Crosstalk: The year in film 2008
Noel: Gang, a year ago at this time, we were so overwhelmed by the quality of the movies we were seeing that we actually came up with a feature where we looked back at other great years for movies, just for the sake of comparison. Well, that run sure didn't last long, did it? I actually don't think 2008 was a bad year for movies—I'm happy with my Top 10, and I can think of 10 to 15 more '08 movies I'd recommend fairly strongly—but I certainly didn't see much that I believe will stand the test of time the way the likes of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood surely will. I didn't see a lot of greatness, in other words, or even much that aspired to greatness. Outside of the daring, wonderfully confounding Synecdoche, New York, much of the real ambition in 2008 came from blockbusters like WALL-E and The Dark Knight (and even Hancock, to some extent). Those were the movies that stirred debate, and earned passionate defenders and detractors. As much as I like Milk—to name just one of the purportedly serious movies competing for our attention here at the end of the year—I don't consider it a landmark piece of cinema that people will be discussing for decades to come.
If I had to pinpoint one problem with this year's awards-bait, it's that for all the usual hype about Oscar season as the one time of the year when adults can go to the movies, I have a hard time thinking of any of these big Oscar contenders as being for grown-ups. Slumdog Millionaire? The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button? Australia? These are safe, cutesy entertainments that try to excuse their shallowness by claiming to be "fables" and "fairy tales." Heck, even Milk and The Wrestler, two movies I'm quite fond of, are simplistic by design. Generally speaking, I've got no problem with movies that want to go broad in their approach, or even those that try to be a little whimsical. But I like the slam-dunks and lay-ups in contrast to the riskier shots. A steady diet of movies like Frost/Nixon—which leave no deeper meaning unhighlighted—gets pretty bland. I'm not saying a movie has to be depressing or hard to watch to be worthwhile. But even the movies this year that dealt with serious topics like poverty, mortality, bigotry, and betrayal all felt far too insubstantial.
I want to talk about some of the bright spots and encouraging trends of '08, so this conversation won't be a total downer, but let's vent a little more first. Scott, what's your beef with this year?
Scott: 2007 was always going to be a tough act to follow. At the top were three decade-best list contenders—No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Zodiac—as well as ambitious entertainments like The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford that could never be accused of spoon-feeding their audience. You're absolutely right that the prestige films of 2008 are not made for grown-ups: Frost/Nixon would have been much improved had it allowed the exchanges between the two to speak for themselves, rather than having a peanut gallery of behind-the-scenes advisors telling us how we're supposed to be interpreting it at all times. Doubt is well-performed and full of delicious ambiguities about what really happened and who's right and wrong, but it's similarly guilty of spelling its themes out in capital letters, particularly in a final line that drops with a clang. And though it's a reasonably satisfying fantasy, Slumdog Millionaire epitomizes the general lack of seriousness in movies in 2008; were it not contextualized as a fairy tale, the film's commercial gloss on poverty would be unforgivable. As is, I don't see why this little diversion has so many so enraptured.
Still, I found plenty to like in several year-end movies: Benjamin Button, hard as I tried to resist its broad emotional pleas, wrecked me in the final hour; The Wrestler trades on too many stock elements, but is more than redeemed by its disarming humor, authentic feel for off-brand wrestling, and a lead role so perfectly tailored to the Mickey Rourke of today that no one else could have played it as well; and Revolutionary Road, though stifled by Sam Mendes' hermetic suburbia, at least has Michael Shannon tearing it up in two of the year's best scenes. But none of those movies came close to making my Top 10 list; of the ones that did, I saw three of them back in '07 (4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, Paranoid Park, and Stuck), and another, Funny Games, provided more or less the same gut-wrenching experience it did back in 1997, when director Michael Haneke made it in German. Rachel Getting Married and Wendy And Lucy are the only last-quarter '08 releases that made my list, and much as I adore the former, which sits at #1, it's really more of a minor triumph than one for the ages.
