Consider this for an opening salvo: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Persepolis, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Savages, Walk Hard. I enjoyed all of these films immensely, but everything was overshadowed by two of the great American films of the decade: the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. The pair were polar opposites – one is beautifully crafted with not a frame out of place, while the other is a pulsating and sprawling epic – but when taken side-by-side they stand as a stunning reminder of how good cinema can be when real artists are given the freedom to display their craft. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of these films' production was the way they found an audience outside of the arthouse niche, which such unconventional fare might have been expected to reside in. Between them, the two pictures earned 16 Oscar nominations (winning six altogether), despite being far from the standard Academy fare, and both films provoked a fascinating and enlightening discourse on the internet, where their complexities and ambiguities were enthusiastically analysed.
Such analysis reinforces the important role critics have to play in our film culture, helping us appreciate and find new depths in the pictures presented to us, but 2008 was a bad year for film reviewers all round. As newspapers continued to feel the financial pinch this year, the arts section tended to be the first to find its head on the block, with such notable writers as Nathan Lee, Glenn Kenny, Dennis Lim and David Ansen finding themselves out of work. Mind you, one has to ask who would want to be a film critic anyway, as even those who did keep their jobs found themselves in the firing line this summer. The release of The Dark Knight was one of a number of films that seemed to unify the critical community and the public in a tidal wave of approval, but that wasn't enough for some batty Batman fans. When the first negative reviews started appearing, Dark Knight acolytes began jumping on them with a vengeance, aiming to discredit the author by labelling him as (a) pretentious (b) stupid or (c) just trying to gain attention by going against the flow. But the worst aspect of this rabid fandom was the onslaught of venomous and hateful comments readers began leaving on the reviews in question. Now, with awards season coming our way, those same fans are mounting their own For Your Consideration campaign, determined to end the movie's stellar year with a host of trophies (Ignore The Dark Knight At Your Peril, one online article was headlined). Whatever one thinks of Christopher Nolan's film, this obnoxious fallout from it doesn't do anybody any favours.
After all, if one film didn't need hordes of people jumping to its defence in 2008, it was The Dark Knight. I'm with the naysayers on this one – I still think there's an unignorable gap between Nolan's ambition and his abilities as a director – but there's no getting away from the fact that this film was a true cultural phenomenon, the kind of all-encompassing event we haven't really experienced since Titanic (whose box-office crown it threatened to dislodge). It was a perfect storm of elements; expectations were already high after the impressive first instalment, they were gradually stoked by an incredibly imaginative marketing campaign, and then they were sent into orbit by the death of Heath Ledger in January. This year we lost many well-liked and respected figures linked to the industry – Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, Bernie Mac, Donald LaFontaine, Isaac Hayes, Anne Savage, Paul Scofield, Charlton Heston, Jules Dassin, to name a few – but it was the passing of Heath Ledger and Paul Newman that left the deepest impact. In Ledger's case, it was the tragedy of seeing a young life being snuffed out, and the knowledge that this hugely talented actor would never show us the full extent of his ability. The death of Paul Newman provoked a very different emotion, however, as the grief was more linked to the fact that we were bidding a fond farewell to a truly special character – a great star, a great actor and a great man – who had seen and done it all, and had nothing more to prove.
The Dark Knight was the big winner at the box-office, and in early 2009 the studio is planning to re-release the film to try and edge its way over that much-coveted $1 billion mark. Everything else had to make do with small change in comparison; but Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock, Iron Man, Mamma Mia! (which I didn't see. I don't hate myself that much), Quantum of Solace and WALL•E all still managed to break the $500 million barrier worldwide. From that list, one might surmise the film industry is in rude health, despite the global credit crunch, but people will always go and see the biggest movies available, and as pockets are tightened it's the independent sector that will feel the major repercussions. Warner Independent, Picturehouse and Tartan Films were among the "specialty" divisions that were closed this year, while Paramount Vantage (which distributed both No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) was folded back into its parent company. As these studios disappear, it's hard to see how a lot of smaller, more challenging films will get the distribution that might bring them to the audience they deserve, and we may see more filmmakers struggling to get their films made as the studios back away from anything that looks too risky. The great filmmaker Terence Davies has just returned to cinemas after such a period of exile, with his elegiac, deeply personal documentary Of Time and the City, but despite that film's success, he may find himself once again fighting for scraps in the near future, as the financial climate makes funding harder to come by.
It's impossible to say with any certainty what effect the financial crisis will have on cinema over the course of the coming year, but we can remain hopeful that artists will find some way to make their voices heard. Young filmmakers will still manage to perform miracles on a tiny budget, as Steve McQueen did with Hunger this year, or Asif Kapadia did in Far North, and perhaps we'll see a continued growth in the field of documentaries. This year, two of the very best films to be found anywhere were documentaries – Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Darkside and James Marsh's breathtaking Man on Wire – and that appears to be one of the most richly rewarding areas in cinema right now, as filmmakers try to come to terms with the state of the world around us, and tell truthful stories that are often stranger than fiction.
Even if the world is in a mess, a spirit of optimism always accompanies the arrival of a new year. As ever, the opening months of 2009 will bring a number of outstanding films our way, including The Class and A Christmas Tale from two of the best contemporary French filmmakers, and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which is a perfect tonic for the winter blues. The awards-chasing Hollywood contingent is represented by The Reader, Revolutionary Road and Doubt, while more adventurous fare is served up by Steven Soderbergh and the indefatigable Werner Herzog, who have travelled to the jungle and Antarctica respectively for their new features. 2009 will also see the return of many great filmmakers throughout the course of the year, including Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, James Cameron, Gaspar Noé, Michael Haneke, Lukas Moodysson and Michael Mann. By the time their offerings have all been and gone, we'll be approaching not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade, and one can only speculate what state things will be in at that point. After eight disastrous years, at least we can have faith that there will be a man in the White House who is capable of steadying the ship and leading the world in the right direction. Hope springs eternal.
Happy New Year.