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indieWIRE CRITICS POLL 2008 | Poll Comments: Critics Defend Their Picks

By Indiewire | Indiewire December 23, 2008 at 10:39AM

indieWIRE CRITICS POLL 2008 | Poll Comments: Critics Defend Their Picks[EDITOR'S NOTE: Included within their ballots in the 2008 indieWIRE Critics Poll are comments on the year in film from some of the 105 participants taking part this year. This year's topics include the off-balance of film distribution, and one critic asks if iW shouldn't move this poll to September? Meanwhile, is there a "Dark Night" Bush and a "Rachel Getting Married" Obama theme? And what do "Che" and Prop 8 have in common?]
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indieWIRE CRITICS POLL 2008 | Poll Comments: Critics Defend Their Picks

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Included within their ballots in the 2008 indieWIRE Critics Poll are comments on the year in film from some of the 105 participants taking part this year. This year's topics include the off-balance of film distribution, and one critic asks if iW shouldn't move this poll to September? Meanwhile, is there a "Dark Night" Bush and a "Rachel Getting Married" Obama theme? And what do "Che" and Prop 8 have in common?]

[Overview | Results | Comments | Undistributed | Critics]

BE KIND REWIND Rants on the state of film and film distribution, circa 2008

Does Hollywood today suck? 50 Years ago, 1958: "Vertigo," "Touch of Evil," "The Tarnished Angels," "Bonjour Tristesse," "Party Girl," "The Last Hurrah," "Buchanan Rides Alone," "The Line-Up," "Man of the West," "Gigi," "I Want to Live," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Left-Handed Gun," "Thunder Road," "Terror in a Texas Town." And that's only a start. --Gerald Peary

As long as we're not using Hollywood as our barometer, this has been a terrific year for film. Exemplary new work by Hou, Desplechin, Kaufman, Assayas, Reygadas, Leigh, Maddin; exciting new voices in Lance Hammer, Azazel Jacobs, Steve McQueen; and a roll call of formally audacious documentaries starting with "Waltz with Bashir," "Zidane," "My Winnipeg," "Man on Wire," and "Operation Filmmaker." Could an art, theater, television, or even book critic identify this many works worth loving in 2008? --Eric Hynes

If 2007 is looking more and more like an incontestable movie year for the ages, 2008 may go down not just as the crushing hangover, but as the year everybody got everything wrong. Good-to-great films such as "35 Shots of Rum," "Still Walking," and "Burn After Reading" were apparently rejected by Cannes. Toronto, meanwhile, passed on films like "Night and Day," "Afterschool," "The Headless Woman"(!!!), and pretty every non-Mike Leigh Berlin title. As a matter of fact, Berlin seems to be the ideal place to world-premiere your finest work if you never want it to be seen again. Witness the disappearance of new films by Jacques Doillon and Johnnie To and an Erick Zonca film maudit. These days, you'd pretty much need to be either Zeus or Olaf Moeller if you hope to really stay on top of world cinema's reigning champions. --Michael Sicinski

It's odd, and sad, that the two strongest movies I've seen in the last few years (excepting "There Will Be Blood") have essentially still not been released in the United States: the South Korean "Secret Sunshine" and the "Mexican Silent Light." How is this possible? Can't some New Media genius who beams movies onto your wristwatch and your iPhone remedy this? --Matthew Wilder

As I pulled together these lists, I realized just how many movie miles I've clocked this year. I saw only two of the films I cited in the state where I live - one at a theater two hours distant and another projected on a wall in my home. --Amy Monaghan

This year, leftovers "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Paranoid Park," "The Last Mistress," "Silent Light," and "Flight of the Red Balloon," plus momentum-capitalizing qualifier runs for "The Class," "Hunger," "Gomorrah," and "Che"; next year, "Summer Hours," "Tulpan," and "Tokyo Sonata." Semiseriously now, guys - have you ever considered holding your year-end poll in September, right before the New York Film Festival? --Mark Asch

Had I seen Lucrecia Martel's "The Headless Woman," it certainly would have figured on my "Best undistributed film" list. -- Andrea Picard

The best piece of news in the Sisyphean efforts to get non-U.S. cinema shown in the U.S. was Anthology Film Archives' weeklong December exhibition of Jose Luis Guerin's "In the City of Sylvia," which I will argue (long into the night, or as long as it takes) is the greatest film of the new century. The saddest piece of news is that the Anthology run is probably the end of Guerin's masterpiece of sight, sound, and play on the fallacies of romance as a means of perception and understanding. --Robert Koehler