But there was good news in 2008, too. For one, the summer-blockbuster season was the strongest I can remember: WALL-E and The Dark Knight alone were more thematically ambitious—not to mention, more entertaining—than any end-of-the-year white elephant trotted out by a major studio. And both are proof that it's possible to advance a complex, even personal vision within the confining expectations of a $100 million-plus mega-production. The first third of WALL-E, in particular, constitutes the best 30 minutes of cinema I saw this year; where other animated films settled for the usual brightly colored, sass-talking animals, Pixar zagged by giving us a vision of extreme desolation, illuminated only by an intrepid robot and songs from the 1969 musical flop Hello, Dolly.
It was also an excellent year for documentaries: Critics weren't as kind as they should have been toward Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure, which may have felt like too much of an ordeal, but quite apart from being a compelling and original investigation into Abu Ghraib, the film has a lot to say about the deceptive nature of photography. Man On Wire applied something close to Morris' cinematic pizzazz to tell the story of high-wire walker Philippe Petit, who strolled across a cable between the World Trade Center towers in 1974; the focus on the details of pulling off the feat give the film the feeling of a great heist picture, while the act itself occupies some beautiful place between anarchy and artistry. Other gems: Surfwise, a portrait of a nomadic surfing family that's almost too remarkable to fit into 90 minutes; Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, which overcomes its Michael Moore-like first-person approach to inject refreshing candor and ambiguity into the steroid issue; Up The Yangtze, a visually striking reverie on the upheaval caused by Chinese progress; Operation Filmmaker, a deeply uncomfortable and very funny jab at the limits of well-intentioned do-goodery; and Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired, which was so effective in reversing presumptions about the Polanski rape case that it's currently being reconsidered in court. And I still have yet to catch up with Trouble The Water, I.O.U.S.A., or Dear Zachary, just to name a few.
What about you, Nathan? Was 2008 a step down in your mind as well, or did it have some things to redeem it?
Nathan: To answer your question, Mr. Tobias, 2008 was both a step down in my mind (and in reality as well) and had some things to redeem it. Are we really all that surprised that the big prestige-y Oscar-bait movies we find disappointing and unsatisfying year in and year out left us cold? Did we really expect Revolutionary Road or Australia to rock our collective worlds?
True, few films bitch-slapped audiences with their greatness with the devastating visceral force of a There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, or No Country For Old Men, but as my colleagues have noted, there was ample awesomeness in the world of superheroes and animation. At opposite ends of the spectrum, my world was rocked by the queasy intimacy and messy humanity of Rachel Getting Married, and the epic vision of The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight was a culture-wide event. In a fractured world dominated by niches and demographics, this was a film everyone had to see. There's something exhilarating about the sense of community a film as big and ubiquitous engenders. But The Dark Knight wasn't ultimately about escapism. After all, the grim, terror-ravaged world of Gotham City looked an awful lot like our own tense world. It's great entertainment that's also great art, as is WALL-E, which Trojan-horsed an almost unbearably grim warning about the apocalyptic consequences of pollution and mindless consumption into a family-friendly tale about a loveable robot.
Every year, I despair of finding 10 albums I like, let alone love, for my year-end best-of-music list. It's easier with film, but in both cases, you generally have to look deep into the margins to find the best stuff, into documentaries and squirmily human stories like The Wrestler and Wendy And Lucy.
I think one of the reasons 2008 feels a little unsatisfying cinema-wise is because this year witnessed the emergence of so few audaciously original new voices. I suspect I could watch Synedoche, New York a dozen times and find something new and brilliant in it each upon each viewing, but Kaufman's achingly sad postmodernism has undoubtedly lost some of its novelty.
I think it's heartening that some of the year's biggest films took some of its biggest chances, whether it was Will Smith taking his endlessly lucrative persona into dark, twisted places in Hancock, or Pixar trusting audiences enough to give them a half-hour of near-silence at the very beginning of WALL-E.
Who do you see as 2008's rookies of the year? Joachim Trier made an auspicious debut with Reprise, but the film was haunted by the ghost of the French New Wave, which in turn drew inspiration from American film of the '40s and '50s, so it's hard to herald him as an exemplar of minty-fresh originality.
Tasha: Well, the claim is that there's nothing new under the sun, which is both right and wrong when it comes to art; it's hard to come up with a universal, compelling, relatable story that we haven't already seen in some form before, but in a way, every film (except maybe Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot Funny Games remake, which I will never understand Scott's affection and respect for) is its own entirely new work of art, even when the story and themes are familiar, the style is influenced by previous works, and the actors are people we've seen before time and again in other films. The question is whether the filmmakers managed to find fresh, compelling, authentic ways to combine those existing elements.
For me, the disappointing thing about the prestige pictures of 2008 was that they largely didn't. Revolutionary Road felt like warmed-over John Cassavetes, with a stifled married couple ripping at each other behind closed doors; the performances were terrific, but there was nothing fresh there except the specific people going through those familiar routines. Ditto with Doubt, which had a terrific cast, but otherwise felt like a Neil LaBute or David Mamet play, minus some swearing and sex, but with the same hateful interpersonal dynamics, choked gender wars, and stagebound limitations. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button was another tediously long Forrest Gump story in which a wide-eyed naïf slowly bumbles through a long, preposterously event-filled life, changing physically but not emotionally, and having little to no impact on anyone but a single suffering true love. (I can't help but lay that at the feet of screenwriter Eric Roth, who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Gump, and seems to be plagiarizing himself in hopes of a second statuette.) Australia kept just enough of Baz Luhrmann's signature style to seem a little too familiar, but not nearly enough to inject his overly long, two-movies-in-one sprawlfest with some much-needed fun. Defiance was a '40s war movie with a '90s gloss, and maybe a weird touch of Red Dawn. Okay, there are better squabbling-guerillas movies, but that's the one that suddenly comes to mind.
In short, I spent November and December mostly feeling like I was watching films I'd already seen before. Which probably explains why my best-of list is so skewed toward people who showed me something new, whether they were recontextualizing old films (like WALL-E did with Hello, Dolly!) or finding striking new ways to express familiar themes (like the stunningly original Synecdoche, New York did with the old idea of the aging artist examining his creativity in the hopes of reawakening it).
Or—in one of my left-field favorites of the year, Cloverfield—applying new technologies to an old genre. I know a lot of people absolutely loathed Cloverfield. I personally can't get enough of it; there's so much new stuff to see that I rarely re-watch movies, and yet I've gone back to that one again and again, just to pick it apart from a technical standpoint—it's a seamless piece of pretense. Technically, Cloverfield is nothing new—Cannibal Holocaust did the "found footage from some people who died" thing first, and The Blair Witch Project brought it into the present and added digital video—but Cloverfield found a new way to use it and to make it exciting, which is often all I need from a movie. But it's a weird and disappointing year when a pop monster movie feels like one of the most innovative films to hit theaters.
The lack of radical, completely striking new fictional visions this year—I'd say The Fall and Synecdoche were about the only ones that utterly dazzled me—may be why this was such a terrific year for docs, as you mentioned, Scott. The ones that captured me this year weren't about reinventing the documentary form, they were just about introducing us to really compelling people like Philippe Petit (Man On Wire) and Dorian Paskowitz (Surfwise), or giving us close-up looks at places most of us have never been: Antarctica in Encounters At The End Of The World, an Army training center full of role-playing Iraqis in Full Battle Rattle, a dirt-poor New Orleans slum at the height of Hurricane Katrina in Trouble The Water, up a Himalayan peak with six blind teenagers in Blindsight, to a series of doomed Chinese villages in Up The Yangtze, inside the confidences of a family of casual steroids users in Bigger Stronger Faster*, and so on.
Still, I have to agree with Noel that the year lacked ambition—again, The Fall and Synecdoche had more ambition apiece than any three films in a normal year, but they were the exception to the rule. Still, there were a lot of debuts that give me hope for the immediate future, so maybe I should actually directly answer Nathan's question and look at a few of the new filmmakers (besides Joachim Trier, whose Reprise was excellent no matter what vastly influential French movements happened to influence it) whom I'm expecting great things from in years to come.
Tops on that list would be Charlie Kaufman, who's an old hand at this point as a writer, but a first-time director with Synecdoche. Here's hoping the movie finds its deserved cult status and that we see more all-Kaufman projects in the future. A few more people who made startlingly assured, respectable directorial debuts: Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories), Courtney Hunt (Frozen River), Lance Hammer (Ballast), Alan Ball (Towelhead), John Stevenson on Kung Fu Panda, Christopher Zalla (Sangre De Mi Sangre) and particularly Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). That last is a perfect example of a film that wasn't necessarily brimming with the ambition to create something radically new, but was content to do an old gangster story really well, with tight, surprising writing and excellent performances and control of tone. Sorry, theater world, but cinema has decided that McDonagh is a keeper; you can't have him back.
Looking over the above list of movies I really liked and often very much admired, but generally didn't viscerally, emotionally love, I come down to what was the defining mark of 2008 for me: Last year was a good year for great movies, with a small handful of them that blew us all away. This year was a great year for good movies: There were an inordinate number—certainly more than last year, it felt like—of films that were well-assembled, competently crafted, and utterly worthy of appreciation, without necessarily being films for the ages, or standouts in their field. I for one had real problems making my list this year, and I was really torn by all the things I had to leave off to pare it down, and the decisions I had to make; selecting my first two was easy enough, and then things got muddy from there. Last year, the top five films of the year were practically pre-listed for me, and required almost no struggling; this year, I could have constructed a respectable top 30 much more readily and comfortably than my top 10 list.
Am I alone in thinking that? Is every year a pretty good year for pretty good films, and 2008 only seems like that in the shadow of 2007, or was there something distinctive about the massive mid-pack of solid, enjoyable, but not fantastically remarkable 2008 films?
Keith: Oh, Tasha, you know I almost always think you're wrong. I kid, but I do worry that we're putting too much emphasis on some elusive notion of greatness that, if pressed, we probably couldn't define. Scott, you call Rachel a "minor triumph" and not "one for the ages," but why? This is a movie I've seen twice now, and it's totally gripped me both times, immersing me in this world and making me care deeply about these characters, even a protagonist I would probably find pretty unsympathetic were I to meet her. It's small, but it still feels major. So did Wendy And Lucy, which is about as small as they come, but still opened up a whole world of lives lived in the margins that most people able to pay a full-price movie admission don't usually see. Both were as vital in their own way as any of the 2007 movies we talk about so reverently. Similarly, I don't want to penalize movies like WALL-E and The Dark Knight for their bigness. I wish we lived in a world when such movies living up to their hype wasn't surprising.
That said, yeah, I had a little more trouble filling out my Top 10 list this year than in years past, and I think I also fell back on the what-showed-me-something-new litmus test. Something like Milk reminded me it was possible to create a fairly traditional biopic that still had a sense of place and urgency and characters that didn't just feel like a Disneyland Hall Of Presidents-like attempt to make history come alive. But inventiveness helped films like Reprise, whose use of old parts seemed to me to be part of its point. How else do you express being young, restless, and in love with pop culture in a part of the world that seems removed from the action? And it helped Let The Right One In, which just pretended genres didn't exist in telling the tale of a bullied kid who befriends a sympathetic new neighbor. With sharp teeth.
If 2008's great movies didn't arrive at the traditional time and from the traditional places, maybe that just means we have to look further and wider for greatness in 2009. Or maybe look twice. Noel, you've told me that you only really recognized the greatness of your number-two pick, Burn After Reading, the second time around. I'm curious as to whether you think 2008 will look different when we look at it again with a little more distance.
Noel: Isn't that how these things always go? We often can't fully grasp the dazzling debuts, the larger trends, or the ways movies capture their times until years or even decades later. For example, what does it mean that three of the best films of this year were in some way about elaborate simulacra? From Synecdoche's city-within-a-city-within-a-city to My Winnipeg's recreation of the Canada of Guy Maddin's fevered imagination to the training version of Iraq depicted in the documentary Full Battle Rattle, there was a lot of scale-modeling going on in '08, for reasons I can't fully explain.
The other significant trend of the year—and another one I'm not sure is wholly explicable—was the resurgence of genre movies swaddled in indie clothes. I'm not talking about flashy low-budget crime pictures like Nobel Son or How To Rob A Bank either, but well-crafted tales of crime and punishment like Red, Frozen River, Shotgun Stories, and Transsiberian. A few years back, I'd gotten tired of the way nearly every indie film seemed to end with people pulling guns on each other, but even though there was a little of that going on in this year's indies, I was impressed by how well those four movies I just cited got the details of character and place just right, even as they were telling entertaining, pulpy stories about desperate characters. They all struck me as far more mature than the '08 Oscar-bait.
