400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
With awards season in full bore, I thought I would go back and look at some of the year's most wonderful sleepers, the films that "fell through the cracks" and are not appearing in awards lists or on top ten lists -- one reason being that they came out earlier in the year and were not issued on "for your consideration" Academy DVD screeners. I'd like to start with one of the most overlooked great films of the year, one that was virtually ignored by both the press and the public: The Dark Knight.
Just kidding. Let's start by looking at The Violin, which is very much worth tracking down. 2006 was the year of the much-publicized "Mexican New Wave," and most writers focused on three major films (Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men and Babel), while passing over of the terrific smaller ones, like Duck Season and Battle in Heaven. Directed by Francisco Vargas, The Violin was made at around the same time, but didn't surface until 2007 in film festivals, and then early in 2008 for a tiny theatrical release. At the risk of cheapening the film with a cursory plot summary, it's the story of an aged, one-handed man who -- more or less -- helps his guerrilla son by serenading a sensitive but sinister military captain (he has to strap the violin bow to the stump of his hand). Vargas shoots in gorgeous black-and-white, cannily switching between hand-held and still shots.
2008 was the year of great popcorn movies, much more so than works of art, and even then we had a couple of sleepers, including Brad Anderson's fun Transsiberian, a great example of a suspenseful train movie. George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead also didn't get much love; it was sort of a "re-boot" of his zombie series, shot on a low budget (much like the first film, Night of the Living Dead) and wondering once again just what it means to be human. And Michael Radford's diamond heist film Flawless was much better than it looked, featuring two nice performances by Michael Caine and -- surprise -- Demi Moore.
David Gordon Green's Snow Angels doesn't exactly warm the cockles, but you'll not find a better-acted drama with a better use of chilly, outdoor locations this awards season. Writer Simon Beaufoy and actress Amy Adams will be getting some attention for their work in a couple of very good fall releases (Slumdog Millionaire and Doubt), but neither film was quite as good or as much fun as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a kind of old-fashioned screwball comedy that established a snappy pace and never let it fall. An edgier comedy, Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, was one of the year's strangest films in a time that doesn't exactly embrace strange films.
Finally, we have two of the year's best. Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon wandered about as randomly as a... red balloon, but it captured moments so vivid and lovely that it left most other movies looking phony. Plus, Juliette Binoche has never been better. Never. And Wong Kar-wai's English-language debut My Blueberry Nights had the illusion of shallowness, but it turned out that the road movie was a perfect fit for Wong's lost souls; he truly captured the feeling of being lost in America.Of course, there are more. Critics present and future will continue to mine 2008 for more lost, overlooked and underrated sleepers, and this ever-shifting history is what makes the movies so great. Happy holidays, everyone!