(Note: I listed the year of release as follows- Year film was released in its country of origin/year film was premiered in or was distributed in the U.S.)
10.) Elite Squad (Jose Padilha, Brazil, 2007/2008) – For those of you who like the Batman style of police-condoned vigilante justice, here is a film that shows you what that kind of justice looks like in the real world. No funny latex suits with pointy ears or Barnum & Bailey rejected bad guys here. Instead you get paramilitary soldiers with UMP9 automatic sub-machine guns and a “by any means necessary” rationale for fighting crime. The only down side to having this kind of “boot in your ass” crime control policy is the physical, mental and emotional price everyone, civilian and police, must pay to maintain a situation that amounts to nothing more than an ineffectual stand still.
9.) Flower in the Pocket (Liew Seng Tat, Malaysia, 2007/2008) – A slice-of-life story about two immigrant Chinese boys living in (I’m guessing) Kuala Lumpur who roam around the city like little fish without a stream to guide them. The boys’ father is a slightly self-absorbed workaholic who provides for them but does not know how to raise them after their mother has left. Out in the world the boys face mild humiliation and neglect as their foreign “otherness” cast them as second class citizens. The two boys in this film (Lim Ming Wei as Li Ahh and Wong Zi Jiang as Li Ohm) are fantastic in their roles and have a natural ease in front of the camera.
8.) A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol, France, 2007/2008) – Chabrol plays it loose with his latest cinematic offering and gives us a wickedly fun dark comedy of manners. Based on the events surrounding the 1906 murder of American architect Stanford White, A Girl Cut in Two moves the story to present day Lyon so that Chabrol can take another swat at his favorite bête noir- the French bourgeoisie. You can feel the enjoyment being had by the director and principle actors as the dark humor and emotional cruelty ratchets up to an almost unbearable pitch. Somewhere out there, the ghost of Billy Wilder is nodding approvingly and cackling with glee.
7.) Mad Detective (Johnnie To, Hong Kong, 2007/2008) – Giving away anything about this film would be giving away too much. Go into it blind. It is one of the most imaginative and fresh takes on the detective story I’ve seen in quite some time. Johnnie To is without a doubt, the best thing to happen to Hong Kong genre cinema in a long time.
6.) Kabei (Yamada Yoji, Japan, 2008/No U.S. Release) – Way more than a hahamono (Japanese story of maternal love), Kabei is a direct rebuke of the current Japanese trend of right-wing historical revisionism that is popping up in films like Shinjo Taku’s For Those We Love and Sato Junya’s Yamato (which has an appearance by Nakadai Tatsuya of all people, who has come full circle from the anti-imperialist and anti-war films in Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy to this pro-militaristic propaganda piece!). Coming after the amazing samurai trilogy of Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor, Kabei is further evidence that this late blooming of Yamada Yoji’s career is one of the best things going on currently in cinema. A great review of the film and DVD can be found over at DVDTalk.com by Japanese film expert Stuart Galbraith IV.
5.) Buddha Collapsed out of Shame (Hana Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2008/2008) – The perils of life in Afghanistan as portrayed by children at play. As a little girl confronts all kinds of obstacles in her attempt to go to school, little boys run around playing “Taliban” under the giant, empty cut-out in the mountain where a statue of Buddha used to stand. Hana Makhmalbaf, daughter of Mohsen and younger sister of Samira Makhmalbaf has, with her first feature film, given me that same sense of excitement with Iranian cinema that I had when I saw my first Kiarostami film, Through the Olive Trees. The ending of this film is so visually stunning and so thematically bleak that a twinge of sorrow still sticks with me weeks after seeing it.
4.) The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, Japan, 2007/2008) – A man afflicted with senile dementia and living in a nursing home in the Nara countryside must write a farewell letter to his wife on the 33rd anniversary of her passing. A nurse at the home, who in private mourns the loss of her young son, takes the old man under her watch. On his birthday she takes the man on a drive only to have him run away from the vehicle towards the nearby forest. Hesitantly, the woman follows the old man into the forest wherein she comes to realize he is on a pilgrimage of sorts to deliver the letter to his deceased wife. Slow, contemplative, visually lush and emotionally resonant, The Mourning Forest is classical Japanese storytelling at its best. A whole world of understanding can be found in the space of a small, fleeting moment.
3.) Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan/France, 2007/2008) – A film without a driving narrative plot and like a performance of improvised music, The Flight of the Red Balloon finds its structure in the interactions between the performers involved. A mother, her son and his nanny find moments of consonance, dissonance, tension and release in the spaces between them as an almost sentient red balloon looks on. Some reviewers have said that this is one of Hou’s weaker works. I would disagree. I think it is on par with the films he has been making since Flowers of Shanghai or Millennium Mambo and is a mile ahead of most of the auteurist cinema happening now.
2.) Sparrow (Johnnie To, Hong Kong, 2008/No U.S. Release) – As a loving tribute to the vanishing Hong Kong of old, Johnnie To’s Sparrow is the best musical made since the heyday of the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen collaborations. The fact that it trades in the musical numbers for some visually sublime, almost silent set pieces makes it all the more amazing. Some of these set pieces are so good in fact, that they soar in the same rarified air as the song and dance numbers from Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather, Summer Stock and On the Town. I would argue that if you do not understand the pleasure in this kind of filmmaking, you do not understand the fundamental language of film. You might think of yourself as a cineaste or a “film-geek”, but really the magic of film is lost on you.
1.) Still Life (Jia Zhang Ke, China, 2006/2008) – Set against the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, Still Life shows a China eager to demolish one hundred contending schools of thought and trample over a hundred blooming flowers, for a chance at the prosperity being promised by free-market capitalism. The film follows the parallel stories of two characters looking for the person that left them suspended between an unfinished history and an uncertain future. That being said, do not mistake Still Life for a strict narrative film. The stories presented are, at most, metaphoric framing devices used to capture and build the visual motifs that will culminate over time into the films major arguments. Shot beautifully in HD, Still Life is one of the most visually arresting movies of the year. What makes it my favorite film of the year is how it mixes humor, humanism, and playfully anachronistic layers of images into an enjoyably rich and complex document of the day-to-day lives of the people who are left in transition while China constructs the largest hydro-electric power plant in the world.