More Bests and Worsts

I invited some of my highly respected colleagues at “The Phoenix” to send me their ten best lists (and worsts, if so inclined). Here are a few responses.



1. My Winnipeg 
Meta-oneiro maestro Guy Maddin’s most personal launch into the timeless void, and probably his simplest, and perhaps his most moving. A single city hasn’t received an ambivalent valentine this lovely and inventive since, well, maybe ever.

2. Ballast 
Lance Hammer’s Missisippi Delta debut brings the neo-neo-realist syntax of the Dardennes brothers home to roost, and makes you hold your breath. Couldn’t be any finer.

3. Wendy & Lucy
Kelly Reichardt’s crowning feature (a homeless girl, a dog, a small town in Oregon) is much lean-indie ado about nothing and, of course, nearly everything. Sneaks up on you like seizure.

4. Silent Light
Mexican troublemaker Carlos Reygadas dares to reinvent Dreyer, and Ordet, among Mexican Mennonites. Physically gorgeous, pensively quiet, and, after a week at MoMA in New York, coming to an arthouse near you.

5. Still Life
Jia Zhangke found the ultimate monolithic, life-changing metaphor for modern Chinese life in the Three Gorges Dam, and the vast millennia of history it’s obliterating inch by rising-water inch.

6. Waltz with Bashir
The best Israeli film ever made? And a doc that’s also an animated dream-film? And a direct address of the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982? And a cartoon that’s unlike any you’ve ever seen? Incredibly.

7. Flight of the Red Balloon
Hou Hsaio-hsien goes to Paris, and brings essential Hou-ness with him. Who could complain?

8. The Wrestler
Both Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke redeem themselves and save their souls with this bone-chilling slice of life; what they’ll do next is less clear.

9. Synecdoche, New York
Maddening, unenjoyable, doggedly pure-hearted nihilism, tricked out with Kaufmanic structuralism but so nakedly lonesome it hurts. I swore I’d never sit through it again, but now, a few months later, I’m thinking I might.

10. My Blueberry Nights
Wong Kar-wai comes to America, too, and brings his essential Wongness with him. Where would we be without it? Again, the naysayers will be silenced and shamed in short order.

Runners-up, in order: Times and Winds, The Duchess of Langeais, WALL-E, Appaloosa, Che, Alexandra, Pineapple Express, Jellyfish, Milk, The Edge of Heaven, Boy A, My Father My Lord, Encounters at the End of the World, Snow Angels, Chop Shop, Stuff and Dough, In Bruges

Haven't seen yet: A Christmas Story



1.Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog makes another existential documentary like "Grizzly Man" about man and nature, this time in the frozen depths of the Antarctic Ocean.

2. Slumdog Millionaire 
 Danny Boyle tackles India’s caste system, world wide capitalism, American pop and Bollywood in one seamless flow.

3. Waltz with Bashir

The animated account of an Israeli incursion into Beirut as a cathartic remembrance by the filmmaker is haunting.

4. The Visitor 
Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) weaves together another affecting yarn about disparate lives tossed together.

5. Wall-E 

Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”)  gives us robot love and the best family entertainment of the year.

6. Milk 

Great performances in this portrait of gay political mobilization. Important now more than ever because of Prop 8.

7. Let the Right One In 
Forget “Twilight,” this is the bloodsucking teen drama with teeth.

8. Man on Wire 
A documentary about the man who tihghtrop walked between the Twin Towers. It’s a veritable “How'd he do that?” reel.

9. The Pool 
A subtle, haunting coming of age saga in India, that rewards as it builds.

10.The Bank Job
The year's best thriller. 


1. In the Name of the King

Pointless Medieval drivel  

2. One Missed Call

Just hang up.

3. The Ruins

Killer vines, creepy.

4.Prom Night

 There will never be another Carrie.

5. The Spirit

A sinful rehash of “Sin City.”




