Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 Year-End Wrap-Up

It's that time again, time for the obligatory year-end wrap-up posts. Since 2008 is the first full year since I started blogging here, I figured I'd sum up the past year in movies, even though I haven't seen nearly enough actual 2008 theatrical releases this year to justify a "best" list. So in lieu of a proper top ten list, I'll simply cite the two undisputed great films I saw this year, the ones that I imagine would still top my list even if I'd seen a few dozen more new films, followed by some more notable 2008 films and honorable mentions. Then I'll be providing an overview of some of the non-2008 films that I saw for the first time this year.

The Best of 2008

Don't Touch the Axe - I'm still sticking to Jacques Rivette's chosen title for this eccentric period masterpiece: there's a reason the elder-statesman director opted for the unused alternate title of the Balzac short story upon which it is based, and the American release's retitling of the film as The Duchess of Langeais is simply a transparent marketing ploy. The film itself is a wry comedy of manners undercover as a stuffy costume drama, and its subtle joys are to be found in the creaking, layered soundtrack and the hesitant courtship/manipulation that takes place between a flute-voiced duchess (Jeanne Balibar) and a rough-edged general (Guillaume Depardieu).

Here's what I had to say back in February: "Don't Touch the Axe is a delight in every way, a film that functions on its surface level as a straightforward melodramatic romance, even as Rivette plays gleefully with the form of his storytelling in order to infuse the film with his love of gamesmanship and multi-layered constructions. He employs his actors as pieces in this game, and Balibar and Depardieu do an excellent job of delineating the rigid boundaries of their characters, both of whom oscillate between stubborn refusal and open yearning ... [B]oth characters are simply pawns on Rivette's meticulously arranged chessboard, playing games that have little to do with the story they're ostensibly involved in, and everything to do with the pleasures of narrative deconstruction and the director's sly sense of humor."

Vicky Cristina Barcelona - It should come as no surprise that my other top pick is Woody Allen's sun-drenched mood piece about dilettante characters who have a tourist mentality towards life. Allen had mildly disappointed me earlier in the year with Cassandra's Dream, which seemed to suggest that he had taken his obsession with morally ambiguous crime dramas as far as it could go. Vicky was a rejuvenation in comparison, a vibrant and smartly made film anchored by a strong cast, among whom Rebecca Hall and Penelope Cruz especially stand out.

Here's what I had to say previously: "This sensitivity to emotional complexity belies the blunt simplicity of the voiceover, which is always reducing such moments to clichés. The toneless narrator can only state facts, and his dry recitations are obviously redundant when they are followed, as they are several times, by lingering closeups on Hall's face, catching the mysterious quality of a smile spreading across her long face, or the way her dark eyes seem mesmerized by a beautiful guitar song. Woody proves himself much more attuned to the emotional stakes of his story than the narrator, and his images are constantly undermining the distance created by the voiceover device. The arrival of Maria Elena into the film is, in particular, a seismic rift in the very surface of the narrative, her volcanic presence and Cruz's smoldering performance complicating the film's emotional tone considerably. Even the simple moment when Cruz, her eyes ringed with smeared black eyeliner, glares across a table at Johansson, is infused with intensity and dark humor. Her very presence, her stormy disposition always ready to erupt, is an anomaly in this brightly sunlit film."

The rest of my 2008 favorites follow in alphabetical order:

Burn After Reading
The Dark Knight
Encounters at the End of the World
The Last Mistress
Paranoid Park
Peur(s) du noir - mainly for Richard McGuire's closing segment
Synecdoche, New York

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also deserves an honorable mention for being a movie with deep and often aggravating flaws that was nevertheless strangely enthralling. I haven't reviewed it yet because it will be the first subject (along with a career overview of David Fincher in general) of a new ongoing series that I will be participating in at The House Next Door. Fellow blogger Jason Bellamy and I will be starting a new series at the House in 2009, in which we will engage in dialogues about the cinema. We'll be talking about a wide variety of films and filmmakers, and the as-yet untitled feature will be appearing more or less monthly at the House starting, most likely, in early February. I'm very excited about the whole project.

New Discoveries in 2008

If 2008 wasn't a particularly good year for me to get out and see lots of new films, I think I made up for it with all the non-2008 films I caught up with. So here's a recap of some of the notable older film discoveries I made this year.

Way back in January, I started off the year on an ambitious note with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic television serial Berlin Alexanderplatz, a fifteen-hour tragedy set in pre-WWII Germany. I spread out the film's thirteen episodes and feature-length epilogue over the course of a week, and it was an exhausting but undeniably powerful experience.

