Robert Koehler’s Best of 2008

The Golden Age Continued: The Films That Matter in 2008


It’s always dangerous to assume anything, but I figured that by now I would have been teased—somewhere, by someone—for having argued more than once over the past couple of years that we are living in a new golden age of film. This position runs so counter to the prevailing mood and sentiment (dour may be one word to describe it) that I know more than ever that I’m right, just as I know that such a contrarian position opens one up for attack. Hasn’t happened. Yet. Maybe it will this time, especially when some films that seem so wildly and widely loved aren’t listed among the year’s films that matter (say, for the helluva it, WALL-E). Perhaps part of the reason for the critical exercise in listing a year’s survey of films is to offer a counter to the pack mentality that swamps North American movie criticism today. (Not a golden age there.) But the central reason is to stake a position in the field of cinema, to defend it, to cite the films made by filmmakers who fathom that we’ve entered a time where cinema’s essence of a greater understanding and feeling for reality through image and sound, a time that runs full circle to the silent era, liberated from literature, from theater, from all of those alien projects that have nothing to do with cinema.

After putting down these titles, especially this year, I scanned down them one more time, hit by a rush of memories: from the (literally) smoke-filled cinemas in Buenos Aires during a horrible brushfire that engulfed the city; to Serge Bozon playing pop records on three continents; to the frozen, exhausted, hulking survivors of yet another year at Sundance; to the shock and dismay at the news of the collapse of FICCO and the excitement of the news of Locarno snatching Oliver Pere from the Quinzaine; to the thrill of the first ten minutes of Ballast and Tulpan and Rail Road Crossing and Afterschool and Hunger and A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy and El Camino and Knitting and a bunch of other astounding films by first-time narrative directors; to the sight of Nicolas Klotz and José Luis Guerín sharing a video camera when Guerín’s was stolen; to the silencing poetry of a new Straub or Reeves in Toronto’s “Wavelengths” section reminding one what beauty actually is; to watching AFI Festival revive and explode as one of North America’s most important festivals after many years in the doldrums; to the complete fun of watching (and hearing news of) my friend and Cinema Scope colleague Mark Peranson gradually make his first film out of the winds of the Canaries and the world created by Albert Serra; to Serra, just Serra, walking around, talking; to the personal frustrations of not being able to share time with my juries in Miami and Mexico City as well as friends in Cannes; and above all, to my wife Marjaneh, who has taught me new levels of courage as she successfully battles breast cancer. (2008 was, in the words of Harvey Pekar, our cancer year.) Being home, with her, and with a ton of screeners from festivals and beyond, made me love the DVD as never before; near to the one I love the most in the world, and able to interact with films in a way—and perhaps, even depth–not possible in the cinema. Make no mistake: the DVD as cinema object is a wonderful thing.

So, after the memories, a sensation: awe. It’s hard to believe that there were so many extraordinary films in one year, so many new voices that came out of nowhere, though perhaps not as hard to believe that so many that have barely been seen in North America, where fewer good films are shown than anywhere else. And still, the films that actually made it to Los Angeles (an increasingly feared destination for small and independent distributors)….and, even more, the films that made it past Homeland Security officials (though not to Los Angeles—thus, the separate US list)….perhaps I should term it the “New York” list, since that’s where those films played more or less exclusive national engagements. As for the World list, a total of 91 is a record. Beware of top ten lists: They reveal nothing about what the critic has seen that year, nor where the critic stands. If you watch all or part of well over 700 films, 91 is relatively brief. Note that some films on the World list have US distribution planned for 2009; I always item films in this section in the year I first viewed them, and if they make it to the US in a subsequent year, I’ll list those fortunate ones again, accordingly. The films are listed in order of preference. Such orders are, like many other things, fluid.

Los Angeles:

Gomorra (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
Ballast (Lance Hammer, US)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada)
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, US)
Man on Wire (James Marsh, UK)
Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2007)
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredsson, Sweden)
Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs, US)
The Unforeseen (Laura Dunn, US, 2007)
Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK)
Alice’s House (Chico Teixeira, Brazil, 2007)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, US)
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, US)
‘Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (Raymond De Felitta, US, 2006)
Times and Winds (Reha Erdem, Turkey, 2007)
The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, France, 2007)
The Witnesses (Andre Techine, France, 2007)
Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, US, 2007)
The Pool (Chris Smith, US/India, 2006)
Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang, Canada)
A Good Day to be Black & Sexy (Dennis Dortch, US)
Role Models (David Wain, US)
Wonders Are Many (Jon Else, US, 2007)
The Voyage of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao Hsien, France/Taiwan, 2007)
JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, France)
Irina Palm (Sam Gabarski, Belgium/Luxembourg/UK/France, 2007)


In The City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin, Spain, 2007)
La France (Serge Bozon, France, 2007)
The Silence Before Bach (Pere Portabella, Spain-Germany)
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, China, 2007)
The Secret of The Grain (Abdelatif Kechiche, France, 2007)
Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2007)
Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, US, 2007)
Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, France, 2007)
Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina, Paraguay, 2007)
Tirador/Slingshot (Brilliante Mendoza, Philippines, 2007)
Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, Indonesia, 2007)
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, France, 2007)
Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat, Thailand, 2007)


Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/Spain/Netherlands/France/Germany)
El cant dels ocells/Birdsong (Albert Serra, Spain)
Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy, Kazakhstan)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
Revanche (Götz Spielmann, Austria)
Good Cats (Ying Liang, China)
The Feature (Michel Auder/Andrew Neel, US)
Survival Song (Yu Guangyi, China)
Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Delta (Kornel Mundruczo, Hungary)
Night And Day (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)
When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves, US/Iceland)
RR (James Benning, US)
United Red Army (Wakamatsu Koji, Japan)
Rail Road Crossing (Pere Vilà, Spain, 2007)
Le Genou d’Artémide (Il Ginocchio di Artemide, Jean-Marie Straub)
Circus School (Guo Jing/Ke Dingding, China, 2007)
El Camino (Ishtar Yasmin, Costa Rica)
Respite (Harun Farocki, South Korea, 2007)
Perfect Life (Emily Tang, China-Hong Kong)
The Longwang Chronicles (Li Yifan, China, 2007)
Correction (Thanos Anastopoulos, Greece)
La vie moderne (Raymond Depardon, France)
This Longing (Azarr Rudin, Malaysia)
Jalainur (Ye Ziao, China)
Now Showing (Raya Martin, Philippines)
Four Nights With Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski, France/Poland)
Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Japan)
Drifter (Cao Guimarães, Brazil, 2007)
Afterschool (Antonio Campos, US)
All Around Us (Hashiguchi Ryosuke, Japan)
Better Things (Duane Hopkins, UK/Germany)
Megane (Naoko Ogigami, Japan)
La Rabia (Albertina Carri, Argentina)
Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang, China/France, 2007)
35 Rhums (Claire Denis, France/Spain)
Knitting (Yin Lichuan, China)
Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
Revue (Sergei Loznitsa, Germany/Russia)
Where Are Their Stories? (Nicolas Pereda, Mexico/Canada)
Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, South Korea)
The Juche Idea (Jim Finn, US)
Los Bastardos (Amat Escalante, Mexico)
Loos ornamental (Heinz Emigholz, Austria/Germany)
Waiting For Sancho (Mark Peranson, Canada/Spain)
Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico)
Sweet Food City (Gao Wendong, China)
Los Herederos (Eugenio Pogolvsky, Mexico)
Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan/France)
Megatron (Marian Crisan, Romania)
We (Huang Wenhai, China)
The Infinite Border (Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, Mexico)
süden (Gaston Solnicki, Argentina)
Cry Me A River (Jia Zhang-ke, China/Spain/France)
She Unfolds by Day (Rolf Belgum, US)
mime-mime (Sode Yukiko, Japan, 2007)
Jogo de cena/Playing (Eduardo Coutinho, Brazil, 2007)
10+4 (Mania Akbari, Iran, 2007)
Fragments of Conversations with Jean-Luc Godard (Alain Fleischer, France, 2007)
Sonetàula (Salvatore Mereu, Italy/France/Belgium)
Como estar muerto (How To Be Dead) (Manuel Ferrari, Argentina)
Plot Point (Nicolas Provost, Belgium, 2007)
Largo (Mark Flanagan/Andrew van Baal, US)
Manila in the Fangs of Darkness (Khavn, Philippines)
Historias Extraordinarias (Mariano Llinas, Argentina)
Voy a explotar/I’m Gonna Explode (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico)
The Rebirth (Kobayashi Masahiro, Japan, 2007)
The Rabbit Hunters (Pedro Costa, South Korea, 2007)
The Equation of Love and Death (Cao Baoping, China)
Correspondences (Eugene Green, South Korea, 2007)
Kaza-ana (Uchida Nobutero, Japan, 2007)
Jerrycan (Julius Avery, UK)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
Possible Lovers (Raya Martin, Philippines)
Box Office: Next Attraction (Raya Martin, Philippines)
Recycle (Mahmoud Al Massad, Jordan/Germany/Holland)
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, US)
Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (Gonzalo Arijon)
Goliath (David Zellner, US)
L’Aimee (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2007)
Years When I Was a Child Outside (John Torres, Philippines)
Parque Via (Enrique Rivero, Mexico)
Quemar las naves (Francisco Franco, Mexico, 2007)
24 City (Jia Zhangke, China)
Return to the Scene of the Crime (Ken Jacobs, US)
The Legless Boy Cannot Dance (Michel Lipkes, Mexico)
Dernier Maquis (Adhen) (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, France/Algeria)
Mock Up on Mu (Craig Baldwin, US)
Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake (Michael Albright, US)
God’s Puzzle (Miike Takashi, Japan)

2 thoughts on “Robert Koehler’s Best of 2008

  1. I don’t like year-end lists, but yours reveals something more important than a quick-hit of titles (which self-evident enough when written out, but hopefully worth repeating):

    Much of the joy of cinema comes from the experience of watching it, which comes from more than the films themselves.

    Thank you for a wonderful post.

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