Sunday, February 22, 2009

2008 in Review - The Best

Just before I'm completely irrelevant, here's my ten favorite movies from last year (including a couple that are technically 2007 titles, but whatevs).

First, my ten runners-up (#s 11-20):

20. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
19. Be Kind Rewind
18. Encounters at the End of the World
17. Wall-E
16. Ballast
15. Wendy and Lucy
14. Stuck
13. Burn After Reading
12. Tropic Thunder
11. Let the Right One In

And the rest:

10. The Dark Knight. I think it might be a little bit of a mistake to read too deeply into this film as a profound statement on/ investigation of the ethics of a police state or the modern post-9/11 world, because the movie works a hell of a lot better as a finely-crafted state-of-the-art Hollywood blockbuster than as anything else.

9. Waltz with Bashir. The year's great dream/nightmare film, looking back on an intensely personal chapter in the life of the filmmaker (and his nation) in messy, unresolved, but stylish and honest terms.

8. Standard Operating Procedure. My favorite Errol Morris movie in a decade, this one peels back the layers of the Abu Ghraib media spectacle to reveal something deeper and more troubling - along with our own complicity.

7. The Band's Visit. A simple but profound cross-cultural fable, the kind of movie with a tagline that makes you want to barf ("Sometimes getting lost is the best way to find yourself") but in this case the filmmaking actually earns the right to it.

6. The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke gave my favorite performance of the year in this simple, scathing, heartfelt story of a man just trying to get by. Nice to see Darren Aronofsky reinvent himself as a filmmaker.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky. Mike Leigh's movies are always deeper than they look, this time framing a philosophical question about how one should lead their life within a quirky comedic character study.

4. The Class. No film this year had higher stakes - the clash at the center of this movie is for the minds of a classroom full of rowdy multiethnic French kids, to educate them and keep them engaged, as illustrated in the heartbreaking scene at the end of the movie where one girl tells her teacher she doesn't want to wind up at the bottom of society's ladder. The most human, inspirational movie of the year.

3. Synecdoche, New York. If The Class is about nurturing the possibilities of tomorrow, Synecdoche is about strangling the possibilities of today, something that we watch Caden Cotard do over decades of artistic yearning and personal failure - but with humor and pathos as only Charlie Kaufman can manage.

2. Man on Wire. A perfectly rendered caper movie, the artistic crime of the century, exuberantly rendered.

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. A nail-biting suspense movie, a scathing political indictment, the movie with the most frightening scene of the year (the final apocalyptic journey) and some of the driest was-that-even-a-joke moments (the lights getting turned on in the boyfriend's room). This movie had it all.

(Happy New Movie Year!)

Friday, February 20, 2009

The International (2009)

I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Filmmakers are always looking for real-life stories to draw on for material, and liberal filmmakers are always looking for abuses of the system to make movies about that'll get their audiences riled up in rightous indignation, and liberal filmmakers who also have commercial instincts are going to look for ways to make socially relevant material digestible and entertaining. So I'm not surprised that a world-class filmmaker like Tom Tykwer would decide to make a movie about the political and social abuses of global finance, and I'm not surprised that he and his collaborators would decide to do it within the framework of a global espionage thriller. And I'm not really surprised that it resulted in a well-meaning, half-baked movie that feels like the bastard spawn of Robert Ludlum and Naomi Wolf.

It's a handsome movie, shot in and around great locations in Berlin, Milan, and New York, but it barely has a pulse; Clive Owen is on autopilot and Naomi Watts barely registers (to be fair, her character has next to nothing to do besides tag along with Owen and get yelled at by The Chief). The movie's centerpiece, a shoot-out at the Guggenheim, is fun, but even it defies logic (spoiler alert!) as Owen, trying to open the veil of secrecy around a powerful bank, tries to arrest their key assassin - and immediately the bank's henchmen launch an insane gun battle in one of the most famous museums in the world? Way to maintain a low profile, guys. And then the scene ends on a note of total confusion as Owen strolls out unscathed - I must have missed something. Of course, that's after a prominent Italian politician delivers a line something along the lines of "I'll tell you everything I know about this powerful and evil bank - but pardon me while I take a hatless ride through Dealey Plaza first."

Ultimately, The International is done in by its own self-importance, its leaden feeling of carrying the burdens of the world on its shoulders, but with no real sense of complexity or novelty, which is odd for a movie from the director of such weird, offbeat films as Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Better luck next time.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday

Before the date passes, I wanted to give a little shout-out to the man who (with Mendel) basically invented modern biology as we know it.

