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.
On the fringes of the genres: Michael Haneke’s subversive home-invasion nightmare, Funny Games, truly a shot-for-shot remake of his German-language original (a thank-you to Bill Richardson for supplying me a DVD of it), amounted to a sharply honed instrument of torture. The one benefit of remaking it, besides obtaining a broader audience for it, was that the familiarity of the stars fractionally intensified the subversion. And Claude Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two diagrammed a twisted and twisty if not a thrilling romantic triangle cum crime of passion, although when I saw it I didn’t remember its fact-based and period-set model, Richard Fleischer’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, clearly enough to realize how close it was a copy. Praise be to Kensington Video for enabling me to realize.
Silvio Soldini’s Days and Clouds, Chico Teixeira’s Alice’s House, and Nadine Labaki’s Caramel dished out flavorful slices of life from Italy, Brazil, and Lebanon, in order. From Romania, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days added the pungency of an illegal abortion under the Ceausescu regime. And in the American style, Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, with its generous leading role for a grateful Richard Jenkins, laced its mundanity with a dollop of journalistic topicality.
Marjane Satrapi’s (and Vincent Paronnaud’s) Persepolis, a mostly black-and-white autobiographical coming-of-age story against a backdrop of the Islamic Revolution, was far and away the standout animated feature, stiffness aside. And Doug Sweetland’s Presto, the five-minute theatrical prefix to the pretentious WALL-E, and even now attached to it on the newly issued DVD, recaptured some of the hit-and-run exhilaration of the old-time cartoon short.
Francisco Vargas’s El Violín, another fruit of the Latino Film Festival, and later encored in the monthly Cinema en Tu Idioma series, brought evocative black-and-white into a live-action feature. Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress, a wildly, archaically romantic costume drama, afforded a showcase for the talents, if not the tattoos, of Asia Argento. Claude Miller’s A Secret took a revivingly individualized angle on the French Occupation. And Flight of the Red Balloon imported Hou Hsiao-hsien’s peerless eye into modern Paris, though the red balloon was a lead balloon.
For me, the year’s biggest letdown (my expectations of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead and Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears weren’t high enough for the letdown to be big, and the letdowns from Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona were only little) was Clint Eastwood’s limp and overdrawn Changeling, too many steps down to merit an honorable mention. His bounce-back Gran Torino doesn’t come to us out in the hinterlands till January 9, a happy start, anyway, to the new year.