Outside the Lines - The Top 20 International/Indie Films of 2008

by PopMatters Staff

14 January 2009

With many indie/international films receiving more and more mainstream approval from unfamiliar audiences, many of the titles here could be considered part of the overall 2008 Best Of. But their individuality and multicultural appeal keep them a quality concept apart.

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Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)

Director: Ari Folman
Cast: Ari Folman, Ori Sivan, Roni Dayg, Ron Ben-Yisahi, Dror Harazi, Zahava Solomon

(Sony Pictures Classics)
US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 21 Nov 2008 (General release)

Review [23.Jan.2009]


Waltz with Bashir Ari Folman

Ari Folman’s singular animated documentary, charting his reawakened memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, felt plenty relevant when I first saw the film at a festival screening in early October. But now, in the early days of 2009, Waltz appears eerily prophetic, or at least disturbingly in-step with present-tense developments it could’ve only half-anticipated. It’s far from a perfect film, and I retain reservations concerning Folman’s audacious aesthetic, but it’s unmistakably vital where too many other movies exist as mere diversions. Josh Timmermann

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Summer Hours

L’Heure d’été,
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond

(MK2 Productions)
US theatrical: 1 Oct 2008


Summer Hours Olivier Assayas

Death brings out the worst in families, especially when there’s a healthy inheritance to be considered and divvied up. Olivier Assayas’ latest film focuses on the Berthier clan, and an impromptu reunion to hash out and haggle over their late matriarch’s massive estate. Dealing headfirst with questions of respect, tradition, and legacy, the fascinating film also focuses on the heft of history, since some of the legacy centers on a collection of museum pieces by a famous dead uncle. In clipped, civil conversations, the characters reveal motive as the standard separations between remembrance and reality seep in. Unlike his previous efforts, Assayas wows us with his naturalistic, unassuming approach. It makes the interpersonal paradigm shifts all the more mesmerizing. Bill Gibron

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Director: Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Sun Hong-Lei, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren

US theatrical: 6 Jun 2008 (Limited release)


Mongol Sergei Bodrov

Director Sergei Bodrov uses the landscape of Kazakhstan and northwestern China to great effect in Mongol. From high desert steppes to endless prairies to towering pine forests, the gorgeous scenery is a character unto itself in Bodrov’s Genghis Khan origin story. But Mongol has a lot more going for it than just the sumptuous cinematography. Its story twists and turns compellingly, as young Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano) bounces back and forth between leader and slave, always chasing or being chased by his beautiful wife Börte (Khulan Chuluun). Temudjin’s loyalties constantly shift as he grows, and it all culminates in an amazing battle for control of the fledgling Mongol hordes. Through it all, Asano gives an intense, layered performance while the striking Chuluun matches him scene for scene. Chris Conaton

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Up the Yangtze

Director: Yung Chang
Cast: Jerry Bo Yu Chen, Campbell Ping He, Cindy Shui Yu

(Eye Steel Film)
US theatrical: 25 Apr 2008


Up the Yangtze Yung Chang

When one hears about the “changing face of China”, thoughts automatically turn to money, power, and the last bastion of Communist oppression. In Yung Chang’s brilliant documentary, we witness the final stages of construction on the Three Gorges Dam and realize that many small villages peppering the bank will soon be swallowed up when the river is finally conquered—and with them, a lot of the country’s tired traditions. On a cruise ship taking a final tour of the area, Chang meets a pair of new employees—capitalist convert Bo Yu Chen and transplanted peasant Shui Yu. Soon the story moves from a travelogue to a telling look at how technology and the influence of the West have worked into the very fabric of China’s old world culture. It’s an amazing, moving discovery. Bill Gibron

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Silent Light

Stellet licht
Director: Carlos Reygadas
Cast: Cornelio Wall, Maria Pankratz, Miriam Toewsr, Peter Wall, Jacobo Klassen, Elizabeth Fehr

(Mantarraya Producciones)
US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008


Silent Light Carlos Reygadas

It’s not hard to see why Carlos Reygadas’ third feature has been such a magnet for extravagant, near-universal critical praise since its Cannes debut. Not only is it a powerful, exquisitely realized drama, it’s also chock-full of purposeful allusions to some of cinema’s most significant (and critically worshipped) figures. Dreyer’s magnificent Ordet is the most direct and obvious point of reference, but there’s also healthy doses of Bergman’s spiritual turmoil, Tarkovsky’s glacial pacing, Ozu’s intuitive handling of family dynamics, Malick’s ethereal eye toward nature, and—as a sort of Breaking the Waves in reverse—Von Trier’s stone-faced, uneasy combination of religion with sex (specifically adultery) in the mix here. Silent Light is composed largely as a series of visual, thematic, and semiotic rhymes—including the spectacular opening shot of a sunrise and its natural opposite as the denouement—suggesting a deliberate order to the universe that its Mennonite characters would most certainly affirm. Reygadas, like most of the Great Names mentioned earlier, doesn’t seem quite so sure. His faith is in cinema, which is exactly where it should be. Josh Timmermann

