Sunday, February 22, 2009

My Top Ten Films for 2008--and a few others

Here’s my ten favorite films of 2008. I’ve seen all of but two of these at least twice and they’ve held up on repeat viewings. My more in-depth comments follow.

1. The Fall
2. Happy-Go-Lucky
3. I've Loved You So Long
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
5. Burn After Reading
6. Up the Yangtze
7. Trouble the Water
8. Man on Wire
9. The Wrestler
10. Doubt

And here are a few more I admired, in no particular order:

a. A Christmas Tale
b. At The Deathhouse Door
c. XXY
d. The Art of Negative Thinking

My list of the best performances of the year appears at the end.

1. THE FALL remains my #1 film of the year with no close competition. I love every frame of this astounding visual feast. Directed by Tarsem Singh (or just Tarsem, as credited for this film), it far outshines anything Hollywood has produced this or any year for sheer imagination and audacity. Tarsem made his name and, apparently, his fortune as a successful director of commercials and music videos, and used his earnings to fund this extravagant project, filming in more than 18 countries over several years. The result is like nothing you've ever seen, a true celebration of the imagination and the magic of film.

Apparently the 1981 Bulgarian film "Yo Ho Ho," on which this film is based but which doesn't appear to be available with English subtitles, doesn't look anything like this film. (For pictures and an admiring review of that film, despite its "low production values, pretty horrible cinematography, and . . . hammy acting," see In 1915 Los Angeles, a silent film stuntman is hospitalized with a broken back after a fall, sustained while attempting a reckless stunt after losing his girlfriend to the movie's leading man. In the hospital he encounters five-year old Alexandria, her arm and collarbone awkwardly splinted after a fall sustained while picking oranges. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, her thick accent and forward innocence charm the man, who begins to tell her an "epic tale" of six heroes on a quest to vanquish the villainous Governor Odious ("Is this Governor Odious a bad man?" she asks, in all innocence.). He draws characters from his movie exploits, but the story comes to visual life through Alexandria's crude and colorful imagination: an Indian mourning the death of his wife resembles not a Native American but a colorfully dressed prince of the Far East; the gentle naturalist Charles Darwin wears a boldly colored feathery coat that would be the envy of Bjork; and Governor Odious's evil objectives are carried out by black-robed hordes who bark and growl like a pack of angry wolves. Like a diminutive Dorothy creating her own Oz, Alexandria imagines a world populated by faces drawn from her actual surroundings and darkened by her own harrowing memories of being driven from her home by the "angry people" who killed her own father back in Romania.

Before long it becomes evident that the stuntman is suicidally depressed. After Alexandria offers him a stolen communion wafer ("Are you trying to save my soul?" he asks wryly, a question clearly lost on her), the stuntman sets out to lure Alexandria into stealing the means for a drug overdose. With each successive episode of his colorful tale, the sense of impending danger deepens, and Alexandria's urgent desire to hear the end of the stuntman's story intensifies, along with her instinct, beyond the limits of her childish understanding, that her friend is in actual mortal danger and needs her help. The imagined adventure becomes the means for exorcising the stuntman's demons and, ultimately, for his redemption.

The beauty of the imagery actually took my breath away over and over again--underwater shots of a swimming elephant who performs an ocean rescue of five of the heroes, a primitive "mystic" who emerges from the bark of a burned out tree, the sweep of whirling skirts during a doomed wedding ceremony, a huge white expanse of cloth billowing from a guillotine, stained with blood, against a backdrop of harsh desert. And the film is anchored by two remarkable performances, of Lee Pace (the quirky star of TV's "Pushing Daisies") as the stuntman and little Catinca Untaru, a find as Alexandria. Her round face, bright eyes, and determined waddle are not movie-star cute, but rather are strangely mesmerizing; the director developed the dialogue and much of the imagery through hours of improvisation and experimentation with Untaru, giving her scenes with Pace an astonishingly unrehearsed feel and resulting in images more audacious than any adult could conceive without help. (Tarsem said in Premiere magazine that he couldn't get financing for the film once he professed his idea to have the child essentially write the script.) The power of the film rests, ultimately, on the remarkable tenderness between Pace and Untaru, which broke my heart.

Though it won awards in two European film festivals last year, most of the American reviews for the film are nowhere near as effusive as mine; actually, by way of fair warning, I'll acknowledge that some reviewers found it to be an overwrought mess. I could not disagree more--I maintain (even more so after a fifth viewing) that the dazzling imagery serves a moving story that hangs together remarkably well. I'd class it with "Pan's Labyrinth," "Brazil," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," films that take wild risks to imagine a world that could only come to life on the screen. For sheer originality and inventiveness, "The Fall" puts hack jobs like the latest in the Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises to shame. This enthralling film is the real deal. [Rated R for some images of stylized violence; on only two other critics' top-10 lists, which I find absolutely astounding. Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru deserved nominations for best actor and best actress, Tarsem should have been rewarded for directing, and it should have also been rewarded for art direction and the most imaginative costumes of the year; available on DVD.]

2. HAPPY-GO-LUCKY features the best and most enriching performance I saw this year. For me, watching Sally Hawkins's Poppy was like meeting someone who, just by being who she is, presents you with some truth about yourself that you had missed. It actually changed me.