So when future film historians look back at 2008, I wouldn't be surprised if they point to these smaller, punchier movies as the year's real gems. (Then again, I'll be surprised if the job "film historian" still exists in 20 years, but that's another discussion altogether.)
Scott, any closing thoughts? What trends are you following into this coming year?
Scott: To respond to some previous questions and provocations: Nathan asked about 2008's Rookie Of The Year. In addition to Joachim Trier, who brought a young hotshot's brio to Reprise that perfectly complemented the young, volatile hotshot authors at the film's center, I'd echo Tasha by offering two candidates: Jeff Nichols, whose Shotgun Stories had the visual richness of an early film by its producer, David Gordon Green, but in service of an authentically nasty Southern family feud; and Lance Hammer, who evoked another part of the South, the dirt-poor Mississippi Delta, with a deliberate, quietly magisterial style in Ballast. I expect great things from all three of them in the future.
And Keith, I probably shouldn't have taken my disappointment with 2008 out on Rachel Getting Married, which is, after all, my choice for number one. Calling the film "a minor triumph" says less about its estimable qualities than it does about the lack of vision and ambition that defined most of the year's "prestige" projects. There wasn't a film this year better directed than Rachel Getting Married, which has earned comparisons to Robert Altman for wrangling such a free-flowing event into a cohesive and comprehensible whole, but its warmth, music, multicultural, humanist touches were pure Jonathan Demme. The cutting of the cake in that movie may be the most enduring image I'll take away from 2008.
Noel, I'm not really following any trends into 2009, though I would love to see a continuation of the independent genre fare you mentioned, because the arthouse could always stand to be shaken up a bit. (And you forgot to include Stuart Gordon's Stuck, my number 10, among the winners: Its ripped-from-the-headlines tale of human callousness still has me laughing and cringing just thinking about it.) Mainly, I'm just hopeful that these things are cyclical and 2009 will find domestic and international cinema on the rebound. This year was just a weird confluence of mishaps: All the major festivals, like Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and Toronto, failed to generate much excitement from critics, and the ho-hum end-of-the-year offerings may well reflect damage done by the writers' strike. To end on a positive note, I will say this: 2008 may be the weakest year of the decade so far, but even a weak year produces a wealth of interesting movies. The list of good-to-great movies is still many dozens deep, which is plenty to tide me over as I wait for that next elusive masterpiece.
Nathan: Dammit, Scott, why must you be such a cynic? I'm the kind of guy who generally sees the glass as not only half-empty, but laced with cyanide, but I found plenty to be optimistic and hopeful about this year. It's interesting that you mention Stuck and Rachel Getting Married in the space of two paragraphs. They're pretty damned antithetical in tone, but they also have surprising commonalities. They're both gloriously life-sized, and have refreshingly nonchalant attitudes towards race.
The interracial relationships at the core of both films are never commented upon, just accepted. Stuck actually plays with race in a really intriguing, subversive way: Mena Suvari's black drug-dealer boyfriend swaggers like a badass, but when confronted with the morbid spectacle of Stephen Rea lodged in his girlfriend's windshield, he quickly becomes the film's unlikely conscience. After the hyperventilating likes of Crash, is the matter-of-fact way these films handle race a sign of cultural progress?
Wendy And Lucy and The Wrestler were two more films that felt as rooted in the rhythms of everyday life as the '70s fare lionized by many contemporary filmmakers and critics. While Stuck and Rachel Getting Married embraced realism, movies like the aforementioned Synecdoche, New York and Be Kind Rewind turned inward, offering funhouse mirrors of their creators' very meta psyches.
If I can throw out yet another big, amorphous question, are we starting to see the emergence of a Netflix generation of filmmakers who see the world largely through the spectrum of pop culture and their own endlessly fetishized moviegoing memories? Be Kind Rewind and Cloverfield both struck me as movies that would have been inconceivable without YouTube and camera-phones, and the increasingly ubiquitous notion that the line separating filmmaker from audience and amateur from professional is falling by the wayside, replaced by an enthusiastic embrace of non-professionalism.