The most heart-wrenchingly abandoned of masterpieces is Eric Rohmer's "Romance of Astrea and Celadon." I saw it at the Anthology Film Archives in New York with a tiny group of rain-soaked old people clutching Dunkin Donuts bags who seemed not to know what they were watching, except that it was far from the rain. The master of "what we talk about when we talk about love" creates his Twelfth Night in a mythic glade of shepherds and virgins and all anyone wants to talk about is ScarJo and Bardem wandering around tourist sites in Barcelona? They picked the wrong heartsick old dude to lionize. --Matthew Wilder


STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE? Hollywood and politics

I like obscure movies as much as the next guy, but when it comes to making my year-end list, I've gotta be honest with myself: "WALL-E"'s tops. And I suspect anyone who tries to convince you that "Wendy and Lucy" or "Rachel Getting Married" is a superior achievement has lost touch with the spark that attracted us to cinema in the first place. --Peter Debruge

"WALL-E" shows a few signs of being a mainstream American family film: It ends on a note of improbable uplift and forces a pair of genderless robots into a heterosexual couple. Otherwise, it's a rare example of socially conscious work that isn't content to preach to the converted. --Steve Erickson

What a strange year. David Fincher makes the least Fincheresque movie that could be conceived. Darren Aronofsky makes the least Aronofskyesque movie that could be conceived. And over all the ruin of the American dreamscape hovers a robot struggling with his "directive," as if to represent all of us looking for some supreme being to bestow purpose upon us yet again. "WALL-E" and Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" should get together and have a cocktail some time, so profoundly similar is their torment over the loss of meaning in a Godless universe. --Donna Bowman

The Wall Street Journal editorial page had it half right, about why Batman is Bush. True enough that the (caped) crusader unilaterally Atlas-shoulders the dirty-but-necessary jobs of warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, and ticking-time-bomb torture; also true is that his struggle is with an "agent of chaos" (self-proclaimed, lest we miss the fact that the Joker is a wild card). "The Dark Knight" depicts a very real war waged against an opponent only understood symbolically, and as such is certainly the blockbuster we deserve - not just because it suggests that a noble proxy can act on behalf of a clean-handed citizenry without making mistakes, but because it inaccurately, irresponsibly, and immorally believes that what we're up against is rebellion without a cause. --Mark Asch

Given the awards handed out so far, it seems to me that critics have forgotten how brilliant and disturbing "The Dark Knight" was and remains. --Peter Brunette

Regarding "The Dark Knight"'s politics, I'm not sure that the Batman = Bush analogies are really warranted, but I can see why they exist. Rather than having the imagination to devise a world without authoritarian patriarchs, "The Dark Knight" envisions a responsible one who's tormented enough to provide a bit of balance for liberals. All the same, the film's conservative leanings are obvious: It's the last film of the Bush era, just as Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married," with its hipster utopian leanings, is the first of the Obama era. --Steve Erickson

Decades from now, when film historians are trying to make sense of Bush-era cinema, "W." won't be half as telling or useful as the blinkered, self-deluded D.C. dumbshits who populate "Burn After Reading" -- a politically astute satirical marvel that was predictably dismissed as an anti-generous gallery of grotesques. "What did we learn, Palmer? I guess we learned not to do it again. Though I'm fucked if I know what we did." "Yes, sir, it's...hard to say." --Mike D'Angelo

It has become a cliche that Iraq War movies are painfully over-earnest, dismal, and above all uncommercial. Kimberly Peirce's "Stop-Loss" may not have made a lot of money, but this bravura mix of Visconti and Bruce Springsteen blew away the notion of the dismal, dribbly, well-meaning antiwar indie. Volcanically passionate, and joltingly acted by a cast of green youths, "Stop-Loss" defined Peirce as one of the very strongest young American directors. --Matthew Wilder

It's odd that so many movies decided to take us into fantasyland this year - "Slumdog Millionaire" with its love-conquers-all happy ending machine, "Benjamin Button" with its fabulist whimsy, "Australia" with its oh-so-awkward attempt to memorialize a generation of Aborigines while at the same time painting Australian history in the broad strokes of farce. Surely, just as we are emerging from darkness into hope, grappling with the enormous task of fixing the last decade's destruction, we need movies that take reality a bit more seriously. --Donna Bowman

Let me get this - you should pardon the expression - straight. We're supposed to be against Prop 8 and cream ourselves over "Che," a hagiography of a man who persecuted homosexuals, tossing them in prison because they were homosexuals. Apparently, Sylvia Plath only had it partly right - it's not just every woman who loves a fascist. --Charles Taylor