Poppy is a buoyant young London primary school teacher with a fondness for circus-bright colors and high-heeled leopard-skin boots, the kind of person who chats up everyone she meets and fills every square inch of silence with a quip or a giggle or an attempt to coax a smile. The film introduces her riding her bicycle down busy London streets, grinning and waiving at passersby as though every Londoner were her personal friend. She stops into a quiet little bookstore and pops the silence there with her mugging and goofy chatter. The store clerk reacts exactly as I would have--which is to say, he resists reacting. Of course she concludes that he is having a bad day; why else would he deflect her attempts to brighten things? I instantly identified with the clerk, thinking back with irritation to occasions when I have been diagnosed similarly. Why is it not okay to simply decline to engage in meaningless banter?

I just as quickly diagnosed Poppy as being one of an annoying sort who insists that the world operate on their inane plane of banal optimism. Curmudgeons of the world, unite! But despite myself, I found Poppy to be rather amusing, always ready with a sly crack, relentless in her good humor. And I came to see a genuineness in her interactions with her mates and her students that was impossible to dismiss. Could she be for real? What counts as real for someone like Poppy?

The true test of her character comes in the form of Scott, a bitter, misanthropic driving instructor whom she hires after her beloved bike is stolen. He is as full of bile as she is cheer, ranting on about "the disease of multiculturalism" and barking out his singular command for a mirror check ("Enraha!," a Satanist reference, apparently) every time he feels the need to assert control. He orders her to "focus on the eye at the top of the pyramid!" and, in three viewings, I never made sense of his references to an angel expelled from heaven before Lucifer, other than as an indication of Scott's furious method of making sense of the world. Perpetually irritated by Poppy's distractible nature and her sexy footwear totally unsuitable for driving, Scott also is apparently afflicted with a worsening case of road rage. The truth is, Poppy brings out the worst in Scott--and though she sticks with him as an instructor out of her particular form of determined optimism, we (and she) come to wonder if she is doing either of them any favors.

There isn't a plot to speak of; we are merely treated to a series of Poppy's actions and reactions, to her mates, to her more conventional, uptight sister, to a hilarious and tightly wound flamenco teacher whose lessons in the physicality of anguish seem utterly lost on Poppy, to Scott. It turns out, though, that Poppy is for real, a person of depth and principle. I came to see her yammering as her way of setting her jaw against the malevolence and struggle and defeat that is so often the bread and butter of working class life. I like David Denby's description of the movie in the New Yorker as "an argument for making one's way through life with a relaxed will and an open heart." Poppy's "design for living" (David Edelstein, New York Magazine) is a way of choosing humor and love and good cheer and doing her bit to pass it around. I found myself wondering if I could be more like her. (I expect those of you who know me well will find this pretty funny.)

The scenes with Scott anchor the film (greatly helped by a mesmerizing performance by Eddie Marsan) and contain its essential struggle, awakening Poppy to the limits of her chosen life strategy. Perhaps she is not really being fair to Scott (and others) by projecting her own solution to their unhappiness. Perhaps her method, good-natured though it is, confines some people rather than opening their way. As her wry flatmate Zoe suggests, maybe you can't go around trying to make everyone happy--though perhaps, as Poppy responds, there's no harm in trying. One senses, after her experience with Scott, her version of trying might change a bit.

Hawkins's performance (and Mike Leigh's direction) hold these tensions poised in delicate balance, while maintaining a mood of such good cheer that I could not stop smiling. Poppy's attentive and discerning concern for a small bully in her class; her cozy friendship with Zoe, who understands and values Poppy with all her quirks (one of the best screen female friendships I can remember); her amazement at the fiery flamenco teacher; her ill-advised but profound attentiveness to an obviously unhinged homeless man with whom she strikes up a brief, rambling connection--even while intermittently irritated, I could not help but admire this incredible depiction of humor and strength. In all these interactions, what at first seemed like deflection actually came to feel fueled by a determination to connect. Poppy inspires me to be a better person. [Rated R for language; on at least 21 other critics' top-10 lists; available on DVD and an occasional second-run theater. Sally Hawkins won a Golden Globe for her performance but the travesty of the year is that she did not receive an Oscar nod.]

3. I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG features my other favorite performance of the year (and another Oscar travesty, given that Kristin Scott Thomas was passed over, while Angelina Jolie (!) received a nod.) It is also the most moving film I saw in 2008.

Scott Thomas portrays Juliette, who is emerging from a 15-year prison term, served for a crime not fully revealed until the end of the film. Her much younger sister Lea, a literature professor in a provincial French town, was perhaps in her early teens at the time of Juliette's crime and visited her in prison only once shortly before her release. Lea has invited Juliette to stay with her family until she gets on her feet. Lea cautiously hopes for some kind of reconciliation and also for answers as to who Juliette is and how the sister she loved so long ago could have done such an unspeakable thing. Her attitude toward Juliette (unlike that of most other people who learn anything of her history) is not so much judgment as regret and longing and watchful sadness.

