Tag Archives: Paranoid Park

Best Movies of 2008


Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2008, with an additional 15 honorable mentions that could easily have made the best ten as well. This list has gone through many variations in recent weeks, as I’ve seen a few films more than once or some for the first time. But I’m quite satisfied with the final ten I’ve narrowed it down to. These are the films that thrilled me the most in 2008.

10) Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer): Ballast is a simple, life-affirming (in the true sense) film about how we pull our lives together after tragedy. It’s about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). A small, lyrical, beautifully photographed film.

9) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman): This is a crazy, brainy movie, loved and loathed by many. Similar in spirit and style to the films he’s written (especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), Synecdoche is truly Kauffman’s magnum opus.

8) Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt): This is a short, quick, devastating film. Reichardt follows Old Joy in theme and style, peering in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly menacing world.

7) Vicky Cristina Barcelona (dir. Woody Allen): The second really great film from Allen in 2008 (the other being Cassandra’s Dream), Barcelona is a sumptuous feast of elegant, polished, on-point filmmaking. Allen is a master of the craft, and this film is gorgeous, rewarding evidence of that fact.

6) Australia (dir. Baz Luhrmann):
I’m confounded by the paltry critical and popular response to this movie. I simply adored it. It’s a remarkably fun, beautiful, lush film with no pretensions of importance but a keen command of the craft. That is: the craft of outrageous, epic, old school Hollywood artifice that birthed everything from Gone With the Wind to Titanic. A joy to watch.

5) Flight of the Red Balloon (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien): Not for those who hate slow movies, because this is a very slow movie. But that is why I love it. It rushes for no one or no thing, and treats its subjects with the sort of delicate, curious gaze that is rarely seen in the post-Tony Scott era of attention-deprived cinema.

4) Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme):
A highly compelling, superbly acted assemblage of intimate, interpersonal moments. Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, and the whole cast offer a smorgasbord of stylish, humane acting. I think it might be my favorite wedding movie ever.

3) The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films ever as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.

2) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher):
This is an exquisitely rendered, peculiar mediation on the fact that our lives—whether lived forward or backward—are lived in time. The freshest and best parts of them are only temporary. It’s a film that touched me deeply, perhaps more than any film this year, bringing to the fore those sometimes dormant emotions and deeply rooted recognitions of life’s impermanence that are at once heartbreaking and galvanizing. Props to David Fincher for two years and two films (this along with last year’s Zodiac) that rank among the best and most defining of the decade.

1) Paranoid Park (dir. Gus Van Sant):
This film has stuck with me more than any that I have seen this year. Something about it moved me very deeply; it’s one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though it is highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.

Honorable Mention: Gran Torino, Happy-Go-Lucky, Cassandra’s Dream, Slumdog Millionaire, Shotgun Stories, The Wrestler, Wall-E, Chop Shop, Burn After Reading, Hunger, Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, Tell No One, Snow Angels, Iron Man.

Paranoid Park: The Best Film of 2008 (Thus Far)


Gus Van Sant’s new film, Paranoid Park, is without question the best film of 2008 thus far. And if we consider it a 2007 film (it did qualify as such for the Independent Spirit Awards, for which it won one and was nominated for three), I would have to put it in the top four (certainly just as good as There Will Be Blood, I’m Not There, and No Country for Old Men).

Paranoid Park is one of those films that jolts awake my deep love of cinema (and I know that’s a cliché… but it’s true). I’ve seen six films in the theater over the last seven days, and admittedly such a schedule makes cinemagoing frightfully mundane—even laborious. But as I left Park I felt more alive and entranced by the beauty and possibility of cinema than I have since probably The New World. Like Malick’s film, Park is brimful of moments and sequences that are achingly beautiful.

Like several of Gus Van Zant’s more recent works (Elephant, Last Days), Park is on the experimental/lyrical/avant-garde side of things—which to this critic is definitely a good thing. Van Sant’s more mainstream films (Finding Forrester, To Die For, Goodwill Hunting) display a great mastery of the cinematic form, but the scope of the auteur’s striking talent and vision is only beginning to be fully realized. Paranoid Park is his most accomplished film—I might even dare to call it perfect.

But enough of the glittering generalities and over-the-top superlatives. So why is this film such a big deal? Why did it receive (and totally deserve) the 60th Anniversary prize at Cannes last year? Let me officially begin my review…

Adapted by Van Sant from the novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the seemingly simple story of a 16-year-old skateboarder, Alex (non-actor Gabe Nevins), who begins hanging out at a notorious Portland skate park (“Paranoid Park”) and associating with shady characters. One fateful night Alex accidentally kills a security guard, and the film is about how he deals with the (mostly psychological) consequences of this life-altering event.