Before Darwin, biology was classification, of species of plants and animals into different categories, the curious creations of unknowable forces. After Darwin, biology was a science, an interconnected system of predators and prey, habitats and ecosystems operating under a consistent set of rules. He was a great innovator and greatly contributed to the advancement of human knowledge.

What's frustrating, of course, is that so many people are still irrationally opposed to Darwin's ideas, mostly without really understanding them. You don't see people lined up in opposition to Nicolas Copernicus for removing the Earth from the center of the universe, or Freud for exposing the complex workings of the irrational brain, but because Darwin's ideas don't correspond to the anthropocentric notions that so many believe in, people still blame him for everything from moral decline to the Holocaust. But the great movement of humanity and science over the last thousand years or so has been the gradual acceptance and understanding of reality, and I believe that over time, the arc of history leans towards knowledge. Which is why Darwin should be celebrated, this year as always.

Also, who knew that on the same day in 1809, in a wealthy home in England and in a log cabin in Kentucky, two of the most controversial figures of the 19th century were born? Weird coincidence.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

(Catching up on titles that I haven't covered in the last few months).

This one strikes me as a good example of a film that knows the words, but not the music, of its source material. Director Sam Mendes has made a very highly-crafted film - gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins, pretty good score from Thomas Newman, and the best performances I've seen from either Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet in years.

The movie is entertaining and handsome, but it's also a little bit like a butterfly under glass. In making the translation from book to screen, the story's basic story elements are all faithfully reproduced and literalized, but nothing has been added in the process, only taken away. Gone are the internal monologues (angry, self-deceiving) from Frank Wheeler that made up so much of the real guts of the Yates book, the bitter tone, the subtexts of theatricality and inter-spousal manipulation. Most importantly, the movie lacks the context of Frank and April Wheeler's younger days, the sense of freedom and possibility that, in the novel, makes their later decisions to compromise all the more painful. What's on screen is the skeleton of the plot, animated by the Oscar-pedigree craft on display, the basic 'what-happens-next' of storytelling. It works, but there's not a lot left over to chew on afterward - it's semi-pre-digested Oscarbait.

It makes me think that director Sam Mendes probably didn't really have much of a vision for making the source material his own, beyond just plopping the book on-screen as is, which is in keeping with the other films in his career. Road to Perdition and Jarhead were both similarly glossy, tasteful films without much pulse or resonance (although I'll at least give Jarhead credit for having an dreamy sort of eerieness to it - but it still rests in the shadow of Full Metal Jacket). And more and more I think that the success of American Beauty, the one Mendes film I'll still stand up for - rests on the Alan Ball screenplay, which, while sometimes messy and sometimes corny, still has a sense of humor and pathos - of unembalmed life - not found in any of the Mendes movies since.

Still, Revolutionary Road is enjoyable enough for an acting showcase. Quick confession: I finished reading the book very shortly before going to see the movie, and I'm sure that's impacted my opinion of the film - but I think that it's just helped me understand the elements missing from the film, which would have felt lacking no matter what.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

2008 in Review - The Worst

Okay, so I think I've finally seen just about all of the movies I needed to catch up on for some good, serious list-making. And I also intend to actually write some reviews of the major releases from the last year over the course of this next month, to try and get some real content up here. But first, before we get to the good, the bad: my list of the Ten Worst Movies of 2008.

Now this is always a tricky list, first because a lot of people think that the end of the year should be about celebrating the good instead of rehashing the bad; and there's a point there, but I feel like the bad has to be properly acknowledged in order to truly be able to appreciate the good.

Also, a lot of "worst lists" are more about big Hollywood blockbusters that were disappointing or overblown, and as much as I thought the likes of Hancock or The Incredible Hulk were dumb or confused, they still had elements (scenes, performances, etc.) that I enjoyed or appreciated.

No, for me, below 'dumb' on the movie-rating scale is 'annoying' and below that is 'offensive' - but below that is 'boring', and below that, at the very bottom of the barrel, is 'all of the above', and those are the titles on this list.

