This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.
Let the Right One In - Stories of vampires went through a notable resurgence with the popularity of "Twilight," but Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In" is by far the year's best contribution to the genre. Here, the monster comes in the shape of a solemn young girl, who befriends the lonely, bullied boy next door. This lets us witness the cycles of bloody killings and reprisals from a child's point of view. Set in the oppressive cold of a snowy Swedish winter, the young characters seem especially isolated and vulnerable. And the violence, when it comes, is brutal, merciless, and cold.
Rachel Getting Married - She may have won the Oscar for Fantine, but this is my favorite Anne Hathaway performance. Here she plays Kym, a recovering drug addict, who is home for her sister's wedding and having a difficult time holding things together. At every turn there's another past mistake or another person she's hurt, waiting to remind her of all her shortcomings. More wedding movies should be like this, as weddings always present the perfect opportunity for a family's worst dysfunctions to come to a head. And for their best, redeeming qualities to save the day.
The Wrestler - An intensely affecting portrait of an aging wrestling star, "The Wrestler" provides a winning comeback vehicle for Mickey Rourke. Darren Aronofsky keeps his usual stylistic flourishes to an absolute minimum, presenting a grounded, sobering look at the hard realities behind the spectacle of professional wrestling. As Randy the Ram struggles to get by outside of the ring, Rourke embodies all the years of damage and regret in a way no one else could. This is one of those rare, special cases where it feels like an actor's entire career was in preparation for this one, defining role.
Synecdoche New York - Charlie Kaufman's directing debut is an endlessly innovative, occasionally infuriating look into the mind of a theater director, Caden Cotard, who is desperately trying to find meaning in his disintegrating life. "Synecdoche" is absolutely packed with narrative tricks, outlandish concepts, and puzzling symbols. However, it's how they're used to tell a story about failure and loss and the inherent meaninglessness of most of our lives, that's so emotionally devastating. I don't know many filmmakers with the guts to make a film like this, and far fewer with the skill to pull it off.
Beaches of Agnes - The final au revoir from Agnes Varda, beloved icon of French cinema. This is one of the only examples I've ever found of a true autobiopic, where a filmmaker turns the camera on themselves. Varda takes the audience back to the Left Bank and the Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, to her marriage to Jacques Demy, and to her friendships with many, many other artists. Of course she also talks about her films and other artistic endeavors. Varda's filmmaking remains as playful and inventive as ever, full of little delights, and I wish she wasn't retiring quite so soon.
Wendy and Lucy - This is the best collaboration to date between director Kelly Reichardt and actress Michelle Williams, illustrating how a minor crisis - a lost dog - can be a life-altering one for someone who simply doesn't have the resources to handle it. Made on a tiny budget, the film is nonetheless excellent at getting the viewer into the headspace of its frantic heroine as she tries to keep her footing in an ever worsening situation. I also appreciate the way that the usual tropes of a girl-and-her-dog story are heavily impacted by the harsh realities of life on the bottom of the economic ladder.
4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days - One of the high points of the ongoing Romanian New Wave is a social drama about two women trying to arrange an illegal abortion during the waning days of the Ceaușescu regime. It's a nerve-wracking, gut-churning film to watch unfold, and completely unpredictable. Director Christian Mungiu presents each scene in stark, unflinching terms, emphasizing the desperate situation of the characters and the larger social constraints that drive their behavior. Subtle interactions reveal the nature of relationships, personal beliefs, and the grim effects of repression.
Kung Fu Panda - After a string of mediocre films, this was the picture that proved that DreamWorks Animation was capable of great things. Full of lovingly rendered Chinese fantasy imagery and kung-fu film homages, the film looks gorgeous. However, it's the enthusiastic performance by Jack Black and the fimmakers' embrace of absurd humor - Po's father is a duck?! - that give it so much boisterous personality and charm. You can still see the echoes of "Shrek" here, but the sarcasm is deployed in a more restrained, palatable fashion. I was completely caught off guard in the best way.
Iron Man - Robert Downey Jr. is the perfect Tony Stark, and Tony Stark is the superhero for the Internet generation. An egomaniacal tech genius with an irreverent streak a mile wide, Tony couldn't be bland if he tried. He's by far the most memorable character of the year, and though "Iron Man" has some rough spots, it's an excellent, subversive take on the superhero origin story that's worth watching for the priceless ending alone. I'm not such a big fan of all the Marvel madness that followed, but the original "Iron Man" remains a delightful highlight of the entire superhero genre.
Chop Shop - Ramin Bahrani gives us a glimpse of a New York we rarely see in films, a crime-riddled, poverty-stricken corner of Queens where street kids Ale and Izzy struggle to survive. Made with non-actors in the real neighborhood where the story takes place, "Chop Shop" has a rare immediacy and authenticity. At first, it's disorienting to see so few of the common hallmarks of a feature set in the United States here - it feels foreign even though it's primarily in English - but the story is easy to get caught up in. It's a small film, but never a slight one.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona