Listener critics' Top 10 picks from 2008.
THE UNKNOWN WOMAN, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. For me, the standout of the Italian Film Festival. The tale of a mysterious woman from Eastern Europe who arrives in Italy with more on her mind than seeking a job, this superbly crafted thriller wraps you tightly between intrigue and suspense, paces its revelations elegantly, and dishes out equal parts tenderness and dread. A searing lead performance by Kseniya Rappoport manipulates sympathies right up to the satisfyingly moving finale.
YOUNG@HEART, directed by Stephen Walker. I've often envisioned my generation in wheelchairs, heads bobbing to a singalong of (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, and this just confirms it. The Young@Heart chorus of OAPs from Massachusetts belt out pop, punk and more with gusto, fully aware of the poignant ironies in the lyrics. The year's most uplifting yet sugar-free movie, it's not so much about not going gently into that good night, as going with guts and glory.
THE BAND'S VISIT, directed by Eran Kolirin. Evoking Jacques Tati with its deadpan drollery and social awkwardness, this brief encounter between the boys in the Egyptian Police Band and the residents of a bleak Israeli settlement is pure delight. The minimalist action is framed for maximum comic effect, and the actors, wonderful characters all, convincingly persuade us of the power of pragmatism and people over politics and religion.
FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. A masterful blending of sensibilities: Albert Lamorisse's lovely depiction of childhood in The Red Balloon, and Hou's trademark contemplative observation of the everyday. Paris and Taiwan entwine in a story that is more slice-of-life than plot, but its warm and gently comic study of the love and care for a child is a powerful, compassionate antidote to today's distressingly common stories of abuse.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR, directed by Ari Folman. How inspired of Folman to use animation to document his struggle to retrieve a lost memory. It evokes a dream/memory state, implies that the dimension that would make the memory real is somehow missing, and distances the horror. Nevertheless, as it traces the events leading to a massacre of Palestinian refugees that he, as an Israeli soldier, may have played a role in, it draws us completely into his journey, leaving the residue of its imagery lingering along with its terrible truths.
REDACTED, directed by Brian De Palma. Like Folman, De Palma uses cinema imaginatively to reconstruct a war incident - a rape and murder in Iraq - but through the forms of everyday image capture: am-cam, security camera footage, internet postings. It's also a shocking and clever statement of outrage at military behaviour and war censorship, but the strongest impact comes from how he and his excellent cast show with sobering realism how such situations can evolve and escalate.
UP THE YANGTZE, directed by Yung Chang. The experiences of two young locals working on a cruise ship running cheesy "farewell tours" form the spine of this documentary, but it's the moods conjured by the flooding of the Yangtze for the Three Gorges Dam that Chang captures most eloquently in pictures and sound. A microcosm of China's dash towards the future, the passing of the past is infused with melancholy, resignation and an anxious ominousness.
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, directed by Cristian Mungiu. If Juno turned unplanned pregnancy into an amusing coming-of-age character study, here's the flip side: a harrowing but clear-eyed view of the desperate process of procuring an illegal abortion in Nicolae Ceau?escu's Romania. Not amusing at all, but its suspense, performances and telling portrayal of a social and economic regime draw you deeply into its world.
INTERVIEW, directed by Steve Buscemi. Three cameras, and two actors totally in tune, transcend the confines of the story - a journalist interviewing a soap star - and turn it into a seamless flow of cat-and-mouse that keeps us deliciously on the back foot throughout. Sienna Miller and Buscemi himself enhance a brilliant script with the feel of improv and a firm handle on their -characters' moral ambiguities. An exhilarating 84 minutes.
MAMMA MIA! , directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Blame it on the music, the stellar cast, or maybe because a Greek isle looked pretty good in the middle of winter, but how could you not be disarmed by such exuberant, unadulterated entertainment? Yes, the story's just a skinny line to hang the songs on, and we'll draw a veil across Pierce Brosnan's singing, but there's something about a musical, especially when you know the words. In these gloomy times, this may just be the first of many. And yes, all right, I did run out and buy Abba's Greatest Hits. So?
