The Best Movies of 2008 (Most of which I didn't actually see)

Sydney Smith once observed, “I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices one so.” As a rule, I do watch the movies before reviewing them; though when it comes to the big Hollywood productions anymore, I wonder how necessary my principle is. So many of them have been made to order according to market-tested formulas, that seeing who’s in them, knowing their genre, and having watched their trailer are sufficient conditions for passing a pretty accurate judgment. Add to that having read a review of the movie by a critic whose taste you consistently agree or disagree with, and actually spending two hours in the movie theater has been rendered superfluous—unless you enjoy that kind of thing.

ElegyNaturally, I couldn’t have predicted the fine excesses of my favorite movies of this year. For instance, Isabel Coixet’s Elegy has a scene in which Penelope Cruz appears in an alluring pose completely naked. But it stirred no lust in me because her character had been so deeply humanized by that point. Earlier in the movie, a poet played by Dennis Hopper declares that beautiful women are invisible to men, for desire blurs who they really are. But for a few precious moments, the fog of Eros had been dispelled, and I saw, through tears, Penelope Cruz’s character as an irreplaceable soul fastened, as we all are, to a dying animal. Even if seven trusted friends had told me in advance that I was going to weep anything but tears of joy for her naked flesh, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Likewise, I would have called you crazy had you told me the most beautifully human movie of the year was going to be a computer-animated tale of a lonely trash compactor. But I was entranced by the opening half-hour of Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, in which a robot, whom the last humans on earth forgot to turn off, sifts through the detritus of a wasted civilization, handling things like plastic spoons with loving care and thrilling to an old tape of Hello, Dolly! As you surely already know, Wall-E falls for an Apple product named Eve, and their love restores the human adventure on Earth.

Iowa City is still one of Earth’s beautiful places for any number of reasons: one of them isn’t its movie scene. Though the memory is a shifty faculty prone to the invention of golden ages, I vividly remember one night in the late eighties when I looked down East Washington Street and saw the gorgeous, glowing marquis of the Astro advertising Enemies: A Love Story right across from the gorgeous, glowing marquis of the Englert playing Crimes and Misdemeanors. If I had turned around, I might have been able to tell you what was playing at the Campus Theaters in the Old Capitol Mall. But last year’s snows have melted. We live under a new dispensation run by someone or something named Marcus. We still, thankfully, have the Bijou, where on a medium-sized screen we can see good movies nine months after every other movie-lover in the country has had their way with them. Other than that, the role of art-house has fallen to the Sycamore Cinema 12.

As we reflect on the past year, let’s bear witness to the best movies we haven’t seen. Rather than review them without prejudice, I’ll follow the practice of the ancients, who, as Ezra Pound reports, left blanks in their writings for the things they didn’t know. Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky: a superb, depressing moviemaker has made a happy movie, which hasn’t lit up our screens. Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona: only about every fifth Woody Allen comes here anymore. Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married: hardly an obscure movie; surely this must be coming. Jia Zhangke’s 24 City: I’ve heard respectable people claim he’s the most exciting director currently working; I wouldn’t know. Alex Holdridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss: technically this came out in 2007, but only at a few festivals; it got so popular it played all over the country—except here. Ari Forman’s Waltz with Bashir: an animated documentary about the 1982 Lebanese War: what can you predict about this movie? Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories, a well-regarded independent film we’ll probably see at the Bijou in nine months. Laurent Cantet’s The Class. Ramin Bharani’s Chop Shop. Tarsem’s The Fall.

I have high hopes we will eventually get Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road, which features the obscure talents of Leonardio DiCaprio, Kate Winslett, and Kathy Bates. Oh, I’d better bring this dispiriting list to a close (the holidays can bring out the worst in people). In case you’re wondering, Elegy never came here either. I saw it in Chicago.

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