Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Top 10: 2008

You know what was a terrible year for movies? 1992. There were a few great ones, and a few others (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Alien 3) I like more than most, but otherwise it was stuff like Encino Man and Ladybugs all year long. Compared to 1992, 2008 looks pretty good, but there's no question that it was a so-so year, and a disappointment after the flood of greatness that was 2007. Still, the year ended pretty strongly, so what follows is a list of a handful of excellent movies and several more great or very good ones. It was one of those in-between years that found established auteurs experimenting with new genres and techniques with mixed but fascinating results. And while the prestige movies sometimes underwhelmed, it was a better-than-average year for popcorn movies, two of which made my top three. 2008 was too much of a grab bag for an overriding thesis; suffice to say that there was greatness out there, often in the most surprising of places.

Movies I haven't seen yet (curse you, limited release!): Let the Right One In, Happy-Go-Lucky, Wendy and Lucy, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Gran Torino, Ballast, Waltz with Bashir, Hunger, The Duchess of Langeais, W

Underappreciated: Speed Racer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. C'mon, lighten up.

Movie I Wanted to Like: Forgetting Sarah Marshall came highly recommended by several friends whose opinions I trust. I know I'm probably overthinking it, but it just seemed regressive, hypocritical and sad. However...

Performances I Liked in Movies I Didn't: Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire, the cast of Doubt

Biggest Academy Awards Mystery: How Synedcoche, New York, the best and most original screenplay of the year, was overlooked in favor of In Bruges, which isn't original at all. I know it isn't Most Original Screenplay, but still...

Best Repertory Screening: Blade Runner with Q&A by Doug Trumbull was awesome, but the digital projection, while pristine, felt a little odd, like I was watching the movie in an enormous home theater. So I'll go with Halloween at the Brattle - a collector's 35mm print, pink, faded and beautiful.

Best First-Run Screening: The Dark Knight with a sold-out, captivated audience.

Worst Movie of the Year: The Happening. Greg, I'm actually fascinated to hear more about why it was the best of the year for you.

Worst Movie I Loved: Mamma Mia!

Best Blog Comment: "What's truly sad, Bemis, is the sarcastic, elitist, snobbish cynical universe YOU apparently occupy, in which even a cheery 'Hello' would have hideously naive meaning and give rise to the opportunity yet again to elevate yourself by putting down everyone else. Screw your elitist stupidity, Mama Mia was a blast, and that means it succeeded. PLEASE get some therapy! - An Author"

Most Anticipated in 2009: Inglorious Basterds, Shutter Island, The Tree of Life, Watchmen, Public Enemies, Where the Wild Things Are

And the list:

1. The Dark Knight Not much to say that hasn't been said already, but this is worth repeating: Heath Ledger is so scary in this it's unreal. I can imagine his Joker hooking up with Anton Chigurh and the Zodiac for the most disturbing buddy movie ever made. Ledger so thoroughly inhabits his character with every tic and gesture that it's easy to conclude that if you took him out of the picture, The Dark Knight wouldn't be nearly as effective or popular. But, of course, he is in the movie, and is the heart of Christopher Nolan's amazing portrait of a hero and a city at war not with its villian but what he personifies - entropy. It's the greatest balancing act of the year, honoring its source while reaching far beyond our expectations of what a "superhero movie" can be, never losing sight of its characters and complex storyline while still satisfying our appetite for visceral thrills. Is Batman a neocon? Did the geeks overreact? I don't care; once its moment in the zeitgeist has passed, The Dark Knight will still be an troubling, strange and exhilarating pop masterpiece.

2. Synecdoche, New York A movie that made me feel absolutely terrible for several days, and I can't stop telling anyone who will listen that they need to see it. Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, about a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) going to grandiose lengths to create the illusion of meaning in his life, has been accused of solipsism, but it's far too honest and self-deprecating for that. Funny because it's so horribly, horribly true, Kaufman strips down the artist's pretensions and ambitions to reveal the basic, unflattering truth: those of us who make art, who are compelled to collaborate, do so because we're afraid to die and we don't want to be alone. How wonderfully odd that a movie filled with medical horrors, shit, pain and heartbreak could ultimately reveal itself to filled with such compassion and empathy.

3. Wall-E My daughter doesn't really care for Wall-E, which is fair enough - at one-and-a-half, it makes sense that Monsters Inc. is more her speed. But I can't wait until the kids are old enough to share this one with me, because it's such a bold, imaginative entertainment and because it may be the best introduction for a sensitive young mind like Luna's into the state of the time and place she was born into. A message movie that avoids heavy-handedness in favor of the simple plea that we remember to love the world we live in, Wall-E loves its young audience too much to lie to it, but in offering hope without cheating or pandering, it ranks as Pixar's best (and that's saying a lot) and stands alongside the 60's and 70's sci-fi classics it pays loving homage to.

