Channel, but in Man on Wire, they work to perfection. This French documentary about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers is both technically superb and emotionally gripping. Beginning just moments before the great tightrope walk, Man on Wire uses split screen to cut between the past (the construction of the towers), the present (the 1974 tightrope crossing), and the future (the participants today, now in their 50s). Petit is a most enjoyable narcissist; his wire act, which was illegal, made him famous but cost him his friends, putting a new spin on Kundera’s concept of “the unbearable lightness of being.” The low-key score, which is like Phillip Glass played through water, is nominated for an Oscar. (9/18/08)


4. Happy-Go-Lucky Poppy Cross is the most relentlessly cheerful character of 2008. In British director Mike Leigh’s hands, Poppy’s life becomes a full and heroic expression of making due with what little life gives you. Poppy, a Londoner, wants for nothing but a few friends and perhaps a decent boyfriend. The world is cracking apart around her — one of her students is getting beaten at home, her flamenco instructor is a jilted mess — but it isn’t until Poppy begins taking driving lessons that her real test reveals itself: Her driving instructor Scott (an incredibly unhinged Eddie Marsan) is a racist homophobe with a growing obsession with Poppy. When they clash, Poppy’s dressing down of Scott is the must-see scene of the year. (11/13/08)

5. WALL-E More magnificence from Pixar. As good as The Incredibles and Finding Nemo were, few animated films have ever tackled so directly — or so entertainingly — the complex relationship between humans, technology and the environment. WALL-E is like The Matrix filtered through Fast Food Nation; it’s great, groundbreaking fun, but it’s a massive check on our appetites. Deeper messages aside, little WALL-E’s blue-collar, trash-compactor personality brightens this deeply dystopian fantasy, one in which the future Earth is a garbage dump and humans are, quite literally, pigs in space. (7/3/08)

6. Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains For the first time, the Uruguay rugby team that crashed into the Andes tell its story. A privileged, literate bunch, the men recall their harrowing 72-day ordeal with great sensitivity and humility. The result is not unlike last year’s In the Shadow of the Moon, the unforgettable doc of the Apollo space program: When men of extraordinary accomplishment look back on the feats of their youth, the results can be highly philosophical and poetic. To survive, the men resorted to cannibalizing the dead, but this matter, like all of Stranded, is handled with great care. A film in which many die so that a few might live, this is a solemn but graceful story that will inspire you to live each day to the fullest.

Let The Right One In

7. Let the Right One In When Eli, a teenage vampire, hears her stomach growling with hunger pangs, you know this isn’t your typical vampire film. Let the Right One In does for the vampire genre what Batman Begins did for the caped crusader, reviving a stale format by emphasizing the human elements, the frailties — not the superpowers — of its creature characters. A Swedish film set in serene Stockholm, Let the Right One In will scare you, but it’s more interested in revealing the sadness and loneliness germane to life as a freak of nature. You won’t see another film like it this year. You won’t see another vampire film like it, ever. (2/12/09)

Waltz with Bashir

8. Waltz With Bashir This Israeli animated documentary is an attempt to recover the lost memories of director Ari Folman, who was a soldier in the 1982 war with Lebanon. As if the inspired design weren’t enough — the films bears strong resemblance to A Scanner Darkly — this stunning examination of the nullifying power of guilt contains a fair amount of humor and the best original score this year. A film that challenges both your awareness of history and your ability to withstand its extended monologues, Waltz With Bashir’s interviews lead to flashbacks which prove hugely and sadly effective. Gradually, a terrible series of events comes into focus. A film of great sorrow but also hope and beauty.

9. The Edge of Heaven A fierce, tightly connected story of six people crossing borders, both emotional and political, between present-day Turkey and Germany. A father and son, the father’s girlfriend, her estranged daughter and the daughter’s girlfriend and mother are all at a pivot point. As the younger generation tries to differentiate themselves from their parents, the extreme political climate causes the best of intentions to backfire. When it’s over, two are dead and four must pick up the pieces. The Edge of Heaven is an intergenerational tragedy about politics and literature and loss; if the script, which won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, doesn’t wow you, the courage and strength of the characters will. 

The Wrestler

10. The Wrestler A from-nowhere performance by Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson gives The Wrestler the emotional punch of Rocky. For much of the film, director Darren Aronofsky hovers behind Rourke’s massive bulk as if to emphasize the baggage dragging behind him. When The Ram has a heart attack, he tries to turn things around, but he cannot escape the person he’s become. Fatherhood, employment, hygiene — he is a total failure at the things we take for granted. The Wrestler is a raw and uncompromising film about a man who does one thing at the expense of everything else.



Jason’s Next 10

Che, despite its length (five hours!), is vivid and far sturdier than anything Steven Soderbergh has done in years. The Band’s Visit (3/20/08) is a quiet and profound story about hospitality and loss. In Frozen River (8/28/08), bad goes to worse when a mom starts smuggling humans for cash. Kristin Scott Thomas stars in I’ve Loved You So Long (1/29/09) as a mother and physician who does the unthinkable, then must rebuild her life in a world she doesn’t recognize. Iron Man (5/8/08) has everything: effects, laughs, intelligence — and a great actor to pull it together. A beaming Sean Penn dominates the straightforward, lean biopic Milk (12/11/08). In Rachel Getting Married (11/6/08), Anne Hathaway goes to the dark side as an addict who emerges for her sister’s wedding. Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired sets the record straight about the judge who mishandled the gifted but troubled director’s trial. Richard Jenkins finally gets his due as a detached widower who finds something to live for in The Visitor (5/15/08). Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2/5/09) is a moody, minimalist story with Michelle Williams in one of the year’s best performances.


Looking for Molly’s Top 10? Right this way.