1. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
There's no question that Hou is one of the most important filmmakers of the last 25 years as well as being one of my personal favorites, but Balloon is the first film I've seen by him that's less than essential. The filmmaker's technical mastery has never been more evident - witness the astonishing dexterity with which he and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing maneuver around the central apartment during the film's final set-piece; as the principal characters scream at each other and a blind piano tuner toils away, the camera surveys the action in a single-fixed take, taking in the activity with a measured glance, while maintaining a sense of the setting as an utterly coherent space - but something else is lost. If each of Hou's previous features managed to capture some essential correspondence between the film's total environment and the figures that populate it - the alternating languors and sudden bursts of motion experienced by the petty gangsters drifting through Goodbye South, Goodbye, the insistent throb of the techno beat that defines the young couple's lives in Millennium Mambo - then Balloon fails to achieve the same knowing intimacy. With the settings lacking the fullness of lived-in spaces, there's a certain sketchiness to the whole thing, a sense of the film's world as ultimately static and lifeless. Which is not to say that Hou's given us an unpleasant two hours of film - far from it - but working with a Parisian setting, the framework of Albert Lamorisse's kiddie-flick classic and Juliette Binoche, and despite the general critical raves, I can't have been the only person who expected more.
2. The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat)
Breillat's highly regarded Cannes-hit lives and, unfortunately, dies on the lead performance of Asia Argento. As the spurned mistress of young dandy Ryno de Marigny, Argento pants, huffs and screams her way to glory, haunting her youthful lover even as he marries another woman and leaves for the country. I know there's a growing cult around Argento, but count me among the non-believers. Yes, she's fierce and feisty, but with her limited powers of expression, it all seems like so much self-conscious schtick. And of her three performances to hit screens this year (Boarding Gate and Mother of Tears being the others), her role in Breillat's film seems the most locked in to the Argento formula. She's "fearless" (i.e. not afraid to take charge in racy sex scenes), "intractable" (she scowls a lot), but she fails to convincingly convey the loneliness and desperation beneath her character's boiling exterior and her performance never moves beyond tiresome wild-child posturing. The thought of Breillat bringing her own fierce sensibility to the traditionally staid province of the "period piece" proved intriguing, but given her choice of lead actress, her project never really had a chance.
3. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
3. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
The buzz from Cannes was that we had a masterpiece on our hands. And as a big admirer of Reygadas' Battle in Heaven, who was I to doubt it? But when I finally saw Silent Light during its weeklong run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I found a film that was as visually ravishing as anticipated, but that was very difficult to engage on any human level. An aesthetic marvel, given Reygadas' and cinematographer Alexis Zabe's reaching for (and frequent attaining of) visual transcendence - never more so than in an opening time-lapse shot that takes in the change from a night sky to a sun-streaked morning - as well as a sophisticated aural design, the film's treatment of its central character's spiritual crisis is rendered with far less understanding. A married man living in a reclusive Mennonite community in Mexico, Johan falls in love with another woman, prompting feelings of guilt and sadness, but Reygadas seems little interested in engaging fully with the man's emotional conflicts nor in exploring the ramifications of an unquestioned faith suddenly confronted with the realities of life. Instead we get a lot of pretty shots framing the impassive protagonist against an indifferent, if lovely, nature and a narrative that stretches on well past the breaking point.
4. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
I don't know what I was expecting from Nolan's lavishly praised summer blockbuster, but after all the superlatives showered on the film from sources both high and low, and some particularly outrageous claims made on its behalf, I was ready to believe that the film had reinvented cinema as we know it. After all, as Josh Tyler of Cinemablend infamously remarked, "it has already changed the way we think about movies forever." When I finally caught up with Knight after its December DVD release, it not only failed to change the way I think about film (though the movie's critical response did provide an instructive lesson in the dangers of enforced consensus), I didn't even find it to be passable as Summer entertainment. Granted, I'm not a particular fan of the superhero picture, but Knight struck me as particularly inept. As visually uninspired as any movie I've seen in 2008 (the film intentionally eschews the noir aesthetic of previous entries in the series, but doesn't replace it with anything worth looking at), featuring two unappealing central performances (Bale's far too wooden, Ledger's far too self-consciously manic), and overlaid with some half-hearted bids for contemporary relevance that don't represent so much an engagement with our morally compromised times as a superficial attempt to add some ethical heft to a dispensable entertainment, Nolan's film amounts to a particularly unpleasant 2 1/2 hours of cinemagoing. If, as Tyler contends, The Dark Knight is "the new mold from which all future movies will be poured," then we're in some very serious trouble indeed.
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
Again, I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from this Eric Roth-scripted picture, but after it became something of a cinephile rallying point, mostly due to Fincher's alleged visual felicities, my interest was at least mildly piqued. And to some degree the Zodiac director does manage to counterbalance the schmaltz factor inherent in the Forrest Gump scribe's screenplay. When Roth saddles the director with a too-cute recurring character, an old coot who shows up every so often to remind us he was struck by lightning seven times, Fincher takes this as an opportunity for visual invention, illustrating each of the seven instances in a series of early silents-style tableaux. But apart from a lovely, understated middle section in which Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton meet cute (but not too cute) at a Russian hotel, sneaking off for late-night chats in the lobby which quietly turn into lovemaking sessions, Button seems too invested in its own slathered-on sentiment - whether in the Gumpian platitudes that constitute Pitt's voiceover narration or the silly framing device which brings the story up to the present day (to encompass, yes, Hurricane Katrina) - for the film to resonate with all but the least jaded viewer. Someday, we'll properly interrogate our essential distrust of sentiment - as a device, it's no less inherently dishonest than the calculated cynicism that we've come to accept unthinkingly - but however much my tastes may have been shaped by a skeptical cultural climate, Button lays it on more than a little thick. Which might be forgivable if the character at the film's center were anything but a complete cipher, but as it is, the film's overly precious final act is enough to dissipate any aesthetic goodwill that Fincher may so far have generated.