Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Films of the Year: The Top Ten

I’m always somewhat suspicious of “top 10″ lists, despite the fact that I’ve written one. Too often they become reasons for people not to see films that aren’t included, but I suppose I err on the side of offering the following list of the movies I liked most in the past year not because I have any special right to do so, but because I hope some of the films might get seen by people who might not otherwise check them out. That’s what I find most helpful about other people’s lists, so in the same spirit, here’s mine.

10. My Winnipeg. A crazy poem about director Guy Maddin’s love for his home city; a dream-like interaction with the people and places that shaped and formed him that will inspire audiences to remember what gives them a firm place to stand; and a reminder that there is a conservative principle that deserves renewing — saving the sense of community we had as children is worth almost any cost.

9. Shine a Light and U2-3D — two concert films. One is the most authentic recorded representation yet of a band that is far more than the sum of its parts, and who, under Bono’s spiritual authority, manages to do nothing less than lead a megachurch service in a Buenos Aires stadium. Their God is big and real, and among the broken; to be in the audience for this film is a surreal exhilaration. The other movie is Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the Rolling Stones playing—by their standards—a tiny venue, and revealing the secret of the band’s nearly 50-year history: They love what they do, and they keep doing it (and get paid pretty well, of course). It’s more than a film with music; when Mick Jagger’s gyrations are married to his lyrics, it’s clear that the question the Stones ask remains the same as always: how can men make sense of women? (Whether or not they have a good answer is, alas, not addressed.)

8. Happy Go Lucky. Mike Leigh’s film whose central character is so full of joy that you expect in this cynical age that she will be revealed as profoundly broken, or to come to grief in the course of the plot. Instead, Leigh and his lead actor, Sally Hawkins, have faith in the potential of human beings to bring more light than heat, and to find happiness not through changed circumstances, but changed perspective.

7. The Dark Knight. A coruscating and thrilling deconstruction of the war on terror, or George W. Bush’s retirement tribute video? The genius (or biggest failing) of this film is that it doesn’t decide for us. (And Heath Ledger’s Tom Waits impersonation isn’t too bad either.)

6. Rachel Getting Married – a small film of huge emotional depth, as two families gather to celebrate a wedding, while things fall apart and come together on the inside. Jonathan Demme has a lightness of touch that makes even one of the most completely unrealistic multi-ethnic nuptials sequences in all of cinema seem compelling to the point where you want to be invited to attend. Roger Ebert said that this film evokes what the U.S. is becoming at its best — a diverse nation of people who know that their future lies in learning to deal with difference. He might be optimistic, but he might also be right.

5. Milk. Sean Penn plays the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history, and Gus van Sant makes a brilliant film about the movement that brought him to office. But this is not just a gay rights movie — it’s a film about how social movements bring change and the cost to the individuals who lead them.

4. Heartbeat Detector — a film hardly anyone has seen, as it only received a limited release in one city. Now that it’s available on DVD, hopefully more people will experience this French existential thriller, which takes a long hard look at labor and employment practices in the post-modern corporate world and finds parallels in the most horrifying of places. When destroying a person’s livelihood can be called “downsizing,” the principles of dehumanization associated with despotic regimes have found their way into our daily bread.

3. Wall-E — not just the best animated film of the year, but the best film for the broadest audience. It’s a movie about the future with a sense of place comparable to Blade Runner and Lawrence of Arabia, and a moral vision of the present that deserves to be shouted from the rooftops: We are the makers of our own destiny, and time is running out to ensure that there is a planet for us to have a destiny on.

2. The Visitor — the smallest film on this list, with perhaps the largest emotional scope. A college professor hangs out with a couple of undocumented immigrants in the most cosmopolitan city in the world, the shadow of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan loom large, while the meaning of community and the inflexibility of the law to exercise mercy are delicately portrayed. Richard Jenkins gives my favorite performance of the year. I hope the film’s reputation will last a long time.

1. Man on Wire — a documentary that asks “What could be more sublime than risking your life walking on a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers?” What could be more necessary than to restore our vision of the towers from one of barbarism to the immensity of human achievement? Philippe Petit, the French circus performer who carried out this amazing feat in 1974, may be touched by the spirit of Icarus, but he also stands as an icon of what the world needs now: human beings able to look up from their lives, to stop being defined by what has been called “the narrow circle of self,” and, to coin a phrase, do something beautiful.


