From Norway, the year in cinema might look a little different than how it looks for American critics and moviegoers trying to summarize 2008. The Oscar contenders are still weeks or even months away from our movie theaters, which means Milk and Revolutionary Road are both out of the running. Likewise, last year’s Oscar contenders, like Into The Wild, Juno and The Diving Bell didn’t premiere in Norway until February 2008, and are thus eligible to my list. Same goes for Once, the excellent British music film that didn’t open in Norway until this last summer, even though it was made way back in 2006.
To qualify, the movies will have to have had a theatrical release, or at least a screening, or a first-run airing on national television between January 1 and December 31, 2008. When reading this list, one should also note that such list are always works in progress. There are still some quite notable movies I haven’t gotten around to see yet, like No Country For Old Men, and by mid-2009 it might look a little different, but I would still say this list says something about what I loved last year:
1. A Christmas Tale
This rich, nuanced French family portrait managed to squeeze itself onto the release schedule at the very end of the year, and what luck! Catherine Deneuve, Melvil Poupaud (Time To Leave) and Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stand out in a very strong cast, capturing the tensions of a big family with even bigger egos. I wanted to watch it again right away.
2. Into The Wild
One of the great surprises of the year was that Sean Penn (and Emile Hirsch) actually made me love this incredible story about a young idealist who cut himself off from society and his family to live off nature in Alaska. While sympathetic, it doesn’t fail to ask big questions: Where do you draw a line between idealism and egotism? And could be that old people are right when they tell you wisdom comes with age? In intellectual and visual ambition, Into The Wild is inferior to no one, yet superior to many.
3. The Dark Knight
This is the final proof that it was wise to restart the Batman franchise. Christopher Nolan’s allegorical drama touches on torture and totalitarianism in the darkest and best superhero movie to date, also containing an absolutely mind-blowing performance by Heath Ledger.
More a movie about the craft of songwriting than a musical, Once shows us how the power of music and lyrics than be even bigger – and more useful – than words. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s glowing chemistry manages to break through in this understated yet wonderfully uplifting love story. Also, it has a soundtrack dreams are made of.
5. The Class
This year’s winner at Cannes is an ode to curiosity. Not only on behalf of the students in the film, with all their questions about class, identity, ethnicity and language, but also the curiosity that’s essential to saying something meaningful about youth, hierarchy and communication. If it sounds like a liberal message movie, the fault is mine. It’s much, much more than that.
6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
I imagine this one must have been incredibly hard to adapt to the big screen, but Julian Schnabel succeeds anyway. The story of a man trapped inside his own body writing a book with his eyes, has a rhythmic beauty that is stunning, and the scenes in which his immediate family struggle to come to terms with the memory of the man they once knew literally had me crying. Mathieu Amalric made my life better last year.
7. Hallam Foe
My conviction that a half-failure is far more interesting than a film that triumphs in its conventionality has never been firmer than after I watched (and re-watched) Hallam Foe (Am title: Mister Foe). This film is a mess of suppressed anger, bitter silence and murky sexuality, but it’s a disturbing and energetic mess. Jamie Bell shines in an otherwise dark comedy.
Cute as can be, or too cute by half? No matter which side you come down on, there’s something about Juno. Jennifer Garner is surprisingly sweet, and even though it could be this is the only character Michael Cera will ever play, he’s so good at it that I can live with that. There’s something about the way he moves (and talks, etc.)
9. The Wackness
Even more than it’s a stoner movie, or a 1994 period piece, The Wackness is a smart coming-of-age-story about cross-generational friendship and young love. Whenever the mood threatens to get too gloomy, though, it’s sure to take a step back and light it up with a joke. I might love it for the exact same reasons you hate it, but that only serves to show that the fallible ones are also the most interesting.
10. Beautiful Losers
You gotta love this documentary for its visually energetic look at the American art scene in the 1990’s. Yes, it maybe a little self-centered, but at the same time it’s a charming portrait of an era, and like very few other documentaries, consistently laught-out-loud funny.