4. Revolutionary Road The most misunderstood movie on my list. It's fair to assume, in the shadow of American Beauty, that Sam Mendes' latest is yet another variation on the "weird things happen in the suburbs" subgenre that Mendes helped popularize. But his latest, like the Richard Yates book it's based on, goes far deeper than that. A domestic horror story which casts as its monsters complacency and self-delusion, Revlolutionary Road brings to its source a surprising undercurrent of dark humor, its impeccably designed surfaces merely the decoy Mendes uses to snare us. Superbly acted by its leads and featuring an unforgettable performance by Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road strikes at the heart of fears any married person knows well, and does so with unflinching, sharp-witted, and ultimately devastating effect.

5. The Wrestler A perfect marriage of character and actor. There's no doubt that Mickey Rourke had the talent to pull off the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a failure pile in a sadness bowl coasting on memories of glory in the ring, even if his own life hadn't gone to hell. But the pathos that Rourke's experience brings to the role is overwhelming. Robert Siegel's script hits all the formulaic beats, and deliberately so, as Randy is a self-mythologizing walking anachronism who really, truly believes in life as a three-act underdog story. Director Darren Aronofsky returns to his low-budget roots, with the constant use of handheld camera following Randy's every move, probing for his contradictions, hopes and regrets, questioning what it is that we expect our icons to be. The ending is both triumphant and devastating, and the Springsteen song that follows is, well, it's The Boss.

6. Che I'm waiting until DVD to write a proper review of this one, since I saw it under less-than-optimum circumstances - On Demand, at my parents' house, late at night and very tired. But my increasingly sleepy state was, perhaps, the perfect way to absorb Che, which turns Che Guevara's successful campain against Batista and his failed revolution in Bolivia into a deliberate, often deliberately mundane, story of process - history as "things that happened." Breathtakingly shot on the RED One camera and punctuated with surprisingly robust action sequences, Che is primarily focused on how theory becomes action - how intellectuals sitting around a living room talking about change becomes guys with guns in the jungle - and, in its disjointed structure (Full Metal Jacket is a fair comparison), how ambition gives way to failure. The result is the most cerebral epic in memory, anchored by Benecio Del Toro's pitch-perfect performance.

7. Rachel Getting Married The movie on this list that I'll most likely watch as cinematic comfort food after a long day. While Jenny Lumet's script contains elements of tragedy, Jonathan Demme's return to form is remarkable for its generous portrait of a broken but enduring family. The breathing room Demme's stripped-down, handheld approach affords his cast results in a breakthrough performance from Anne Hathaway and strong ensemble work all around. And though the movie's multicultural portrait of family has been dismissed as a liberal wet dream by some, when one of the wedding guests looks around the room and announces "This is how it is in heaven - just like this," all I can do is smile.

8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Its detractors argue that the film has nothing deeper on its mind than "Brad Pitt is so pretty." Fair enough, but on the other hand, Brad Pitt is sooo pretty, and no director has done more interesting things with Pitt's marquee-idol visage than David Fincher. Benjamin's backwards journey through life is more than a technical marvel; Pitt's face becomes the canvas for an epic meditation on what makes our fleeting lives worth living. A handsome, sometimes awkward, deeply romantic mash-up of state-of-the-art filmmaking technology and classical Hollywood storytelling; I can't wait to see how Fincher branches out next.

9. Snow Angels The most underappreciated film on my list. David Gordon Green had a fine year, with two films that couldn't be more different - the hilarious stoner action/comedy Pineapple Express and this, a somber, wintry adaptation of Stuart O'Nan's novel. When I wrote about the movie before, I described it as "the bittersweet contrast of the idealism of young love and a marriage gone tragically awry," but rewatching the movie last night, I realized that there are actually multiple threads in the film exploring the many ways that people fall in love, fall apart and (in the best cases) find each other again. A challenging and often depressing experience, but also a rewarding one that lingers long beyond the final, haunting cut to black.

10. Tropic Thunder 2008 was a strong year for sophomoric comedy, between the aforementioned Pineapple Express, Will Farrell and John C. Reily behaving like asses (and wonderfully so) in Step Brothers, and the Coens' gleefully misanthropic Burn After Reading. Of all these, a soft spot remains in my heart for Tropic Thunder, a vulgar, deceptively smart send-up of movie-star egotism and the overblown Michael Bay style that, I fear, will be remembered as the dominant aesthetic of the cinema of the aughts. The sharpest Hollywood satire since The Player, doubly so because, since the actors involved have all been guilty of the cynical moviemaking they're parodying, it feels partly like an act of contrition. This is particularly true of Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus, a metatextual high-wire act that Downey carries off beautifully. "I don't read the script, script reads me."


Anonymous said...

Nice balance of films on your list,but whatta bout Milk?

Andrew Bemis said...

Very good movie, quite touching, great performances all around, love Van Sant. But the scenes with the kid in the wheelchair kept it off the list.

Anonymous said...

I heard that the kid in the wheelchair bit actually happened though. Was it really too maudlin?

Andrew Bemis said...

It was the way they revealled it - very manipulative and unintentionally funny.

Gregory Joseph said...

I may write a review for the next Samurai Dreams, so if I do I'll post it on the blog first.

Anonymous said...

Best blog comment was right on target.