Archive for January 8th, 2009


by Sam Juliano

It’s that time of the year again for listo-holics and hyper-bolists to strut their stuff.  It my case, it’s the final step in a twelve-month “film watch” that is always aimed at culling the creme de la creme, the standouts works in cinema in a calendar year that is always called “sub-par” by those compiling such lists, partially as a disclaimer for all the extravagent praise that is issued in this journalistic lovefest.  2008 wasn’t a great year, nor was it a bad year (true-2007 was better) but many of its riches debuted in the first half, contrary to the embraced wisdom.  The year ended with a few exceptional releases, a few near-misses and some marked disappointments.  In the end, it was a banner year for the documentary feature film, a strong year for French cinema, and a year of the emergence of the introspective, minimalist independent drama.  The big studios made their mark with a few outstanding works, including the animated masterpiece that heads up the ten-best list.  (Actually, as is my “annual deceit” since 1982, I have forged a tie for the Number 10 position, meaning that have 11 films in my Top 10).  This year, I have no regrets for that custom, as neither of the two films forming the tie could possibly be tossed out.  I saw approximately 170 feature length films this past year, and would like to believe I was able to catch the most essential ones (mostly all in the theatre with a few DVD viewings over the past week including the most recently-seen Still Life) and for a large number of these theatre visits was accompanied by my dear wife Lucille, my five kids and regulars like Broadway Bob Eagleson, Robert McCartney, and for the past three week sin a 16 film “blitz”, my site colleague and good friend Allan Fish of the U.K.  As always, it is the end of  a great adventure, one that took us on a metropolitan-area rotating tour of the Manhattan art houses and the northern New Jersey multiplexes, and the Montclair Claridge cinemas.  But it’s an adventure that is ongoing, as it will almost immediately be followed by a similar cinematic game plan for 2009.  For movie lovers the construction of a “Ten Best” is wrought with painstaking seriousness and the pain of omitting films that are held in high esteem, as well as a little pompousness.  At the end of the day, it’s really “taste,” and cinematic orientation that dictates the final reaction, and in my case, emotional resonance plays a large role.  After the list of 11 films that comprise my Top 10 (which is included with brief commentary) I have also (as always) included a listing of 15 films that I thought warranted “honorable mention.”  On another day any or all of these could wellenter the Top Ten.  in a few instances it was truly agonizing to decide they wouldn’t fit into the small confines of a ten-best list.                                               

Ten Best Films of 2008  


1.  WALL-E   The visionary animated film that may well be regarded one day as one of the greatest of all animated features, stretches the boundaries of the form, and of art in general.  This science-fiction parable/love story is wrought in the mold of Spielberg’s E.T., but its a film that echos the silent era in it’s post-apocalyptic extended early sequence.  The film’s soaring emotional center is the robot trash compactor “WALL-E’s” infatuation with songs from the film Hello Dolly! and the later relationship with his counterpart, Eve.  The film has it’s level of cynicism, and there’s a hopelessness that recalls A.I.  Technically and in its painstaking attention to detail it may well be the most accomplished of animated films.  It is an exhilarating film of great physical beauty and wonderment, yet like all great art, its heartbreak is palpable.  The voice work and Thomas Newman’s score are first-rate, but the lion’s share of the credit must go to director Andrew Stanton, who made a film of extraordinary depth, bringing together an arsenal of cinematic resources, and shooting a laser beam to the very center of the human heart.            (USA; Andrew Stanton)           

(This is the first time that an animated film has made my ten-best list since 1991, when Beauty and the Beast finished at #4 of the year, and it’s the first time an animated film landed at #1.)                    


2.  The Visitor   A cross-cultural parable that builds surprising power, which is the result of lucid and “untelegraphed” storytelling and a beautiful character metamorphosis, performed by Richard Jenkins, in the year’s most extraordinary performance by a male actor.  Using his hands, posture and compromised smile and countenance, Jenkins plays his repressed  and misanthropic character beautifully, and his contemporary take on Dickens’ famous curmudgeon, complete with the connection to hi sinner humanity make this human drama unforgettable and a triumph of the human spirit.  Repeat viewings seem to enhance its ability to move.             (USA; Tom McCarthy)            

(This was the final regular feature played at the now-closed Ridgefield Park Rialto)          