Scott Thomas's performance as Juliette (helped by wonderful supporting performances all around) is profound and eloquent, though subtle and frequently utterly silent. Juliette's unexplained grief is palpable, her stillness all the more stark in comparison to Lea's nervous energy. She has surrounded herself with a wall of sorrow and defensiveness and resignation so implacable that it both ensures and protects her from the isolation she has obviously come to expect. She has given up on ever being understood--a sensible reaction, as it turns out. Lea's husband, it seems with good reason, views her with suspicion and fears for the safety of their two young daughters. A drunken family friend insists that Juliette account for her long absence from Lea's life, then views the answer as a joke. An employment counselor inexplicably assumes that Juliette will welcome her intrusive questions. A potential employer demands that she reveal her crime and then throws her out of his office when she does. Later, another employer reprimands her for the aloofness that seems a necessary protection.

The first-time director, Philippe Claudel, was a novelist first, and better than almost any film I can remember, he patiently unfolds these little details without belaboring them. Each scene is carefully composed, no word wasted. Juliette's suffering and her halting rehabilitation is conveyed in small moments that believably convey her ambivalence and the stirrings of desire. By the time a final cathartic scene reveals essential details about Juliette's crime, the truth both matters and doesn't. Some critics found this last scene disappointing--but I found that slight sense of disappointment utterly appropriate. By the time I learned the truth, after identifying so long with Lea's need to know, the truth mattered less than I thought it would. What was more important was the deep regard I had come to find for the mystery of an essentially unknowable person.

One thing I really appreciated about the film was that it sets out only to tell this one story truthfully, without trying (as so many films do) to generalize the story's importance or put its thumb on the emotional scales with dramatic speeches that no one would say or that purport to explain the inexplicable. And yet, the film spurred in me profound reflections on the secret pain that so many people carry, and how often people assume they know more about others than they actually do. There's an important scene in which Lea reacts with uncharacteristic fury to the conclusions a pedantic student draws from Dostoevsky. How dare he generalize in that way! What does he or even Dostoevsky really know about murder and its effects on people? It seems that Lea's life, devoted to the literary arts, has come to hold in paradoxical tension both the redemptiveness of artistic expression and the arrogance of locating universal truth in art. The film beautifully embodies that same tension.

Juliette, too, is often seen engrossed in a book, and her early tentative steps toward rehumanization include visits to an art gallery and the cinema. The member of her sister's household with whom she connects most readily is Lea's kindly father-in-law who, having lost the power of speech due to a stroke, provides quiet companionship over books. Over time, Juliette guardedly accepts the patient attentions of one of Lea's literary colleagues. When she notices aloud how he seems to experience life through books, he responds simply, "Yes, they've helped me a lot."

I was struck by how profoundly this is true for me about books, and also about films like this one. Its depiction of a particular example of deep suffering, the complexity of real intimacy, the delicacy of genuine healing, and the potential resilience of lifelong love (beautifully expressed in a childhood song shared by two sisters) helped me a lot, and moved me deeply. [In French with subtitles; rated PG-13 for thematic material and smoking; on at least 7 other critics' top-10 lists; still in second-run theaters.]

4. 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS is often described as the Romanian abortion film. It's convenient shorthand, but a little unfortunate, as it fails to convey the film's complexity, suspense, and power.

To be sure, the film depicts, in a straightforward and unflinching way, a day in the lives of two Romanian college students, Otilia and Gabita, and their efforts (really, Otilia's efforts) to obtain an illegal abortion for Gabita. But these two woman have lived their entire lives in the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, whose grip on power would end a couple of years after the events depicted here, in the late 1980s. This film conveys with brutal honesty what life in such a regime demanded of ordinary people in ordinary life.

The masterful director, Cristian Mungiu, tells the story in a series of long takes (generally one shot per scene) with no soundtrack. Often the camera is still as people move in and out of the shot, and what you hear are the sounds of dingy, ordinary life. It's as if Mungiu is urging you to just look, look at this; don't look away. And even though you sometimes want to, you can't--from the very first scenes, you begin feeling unsettled and soon a slow fear begins to burn as you witness the jeopardy in which these women are caught. The tension builds; you realize that this depiction of drab, ordinary life has become a suspenseful thriller.

In a society where the only real market is the black market, every interaction feels like a transaction. In the dorm, where at first it appears that the two women are planning for a weekend away, Otilia barters for cigarettes and cosmetics. Then she makes a stop to see her self-centered boyfriend who, oblivious to her rather apparent tension, extracts from her a promise to attend his mother's birthday party. Then she is making hotel arrangements, and finds she must account for herself to a rude hotel clerk who has lost the reservation over the phone. Ultimately, Otilia has to scramble to book another, more expensive room. Then she must deal with the abortionist, with whom Gabita has spoken on the phone. It's quickly apparent that Gabita has botched nearly all of the particulars, and Otilia is left to pick up pieces with this chilling man, whose business-like manner serves as a thin veneer over his essential brutality.

Each encounter, from the smallest to the most intense, demands of Otilia all her reserves of canny resourcefulness. There's not one single easy moment. The fact that she is a seeking what turns out to be a second-term abortion (punishable as murder) for her friend ups the stakes, to be sure, but this is life as Otilia has come to know it. That's the essential truth here--an entirely common crisis for a college student who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy quickly turns into a situation that demands profound sacrifices not only from her but from a friend with infinitely better coping skills.

