The most remarkable films of 2008 were small, smart, and complicated. While they’re surely worth seeking out for their own pleasures, they also represent the sort of movies that will find theatrical releases even harder to manage in the shrinking economy.
Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water introduces Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott, who describe themselves as “from New Orleans, the Ninth Ward, underwater.” She contributes her home-video footage of Hurricane Katrina and astute commentary to a documentary that reveals not only the terrors of the storm and its aftermath but also the political and personal valences of their legendary mismanagement.
Also considering catastrophic vulnerability, Wendy and Lucy, directed by Kelly Reichardt, picks up Wendy (a perfect Michelle Williams) in rural Oregon. Journeying in her 1988 Honda from Muncie to Alaska in search of work, she keeps her cash in a belt under her shirt, determined to keep moving. Her car dies and, worse, she loses her dog Lucy. She fills out forms at the pound, puts up flyers, spends a frightening night in the park, where she’s accosted by a wanderer (Larry Fesenden). His complaint — “I’m just trying to be a good boy, but they won’t let me, they treat me like trash, like I ain’t got no rights” — expresses the frustrations Wendy’s become too sad to say. That she has no words to describe her predicament, and no solutions, only underscores the exposure to elements she embodies, elements ranging from economic and social to political and spiritual.
Likewise, Lance Hammer’s Ballast offers a deeply felt, almost impressionistic plot, punctuated by remarkable performances. Beginning with a dead man, then a suicide attempt by his twin Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith), it follows his slow return to connected life, with his 12-year-old nephew James (JimMyron Ross) and the boy’s mother, Marlee (Tara Riggs). Set against a bleak Mississippi Delta landscape, the film refuses closure in favor of a desolate sort of hope.
Let the Right One In (Lat den ratte komma in), Tomas Alfredson’s austere childhood saga, is set in a snowy Stockholm suburb. Here 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) befriends the new kid in his apartment complex, Eli (Lina Leandersson), only to discover she’s a vampire. This is both horrifying and welcome, as he’s working through his own identity. A bullies’ victim at school, suddenly he sees self-assertion in its most devastating form.
Other sorts of monstrosities appear in Waltz with Bashir (opening in Philadelphia in 2009). Directed by Ari Folman, this documentary contemplates the very process of remembering. Trying to recover his own repressed experience as a young soldier during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the film features audio interviews over animated images, talking heads and subjective renderings of the traumas they’re describing, in particular the massacre of Palestinians by Christian militias aligned with Israel. The film’s closing photos of the bodies underscores the limits of representation, in war and survival.
Nerakhoon (The Betrayal) investigates war as it shapes generations. Over 18 years, brilliant cinematographer and first time director Ellen Kuras worked with her subject and co-editor Thavisouk Phrasavath, a refugee from Laos whose family was torn apart by U.S. invasions, promises, and betrayals. Thavi’s mother moves him and his many siblings to Brooklyn when the Pathet Lao take away his father. “I run between what I remember and what is forgotten,” Thavi says, “searching for the story of our people whose truth has not been told.”
Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure reflects on the elusiveness of truth from another angle. Taking the scandal at Abu Ghraib as a point of departure, the documentary investigates photographic “evidence,” how photos tell stories, present “reality,” and support particular versions of history. The movie is less interested in the crimes or participants than in how the crimes were defined by images and redefined in language — legal, political, and hyper-mediated.
Operation Filmmaker follows Muthana Mohmed, hired by Liev Schreiber as a PA for Everything is Illuminated. In Prague, he faces a slew of expectations and ambitions, only some of them his own. Nina Davenport’s film soon shifts focus from Muthana to documentaries per se, the blurred lines between maker and interviewee, observation and intervention.
Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’ Full Battle Rattle observes training in Medina Wasl, a fake Iraqi village in California’s Mojave Desert, circa 2006. Here Iraqi actors are given character backgrounds (dead or displaced relatives, political ambitions), then instructed to interact with U.S. troops. It exposes inherent tensions for Iraqis working for the Army, caught between the simulation and the war.
A mix of memoir, history, and fever dream, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is a-swirl with snow, sleepwalkers, hockey players, and re-enacted family dramas, punctuated by dizzying intertitles (“Magnetic!”, “Arteries!”, “Home!”). His docufantasia is weird and utterly mesmerizing, a reminder that categories are feeble ways to make sense of experiences.
Honorable mentions include Werner Herzog’s unforgettable Encounters at the End of the World, a personal record of people he meets in Antarctica (sample comment from our guide: “I loathe the sun both on my celluloid and on my skin”); Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a film equally cerebral and corporeal, illuminating Bobby Sands’ experience in the Maze Prison outside Belfast, Northern Ireland; JCVD, directed by Mabrouk El Mechri and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, a smart, poetic meditation on stardom and morality; Margaret Brown’s documentary on segregated rituals for Mardi Gras, The Order of Myths; and Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtzee, a lyrical, troubling contemplation of the intersections of environmental and social changes in China.