After a challenging 2007, 2008 proved to be a year of epic fail. To a certain degree, this was to be expected. The recession was a year old before economists finally declared we weren’t in a mental recession after all. Also, the US presidential election monopolized everyone’s attention, overshadowing everything else that occurred in the culture at large. This year’s list of what I’ll remember in the future is therefore
Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days: This was actually a 2007 release, but it wasn’t widely released in the US until 2008, when I saw it. It is, in any case, the best film I’ve seen this year, and several others as well. The story is harrowing, but in unexpected ways, and Mungiu’s visual style, while not terribly innovative, perfectly matches the material. This film has been widely praised, and, for once, actually deserved it.
Barack Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park: Equal measures subdued and triumphant, modest and optimistic. The minimalist stage and the well-mannered crowd offered a pointed contrast to the divisive nastiness of the McCain and (especially) Palin rallies. Some of the post-election glow dimmed a bit when our governor was dragged from his house in handcuffs like a mafia don, reminding us that Illinois produces a lot more grubby little marvels of greed and malfeasance like Blago than transcendent statesmen like Obama.
The National Stadium and Aquatics Center, 2008 Beijing Olympics: Both looked terrific in nighttime helicopter shots, for which they were primarily designed. The structures were all the more remarkable for being commissioned by a gang of Communist Party apparatchiks in bad glasses. I would say the buildings were a complete triumph for serious architecture if any of the television coverage—from what I saw, at any rate—had mentioned the architects responsible. Their names didn’t get mentioned even when the local NBC affiliate called in Ron Krueck to explain why the Bird’s Nest building was so beautiful. Plus, there were some unresolved ethical issues about working for a not very nice government.
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland: This novel has an audacious premise: cricket is the key to understanding the post-9/11 world. The narrator, a Dutchman working in New York, falls in with a crowd of cricketers, who teach him how to prepare a cricket pitch, how to renew his contact with humanity, and other useful skills. The lesson of the novel is an old one: the immigrant working classes retained the values that the bourgeoisie have abandoned.
Charles Lloyd, Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers & Eric Harland, Rabo de Nube: The headliners here are Lloyd and Moran, but this project could have gone completely wrong. Lloyd can sometimes get lost in his Orientalist fog, a tendency that could exacerbate one of Moran’s few flaws: his weakness for tremulous cord clusters, which can sound dramatic or melodramatic, depending on how long he drags them out. But happily, Moran’s intelligence and adventurousness focuses Lloyd on the task at hand, which is to create the most complex and exciting jazz performances in 2008.
Other books I enjoyed this year: Peter Carey, His Illegal Self; Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth; Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema; James Wood, How Fiction Works; Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years; Thomas McNamee, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse.