Last year I thought I’d get ahead of myself and the foreboding I feel about putting this list together by picking out favourite films as I watched them. I’m glad I did, but to be honest the real pain isn’t in decided what films left a lasting impression, but rather in working from a shortlist of 30+ to the ten you want to stand behind. So among my honourable mentions I have Man on Wire, Momma’s Man, Synecdoche, New York (which may appear on the ’09 list as I can’t wait to see it again on the UK release), The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Waltz with Bashir, The Silence of Lorna and Slumdog Millionaire, any of which could have made the cut given a change in the wind.
I’ve been trying to think about what, if anything, seems to be the common link across the films I’ve picked this year and although I’ve made a conscious effort not to mention it each time, I’d have to say it’s pacing. Pretty much every single pick takes its time and lets the story, characters, dialogue or even camera shot breath and in so gives us time to absorb a moment or an entire world.
1. Ballast – Lance Hammer
How do you approach the making of a film that you intend to convey the feeling of a place along with a personal expression of sorrow? That’s the challenge Lance Hammer set himself for his debut feature Ballast and one that I believe he conquered unequivocally. From the use of non-actors and the method of creating a script that’s then abandoned for the truth those actors can bring to their characters and conflicts, to the attention to detail in selecting locations to be used ‘as is’ (not an expected decision given Hammer’s previous career as an art director) and largely recording sync sound, all combine to bring the Mississippi Delta to the screen, along with a meditation on loss and healing families.
2. Hunger – Steve McQueen
It seems that following last year’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and now Steve McQueen’s Hunger, the move from artist to filmmaker should be encouraged more often – although I’m not talking to you Miss Emin, you’re welcome to keep Top Spot to yourself.
I think more so than any filmmakers in recent memory, McQueen has been fearless in experimenting with the form of narrative storytelling and has found the precise limit to which he can bend, but not break it.
3. There Will Be Blood – Paul Thomas Anderson
Don’t know why but it seems somehow wrong to have such an obvious choice on the list. Even with all the hype of greatness foreshadowing There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson far exceeded any expectations I went in with. Yes there are blinding performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, but for me it’s the assured pacing that’s the main draw. The film moves at a measured stroll that allows a foreboding knot to continuously tighten in your gut, yet the 158 minutes slip by unnoticed. Months later I still find myself playing back scenes in my head and maniacally shouting about milkshakes.
4. Let the Right One in – Tomas Alfredson
I love vampire films. From Nosferatu, to From Dusk Till Dawn, to Near Dark and of course The Lost Boys three times a week in my teen years. I’ve even got a soft spot for Interview with a Vampire – although the Anne Rice book is far superior of course. That being said, the numerous twists and turns filmmakers have taken bloodsuckers down through the years, hadn’t prepared me for Let the Right One in, which isn’t so much a vampire flick, but rather a love story. Of course there’s bloodshed, but Tomas Alfredson balances this perfectly with the innocence of young love. Also, intended or not I couldn’t shake the feeling that Oskar’s life with Eli would ultimately lead him to fill Håkan’s role, but that’s a worry for grown ups I suppose.
5. The Wrestler – Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky’s one of those directors who seems worried about retracing his steps and repeating himself, so there’s little you can count on, aside from his singular voice, from film to film. Whether it’s an intimate character sketch of obsession balancing on the line between genius and madness in Pi, how addiction turns us into fuel for our vices in Requiem for a Dream or a study of love and mortality across the ages in the oft misunderstood The Fountain, he always has something new to reveal.
The Wrestler continues this pattern with the tale of a man who has given (literally) his life’s blood to his art and is battling with how to step away from the ever dwindling limelight before it consumes him entirely. I find it hard to believe that Randy “The Ram” Robinson could have been played by anyone other than Mickey Rourke – thank you Nicolas Cage for stepping aside – who has to be applauded for exposing his own troubled soul in one of the greatest screen performances of all time.
6. No Country for Old Men – Coen Brothers
The Coen’s No Country for Old Men has appeared on pretty much every top ten list I’ve seen this year and it’s no surprise. Spending two hours on the run from Javier Bardem’s calmly psychotic Anton Chigurh is an experience that stays with you. The Coen’s are working at the top of their game here, how else could they have had me so concerned about the outcome of the flipped coin that will determine Gene Jones’ Gas Station Proprietor’s fate, a character I had absolutely no investment in seconds before Chigurh began to menace him?
7. Wendy & Lucy – Kelly Reichardt
A woman stopped in her tracks by circumstance in Oregon with her dog Lucy while on the road to start a new life in Alaska, might not strike you as the most compelling of stories, but Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is a contemplative study of life on the edge of the financial abyss. Michelle Williams’ restrained performance – which rightly earned her the Best Actress award at the 12th Toronto Film Critics Association Awards – is a perfect match for Reichardt’s minimalist style and prevents the small, yet insurmountable struggles Wendy faces from tipping into melodrama.
8. Lake Tahoe – Fernando Eimbcke
I haven’t seen director Fernando Eimbcke’s break out film Duck Season but after being mesmerised by Lake Tahoe at last year’s London Film Festival it’s high on my list of priorities for ’09. The story’s a simple one of teen Juan (Diego Cataño’s) left alone to work through the practical problem of finding a part for the crashed family car, whilst carrying the emotional baggage of a recently deceased father. The film largely neglects close ups in favour of static wide shots that linger after the action has passed, something that initially troubled me as I waited for a character’s re-entry but then pulled me into the rhythm of the film.
9. Helen – Christine Molloy & Joe Lawlor
This debut feature from writer-directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, the collaborative team behind Desperate Optimists, is a hypnotic depiction of Helen, portrayed by first timer Annie Townsend, who’s asked to play missing girl Joy in a police reconstruction, but instead extends her role, insinuating her way into the lives of those closest to the missing Joy who encompass the life she never had. The film is beautifully shot by Ole Birkeland in long takes and leisurely pans as Helen tries to make sense of her world through the mirror of Joy’s.
10. A Lake – Philippe Grandrieux
Another experimental approach to filmmaking that makes no compromises to the audience’s comfort. I’ve tried and largely failed on numerous occasions to describe A Lake to people:
“A woodcutter prone to fits, living happily with his sister, blind mother and younger brother in an unnamed snowy forest until a stranger arrives to upset the balance” or “it has minimal dialogue, is often shot in near dark and/or extreme close up, not always in focus” serve more as a deterrent than as any indication of the emotional response I had to the film. An obvious candidate for “you’ll love it or hate it” but a film I feel you should experience to see which way you fall.