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The Notebook’s First Annual Writers’ Poll: Acquarello

Each of the Notebook's writers were given the opportunity to submit two lists of their ten favorite films of 2008.  One is restricted to films receiving at least a week's theatrical run in the U.S., a limitation regretfully imposed only so that we may arrive at a final tally of the Notebook's overall favorites released this year.  The second list is optional, and opens up the field to anything seen in 2008, new or old, festival or regular release.  Each writer is also given space for words of explaination, rant, annotation, or anything else that occurs to them about their film viewing in 2008.
Favorite Distributed Films of 2008
01. La Question humaine / Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz)
02. Alexandra (Aleksandr Sokurov)
03. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
04. Ne touchez pas le hache / The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette)
05. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerin)
06. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
07. Love Songs (Christophe Honoré)
08. Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot)
09. Reprise (Joachim Trier)
10. A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol)
Favorite Films of 2008
01. La Question humaine / Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007)
02. 24 City (Jia Zhang-ke, 2008)
03. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
04. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
05. Ne touchez pas le hache / The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
06. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
07. Love Songs (Christophe Honoré, 2007)
08. Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot, 2007)
09. The Feelings Factory (Jean-Marc Moutout, 2008)
10. The Sky Crawlers (Mamoru Oshii, 2008)
The retrospectives in 2008 were the highlight of the year for me: filling the gaps from the idiosyncratic cinemas of such diverse filmmakers as Jean Eustache, Manoel de Oliveira, Teuvo Tulio, and Nagisa Oshima, and discovering the richness of some national cinemas from the "other" Europe, such as Slovenia and Romania.
While the films that introduced me to Jean Eustache's cinema, The Mother and the Whore and Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes suggest a sardonic, roguish streak, his penchant for experimenting with disparate narrative structures and film genres into unexpected modes of storytelling (especially in Les Photos d'Alix and Une sale histoire) and observations of quotidian life (in Le Cochon and Numéro Zéro) also reinforce his place in the vanguard of contemporary French cinema now inhabited by similar genre cross-cutting, multi-mode filmmakers as Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin.
Manoel de Oliveira's later films tend towards the historical (A Talking Picture and The Fifth Empire), the personal (Oporto of My Childhood), or expositions on the ambiguity of reality and truth (Belle Toujours), but this year's retrospective - which included rare screenings of his earliest works, Douro, Faina Fluvial and Aniki-Bóbó, as well as his more epic, period stories of love and repression in the so called Tetralogy of Frustrated Love (The Past and the Present, Benilde or the Virgin Mary, Doomed Love, and Francisca) - shows that his varied approaches to filmmaking are not mutual exclusive, defined by a certain faithfulness to retain the integrity of the source material and, like Eustache, an interest in the nature of performance.
The four films in the Teuvo Tulio retrospective - The Song of the Scarlet Flower, In the Fields of Dreams, The Way You Wanted Me, and Cross of Love - serve as more of an introduction than an exhaustive survey of Tulio's films, and whether or not the selection can be extrapolated to his overall body of work remains unclear. What does surface in these films, though, is a concern for the station of women against an outmoded, rigid sense of honor and morality, a social commentary on the hypocrisy and exploitation implicit in class relations, and a redemption through the purity and sacrifice of an idealized love.
Nagisa Oshima has been a long-time personal favorite, and this year's sidebar retrospective at the New York Film Festival served as more of a prelude to the upcoming touring retrospective in Washington DC in the spring on 2009 than a full immersion into Oshima's razor-sharp social observations, catching only a handful of the rarer screenings like A Town of Love and Hope, Pleasures of the Flesh, and Three Resurrected Drunkards, along with the two films that I hadn't seen before, Diary of a Yunbogi Boy and Dear Summer Sister. There is a rawness to the presentation of both films - a series of still photographs in Diary of a Yunbogi Boy that resemble photo reportage, and a flat composition and jarring editing to Dear Summer Sister that mirror the aesthetics of vérité filmmaking - that hints at their underlying kinship within Oshima's cinema: bound by his recurring themes of conformity and monoethnic rejection of the other (whether in the treatment of Korean immigrants or the cultural isolation of Okinawan islanders) that shape Japanese postwar identity.
From a historical point of view, it was interesting to see how the Cold War-era national cinemas of Romania and Slovenia worked around the strictures of Soviet interference and cultural imperialism to forge their own means of self-expression. For Romanian filmmakers Malvina Ursianu (Return of the Banished) and Dan Pita (Orienteering), the corruption of power and its dysfunctional leadership serves as an allegory for Nicolae Ceauşescu's transformation from political maverick willing to stand up against the Soviet Union to increasingly isolated megalomaniac seeking to control all facets of society - including reproduction - in order to retain his grip on power.
For the post-Yugoslav nation of Slovenia, a similar cult of personality is found in the form of Josip Broz Tito, and the social ideal of a united Yugoslavia that collapsed with his death is reflected in the failed cultural revolution of the homegrown art movement, zenithism in Karpo Godina's Raft of the Medusa. Moreover, the question of Slovenia's identity (and its idealization) within the federation of disparate Yugoslav "identities" - as well as its strategic role as a gateway to "old" Europe - is also implicitly reflected in the nation's most beloved films, from Frantisek Cáp's Vesna, to France Stiglic's Valley of Peace (which features a memorable performance by American expatriate, John Kitzmiller), to Bostjan Hladnik's Dance in the Rain.
Ooh, a mention of The Sky Crawlers! That was one of my festival favorites this year too. Shame I missed the Tulio retro, I’ve heard nothing but raves.
Hi Daniel – It’s weird because I’m not really an anime fan, but I really dug Oshii’s last two films. I’m really glad I shifted my schedule to see it. I’m counting down to Film Comment Selects 2009, on the off chance that they’ll screen his Rebellion: The Killing Isle. :) There’s a lot of similarities in the four Tulio films they showed, so I wonder if the others are more or less re-workings of the same ideas. He can lay on the melodrama a bit thick, but the way he shoots his landscape is really something.
Wow, great post, with many interesting observations. Nice to see the recent Oshii in your list, which currently tops mine for 2009. And it seems Slovenian cinema is finally getting some recognition abroad. “Dancing in the rain” and “Valley of Peace” are I think on par with anything that went on internationally at that time, and also personal favorites.
Acquarello, I've read many of your reviews elsewhere. Look forward to seeing more!

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