I think it's safe to assume that 2008 will look a lot different to future film historians than it does to us critical types in the moment. The noble, highbrow mediocrities will be forgotten (if not by the dinosaurs at the AFI), while the weirdoes and iconoclasts will be remembered. But isn't that always the way?
Tasha: Well, I don't think there's anything particularly new about the ouroboros of moviemakers fetishizing movies by making movies about making movies, informed by their experiences with watching movies. I've long wanted to do an inventory of movies about people making movies, going back at least to Sullivan's Travels, if not to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It'd be a really long list.
Sure, given the growing ease of making their own movies with relatively cheap, increasingly powerful home-market cameras and home-computer-based editing suites, it was inevitable that we'd see more movies informed by or about digital technology, and more films about people making and enjoying their own films. (My favorite from this year was the good-hearted little charmer Son Of Rambow.) But that's just a minor tweak to an old, long-established case of a medium not exactly eating itself, but certainly nibbling on itself from time to time.
To me, the trend there seems to be less about people filtering the world through their pop-culture experiences—apart from the occasional extreme iconoclast, who in this industry doesn't?—and more about people filtering the world through camera lenses, seeing every experience as something to be caught on video and shared with a hungry voyeuristic world. I recently watched Martin Scorsese's 2008 Rolling Stones concert doc Shine A Light, and I laughed at the way Scorsese's cameras capture people in the process of capturing Mick Jagger's cavorting on their phones. He's making his movie—a big, shiny, energetic, polished production—and they're making their low-fi versions in the middle of it. Or looked at another way, they're in the front row at a Stones concert and they're watching the experience on tiny little screens held up in front of their faces, because capturing it for later is more important than living it.
That attitude has its benefits—for one thing, it gave us Trouble The Water, which rides entirely on the amazing from-the-ground footage two New Orleans residents shot to document their own lives before, during, and after Katrina. I suspect we're going to see a lot more of that in 2009, as people continue to turn their cameras on themselves and their neighborhoods. Given that so many of our favorite 2008 movies were little lo-fi films about ordinary people rather than the pricey escapist fare, I'm suspecting this might ultimately be a good thing, and I hope it continues. I imagine it depends on whether films like Wendy And Lucy, Ballast, and Shotgun Stories wind up making any money, or it all gets sucked up by heavily marketed blandathons like Benjamin Button.
So Keith, wrap it up for us. What do you expect to see more of, or less of, in 2009? Better yet, what would you like to see more or less of? I'll start you off with a hope for 2009: that our shiny new era of hope and change and maybe even some fiscal, environmental, and political responsibility will mean we're finally done with nearly a decade of smart but hideously depressing documentaries about the many ways our government is failing us, our country is falling apart, our soldiers are getting killed to little good purpose, our leaders are torturing people behind the scenes, and so forth. While I think they're both terrific films, I'd rather see Man On Wire than Taxi To The Dark Side any day but far better would be to have no pressing need for the latter.
Keith: Hear hear on that last point notion, Tasha. But we'll see. It's almost like the last eight years have built a documentary vigilante force and, if nothing else, the failing economy, the crumbling newspaper industry, and the ever-dumbening cable news world should make them more necessary than ever.
As for the rest of the movie world, I remember depressing Scott once with an only half-kidding explanation about how movies were over. My thinking was that the narrowing of distribution channels and the difficulties now faced by independent studies mean that from here on out there would be maybe three or four movies worth talking about. The rest would be these huge, market-tested-to-the-point-of-blandness products that were just kind of there. Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey look good on a poster together so, voila, Fool's Gold. But here's the thing: I don't honestly think movies as a form of entertainment, much less art, would last like if they shifted too far in that direction. People turn out for Fool's Gold, but they don't remember it. And they may even turn out for a couple of Transformers movies, but it's the thrills of something like The Dark Knight and Iron Man that audiences keep chasing when they turn out for summer blockbusters. And, sure, the arthouses might get clogged with overworked stabs at meaningfulness, but it's not these movies that let the arthouses survive. But at this point I feel comfortable that movies as real and exciting as Rachel Getting Married, The Wrestler (hi Rob), and Ché will be there to serve as correctives. I still have faith in movies even as a lean year draws to a close.