Lewis Cash said...

I've seen four of these films... and each of these four made my top ten as well. I'm looking forward to getting a chance to see the other six (going to see Milk tomorrow!) soon.

gareth higgins said...

> Hope this email finds you well and that you're enjoying the holidays.
> I just had a chance to read through your top 10 list for the year, and
> a s a longer term listener of tft, I was a bit surprised to not see
> 'In Bruges' on it. I suppose the point of my email is to ask you if
> you've had a chance to see the picture, and if so what your thoughts
> are on it.
> Best,
> Matt

Hi Matt

'In Bruges' made me laugh, and looked gorgeous; but ultimately I found it distressing - the violence of the narrative troubled me, mainly because it didn't advance McDonagh's work beyond (or even matching) that which he is known for in the theatre. I felt it represented Irish stereotypes - with a bit of heart - but stereotypes nonetheless. And I have a particular resistance to films in which a character learns life lessons at the expense of the violent deaths of others - see 'The Last Samurai' and the Belgian film 'Le Huitieme Jour' for other examples.

Thanks for your question - I know lots of people loved this movie, and I'm glad they do primarily because Brendan Glesson's pretty wonderful; but it wasn't my cup of tea.

All the best, Gareth

Michael said...

I have always been fascinated by the relationship of form and function in architecture. Though I know nothing of artistic design or structural engineering, I am nonetheless a nascent critic. Architecture is meant to inspire; to stand for something. The World Trade Center in New York City, NY was such a structure. The WTC has most readily been identified by what became known as the Twin Towers, two metallic monoliths that were constructed in the early 70’s (construction on Tower One was completed in 1970 with Tower Two reaching completion in 1972). At that time they were the two tallest buildings in the world. Through the years the Twin Towers have stood for a variety of things for people. For some the iconic twin skyscrapers reaching into the heavens have symbolized world unity. For others they have represented commerce and the ever-broadening global economy. For one man, however, the Twin Towers did not simply represent an idea, they embodied an all-encompassing dream.
Man on Wire is a documentary about an eccentric but talented high-wire walker and his self-absorbed pursuit of elevation and eminence. The film follows Philippe Petit and six friends (‘accomplices’ would be more accurate) as they describe with intriguing detail the night they pulled off the greatest act of trespassing ever. They also describe the years of preparation behind pulling off one of the most daring stunts of all time – rigging a high-wire from Tower One to Tower Two and then successfully traversing the 140 foot expanse at a dizzying height of 1,368 feet above the concrete streets below. No safety nets, no belay – just a man, his dream, and a half-inch of cable pulled taut beneath the soles of his feet. The event unfolded like bank heist; men with fake badges, costumes, forged work permits, and hand signals. The players involved in the spectacle even referred to it as ‘the coup.’
Unfolding as more of a docu-drama, Man on Wire is a very enthralling film and yet, by the end, I couldn’t help feeling very empty and unsatisfied. About half-way through the piece I began to recognize how twisted the tragedy within this apparent triumph. Petit, as gifted as he was, nonetheless was a man wrapped in a cocoon of his own greatness. The realization of his dream took precedence over all things – his time, his resources, his relationships, and even his life (he commented how ‘beautiful’ it would have been to plummet to his death doing that which he loved so dearly). But Petit was so entranced by this endeavor, so self-absorbed, that my sense is that he did not even realize the degree to which he used and abused those around him. The astonishing thing was that his friends, acquaintances, and even girlfriend seemed content to be used as pawns to execute his grand scheme. It was not until after the fact that the collateral damage was assessed. In a matter of mere moments, Petit became a bit of a national phenomenon and some of his closest relationships – his best friend and his long-time girlfriend – simultaneously dissolved in the noxious haze of his own fame. I was both intrigued and saddened.
Man on Wire left me with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand I was captivated by the almost Pauline devotion Petit had to his craft (“to die is gain”). He is truly a fascinating human being and I found myself easily admiring his passion, resolve, and sense of adventure. On the other hand I was taken aback at the man’s self-absorption. I felt loss and compassion for his friends, family, and girlfriend. The whole thing was one big, sad spectacle, a testament to the amazing and beautiful things of which man is capable, but also to the corresponding meaninglessness and harmfulness when those things are done for self-aggrandizement.