LET THE RIGHT ONE IN Film versus film

Why is it that every time Gus Van Sant releases two movies in the same year, conventional "wisdom" rushes to champion the wrong one? At least "Elephant," as morally repugnant as I personally found its dreamy depiction of impending slaughter, was every bit as bold and challenging as its superior cousin, which got totally "Gerried" in 2003's year-end polls. "Milk," on the other hand, is just a generic great-man biopic in a moderately arty suit, and it's a mystery how anyone could think twice about its tepid, checklisted Wiki-drama after experiencing the arresting subjectivity and giddy formal exuberance of "Paranoid Park." Can't we make a statement about Prop 8 some other way? --Mike D'Angelo

Small-scale pleasures were the order of the day, but let's not underestimate the warmly animal, emotionally messy and thoroughly familial comeback of Jonathan Demme. I'll take on haters who mysteriously accused the film of narcissism, conveniently forgetting that this was the film's true subject. (Meanwhile, Demme is a lot of things, but self-absorbed?) Elsewhere, there was fawning over Arnaud Desplechin's plotty domestic drama "A Christmas Tale," weaker in every respect. Its hateful matriarch, played by a stiff Catherine Deneuve, had no bearing in reality, while "Rachel"'s diffident Debra Winger was the wholly believable source of that family's pain. Why isn't Winger, an American treasure, being re-embraced by critics? --Joshua Rothkopf

Last year, it was easy for some to ignore the filmmaking in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and proclaim it a "triumph of the spirit" movie. This year, the same blinkered crew is classing Laurent Cantet's "The Class" with the likes of "Dangerous Minds." Yeah, right. A movie where no one triumphs, where kids of all cultures are given a reprieve before sinking in the roles society has programmed for them is a real piece of uplift. Do some critics bother to look at the fucking screen anymore? --Charles Taylor

So there's this movie about a belligerent, misanthropic, foul-mouthed racist who grudgingly befriends a socially stunted kid, saving him from bullies and teaching him how to be a man. Eventually - SPOILER AHEAD - their unlikely bond becomes so strong that this apparently incorrigible dude nobly sacrifices himself on the youngster's behalf, going down in a hail of bullets. When this movie was actually intended to be hilarious, it was called "Bad Santa." When it was hilarious entirely by accident, yet somehow managed to snow an amazing number of people into ignoring its blatant cartoonishness and ascribing to it all manner of imaginary culminatory Significance, it was called "Gran Torino." --Mike D'Angelo


BEFORE I FORGET Feelings and moments to remember

Much of the strongest filmmaking I saw in 2008 was a triumph of style over substance. It felt as if the id was rebelling against the dominance of political (or, at least, political-allegorical) films in recent years. Movies like "Speed Racer," "My Blueberry Nights," and "Paranoid Park" were cracklike hits of "pure" cinema, insisting on not representing anything other than what they were--dreamlike rushes of ripe sensation sideswiped by primal emotion. --Matthew Wilder

Traveling home on the train with the Chinese puppetmaster in "Flight of the Red Balloon," Juliette Binoche offers him a treasured postcard, and all the pain in the world falls away. It's picked up again by "A Christmas Tale"'s Mathieu Amalric, who sheepishly greets the sister who exiled him years ago - only to be ignored. (Mercifully, he has the amused Emmanuelle Devos to keep him warm.) It takes great filmmakers to make smiles, looks, evasions, and silences so pregnant with meaning, but Hou Hsiao-hsien and Arnaud Desplechin make it look like child's play. --Graham Fuller

My best memories of 2008 will revolve around two of the world's most brilliant and radical filmmakers; first, Lisandro Alonso, starting with an absolutely nutty screening at the Guadalajara Film Festival of his seminal "La Libertad" in which the first reel (full of the sound of wood-chopping by Alonso's wood-chopping subject) was out of sync by a crucial half-second, and then followed by Alonso being the life of the (post-screening) party in at least three cities on various continents; second (though by no means second), Albert Serra, who explained in several cities where his astonishing "El Cant dels Ocells" (Birdsong) screened (and further amplified in Cinema Scope editor and colleague and new non-fiction filmmaker Mark Peranson's "kind-of making-of" film on "El Cant," "Waiting for Sancho") that having his non-professional actors climb insanely steep inclines during location shooting in the Canary Islands resulted in much better performances, and that most of what passes for cinema, now or at any time (and especially for him in his own country of Spain), isn't cinema at all. A few artists in the wilderness are always needed to cut through the crap, which is precisely what Alonso and Serra did this year. --Robert Koehler

This article is related to: Critics' Poll