This was a mediocre year for movies, and that's being generous. Compared to the bumper crop of outstanding films released in 2007, the last 12 months have been a dreary slog. Good luck coming up with titles that anyone will remember, let alone want to revisit, even a few months hence. Here are five I venture will stand the test of time.
1. Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg is a one-of-a-kind documentary of the imagination, a wry and poetic and tart melding of childhood memories, selective urban history and savage regret. Pure pleasure, start to finish.
2. In the City of Sylvia received a single screening at the S.F. International Film Festival, but its one-week N.Y. run earlier this month might just encourage the Roxie or Red Vic to book it. Catalan filmmaker José Luis Guerin follows a young man on holiday in Strasbourg who imagines he's caught an elusive glimpse of a long-ago lover. A dreamy mood piece populated with a daunting number of beautiful women, Sylvia is an artful comment on moviemaking and movie watching.
3. It was a breakout year for Israeli cinema, with Beaufort, The Band's Visit, My Father, My Lord and Waltz With Bashir (opening Jan. 9, 2009) all deserving raves. Check out the overlooked Jellyfish, a delicate fable of three alienated women separately trying to fit the pieces of their lives together in Tel Aviv.
4. Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che opening Jan. 9, 2009 and comprised of The Argentine and Guerilla, is arguably the most ambitious and best-made movie of the year. It doesn't create the emotional connection that we associate with "great" films, hence the cool reviews, but it is a work of extraordinary rigor and intelligence.
5. I echo all the praise heaped on Man On Wire, but I'll use my final vote to call attention to a less-heralded documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Relying only on participants in and witnesses to the actual events and contemporaneous news footage -- no historians or film critics, in other words -- filmmaker Marina Zenovich recounts the brouhaha surrounding Polanski's 1977 arrest for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. More than just a fascinating story, the film reveals the low-class intersection of celebrity, sex, media and justice.
For the record, the biggest crowd-pleasers of 2008, The Dark Knight and Wall-E, land squarely in the "well made but don't ever need to see again" category.
Unlike daily critics, who have to cover everything, I'm privileged to skip the junk pile of low-rent horror films, teen sex comedies, action movies starring washed-up pro wrestlers, sci-fi boondoggles and cheesy children's movies. The bad news is that it's harder to come up with a Bottom 5. Just kidding.
1. Wanted. Amoral action flicks with reprehensible characters and grotesque violence are sadly commonplace, but they don't typically star respected actors and top-dollar actresses. Everybody involved in this atrocity should be suspended without pay for a year.
2. The Happening. I suspect that M. Night Shyamalan intended to pay homage to the ham-fisted dialogue, stilted performances and lame visual effects that "distinguished" the cheesy science fiction films of the '50s. But he neglected to signal to audiences that he was making a parody. Or perhaps his ego swallowed his sense of humor in his sleep, and he never noticed.
3. Seven Pounds. This narcissistic, soft-focus glob of horsefeathers is the natural result when superstardom morphs into megalomania.
4. Zach and Miri Make a Porno. Kevin Smith has finally developed to the point where he can compose a decent-looking shot -- or at least hire someone who can -- but his worldview is still stuck in the second year of high school.
5. Vicky Christina Barcelona might seem witty and clever if you've never seen a Woody Allen movie. In fact, it's a weak-tea, week-kneed rehash of his increasingly irrelevant obsession with successful but neurotic artists and unsuccessful and neurotic women. Ah, but there's always next year for the prolific one.
What were your favorite films in 2008. Comment on this post and share your bests and worsts.