The 10 best indie movies of 2008

Heartbreaking French family saga "A Christmas Tale" tops the list in a strong year for documentaries and foreign-language films.

Published December 27, 2008 11:49AM (EST)

Images from top, left to right, "Encounters at the End of the World," "The Secret of the Grain," "Momma's Man," "A Christmas Tale," "The Order of Myths," "Flight of the Red Balloon," "Man on Wire," "Chop Shop," "Reprise" and "Waltz With Bashir."

As I reported a few days ago, film industry insiders at all levels of the business say, universally but almost in a whisper, that it was a remarkably strong year for movies in theatrical release. Says distributor-turned-filmmaker Jeff Lipsky, "I don't know why the mainstream media, or whatever is left of it, isn't talking about the fact that our business has been thriving, almost contemporaneous with the collapse of the stock market." Well, here I am, Jeff, the last man standing on the Titanic that is pseudo-serious entertainment journalism. Consider it done.

That said, I heard a contrarian argument just now from Zeitgeist Films co-president Nancy Gerstman, whose films this year have included the Oscar-plausible Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water" along with the haunting Andes plane-crash doc "Stranded," a rare marketplace flop for her small and selective company. When I suggested that a "wide range" of films have succeeded in the marketplace this year, Gerstman snorted at me (if you can snort by e-mail).

She said it was wonderful to see an unexpected hit like the French thriller "Tell No One," which went unreleased in the United States for several years before a tiny distributor called Music Box Films took a flier on it. "That sort of thing gives a small distributor hope," Gerstman writes. "It can happen. But count the amount of films released this year and then look at what you consider a 'wide range.' Maybe 10 or 20 of the small to midsize indie films made it. The others sank like a stone! This is a major problem -- there are just too many films. With critics dropping like flies, theaters closing and younger audiences shrinking, it can only get worse -- unless we are truly in a lengthy cycle in which theatergoing can revive."

I suppose I did my part this year; my electronic calendar suggests that I saw between 240 and 250 films this year, which is actually down slightly from 2007. (That reflects the demands of writing several times a week and also of parenting two small children. I know people who watch 400-plus movies a year.) I suppose I can play Solomon here and suggest that both Lipsky and Gerstman are right: The marketplace is undeniably overcrowded, but in 2008 it featured a panoply of intriguing films from all over the world, and a surprising number of those attracted at least some American eyeballs.

This was an exceptional year for documentaries and an unusually strong one for foreign-language releases, but in my judgment pretty tepid for American indie narrative features. I'm not as sold on the whole low-budget American realism wave as some critics and filmmakers are, and all such films have a tough time finding an audience. The only real exception this year was Courtney Hunt's modest hit "Frozen River," which by Amerindie standards was tightly plotted (and which might get an Oscar nod for Melissa Leo's amazing lead performance). I liked "Frozen River" just fine, and felt about the same unintense affection for "Ballast" and "The Pool" and "August Evening," none of which cracked my list. (If you're curious about my mixed reaction to "Ballast," and its inverse ratio between great reviews and human viewers, you can read all about it.)

There were plenty of films I loved at the time that just didn't stick with me strongly enough into December. I think every critic tries to correct for the year-end onslaught, but the not-so-hidden secret of this trade is that everything released before October has faded in memory at least a little by now. I should stipulate that I rarely see major Hollywood releases -- not through profound antipathy and disgust, but simply because I don't have time -- so no puritanical rejection of, say, "Iron Man" is implied. (I have admittedly flown in the face of conformist contrarianism, if you follow that concept, by asserting that "WALL-E" is not the greatest film in history.) At this writing I still haven't seen Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," which probably has a decent shot. As usual, I tend to grade on a curve, meaning that I award extra points, consciously or not, to movies that strike me as unloved or underappreciated.

So, anyway. Here's my list. I'd love to see yours!

1. "A Christmas Tale" Even I think this is too predictable: the reigning champ of European art film at the top of the list. But just go and see Arnaud Desplechin's home-for-the-holidays flick, which brings together a bitterly divided family in the uncharismatic northern French city of Roubaix (the director's hometown), and tell me it's not a masterpiece. Comedy, tragedy, madness, sex, religion, a musical score ranging from baroque to house music to Cecil Taylor, and an amazing cast headed by Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni and the wonderful Jean-Paul Roussillon. This blend of Bergman, film noir, philosophy and romantic comedy tries to capture all the possibilities of cinema in one movie, and it has finally brought Desplechin a reasonably large American audience.

2. "Waltz With Bashir" If you'll pardon the expression, Israeli director Ari Folman's animated inquest into his own repressed memories of the early-'80s Lebanon war (and his country's) is first and foremost a mind fuck. Both a documentary and a prodigious, haunting work of imagination, "Waltz With Bashir" uses its startling, dreamlike imagery to drag its viewers step by step back toward Israel's darkest nightmare, the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 by Lebanese Christian gunmen allied with the Israeli military. Folman's film perplexes some viewers because it isn't a news report or an Israeli mea culpa; it's a daring exploration of the bleak psychological landscape of war.

3. "Chop Shop" My top American film of the year is from New York no-budget director Ramin Bahrani, who followed up his much-acclaimed but little-seen "Man Push Cart" with an even more wrenching and absorbing neorealist saga, following two abandoned kids through the unpaved streets and sketchy auto-body shops of Willets Point in Queens, N.Y., a neighborhood so dire it's hard to believe it's in North America. But the North Carolina-born, Iran-educated Bahrani is more than a documentary-style realist. He's also got a wonderful eye for visual poetry even in these bleak surroundings, and depicts its people without a hint of pity or judgment.

4. "Encounters at the End of the World" As with all Werner Herzog's movies, the legendary German-born eccentric traveled to Antarctica without quite knowing what he was looking for. What he came back with was a troubling, gorgeous and sometimes hilarious meditation on, quite literally, the last place in the world, which turns out to be a refuge for oddballs from all continents ideally suited to Herzog's exploratory method. "Encounters" is the strangest and most profound of all global-crisis movies to date, and we'll soon find out whether it's also the movie that breaks through the Academy's long-running Herzog-phobia.

5. "Flight of the Red Balloon" I get it: Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's first Western-made film, a loving, leisurely comedy about the domestic life of overwrought Parisian puppeteer mom Juliette Binoche and her dreamy kid, has a small and discrete audience. You need to be a film buff, a Francophile, probably a parent, and equally enamored of Albert Lamorisse's classic "Red Balloon" (which inspired this film) and Hou's ultra-long takes with their moments of accident and improvisation. If that's you, then you won't love any other film this year quite the way you love this one. If it's not, give it a miss.

6. "The Secret of the Grain" Here's the other heartbreaking French family epic of the year, after Desplechin's "Christmas Tale," this one the intimate saga of a tight -- and tightly-wound -- Arab-French immigrant family in a Mediterranean port city. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche swept the César awards (the French Oscars) and while that partly reflects the recent French effort to wrestle with a multicultural nation, the movie itself is wonderful. Habib Boufares plays the laconic hero, a laid-off sipyard worker who has an ex-wife, a mistress, feuding daughters,  stepdaughters and daughters-in-law and a philandering son to deal with, all while his dream of a shipboard couscous restaurant runs afoul of institutional racism and domestic disorder.

7. "Momma's Man" A narrative feature and not a documentary, even though it was shot in director Azazel Jacobs' eccentric childhood home in Manhattan and stars his real-life parents. (His father is avant-garde film pioneer Ken Jacobs.) This was the best narrative film I saw at Sundance in 2008, but also demands a highly specific audience, since it's both a tragicomic tribute to a lost paradise, intellectual-bohemian New York -- the younger Jacobs lives in L.A. -- and a nerve-jangling tale of early-midlife crisis. The Jacobs' fictional adult son Mikey (wonderfully played by Matt Boren) comes home for a visit, plunges into neo-adolescent despair and literally can't leave.

8. "Man on Wire" Watching this highly entertaining documentary about one of the century's great artistic crimes -- Philippe Petit's 1974 wire-walk between the twin towers -- at last year's Tribeca Film Festival was a genuinely magical experience. Partly because we were seeing those buildings resurrected in a context of wonder and adventure, and partly because Petit's death-defying act (it's unfair to call it a stunt) even at the time seemed like a paradoxical and marvelous achievement. Director James Marsh does a terrific job of distilling Petit as a contradictory, larger-than-life figure, and telling his story with a brio worthy of Truffaut.

9. "The Order of Myths" As you'll learn in Margaret Brown's fascinating and vivid documentary, Mobile, Ala., has an older Mardi Gras tradition than New Orleans -- and it's virtually the last vestige of old-school Southern racial segregation. A Mobile native with a personal connection to the subject (I'm not telling), Brown burrows beneath the skin of her hometown's racial divide, exploring the separate Mardi Gras worlds of black and white residents and emerging with an often painful, sometimes ruthless and ultimately uplifting story of American contradictions.

10. "Reprise" This brash, bittersweet and often hilarious feature debut from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (a cousin of Lars von Trier, but a less inscrutable fellow) was a hit around the world but only got a quick look-see from American viewers. Check it out if you haven't already; Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt capture a certain ethos of post-punk, intellectual-class male bonding that I've never seen nailed so perfectly. ("Reprise" has been called the Norwegian "Trainspotting," and it more or less fits.) As 20-something friends Philip and Erik (both played by nonprofessional actors) vie to become Norway's next great writer, Trier jumps backwards and forwards in time, has the characters address the camera, and willfully fudges the boundary between truth and fiction. For whatever reason, the results are thoroughly delightful instead of maddening.

Video: Salon's critics on the top movies of 2008

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: For me, the year's best music doc was "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer," which paints a compelling portrait of a defiant and mysterious talent. Steven Soderbergh's epic-scale "Che" is messy and uneven, but also brave, ambitious and not quite precedented. Nicolas Klotz's ice-cold French corporate thriller "Heartbeat Detector" has a mysterious undertow, a great performance from Mathieu Amalric and a chilling portrayal of the antiseptic world of contemporary Eurocapitalism. Thankfully, the "mumblecore" moment has passed, but ultra-indie auteur Joe Swanberg grew up in a hurry with his wrenching relationship film "Nights and Weekends" (co-directed with his costar, Greta Gerwig).

Israeli cinema godfather Amos Gitai tackles the Holocaust in highly unconventional fashion in "One Day You'll Understand," and it'd be a great film without that obligatory flashback sequence. New York indie kid Josh Safdie felt the love at Cannes for "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," his Godard-flavored debut, but found virtually no audience in the homeland. New Wave legend Eric Rohmer says his willfully eccentric 18th-century-style pastoral "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon" is his farewell to cinema at age 88, and one couldn't ask for a more idiosyncratic, or more gorgeous, goodbye. Gonzalo Arijón's doc "Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains" tells the incredible story of that 1972 Andes crash where survivors lived for months on the flesh of their friends. 

Despite its choppy, unfinished quality as cinema, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's post-Katrina doc "Trouble the Water" maxes out on uplift, inspiration and sheer human drama. Laura Dunn's gorgeous "The Unforeseen" is the "Chinatown" of Texas real-estate documentaries. Korean director Hong Sang-soo's dry, wry, unpredictable comedy "Woman on the Beach" gets better with every viewing; check back in a few months and I'll have moved it up to No. 1.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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