The general consensus out there in criticdom is that 2008 was a big step down from 2007, and I have to agree. No matter which way you look at it, the movies just weren't as good. Nothing like There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men in the best picture category, and nowhere near the depth, as last year saw fantastic movies like The Assassination of Jesse James, The Savages, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Margot at the Wedding, and Once pushed aside by the Cohens and Andersen. 2007 also had a big budget feature from Herzog, a new Wes Andersen movie, and the first good Simpson episode in a decade. Sorry, but 2008 was not going to live up to that, despite the apparently heroic work of Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau turning comic books into loud comic books. Hell, even a great 2008 movie like Encounters at the End of the World counts for us RFC folks as 2007, since Sean and I got to see a sneak preview when back when.
So maybe it was a fortunate occurrence to spend all but three weeks of 2008 outside the country (Belgium, for those who weren't paying attention), where the occasional American film sneaks in, but where you get a nice mix of repertory film, American blockbusters and European art films sponsored by various government cultural agencies. I spent most of my time at the Cinematheque Royale , my favorite movie venue of all-time (2 euro, occasional live piano, new prints, etc), where I had a great introduction to a half-dozen directors I'd never heard of, as well as the occasional experimental film. Le Belge also run a film festival about once every two weeks, so there were the chance to see shorts, features and documentaries from across the globe.
Now, for those of you not around last year , the Couchies are very much subject to time and place, since only movies actually reviewed by Sean and I are available for consideration, and only movies reviewed (not seen) between Jan 1 and December 31 count. So The Wrestler is out, for example, as well as the literally dozens and dozens of movies I sat through last year in various Bruxellian theaters. This includes, sadly, The Passion of Joan of Ark, which would have won Best Film had I gotten around to reviewing it. After the culling, this left me with 19 films, which is kinda small for, say, the Oscars, but about the number that are in competition at most of your better film festivals. And, of course, I have better taste then the judges at the Big 5 anyway, so any winners should feel proud.
There are seven categories altogether, which will be rolled out all hopeful before the Oscars steal the attention away: the four acting categories, Best Film, Screenplay, and Direction. Let's start things off with those much unheralded screenwriters.
Last Year - Bela Tarr and Lazlo Kraznahorkai
Goran Dukic - Wristcutters: A Love Story
One of the funniest and (for a time) most inventive stories of the year. Based on the shorty story "Kneller's Happy Campers" by Etgar Keret, this post-suicidal world of ennui and unfortunately-placed wormholes got off to a great start, but started to fall into convention as the plot developed. This is a problem with the short story that adapters of people from Chekov to Dick have been struggling with, and even if Dukic doesn't quite get a whole movie out of it, it's a damn fine (and fun) try.
Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman - I'm Not There
Say what you will about the execution of this movie (and Sean said a lot), the script itself was a brilliant attempt to tell the story of artist without the standard biopic trappings. Dylan's fall, if there was one, occurs in the Heath Ledger scenes towards the end, and the constant switching between Dylans gave an 'ark' to the story that was emotionally if not narrartivley coherent. Maybe some elements failed, but there wasn't a more ambitious script to cross the desk at RFC this year.
Piera Degli Esposti, Marco Ferreri, Dacia Maraini - Il Futuro e Donna
The discovery of the year was the director Marco Ferreri and his absurdist take on motherhood, family, and the Italian suburbs. La Grande Bouffle might be the best Bunuel movie Bunuel never made, but this story - two women, one man, and one future kid trying to navigate the world of adulthood after an adolescence of radical Futurism - had enough touches of real emotion to go beyond mere satire. The movie somehow hits on everything - the hedonism and New Age of the 80s, the revolutionary spirit of the 60s, and the general wackiness of the 70s - all in the span of a few weeks, and all while giving personal attention to character. Hell, now I think it should have won, but I already circled the winner on my ballot.
And the winner is...
Noah Baumbach - Margot at the Wedding
Subtract Jack Black and about half the self-indulgence of Margot, and we might be looking at the movie of the year. The core relationship between Nicole Kidman's Margot and sis Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is perfectly rendered, capturing the subtle underlying anger beneath the open pleasantries. Margot herself (based partially on Baumbach's mom) is one of the best written and intense characters to come along in some time, and I think even the caricature of Malcolm might have been written as an actual person before Black got hold of it. As is The Squid and the Whale, Margot is full of absolutely devastating lines delivered from one family member to another. Baumbach might be drawing substantially on stuff he heard as a kid, but the unhappy family story has never been in better hands. I hope, for his sake, that Baumbach doesn't have much more personal story to draw upon.
Next Up: Best Actor