Tag Archives: wendy and lucy

Five Films For Our Hard Times

This weekend is the Academy Awards. It’s the lavish yearly spectacle that rewards big budget costume dramas, trend films, and all things glamorous and prestigey. Meanwhile, the country languishes in economic despair, with the market at 6 year lows, jobs being slashed at record pace, and middle and lower-income families struggling to make ends meet. It’s been a rough year for the economy, and there have been several wonderful independent films that seem to have uncannily captured the economic state of things.

The following is a list of five films that came out in 2008 that the Oscars largely overlooked, but which collectively put a very evocative, human face on the struggles of the day. These films portray average people doing their best to survive. They are people without jobs, with kids to feed, facing hardship after hardship. In this way, they are films that represent the larger human struggle—to make a living and support oneself and one’s family by whatever means necessary. It’s an uphill battle; the foes are many. But the human will to survive is a strong one. These films present snapshots of what are likely very common stories in this ever-weakening economy—sometimes very bleak and sometimes curiously hopeful, but always compelling because we can so relate. They are beautiful films that I highly recommend.

Frozen River (dir. Courtney Hunt)
In her arresting directorial debut, Courtney Hunt presents us with a harrowing tale of a mother in upstate New York whose husband has left her with two kids and no money. The mother (Melissa Leo, in a deservingly Oscar-nominated role), in much need of quick cash for the new double-wide trailer she’s ordered, partners with a similarly hard-up single mother on a Mohawk reservation to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Canadian border into the U.S. Of course, it all turns very grim, though the film is not without some glimmers of hope.

Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
This is a short, quick, devastating film about a twenty-something woman (Michelle Williams) who gradually loses everything. She is poor, alone, scared, and has only her dog Lucy to comfort her. Set in the Pacific Northwest and directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), Wendy peers in on a life of quiet despair and world-weariness that in many senses represents a broader archetype of America in 2008. It’s a wise, loving, heartbreaking film about what we must do just to survive in an increasingly cynical, menacing world.

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 a very quiet (sometimes silent), organic-looking film with untrained actors and very beautiful location photography somewhere in the Mississippi Delta. The film—which follows a trio of downtrodden African Americans after a crushing death in the family—is about resurfacing, destabilizing, and regaining our balance (hence the title). It’s a film that makes no excuses for its characters and yet allows us to sympathize with their plight and root for them as they ever-so gradually find ways to survive, earn honest money, and move on with life.

Chop Shop (dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Though this film is set in New York City, in the shadow of Yankees Stadium, it feels remarkably other-worldy (Third-worldly, actually). But that’s the point. Tapping into the spirit of De Sica-style Italian neo-realism, Chop Shop, Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani puts a lens on the unseen, difficult lives of the American underclass. Focusing on children who are mostly fending for themselves in largely illegal money-making ventures, Chop Shop is a compelling film that makes familiar and humane something that is—fortunately or unfortunately—very unfamiliar and alien to most of us.

The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

In the role that will most likely win him the Academy Award for best actor, Mickey Rourke stars as an aging professional wrestler past his glory days who must find new purposes and means of living. Directed by the impressive Darren Aronofsky but mostly just a showpiece for Rourke, The Wrestler is a heartbreaking look at the loneliness, self-doubt, and cycle of self-destruction that accompanies many lives when they enter that “past-my-prime” phase. It’s also a film that could be easily read as an allegory of down-on-itself America—a fact that is comically elaborated in this parody of The Wrestler trailer.

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Best Movies of 2008

paranoidpark

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.

Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy is an unexpected tour-de-force. It’s probably the simplest, cheapest, and shortest film to be receiving accolades this awards season (AFI just named it one of the top ten movies of the year), but it’s also one of the most surprisingly affecting.

The film is directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose Old Joy remains one of my favorite films of the last five years—a subtle, mostly silent but deeply profound examination of growing up and learning to live past one’s regrets. Wendy and Lucy is much in the same vein as Old Joy. Both are set in the Pacific Northwest, are very organic in style and content, and feature little-to-no dialogue. Both are about hippie-ish young idealists who must reckon with a world that is harder than they’d hoped it would be. Both are shot largely outdoors. Both feature dogs.

In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy is portrayed by Michelle Williams, in one of the most quietly devastating performances of the year. Lucy is a cute golden Labrador Retriever. The film is about their journey together, meandering somewhere in Oregon on a slow quest up north. Wendy, channeling Chris McCandless, is a live-off-the-land type girl, determined to make it to Alaska where she might get a job in a fish hatchery. She looks like hipster, albeit a ragged, world-weary one without the usual tongue-in-cheek accoutrements. She has little in the world other than her car and her dog, and she loses both during the course of the film (but finds one of them).

My first reaction after seeing this film was, “wow, that was remarkably sad.” I almost resented it for how much it punched me in the gut. But upon further reflection I see that as much as it is a film about deep human despair, it is also a film about love—a simple, beautiful love between a young woman and her dog. It’s also about resiliency, and how we push ourselves to keep going, even when we’ve lost everything. It’s a hard, somber film, told with a soft, reassuring touch.

The film is not directly about anything political, but it is as much about America in 2008 as Old Joy was about America in 2006. Which is to say it is very much a comment on the current state of things in America. But also like Old Joy, Wendy has a timeless quality to it, addressing existential issues through a very current lens. Wendy is a film about being poor—struggling to make ends meet and never being able to get ahead. Like other, similarly eloquent independent films about being poor in America that have come out in 2008 (Ballast, Chop Shop, The Wrestler), Wendy doesn’t offer simple answers. It grieves and suffers with its subject without wallowing in pity, while also affirming life and hope and love.

It’s a film I highly suggest you all see before you make your best of 2008 lists.