“Flight of the Red Balloon” and 9 more

An acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker working in France; a young Mexican director reimagining a canonical Danish film in an obscure Mennonite community in his home country; a West Coast-based American, enamored of the somber rhythms of the blasted Mississippi delta, miraculously captures them in the kind of American independent film all too rare of late; others from around the globe watching the specificities of home –character, geography, community, and class — evaporate around them. These were the stories of our cinematic 2008, and we’d be hard-pressed to draw any solid conclusions from them, except that passion for those few terrific films that deserve attention always lives, even in those movie years considered less than stellar. Hou Hsiao-hisen’s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” it should be noted, was the clear winner, with a lead tally higher than any of the past Reverse Shot first placers. There’s nothing outwardly trendy about Hou Hsaio-hsien’s heavenly masterwork, but it captured something that feels wholly contemporary: even as it recalls Albert Lamorisse’s evocation of France in the Fifties (which also saw a terrific, restored print back in theaters this year), “Flight” locates its timeless grace amidst the stuff of 21st-century living. Digital editing, video games, piano tuning, pinball: all exist in the same continuum in Hou’s film. Perhaps it is the perfect movie of the moment. — MK & JR

1. Flight of the Red Balloon
Movies like this one don’t come around very often. The year’s best film, Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s “Flight of the Red Balloon” is also, in its unhurried fluidity, 2008’s most deceptively layered: an affectionate, adult riff on a cherished children’s short; a visitor’s humble, open-eyed impression of the world’s most documented city; a hopeful, loving articulation of the universality of loneliness; an elegant exploration of the art and artifices of perception; a cinematic miracle that gamely admits its own string-pulling yet still arrives at true wonder. Song Fang‘s nanny watches over a young Parisian boy who occasionally catches sight of a red balloon that seems to gently stalk them both, and Hou’s camera similarly wanders and floats to take it all in. The meandering narrative comes in fragments, yet life appears in full. And in the film’s most powerful scene, a masterful, typically subtle long take, Juliette Binoche‘s French puppeteer and single mom crashes into her studio apartment, arguing full blast with her downstairs tenant before slamming the door, grabbing a phone to speak to her absent daughter, then hanging up in tears to see Song busy in the kitchen, her son focused on a video game, the weight of absence, desperation, work, parenthood, and love all descending on her face before she finally realizes that all along a blind man, undistracted by the clamor, has been tuning the recently reacquired piano. “Did you get here okay?” she asks, suddenly shyly smiling, her face adjusting to take in a world even bigger, heavier, and unknowable than her own. Hou’s masterpiece has a similar affect, sending viewers out of the theater to perceive the world differently, better. — EH

2. Synecdoche, New York
It takes a rare talent to put a fresh spin on a subject as warmed over as the creative process. When that fresh spin comes in the form of a surrealist puzzle box overflowing with verbal puns, discontinuities, impossibilities, and an aching sense of romantic loss, it might just signal the arrival of genius. Of course, first-time filmmaker Charlie Kaufman isn’t some struggling ingenue; in the decade since “Being John Malkovich” his output has morphed his surname into shorthand for an entire mode of filmmaking that, quite frankly, has hit home about as often as its missed the mark. Kaufman proved by taking the reins with “Synecdoche” that for all the relative successes and failures his past amanuenses (Jonze, Gondry, and Clooney) had in translating his scripts to screen, their interference only muddied the waters of a crystal-clear, scalpel-sharp vision. As his indelible protagonist Caden Coutard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) theatrical gesamtkunstwerk unfolds, growing in scope to encompass what seems to be the entire world (yet never expands beyond the bounds of his own life), Kaufman’s film inches, paradoxically, toward the more personal and local. “Synecdoche, New York”‘s the purest expression of the Kaufman-esque yet; let’s loosely define it as a handful of lonely souls struggling to connect in a world filled with complex roadblocks, both external and internal rendered real for us by accumulated reams of fakery and artifice. — JR

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