Ten years ago I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is a lovely enough city but at the time boasted only a handful of cineplexes with all of them playing very-much the same thing. I had only just discovered Netflix DVDs (remember those) owing to the fact that I had only recently come out of a college-induced bubble and was still in the infancy of venturing to new cinematic horizons. Video streaming had also only just been introduced opening up exciting new possibilities for my budding film education. All this to say that when I started perusing the “Best-Of” lists for 2008, I came across a slew of titles that intrigued me at the time and were quickly added to my watchlists but very quickly got supplanted either by the next big blockbuster playing in the cineplex or by the latest movie rabbit hole I found myself running down into.
One of the best things that I have loved about doing a 10-Year Anniversary project like this (or the 20-year and 30-year projects I intend to do later this year) is that it gives me a chance to circle back to those movies that have sat on my watchlist unwatched for close to ten years. The exercise has been a wonderful indictment on my procrastination as this sojourn to the movies I’ve missed from 2008 has been one of my best:
WENDY AND LUCY (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
When we encounter Wendy (Michelle Williams) we know very little about her except that she is not from around here (“here” being a town in Oregon) and she’s on her way with her pooch Lucy to try and get work at a fishery in Ketchikan, Alaska. All we know about her is that her car has broken down in this town, she is a few hundred dollars away from homelessness, and she’s out of dog food. This is very little for us as a filmgoer to go by, and yet it is testament to Williams’ magnetic performance that we intimately know this woman in this snapshot of her life. Director Kelly Reichardt also is a master of simply letting scenes breathe so that we have more than enough time to gaze at Wendy’s increasingly forlorn yet always hopeful face as she is in the middle of her desperate journey to get to her promised land before the bottom drops out. Made just before the bottom fell out of the American economy in 2008, the movie ends up being a prophetic portrait of an America who were about to suffer the worst effects of the Great Recession and the emergence of the gig economy. Yet Reichardt is not interested in making big sweeping points about the immorality of the big banks and the politicians who allowed this to happen. She is instead interested in the people who suffer and the strength they have to carry through. Reichardt’s compassion for this woman left behind is clearly evident, and it is more than enough to make the movie compelling to watch.
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER (dir. Kurt Keunne)
The movie begins with a tragedy: The director Kurt Keunne’s childhood friend Dr. Andrew Bagby is murdered by his estranged girlfriend who announces that she is pregnant with her child when she is arrested. Perplexed, angry, and bewildered, Keunne decides to create this documentary as a video diary for Bagby’s unborn son about who his father was. And so the early moments of this film play as a lighthearted and breezy catalogue of Andrew Bagby. Even when Keunne shifts to focusing on the murder, the investigation, and the trial, the documentary takes on a slick true-crime documentary not unlike Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. And then the story takes an even more tragic turn, and it hits you like a gut punch. While there is a little part of me that wants to be mad at Keunne for the almost bait-and-switch he pulls where the truly horrific and tragic part of this story is masked so well by the movie’s presentation, another part of me fully understands why he did so. This is a project he started to memorialize his childhood friend, to leave for his unborn son and to give his parents some closure. Nobody could have anticipated the turn the story ultimately takes and Keunne is clearly struggling to process the event – his slick presentation seems to be an understandable coping mechanism. Because this movie will leave you upset. I had to walk away from the movie for a few days and force myself to come back and finish it. Needless to say it is not for the faint of heart, and if you have any sort of heart this documentary is going to leave you in tears and wreck you for a couple of days.
STILL WALKING (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
There is a bittersweet tension that accompanies every adult homecoming in that there is some genuine joy in seeing your family in one place again but there is trepidation because with that comes memories of old wounds and the grim realization that though each and every one of you have grown up and become different people, it is almost impossible not to see each other as the people we once were. The family reunion movie in America is usually a melodrama filled with loud outbursts and eventual cathartic resolutions. Most of these movies also turn out to be wish-fulfilment fantasies, echoing things we wish we could say to our families but dare not to for obvious reasons.
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s humanist family reunion however, he is wise enough to know that most family reunions aren’t about airing dirty laundry – they are about repressing old hurts and keeping our real issues beneath the surface. In this case the family trauma is a truly deep one: twelve years ago Junpei, the oldest and most beloved son, drowned while trying to save a life and the family gathers every year to remember him. The second son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) despises the reunion because he has the firm suspicion that his parents secretly wish he had been the one to drown instead of Junpei. He has with him in tow his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukama), a widow with a young son, who is meeting Ryota’s family for the first time and is filled with the anxiety of trying to fit into the larger family dynamic while also being fiercely protective of her son. The family patriarch Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) is a retired physician, finding little purpose now that his job has been taken away, and disapproves of the fact that Ryota didn’t become a physician himself. Meanwhile Ryota’s mother Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) busies herself with preparing food and going through the memorial rituals, her gentility masking her deep grief and anger. His sister Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) meanwhile acts as quiet peacekeeper – she intimately knows the minefield of her family dynamics and bends over backwards trying to defuse them. Only the children in this story seem oblivious or to the obvious discomfort of the day as they play with one another, happy to see each other again.
When the man who was saved by Junpei comes to pay his respects to the family, as he has every year, Ryota’s parents barely-held contempt threatens to leech out. They keep their manners long enough for him to walk out the door before they descend into a flurry of snide and cruel comments; it is obvious that they do not think him worthy of their son’s life and that he keeps getting invited year-after-year as passive-aggressive punishment for taking their son away from them. The episode affects Ryota greatly because he has felt the same discomfort of not quite being good enough for his own family.
