Short of the outlying fields of basketball playoffs (the Jayhawks, the Celtics) and Presidential campaigns (Obamanos!), strictly confined instead to my assigned field, the year just past felt pretty dismal. On the personal front, Manny Farber, the inspirational albeit inimitable film critic, and my oldest friend in both senses of the adjective, died in August at the age of ninety-one. Early in the calendar, David Elliott, my counterpart at the daily Union-Tribune, got booted out the door after twenty-four years, without so much as the opportunity to bid goodbye in print, so as to make way for wire-service reviews. And late in the calendar, Scott Marks, the erstwhile film curator at the Museum of Photographic Arts and ever/ after a movie maven of sizable presence in this town, left for the wider pastures of Los Angeles. The city limits appeared somehow to contract.
The bleakness extended generally to the movie screen, where even the best seemed less. And the biggest, The Dark Knight with no rival, actively strove for bleakness. (The masses evidently found that mood fittingly overwrought for a Heath Ledger wake, never mind for a comic-book superhero fantasy.) So it is with some slight surprise that I notice my short list of favorite films is uncommonly dominated by comedies. Maybe I needed them more than usual.
Happy-Go-Lucky. When I rack my brains in search of a single greatest contribution to cinema history in 2008, I come up with Poppy, the irrepressible, undepressible London schoolteacher of Mike Leigh’s lightest comedy. Sally Hawkins’s complex portrayal made her into a real person, not a hypothetical, and pushed her exuberance to the brink of craziness or at least brink of crazy-makingness. Leigh never let on what you were supposed to think of her. He left it up to you. I didn’t view this as one of his very best films or even very funniest, but it was probably his (and the year’s) best-looking, in cinematographer Dick Pope’s pop-off-the-screen colors and crystal-clear atmosphere. The competition, to be sure, did not really demand Leigh’s best. In my yearbook, Poppy’s tops.
Roman de Gare. Claude Lelouch’s killer-on-the-loose thriller was not precisely a comedy, but it had comedy in it, and it was in any case a light thriller as opposed to the queasy-making thriller that’s all the rage nowadays. This wasn’t one of Lelouch’s best films either (whose films tend to vary more widely in quality than Leigh’s), but it had his singular deftness of touch, and it had uncharacteristic ingenuity of design. It was not screened in advance for the press — an effect, I had to ask myself, of the thinning ranks of local critics? — so I sat down to write about it in haste on its opening weekend, not knowing whether it would even be held over for a second week at Landmark’s Hillcrest, and submissively tucking it behind my lengthier remarks on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the evanescent Top Story of the moment. It deserved better.
The Promotion. I was even later in getting to Steven Conrad’s little-promoted workplace comedy, set in a bad-part-of-Chicago supermarket, efficiently surveyed from bottom to top. For some reason I missed the press screening, and having no reason whatsoever to expect anything from the tyro director, I wasted my time on opening weekend opting instead to see a documentary on steroid abuse. I got around to it in its second week only because I’m inclined to like John C. Reilly, whom indeed I never liked more. As an unforeseen bonus, I also liked Seann William Scott, whom I never liked before. The year’s best laughs with the least strain. So much nicer an arrangement than the fewest-laughs-with-most-strain formula of Step Brothers (in spite of John C. Reilly), Forgetting Sarah Marshall, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and their ilk.
Burn after Reading. Not (to reprise the theme) one of the Coen brothers’ best, but no matter how far I have backed off on the Coens since, say, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and no matter how many qualifications and quibbles I throw in, I am still accused of being a shill for them. Well, the less than best of the Coens remains better than most people’s best, and their comedy of stupidity in the intelligence community was fast, short, and almost relentlessly tickling. Yes, I didn’t enjoy seeing the lovesick health-club manager get his head split open like a melon, but at the same time this helped to point up (a) that in his choice of love object, he too was stupid, and (b) that the Coens were serious in their funny business. The ensemble cast was so uniformly good — Clooney, Pitt, McDormand, Malkovich, Swinton, Jenkins, Simmons, Rasche, all the way to the walleyed health-club janitor whose name I don’t know — that we can only salute the Coens’ total control.
Ciudad en Celo. Hernán Graffet’s easygoing, smooth-flowing navigation of a circle of friends around the hub of a Buenos Aires bar, all of them compelled to contemplate mortality when one of their number gets subtracted, was funny to the degree that life is funny — without undue effort to heighten the degree — and it was precious in the way, if not quite to the degree, that life is precious. Since it was shown exclusively at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, I couldn’t comment on it until it had departed, a circumstance that in some way underscores the film’s (and the festival’s) treasurability. Nor, as far as I’m aware, can it be disinterred at will on DVD.
The next step down, to Second Bests, is crowded enough to ward off despair. (For now.) The time-honored genres had adequate representation: Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield and Chris Carter’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe held up, respectively, the bug-eyed-monster and the mad-scientist wings of science fiction; Ed Harris’s Appaloosa presented a blessedly old-fashioned Western; David Mamet’s Redbelt, while not alone in updating the fight film to the mixed-martial-arts era, was alone in stylizing it for Mametland; and Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman served up an Italian erotic thriller that proved to be something more, and other, than it seemed, and in the meantime it did thrill.