I've started hesitantly dipping my toe into the later films of Alfred Hitchcock over the course of this year. Hitch has long been one of my favorites but his much-maligned later films have scared me off for some time now. So I was gratified to find that Marnie is not only better than its reputation, but is in fact something of a masterpiece. I'd now happily count it among my Hitch favorites despite the sometimes overbearing psychological explanations in its denouement (not unlike the last-minute intervention of the psychologist in Psycho). It also yielded one of the best, most active and erudite comment sections I've received on one of my posts. I love when the comment sections of my reviews become fields for further discussion and debate, and this film prompted intelligent commentary from David Ehrenstein, Marc Raymond, and Marilyn Ferdinand. On the other hand, as for other late Hitchcock, I found that Torn Curtain largely deserved its dismal reputation despite a few strong scenes, while Topaz is a flawed but always interesting thriller. More Hitchcock is on deck for 2009, needless to say!

I've also continued my odyssey into the films of Woody Allen, which I've been watching in chronological order, doling them out over time. In 2008 I caught up with: Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Don't Drink the Water, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, and Sweet and Lowdown. This leaves me right on the brink of Woody's most critically maligned period, so 2009 will find me watching some of a favorite director's least-loved films. I'm curious to see what I'll think of this period of his career, since I've found that thus far I tend to find something of worth even in those Woody Allen films that no one else seems to care for.

Another director I've been following with great attention during this past year is Howard Hawks, who has quickly ascended from an interesting director with many films I like to one of my absolute favorites. Twentieth Century, Scarface, Ball Of Fire, Monkey Business, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are a diverse, exciting variety of fantastic films, displaying Hawks' wide-ranging mastery of genre filmmaking. Even the films that I'd personally rank a little lower, like To Have and Have Not and Red River, or even the mostly unsatisfying I Was a Male War Bride, bear the unmistakable imprint of Hawks' genius. 2009 promises to start off with a bang for Hawks admirers: I'll be hosting the Early Hawks blog-a-thon starting on January 12 and running until January 23.

Now that I think of it, 2008 has been a very good year in general for deepening my appreciation for certain key directors. I've made a point of systematically exploring the oeuvres of directors I admire, among them Jacques Rivette (The Nun, Duelle, Noroît, Le Pont du Nord), David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, the sublime and under-rated Undertow, Pineapple Express), Paul Verhoeven (Turkish Delight, Spetters, Black Book), Todd Haynes (Poison, Far From Heaven), and Eric Rohmer (the first three installments of his Four Seasons series: A Tale of Springtime, A Winter's Tale, A Summer's Tale). I look forward to exploring all of these directors more in the coming year as well.

This year has also seen the continuation of my often all-consuming fascination with the work of Jean-Luc Godard. One of my angriest posts of the year was prompted by a review of the Richard Brody Godard biography in the New York Times. In response to this review, and the generally dismissive attitude towards Godard's post-60s oeuvre that it represented, I wrote Everything is Cinema and Criticism Is Nothing. In the aftermath of this essay, I attempted to answer the lack of serious attention towards late Godard by writing about his post-60s films myself, though not in any methodical or chronological order. Over the course of the year, I watched and wrote about Hélas pour moi, JLG/JLG, Numéro Deux, British Sounds, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, Here and Elsewhere, and Le gai savoir. Godard remains my favorite filmmaker, as the name of this blog itself doubtless attests. His films are never less than thought-provoking, and they are often positively earth-shaking.

Finally, this year I started the Films I Love series, an attempt to document some personal favorites that would otherwise perhaps not be reflected on this blog, which is mostly focused on writing about my current viewings. This weekly series will eventually constitute a de facto personal canon of my most deeply loved films. I've posted about 12 films in this series in 2008, and there will be many more throughout 2009, on a regular weekly basis. They are posted every Monday, and will return after skipping this current week, on January 5, with a post on Martin Arnold's obscure deconstructionist short Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy. You can read the past installments in the series via the sidebar links to the right, by clicking on the introduction post, or with the series label.

Anyway, that's it for 2008. Thanks to everyone who has stopped in and read what I have to say here this year — ESPECIALLY if you've been commenting. I love a lively discussion and have really appreciated everyone who's taken the time to debate and dissect a film, or simply to say hi. Happy new year to everyone out there. I may have a few reviews in the next couple of days, but the blog will definitely be back on its regular near-daily posting schedule come January 5, and don't forget that the Early Howard Hawks blog-a-thon starts on January 12!

13 comments:

Pat said...

Ed-

Interesting wrap-up. You definitely got something out of "Duchess of Langeais" (the only title I know it by) that I wasn't able to getat all. The opening scene in the convent really grabbed me, but the rest put me to sleep, multiple times. In fact, I never made it to the end.

While I wasn't as enthusiastic as you over "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," I totally agree with you about Cruz, and about the superfluousness of the narration. I'll be interested to see what you think of the next batch of Woody's films. I think some of his 21st century films are wretched,but some (like "Small Time Crooks") are underrated. Also, "Celebrity," which I re-watched yesterday; it's not entirely successful, but it has some good moments.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment Pat. Rivette's undoubtedly a difficult director even for those used to difficult films, which is perhaps why Don't Touch the Axe proved to be such a niche taste this year. You have to really be open to what Rivette is trying to do here, to the subtle humor of the soundtrack, to the fact that he makes no attempt to make the two leads "relatable" or psychologically transparent.