HUNGER, directed by Steve McQueen. For all-round craft mastery, for intellectual weight, for emotional intensity, and, implausibly but undeniably, for beauty, no film I saw in 2008 came close to this one. The subject - IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands' 1981 suicide by starvation - is hideously challenging. McQueen treats the challenge as a gift. This is a politically and ethically sophisticated, searchingly intelligent treatment of a man's deliberate choice to become a martyr. It's also a transcendently powerful study of a difficult death. Simply breathtaking.
I'M NOT THERE, directed by Todd Haynes. The complex irony of the title is one of a thousand little things I love about Haynes' virtuosic Bob Dylan biopic, in which six different actors present different takes on the elusive singer's strange, strange life. Not there? He's there six times over! So, of course, wherever you turn, what you see isn't him at all. Cate Blanchett and Marcus Carl Franklin stand head and shoulders above a knockout cast, the music is deployed with pinpoint tactical cunning - the treatment of Ballad of a Thin Man could happily stand on its own as the year's best music video - and it's gorgeous to look at throughout.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR, directed by Ari Folman. A war crimes documentary, a study of the nature of memory, a memoir: all of the above, but file Folman's third feature under "masterpiece". The highly realistic animation allows dream sequences, reality and unreliable memories to blend indistinguishably as Folman goes on a quest to discover what exactly happened to him as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an event he can no longer remember. The audience conversations after watching this are likely to be as animated as the film.
THE BAND'S VISIT, directed by Eran Kolirin. A police band from Egypt gets lost on the way to a festival in Israel, and winds up in a small town miles from anywhere. There's no transport until the next morning. The local Israelis start looking these strange uniformed Arabs up and down. And ... offer to put them up for the night. A wry, visually poetic accumulation of perfect little moments between ordinary people: a love song to peace.
IN BRUGES, directed by Martin McDonagh. It may be coincidence that this unlikely gangster film contains some of the funniest anti-American humour in recent memory, but I suspect the Irish McDonagh of administering a deliberate slap in the face to all the Quentin Tarantino wannabes who've tried, endlessly, to remake Pulp Fiction. To whose swaggering machismo this offers an alternative: a stranger, sweeter, more melancholy crime flick than we've seen before, but as wildly inventive as the best in the genre.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, directed by David Sington. First it fascinates, then it exhilarates: Sington combines rare archival footage from the Apollo program and interviews with 10 of its 18 surviving astronauts to recreate the greatest Boys' Own Adventure of all time. I brought some cynicism to this - talking up the moon landings just as Nasa is preparing to pour trillions down the Mars mission hole hardly seems a neutral exercise - but it was like trying to be cynical about the Olympics. Once the thing's actually in front of you, the spectacle of it is just so ... spectacular.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, directed by Guillermo del Toro. Keep your Dark Knight. If my city needed saving, I'd call Hellboy. Funnier, more exciting, better written and five times more entertaining than the first film, Ron Perlman's second outing as the demonic superhero who just wants to be an ordinary schmoe has many selling points, but this above all: del Toro's sets and creatures resemble those of standard Hollywood CGI fantasy the way the Taj Mahal resembles a Warehouse red shed.
AIR GUITAR NATION, directed by Alexandra Lipsitz. Two American air guitar geeks sally forth to vie for the world air guitar championship; and the fact that air guitar can claim both geeks and a world championship is the least of this film's revelations. A documentary with the narrative traction of an underdog-makes-good martial arts movie, it manages to make its affectionate enthusiasm for its subject entirely contagious.
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, directed by Craig Gillespie. Surely the year's least likely love story. A boy, a sex doll, the entire population of a small Canadian town ... Ryan Gosling is extraordinary as Lars, the lonely guy lost in his own head, and a strong ensemble cast does excellent work as the townsfolk who grumblingly let his worried family talk them into pretending his imaginary girlfriend is real. Redefines heart-warming.
THE ORPHANAGE, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. How improbable: a horror film that scares you with a strong story and characters you can't help caring about. This Spanish little-boy-lost drama has no shortage of moments that will make you jump, but what will haunt you afterwards - forgive the choice of words - is the way everything in the film converges, imperceptibly but inexorably, on one terrible destination. Or ... actually, was that a happy ending in disguise? Ambiguous in the most rewarding way, and desperately moving.