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Wendy and Lucy

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Patton, John Robinson, Will Oldham, Larry Fessenden

(Oscilloscope Laboratories)
US theatrical: 10 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (Limited release)

Review [7.May.2009]
Review [12.Dec.2008]


Wendy and Lucy Kelly Reichardt

A cool green breeze of a film, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy drops a downbeat Michelle Williams into a small town as a near-penniless drifter who can’t get her car started, and watches her slowly come apart when she loses her dog. The camera is emotive and pitiless, giving little hint as to what she’s running from, but making it clear that she’s on her last legs. Like Reichardt’s first film, Old Joy, this is classic indie Americana, blue-collar and practical but still shot through with a keen spirituality, and utterly shorn of mumblecore affectations or even a hint of condescension. Chris Barsanti

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A Christmas Tale

Director: Arnold Desplechin
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Anne Consigny, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto

(IFC Films)
US theatrical: 14 Nov 2008 (General release)

Review [15.Dec.2009]


A Christmas Tale Arnaud Desplechin

As if the holidays weren’t psychologically damaging enough—celebrated French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin has decided to take on the formulaic dysfunctional family festivities from a perspective that mixes magic with misery. Featuring a stellar cast of celebrated countrymen—Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni—and focusing on the always unspoken secrets of a clan on the verge of their 19th nervous breakdown, this is a dramedy that uses such contentious ideas as a puppet show to discuss a tragic backstory and a less than linear narrative to get his deeper emotional points across. Both praised and criticized, there is no denying the inherent motion picture enchantment in what Desplechin creates here. Bill Gibron

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Momma’s Man

Director: Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Matt Boren, Ken Jacobs, Richard Edson, Piero Arcilesi

(Artists Public Domain)
US theatrical: 18 Jan 2008

Review [13.May.2009]


Momma’s Man Azazel Jacobs

What a strange little film Azazel Jacobs has made—a charming yet unsettling glimpse into the life of Mikey, husband and father, who returns to his parents’ Manhattan loft for business and can’t bring himself to leave. The warmth with which Jacobs approaches the character’s regression toward a sort of mental childhood is striking, and yet without a touch of sentimentality. Instead, no-budget realism abounds: Jacobs casts his own parents, in whose cluttered, Bohemian-style loft the film takes place. Momma’s Man feels more like life than cinema: there is no climax, there is no heavy-handed judgment; there is only a refreshingly nuanced sketch of a character and his quiet internal crisis. Zach Schonfeld

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Boy A

Director: John Crowley
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Peter Mullan, Katie Lyons, Shaun Evans

(Weinstein Company)
US theatrical: 23 Jul 2008 (Limited release)

Review [23.Jul.2008]


Boy A John Crowley

A young boy takes part in a vicious crime. In the sensational trial he is named only as “Boy A” by the slavering tabloid media. Years later, the boy (the superlative Andrew Garfield) leaves prison a skittish young man with a new identity, a job, and a father-like parole officer (Peter Mullan, also fantastic) to ease him into adulthood. John Crowley’s little-seen but humane and utterly indelible drama follows what happens when Boy A’s fractured psyche tries to adapt to a world that’s moved on without him. Chris Barsanti

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Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)

Director: Fatih Akin
Cast: Nurgul Yesilcay, Baki Davrak, Tuncel Kurtiz, Hanna Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkowska


Review [15.Dec.2008]


The Edge of Heaven Fatih Akin

Fatih Akin’s previous film, 2004’s excellent Head-On, was a story of two people drawn together, and apart, by something like fate. His latest multi-cultural mosaic triples the number of key players and unequivocally axes the “something like”. When, at times, The Edge of Heaven veers dangerously into Iñárritu territory, with its intricately calculated intersecting plot threads, it’s redeemed by the real gravitas that Akin and his stellar cast lend the material. While the director meditates on both his German citizenship and his Turkish heritage, the ghost of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is purposefully omnipresent, right down to the inclusion of Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla as a grieving mother attempting to atone for lost time. Josh Timmermann

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