Here's one of my dirty little secrets: I love lists and I keep track of my year's ten best movies all year long. Most other critics hastily assemble their lists at the last second, which is partly why so many December movies dominate; critics can't remember what they've seen earlier in the year. My list shows that 2008 has had a pretty poor first half, but I do have some contenders for listhood. Two movies are currently competing for the top spot, though I need to see them both again to be sure. Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon (6 screens) is one; it has a lovely, laid-back, observant quality and feels less severe than some of Hou's other recent films. But I haven't yet decided if the film is a comedy or a tragedy. It all feels pretty light and insignificant, except for the saddest thing: no one seems to notice the red balloon of the title, drifting around Paris, unable to find a boy like Pascal to love it. The film also contains the year's most vibrant performance: Juliette Binoche playing a frenzied single mom working with a puppet troupe.
The other top contender is Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life, which finally opened in the U.S. after two years of sputtering distribution. I saw it in the middle of dozens of other films at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and though I'm sure it was the best of the batch, I was too exhausted and muddled to give it the clear, thoughtful review it deserved. Fortunately, New Yorker is releasing the DVD on October 14, giving me plenty of time to watch it again before making up my final list. Another of my favorite filmmakers who struggles with distribution, Jacques Rivette, returned this year with The Duchess of Langeais (2 screens). To date, I've seen nine Rivette films and this is one ranks near the bottom -- mainly because it's a costume drama, and it's hard for even the most passionate filmmaker to inject any life into that stagnant genre. But Rivette still manages to get a measure of simmering, unfulfilled lust into his tale, and his film could place at the end of the year.
I saw a few other festival films that I loved but probably won't count for my final list if they don't end up finding U.S. distribution by the end of the year. Hungarian director Bela Tarr's peculiar mystery The Man from London is as dazzling and mesmerizing as it is puzzling. He ignores traditional suspense, but uses his long, unbroken, drifting shots to slowly reveal new and unexpected information. (Tilda Swinton co-stars, but is dubbed into French!) Carlos Saura's Fados is really nothing more than a collection of Portuguese music videos, but the passionate performances and bittersweet lyrics are enough to move even the most jaded viewers. And Roy Andersson's hilarious, surprising Swedish film You, the Living, is very nearly a silent comedy in the style of Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton.
Speaking of comedies, I'm still attached to Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, even in the absence of writer Charlie Kaufman; it was one of those movies that reminded you of your own love affair with movies. It could almost be a cult movie, like the two newest releases by horror directors -- and former collaborators -- George A. Romero and Dario Argento. They each returned this year with continuations of series: Diary of the Dead and Mother of Tears. Neither of the films lives up to the directors' best work, but I'd see both of them again in a heartbeat. Another cult director, Werner Herzog, cooked up yet another ultra-personal, but educational documentary, Encounters at the End of the World (17 screens). And most critics have, of course, written off cult favorite Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights (7 screens), claiming it's not as substantial as his masterpiece In the Mood for Love. It's not, really, but sometimes lightweight can be great too, and Wong's melancholy moods, colors and sounds have stuck with me in the months since I've seen it.Fortunately, in the absence of high art, this summer has been a pretty good one for quality entertainments. Everyone agrees on Iron Man and Wall-E, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army and The Dark Knight look to be winners as well, but my favorite has been Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, about which I hope to devote an entire column sometime soon. Finally, here's what I'm most looking forward to seeing in 2008's second half (in no particular order): Clint Eastwood's Changeling, Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona, David Gordon Green's The Pineapple Express, Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading, Oliver Stone's W., John Hillcoat's The Road, Gus Van Sant's Milk, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Frank Miller's The Spirit -- not to mention Quantum of Solace. Can I keep my fingers crossed for six more months?