On reflection, this film reminded me of the wonderful adventure film, "Alive!," which depicts the story of a mountain plane crash that left the surviving passengers stranded for months so that they were ultimately confronted with the choice of whether to eat the remains of the dead passengers in order to survive. This film, like that one, depicts how a person's essential character emerges in extreme crisis. Gabita would be merely a flake in a more tolerant culture; she is someone you might know who doesn't think things through very well and lies to herself and others in order to avoid facing harsh reality, immobilized by her own weakness and fear. But in this society, failings like Gabita's are magnified to monstrous proportions. Here, too, friendship demands heroism; in order to help her friend and, ultimately, to survive, Otilia must not only be practical and smart but extraordinarily courageous, determined, and tough-minded.

Both actresses are excellent. Laura Vasiliu is memorable--pretty, thin, nervous, infuriating, and familiar as someone who spends much of life in over her head, but in a society whose waters are particularly unforgiving. And Anamaria Marinca, who plays Otilia, is riveting. She pulls you so deeply into her experience that you feel almost as though you are living it, particularly in a scene late in the film where she must endure the birthday party that her boyfriend has turned into a test of her love. People move in and out of a crowded shot at a dinner table, impassive Otilia at the center, miserably enduring seemingly interminable chatter about Easter egg dyes and recipes while she worries if her friend is dead or alive and stiffens her resolve against the trauma she herself has just endured. Later, we watch her scurrying through Bucharest alone at night as though a fugitive, the reward for her stolid friendship and loyalty.

Filmmakers in former Eastern bloc countries are now able to tell us stories they couldn't tell before (e.g., "The Lives of Others" from the former GDR and "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," a great but bleak film from last year about a dying man's final indignities in the Romanian health care system). Like those films, "4 Months" buries you deep in the experience of these women, paying so dearly for small mistakes that are, in many instances, not even their own. This is not an issue film--people on both sides of the abortion debate will find plenty of fodder for their causes--but its subject matter is well-chosen, aptly depicting how exploitation of women can become almost mundane in oppressive cultures. Though not an entertaining night at the movies, Mungiu's film conveys a harrowing vision that moves and deepens. [In Romanian with subtitles; not rated but surely rated at least R for violence and disturbing images; on at least 13 other critics' top-ten lists for 2008 and another 14 lists for 2007; available on DVD]

5. BURN AFTER READING is underappreciated by the critics, in my view. Who but the Coen brothers can create works of such unified tone and vision, with every single shot and sound effect and line of dialogue carefully calibrated for maximum comic effect? Comedy is difficult to do well--most comedies are terribly uneven--and no one does it like the Coen brothers can. Failures aside (Intolerable Cruelty and--ugh--The Ladykillers), I'd classify this one with their best, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Like those films, each successive viewing shows you how much deeper the comedy goes--and also like those films, it is absolutely full of repeatable lines.

The story is intentionally goofy and convoluted. It begins at CIA headquarters, where a supercilious Princeton man, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich at his venomous best), is about to be fired from his intelligence post, ostensibly for a drinking problem but quite possibly also because he so vastly overrates his own skill. He quits instead to write his "memwahs" (he is prone to dramatic pronunciations of French-derived words), an idea that prompts his contemptuous wife Katie to ask, "Who'd want to read that?" She (marvelously played by Tilda Swinton) is a pediatrician without a single ounce of warmth or human kindness, so intense that she always wears both a gold chain and a string of pearls (I don't know why that struck me so funny). She is carrying on an affair and, inexplicably, considering marrying a fatuous serial philanderer, also married, named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Osborne's newfound penchant for laying about the house dictating his overblown history while waiting until precisely 5:00 to pour his first cocktail pushes Katie over the edge to consult a divorce lawyer.

Across town, self-described "always ebullient" and ultra-persistent Linda Litzke (pitch-perfect Frances McDormand), a middle-aged employee of a Hardbodies Fitness Center, has determined that she has "gone about as far as [she] can go with this body." She is convinced (but can't fathom that her "crummy HMO" isn't) that she needs extensive plastic surgery. Consequently, when her exuberant work pal Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, funnier than ever before, with a streaked pompadour and a brain apparently untroubled by reflection of any kind) discovers a left-behind CD full of what he determines to be "secret shit" (actually Osborne's nascent memoir, downloaded along with financial data for Katie's lawyer), Linda sees dollar signs. You don't get many such opportunities, she confides to Chad (likening his big find to slipping on ice in front of a fancy restaurant). After Chad is genuinely dumbfounded to find that Osborne is not willing to pay ransom for recovery of the disc, Linda hatches a plot to sell it to--well, the Russians. In the meantime, her lucky streak continues when her up-to-now dismal efforts at internet dating lead her to Harry, a former federal marshal who is almost as upbeat as she is, though also nervous, paranoid, and building a very strange contraption in his basement.