1. The Pool

This tremendously accomplished first feature by American documentarian, Chris (“American Movie”) Smith, got one week this Fall at the Kendall. Well, grab a DVD of this disarming tale of two street kids in India who become obsessed by the empty swimming pool of a rich family. Subtle and thoughtful, “The Pool” is the anti-“Slumdog  Millionaire,” more “The White Balloon” or Satyajit Ray, steeped in Indian culture, than hyperkinetic, slumming Danny Boyle.

2. Milk
It hardly ever happens, that a film this joyous, communal, beautifully realized is also (yawn!) politically correct. Thanks to filmmaker Gus Van Sant, star Sean Penn, and 2008’s most committed ensemble — Emile Hirsch, James Franco, et. al. — for a heartfelt celebration of the late Harvey Milk, a true-life superhero.

3. Chris & Don: a Love Story 
 Another fabulous gay-themed film, 2008’s finest documentary is Guido Santi and Tina  Mascara’s emotional tale of the three-decade relationship of Cabaret scribe, Christopher Isherwood, and artist Don Bachardy, thirty years younger. The couple lived about LA, and their story is also the cultural  history of gay Hollywood. Look quickly for the most unexpected home-movie clip: mystery writer Raymond Chandler paddling about in Isherwood’s swimming pool.

4. Let the Right One In
2008’s best foreign film is this Swedish horror movie about the deep, doomed relationship  of a lonely young boy and an equally melancholy, desperate female vampire. Properly frightening, “Let the Right Thing” is also tender and genuinely poetic, the most adult horror film in years. What next from filmmaker, Tomas Alfredson, a discovery?

5. Waltz with Bashir

If only “Wall-E,” superb in its first half hour, hadn’t turned cute and  sentimental! “Waltz with Bashir” never falters, and this graphic memoir-in-motion is 2008’s most successful animated  work. It’s also a courageous political film, in which the filmmaker-narrator, Ari Folman, an ex-soldier, gradually implicates himself in the most horrible deeds, when, in 1982, the Israel military occupied Lebanon.

6. My Father My Lord
Two films from Israel in my top ten! Set in a Hasidic community in Jerusalem, David Volach’s miniaturist parable of religious Jewish life has Old Testament resonance. A prideful rabbi and his wife take their beloved only son for a holiday trip to the Dead Sea, with deadly results. An intensely spiritual movie, whether you are devoutly secular, or a Moses freak.

 7. W 

Oliver Stone’s best-realized film in twenty years, with Josh Brolin a revelatory George W., delivering 2008’s finest  acting performance. Not a ditsy caricature! Are you one those who believe the real Bush, Jr., should be condemned to a lifetime of chowing dogfood in a Guantanamo cage? I am. So it’s some kind of miracle of Stone storytelling that I was enraptured by the life story of our loathsome prick President.

8. Trouble the Water 
Hurricane Katrina has precipitated an inspired sub-genre of documentaries: “Camp Katrina,” “Axe in the Attic,” “When the Levees Broke.” Swimming to the top is Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s “Trouble the Water,” with its vivid, amazing maelstrom-in-your-face home movies of the dire floodings, and the heaven-made rap songs of Kimberly Rivers Roberts, the movie’s never-say-die, African-American protagonist.

9. In Bruges 

An old-fashioned  gangland neo-noir, with an unusual Belgian locale, and a zesty script by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who also, a first-time helmer, provided the deft direction. The hit-man cast is likewise great, especially big-bodied, gunsel-with-a-heart-of-gold, Brendan Gleeson, 2008’s Best  Supporting Actor.

10. Our Disappeared 

2008 was another banner year for excellent Boston documentaries. I can name a  half-dozen of them, all intelligent, high-minded works. Juan  Mandelbaum’s “Our Disappeared” is at the top of the list for its unflinching  reopening of Argentina’s dirty war on the left during the 1970s, when thousands of people were murdered, “disappeared,” including a charming ex-girlfriend of the filmmaker. The most chilling moment in a 2008 film: Henry Kissinger, there on the spot in Buenos Aires, blithely endorsing the killing-fields military government. 

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