Anti-Fantasy | Movie Review | Chicago Reader


By and large, the best films of 2008 kept it real.

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Looking back on the year in movies beats the hell out of looking back on the year in money. By mid-December, according to the New York Times, 2.8 million Americans had lost their jobs in 2008, and the Federal Reserve was predicting that by the end of the year home foreclosures would total 2.25 million. Some 46 million of us have no health insurance, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 28 million are relying on food stamps—an all-time high—and the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that hunger and homelessness are rising in most big cities. And the coming year looks even worse: economists are predicting that as many as one in nine Americans will find themselves out of work in 2009. People at the top of the ladder can dicker all they like over whether this is the second coming of the Great Depression or just a long, deep recession; for people at the bottom, it's just a matter of semantics.

Of course the Great Depression turned out to be a rich period for American movies, and, not surprisingly, money was a major preoccupation. In escapist comedies like Lady for a Day (1933), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Easy Living (1937), poor people found themselves catapulted by chance events into the world of wealth and leisure. That fairy-tale ethos is alive and well in Danny Boyle's British import Slumdog Millionaire, an art-house smash in the U.S. that looks to be 2008's Little Miss Sunshine—the small movie that muscles its way into the Oscar ranks alongside the privileged big-studio projects. In Slumdog, a poor young man becomes an overnight sensation on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and each quiz question triggers a flashback to his grim past as an orphan on the streets of Mumbai. I'm not as gaga over the film as most of my peers —it didn't even make my top 25—but I can see the allure of a movie where the deserving hero gets the girl and 20 million rupees and the end credits are intercut with a dance number reminiscent of Busby Berkeley.

Along with the boom in social fantasy, the Depression also produced a boom in social realism, with harsh dramas like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Dead End (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Their artistic heir in 2008 was Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, my favorite film of the year, which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October and opens at the Music Box at the end of this month. Played with affecting quiet and depth by Michelle Williams, Wendy has no job, no home, and no family she can rely on. With her beloved mutt, Lucy, she's headed to Alaska on the vague promise of finding work at a fishery when her '88 Honda Accord dies, stranding her in a small Oregon town with a few hundred bucks to her name. Trapped by poverty and weighing every dollar, she's a young female version of the Forgotten Man of 30s folklore.

Wendy and Lucy was shot in 18 days on a microbudget of $300,000, which Reichardt got from a single investor. And when I look over the rest of my list, I'm taken by how many of my favorites—Frownland, Frozen River, The Visitor, At the Death House Door—were likewise made on modest to minuscule budgets. Unfortunately, the economic downturn will likely mean less independent financing for adventurous films like these—gone are the days when hedge-fund investors were flush with cash and looking to get into the movie biz. That makes it even more important to buy a ticket for something like Wendy and Lucy, so that, unlike its protagonist, it doesn't slip through the cracks.

Following are my other nine favorite films that premiered in Chicago between January 1 and December 31, 2008, plus 15 honorable mentions and my genre picks for the year:

2) The Visitor This small, perfect indie by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) considers the emotional boundaries we guard so carefully as individuals and the political boundaries we police so fearfully as a nation. Richard Jenkins will probably be overlooked at Oscar time so the industry can flatter its megawatt players (Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Philip Seymour Hoffman), but he gave one of the year's most measured and affecting performances as a widowed academic who begins to heal after he's befriended by an illegal immigrant from Syria.

3) At the Death House Door A man of compassion and conscience, Presbyterian minister Carroll J. Pickett spent 15 years as chaplain of the state prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he counseled and prayed with 95 inmates on their way to the death chamber. This harrowing Kartemquin documentary by Steve James and Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams) draws on the library of audiotapes that Pickett, now a vocal opponent of capital punishment, recorded over the years to document his impressions of the condemned in their last hours. Among them was Carlos De Luna, whose guilt was persuasively disputed in a three-part investigative report by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley in the Chicago Tribune. At the Death House Door is showing this Tuesday, January 6, at 6:45 PM on the Independent Film Channel.

