From the diary of a cinematic thrill-seeker:
Wednesday, December 31: Goodbye, 2008. Not sorry to see you go. Hit the road and be sure to write when you find work. In addition to hosting an economic cataclysm, this accursed Year of the Rat proved relatively meager at the flicks, at least in comparison with the bounty of 2007. Ironic, isn't it? Just when we needed a good movie more than ever to take us away from the hideous reality, they suddenly became scarce. But for keen-nosed movie hounds who knew where to look, there were a few goodies hidden away in festivals and art houses, even at times in the local multiplex — secret treasures for the price of a ticket. All you had to do was sniff them out.
Take for instance the following list of the Ten Best Films of 2008, aka The Rats' Club, more or less in the order they screened in the Bay Area:
1) Two by director Brillante Mendoza: Slingshot and Foster Child
2) The Duchess of Langeais by Jacques Rivette
3) A Girl Cut in Two by Claude Chabrol
4) Frozen River by Courtney Hunt
5) Trouble the Water by Tia Lessin & Carl Deal
6) Happy-Go-Lucky by Mike Leigh
7) Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle
8) Milk by Gus Van Sant
9) The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky
10) Let the Right One In by Tomas Alfredson
Polished, professionally produced, commercially presentable feature films typically take the better part of a year to make, at least. That time frame can vary — Oliver Stone banged out his slick political exposé W. in about seven months, while Stanley Kubrick spent years on Eyes Wide Shut — but the point is that with the exception of activist street-riot videos, movies don't happen quickly. They have to travel through a pipeline. Which is why it's notable that so many of this year's most resonant films seem to deal with economic hard times, as if the filmmakers knew in advance they were coming.
Of course, the hard-scrabble life existed before 2008, and for people like the protagonists of filmmaker Brillante Mendoza's aptly brilliant vignettes of the slums of Manila, next year and the year after that won't be much better. Mendoza's Slingshot and Foster Child, both produced in 2007 and both shown at last spring's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, don't waste much time with fake pathos. The former chronicles the hectic lives of hustlers and thieves, captured in nervous hand-held digital. The latter combines documentary realism with poignant irony in the story of John-John, a three-year-old unwanted boy being cared for until his adoption by a woman barely able to feed her own children. You will definitely hear more from Mendoza, a rising star filmmaker from the resurgent Philippine cinema.
Times are tough stateside, too. A clutch of the year's best films looked in on Americans in deep financial trouble: Frozen River, Trouble the Water, and The Wrestler most notably, not to mention such otherwise dissimilar pics as Wendy and Lucy, Stuck, Snow Angels, Under the Same Moon, The Lucky Ones, and, on the documentary, systemic, root-cause side, I.O.U.S.A. and John Gianvito's haunting doc Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (screened exactly twice at the San Francisco International Film Festival), which relates the history of the struggle for equal rights and justice in America by visiting graves and monuments and reading the inscriptions about Joe Hill, Malcolm X, the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, et al.
If we could draw a circle around the protagonists of Frozen River, The Wrestler, and the documentary Trouble the Water, the circle would ignore race and geography and focus instead on the everyday lives of people trying to make a living on the outskirts of what has been fondly called the American Dream. Poor single mothers Ray and Lila, the immigrant-smuggling lawbreakers of writer-director Courtney Hunt's stealthy drama Frozen River, pack illegals into a car trunk for a risky drive across the ice of the St. Lawrence River because there's no other way to afford to keep their children. Everything we need to know about Ray (actor's actor Melissa Leo) and Mohawk Native American Lila (Misty Upham) is written on their faces and in the details of their lives in mobile homes and beat-out Yankee Dollar stores.
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