And so it goes. Confusion, violence, and mayhem ensue, punctuated by clandestine encounters and a profusion of vanity and ignorance. Hilariously, the CIA is tracking the events as they unfold, with an agent making frequent deadpan reports to a honcho played by the wry J.K. Simmons (the dad in "Juno"), who eventually instructs the subordinate in exasperation to "report back when it makes sense." In the end, pondering for a moment, "what did we learn?," he concludes only "not to do it again."

Simmons' character, I think, is the key to the Coen brothers' comedic madness in this particular case. No, the story doesn't make sense--everyone is paranoid, mistaking the import of events, arrogantly asserting control over situations they understand not at all, driven by greed, vanity, and self-importance. As in other Coen films, most notably The Big Lebowski, these characters are emblems of their time--indeed, in this case, of U.S. foreign policy in the Bush era, and "an America steeped in vanity, greed and ignorance, a place where selling your soul doesn't amount to much, since everyone's doing it." (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). And, yes, that's very funny.

The film has been described as misanthropic and unduly dark--and, of course, it lacks a likeable central character like Jeffrey Lebowski or the goofy couple (Ed and H.I.) in Raising Arizona. That didn't spoil my fun one bit; to me the characters were likable in a different way. I wouldn't want to rely on any of them in real life, but they were so vividly amusing that I loved laughing at them. And the performances are all brilliant. Give the brothers a break! It's all in good fun. [Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence; on at least two other critics' top-ten lists; available on DVD.]

6. UP THE YANGTZE is the first of the three documentaries on my list, all of which I first saw at the wonderful Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. This is the only one of the three not nominated for an Oscar. Profound, wise, and visually stunning, it is the first feature-length documentary of a perceptive and visionary Canadian director, Yung Chang. Inspired by a "farewell cruise" that Chang took with his family along the Yangtze River before it was flooded in the course of construction of the ambitious Three Gorges Dam, Chang spent years developing relationships with individuals affected by the project, which he compares to turning the Grand Canyon into a lake and which has displaced two million people and may displace two million more as a result of the environmental damage. That painstaking work enables him to use intimate stories--particularly that of a small family of subsistence farmers--to depict an epic social reality. What other films would have explained and described Chang simply shows you; the images do the work. Yet his visual sense is matched by a remarkable humanity; Chang's care with his subjects, particularly the poor family whose eldest daughter Yu Shui must forego her dreams of high school to take a job on a cruise ship to support them, is evident in this depiction of people who have fallen through the cracks of a culture bent on "progress." As one struggling merchant forced to move his home explains before bursting into tears, the Chinese people are expected to "sacrifice the little family for the big family."

The dam, the world's largest, is considered to be China's most significant engineering feat since the Great Wall. Yet Chang's film, composed of unforgettable images of the drastic environmental change wrought by its construction, is most remarkably a closely observed vision of small moments in the lives of forgotten people--the teenager who alternately longs for and is mortified by parents who entirely miss what is most important to her; parents literally and figuratively hunched from adjusting to the intolerable burdens of daily life. And then there are the tourists from the West who come for the "farewell cruises" along the soon-to-be submerged countryside, so accustomed to being catered to that they seem to have lost the ability to perceive it (one kindly compliments an eager crew member on the ship for being less obtrusive than she expected). The cruise operators, anxious to oblige these expectations, give the staff members English names (Yu Shui becomes "Cindy") and instructions like, "Never compare Canada to the United States," and "Never call anyone old, pale, or fat."

The last ten minutes of the film are mostly depictions of the effects of the flooding on places we have come to know--and the pay-off is how much one aches for these last looks, a tiny taste of what it must feel like to watch your way of life being literally washed away. I can't remember when I've seen a film that so captured the sense of a type of suffering that is actually quite commonplace but is little understood and rarely depicted. [In English and Mandarin with subtitles; not rated but probably PG for complexity of subject matter; on at least three other critics' top-ten lists; available on DVD.]

7. TROUBLE THE WATER is my pick among the Oscar nominees for best documentary feature. It has already won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as several awards at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. As far as I'm concerned, this film should be required viewing for every person in America.

On August 28, 2005, 24-year-old Kimberly Roberts, unable to afford to leave her home in the ninth ward of New Orleans for safe ground, turned on a video camera that she had bought on the street for $20 a few days before and, in the face of the coming storm, set out to document "how it really is, right now." Within a few hours, she and her husband Scott were huddled in their cramped and leaking attic, recording on video their struggle and that of so many others to survive Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. To our great fortune, they encountered first-time co-directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal two weeks after the storm at a Red Cross relief center, and the result is this breathtaking film about one of the most shameful events in U.S. history.

The Robertses turn out to be remarkable subjects for the film--brave, resourceful, good-humored, and heroic. In the face of unimaginable government indifference and neglect as the city's mostly African American poor residents struggled to find shelter and food, the couple helped several to safety themselves and maintained courage, grace, and optimism in the face of excruciating hardship. It is only as the film goes on that we discover just how marginal their lives have been--both formerly sold drugs to survive and, as the daughter of a drug addict herself, Kimberly's life before Katrina required resourcefulness far beyond what most of us can imagine. Making masterful use of Kimberly's video footage and following the Robertses in the weeks and months that followed, the filmmakers have found a profoundly effective way to lay bare the failures of leadership in New Orleans. The heroism of people like the Robertses--including a neighbor who risks his life to save the couple by swimming back and forth across the street using a punching bag as a flotation device--has gone unrewarded and unrecognized. Meanwhile, the federal government has magnified its innumerable failures by issuing commendations to members of the military who actually turned guns on desperate residents who came to a mostly abandoned base on the advice of the Coast Guard seeking shelter in the storm's aftermath.