3.  The Last Mistress  This steamy and opulent French period piece combines the talents of the provocative Asia Argento and previously-controversial director Catherine Brelliat, who join forces in an audacious and searing study of lust and seduction, which is also happens to be the most erotically-charged film of the year.  An illicit affair and the tragic consequences that follow is serviced by a ravishing visual design envisioned in crystal clarity and populated by gorgeous players, who navigate this stylish melodrama with astounding emotional flourish.  Torgos Arvenitis’s cinematography, which captures the film’s costumes  and sumptuous settings gives the film a painterly essence, yet it fails to mute or downplay the volcanic events that produce a final catharsis.   It’s heady and engrossing, and the centerpiece of a banner year for French cinema.              (France; Catherine Brelliat)         


4.  The Pool  here is an excerpt from my review published in October at Wondersinthedark:               

 The most astounding achievement connected with The Pool, a naturalistic independent film shot in India in the Hindi language, is that it was directed by an American.  It has always been suggested in cultural circles that it takes a foreigner to really get into the skin of a certain milieu, the reason being that only an outsider can capture the nuances that perhaps a native takes for granted.  Of course there are those who don’t prescribe to that theory, and it is rare that outsiders have to this point given the world a better intimate look at Indian life than a number of ethnic directors including the great Satyajit Ray, who was the Asian answer to the Italian neo-realists.  Ray, who was recipient to what may have been the most extraordinary testimonial that any director has paid another, when the great Akira Kurosawa opined: “not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon,” was the force in Indian cinema for three decades, beginning with the first installment of his “Apu Trilogy,” Pather Panchali. That film, about a poor Brahman family in a Bengali hamlet, is as penetrating and observant a study of village life as has ever been presented on the screen.  A few others like Ritwak Ghatak intermittently captured the essence of Indian life, collaring the spirit imprisoned in deprivation and impoverishment.  And of the present-day directors, the accomplished Adoor Gopalakrishnan, whose Rat-Trap (1981) deals with a male heir of a decaying heir of a decaying feudal family who is unable to deal with the socio-economic changes of a new society, is arguably the figure closest in style and humanism to his iconic predecessor.           (USA; in Hindi; Chris Smith)        


5.  The Reader   This is a literary film, based on a popular novel, directed by Stephen Daldry, who exhibited his talent in this terrain in 2002 with his successful adaptation of The Hours, which was written by David hare, who also wrote this new film, which is largely about the way that the young must stand apart from authority, in order to assert their own identities.  Unfortunately the damage wrought on them can’t be erased.   Daldry’s beautifully-modulated direction and talent with actors is again evident in Kate Winslet’s intense performance played acroos two time  periods, and that of Ralph Fiennes as the older “David Cross” are intense are multi-layered.  The Holocaust looms in the background, but the the film has little to do with it, and more to do with the non-connection between             generations.  The film is beautifully-crafted, and if it’s too stately at times it’s also engrossing.  Roger Deakins and Chris Menges collaborated at this             textured muted cinematography that recreates time and place effectively  and the production design and Nico Muhly’s score are sublime.              (USA/UK; Stephen Daldry)          


6.  Slumdog Millionaire  Here are excerpts from my November review at Wondersinthedark:                 

Filled with visceral audacity, narrative daring and operatic intensity, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire takes its rightful bows as the most deliriously entertaining film of the year.  It’s a saga of adversity and danger and soaring passions, all transcribed in a steaming tapestry of a culture affected by the excitement and competition of Westernized mores turned upside-down and inside-out.  Indeed, some of the most abhorrent criminal traditions in the West are given a  distinctly Indian slant, but the motivations are distinctly the same.  But Slumdog Millionaire’s nonpareil appeal lies with it’s overriding feel-good story that would move people in any culture, in any context, at any time.  It’s the story of the little guy making good, and of the forces of adversity losing a battle of a single shining moment that makes everyone want to get out of their seats and cheer………  Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is a major force in giving this film a kinetically vital look, whether it visually essays the poverty-stricken environs or the dazzling confetti-strewn showcasing of the television show, which is heightened by film speed contrasts.  The same applies to this veritable show of editing aptitude, the center of the film’s breathless sense of movement and shifting focus by Chris Dickens.  Of course the one element that is incomparable is the soundtrack.  The infectiously bombastic and festive music by India’s leading composer, A. R. Rahman gives the film it’s heart, soul and relentless energy, especially is an extended dance number near the end and in the most unforgettable credit sequence in years.  The score is rollicking hip-hop, and it will no doubt spur on healthy CD sales…….British born Indian Dev Patel is as handsomely winning and finally as effervescent and engaging an actor as could have been employed in the film’s central role.  As the police inspector, Irfen Khan, a legendary Indian thespian, delivers a compelling performance.  Freida Pinto is an endearing Frida, the object of Jamal’s affection, and Madhur Mattal makes for a riveting Salim, Jamal’s older brother.            (UK/USA; Danny Boyle)     