Also, I don't see the narration in Vicky as superfluous at all. In fact, the dry, objective tone of the voiceover is integral to the film's effect, since the narrator's literary coolness is contrasted against the sensual quality of Woody's images and the performances he gets from his cast. The film is about missing out on life's fullness due to insecurity and limited imagination, and the narrator himself a representative of that point of view.

Craig said...

I just came back from seeing Benjamin Button and second your opinion: It's a strange movie, one that essentially reshuffles the Forrest Gump, but left me enthralled in places too. Will be writing about it soon.

And big congrats to you and Jason. God knows The House could use some fresh voices, and each of you know how to converse intelligently about film without sounding like an insecure grad student defending his dissertation. Great news for '09.

Craig said...

"...reshuffles the Forrest Gump deck." Forgot a word there.

Bob Turnbull said...

Looking forward to your upcoming posts and dialogues on The House Next Door...

The two main directors I want to delve into during '09 are Chabrol and Kaurismaki, but Rivette would be a great addition - I've never seen one of his films. I'm gradually working through Hitch's stuff too - I liked "Torn Curtain" more than you, but it is certainly one of his lesser films. "Marnie" was great though. I've been holding off "Topaz", but maybe I'll grab it soon. I need more Rohmer too (I'm only half way through the Moral Tales).

Glad to hear the "Films I Love" series will become more frequent.

Marilyn said...

It has been a pleasure reading your posts, commenting on them, and interacting with you at my blog and others around the film blogosphere. Your obsessions are very different from mine and therefore all the more fascinating to read. Thanks for all you do!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. I've been enjoying all of your blogs (and your contributions here) over the past year.

Craig: Thanks for the compliment, I'm really looking forward to working with Jason myself. As for Benjamin Button, it seems like one of those movies that's all the more fascinating and discussion-worthy for its flaws and shortcomings.

Bob: Chabrol should be on my 2009 director list as well. He's one I've been tentatively approaching here and there, and I grow more intrigued with each film I see by him. I've never seen anything by Kaurismaki, so he should probably be added to my own list. As for Rivette, I'd recommend checking out my personal favorite The History of Marie and Julien and of course his most famous film, Celine and Julie Go Boating - those two would provide a great introduction, and they're about as accessible as this most inaccessible of directors ever gets. Rohmer's amazing too; the Moral Tales series is really solid, but I slightly prefer his later Comedies & Proverbs. Really, though, I don't think there's ever been a more consistent director; some are better than others but virtually all of his films offer similar pleasures.

Marilyn: The same right back at you! I always enjoy reading your blog, especially since you're so often spotlighting films I never would've thought about otherwise.

Brady said...

Ed,

Your passion about film and the discussion thereof is refreshing. It has inspired me to be more involved in the online community for film, whatever that means given the scope of the web.

May 2009 bring you further appreciation and understanding of cinema. I'll be reading and discussing!

Fox said...

Ed-

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Woody's Small Time Crooks when you watch it later this year. I always try to go to bat for that movie when I can.

In fact, I see Pat mentions it above. I think we've high-fived about that movie a few times. I think Melinda and Melinda is worthy too. But Anything Else... er... I think it was his worst.

Pat said...

Ed - I'm guilty of misreading your comments about the narration in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Now that I understand better what you were getting at, I actually want to see it again. The narrator bugged the hell out of me firt time around, but your take on his funciton in the film is one I'd like to take into consideration on a repeat viewing.

This I why I love to read movie blogs. I learn so much and wind up looking so much deeper at films after "talking" with other folks like you. Thanks!

Sam Juliano said...

Ed: I am overjoyed at your inclusion (and celebration) of both DON'T TOUCH THE AXE and THE LAST MISTRESS, two films that will place prominently in my own ten-best list as well. I completely agree with you on your sentiments in regards to the far better European/British title of the film, and your rightful dismissal of the American title. I saw this film at the Cinema Village in Manhattan back in February, and it has stayed with me ever since. I am an admirer of Jacques Rivette and have long revered CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING and LA BELLE NEUSEUSE among others (his Joan of Arc films are also magnificent) and own the BFI of the former and the New Yorker DVD of the latter. The Herzog, Kaufman and Van Sant births are excellent too. I confess that I have not seen PEUR DE NOIR.

You have a terrific scholarly site here, and you are a true gentleman. I will add it to my blog roll today. Many thanks.

Carson said...

Great wrap-up Ed...I too felt incapable of providing an end-of-the-year list (at least in terms of theatrical releases).
You write some extremely insightful reviews here, and your passion for directors that I have not yet engaged with certainly makes me interested to start watching. (Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette to be exact.)
Thanks for the abundant posts!

filmdr said...

I am impressed with the ambition and scope of your work, and I look forward to your posts this year. I really liked Benjamin Button, by the way, but find myself reluctant to write about it for some reason, perhaps because it affected me so strongly. I also admire your desire to explore the later films of Hitchcock, Godard, and Woody Allen. Your blog is an educational pleasure to read.