As usual, these are films I saw during 2008, not necessarily films first released this year.
Last year I picked as my favourite film the monastic documentary Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence). This year I am picking another film set in a monastery: the Russian film Ostrov (The Island). Set in an Orthodox monastery in the frozen wasteland of northern Russia, it tells the extraordinary story of a “holy fool”, a monk whose eccentric and even absurd behaviour is a trial for his brothers, but whose sanctity is deep and real. This man lives a life that seems to have stepped from the pages of an early Christian hagiography; he is a companion for St. Anthony or St. Brendan. He himself is nearly inscrutable, yet he has penetrating psychological and spiritual insight — as does the film itself. Like the lives of the monks, Ostrov is saturated in the language of the Psalms. It is at times gloriously funny. And filmed against a background of an austere, snow-covered desolation, it is very cold and very beautiful to look at. Since I saw it I have been unable to put it out of my mind, and I highly recommend it to everyone.
Which could be a problem. The film was originally released in 2006, and is officially now released on DVD. I have been unable to find a store in Canada that sells it, however — not even amazon.ca or chapters.indigo.ca have it available. Neither our public library nor our university library has it. Our local we-have-everything-under-the-sun video store does not have it. Nonetheless, I urge you to try to see it. (I cannot say how I acquired it, lest I incriminate myself.)
I will also name three other films. I finally saw Casablanca for the first time this year, and it was excellent. Would you believe that I had it mixed up with Gone with the Wind? I was startled when it ended so much sooner than I had expected. I have mentioned before that due to an aesthetic defect I usually do not enjoy old movies. This was the first time I had seen Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman on screen! Well, I am obviously a film idiot, but even that did not prevent my discerning the quality of this touching love story.
I watched Clint Eastwood’s World War II double-bill, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which recount the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima first from the American side and then from the Japanese. The first film focused on the group of soldiers who were famously photographed hoisting the American flag after their victory; it seemed to me to lose its way dramatically. It is the second film, Iwo Jima, that has stayed with me. It kept the focus much more intently on the battle itself, and especially on a sympathetic and not very heroic Japanese soldier caught up in the fighting. The film, though told from the Japanese point of view, critically examines the behaviour of both sides, and finds nobility and disgrace on both. The Japanese honour code, which provoked them to commit suicide rather than surrender or even retreat, is portrayed as having been a major factor in the Japanese defeat.
Perhaps the best-reviewed film of the year, and one which is rumoured to be in the running for a major Oscar, was the animated Pixar film WALL·E. Intrigued by the positive response from critics, I made a point of seeing it. The first act of the movie was excellent. Its bravely unconventional narrative — with almost no dialogue for long stretches — indicated that Pixar was really trying to do something memorable and special. The closest animated analogue I can think of is Fantasia, not because WALL·E and Fantasia are similar to one another, but because they are both so different from standard animated fare. Unfortunately the second act, which took dear WALL·E to space and into a human space colony, did not sustain the elevated tone. Instead, the movie lapsed into the quick-witted, frenetic atmosphere of films like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. — not bad in itself, but still a letdown after what had preceded it.
Biggest disappointments: I watched, and watched again, and re-watched Lawrence of Arabia. The repeat viewings were because I kept falling asleep. Even my keen personal reasons for wanting to see it – namely, that I was myself going to Jordan to see those amazing landscapes – could not sustain my interest. I found myself quietly hoping that Lawrence would die of thirst.
Encounters at the End of the World is a film by the famous documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog. Filmed it Antarctica, it explores the lives and motivations of the people who work at Antarctic research stations. It is largely a showcase for people to say dumb things in front of a camera. Herzog chimes in with pretentious and dumb commentary.
Brideshead Revisited could have been really great, but the filmmakers botched – perhaps intentionally – the central storyline, and ended up with a good-looking but lurid melodrama. It wasn’t all bad, but fell far short of its potential, and ought to win an award for worst adapted screenplay.
On the principle that if one can’t say anything nice one ought not to say anything at all, I have nothing to say about Bram Stoker’s Dracula.