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indieWIRE CRITICS’ POLL ’08 | Steve Erickson

indieWIRE CRITICS' POLL '08 | Steve Erickson

This is the latest ballot in indieWIRE’s 2008 Critics Poll, continuing the tradition of a national survey of critics by calling attention to the year’s best — and, in many cases, most overlooked — films, providing a meaningful counterpoint to much of the year-end hoopla. Note that some lists are unranked at the discretion of the critic. For all categories except Best Undistributed Film, eligible feature films had first-run theatrical engagements in the U.S. during 2008. Films without a U.S. distributor, screened anywhere (festival circuit, one-off screenings, etc.), are eligible in the Best Undistributed Film category. The full list of critics poll ballots is available here at indieWIRE and tabulated results are being published by indieWIRE later this month.

Steve Erickson
Gay City News, Film and Video, Artforum.com

Best Film
1 – La France
2 – Silent Light
3 – Before I Forget
4 – Flight of the Red Balloon
5 – Wall-E
6 – Still Life
7 – My Winnipeg
8 – Frownland
9 – Waltz with Bashir
10 – The Duchess of Langeais

Best Performance
1 – Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
2 – Guillaume Depardieu, Flight of the Red Balloon
3 – Sean Penn, Milk
4 – Sylvie Testud, La France
5 – Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

Best Supporting Performance
1 – Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
2 – Josh Brolin, Milk
3 – James Franco, Pineapple Express
4 – Rosemarie deWitt, Rachel Getting Married
5 – Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder

Best Director
Carlos Reygadas, Silent Light

Best First Feature

Best Documentary
Waltz With Bashir

Best Undistributed Film
1 – RR
2 – Chouga
3 – Four Nights with Anna
4 – Night and Day
5 – Fengming: A Chinese Memoir
6 – Adrift in Tokyo
7 – United Red Army
8 – Sparrow
9 – Fine, Totally Fine
10 – Joy Division

Among the year’s many undistributed films, I’m particularly fond of Grant Gee’s “Joy Division,” Johnnie To’s “Sparrow,” James Benning’s “RR,” Wang Bing’s “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir” and Koji Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army.” Fortunately, the first two are now available on DVD. I don’t have much hope that the latter two will ever make it to Region 1. Beneath the surface, they share a lot in common. Both are epic-length examinations of the nightmares of Asian communism. “Fengming: A Chinese Memoir,” a three-hour interview edited to look like a seamless torrent of words (plus a bathroom break), is the closest cinema has come to Primo Levi’s memoirs of his life in Auschwitz and beyond. “United Red Army” is equally unconventional, following a semi-documentary history of the ‘60s Japanese left with an intensely claustrophobic depiction of students torturing and killing themselves. The middle hour of “United Red Army” has a stark power most horror directors would kill to achieve. The length of Wang Bing’s films seems to have kept them from American audiences, while Wakamatsu would probably be better-known here if our government gave him a travel visa. Due to his involvement with the PLO in the early ‘70s, he was not able to attend the New York Asian Film Festival and gave a Q&A session via satellite; it’s ironic because “United Red Army,” for all its sympathy towards its subjects, is one of the strongest critiques any filmmaker has made of the countercultural left. Ms. Fengming succumbed to the Cultural Revolution because she had no choice; “United Red Army” ponders why someone would wilingly copy and submit to its suicidal practices of self-laceration. “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 which isn’t content to preach to the converted. However, that’s not the main reason it’s a delight. Its biggest surprise is that it makes silent comedy and post-apocalyptic sci-fi fit together so naturally and comfortably. Sure, its robots are cute, but they’re placed in a convincingly imagined grubby dystopian future. After Pixar took an aesthetic swan-dive with “Cars,” “Wall-E” suggests the animation studio’s best days may be ahead of them. Why so serious, fanboys? The response of some viewers to “The Dark Knight” is scarier than anything in the film itself. When Keith Uhlich dared to criticize it on his blog, he was rewarded with a parade of responses that showed no tolerance for any deviation from the media’s general lovefest. His point is well-taken. Pace Armond White, “The Dark Knight” is neither hip nor nihilistic enough. Not since “Paradise Lost” has a work of fiction been so enamored of its villain. Yet “The Dark Knight” makes the Joker into the cuddliest of villains by glossing over his violence – no explicit eye-gouging here, since that would jeopardize the PG-13 rating – or directing it towards his fellow crooks. Christian Bale’s bland performance helps push the film further towards a Joker lovefest. As for its poitics, 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 authoritatian 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 leanngs, is the first of the Obama era. As superheroes go, I prefer “Iron Man.” Its politics may not be any more progressive or less muddled, but at least it has a note of playfulness missing from Nolan’s pompous cape opera.

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