Tag Archives: Synecdoche

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.

Synecdoche, New York

Within the first minute of this film, I knew I was going to love it. Why? Because the first words uttered are lines from my favorite Rilke poem: “Autumn Day.” It’s a poem about change, time, decay, and loneliness, and so is Synecdoche. The words of the poem (uttered over the radio by a suitably dour NPR-esque voice) also turn out to paint pretty literal pictures of what goes on in the film. Here is how the poem ends:

Whoever has no house now will not build one
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Not to spoil anything, but this last image is pretty much mirrored in the closing shots of the film, which is perfectly fitting for a film that revels in circularity, frames-within-frames, and reflexive loop-de-loop.

Like Charlie Kaufman’s other films (especially Adaptation and Being John Malkovich), Synecdoche is a surrealist collage about the blurry blendings of art and life, memory and dreams, imaginings and harsh realities.

This time Kaufman is totally unrestrained, directing it himself and not having to fight the visions of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, however similar they might have been. The result is much more grandiose, startling, and messy (in a good way). Kaufman directs like he writes: with absurdist visuals and hold-on-to-your-hat pacing (unapologetically confusing timelines, cutting to an image or 2 second clip here and there that represents an entire year or event in some major character’s life, for e.g.). He is a brainy visionary, to be sure, but he also knows how to reign himself in and keep things focused. Synedoche, perhaps moreso than any of his other creations, has a cohesion to it, even while it never stays on any one course for very long.

There are a lot of themes and ideas going on in Synecdoche, and I could easily write 500 words about each of them. The thing that most grabbed me about this film, however, was the way that it dealt with the passage of time. Personally, I’m a big fan of the passage of time, but there are undeniably melancholy things about it too, which Kaufman capitalizes on. Kaufman treats the passage of time with the same tender ambivalence that he treats most of his subjects. Time and decay are existential givens. S*** happens (very viscerally in this film). From the first moments of Synecdoche, the characters are in states of decay. Bodily functions are failing, skin is flaking, hair receding. Scene changes can hide weeks, months, even years of time passing, with no nod from the narrative whatsoever. It’s as if Kaufman is saying, “yeah, a year passed… who cares?,” which is about the most honest sentiment a screenwriter could express. Time isn’t always full of exciting beats and plot turns. In any given life, there may only be two hours worth of noteworthy scenes.

So goes the conflating, circle of life-meets-art that is this film. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s playwright character feels like his significance in life will come by putting on a massive play about his life. Or, rather, he wants to create a play that will reveal the significance and meaning of the world by dramatizing it in all of its seeming insignificance and meaninglessness. Essentially, Kaufman seems to suggest, this is what art is all about: finding a way to distill meaning from one’s life and world and achieve renown because of it.

In Synecdoche, the dual processes of life and art, existence and performance become indistinguishable. These days, though, such a concept isn’t all that hard to conceive. In the end, is our life more about being or performing? One need only watch The Hills to see how perplexing that question has become.

Synecdoche is about a lot of other things, too: fate, free will, fatherhood, love, theater, Artaud, cruelty, death, dreaming, and the housing crisis. It’s also about life—contemporary life—and the ridiculousness of our unfailing searches for macro significance at the expense of our micro happiness.