4) There Will Be Blood I still can't believe No Country for Old Men stole the Oscar away from Paul Thomas Anderson's epic drama about capitalism (Daniel Day-Lewis as a ruthless oil baron) and Christianity (Paul Dano as a scheming young evangelist) fighting for primacy in the early 20th century. "I drink your milkshake," indeed.

5) Happy-Go-Lucky Only Nixon could go to China, and only Mike Leigh, the British miserabilist who made the shattering Vera Drake and All or Nothing, could make a comedy as substantial as this one. In a role that's deservedly generating some Oscar buzz, Sally Hawkins plays an irrepressibly cheery schoolteacher in north London whose positive attitude elevates her above the petty problems of those around her. The movie is royally entertaining but also pointedly philosophical, asking whether the happiness we all claim to seek might already be well within our grasp.

6) The Edge of Heaven Born in Hamburg to Turkish immigrants, writer-director Fatih Akin has spent much of his career pondering his culture in relation to his parents'. This masterful drama takes his preoccupation to a more profound level, equating nationality with the inseparable bond between parent and child. Its two linked stories involve a young man shamed by his father's act of violence and an old woman helpless to prevent her daughter's folly; when these two characters meet over coffee at the end, their pain is remarkably similar.

7) Standard Operating Procedure If, as many have urged, the Obama administration establishes a truth commission to investigate U.S. war crimes, Errol Morris's documentary on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal should be Exhibit A. Focusing on and synchronizing the digital photos taken by four soldiers at the prison, Morris not only reconstructs the events more clearly than any other news report but exposes how the photos themselves, and the PR fiasco they created, were more important to the military than the torture they documented.

8) Frownland A natural counterpoint to Happy-Go-Lucky, this no-budget 16-millimeter indie by Ronald Bronstein subjects us to Keith (Dore Mann), a neurotic, manipulative, stridently unlovable New Yorker whose pitiless roommate aptly describes him, to his face, as "a burbling troll in his underwear." Like its protagonist the film is difficult to watch, but it's even more difficult to forget, asking us to locate the limits of our humanity.

9) Boy A Child criminals often provoke a hysterical reaction from the public, not because they're more dangerous than adult criminals—quite the contrary—but because they offend our cherished notion of childhood as a time of innocence. Based on the notorious 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger by a couple of ten-year-old truants in Merseyside, England, this drama by John Crowley follows a teenager as he's released from prison for a murder he committed as a boy and tries to rejoin humanity under an assumed name. Eventually he comes to understand that, in order to be himself, he must take possession of what he's done. His coming-of-age is awful, but also, in a way, quite ordinary.

10) Frozen River Guillaume Canet's French thriller Tell No One, distributed by Chicago's Music Box Films, became the sleeper hit of the summer with its crafty recycling of Hitchcock's man-on-the-run theme. But Frozen River, the debut feature from writer-director Courtney Hunt, generates even more suspense by rooting its story in the cold, hard realities of poverty in America. Melissa Leo stars as a working-poor mother in upstate New York whose mounting financial problems push her into a gig smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada to the U.S. across the frozen Saint Lawrence River. Will she escape crashing through the ice into the frigid waters below? Will any of us?

Honorable Mention

Lakeview Terrace, Chop Shop, Redbelt, Changeling, The Dark Knight, Mister Foe, Rachel Getting Married, Yella, In Bruges, The Secret of the Grain, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, Trouble the Water, Taxi to the Dark Side, Woman on the Beach

Best Horror Movie Let the Right One In. Runners-up: Teeth, Fear(s) of the Dark, The Strangers.

Best Music Movie U2 3D.

Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy The Fall. Runners-up: WALL-E, Timecrimes.

Best Thriller Tell No One. Runner-up: London to Brighton.

Best Comedy Kenny. Runners-up: Burn After Reading, Role Models.v


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