Like its precursor and companion film, Elephant, Park features a cast of unknown teenage actors—a brilliant move that lends a striking awkwardness and realism to the film. Gabe Nevins is perfect in the lead role—a wide-eyed, innocent teenager who finds himself in the midst of something too horrible to comprehend. The film is told from his perspective, though in a non-linear, “never sure where or when we are” sort of fashion. Like a highschooler recounting his day at school to his mother, Alex gives us scarcely little in the way of sensical verbal narrative—repeating some things multiple times (with slight variations or shifted emphasis), retracting or reframing other things, giving staccato answers to immensely involved questions, etc. His fragmentary, confused perspective and stilted utterances speak many volumes of truth, however.

Unlike the fast-talking characters of other teen movies (Juno!), Nevins and the other adolescent actors in Park speak in the choppy, awkward, believable parlance of net-generation millennials. They talk about obligatory teen stuff (getting laid, making weekend plans), their personal problems (absentee dads, divorcing parents, annoying girlfriends), and even give MTV-style lip service to the problems of the world (Iraq, starving children in Africa, etc). They are the teenagers of today, and Van Sant’s eye captures them more perceptively than any film I’ve seen.

Paranoid Park explores the contemporary teen psyche well—externalizing the confusing and contradictory voices, influences, and narratives that crowd their mediated minds. Nevins’ Alex is never quite present in his interactions with people and lacks a tangible grasp of his own unfolding life. A scene of him driving a car and reacting to various songs playing on the radio (from classical to rap) displays his fluid, impressionable sense of self. Indeed, music is a huge part of the film, as it is in any teenager’s life. There is sort of “iPod shuffle” aesthetic to the soundtrack of Park—an eclectic, seemingly random assemblage of artists (everyone from Elliott Smith to Beethoven) that embodies the alternately angsty, meditative, whimsical, and disturbing mood of the film.

In the end, Paranoid Park is a film about the heavy incomprehensibility of “the self behind the self” (to use a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem). There are multiple levels to this: Obviously Alex languishes under the tension between wanting to unload the terrible information that he holds and yet knowing that he can’t; but he also faces the more unsettling question of how he can live with himself in keeping it forever secret. Can one cordon off the unpleasantries of guilt and memory?

This is a film that astutely captures one young man in his first encounter with the burden of interiority—both as an adolescent in search of an authentic identity (beyond the Facebook self, the cell phone self, the skatepark self, etc) and as a human who must reckon with a reality that upsets the tidy balance of segmentation. All of this is rendered in far more organic and unpretentious ways than my discussion here would suggest. Still, it is complicated, challenging material—definitely not for the recreational filmgoer.

One of the things people will either love or hate about Park is the use of extended lyrical skateboarding sequences. During these audio-visual “interludes” (shot in a more home-video style), cinematographer Christopher Doyle (2046, The Quiet American) delicately follows the acrobatic swerving, flying, and weaving patchwork of teenage skater boys in slow-motion. It’s a remarkable sight to behold. For me, these were the most heartbreakingly profound moments—instances of making the familiar strange, of alienating the material environment while also exposing its truth. These scenes (and the whole movie), remind me of what realist film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed cinema was most adept at capturing: “the flow of life.” Unlike photography, which can only capture moments and not movement of reality in time, the cinema, Kracauer believed, has the ability to capture reality in motion—an indeterminate glimpse into the open-ended continuum and “flow” of material existence.

Kracauer often referred to “the street” (i.e. shots of large groups of people in motion) as one of the most thrilling applications of cinematic potential. In his seminal work, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Kracauer wrote:

The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. Again one will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving anonymous crowds… Each [face] has a story, yet the story is not given. Instead, an incessant flow of possibilities and near-intangible meanings appears.

This applies to much of Van Sant’s film, which revels in the very indeterminacy and “near-intangible” meaning which photography and cinema uniquely relay. Indeed, much of Doyle’s photography in Park consists in long shots with purposefully little in the way of explicit meaning, point of view, or plot utility. As in Elephant, there are frequent tracking shots that simply follow Alex around as he walks in the school halls or carries his skateboard down a Portland sidewalk. Other shots linger on complicated faces (not just Alex) that could be thinking any number of things. There is a thrilling editorial restraint to this film, though it is no doubt a source of frustration for some viewers.

Clearly, Paranoid Park is not for everyone (again, a cliché!), but if you have any interest in seeing something truly unique and provocative and beautiful, I urge to go see this film. It comes out in NYC on March 7 and then releases wider as the month goes on.