   7.  My Blueberry Nights  It took a second visit for me to appreciate this sensory film starring Jude Law, Nora Jones, Natalie Portman and David Straithairn.  Set in Manhattan, this study in dreaminess, melancholia and romance, is visualized (and the seemingly banal dialogue is truthfully in this instance inconsequential) in a rotating color palette that includes sun-drenched golden hues for Nevada, an earthy brownish red for Memphis and for New York, where the film is set at the beginning and end, a phosphorescence of darkened tone.  A recurring image is a close-up of a blueberry pie with milk running through its cracks. The film’s use of songs is rather electrifying in conveying the persuasive mood and ambiance.  this is an original concept  that deserves accolades, rather than the general disdain it was met with by mainstream scribes.  Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wei made his English-language debut with this feature.           (USA; Wong Kar-Wei)        


8.  Synecdoche, New York  Here is an excerpt from my November review published at Wondersinthedark:           

Indeed, few can watch Synecdoche, New York without feeling an overwhelming sadness.  This is first-time director and crack writer Kaufman’s most dolorous and dispiriting work, far more cynical, self-loathing and hopeless than anything he’s written, including the mildly melancholic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

    The film is rife with metaphors, the most obvious being the constantly-burning houses and television cartoons that mirror their viewer’s lives.  Of course the very idea that actors are willing to lend their services to a play for better than 17 years speaks volumes of everything coming full circle, and then beginning the cycle over again.  There is a strain of nihilism, as it is overtly implied that human connection or interaction is trumped by inevitability and fleeting mortality, and that happiness even on ‘repeat visit’ so speak will always lead to sorrow and nothingness.  It’s a bitter pill, and the film leaves you numb.  But it’s a wholly exhilarating and intellectually intimidating experience, which recalls some of Bergman, Bresson and Antonioni on both counts.  It’s a film that sorely requires more than one viewing and more than a little reflection, even if as at least one critic contended, “It all leads to a dead end street.”  It is a dead end I would like visiting with frequency at the cinema these days………

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the perfect actor for this part, lending it his special brand of dreamy sophistication and elan, and the woman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener and Emily Watson all give their evanescent roles their own brand of dysfunctional, almost surrealistic magnetism.

     Cinematographer Frederick Elmes, a long-time David Lynch alumni, who lensed Blue Velvet, gives Syncodeche, New York a grainy, moody and muted look, that enhances the surrealistic textures but at the same time walking that tight rope between reality and fantasy.  Elmes is a master with the stark composition, but in this film a number of visual elements converge, and they are flawlessly modulated.  Composer Jon Brion, whose work on Eternal Sunshine was widely-praised for it’s lyricism, here crafts some evocative and sweeping lines are not only in sync with Kaufman’s visuals, but on their are piercingly beautiful.  Much of the film’s imaginative look must also be credited to veteran production designer Mark Friedberg, who also was called upon to negotiate that two-fold dimension of fact and fiction.   Synecdoche, New York is the latest work of one of cinema’s major talents.  His bold and mind-blowing film takes up to places we have never been, but where we need to go.  It’s the year’s most challenging and unsparing films.  And it’s one of the best as well.      (USA; Charlie Kaufman)


     9.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  Here is a blog entry I entered at another site earlier today:

The sins of that film (Forrest Gump), are not overlapped in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,, which unlike the all-American epic, is a film about discovery, fate, loss, love, mortality, fleeting happiness, and regret. Sumptuous images, some delicate, some weathered by age and decadence, some in the grand tradition of epic storytelling all help to transcribe an indellible story that in the end, minor flaws and all ,leaves one emotionally drained, as if they had lived a lifetime in a scant two-and-a-half hours (and indeed one has). Claudio Miranda’s color tones–burnished gold are sublime,  The period costumes are fabulous and deserve an Oscar, and the acting (especially Brad Pitt and Tarija Henson) is quite convincing. (as is the Oscar-nominated make-up) I’ll admit that Fincher et al, lose a bit it the middle section in a narrative sense and they push the envelope with Pitt’s pretty-boy face in endless close-ups (but one could just as easily argue that’s it’s thematically valid) but in the end the film is deeply-moving. I cared deeply about the character, and the transience of life context woven into his character. It’s a haunting film, and one that has you pondering days and weeks later.                                 (USA; David Fincher)



    10.  Dear Zachary:  A Letter From A Son to His Father

             Here are excerpts from my November review at WitD:

Few documentary features (or even feature films) have managed to achieve the kind of definitive emotional resonance one feels after leaving the cinema showing an unabbreviated tearfest called Dear Zachary: A Letter From A Son About His Father.  Made on a miniscule budget by Kurt Kuenne, who traveled across the country to conduct interviews and speak with people who knew his childhood friend Andrew Bagby, who was murdered at the age of 32.  There was little doubt that Bagby’s killer was Shirley Turner, his jilted ex-lover, but by an incredible series of bizarre twists, she was allowed to set up camp in Newfoundland, after she fled from rural Pennsylvania, where Bagby (who was a doctor doing his residency) Turner’s lawyers successfully fought her extradition.  Turner announced that she was pregnant, and she had her baby in July after the November murder of Bagby……… 

The film is often unbearably moving yet in the end, it’s a triumph of the human spirit and the most remarkable documentary of 2008, in a year when the form really made its mark.     (USA; Kurt Kuene) 


    10.  The Edge of Heaven       Another film in the Babel- mold, relying on fate, coincidence and chance, yet unlike that cross-cultural omnibus, this film leaves more to the imagination.  The story is set in Turkey and Germany and tragic events  bring some unlikely people together.  Politically and sociologically it’srather a fascinating film, yet it’s stories are drenched in human concerns, perhaps none more than a grief-stricken German mother played by th egreat thespian Hanna Schygulla, a Fassbinder regular.  Her one big scene is the film’s defining moment of despair.  Fatih Akin is a gifted director.  

  (Turkey/Germany; Fatih Akin)


                               HONORABLE MENTION

    (films that challenged to make the ten-best list)

               The Duchess of Langeais (France)

                Let The Right One In  (Sweden)

                Silent Light  (Denmark)

                Happy-Go-Lucky  (UK)

                Doubt   (USA)

                Man on Wire  (USA/UK)

                The Wrestler  (USA)

                Alexandre  (Russia)

                Paranoid Park  (USA)

                Still Life  (China/Hong Kong)

                Boy A   (UK)

                Up The Yangtze  (China)

                Rachel Getting Married   (USA)

                Milk  (USA)

                Were the World Mine  (USA)

                The Fall  (India/UK/USA)

                When Was the Last Time You Saw Your Father?  (UK)

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by Allan Fish

(UK 1949 106m) DVD1/2

The Lone Rider of Santa Fe

p  Alexander Korda, David O.Selznick, Carol Reed  d  Carol Reed  w  Graham Greene (and Orson Welles)  novel  Graham Greene  ph  Robert Krasker  ed  Oswald Hafenrichter  m  Anton Karas  art  Vincent Korda  cos  Ivy Baker

Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Trevor Howard (Maj.Calloway), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Bernard Lee (Sgt.Paine), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin), Ernst Deutsch (Baron Kurtz), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu), Erich Ponto (Dr Winkel), Wilfrid Thomas (Narrator),

I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and its easy charm; Constantinople suited me better…”  To hear those words is to be back in the company of an old friend for the best part of two hours, as if one were going to dine with someone you hadn’t seen for many years, but with whom each reacquaintance added a cherished new memory for the subconscious.  My latest sighting was immediately after viewing the silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with which at first glance it would seem to have little in common.  Yet a connection there most definitely was, for Reed’s much loved masterpiece is a film that the German expressionists would have applauded.  Firstly because it, too, takes place in a German-speaking nation crestfallen after a war and, secondly, because of its expressionistic camera angles, which distort, disorientate and ultimately deceive.  Characters are deliberately shot from certain angles almost without exception, the only one seemingly untouched being the ever loyal heroine.  (more…)

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