The story revealed here is truly beyond comprehension, yet our guides are two people many of us would tend to write off. After an hour-and-a-half, these two, especially the charismatic Kimberly, had absolutely captured my heart. They are a fitting heart for the film, which also makes excellent use of news footage, as when a white National Guardsman stationed near the Roberts's ravaged black neighborhood comments scornfully that he has no pity for "civilians that have no concept of how to survive." Lessin and Deal, who have worked with Michael Moore but have made a far more effective film than any of his, have made the most of their opportunity to put a human face on this tragedy; they have pulled two people out of the undifferentiated black mass of Katrina victims and "turn[] them into recognizable, idiosyncratic and consequential human individuals with complicated stories -- * * * rais[ing] the possibility that all those other people are something beyond dysfunctional units in a broken system themselves." (Andrew O'Hehir,

I sincerely hope that all the well-deserved recognition for the film will ensure wider distribution--so far it has played only for less than a week in Portland. You can keep an eye on its distribution hopes at Watch that website also for Kimberly's emerging music career--her original rap songs featured in the film are pretty amazing. [Not rated but possibly R for language; on at least 4 other critics' top-ten lists and nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature; no DVD release yet.]

8. MAN ON WIRE has won a host of awards, including two at Sundance, and an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature. It tells the astounding story of Phillippe Petit’s 45-minute walk (his playful dance, really) across a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. I knew a bit about this incident and thought it would be interesting to learn more about it, but was completely unprepared for how profoundly it would affect me. It turns out that Petit originally wanted to make a film about the feat way back while it was happening, so a lot of footage exists from that time period of his extensive preparations back in France and in New York City, as well as of his earlier feats scaling Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. The older footage, which captures the youthful exuberance of Petit and his friends as they experiment and argue about with how to execute “le coup,” as they termed it, contrasts poignantly with the footage of them 30 years later, recalling the experience in joyous and occasionally reverent detail.

Suspenseful and brimming with stories of what it took to accomplish the so-called artistic crime of the century, the film invites Petit and a fascinating cast of accomplices to recount how they cased the towers as if planning a daring heist, how teams of two snuck to the top of each of the two towers and, after hiding from security for hours hidden only by a tarp, they used a bow and arrow to stretch a cable the 200 feet between the towers, 1,350 feet above the ground.
Petit, especially, is an extraordinarily complex person—all audacity and guts, delighting in the prospect of doing something illegal, impossible, and poetic. He dreamed of walking between the towers while they were still being built and, through the force of his charisma and narcissism, compelled an eclectic collection of strangers and friends to go to great personal risk and effort to assist him. One collaborator describes him as driven by the desire to do things that were "against the law but not wicked or mean." "Every day was a work of art for him," says his then girlfriend, Annie Alix, who is remarkably philosophical about the experience, even though he dumped her immediately afterwards. His childhood best friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, the other most compelling collaborator, comments, "He felt the towers were constructed just for him" and "could not live without trying" his envisioned walk between them.

Petit's achievement is a gift of pure joy and beauty, astounding to behold through photos and the memories of those who witnessed it. And the event profoundly affected those who assisted him, particularly Alix and Blondeau. The success of their enterprise forever alters each of them and their relationships with Petit, so much so that they are moved to tears in the retelling. This carefully crafted film is funny and absorbing, and also inexpressibly transporting. [In English and French with subtitles; rated PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, and drug references; on at least 23 other critics' top ten lists and nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature; available on DVD.]

9. THE WRESTLER is a late addition to my list. I admired it a lot when I first saw it about a month ago, but wasn't prepared for its lasting emotional impact. Not what I expected from a violent film about a broken-down pro-wrestler twenty years past his prime.

Besides astounding and selfless performances by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, a spare script that doesn't bite off more than it needs to, and unsentimental direction from Darren Aronofsky, part of the credit goes to Bruce Springsteen, whose wonderful closing-credit song captures the essence and feel of the story so completely that it has haunted me since that first hearing. (Where's the Oscar nomination?) The lyrics ask if you've ever seen a one-trick pony, a one-legged dog, a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat, and responds, "then you've seen me." The film walks in the shoes of this man, who "always leaves with less than [he] had before," and yet keeps coming back to the one thing he knows, the one arena where he shines.

