Sunday, December 21, 2008

That Was the Year That Was

John Moulder-Brown and Jane Asher in Deep End

Click here for last year's wrap-up

I'm still working on a more complete list for my blog (I look forward to catching up with Wendy and Lucy and The Wrestler before the end of 2008). In the meantime, here's the gist of my film year. Click the links below for my Amazon and Siffblog reviews and/or interviews, plus Steven Fried's post on My Winnipeg. Where my piec-
es aren't available on-line, I've included excerpts from my Video Librarian reviews.

The Tops:
1. Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski)
2. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
3. Man on Wire (James Marsh)
4. The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson)
5. Frozen River (Courtney Hunt)
6. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
7. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
8. The Secret of the Grain (Abdellatif Kechiche)
9. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
10. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

Note: Every year, I compile a top 50, counting documentaries and reissues, but
if a non-narrative/pre-existing title impresses sufficiently, it might make my top
10, as in the case of Deep End, My Winnipeg, and Encounters. Since the former never received a proper US release, it's almost like a new title, though Skolimowski finally issued a film in 2008, Four Nights with Anna, which is making the festival rounds.

Wagner Moura in Elite Squad

11. Elite Squad (Jose Padilha)
12. The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin)
13. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
14. You, the Living (Roy Andersson)
15. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
16. Reprise (Joachim Trier)
17. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
18. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)
19. Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs)
20. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)

Note: What an amazing year for Israeli film! Aside from The Band's Visit and
Waltz with Bashir, Jellyfish made my top 30 (of 2008's animated features, I also enjoyed Wall-E and Fear(s) of the Dark). You, the Living is still seeking distribution.



Top Documentaries:
1. Gonzo - The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney)
2. Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)
3. The Order of Myths (Margaret Brown)
4. Surfwise (Doug Pray)


Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, but few medical practitioners chuck it all
to become surfers who sire nine children and travel the world in a 24-foot camper.
Doug Pray's admirably even-handed portrait of Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz and clan immediately distinguishes itself from surfing celebrations like Endless Summer and Riding Giants, though pro boarders Kelly Slater and Taylor Knox stop by to pay tribute (after all, Doc lived the dream, even bringing surfing to Israel). Co-produced by son Jonathan Paskowitz, Surfwise is more of a character study, and the salty-tongued Doc is quite a character. As his wife, Juliette, puts it, "For 10 years I was either pregnant or breast-feeding." As youngest child Josh quips, "We were born because Doc wanted to re-populate the world with Jews." A tanned and fit 85 at the time of filming, Doc doesn't see any of this as unusual, describing his family, instead, as "the most conventional people." (And they do seem surprisingly sane.) Nonetheless, all 11 members subsisted on a diet of health food (including branches), home-schooling, and big waves. For cash, Doc ran a surf camp and treated the occasional patient. Despite the lack of creature comforts, it might sound a little like paradise, except for the corporal punishment and the fact that the kids had to listen to their parents having sex every night. The director behind the fine music docs Hype! and Scratch, Pray never imposes his views on the narrative, but rather allows his subjects to speak for themselves. He leaves it up to viewers to decide whether Doc was genius, madman, or somewhere in between. Easily one of the year's most fascinating films.

5. Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang)
6. Wild Combination - A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf)
7. Billy the Kid (Jennifer Venditti)
8. At the Death House Door (Steve James and Peter Gilbert)
9. Wrangler - Anatomy of an Icon (Jeffrey Schwarz)

Blond, blue-eyed, all-American Jack Wrangler (nee Stillman) was one of the
top porn stars of the 1970s. Like John Holmes, he wasn't much of an actor, but
he gave the people what they wanted: beefcake. Unlike Holmes, he specialized
in gay porn, but by participating in Jeffrey Schwarz's perceptive documentary, he doesn't seek to exploit-or even to condemn-his past, but to prove that there's more to Jack Wrangler than meets the eye. A self-effacing raconteur, he makes
his case. Born to wealth and privilege (his father produced Bonanza), Wrangler be-
gan life as an inauspicious runt, but hobnobbed with Tinseltown royalty and soon developed silver-screen ambitions of his own. As the years passed, he also found himself attracted to other men. Though his enthusiasm trumped his talent, he discovered his niche when he segued from dinner theater and bit parts to exotic dancing and the adult film industry. His improbable biography kicks into high gear when he marries Margaret Whiting, a singer 20 years his senior. As he speaks to the camera, it becomes clear that Wrangler isn't just a story about one man's life in and out of the porn business, but about popular conceptions of masculinity since the 1950s. Throughout, Schwarz, the filmmaker behind Spine Tingler! The William Cast-
le Story
, cuts between stills, clips (some incredibly rare), and comments from 40 speakers, including gossip columnist Michael Musto, publisher Al Goldstein, com-
poser Marc Shaiman, and author Bruce Vilanch. Frank words and images aside,
the unrated Wrangler is only marginally more explicit than That Man - Peter Berlin,
a previous porn portrait emphasizing character and context over shock value.

10. Joy Division (Grant Gee)
Bonus: Patti Smith - Dream of Life (Steven Sebring)

Note: It's beyond me why The Order of Myths and Up the Yangtze weren't short-
listed for a Best Documentary Oscar. The Academy Award nominating committee instead gave the nod to Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A., which displays all the artistry
of a PowerPoint presentation. Margaret Brown's doc premieres on PBS next year.

The year's best cover art

Top DVDs:
1. Mishima - A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader)
2. Touch of Evil - 50th Anniversary Edition (Orson Welles)
3. Le Deuxieme Souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville)
4. Class Tous Risques (Claude Sautet)
5. Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard)
6. Miss Julie (Alf Sjöberg)
7. Fallen Women [box set] (Kenji Mizoguchi)
8. The Rabbit Is Me (Kurt Maetzig)
9. The Furies (Anthony Mann)
10. The Small Back Room (Michael Powell)

Note: This list only includes the DVDs I've actually watched,
hence the absence of some of the year's most celebrated titles.

Until next year!

Endnote: Images from Buzz Sugar, Collider,
J4HI, Marmalade Skies, and Nippon Cinema.


  1. I'm with you on Israeli film this year. In addition to the three you mention (haven't seen Waltz yet, but the other two would make my top thirty as well), I really loved My Father, My Lord, about an ultra-orthodox family. In the past, there's been, like, Saint Clara and certain sequences in Amos Gitai films I've liked and little else, but everything I saw from Israel this year was great.

  2. Thanks for the tip! I'll keep an eye out for "My Father, My Lord." Just came back from "Cadillac Records," and I may have to find a spot for it on my top 30 (it made A.O. Scott's top 10 list for the New York Times), but that means bumping "Boy A" or "Tell No One," and they were really good, too...

  3. thank you for your kind comments about SURFWISE, you have no idea how great it is to read such good reviews. see you in the waves,
    Shaloha, Jonathan

  4. My pleasure! I'm happy to spread the word about such a fine film.