Without a doubt, 2008 has been the year of American films. The new wave of neo-westerns, allegorical epics and corporate thrillers that have miraculously arrived to our shores after taking the US by storm at the backend of last year, have ushered a new age for American film.
All American films included in this list reflect the growing moral uncertainty, not only in the US, but in the world in general. With the election of Barack Obama and the contagious new-found hope taking over the world in such troubled times, critics are wondering if the foreboding ambiance of “No Country for Old Men and “The Dark Knight will preside or whether these pictures, like their 70s counterparts, might soon be regarded as period pieces of the Bush era.
Elsewhere, the French continued to dazzle, although fewer productions than usual managed to make it to the capital, Italians reclaimed their neo-realism throne, the Spanish astonished with their eclectic mix of melodrama, comedy and horror, while the Arabs carefully used the blessings of co-funding to churn out their own unique stories.
As for Egyptian movies, none of the mainstream big-productions came close to match the sublimity of one small film that might eventually break the dominance of major autocratic film producers. So, without any further ado, I present Daily News Egypt s pick of 2008’s 10 best films:
10) The Orphanage
The Spanish import is a haunting, atmospheric old-fashioned ghost story that ranks among the finest horror films in years. Director Juan Antonio Bayon builds up suspense using a variety of tricks to tell a story about a mother who loses her son in what could be a haunting mansion. Capitalizing on the basic human fear of the unknown, Bayon’s film is at heart a psychoanalytical account of grief, regret and questionable means of redemption.
9) Laila’s Birthday
Leading Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi has broken dominant conventions of similar Palestinian films to create an original black comedy about the everyday reality in the occupied territories. Set in one day, the film centers on the obstacles a judge-turned-taxi-driver encounters as he attempts to make it on time for his seven-year-old daughter’s birthday party. Biting, wry and abrasive, Masharawi illustrates that the greatest causality the occupation has spawned is the current apathetic, divided and tattered Palestinian society.
8) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s captivating neo-western, heavily influenced by Terrance Malick’s soulful landscapes, demystifies the myth of America’s legendary outlaw, creating in the process a slow-burning psychological study of celebrity worship and America’s vacant, obsessive search for a hero. Brad Pitt, in another stand-out performance, plays the troubled, worn-out James, unable to carry the heavy burden of his false legend, while Casey Affleck, in his first break-out role, is the man who must endure playing the ascribed role of the coward villain.
Along with the unreleased French hit “Tell No One, the German “Yella is, by miles, the year’s best thriller. A metaphysical thriller, a domestic drama and a critique of the perils of capitalism are all embroiled into one tight, thought-provoking story that creates a wide space for viewers to contemplate the actions of the leading character. The ambiguous surprise ending though is haunting and tremendously creepy, leaving room for several possible interpretations.
6) Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun)
Maverick Egyptian independent filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout’s heartbreaking second feature film is easily the best Egyptian movie of the year; an authentic, piercing portrait of modern Cairo. At the center of El Batout’s multi-character drama, shot guerilla-style on a shoestring budget, is a simple story about a young girl, resident of Ein Shams district, whose only dream is to visit Cairo’s downtown area. El Batout uses this simple premise to make a grand statement on social and political apathy, corruption and the death of innocence engendered by the subtlety of his approach and the poetic realism he effortlessly generates.
If predictions turn out to be true, “Gomorra might one day be regarded as the one film that has managed almost singlehandedly to revive the Italian film industry. Based on Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction blockbuster novel, the Cannes’ 2008 Grand Prize winner takes an unflinching look at the Camorra controlled Neapolitan suburbs via five different characters whose stories never intersect at any given point in the film. Shooting from a documentary-like perspective, director Matteo Garrone assumes the role of passive observer, allowing the everyday horrors of the area to unfold with no filtering. While “Gomorra lacks the violent thrills of standard mafia films, its impact, nevertheless, is numbing, harrowing and much more revealing than you might initially think.
4) The Dark Knight
There’s nothing left to be said about the $1 billion grossing blockbuster. “The Dark Knight is a Hollywood production conceived by the fine artistic brushstrokes of indie wunderkind Christopher Nolan. Gritty, violent and excessively dark, the sequel to “Batman Begins is less of a comic adaption and more of a crime thriller with a deeply flawed protagonist who crosses the fine line between crime fighter and vigilante. Heath Ledger is phenomenal as the sadistically charismatic Joker; intense, pitiless and devilishly smart. If “Jesse James lays bare the inane nature of American heroism, “The Dark Knight completely disintegrates it.
3) Secret of the Grain
Abdellatif Kechiche’s surprise Cesar winner for best film is a far cry from, say, classic chic French films. Kechiche follows the recently laid-off patriarch of a large Tunisian immigrant family as he attempts to open up a Couscous restaurant and find his place in a land he’s yet to fit in. Part comparative examination of two immigrant generations, part an intricate story of failed masculinity and estrangement, the greatest asset of Kechiche’s little masterpiece though is the tiny details of the family’s arguments, conversations and habits he impeccably captures. The particular language they forged along the years is perhaps the best indication of the new identity they’ve grown to assume, an identity the French native might finally be ready to accept.
2) Tie: No Country for Old Men and Atonement
The two can’t be any different. The first, winner of the 2008 best picture Oscar, is a tense, nerve-wrecking and exceedingly nihilistic thriller that ranks among the most perfect films of the decade. The second is a period love story about the curse of subjective perception and the redemptive power of writing. Each touch upon something inherent in the human soul: “No Country taps into our intrinsic attraction to violence (personified by Javier Bardem, one of cinema’s most terrifying villains) and the death of righteousness. “Atonement, on the other hand, is a reminder of how happiness is temporary and fragile. It’s also a film that strikes deep, personal emotions that are almost impossible to explain.
1) There Will be Blood
It begins with a silent 15-minute sequence of a lone man dig for oil and ends with a slaughter. In between, Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a minimalistic epic about the two fundamental building blocks of America: Capitalism and religion. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the century as Daniel Plainview, a monstrous, misanthropic oilman.