It is at this juncture that we think there will be some cathartic outburst from Ryota, some public declaration of the injustice of being treated like the unwanted son, some comeuppance for parents who allowed their grief and disappointment to poison the lives of their remaining children. But none come, and this is because Kore-eda knows that this is not how you or I would react. There is no amount of words, no matter how cleverly spoken, that will take back the years of hurt and disappointment Ryota has faced. And it is clear that away from this setting, he has a life that he is happy with. Better to grin and bear it for one day a year and keep your dignity intact than to upset the apple cart.
HUNGER (dir. Steve McQueen)
Anyone who has only seen Michael Fassbender through his work as Magneto on X-Men or David in the Alien movies and can’t understand what the fuss is about has obviously never encountered his tour-de-force performance in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. Such is the power of his performance that he only shows up halfway through this prison drama about the 1981 Irish hunger strikes and yet so dominant is his performance that it is all I remember from the film. He plays Bobby Sands, an IRA volunteer who leads the prison hunger strike in a drama that cannot be described as anything but harrowing. Yet McQueen’s refuses to make this a political film about the merits, or lack of, of the NRA and the British. Instead he focuses in on the brutality of the prison that seems to dehumanize all involved in it through startling realism. There is the prison guards who find their enforcing of brutal and violent prison measures has an emotional toll. Then there are the prisoners themselves, who sit in rooms smeared with the own excrement in protest and are stripped of all vestiges of dignity. And finally there is Sands, who bravely through his hunger strike strips whatever moral argument anyone has for or against the cause away by his immense suffering. This is Fassbender’s film, and his performance is truly a sight to behold. There is a scene in the middle where he talks with a priest (it is a 15-minute scene) that represents some of the best acting I have ever seen while his final moments are simply harrowing as they are captivating. I doubt I will ever have the emotional energy to sit through this film again, but its power is going to undoubtedly linger for a long time.
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (dir. Mike Leigh)
Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a happy woman. She is not a happy woman in that she projects a sense of happiness while hiding a darker and more broken person within, but that her happiness seems genuine. And this bothers people. It bothers the surly bookstore clerk who she encounters with exuberance at the start of the movie. It bothers her sister who thinks Poppy need to take life seriously and give up her seeming childishness. Meanwhile her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan) bristles at her, taking her cheeriness for a complete lack of responsibility. Each one of them seems to echo a thought that all of us probably have: no one can be that happy. But she is not a mere ray of sunshine oblivious to the realities of life and flitting incompetently through it. At one point in her job as a schoolteacher she intervenes in a bullying incident but has the presence of mind to know that the bully is bullying because he is being abused himself and act accordingly. Later on, she strongly confronts Scott, who spews racist conspiracy theories and right wing propaganda all while treating her cruelly, but not in a fit of anger but with a gravity that stems from the fact that she is truly a happy and optimistic person. And there is perhaps nobody better suited to playing the role of Poppy than Sally Hawkins, who is able to navigate that tricky line of being happy without being fake, of having optimism without naivety, and of having kindness as a strength. She infuses every second she is onscreen with effervescence to the point that she almost shames me for the cynicism that keeps me from being that happy. Like with Mike Leigh’s Another Year, this movie is a wonderful little treatise of the beauty of being civil, kind, and good. It speaks to our times that this would be a revolutionary message.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (dir. Kim Jee-Woon)
Chang-Yi, a bandit, (“The Bad” played by Lee Byung-Hyun) is hired to steal a Japanese treasure map from a train. At the same time Tae-Go, a common thief, (“The Weird” played by Song Kang-Ho) unknowingly steals the same map while engaging in some petty theft and is pursued by Chang-Yi. Adding to the chaos is the bounty hunter Do-Won (“The Good” played by Jung Woo-Sung) who is in pursuit of Chang-Yi. Together the trio create a heart-pounding gonzo Korean western in which whatever plot the movie has serves purely to set up the next outlandish action set-piece culminating in a final battle that involves Chang-Yi and his crew, a gang of Manchurian bandits, Do-Won, and a battalion of the Japanese Army all in pursuit of Tae-Go as they race towards the treasure and snipe at each other in increasingly spectacular fashion. It is a pitch-perfect homage to the spaghetti western while maintaining a very Korean sense of humour to the proceedings, with the end result being a movie that is insanely fun from beginning to end even if there is barely any depth to the proceedings.
BRONSON (dir. Nicolas Wending Refn)
Two things become readily apparent when watching Bronson – a biography of a petty thief who turns into the most violent prisoner Charlie Bronson over three decades of solitary confinement. The first is that director Nicolas Wending Refn came out of the gate swinging for the fences as has not let out since. This approach has produced some great work (Drive) but also some ill-advised misses (Only God Forgives). Fortunately Bronson is more in line with the former as his virtuosic and completely unpredictable direction is as much a highlight as the mercurial titular character himself. He absolutely eviscerates the mediocre conventions of a biopic, and delivers one of the best biopics in memory that frequently ventures into the surreal in its almost balletic violence. One could argue that Refn’s direction is tailor-made in portraying the violent inner madness of Bronson. The second thing that becomes obvious is that as much accolades have been shoved in Tom Hardy’s path over the years for his performances, he remains criminally underrated. While this is not quite his debut, it is most certainly his coming-out party and what an explosive party it is. He is quite obviously the centre of this film, and his presence is magnetic, rendering all of his fellow actors positively ordinary in comparison to the unhinged Bronson. Bronson is not always the most easy movie to watch and the cycles of violence tend to blend into each other at some point, but it is never short of being absolutely riveting. And one more thing: the ending is truly one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.