Also, I never saw such movies as The Hottie and the Nottie, The Spirit, Meet the Spartans, The Love Guru, Saw V, and many more. So first, in alphabetical order, the runners-up, titles that I disliked, but weren't too bad:

Baby Mama - Lame and condescending, Tina Fey should know better.
Body of Lies - I'm less and less a fan of the brothers Scott, and their all-style, no-substance movies, every day - especially when they try to make 'relevant' movies about the War on Terror that only show how clueless they are.
The Foot Fist Way - Only redeemeed by an excellent performance from Danny McBride, this was the most amateurish, unpleasant comedy of the year.
Get Smart - Lame, and I'm learning to not expect good things from Steve Carell.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor - Speaks for itself, but at least it had Yeti.
Repo! The Genetic Opera - It has good cinematography, I swear.
Slumdog Millionaire - Offensive if for no other reason than because it wants to shove a soft, don't-worry-be-happy fatalism down our throats as an excuse for the crushing poverty on display.
The Tale of Despereaux - Pretty images in a big mess of a story.
Transsiberian - The most curiously tedious thriller of the year.
The Visitor - A big droopy diaper of liberal guilt, presented without nuance or complexity, partially redeemed by a good Richard Jenkins performance.

And now, the real dregs:

10. The Fall - A lot of people fell in love with this fantasy from Tarsem "Don't use my last name" Singh, but I saw it as an imcomplete vision, a familiar story relying on a few extravagant costumes and locations to tide us over - I'll take The Princess Bride, or even Tideland, over this. As an example of this movie's creative vision, the above is a coat worn by a character named 'Charles Darwin'.

9. Cassandra's Dream - Luckily for Woody Allen, his best movie in about a decade came quickly enough for everyone to forget about this, his worst movie in - well, ever, rehashing the same ideas from Match Point, which were already rehashed from Crimes and Misdemeanors, and with the stiffest, most stilted performances I've ever seen from Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell (and that includes Star Wars movies).

8. Twilight - Cultural regression away from the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the female protagonist back in the role of submissive object for other, stronger forces to attack or protect, while she lays back, enjoying being the center of attention. The movie felt like the world's most tedious TV pilot.

7. Rambo - A huge lump of melted wax (Stallone) doesn't care about helping rebels in Burma until a bunch of white missionaries get in trouble, including a pretty blonde one - then shit starts to fly!

6. The Happening - Oh, The Happening, oh, sweet, sweet, The Happening. This movie is an exception to my 'boring' rule, because it goes all the way through and comes out the other side to become watchable again, like a clown car wreck. No other movie all year had as many "what they fuck were they thinking" moments, from the ludicrous dialogue ("We can't just stand here as uninvolved observers!") to the insane, needless violence (two kids blown away by shotguns!) to the terrible performances (Mark Wahlberg, clearly given no direction; Zooey Deschanel, gamely attempting hand gestures and strange facial reactions to fill in for dialogue that had never been written) to the batshit scene of a man pestering lions to eat his rubbery CGI arms - recorded on video and then uploaded to Youtube.

All of this could have made for a legitimately fun movie, except for the fact that M. Night Shyamalan clearly means for us to take the whole thing seriously as a profound and horrifying post-9/11 vision of a world gone mad, and his mammoth ego (and those who feed it) are what ultimately makes this one of the worst of the year.

5. Cloverfield - See above, although with fewer moments of delight to penetrate the dismal pretentiousness. I love the idea of a modern Godzilla tearing up a post-9/11 city - but you've gotta put people in the monster's path that I'm not eager to see eaten or stomped. One of the most insecure movies of the year for all of its forceful demands that we love these banal, self-centered youngsters. This movie is an insult.

4. 10,000 B.C. - Again, a movie that, in theory, could have been good, like a modern-day Quest for Fire-meets-Apocalypto-meets-The Egyptian - but instead we get filthy, dreadlocked Hollywood hotties chasing each other until they run into some Stargate aliens (not kidding).

3. Savage Grace - Sorry, John. Another movie that might have been interesting, but stuck with a meandering, focusless script, this degenerates into simple celebrity gossip-sploitation. This was shot in Spain, but for all the scenic vistas we get, it could have just as easily been Studio City.

2. Mirrors - At least director Alexandre Aja's previous films, High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes, showed a command of kineticism and action to make up for the total inability to come up with anything for the actors to do - here, even that redemption is lost. And seriously, is there anyone who isn't already schizophrenic that's afraid of a frigging mirror?!

1. Prom Night - A little of everything: retrograde teen sexual politics, tired horror-movie cliches, actors given nothing to do, utter tedium.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Watch the whole thing.

It's terrible, but it's wonderful.

UPDATE 2/5/09: Thanks, Youtube, for the goddamn spoiler. This is best appreciated when it takes you by total surprise.