It's hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Rourke to depict Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who could fill Madison Square Garden in his heyday and who back then inspired his own action figure (which he still gives away to neighborhood kids) and a video game only available on VHS, but now is reduced to a self-described "broken-down piece of meat." He manages to keep up occasional gigs in VFW halls with the help of painkillers and a hearing aid, his muscles puffed up with steroids and his bloated Silly-Putty face so misshapen with scar tissue that it barely looks human. He lives in a trailer (when he's not locked out for nonpayment of rent), keeps up the obligatory regime of tanning booths and dye jobs for his ropy blond mane, and laments the bygone '80s (Rourke's own heyday), before "that pussy Cobain came along and ruined" all the good heavy-metal music. Rourke makes us feel the aches that accompany every movement of Randy's pulverized bones, yet never asks for sympathy. Wrestling may be fake, but to Randy (who winces to hear his given name, Robin Ramsinski), it's an art that involves actual work and actual pain. I can't think when I've seen a performance more lacking in vanity.

Randy shares an affinity with Cassidy (Tomei), a stripper whose performance days are similarly numbered. Tomei takes a character who could have been a cliche' and give her depth and soul; she somehow manages not to be upstaged by her own nudity. Though Randy still has the respect of his onstage opponents and fellow performers, Cassidy seems to be his only friend, a bond formed over years of chatty lap dances. Yet she, unlike Randy, has recognized the need to cultivate a life to sustain her when her performing days are over. Both their professions are based on illusion--the wrestlers don't really hate each other, and the stripper doesn't really love you--and Cassidy (whose real name is Pam) knows it's not just her patrons who need protection from the illusion.

Randy doesn't. When a health scare makes him painfully aware of what little he has to fall back on, he fumbles to reconnect with the grown daughter whose rage obviously springs from long years of disappointment, and reaches out for a romance with Cassidy. The film makes you hope he'll succeed but never fools you into believing he really will. Yet there's a poignancy to Randy's broken resilience, the wit and charisma that shines through in his interactions with the customers at the deli counter where he works to make ends meet, the essential courtesy and lack of self-pity pervading his interactions with everyone from Cassidy to the neighborhood kids who mistake him for a hero, the deep, gentle voice that offers encouragement to the younger wrestlers who still look up to him.

It's a story that can't be told without violence, but the film portrays the cartoon fakery of pro wrestling in an interesting and even respectful way, showing how the putative enemies actually support each other and carefully plan each evening's carnage. Rourke obviously worked hard to depict a world he seems to understand well (his own battle scars come from time spent in the boxing ring), and the rest of the wrestling cast are themselves pros, including the staple-gun wielding "Necro Butcher" who serves as Randy's opponent in a particularly brutal bout. The tricks of the trade (including a surreptitious razor slice to Randy's own wrecked forehead mid-match) provide an interesting window into the price he is willing to pay for a few remnants of adulation. His final, dangerous trip to the ring is his own version of hope, both tragic and triumphant. [Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language, and some drug use; on at least 16 other critics' top-ten lists; Oscar nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei; still in theaters.]

10. DOUBT is my favorite of the films that opened around Christmas. It's based on a prize-winning play that I had the good fortune to see on Broadway a couple of years ago, and this version features a first-rate cast (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis). It's the best and most courageous film exploration of issues of faith and doubt that I can remember, never shying away from the hardest questions. Despite some cinematic flaws, it is in my top-ten for the year because it manages to grapple honestly, starkly, and relentlessly with important questions, without chickening out and offering cheap explanations as so many films do (e.g., The Reader).

It's Brooklyn in 1964, and the film opens with Father Flynn (Hoffman) delivering a sermon asserting the value of doubt. I heard just such a sermon a few weeks ago at a Catholic Church in Detroit, and it struck me that, even 45 years later, the sermon would not be preached in many if not most churches. In 1964, it's an even more radical message, and Sister Aloysius (Streep), the fearsome principal of the parish school, is having none of it. She has pegged Father Flynn as dangerous--but then, to her, so are ballpoint pins and Frosty the Snowman.

She seems a cartoon, the stuff of the nightmares of many a Catholic school graduate, and one's sympathies easily lean toward the more forward-thinking Father Flynn. But the film does not leave you there. The principal's protege', Sister James (Adams), a young nun who favors Father Flynn's more progressive approach, notices that Father Flynn has befriended 12-year-old Donald, the school's first and only black student. Goodness knows the vulnerable boy needs a friend and responds gratefully to Father Flynn's attentions--but Sister James develops reluctant concerns when Donald emerges, shaken, from a meeting with Father Flynn and is disciplined for drinking altar wine that it appears Father Flynn may have given him. She wants to believe it's nothing, but senses she must tell Sister Aloysius--and a titanic struggle ensues between the formidable principal, fueled by her certainty that Father Flynn has abused the boy and by the righteousness of her cause, and the priest, fueled by his own certainty that he is not a predator and protected by the church's patriarchal privilege.

Like Sister James, we want to believe that the priest is innocent--but events since 1964 have taught us all too starkly that the truth may not be as we wish it were. The film refuses to resolve what the truth is, and we are caught between the seeming unfairness of Sister Aloysius's accusations, lacking hard evidence to support them, and the knowledge that what she sees is exactly how sexual abuse often presents. Surprisingly, I found myself identifying with a character whose belief system I explicitly reject, because I understand what it is like to be absolutely convinced in your soul of something you cannot prove, and to be caught in a system that protects the subject of your suspicion from meaningful inquiry. And Hoffman's portrayal of Father Flynn is devastating in its ambiguity--he is a likeable man, a good man in most if not all ways, yet, as one critic points out, "you can see his inner schism, of which he's oblivious: generosity (the boy needs a father figure) side by side with entitlement." (David Edelstein, New York Magazine)

The most devastating scene in the film by far involves a conversation between Sister Aloysius and Donald's mother (Viola Davis, who deserves the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance). As the mother of a child who is not only marked for oppression but also is beaten by a father who views him as "not right" due to signs that he may be gay, her dilemma makes the struggle between the principal and the priest seem almost academic. She throws up wrenching questions about what protecting her child can possibly mean under such desperate circumstances. The conversation momentarily leaves Sister Aloysius--and us--undone. [Rated PG-13 for thematic material; on at least 8 other critics' top-ten lists; Oscar nominations for the four leads and also for John Patrick Shanley for his excellent script; still in theaters.]

Here are a handful of other films that left a lasting impression:

A CHRISTMAS TALE - A marvelous, messy family drama, in which the family conflicts are intriguing and not easily solved, and each of the characters is complex and flawed but likeable. Hollywood has no ability to pull off something this good. It features especially wonderful performances by the great Catherine Deneuve, her lovely daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and Mathieu Amalric. Missed my top-ten by a mere hair's breadth. [In French with subtitles; not rated but probably would be rated R; on at least 15 other critics' top-ten lists; no DVD release yet.]

AT THE DEATHHOUSE DOOR still hasn't had a theatrical release in Portland (I saw it at Full Frame), though it appeared on TV. It deserves to be seen and hopefully will get a DVD release. It is a painstaking examination of the death penalty through the transformative experiences of the chaplain who presided over 95 executions in 15 years at the Huntsville prison in Texas, Rev. Carroll Pickett. He is a taciturn man of conscience who, before his career there, spent 11 days at the prison intervening in a hostage situation that resulted in the brutal slaying of two members of his congregation. The incident left an impression and solidified his own longstanding support for the death penalty, but he soon found himself working at the prison and, when executions resumed there in the 70s, was assigned to the role of shepherding "dead men walking" through their final 15 hours. His appointed task was to prepare the condemned to submit quietly to their deaths, and yet, slowly, Pickett came to recognize the ministry of presence in which he was engaged and to see the essential cruelty of the lethal injection process and the toll the executions took on the prison staff, including himself. Even Pickett's own family members were not aware that after each execution, Pickett would record a cassette tape of his impressions. Years later, he still recalls each prisoner with clarity, and is particularly haunted by the memory of Carlos Deluna (born the same year as me and executed the year I graduated from law school), of whose innocence Pickett became convinced. While Pickett's story is the main focus, the filmmakers continually return to the story of Deluna, whose innocence now is beyond serious question but whose murder by the state continues to haunt his family, including a sister who tried to help him. Each moment of impact and emotional pay-off in this film is painstakingly earned; there are no short-cuts here and no easy answers. Like Pickett, the film is convincing without polemics; it demonstrates the truth rather than telling you what to think. [No rating; watch for a DVD release.]

THE ART OF NEGATIVE THINKING is another gem that has not had a theatrical release in Portland (I saw it at the Portland International Film Festival last year) and so far hasn't been released on DVD either. It's probably not for everyone, but I loved its irreverent challenge to a kind of optimism that is based only on wishful thinking. The story revolves around Geirr, a man who has become paralyzed following a car accident. His wife is at her wits' end with his bitterness and angry, self-imposed isolation, so she invites over a positive thinking group led by an annoying self-help guru and made up of a collection of victims of tragic accidents, strokes, and mental illness. Before long, Geirr has turned all the group members against their leader and has created chaos by promoting his own philosophy of stark realism (the art of negative thinking). Acerbic and darkly comic, I loved this slap in the face of empty optimism. [Not rated but probably would be rated R; in Norwegian with subtitles; watch for it on DVD.]

XXY blew my socks off at the PIFF last year. It's the story of 15-year-old Alex, who is living as a girl but who actually possesses both male and female sex organs. She and her parents live in a remote coastal town in Uruguay where her father works as a marine biologist, and the harsh beauty of the setting particularly suits the story and the subject matter. Adolescence is fraught with confusion and even danger for everyone, but Alex faces particularly difficult challenges. She has decided, for reasons we sense she would be unable to articulate, to stop taking the hormones that have made it possible for her to live as female, just at the time when she is under increased pressure to surgically elect a gender. The film turns a steady gaze on her uneasy struggle, and on the unease it inspires in those who love her and those who know her hardly at all.

I found the film gripping from the first frame; it forced me to struggle with issues I had not even thought to look for. I honestly thought the story was headed in one direction only to discover that my assumptions reflected my own failure of vision regarding the subject of gender. Why are we so attached to gender identity? What assumptions inform our need to identify certain gender roles? What does it mean to be a sexual being? And more universally, how do we truly love those closest to us? How does one form an identity that is truly one's own and not imposed externally? [In Spanish with subtitles; not rated by probably would be rated R; on at least one other critics' top ten list; available on DVD]

Best actress: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Kristin Scott-Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Elegy
Catinca Untaru, The Fall
Annamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Best actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Lee Pace, The Fall
Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

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